Sunday, June 19, 2011

Considering the future direction of Entorpia Universe

I found this interesting read about the MMORPG Entropia Universe by TheOneOmega.

This is primarily intended for MindArk, but also affects all planet partners and Entropia participants…

Note: I have intentionally left traces of the old SEE and MindArk cooperation structure in this writing. I feel that this is best because A) I do not have a sufficient understanding of MindArk's new intracompany structure, and B) using "MindArk" to refer to the platform provider and "SEE" or "FPC" to refer to Calypso's planet partner makes the writing easier to understand than it would be if I used "MindArk" to refer to both. I do not believe MindArk, planet partners, or Entropia participants will be confused by this imprecision, and I would encourage anyone reading this to consider the Entropia-related content, rather than the technical accuracy of my writing. Information related to the switch can be found at and on the forums.

I believe now is a very important time to evaluate the direction Entropia is headed, in terms of its degree of game play linearity. I began playing Entropia during the VU 9 era, and remember the inscription on the statue at Port Atlantis, stating:


Such an expression seems to indicate that pre-planet-partner-model MindArk envisioned a relatively nonlinear atmosphere for Entropia. That is to say, Entropia was developed to be quite an open-ended universe (the term "sandbox" is sometimes used, but I will avoid doing so in order to separate this topic from the discussion of defining what constitutes a sandbox game). This open-ended universe philosophy, from my observation, was very clearly reflected by many of MindArk's design decisions. The large scale example is that Entropia does not force its participants to select a limited number of Profession(s) per avatar, as many other MMOPRGs do, but the philosophy is reflected by lesser design decisions as well. Lists within windows and menus (such as Teleporters on the map window, Professions in the Professions menu, etc.) are organized alphabetically or otherwise logically, as opposed to having an organization for each individual colonist that depends upon the order he or she unlocked the content. This layout allows the windows and menus in Entropia to retain a neat and professional appearance as content is unlocked, without requiring colonists to unlock it in a particular order (i.e. collecting the Teleporters in alphabetical order). The easiest way to formally summarize the overall effect of these design decisions is to say that no two participants' accounts could become irreversibly different from each other, except where implementing such a thing is impossible for any game (i.e. avatar names and gender cannot be changed after account creation in any reasonable game [second life is not a reasonable game]). Respecting this model when making design decisions allows Entropia to remain open-ended, and ensures all parts of the virtual world are at our fingertips within our reach.

Recently, this open-ended universe philosophy has been challenged, to a minor degree yet in a significant way. Mission and Achievement systems have been introduced into Entropia, allowing colonists to track their past accomplishments in the game. These systems were well designed, for the most part. Missions, in particular, have become quite popular among colonists, in part due to their attribute rewards. The only apparent drawback is that a very small number of these Missions and Achievements have been implemented in such a way that it is possible to permanently miss the opportunity to complete them. Some examples include all Missions on the Calypso Gateway, select Missions from the 2010 Harbinger event, the Mission used to track Merry Mayhem 2010, and Achievements related to Operation Hammerhead and the Mad Prophet Mission. I have also heard rumors of a Mission exclusively for Community Advisers, a test Mission(s) that some folks received before the first five Swamp Camp Missions were introduced, Missions in the Genesis starting area, and a Mission available for a short time on Planet Arkadia when it was first launched (I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true). There are also at least two Missions whose completions are mutually exclusive with each other. Recently, it has been announced that a group of Next Island's Missions will be completely removed from Entropia after June.

Overall, it seems to me that the various Missions and Achievements have been designed quite well thus far. Most of them appear to comfortably fit within the "perceived structure" of Entropia (or the "feel" of Entropia, if you will) that participants have grown accustomed to as a result of the open-ended universe philosophy. Very few Missions and even fewer Achievements are problematic in their current state. This is why it is important to consider the issue soon; producing a solution is still a simple matter.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of Entropia's planet partner content has been designed by SDS Planet Calypso developers, many of whom were likely the same people who helped form MindArk's open-ended universe philosophy years ago. Though a few mistakes have been made by FPC/SDS (which were included in those I mentioned earlier), I think the planet partner has done a reasonably sound job of creating content that adheres to MindArk's open-ended universe philosophy. However, as time moves forward, Entropia Universe is becoming less and less synonymous with Planet Calypso, and the rate of this change is sure to increase as new planets are introduced, and as ROCKtropia, Next Island, and Planet Arkadia are further developed. Since non-SDS planet partner employees have not had the same history working with MindArk as many SDS employees, they will be less equipped to handle matters in a manner that is consistent with MindArk's vision for Entropia. This is to be expected, and presumably MindArk has structured the relationship between the platform provide and planet partners accordingly. What we need now is a bit of structure for the Mission and Achievement systems.

MindArk has a few options. Of course, doing nothing is always possible, but it seems to me (an uninformed Joe Shmoe) that a solution could be implemented at a very low cost, and that doing so would be worthwhile (preserving a major component of the "feel" of Entropia).

At the other end of the extremity spectrum, MindArk could delete all records of the few stray Missions and Achievements that currently exist, and communicate to planet partners some guidelines for how to develop Missions and Achievements that fit within the feel of Entropia that participants have grown accustomed to as a result of the open-ended universe philosophy. This solution would certainly fix the matter at hand quite well. However, it may initially be a bit more invasive to planet partner content than what is necessary. After all, MindArk has recently stated that "each planet can use what MindArk develops differently to suit the specific planet and its environments the best." It may be desirable to seek a solution that empowers planet partners to create content in a more structured way, rather than merely imposing limits to Mission and Achievement structure via contract, document, etc.

Let us take a look at the Mission and Achievement systems separately for a moment. Perhaps a simple and fitting solution for the Mission system could include a control for planet partners to use to categorize Missions as either temporary or permanent (alternatively, MindArk could choose to retain the power to categorize Missions; doing so may especially make sense if MindArk already reviews the content of Missions before planet partners release them). Permanent Missions (which would classify almost all currently implemented Missions; kill 10K mobs, visit Swamp Camp, etc.) that a colonist finishes are transferred from his or her Active Quest/Mission Log to his or her Completed Quest/Mission Log (just as is currently the case with all Missions), while temporary Missions (which would classify limited-time Missions, Missions requiring access to potentially inaccessible areas, sets of mutually exclusive Missions, etc.) are simply removed from his or her Active Quest/Mission Log. Temporary Missions would still offer colonists item(s) and/or skill(s) as reward for completion, but no record of which colonists completed such a Mission would be kept. The duration status of an active Mission would be displayed in a colonist's Active Quest/Mission Log (perhaps temporary Missions could be highlighted in a different color). This setup would severely reduce the aforementioned limits to Mission structure. Planet partners would be free to develop content for Missions as they currently do. The only necessary consideration would be that temporary Missions could not serve as prerequisites to permanent Missions, as no record of their completion would be kept (this would not be a smart design decision anyhow, in terms of allowing Entropia to remain open-ended). Temporary Missions could, in fact, serve as prerequisites to other temporary Missions, if the record of a prerequisite temporary Mission was not deleted immediately after a colonist completed the Mission, but at some later point in time (perhaps a "Temporary Quest/Mission" section could be added to the Completed Quest/Mission Log, allowing colonists to track i.e. their Mission progress on the Calypso Gateway; the temporary section and all missions within it would be removed from the Quest/Mission Log when the colonist leaves the Gateway, when the Harbinger event ends, etc.). I think this Mission-categorizing setup makes sense; after all, what is the point of keeping around i.e. Merry Mayhem 2010 in our Completed Quest/Mission Logs? The only reason it became a Mission in the first place was to exploit the mob kill counter built into the Mission system. However, a separate fix would need to be considered for the Achievement system in order to have a complete solution.

Another possible solution could be for MindArk to provide a way for participants to "purchase" miss-able Missions and/or Achievements. Purchased Missions would be added to the buyer's Completed Quest/Mission Log, while purchased Achievements would be added to the buyer's Achievement window. Once the price was paid, there would be no indication of whether a Mission or Achievement was completed naturally, or purchased. The buyer would have essentially completed the Mission or Achievement. This system would likely be presented through some sort of interesting lore, such as an underground psychic selling memories. Prices would likely depend upon the difficulty level of the Mission or Achievement, and could consist of PED and/or items that a participant must spend.

These are a few suggestions for a solution to the recent challenge to Entropia's open-ended universe structure. There are certainly many different ways to combine or tweak the different suggestions, and I would wager that the folks in charge have the knowledge and resources at hand to develop a much more thoroughly planned solution. I do hope that this issue is taken at least a bit seriously. I realize that some colonists could not care less about the matter, but I also know that there are many who would appreciate such an improvement to the Mission and Achievement systems. I have seen far too many newcomers become disappointed when realizing they are unable to complete the Calypso Gateway Missions due to a broken gun (of course, this situation can be remedied if one can gather enough surplus of items on the Gateway to trade for a gun, but only until he or she teleports off the island). These Missions do not offer any magnificent rewards; it is simply part of the nature of gaming that players strive to complete everything a game has in store. I find it saddening that the best possible response to these newcomers is "learning to handle disappointment is part of Entropia." While this is technically true, other instances of disappointment in Entropia are temporary setbacks. These usually result in economic loss and/or wasted time, but they can be recovered from, once again thanks to the open-ended nature of our universe. Failing the Gateway Mission, along with screw-ups related to other Missions and Achievements, is a permanent and unnecessary type of disappointment. I, personally, had spent most of my gaming time playing console games, before I discovered Entropia. If a player misses the opportunity to collect an item, upgrade, etc. in i.e. The Legend of Zelda, he or she can choose to restart the game from the beginning in order to reach the 100% completion mark. Unfortunately, this is not practical in Entropia, as it is common for a single participant to invest thousands of hours into advancing his or her avatar, and a participant may only own one avatar at a time (additionally, some opportunities to complete Missions and Achievements expire at a set date, as opposed to expiring based upon in-world decisions, so restarting wouldn't help anyhow). Another point to consider is that the content of console games (at least older, offline ones) can be studied and understood, while Entropia is constantly expanding and developing. This raises the question of whether forcing participants to make gameplay-altering decisions while completing Missions is even fair in a game like Entropia. Not even the entire community can always put together enough information necessary for participants to make informed decisions in time, which is why I believe MindArk and/or planet partners should limit the effect such decisions have on a participant's gameplay experience. The Mission and Achievement systems should better reflect the open-ended universe philosophy that feels so central to Entropia, and something should be done soon, while the planet partner model is still young.

Finally, I would like to parenthetically add that the open-ended universe philosophy should be considered when designing future systems, such as Treasure Hunting. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, and I hope this can help shape the future of Entropia in a small way.

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