The Crossing

Any videogame that I make is, of course, going to have mountains in it. The Crossing, though, is mainly an arrid world. The group of islands and small continents is surrounded by uninhabitable dryness. A fisherman would not be able to steer his boat far from the central regions, without finding the ocean to be barren of life, and the air too hot and dry to breathe.

The World

Travelling North, most of the land is desert, and once you pass the northernmost city in The Crossing, the climate becomes increasingly unforgiving – it’s like trying to survive in high altitudes, and if you aren’t fit for it, then even standing still and breathing can be mortally difficult. At the point of crossing – up in the farthest islands – the climate is completely inhospitable to life, and the land is littered with the dust-preserved corpses of heroes who have attempted to become gods, and died at the threshold.

If you begin the game as a human character, you will emerge through one of five gates. You can see on the map that they make a sort of semi-circle around the central region of the world. Playing as one of the gate people, you may choose to begin in a city, most of which are situated close to one of the gates. If you start the game as a simulacrum, you will find yourself on the edge of the Bonelands where you were created, and you must travel onward from there.

Cities, of course, are natural gathering points. They have merchants, NPCs that offer quests and training, as well as crafting facilities and player housing. In the Crossing, by the way, there is actual real estate. If you buy a house in a city (or a village), then it exists as a real location on the map, and another player’s house would have to be in another location. And you all know who you’re dealing with by now, right? House customisation would be, to put it mildly, extensive.

The mythology of The Crossing describes a race of giants who were the original inhabitants of the world. Vast, cyclopean ruins lie half-submerged and mouldering throughout the land. Many of these ruins, naturally, mark the entrances to particularly deep and interesting dungeons.

Travelling from place to place, you can walk, ride camel-like creatures, navigate skiffs over bodies of water, and so on. I think that multiplayer games have to have some sort of instantaneous-travel system, whether you opt to use it or not, so there would be that as well.

Multiplayer

As I said in my first post, my ideal game is not a multiplayer one, so it will be no surprise that I would want the multiplayer aspect of The Crossing to work on a less massive scale than most MMORPGs. I would want individual servers to have a very low population – as low as 50 people (however infeasible that may be). In any case, the world should feel quite sparsely populated, relatively speaking.

Solo and multiplayer experiences in a game like this should be equally rewarding, and offer equal depth of play – in fact, it seems crucial to me that they would. I often read arguments to the effect of: “it’s an online game, so you are forced to cooperate with people and that is the whole point”, and I have no problem with that being the case in some games. It just doesn’t suit my needs. Sometimes I want to log in and go do stuff with friends. Other times I want to log in and fiddle around in the world by myself. Indeed, often that’s the only option available if the people you know are offline.

Ideally, The Crossing would be balanced such that going out and exploring or fighting monsters is equally fun and challenging, and rewards the player with equal relative experience, whether done in a group or singly. In many online games, two or more players of widely (or even slightly) mismatched levels cannot play the game alongside each other – it’s simply too imbalanced, and nobody gets much out of it. This seems a shame to me, and I would want there to be ways around it.

The Crossing would perhaps be a less fighting-centric and more exploration-centric game than most, and this would lessen that imbalance to some extent. In many cases, the benefit of going through a dungeon with multiple people wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with fighting. Certain regions would require several people to access. Certain sheer walls would be scaleable only with three or four players. There might be puzzles requiring more than one player to unlock. That sort of thing.

MMOs frequently have a way of making you feel like every second not spent fighting to gain levels is time wasted. Enjoying the world gradually or extensively only slows your progress, and places you behind your peers in terms of levelling-up. This is particularly the case, perhaps, in games that require a continuous grind – games in which you have to repeat the same task or action over and over and over again in order to slowly gain ground. Taking a break from doing so only prolongs the end result. It’s no fucking fun.

And games should be fun. It should be the main reason we play them. If you take away the motivation of being a higher level, or visibly more well-equipped than other players, then the game shouldn’t lose all meaning. Those are good motivators, of course. That stuff has its place. But it should be the icing, not the whole damn cake.

Levelling

Yesterday, I briefly described an apprenticeship system for crafting items. I think that something similar could work for levelling your combat skills (including magic, stealth, etc.) as well. Here’s the general idea, once again:

If you want to fight with a sword, you can equip one from the get-go, but you won’t be able to use it very effectively, or do very much with it. In order to progress, you have to find a mentor in that skill – an NPC who can teach you swordwork.

The NPC can train you, which involves having to pass a test or challenge – something appropriate in relation to your abilities (low, in this case), and once passed, you gain a level of Sword Skill.

Having gained skill, you can go out and use your sword more effectively than before. Once you have played for a while, and whacked a fair amount of stuff with it (gained experience with it, you might say), you will be ready for more mentoring. The same NPC might be able to help you out. If you have seen him several times already, you might need to find a more advanced master.

The idea, here, is that you level-up in specific encounters, rather than by endless repetition (which works fine in single-player games, but is subject to abuse in MMOs). Between encounters, you can go out and explore the world – you need a little bit of experience in order to be eligible for another training session, but nothing grind-worthy. A master won’t train you too soon after the last session, and there is plenty to do while you wait.

This obviously isn’t perfect exactly as I’m describing it, but I feel that something to this effect could work well. I do like the idea of specific skills having levels, as a less restrictive alternative to the job system which has become more or less standard. You would still be able to approximate classic roles, like tank, healer, etc. if you wished. But you would not be bound by them while playing on your own.

Combat

I can’t even pretend that I’m capable of inventing a working combat system out of nowhere, so I’ll talk briefly, and in more abstract terms, about what it should feel like to play.

The Crossing should have combat that is at once tactical and immediate. It should feel like a live thing in your hands. Building in-game skills will make you more competent, but you also have to meet them halfway with your own abilities as a person holding a controller or sitting at a keyboard. It should be more than simply inputting a stream of attack commands until the thing in front of you is dead.

So what I’m describing, in practical terms, is more like an action RPG, but with much more depth. What I want is the complexity of a tactical game, with the immediacy of an action one. And it should be fun to play for its own sake – not something that you get bored of quickly, but continue to slog through as a means to an end.

Non-Player Characters

I’ve talked about NPCs who offer you training. They would also be merchants, quest-givers, and potential companions.

NPCs in multiplayer games seem to be one-dimensional as a rule. After all, you are interacting with real people, so they fall naturally into the backdrop. I don’t think this has to be the case, however.

It’s difficult to believe that you’re building any sort of one-on-one relationship with an NPC, when you and several other players are crowded around him, all being given the same quest and engaging in the same dialogue. So in The Crossing, it would work a little differently. Every player would have, say, a dozen NPCs who acted as his or her main quest-givers.

That way, both you and your friend would be able to do the “deliver the fish” quest (or whatever), but it would be a slightly different experience. It wouldn’t feel so cut-and-paste. Of course, this would only work to a point, and there would have to be some overlap, but it would be a way to avoid the constant gigantic gaps in immersion.

I also think that having an NPC companion is an excellent way of balancing multiplayer gameplay for people who, for any variety of reasons, prefer to play the game solo. There’s no reason that a companion in a mutliplayer game couldn’t be an interesting and well-developed addition, with his or her own dialogue and story and background.

A companion would be somebody else to make armour or clothing for, giving you more incentive to develop your crafting skills. There could be extra quarters in your home, where he or she lived. It would be enormous fun (I think), and of course completely optional for anyone who considered it to be a waste of time.

Playing the Game

When I intiailly planned this series of posts, I intended only five parts. But having speculated about how the game might work, I’d like to pull everything together with a description of actually being in the world, playing the game.

So, for Part 6 I’m going to design my own character – the character I would play the game with. And I’m going to talk about my own experience playing the game – the strengths and weaknesses that I would cultivate and neglect, and so on. So I’ll put that post up in a couple days, once I’ve prepared some art for it.

Note: The above photographs are taken from various old Time Life books, and National Geographics. All rights belong to them, and so on and so forth.

26 Comments

Filed under Hchom

26 responses to “The Crossing

  1. Jeezus, this had a lot of content. I pretty much dig all of it, my advice in regards to housing building is to limit it to certain parts of the map and then to have those portions of the maps a seperate from the main map (requiring a little loading time). I say this because I have clear memories of the wilds of Ultima Online turning into one gigantic suburb.

    As I said in my last post, in lieu of having an actual video game you can probably do all this via a chat program and those of us commenting as well as your friends back home with some dice.

    • Marian

      Oh, yeah, I think the real locational real-estate would only work with low server populations.

      You know, I’ve never actually played any tabletop games, so in a lot of ways I’d be less able to design one than I would an actual videogame. Maybe if I ever get some practice.

  2. kevinczap

    Marian, these posts are brilliant. They’re helpful especially as I’m getting started on a project related to RPGs – great inspiration and lots to think about.

    I am in love with this game concept, I want to play it! I can’t wait for the book you’re doing it all for.

  3. I’m really enjoying these posts. I’m really picky about games, and my suspension of disbelief is pretty high, so lore, setting, and scripting is all very important to me, but so is the gameplay.
    I think I mentioned this to you before in a previous post you’ve made about Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy XIV or something, but boy do I think you’d love Demon’s Souls.
    I think you too are one of the few people who might feel like the game was really made for them.
    You’ve gotta hop on it! They’ve got a (spiritual) sequel on the way too called “Project Dark” for now.
    I think the gameplay, the optional online interactive experience, the quite bleak, harsh, dark-fantasy setting, I think all of it kind of runs parallel to a lot of the feeling your concepts give off.

    That’s not to say that I wouldn’t want to play this.
    Right now, I hope that by some miracle, some company finds these pages, and at least tries to make a beta. It’s terrible! The more I read this, the more disappointing it seems to not be able to play it!
    I’m incredibly interested in dungeon concepts that might be brewing in your mind.

    It’s so sad that video games have a real lack of fulfilling dungeon crawling!

    I’ve always wanted to like the Elderscrolls games (and I had been into Morrowind quite a bit when it had come out), but from what I’m reading, Skyrim will take the cake. It seems they’re really pushing the dungeon aspects.

    Anyway, really looking forward to more concept pages, and even more-so to reading yr new comic this is all based off of!

    Take care!

    -K

    • Marian

      I remember you recommending Demon Souls, actually, and I was dissapointed to find out that it was only on the PS3 because it does look like something I’d be really into. I don’t even know anybody in my city who owns one, or I’d consider buying it and playing it at a friend’s house.

      And totally agreed about the lack of dunegon crawling. I was thrilled to hear that Bethesda has a ton of people working on dungeons for Skyrim (as opposed to just one guy who did them in Oblivion) so I’m feeling extremely optimistic about that.

  4. Oh! Apparently they’ve just put out an official title and a new trailer for the aforementioned spiritual sequel, which is now called “Dark Souls”!

  5. (Hero)

    So many games claim to possess the capacity to emulate freedom, but never in my life have I ever played a satisfactory RPG. There’s always some limiting factor that keeps me from playing out the story laid out in my head for the character I control in the world set up for me (and to be honest, it’s usually the story; sure, it usually drives the game, but unless the story is absolutely amazing, it just ties you down). But so far, I am loving every last one of these posts and I see a metric shit tonne of potential. I cannot wait to read more and I hope this influences the gaming industry some how.

    Anywho, now that I’ve complained like a little baby and sucked up to you like mad (though I meant every last word), I need to ask, and you probably get this all the time, and you probably get “you probably get this all the time” as well, but I need to know; what tools do you use to draw? Specifically the lineart.
    Your lines are so soft and yet so clean, and if you say pencil and paper, I’m afraid I will have to shoot myself for being so incompetent. No pressure.

    Sorry for the rant.

    • Marian

      No problem at all – I use a light brown (colerase) pencil for the initial layer, and a black coloured pencil on top (prismacolour – they have the softest, waxiest leads).

      And yes, there definitely seems to be an unavoidable trade-off, in games, between the story being deeply developed, and the character(s) being yours to control and customise as much as you like. I try to enjoy the best of both, I guess, but I do get frustrated sometimes as well. In big open world games I often make a character, ignore the plot entirely, and go immediately into towns and dungeons looking for shiny things.

  6. tony

    i’d play this game!! i’ve never been a fan of mmorpgs and i think it’s a really good idea to shift the focus from mindless “leveling-up” to actually exploring and enjoying the game-world (ala shadow of the colossus ). i’m looking forward to the next post and keeping my fingers crossed that you choose to be a simulacra (awesome idea, love those masks!).

    • Marian

      Shadow of the Colossus is a great example, in terms of an enormous and beautiful game world. It didn’t even have that much to explore, but you wanted to spend all day there anyway. They really knew how to use light, those guys who made that game.

  7. J Sims

    Can you please tell me the locations where these marvelous photographs were taken? I think that I quite want to visit them someday very soon. I really just want to know where the second and third are from… like a Mesopotamian wilderness and a Himalayan hideout…

    • Marian

      I’ll try to find out for you. These are all photos that I’ve ripped out of magazines and stashed in my reference folder, but they might have text on them somewhere – I’ll check.

      • J Sims

        Thanks Marian! They are now my desktop wallpapers and it makes me wonder every time I see them…

        • Marian

          No problem – sadly I can’t find out where the second is from, but the third is of Byzantine “Holy Grottoes” in Cappadocia, Turkey.

  8. Oh. Wow. There are other people who think up ideal video games they could never create for fun? I’m really thrilled to discover this.

    Besides which, this is really cool. I like your ideas about levelling and reducing repetitive combat – that’s also something I’m interested in, though I usually envision character interaction mechanisms that integrate with the battle system to create drama in random fights. I think your thought about having each player have a small, more personal pool of NPCs is quite clever.

    But your character types – and especially their designs – are the best part. Unique, promising fun gameplay and stories and absolutely gorgeous. They have a bit of a Miyazaki feel to me.

    • Marian

      Oh yeah. I know this isn’t so uncommon in my generation, but when I started drawing comics in highschool, they evolved out of my early attempts at videogame design.
      And thank you. It’s one of the best parts of playing games, isn’t it? Thinking (at least in the back of your head) about how you would rather something be done.

  9. john

    i’m LOVING this series of posts (my first time to this blog)
    i absolutely respect that you’re going for YOUR needs in the game here, but i thought maybe i could throw a few ideas out here?

    in regards to levelling up, i’ve always felt that there should be different ‘streams’ to reflect different playing styles…perhaps XP for visiting lots of places, traversing difficult terrain, surviving arduous/epic journeys, finding secluded wonderous places, etc
    likewise, XP for puzzle solving, treasure hunting, diplomacy, whatever else makes sense for the world & experience you’re going for.

    as for the bit about gaining combat skill, an old ps2 launch game called kendo: master of bushido (if memory serves) comes to mind. the game was entirely based around very tactical, intense one-on-one samurai swordfighting. players would raise the limits of their various status bars (speed, stamina, health, etc) by doing what were essentially a variety of good mini-games (which were all of the variety of player vs. their own limits), then participating in actual combat would raise the actual level of those bars. in addition, the linked sequences of sword strikes you could do were entirely customizable, and you learned each component by fighting people more knowledgeable than yourself. so, to actually get better, you had to challenge new opponents to unlock the new moves, study them to figure out their weaknesses, then link your moves together in the dojo, then master the execution of those moves in combat. it was REALLY hard, and really rewarding.
    just thought you might want to lift anything from there, possibly.
    personally, i see immense value in having the option to pursue your combat style/ability on your own terms, even if its slower/more difficult than training with an npc. a more individualized fighting style could result from this.

    but seriously, what you’ve described so far sounds absolutely amazing and better than any game i’ve ever played.

    • Marian

      Yes, definitely, I was thinking as well that there would have to be different types of exp – that the skills (and trainers) would not just be combat-oriented, and that exp would come from many different places. I would like it to be possible, even, to play this game as somebody who chose to completely avoid fighting altogether, and still gain access to deep levels of dungeons and the loot therein (though that would be a really, really challenging route).

      I have a vague memory of that samurai swordfighting game, I think, but I never played it. But certainly I would want something very reactive like that, where you couldn’t just meet every encounter with the same tactic, over and over.

  10. Mr. Man

    Thank you for doing this. It’s been quite interesting.

  11. Peter

    Marian, I’ve been really enjoying your blog and particularly these thoughtful posts about your world building and game design ideas. I work in the videogame industry myself, but even though I hear similar discussions all day long on the job, your enthusiasm and talent is still refreshing and original. You have a really appealing art style as well – I love your sketches.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Marian

      Thanks very much. Those must be awesome conversations to overhear and take part in, even if you do have them going on all day long.

  12. Kirk

    I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the game, but it was a derivitive of the D&D universe, and its combat system was VERY similar to what you’re describing here. In the beginning, you choose what you want your primary combat skill set to be (i.e.: swords, axes, polearms, staffs, etc.), and you are given a certain level of combat expertise. As you continue to engage in combat throughout the game, you become more skilled in the use of the various weapons you find and thus become better at hitting your target, better at blocking incoming attacks, and begin learning more ways to attack your opponents (e.g.: stabbing, slashing, jump-slashing, etc.). Your ability to deal more damage also increases.

    A similar skill engine was imposed with armor. If you equip heavy armor, you walk/run more slowly than you would wearing lighter armor, and your stamina decreases more rapidly when moving throughout the game and in combat. But, by wearing heavier armor and carrying heavy weapons, it allowed you overall stamina to increase as your character levelled up.

    Are you familiar with the old “Quest for Glory” PC games? A lot of the ideas and gaming engines you’ve been describing have been utilized in some small capacity by that game series, particularly the idea of learning certain skills and training with various NPCs to gain more abilitie and to allow your character to grow.

    I’ve also had my fair share of complaints when it comes to combat in traditional RPGs. For example, if I’m fighting with a spear, I should only be able to stab my opponent unless my weapon happens to have a blade of some kind as well. Therefore, depending on whom I’m fighting, I should have certain (dis)advantages in combat. For instance, if I’m fighting a dragon and am equipped with a sword, I shouldn’t be able to slash the dragon effectively due to its heavy scales. But if I instead use my sword to stab the dragon, my blade should be able to thrust between the scales and cause damage. Am I making any sense? That’s a mechanical aspect to RPGs that’s aggrivated me for YEARS and YEARS and YEARS, and I would LOVE to see a game take something like that into consideration.

  13. I love these posts. Really wonderful to read.

    When you wrote about mentors for learning sword abilities, it reminded me a lot of leveling up as a swordsman in Wind Waker. You return to a dojo and are presented with a more difficult challenge each time, and it mostly serves to improve the player’s proficiency as opposed to the character’s, but you get a new title (novice, swordsman, knight) and you really feel like you’ve overcome something. What makes it especially interesting is that the character of the master is extremely unique and fun to interact with. It would be really interesting to be able to choose from a number of masters in the world who teach effectively the same set of moves, but with a different look or style. It takes the customization a step further without complicating the balance too much.

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