InterviewInterview - Africa MMO: Tracy Spaight

Africa MMO

Developer: Rapid Reality
Publisher: Rapid Reality


Setting: historic
Tracy Spaight, creator of Africa MMO, has some lofty goals with his dreamchild. He's played many other MMOs over the years and taken away likes and dislikes from them all. Set in a unique setting - medieval 13th century Africa - Africa MMO hopes to take lessons from previous games and new ideas and blend them into a mixture both traditional and innovative. The crafting system is heavily influenced by Wish, Star Wars Galaxies, Horizons and A Tale in the Desert; the PvP system takes lessons from the design of Dragon Empires and lessons from Shadowbane and Lineage II; and still there are hints of Civilization, Age of Empires and various other strategy games.

And yet it has a bit of the unique. No other game has attempted a sleep realm before. It's a truly efficient use of instanced spaces. Assuming the AI is as robust as they hope, the NPCs interractions may be able to balance players in a manner that prevents one "guild" from ever becoming too powerful. And it's setting not only allows for great storytelling and mysticism, but should they choose, some really wonderful controversy. This is the first in a weekly series of a lengthy inteview with designer Tracy Spaight. Are you going to simplify the names a bit? Try and make it a bit more palatable…

Tracy Spaight: We're going to use lots of dictionaries for the varying languages; you can find things that sound very "cool" and then approximate what it means. We'll create names that are pronounceable. We'll take African mythology, folklore and legend and take all the bits that are somewhat familiar - we want it to be new so that people experience something they've never encountered before any MMO before and it's rich and deep and fun. Your intent is to make it possible for the players to affect the ecology in such a way that they can cull herds of gazelle or remove prides of lions completely from an area and as long as they maintain vigilance, that area will remain so.

Tracy Spaight: The model is much along the same lines as Richard Garriott and Raph Koster when they designed Ultima Online. However, they didn't realize at the time that the players would go out and slaughter everything that moved. What happened is it broke the ecology model because the players killed everything they encountered; then there was the behavior of the creatures - if you were shooting arrows at a deer it would run up and butt you with its head! It didn't turn and flee.

If the deer had some environmental awareness it's going to know you are coming, go to the herd and they're going to leave. So, our creatures we're going to try and design a bit more intelligently. Our intention is that we're going to make it so it's going to "feel" like a real ecology. It will be a lot more dynamic. Yes, if you kill of the predators, you're going to get a bunch of herbivores…and I don't know, perhaps that's going to lead to them overrunning all of the fields and now you're going to have to maintain that. With the way your tradeskill system is designed, everything relies on everything else if you want to be a fisherman - how many skills can you have?

Tracy Spaight: I know that when I play games, I don't like it when I can only be a rope maker and I'm limited to just that. If you really want to, you can be a magic-wielding, glass-blower. If that's your thing - be whatever you want. We're not going to say you can't be something. As things grow and the players expand, do you see yourself growing beyond this initial design?

Tracy Spaight: What you see here (looking at a large concept map) was the very initial design of me thinking "what if I really did this". Now that we past the initial design phase and I've had time to think about it, we've done some brainstorming and I know that I want some of the historical cities there. I want Sijilmasa and Timbuktu and Marakesh, etc. It would be rather weird to say, "Oh, this is medieval Africa and these cities aren't here!" So, those cities will exist but what I'm toying with right now is whether or not they will be capturable. Will the Berber be able to storm to the city, break through the gates and have somewhat of a castle siege similar to Dark Age of Camelot - although the capture criteria we haven't discussed yet.

Perhaps it's more sophisticated than simply "break down the gate and kill all the defenders". Perhaps you have to secure the Golden Stool - the Asante people have the Golden Stool which they envision as having coming from the heavens from their gods. Perhaps we'll require that you'll not only take a few strategic points in the city but take a particular object in the city and then hold them all for a particular length of time and then you capture the city and you become the Mansa and bodyguards will spawn all around you and petal bearers will throw flower petals around your feet and you're hailed as the new ruler of the Kingdom?!

Then I envision it as once you've taken the town, you've rather broken it up. But, you have taken it. So, you control of the economy in the area much like Lineage II. You'll be able to control the caravans and trade in the area now and set the laws, and you can direct those revenues towards building fortifications and towers. I envision giant burning mirrors like Archimedes...

I'd like to take a page from Sid Meier's Civilization, too and not only build offensive and defensive fortifications but also social and cultural. Why can't I build libraries that allow certain NPCs to spawn and then have bonuses to intelligence while in that real? I have an entire array of structures that I envision being built. Perhaps you can build Persian windmills - which are really cool, they're unlike anything you've ever seen - they're built sideways, and then you build a wind tunnel to funnel the wind into it, it's almost like a turbine. It's really cool! And the Arabs had knowledge of that so perhaps you can build one to grind your grain…

Let's make building "cool". Take the best features out of empire building games and put them into your cities so that it confers productive bonuses to various groups and gives incentives to why you'd want to build it and why you'd want to keep control on big towns.

I haven't worked out precisely how player built towns will work because I don't want it to develop into the urban sprawl of Ultima Online; I believe there will be areas that are unbuildable. You simply can't support life in the depths of the Tenere Desert - there's nothing there - it's like a Lunar landscape. There is no water. That will probably end up being an adventurable space. Perhaps you can build temporary encampments for a nomad. It will be more spread about a bit, like on top of mesa of a cliff and that will lead into the empire system. There will be territories you'll want to hold.

Bear in mind, we're really at the beginning of this, but say you hold one of these areas and it contains a copper mine and you'd like to have some pasturage over here. Well, that gives your adventurers something to do by going and securing that area. Now, your crafters have plenty of leather to work from the cattle that are now living in those pastures. And then perhaps there are areas that are capturable, but we've not yet even really discussed sieges and how often they'll occur or how they'll work. We just know we don't want it to have that Shadowbane feel of fear where if you go to sleep you may wake up, and all you've worked for has disappeared because someone's taken it while you were asleep.


The interesting thing is that our NPCs will be capable of pretty much everything the characters can do. They can go out and adventure, they can craft, they can control towns and if they see that that "wow, Timbuktu is getting too powerful". They might decide to attack them. In fact, you may be approached by an NPC tribe - "our mutual enemies in the east, we must crush them!" to ally with them to against another tribe that is threatening you both.

I think that will help with the "Shadowbane" problem in that the NPCs themselves will worry if any one "guild" gets too big, they'll then gang up on them and help to keep them smaller and no one family will control the entire world. It will be rather hard to expand out in any sort of real time. How important is location/race going to be in the game? Will where you begin affect your abilities or skills?

Tracy Spaight: I'm just starting to think about that. For example the Masai are famous world over for being badass warriors. The Taureg, we could not survive on their diet in the deep desert. The live in the places like the eHaggar Mountains and then they descend from the mountains and decimate caravans. But they can subsist on ridiculously small amounts of water and only a handful of dates where anyone else would just die, so perhaps that will be an advantage they get. Is there any actual metric for an amount of food and water consumption that a player must have?

Tracy Spaight: I want to make the desert so that it's an actual desert. So, if you're stupid enough to wander out there without your camel and a mess of water bags, you're probably going to die. I want to make it so that it's a bit of an ordeal - not so that it's punishing and you hate your life but so that it's a bit of an ordeal. If you try to go from Timbuktu to Sijilmasa you have to deal with desert raiders, Taureg and herders that prey upon tourists. They still do that to this day - if you were to travel out there today they'd probably steal your automobile and all the rest. Will the NPCs have some advantage since they're working on the same skills as the players and are essentially 24/7?

Tracy Spaight: Good question. But it's not going to be like "kill all the humans" and some NPC slaughter of the players and then they become sentient because our AI is so good and later Skynet takes over…

We'll balance it as such so that it will be more realistic. We can simply require that they sleep. Players need the dream state; NPCs may need it as well.

We're not going to force players to sleep but there are going to be reasons you're going to want to.

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About the Author, Kelly Heckman (A.K.A Ophelea)

I'm a mother of two boys, ages 11 and 13 and live in the chaos that ensues. I've a permanent disability that keeps me homebound, so books, kids, games and books are my constant companions. Oh, and books, too. *grins*

My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.

I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.

I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.