Ivan Garde’s game design studies online notebook

and also an animator’s portifolio (hopefully)

Game Design Challenge: Creating Fun Communication junho 24, 2009

Filed under: Production — ivangarde @ 12:15 pm
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The theme for this month’s design contest at GameCareerGuide is quite interesting: To create a fun and meaningful communication system in a MMO for friendly characters who can’t understand each other. You can find the whole assignment here.

My firts thoughts were something about a town crier and the inexistence of global chat, to add a layer of delay in the information travel in order to create estrategic opportunities for surprise attacks or a well defined information network. It was bit away from de the theme because people were still talking to each other, just he range of the communication had changed, so I scraped this idea and haven’t took it any further. I had reall forgotten about the contest when all of he sudden, I caught myself thinking how cool would be playing a Zerg in a ficticious World of Starcraft.  But Zergs don’t tak! Zergs don’t shout “LFG!”, so I decided to come up with some communication systemfor them and take part in the contest.

The following text is the original idea, which had around 300 word cut to fit the contest restrictions, so, without further ado, here’s the verbose version of:

The Zerg communication in World of Starcraft
Instinct, pheromones and survival of the fittest



I know many gamers crave for a World of Starcraft, I for one would like to see it, specially if Blizzard make the zergs a playable race. I believe World of Starcraft (WoS) dispenses further introductions, but for the contextualization I’m thinking in a MMO with three distinct factions with lots of open world PvP. The players gain levels normally but also have a PvP associated level, somewhat like the old honor (or renown, I can’t remember) system that used to exist in WoW.

It would be strange to see all the zerg characters chatting to each other so this would be a great case of study for an alternative yet meaningful communication system, starting with the premise that zergs don’t talk or have any kind of grammar.

This communication system should impact the gameplay by enforcing some specific characteristics of the zerg play style in the original starcraft, which I believe is amassing the largest army as fast as possible and striking with one big swarm. The communication system should enforce the feeling of being part of a hive, of safety in numbers, the feeling of riding a furious cloud of hungry grasshoppers.

The “chatless” communication system I thought about is based on 3 mechanics:

Instinct or The Hive Mind – This mechanic manifests itself as automatic information in the game HUD exclusive to the zerg faction:

  • Swarm Localization: The zerg player is able to see on the minimap, or in the zone map, colored moving stains representing groups of other zergs. The stain size should be relative to the group size. This mark just starts to appear in the map as soon as the group (or swarm, as an alternative for “raid”) reaches a certain number
  • Swarm Adrenaline: The more zergs are present in an area, the more they feel ready to attack, like a battle “frenesi”. So, even if the zergs are not together in groups, they can “feel” they are in a large number in a given area. This should be present in the player HUD as a neurotransmitter level or as a cardiac beats per second, which fluctuate in a certain range, like in figure 1.
  • Together, these two facets of the Instinct mechanic should enforce the play style of zerg characters amassing in large numbers easily.
  • Overlord Message: The player should also receive direct messages, in the form of sound and text, directly from the hive mind. Such messages would deal with global warnings, like “hive is under attack”.

<strong>Fig. 1</strong> - a piece of the Zerg HUD (I'm no interface artist!)

Fig. 1 - a piece of the Zerg HUD (I'm no interface artist!)

Pheromones – While the instinct mechanic deals with information automatically and continuously updated, the pheromones deal with communication activated by the player itself.

  • Swarm call: A player can actively inform the other zergs that he/she is willing to start a group. The zerg character glows in a particular color and  all players in a certain range receive in the neurotransmitter HUD an “interpreted message” in a form of text (again, figure 1 ). For the sake of usability, there could be different types of swarm calls, to differentiate PvP calls to the PvE ones.
  • Marking a prey: This marks an enemy player or monster with a scent only detected by the zergs, so everyone can attack the same target, again enforcing the furious swarm feeling. This facet of pheromones is in place to balance the lack of strategic coordination among the zergs.
  • Predator warning: After receiving damage, the zerg player can emit a warning cloud of pheromones that means “danger!”. Be warned Terrans and Protoss, mess with one zerg and you are messing with an entire hive!
  • Synthetic pheromones: Since WoS is a three faction MMO, alliances between two factions should be integral part of the social play. If players form the other two races intent to communicate with zergs, they should have flasks of synthetic pheromones, and throw then at the swarm, creating particle clouds that could make the zergs retreat or attract them, meaning “truce” or “attack the other race”. So the other would never feel like they are “talking” to zergs, instead they are trying to tame a wild force of nature.
  • It is important to notice that since the text messages received from the pheromones are automatic generated, this system allows people from different languages to communicate, in a zerg way.

Survival of the Fittest – This mechanic intertwines the communication system with the level progression system, a cornerstone of many MMOs. The higher the level and specially, the PvP level of a character, the more effective his/her pheromones are. A swarm call reaches a larger range as well as the “danger” warning, targets are strongly marked by high level zergs. A subtle reward for attaining new ranks that can also create an “alpha male” behavior among the swarm, like a rudimentary leadership.

This communication system opens other design spaces, for instance, the other factions could have weapons that mess with the zergs instincts or fake “danger” pheromones to create traps. The zergs on the other hand, could have a class with heightened senses, like a tracker, expert in finding the prey.