One of the challenges I faced in writing Solarversia was coming up with the game’s mechanics. All I really knew at the start was that the game would be one year in duration, and take the “last person standing” format. Many, many questions arose, and for some time it was rather overwhelming. Here’s a few of the questions I remember asking myself:
- Just what does the virtual world look like?
- How do players navigate within it?
- What do they do when they log off? Do they go somewhere special? Will they be safe?
- Can players identity one another within the game?
- Is it violent? Can players fight one another?
- How many lives do players get? What about health points?
- Do items exist within the world, ones that players can pick up and use?
- What’s to prevent players from not logging in and waiting the year out?
And of course, the entire time I was running my thoughts through an additional lense: the mechanics not only had to make sense from a gaming perspective, but also be interesting and exciting from a literary point of view. Here’s a list of the various mechanics I decided on, along with my reasoning.
The Virtual World
I ended up taking the easy option, some might say that I cheated. The virtual world is based on the real world, the Earth and the planets within the Solar System. My reasoning was twofold. First, I realised that I had enough on my plate, as a first time author, just writing the book. It gave me an easy way to include loads of stuff, especially action scenes, that readers would be immediately able to relate to. Second, I’ve been fascinated with the Solar System since I was a kid. It seemed like too good an opportunity not to base the virtual world on it. And once I’d finally decided on the name, Solarversia (whose .com domain was still available!), the deal was done.
I decided that players would travel around using cars, boats and planes. Then I wondered about storage. When a player is walking around, what happens to their vehicles? Can they summon them at will? (possible given that pretty much anything can happen in a virtual world of your own creation). I didn’t want that, it seemed a bit too easy. Instead, vehicles are stored at special locations:
- Cars are stored at the Greasy Wrench
- Boats are stored at Dockingtons
- Planes are stored at Right Flights
These special locations are dotted all over the world and each one has an “instance” of your vehicle. You could park your car at a Greasy Wrench in London, fly to Scotland, land at the Right Flights there, find the nearest Greasy Wrench (using your Route Planner, an in-world navigation aid) and go off in your car again. In the book, players get to choose from thousands of designs for each type of vehicle, and then get to customise the exact look and feel, including the artwork.
I was happy with this solution but realised that there were times I needed Nova, the protagonist (whose vehicles are shown below), to travel around quicker than this. So the second part of the navigation solution was teleport machines – which led to further questions: What do they look like? Why would you drive / fly around when you can teleport?! I’ll leave their description for later, but as for the second question, I ended up implementing “teleport tokens”. So yeah, you can teleport pretty much anywhere, but journeys cost money! Here’s basic table I used, but don’t quote me, prices might change in the final draft!
Logging off and Player Identification
Right at the start of the game (on the very first day) players locate themselves within something called the Player’s Grid, a huge latticework that spirals out from number one in the centre. They find their square, and as they approach it, it becomes transparent, revealing a cube. This cube acts like a base, the place players start from each session, and end up in when they want to log off. It’s known as a Corona Cube, named after the aura of plasma that surrounds the Sun. While there, no harm can come to players.
You player number allows other players to identify you, while your position within the grid, and your number itself, are used elsewhere in the book. Whereas a social network uses your interests to group you, Solarversia groups you according to your number and its relationships with other numbers (odds, evens, primes, multiples etc.)
Lives, Health, Violence and Items
Again, I went with standard gaming conventions for all these things. Players start with 3 lives, and each life has 100 health points. These points are taken away as players interact with the world, go on dangerous quests, crash their vehicles and so on. Although points can be restored by health packs, once you lose a life, it’s gone. Originally I played with the notion of being able to win extra lives, but it became rather cumbersome, so I did away with it.
I quickly did away with being able to fight other players, too. This does happen, but only in the final round of the book, when we’re down to ten players. I figured that people would gang up on others, especially celebrities, and I didn’t want that. There’s still a fair amount of violence, but it’s all against NPCs (non-player characters). And I’ve gone to town on items too. Thousands exist within the game, although I probably only mention and use about a dozen of them.
Even with all the above mechanics decided upon, I noticed that I still felt uneasy about something. What was to stop someone from not logging in all year, hiding away in their Corona Cube instead? So I introduced the notion of bucket lists, something that most people are familar with from the real world. Each month, players have a list of stuff to achieve, things like visiting places / exhibitions, doing certain things e.g. giving a lift to a hitchhiker, and so on.
Bucket lists get increasingly difficult to complete as the year goes on, and soon start including the Planetary Puzzles. On each of the nine planets in the Solar System (including Earth), a Grandmaster awaits you with his puzzle. First you have to travel to him (a journey that might kill you). Once there, the Grandmaster hosts a puzzle every hour of the day. These puzzles increase in difficulty with the planet’s distance from the Sun (Grandmaster Killanja on Mercury is the easiest to tick off, Grandmaster Brontaja on Pluto the most difficult).
I used the concept of “safe spots” for the mechanics of these puzzles. Let’s say you visit Killanja on Mercury and there are 900 players there in total that hour. There would be 800 safe spots, for the people able to solve his puzzle in the quickest time. The last 100 all lose a life. Contrast that with Brontaja on Pluto, where these numbers are inverted (there would be only 100 safe spots, 800 would lose a life).
It was really challenging “building” the world of Solarversia, even if I did cheat by basing it on the real world and using some fairly basic conventions. Hopefully the decisions I’ve made enable the reader to get a feel for the game and how it works pretty quickly. Because I envision the game being played every four years, I foresee the worlds being used, and the mechanics that govern them, becoming increasingly complex as players get used to things and demand new challenges. I already have some ideas for the next book, which only gets written if this one’s a success!
Available to use under Creative Commons license.