Stargate Worlds

Note: This was written in September. I was holding the post in reserve but with the challenge I’m just posting it now.

There have been a number of attempts at making a video game based on the Stargate series. For one reason or another all of these attempts ended in failure. Part of the attraction of a game like Marvel Heroes is running around Avengers Tower, or the Shield Hellicarrier. Likewise with Swtor, the environment is very recognisable. It’s like diving into and becoming part of your favourite universe.

Don’t get me wrong the IP isn’t enough, the game has to stand on it’s own. I tried out Star Trek Online, played for half an hour and deleted the game. I didn’t like it at all, it wasn’t fun and being Star Trek based wasn’t enough.

Anyway, there was once an MMO in development based on the Stargate IP called Stargate Worlds. There’s few if any details about it, though it did get far enough along in the dev process that there were screenshots to be seen. However, this post isn’t about what Stargate Worlds was, or might have been, it’s about what I would have done, or would do if MGM rang me and said “design an MMO based on Stargate”. Much like how I’ve spent time thinking about how I’d develop/reboot the franchise, I’ve thought about how a game would work.

The traditional MMO
Warcraft and Swtor are very similar as I found out to my cost. When I was burning out on Warcraft, as much as I do enjoy Swtor I couldn’t enjoy playing it. They were different universes but functioned in much the same way. Warcraft was my first game so picking up Swtor, everything was familiar, it was comfortable and it certainly helped me pick up what to do. I just slammed Guild Wars 2 for being different, for being unfamiliar and uncomfortable. However, different isn’t wrong after all Marvel Heroes is a different kind of game but it’s still friendly, it still makes sense.

Landmark is also an example of a different MMO though how well it’ll work when it becomes more than just a building game remains to be seen. I’m enjoying the gathering and building but they are planning on adding more to the game than that. There’s also the upcoming Everquest: Next which is also advertised as being different, again how that actually works out remains to be seen.

I call Warcraft traditional because it’s the MMO structure that I am most familiar with. It was the first MMO I played, the first game I really played, so naturally I compare everything else to it. Sometimes I rule Warcraft as being best and sometimes I decide I like the way this other game handles whatever it is.

However, to get back on track Warcraft has a known structure. Let’s break that down:

  • There are two factions, there are a number of races within each faction, and until Mists and the pandaren these races only belonged to one of the two factions. Not all races can be all classes, so if you want to play paladin for example then you can’t pick to be a gnome or a worgen etc.
  • You start at level one, unless you use the new level 90 boost, but there is a levelling system in place. Every level you gain more health and do more damage. Every few levels you gain access to more skills, abilities or choose between additional talents.
  • A large portion of the story is told through completing quests. These quests mostly have objectives like “kill 10 of x mob” or “collect x hearts from this mob” or “free x number of prisoners”. Especially when competing with other players there are often not enough mobs around, and you have to wait for respawn. RNG means that not all the mobs you kill have the part you need to loot from them. If freeing prisoners or collecting items then you will often finish the quest and there will be more prisoners spawned to free that you’ll ignore.
  • Encounter mechanics are relatively predictable. There’s often a stacking debuff on the tanks which require taunt switching. Sometimes there are adds, there’s a lot of grouping and spreading to avoid aoe attacks, or heal through them. Don’t stand in the fire is something to remember on every fight.
  • The world only changes very rarely in response to the players actions. There are some examples when it does, the phasing at the end of the Westfall quest chain for example. You could say that the destruction of the vale for 5.4 was a response in game to a world event. However, for the most part things stay the same. You go into a raid and kill a boss but that boss will be there for you to kill the following week after reset, or again on another difficulty mode like LFR as many times as you like though you can only loot once without a coin. It’s available again, like you hadn’t already killed it with no explanation.
  • Also in a raid you can stand and stare at the boss and it’ll do nothing to you until you hit it. It will stand and watch while you eat buff food, put down markers, explain tactics etc.

There’s obviously a lot more to the Warcraft structure than that. I haven’t even touched on other aspects like professions or mini-games like Pet Battles, or Tiller’s Farm/Garrisons. However, I picked out the main highlights of how Warcraft functions as a game. It sounds reasonable, it sounds familiar, it’s the structure that I believe a lot of MMO’s follow. Swtor certainly does and even Marvel Heroes, though it’s a different kind of game, has a levelling path 1-60 and a number 0/x mobs killed at the side of the screen.

So what’s the problem with that? Well it’s not very realistic. One of the things I really liked about Swtor’s questing system is that most of the main quests weren’t sending you to kill mobs, they weren’t sending you to collect body parts that mysteriously weren’t there. The quests were missions of importance. There were bonus quests where if you killed a certain number you got extra xp but these were extra, and often got completed without even thinking about it while you were disarming the bomb, capturing the spy, slaying the monster that had been terrorizing the village. However, in my mind it didn’t go far enough.

A more realistic approach
Yes people get more experienced with time and practice. However, if someone was hired by the SGC for example, they would already have training in all the core skills. They wouldn’t level up and suddenly be able to use a machine gun instead of just a pistol for example. So the unlocking of more skills, the getting more powerful while you level just isn’t realistic. It also makes me wonder what the point of levelling is at all.

True it gives people a goal, it gives people a measure of progress. Basically all I do in Swtor and Marvel Heroes is level. In Swtor I can think “I completed another part of the story on that planet and went to level 18”, in Marvel Heroes I can look at a play session and think “I took say Daredevil from 50-54 today” or you know whatever. It’s a clear measure of achievement. However, is it really needed? The gameplay doesn’t change whether you are level one or level 60. You get more powerful and the mobs get more powerful in response. It’s very artificial.

Classes locked to races also doesn’t make sense. Life is about choices and who were born doesn’t necessarily dictate who we are. Similarly locking races to factions makes no sense. What about traitors? Teal’c after all is a Jaffa but he chose not to serve the Goa’uld, he chose to join the Tau’ri, the enemy of the Goa’uld. If Jaffa were locked to a faction then they would be the enemy of the Tau’ri, and a player wanting to play a character like Teal’c wouldn’t have that choice.

I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. If I was going to design a Stargate MMO then I would want it to be something I could believe in. I know that gameplay mechanics often trumps lore and common sense in other games. However, I wouldn’t want to make that compromise. I would want it to be immersive, something that could be believed. Doing that as an MMO would be difficult, as other players break that immersion. That means that encounters with other players would have to be controlled. Perhaps there would be no open world unless grouped.

So how would it work?
Well for a start factions would be fluid. In life things change, life is unpredictable. So if you decide to play a young Captain on an SGC team, later you may have the choice to take a Tok’ra symbiote, or be taken as a host and therefore essentially change races, as your Captain’s consciousness would be suppressed and all that would be left would be the Goa’uld. Maybe you would have the option to betray the SGC by joining The Trust or the NID. Perhaps you would start off assigned to the SGC but then a change of orders, or a promotion and get sent to Atlantis. Maybe one day you would just walk through the gate and choose not to return, instead hooking up the Lucian Alliance as a independent smuggler. The choices are endless and that’s a real problem when it comes to gameplay mechanics. How do you program for that?

I’m not a programmer, well I was but only to a certain level. I have never programmed a game, never programmed anything complex, nothing with artificial intelligence. I don’t know what the limits of possibilities are but I do know that those limits are increasing all the time. What we can do now, is a lot more than was possible ten years ago. So I’ll describe the kind of game I would build, or see if it was possible to build. This is just a fantasy, it’ll never happen but would this be a good game?

So what would the gameplay be like? How would it be structured? Well the early description for a lot of episodes would be “the team goes off world, gets into trouble, gets out of trouble and gates home” and so exploring other worlds would have to be part of it. However, no member of the SGC goes through the gate alone. Sometimes when alliances have been made, or the planet is uninhabited, then a team member is left on a planet but usually never alone. If Daniel stays to work on an archaeological find, Teal’c would stay to watch his back. So the player can’t run around like a one man hero, that just doesn’t work.

So if the player opted to join an SGC team they would have the choice as to their role, are they the culture/translator, are they the technology specialist, are they the shooter, are they the leader. That is the team make-up of SG1 and it makes sense that most teams would follow a similar format. In order for realism there may have to be some crossover between those roles, after all Carter led SG1 in Season Eight and remained the team’s technology specialist.

Now the players default team members would have to be NPC’s controlled by the AI. It would be good if there was some level of customization or control from the player. As an example maybe they could pick to have a Tok’ra join the team, as Martouf did to an alternate SG1 seen in Ripple Effect, or maybe just an alien like Teal’c a rebel Jaffa, or someone like Jonas. The interactions with other teams, with people they meet on planets would have to be custom as well as SG1 often encountered issues with Teal’c being Jaffa. If players wanted to play with friends, then there would have to be an option for the NPC to be swapped out and their friend to join the team. However, this couldn’t be changed all the time, you couldn’t swap something every minute or hour as reassignments just don’t happen like that. There would have to be some sort of in game explanation for it. Maybe you go off world and your team member gets killed, then they need replacing. However, if that happened too often then you’d get a reputation for being a Black Widow and no-one would want to be on your team.

Now I’ve only talked about joining the SGC so far but there would have to be other options. Players could choose to be a Goa’uld, to exercise their meglomania, to control a vast fleet as a System Lord, or maybe start as a minor Goa’uld and then scheme and work up to being more powerful. Maybe they would make choices as a Goa’uld that weren’t so bad, like Lord Yu wasn’t totally evil, Ba’al didn’t buy into his own rhetoric. There was that minor Goa’uld in that season seven episode who had taken Jonas’ friend as a host, they were badly wounded planting the bomb to save the planet and gave their life to save their host. This was an act like a Tok’ra but they were Goa’uld proving some don’t fall into the totally evil Ra/Apophis/Sokar/Anubis spectrum.

There’s the Tok’ra, there’s the Jaffa. What about other options like an alien like Jonas? How about an Ancient descended like Olin? or ascended like Oma Desala? The Tollan, the Nox, the Asgard, the Wraith. A big mistake in video games in my opinion is trying to make everything available to everyone. So that no matter what you choose to play you can still do everything. Why is that? Why can’t the experience be different depending on what you choose? If you want to experience another aspect of the game then roll a different character. It makes the game bigger, gives people more options of what to do and just makes more sense. The Warcraft way of some faction only quests but mostly neutral quest hubs to cut down on development costs, it makes gameplay sense but it doesn’t make realistic sense.

Obviously I’m just spinning ideas of playable options wildly here. If the game was actually made then it would only launch with a few options. More options, more worlds, maybe even just launch with the Milky Way and keep Atlantis as an expansion, it would come later to give people new stuff to enjoy.

Oh and the game is more than just what you choose to play. I mentioned briefly about going through the gate and exploring worlds but there has to be a lot more than that. There has to be missions, like going through to negotiate a treaty or rescue a captured SG team. For the Tok’ra they are infiltrators, so they would perhaps pretend to be a minor Goa’uld to spy or perhaps they would be sent to sabotage a new ship under construction, or maybe even steal a cargo ship. I’m talking realistic objectives, which you can see examples of in the TV show.

When it comes to something like raids then the encounter wouldn’t be “don’t stand in the fire”. There would be patrols of guards, there would be the perimeter to secure, there would  be death gliders or Al’kesh to avoid, to blow up or shoot down. Fighting the goa’uld itself. I’m not talking health bars here. Where you empty a magazine at them and chip off 5%. Likewise if your character gets hit, you can be only wounded but it would affect your performance. You can’t keep fighting at the same strength until you are dead. No health bars, health bars do not exist in this game. It’s more about strategy, about realism, about getting it right. When it comes to repeating the encounter, you don’t go and storm the Goa’uld mothership again, no you would go to the training room at the SGC for example, and get strapped into one of those chairs.

Oh and death in this game? Well that would depend on the players choice. If it was appropriate they could have the option of being revived in a sarcophagus, if they are only badly wounded and a Tok’ra is on hand then they could be healed by the hand device, or potentially even take a symbiote. They could choose to be evacuated back to the Stargate and be rushed to Doctor Frasier for treatment or they could just choose to die. In which case they are dead, game over, please roll another character. There would be penalties for dying, penalties for being injured and rewards as well. I know that I’m primarily focusing on rolling a SG team member but I suppose because that’s the point of view of the TV show is from an SG team, so it’s easier to think of examples to do with that.

There would be an overarching plot. The war against the Goa’uld with different major Goa’uld coming to prominence like they did in the show, first Apophis, then Sokar, then Anubis, then Ba’al etc. The war against the Replicators, the war against the Wraith, the war against the Ori. This story as it were would be moved forward by patches. Players could choose to go back through the campaign, using a virtual reality chair or a memory device to ‘visit’ the past etc. but the encounters for real would not be available to do for real once they were past. The content wouldn’t be removed but the game world would move on.

Player choice would be paramount.

The little things would matter too. In most games you can run anywhere you like, you can jump up and down on objects, you can stand on top of NPC’s etc. but that wouldn’t work in a realistic game world. In this game if you went into General Hammond’s office and you didn’t knock, you weren’t summoned and you didn’t have a report to give him then you’d be in trouble. There would be no running in and out of his office going “whee I’m in Hammond’s office” because that just isn’t real.

There would have to be some kind of alternate advancement system as they would be no levels and nothing that levels imply. The toolkit you start with is the toolkit you always have unless you opt to change it, by becoming a Tok’ra and gaining access to something like the hand device for example. There wouldn’t be stats on gear, in fact there wouldn’t really be gear. There would be no traditional rewards in a sense, it would just be about the journey, playing the game and enjoying it for what it is, rather than what you get from a sparkling corpse. There would be no sparkling corpses. Obviously, you could steal technology from enemies but they aren’t going to fall over dead and drop armor.

Winding this up
I’ve written a lot already and to be honest I’m not sure how much sense I’m making. Basically I would like there to be a game that doesn’t really feel like a game, it feels like you are in the TV show, it is realistic and you are now part of that universe. It would be an experience, not your quest, then level, then dungeon, then raid MMO. I don’t know if it’s even technically possible and whether it would be fun to play if it was.

I do think it would be seriously cool to play in a Stargate MMO, even if it was more of the traditional quest and raid variety. I could still run around the SGC, around Tok’ra tunnels, around Atlantis, I could still fly on an X-304 or pilot an X-302, I could still get beamed down/up by the Asgard, blast away at Replicators, rescue captured friends from the Wraith.

I would just love to see this universe and everything about it brought to life in a game, or just brought to life so I can run around in it. I want to walk through the Stargate, I want to see it spin and hear that kwoosh again. This franchise has so much untapped potential. 17 seasons (if I am forced to count SGU as well), 2 TV movies plus the remastered Children of the Gods and the original movie that they spun off from, it just wasn’t enough. I know there’s a lot of books as well, I’ve read a couple of them. It’s just not enough.

The upcoming reboot could be great, it could also be terrible, given that it’s being developed by the original movie team who hate the TV show, I don’t hold out much hope. Stargate is SG1 and everything SG1 brought with it. We need more of that. The actors have moved onto other projects, the sets have been dismantled but the universe, the lore, the world it gave us still exists. It could continue to be explored and expanded in other ways. They should totally make a game.