Tag Archives: World design

Science Fiction Franchises

I spent some time jotting down a few commonalities of various popular Science Fiction franchises. Here’s what I have so far.

FranchiseGenreLocationTimeAliensFocusProtagBase of OpsAntag
Star WarsSpace FantasyOther GalaxyPastCountlessWarSoldiersShipEvil Empire
Star TrekSpace OperaOrion spurCenturies in the futureCountlessExplorationSoldiersShipEvil Aliens
Babylon 5Space OperaOrion spurCenturies in the futureManyWarSoldiersSpace stationEvil Aliens
FireflySpace WesternDistant systemCenturies in the futureNoneCrimeCriminalsShipEvil Empire
FarscapeSpace OperaDistant regionPresentManyExploration, EscapeFugitivesShipEvil Empire
Eve OnlineSpace OperaDistant clusterMillenia in the futureNoneWar, Economy, ExplorationVariousShipEverybody else
Mass EffectSpace OperaMilky WayCenturies in the futureManyWar, ExplorationSoldiersShipEvil Aliens
TravellerSpace OperaOrion spurMillenia in the futureManyExploration, EconomyVariousShipEvil Empire
Known SpaceSpace Opera40lyCenturies in the futureSeveralExplorationExplorersPlanetsVarious
Battlestar Galactica (2004)Space OperaMilky WayPastNoneWarSoldiersShipRobots
StargateSpace OperaMilky WayPresentSeveralExplorationSoldiersEarthEvil Aliens
Doctor WhoSpace ComedyMilky WayPresentManyTimetravelSpecialShipRobots
AlienSpace HorrorClose to EarthCenturies in the futureFewHorrorSoldiersPlanetsEvil Aliens
Warhammer 40kSpace HorrorMilky WayMillenia in the futureManyWarSoldiersPlanetsEvil Aliens
Dune?Orion spurMillenia in the futureNonePoliticsNoblesPlanetsEvil Empire
PiperSpace OperaMilky Way GalaxyCenturies in the futureSomePolitics, ExplorationVariousPlanetsVarious

Now, obviously a few of these entries require  comments:

Dune: Not exactly sure what “genre” this is. I’d say science fiction politics, since the dynastic struggle is a big focus. But then there are also religious/philosophical tones to it. I do have to admit I never could bring myself to finish even the first book, so take this with a grain of salt.

Warhammer 40k: It’s also a space fantasy if there ever was one (Elves and stuff, hello?)

Doctor Who: It isn’t really a comedy, but while it has gotten more “mature”, I still have a hard time taking the show serious. It’s a weird mix, at any rate; it’s kind of a time travel show (though time travel is really only a gimmick), sort of space opera, and sort of zany. The protagonists are The Doctor (a time traveller) who is aided by “everyday people” companions.

Traveller: Did not really have an antagonist per se. The Zhodani work as an “evil empire”. The New Era featured the vampire computer virus.

Known Space: Doesn’t really have an enemy per se. The Pakh protectors, the Kizinti, the Thrint, and so on all count but there is not really one standard enemy. It’s more a series about exploration in my opinion.

Piper: Very similar to Known Space in that there is not one enemy species or polity. The Federation serves as an antagonist in some novels, but is the protagonist in others.

So, what sort of conclusion do we draw from this?

A successful space franchise should either have no aliens at all or a whole bunch of them (and in any case most of them are clearly strange humans in strange rubber suits). It’s set centuries or millenia in the future, covers a large volume of space and features soldiers or rebels who use a spaceship as their basis. No real surprises there.

Of course this ‘research’ is very unscientific, I’d like to include more franchises and a measure of success for each franchise (Star Trek is more successful than Firefly – by far – and thus should probably weigh more in the analysis).

 

Bad Design: Torture in World of Warcraft

If you have played the Borean Tundra area in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft MMORPG, you probably came across the quest “The Art of Persuasion”.

In this quest, the player has to torture a prisoner to obtain information about the prisoner’s organization. This continues past the point where the NPC begs the player to stop, until he eventually reveals the location of a prisoner.

Stop! I beg you, please stop. Please…

When I reached this quest I was playing Juria, my sweet little innocent Gnome mage. Not only do I personally find torture disgusting; Juria would also never do any such thing. (In a perfect world, she would be a complete pacifist, but that is not a course of action that gets you far in World of Warcraft.) Quests in the game are completely linear “like it or leave it” affairs, so there was no option to refuse torture besides declining the quest. Since it seemed that the quest chain was important in the storyline progressing, and because I figured I’d have enough of an annoying time gaining enough experience points to level 80, I decided to simply do the quest. After all, I am capable of distinguishing between a vector model and a real human being.

I moved on with a bad aftertaste and eventually forgot about this quest until Pedro sent me a link to Richard Bartle’s blog posting criticizing the torture quest. Boy did Richard get a lot of (unjustified) FLAK for that, but he is of course completely right.

Games are – besides a fun activity – about teaching us something. Whether it is practicing one’s dexterity and reaction speed in a platform game, our logic or intuition in an adventure or puzzle game, or moral choices. This doesn’t mean games should be preachy, but when a choice can be made in the game, it should offer consequences for those actions and – ideally – reinforce correct moral choices.

The correct moral choice in this case is that “torture is bad”. This is a general consensus, and I would say that anybody who categorically disagrees with that statement has a serious mental problem. Humane treatment of humans and also of prisoners is the basic idea behind the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such works.

This is also the morality that should be valid inside the game’s fiction. While the Alliance has not always been a “force of good” (there are the Orc internment camps, after all), the Alliance as represented by the players in World of Warcraft is definitely a force of good. Likewise, the Horde is attempting to reform itself to become better people than the horde of the early Warcraft titles. Torture of prisoners is what the antagonists engage in: The Scarlet Crusade for example.

Blizzard does not offer the player any choice; they reward the player for incorrectly torturing the player. The character will gain experience points and gold and – though I haven’t done the math – it is possible that the quest is required for certain in-game achievements like “Complete x quests in Borean Tundra”. There is no necessity to actually torture the prisoner (he does not reveal anything crucial, nor anything that could not be found out in any other way). There are no consequences. The whole thing is meaningless.

Blizzard has passed up a great opportunity to let the player make a meaningful choice. They have failed to teach us anything, and, even worse, are teaching us something that is counterproductive. It would have been very easy to implement two alternate quest lines, one where the player accepts to torture the prisoner, and one where he does not, with appropriate in-game consequences. (For example, in The Burning Crusade, you can choose to follow either of two factions at one point, so it is possible to do this with the World of Warcraft engine.) The torture quest could be the “easy option”, but result in a penalty; the “humane” quest may be a lot more effort, but result in a greater reward.

As it stands, this one quest is a good example of how not to do quest design, and also a very revealing insight into the minds of the Blizzard game designers – and the many, many World of Warcraft players who have attacked Richard for stating that torture is a bad thing.

Schedules and plans

Time is always an issue. I have a regular job that takes way too much of my time, and usually leaves me with little energy in the evenings. And then there are other things. But no matter what I do, schedules always seem to be unpredictable. I knew there was a reason why I do not plan more than a few weeks ahead. It turns out that something I had planned to do won’t happen and that will leave me with ample spare time for the rest of August.

Figures.

So I’ll be world-building.

Since World Building Month is half-over, and I do want to at least have a complete skeleton of a world by the end, I thought about what needs to be done:

* Language. Very important.
* Religion. We know some basics already, but this needs to be worked out in detail.
* Details on the nations – Customs, history, rulers, attitudes.
* Money and trade: The economy needs to be designed at least in some detail. What do the nations produce, what do they export, and what do they need to import? Where are the main resources located, and what are they?
* Cities of Ârnaron.
* Ruins and relics: The shattered past lurks among the dunes.
* Astrology and zodiacs.
* Heroes and villains: Create at least a few of each as sample characters, so to speak.
* Prizes and princesses: What do the heroes and villains fight over, and how?
* The hordes: There are uncivilized, regressed barbarians everywhere, as befits a savage, mythical Martian styled world. Need to write about these guys, too.

I think that mostly covers it. I’ll probably deviate here and there and throw some other stuff in, as ideas pop up. But if I forgot something important or if there’s anything you actually want me to work out, do let me know via comments.

(Defunct) World Building College Course

If you’re serious about world building, this one might be something for you: The California State University is/was offering a course in World Building. The course is offered both on-campus and as a distance learning course. It focuses on realistic, scientific world-building. I am not sure if the course is still actively offered; the Open University does not seem to list it. I’m actually interested in this course, but unfortunately the professor who taught it does not reply to email at the moment. A pity.

Update: Also seems the Cal State site doesn’t respond anymore. Too bad. Does anybdoy know of a similar offer?

New Worldbuilding Sites Discovered

I’ve added a few links – and since I can’t really expect anyone to do a mental diff on the two link lists, I decided to quickly post what I’ve added since I initially started the link lists.

World Building Resources:

* Climatology for Worldbuilders
* Language Construction Kit
* A Way with Worlds

Worlds on the Web:

* Planetocopia
* Life on the Planet Furaha