Dev Diary #18 - Cultural Revolution

At one level, ORG is essentially a multiplayer appointment mechanic, that being one of the more common terms for the game mechanic where a player assigns resources, then waits for the resolution in real time of the task or mission to conclude, then comes back to see the results and collect any rewards.

In the early conception of ORG this was always seen as a foundation to be built on rather than the core of the game. The core of the game has always been envisioned as the creation of a multiplayer simulation enabling emergent player agency; we want players to be able to impact the game environment in meaningful, persistent ways, rather than simply existing in their own private instances, or given just the illusion of agency.

Because ORG is structured to exist as a single server shard, this presented the basic design challenge: How do you design a scalable multiplayer environment that also allows for agency?

Unlike games like EVE (another of my guilty favorites), ORG does not present the players as directly governing moons or planets or systems. Instead, players are controlling the somewhat amorphous organizations that in turn control said moons or planets or systems. This layer of abstraction is - no question - a problem, as the more abstraction you as a designer beg of your audience to accept, the harder it is to feel agency, regardless of the actual agency that might be there.

Political Lobbying
Early on in the development of ORG we conceived of the concept of lobbying tasks - Political category tasks that allow the player to not just get personal rewards for themselves, but to actually shift the policy of the polity they are lobbying in the area they are lobbying. For example, a player conducts repeated lobbying tasks on the Europan Consortium to cause it to shift its export taxes on manufactured goods. This affects everyone trying to export goods off any region controlled by the Europan Consortium. Presumably, a player lobbying for this also has themselves or in the form of allies or clients business in Europan Consortium space that will benefit from this - or perhaps the intent is only to harm other, competing players or alliances of players.

This was good, but we ultimately felt that while it felt good for a Political category focused player, it left the other categories - Commercial, Cultural, Military, Research - feeling lacking by comparison in giving players that feeling of agency we're so focused on creating.

Military Conflict
So, we got to work on the Military category, making it feel, well, more "military", rather than just running disconnected tasks.

While the full details of the Military conflict tasks is a whole different topic that we'll diary on at a later time (it was a huge challenge coming up with an asymmetrical conflict model), suffice it to say that we came up with a design that took the Political lobbying a step further. Instead of - like Political lobbying does - affecting the internal politics and laws of a polity, Military conflict tasks affect the resolution of existing conflicts. Where two polities are in a state of open (or at least proxy) aggression, players can use Military conflict tasks to impact the success and failure of specific polity's campaigns on specific regions.

Meaning, players can, by their actions, cause a polity to expand or contract the regions it controls - even to the point where that polity may essentially be destroyed.

Pretty cool. But now, the Cultural category feels kind of weak.

Cultural Revolutions
Next, we took stock of what the Cultural category brings to the table:

  • Recruitment of agent minions
  • Making agent and facility enhancements.
  • Promoting agents
  • Provides the component "fuel" for certain advanced production of the Research category
  • Provides the component "fuel" for certain Military category production (e.g., Recruits)

Valuable, to be sure, but kind of limited. But what if Cultural tasks allowed for a kind of hybrid functionality between Political and Military?

Political allows players to affect the internal rules of a polity. Military allows players to affect the external region ownership of regions in times of open conflict.

Allowing Military conflict tasks to change the ownership of a region had raised a thorny question: What happens when the last region of a particular polity is defeated in a Military conflict?

We considered a few possibilities with this; perhaps every polity had a kind of "home" region that was unassailable? That fought against the underlying principle of player agency, however, so left a bad taste in the mouth.

What if, instead, we killed two birds with one stone, and made Cultural "lobbying" tasks that had the ability to "flip" a region? That would solve the Military problem, since you could then instigate a "rebellion", seeing the re-emergence of a previously defeated polity. That, however, raised its own slightly terrifying design question - what happens if someone used this mechanic to "flip" a region that wasn't even in a state of war at the moment? What would happen then?

What we settled on, then, was to provide every region with a kind of alternate polity. Some of these "alternate polities" would cross multiple regions, some would be entirely local. Some regions might well have more than one such alternate polity. For example, a region in the Belt is incited to revolt by player actions, and by that Eunomia falls, to be replaced with a new polity, "The Spacer Union". This is a real polity in every way - it has Reputation for players to jockey over, it has internal politics to be lobbied over, it can itself enter into states of war with various other polities, even waging its own wars of conquest across the Belt and beyond. Other regions can, even outside of such a war of conquest, be incited to rebellion, joining with this new Spacer Union.

Obviously, this means the thirty-four or so existing polities will have to be joined with a bunch of new ones, and over time, we may add even more on top of these additional ones to really hit home the significance of player actions - if a player alliance dominates a particular polity, a rival alliance thus will have several choices of strategy to combat that control. Perhaps they sic a rival polity into a state of war with them. Perhaps they simply beat their rival at their own game, competing in the internal Political sphere. Perhaps, too, they cause that polity's regions to revolt, essentially wiping clean the alliance's gains.

This has some serious ripple effects, as well. Reputation can be wiped away. Access to certain minions can be suspended. Access to entire regions can be restricted or contested. New markets can be opened; existing ones can be closed.

We had originally conceived of having polities sometimes vanish and emerge by design fiat, but this takes that and puts it - with some random elements, to be sure - into the hands of the player politic as a whole, making, again...player agency.