The first thing you need to know about this game idea is that it’s not mine. It’s the invention of my girlfriend, who is an anthropologist and a historian. She has forgotten more about 19th century industry than most people will ever learn. So when I asked her if she had any ideas for a game she wanted to play, “19th Century Industrial Society: The MMORPG” was her answer, in a nutshell. This game concept mixes elements of Rebel Galaxy, EVE Online, Guild Wars 2, classic RPG character design, and even a tiny pinch of Dark Souls.

Now let’s go inside the nutshell.

So we’re going to have a generic western industrial setting. Maybe an ersatz Europe. Nothing too specific to real historical events and trends, because the whole point of this game is that the players are going to influence and build what happens in all the cities and towns. Which reminds me, there will be about a dozen big cities and at least a hundred small towns. Most of those small towns will be mining towns of various types (copper, iron, coal), and others will be centered around some other major industry, such as textiles, steel, farming, et cetera. The cities will have mostly trade.

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Between these cities and towns there would be slow travel. Walking. Horseback.There will be trains, of course, but rail has only just been invented and it doesn’t go very many places yet (also it’s expensive to travel by rail). So if you want to go anywhere besides a few mines and mills, and maybe one city, you’re moving slow. And while the players are doing all this slow traveling, they are not safe. They can be robbed almost anywhere. Unlike in most MMOs where the cities are safe zones, the only safe zones here are overnight inns, hotels, churches, and taverns. Anywhere you are staying overnight is safe (cf. the fires in Dark Souls). Anywhere else is not. I’ll come back to exactly what getting robbed entails.

Who are the players getting robbed by? Other players. So let’s talk about your characters. At character creation you get a certain number of points to spend in various categories. But these categories are professions: mining, carpentry, smithing, legal prostitution, etc. You can also spend points in thieving, blackmail, hired muscle, and so on. The idea is to give the player as much freedom as possible to be both legitimate and illegitimate, and even to mix the two. For instance, as an ironsmith, you could make guns for your gangster friends.

This in turn folds into the larger systems at play, which is where this game concept borrows from Guild Wars 2’s Living World events. Every zone on the map (cities, towns, and yes even roads) will have two reputation meters: positive and negative. Every legitimate industry or trade activity will bump the positive meter just a little bit; every theft or blackmail or other crime will bump the negative meter just a little bit. The meters will be weighted - the more positive a city has, the more work the criminals have to do to move the negative meter, and vice versa (pun intended). There will also be dynamic quests that have larger impacts on the two meters. Crucially, there will be opportunities for quests that have simultaneous positive and negative impacts. Maybe you’re a safemaker, and you sell a safe as part of your business - slight positive bump. But then you break into the home you sold it to and crack the safe, stealing their valuables - negative bump.

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Which brings me to homes. Players can buy a house, if they can get enough money to afford it, and spend their nights there (customizable player housing!). But unlike a tavern, your personal house is not automatically a safe zone. You will have to buy defenses, and even then your home could still be broken into by someone sufficiently skilled in those arts, and if you’re in it you might also be robbed.

What does getting robbed entail? This is not a combat-heavy game. Getting attacked by another player is not PvP. Based on various stats from character creation, and based on how much thugging the players have done lately, the game will calculate that the attacker has a chance to succeed in robbing the victim, and the victim has a chance to resist. Then, essentially, it spins the wheel. If the attacker wins, the victim loses whatever cash and possessions they have on them (i.e. not in a bank or in a safe somewhere). If the attacker loses, the victim has a choice - rob them back, or leave them alone. Combat is “instanced” in this way, but fast and luck-based, rather than skill. Also, if the attacker vastly outmatches the victim, the victim will “die” - this means the attacker gets all of the victim’s stuff. The victim wakes up in the nearest safe house. Identity and social position are intact, but your wealth and ego are bruised. The major assault will give a big bump to the zone’s negative bar.

What’s the ultimate goal here? Whatever you want! Be an itinerant laborer and explore the land. Be a prostitute and meet interesting people. There’s complete gender and racial equality in all professions, and that goes for male and female prostitution too. Or put all your points in one kind of legitimate profession - maybe you’re an iron miner, and gradually work your way up the ranks of an iron company until you’re the owner. As you work your way up you have the opportunity to change the direction of the company and make deals with other characters. All the high-ranking positions will be NPCs at first, but gradually the social landscape will become populated by players who worked — or cheated — their way to the top. (Here is the influence of EVE Online, with massive corporations run by players.)

Or you can just carve out a niche living for yourself, with whatever balance of work and crime you want. The idea here is complete freedom of choice as to how you make your way in the world.

NEXT TIME: The opposite of combat