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John Mawhorter Designed a Videogame for His Comps

April 21, 2010 at 9:51 am
By Margaret Taylor '10

Spring term 2010 must be the season for exciting and unusual comps presentations.  Last week, the John Mawhorter ’10 of the CAMS department held this talk: “I designed a videogame for my comps.  There are guns in it.  And explosions.”

Doesn’t that just make you wish you were a CAMS major?

There were both guns and explosions in John’s comps talk, but there is a serious reason he undertook this particular project.  First-person shooters (you play a gunman, and you shoot things) and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG – think World of Warcraft) are two extremely popular genres of computer game.  But there are relatively few examples of games that combine these genres.  John’s comps project was an intellectual exercise on what a first-person shooter game would be like if it was also massively multiplayer.  He also explored what might happen to the social dynamics between the players of such a game.

To do this, he made a design document for a massively multiplayer first-person shooter game.  “A design document is to a game as a script is to a movie,” he explains.  It’s a list of all of the rules in the game as well as the premise and an explanation of how play is going to work.  John’s design document, which catalogues every type of rifle and tank available to players, runs to 81 pages.

His game is set in a future in which Mars is terraformed and giant corporations are fighting for control of the territory on it.  You and the other players are mercenaries hired to further your company’s interests.  The terrain has military bases on it that two opposing teams of shooters try to capture.  It’s like capture the flag except that the players kill each other.

One of the social problems that arises in massively multiplayer games is known as the “tragedy of the commons.”  It’s in each individual player’s self-interest to act like a jerk, even though if everybody acts like a jerk, the game isn’t fun anymore.  Game designers have developed a number of ways of dealing with antisocial player behavior.  One is an autocratic, top-down approach: administrators catch players breaking the rules and ban their accounts.  The other strategy is self-regulation.  Inspired by the eBay rating system, players rate each other on their behavior, so others know which players are bad news.

John sought to build a self-regulation mechanism into his game by making it more fun for players to cooperate than to be jerks.  The game has a system of bonuses for tasks that are completed cooperatively.  Some activities like capturing bases and buying large pieces of equipment require several players to complete.  The interface lets players pool money and ammunition easily.

Anybody who has ever had a text message get taken completely the wrong way knows the other sociological problem that goes with computer games: how to help players communicate with each other when they’re not face to face.

John sought to facilitate player-to-player communication in his game by giving his players as many channels of communication as possible.  Both text and voice chat will be available, which will be semantically clustered using techniques similar to those seen on Twitter.  There will also be in-game gestures.  Players will be able to command their avatars to perform a series of gestures that John copied from a SWAT team gesture handbook.

There are no plans for this game to actually be made, but watch out for John Mawhorter in the future.