October 2, 2007

Video Game Idea: "Space 911"

Themes explored: when does the player feel violence necessary, how do people's backgrounds influence this decision, and (major theme) that you HAVE to make a decision on this point, that you can't decide not to decide because reasonable people disagree and people will be hurt or happy either way.

Setting: you inherit a rescue-and-treat space facility from someone (your dead, estranged dad?). You are put in charge fresh out of med school. At the start of the game you are presented with a modified hippocratic oath which you must "sign" to go forward -- promising to "do no harm" before you can play the game.

Your base is a space hospital that is a stationary (at least at first) facility with a space ambulance / boarding vessel that is surprisingly tough. The hospital is asked to help in all kinds of space emergencies -- it's not just a hospital, it's a hostage rescue, fire-fighting, plague-containing, pirate warding all-purpose help-people-out kind of place.

The staff of the hospital consists of a handful of doctors who go on missions with you. What's special about these doctors is they've all joined the space hospital guild, which has a secret technology which only its members get, which enables them to magically teleport back to the hospital before they sustain enough damage to die. Thus, they are (for our game purposes) unkillable, but they aren't unstoppable -- you can't continue a mission if everyone gets killed and sent back to base, duh.

We want to keep the number of doctors small so the player gets attached to them (instead of having a party of zillions where you plug in and out faceless, nameless numbers) and feels that developing them is worthwhile -- trading them in on better models isn't an option. Also, when one of them quits in disgust, it should really hurt.

Big plot: Not-so-friendly, very advanced, very xenophobic aliens (a la Heechee/Gateway books) have decided the easy way to ensure their dominance is to spend several milleniums locked inside a giant time capsule and wake up occasionally, taking the good ideas from all life forms that have evolved, and then wiping them all out and letting new ones start.

The first thing that happens before they wake up is thousands of automated probes are sent out to all inhabited planets, and the probes start subtly screwing with the creatures on the planets to discover their strengths and weaknesses.

Phase one is the probes start dredging up each society's long-dead plagues and trying them out.

So, after a long period (thousands of years) of relative peace, the player is born into a galaxy that, for the last hundred years is falling increasingly into war and savagery, because the delicate balances of societies are being screwed up. Eg, planets that have become specialized in, say, robot creation, and don't even bother farming any more will find that they are all starving when the farming planets that supply them are attacked by plagues, and so in desperation they'll try to annex other farming planets that other advanced societies are depending on.

Plagues are becoming more and more common, and each plague is getting nastier than the last, because the probes are learning which ones work best.

In phase two the probes start exchanging information, and so plagues can't be contained any more, and need to be cured or the galaxy will be wiped out.

In phase three the probes start creating new plagues based on what they've learned, and so the player needs to find a supercomputer that can come up with cures as fast as the plagues are being changed, and get societies plugged into the computer.

Further phases (not finished yet) involve the aliens actually waking up and kicking butt, which the player will finally figure out and have to deal with.

Missions vs. plot: 911 calls come in, and each hospital (there are others in the universe) will claim them depending on the hospital's effective range and the mission distance. After a while any given call will either be claimed or just time out. The player should aim for 100% of the calls in her range to be claimed by someone, but since there are other hospitals she won't have to do all of them herself, either. But if the player ignores too many in a row, the other hospitals will get piled up and calls will start going unanswered. (Simulate this for real or fake it?)

A lot of the missions will be randomly generated, non-plot missions. However, many of these, if you succeed at them, will be changed by the game into plot missions. Eg, if you answer a pirate attack call and save the captain, it may just so happen that captain saw something anomolous in another sector that you should check out blah blah blah. If the captain dies, he didn't see anything, but maybe the next pirate call will contain the lucky captain who did?

The basic idea is, no plotline can be "lost" by the player failing a mission that leads to it, because we just define the missions the user failed to not actually be part of the plot, and only the ones she succeeds at are made available to the game's mission engine for inclusion in the plot. (Eg, the game engine needs a captain for the next part of a plot point, so it waits until the user gets one in the hospital, either as a walk-in or a rescue or what-have-you.)

There will also be walk-in patients all the time, some of whom may have interesting plot points but a lot of whom will just be background noise. The user shouldn't have to do anything with the walk-ins unless she wants to. (Eg, they'll automatically be treated, billed, and released unless there is something really unusual about them.)

Note that the plagues are sort of background noise at the start of the game -- the player has known of quaranteened planets all her life, and doesn't think there's anything odd about it. New plagues popping up is just a fact of life, just another kind of mission. But early in the game wise authority figures start pointing out that the universe wasn't always this way, that there are statistically too many plagues right now, that something is really wrong with the whole universe. Of course, there will be lots of paranoid theories of what that thing is that's wrong -- some will feel mankind has just lived to the end of its useful life and is dying of "old age", others will feel it's the inevitable triumph of microorganisms over macroorganisms that some people today think is inevitable, etc.

Actually, it should be at the start of the game that whoever who left you the hospital also leaves you a note that tells you that something isn't right in the universe, and that although the old hospital chief couldn't figure it out, she did start to figure out who had the right ideas, and that the player should contact Professor So-and-so as soon as possible and resume her quest to set the universe right.

Prof. So-and-so should probably be already dead, but there should be clues to someone else who can start explaining what's going on in the world. (This first plot person should probably only explain give information about the plagues and suggest ways to combat them, and hint that there must be a darker force doing this but not have any idea what or who it is.)

Mission structure: When the player goes out on missions (most of the game) she'll enter what are usually high-risk areas (often with combat going on) and have to make decisions about what kind of approach to take.

For example, if a pirate ship has boarded and taken over a freighter and has hostages, and the space ambulance docks, what will the player's boarding party do? THIS SHOULD BE UP TO THE PLAYER.

Some valid things to do:
- kill every pirate, then heal all the wounded merchants.
- heal wounded merchants as a priority but kill pirates if/when they interfere.
- sneak around and get all the wounded merchants out and treated without killing any pirates, letting the pirates have the ship but not the people.
- heal pirates and wounded merchants, stun pirates who resist, let pirates have ship
- stun all pirates, heal everyone wounded, give ship back to merchants.

Sure, the last one might sound the best to a lot of people, but it would also be the hardest -- the pirates don't want to be stunned, they're fighting with live ammo, and if they kill your team you lose the mission because you're teleported back to base and they'll surely get away before you get back to them.

Also, MORE IMPORTANTLY, people ARE DYING as you are traipsing around the ship. When you board a ship there will be people actively bleeding out, some of whom you can treat and stabilize but some of whom will require a doctor to monitor them or they'll just plain die. So, as you go through the ship, you'll have to make decisions every time you encounter a wounded person (pirate or merchant) -- "Can I spare another doctor to look after this person, will I be able to finish the mission with one less gun?"

Note that you WILL be able to group critical patients together and have a single doctor look after multiple patients, but hauling them around takes time and other people might be dying elsewhere, and also it gives the pirates more time to secure the ship. (Say it takes the pirates a while to get the engine codes cracked, so there's a period of time after pirates take a ship where they can't fly it, and that's how you managed to dock with them -- they are dead in the water for a while.)

There should be valid reasons presented to the player why she might want to do the mission each different way -- for example, the "kill-all-pirates" approach would result in the pirates having the ship for the least amount of time, and thus there would be less chance for them to actually get the engines restarted and actually make off with the booty. (Note that, since your ship is docked with the freighter, you can still take off and get all the wounded off after the pirates crack the engines, but you'll have a limited time before they go into hyperspace or your ship is scuttled and you're toast.)

Each approach should also effect how pirates in the area (and others) treat you in the future -- if you kill all pirates, then pirates will start to fear you and piracy will decrease, but when pirates do strike they'll be better armed, in greater numbers, and they'll attack you without mercy.

On the other hand, if you never kill a pirate they'll only stun your crew to keep them out of their way. And, if you actually heal pirates but otherwise don't interfere with them, then they'll completely ignore you (like the borg) and just let you go about and collect bodies and treat people (like the Red Cross during an ideal war).

Piracy is a big problem now because entire planets are starving and so all space cargo has become incredibly precious. There should be some sympathy for the pirates: "Our people are starving, we only want to get them resources so they aren't wiped out," but it shouldn't be complete, eg, they should still have killed innocent merchants and they are still taking resources from other groups that may be equally hard off.


RODOP7 ("Dr. Roboto"): Giant, ugly, scary, loud (clanking) Robotic Doctor Prototype that is a couple hundred years old and the oldest healing droid currently in use. It's so antiquated that it doesn't have the ability to synthesize speech, it can just replay back 20 or so phrases that it has on "tape", like, "X is in trouble, you need to help him," and "Greetings, I am here to heal you, please relax."

The catch is Dr. Roboto has evolved a form of intelligence over the years, and so he "feels" very strongly that no human should ever die, that all men who are hurt need saving. He tries to express this by stringing his pre-recorded messages together in new ways, and as the game goes on he'll learn to play only parts of his messages (separated at punctuation points?) and string those together to express what he "feels". This will surprise the player, who after the first 100 times he hears the same sentences will assume Dr. Roboto is just an unthinking droid, just as everyone else inside the game believes.

Hideous radial arm saws on him. Patients are afraid of him. Rumors abound that he's a killer, or that he's just an organ-salvage droid for patients that are terminal, so nobody wants him to operate on them. He's also the best trauma surgeon that exists. HE CANNOT BE ORDERED TO HURT ANYONE.

At some point the player should find an encyclopedia entry about droid doctors: "Although robotic assistants have existed in the operating theatre since at least the diaspora, for the purposes of this article a robotic droid is defined to be a unit that is ambulatory, self-determining during a single operation, and self-contained. The first of these were created by X in Y, the Robotic Doctor Prototypes. Prototypes 1-3 had coordination problems and did not understand commands well, and as such got a bad reputation for losing patients. Although the fourth had these problems corrected, it was deemed a failure because it wasn't self-determining enough (fix wording!). The fifth had a very complex morality model that ended up being nondeterministic, and after being forced to make some moral choices that would be difficult for even a human doctor it got into a bad state and became, to anthropomorphize, a homocidal killer, further tarnishing the reputation of robotic doctors. It was later lobotomized and used simply as an autopsy droid and occasionally to harvest organs from recently-deceased patients. For the sixth prototype they ripped out the complex morality and put in a very simple logical routine -- always try to save anyone wounded, but always ask first. Strangely, there are no records of the tests or outcome of the sixth prototype, or whether it was ever put into active service. It is also unknown how the seventh unit varies from the sixth, but the seventh was the first robotic member of the relatively new space-rescue guild, and it is still in active duty at a backwater hospital, kept running as a curiousity and tourist attraction despite its incredible simplicity compared to modern droids.

After that [much better droids were built, much sleeker and more capable, blah blah]"

Subcloud LRLLRRLRLRRRLLRRR: Like a little raincloud. Can't talk, understands English perfectly. Operates by entering the patient through the lungs and using its particles like nanomachines. Incredibly good at viruses, cancer, poisons, not so good at massive trauma. Incredible at stabilizing patients, though (can physically just remove shock chemicals from bloodstream).

Communicates by forming itself into one or two symbol "emoticons". Color indicates whether it is asking a question, making a statement, or giving an order. So, a red up-arrow would mean, are we going up?

Name comes from the fact that all members of its species are actually part of the same cloud that can split into two at any point, and so they just name themselves by specifying their last position in the binary tree. THEY AREN'T TELEPATHIC. When two members of the species meet, they reform into a new cloud, exchange memories, and then (usually) split off again. Whichever subcloud was highest and leftmost in the tree is used as the basis of the new name, and they add L and R to that. (Thus, the player's cloud may change names during the game.)

Is willing to kill, but obviously is limited to choking and poison attacks. Since it floats it can do cool recon, but it can't pick anything up.

The Twins: two bodies, one brain, both bodies talk simultaneously but always express two sides of one idea, like:

"This mission will be very dangerous."
"The rewards for this mission are great."

Thus, it's hard to pinpoint exactly how it feels about any issue. [It's like Andrew at Omni.]

They can only be commanded to do things as a pair, even though there are two of them.

Lt. Indian: A human who experiences time in a "byte-swapped" manner from the rest of us. That is, in roughly ten-minute chunks, he experiences the future first and then now later. The result is he assumes you know things he'll tell you later, and he knows things you'll tell him later.

To code this will be tricky, but here are some sample ideas:

- You can't tick him off, because every time you start an argument with him, he just says, "Apology accepted" and walks away.
- You are told to get some tissue sample from him, and when you show up he asks, "Did you bring the tongs?" before you have a chance to ask him for it. He then explains, "Look, I'm going to tell you that you can't handle this sample without tongs, so where are they?"
- In combat, he always just randomly chucks grenades places, except it always so-happens that those places are exactly where the enemy will be soon. (Code this by making enemies by attracted to his grenades. If it so happens the enemy dies first, just chalk it up to bad aim on Lt.'s part.) On the other hand, sometimes he fires at thin air where an enemy was a few minutes ago.

[ ... other members, including one who is kill-happy ... ]

A central conflict is that some of your doctors believe in never harming anyone, while others believe that some people must be harmed if it saves more "good" people. You will NOT be able to make all your doctors happy -- these two doctrines are fundamentally incompatible, and no matter what you decide, one of your doctors will eventually leave your hospital in protest. You must decide where your morality lies.

Part of game play will be the missions, fought as in Fallout, and the other part will be managing your base and finances, like SimHospital. This combined model worked well in the original Jagged Alliance (without base building, but with finances and a staff that needed to get paid), and X-COM: UFO DEFENSE (spelling correct).

Both treating walk-ins or saving people from space will give you money with which to buy new equipment or hire new staff (nurses, etc), or upgrade your existing people (buy training for them, upgrade your robot, purchase nanobot upgrades for the cloud, etc), or buy better weapons, etc. You can dedicate more of your hospital to treating non-emergent cases if you want to play it safe and let the chronic patients pay your bills, but obviously you'll have a harder time dealing with the big emergencies that pop up as part of the plot.

If you do a good job in your sector, the government may grant you certain boons -- making you an official resource, giving you more interesting missiones, etc. Another possibility is that different space services (fleets) actually "subscribe" to different rescue organizations (instead of it being sector-based), so as you do better more fleets sign up with you. This would modify the above-described universe a bit -- in this version, civilian ships would carry a (VERY expensive) beacon which is tuned to your base, and if they ran into trouble they'd hit the panic button and the beacon would teleport your crew onto their ship, hopefully to save the day. So, each fleet would have to decide ahead of time which rescue organization's beacon they want to carry, and you could bid against other rescue organizations to put your beacon in various fleets -- but if you undercut the competition too much, you'll find you're not turning a profit with all the expenses of saving people (ammo, medical supplies, teleport costs, etc).

[ ... ending not decided ... ]



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to play this. I'd probably recommend simplifying it a bit, but combining a game like Space Hulk with the emergency medical concept sounds like a great idea.

October 02, 2007 4:53 AM

Anonymous Slevin said...

Your allegory was too long... what were you trying to get at?

October 02, 2007 6:25 AM

Blogger Kenneth said...

I'm not usually a big fan of RPGs, but I'd definitely buy this game! When reading this, I kept thinking that the graphics and style of Halo would be perfect for this, especially from the levels that are fought inside a ship.

October 02, 2007 6:39 AM

Blogger Udo Schroeter said...

This is a very very cool concept, and its suitable for lots of different kinds of gameplay. Part of me wants to sit down and start coding that immediately... luckily, I don't have the time - ahh! The standard excuse!

October 02, 2007 8:08 AM

Anonymous Arden said...

It's like Foundation meets Master of Orion meets ER. I lobe it.

October 02, 2007 8:08 AM

Anonymous Daniel Brauer said...

Wil, every teenage boy born in the last 30 years has a video game idea. You're one of the few people with the means to actually make one. Go pick up Unity and get to work.

October 02, 2007 9:50 AM

Blogger Eric said...

I would play this. I like the way you play with the whole moral issue of killing others vs saving them. Good story, interesting characters.

October 02, 2007 11:33 AM

Blogger Moitah said...

Woa... What can I say...

How do you find the time to come up with stuff like that ?

That would be my favorite game of all time !

October 02, 2007 1:37 PM

Anonymous WTL said...

That does sound like an idea worth pursuing. You may want to streamline the gameplay some, though.

October 02, 2007 7:50 PM

Anonymous Brendan said...

Much like your last video game idea, you left out the most important details.

How many polygons would this have?

Which franchise's characters will you graft onto your story?

You'll never make it in the video game biz!


October 03, 2007 12:43 AM

Blogger Kate said...

Neat idea, but i'd humbly suggest changing the name. Sounds too much like Reno 911 to me.

October 03, 2007 1:27 PM

Blogger Andre said...


And when can I buy this!!!!
Stop teasing us!!!

Gmme gimme!

October 08, 2007 12:41 AM

Blogger diskgrinder said...

ok, talk to Bungie, I hear they have a bit of spare time now.

October 09, 2007 10:57 AM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

As someone else pointed out, every 14-year-old has video game ideas, the trick is writing them.

It's the same reason why I always politely refuse e-mails that start, "I have an awesome idea, and if you promise to give me half the money I'll tell you..."


October 09, 2007 4:28 PM

Anonymous David Harmon said...

Very cool. Another possible doctor might be a telempath, useful in a bunch of ways, but also very vulnerable. Say, they have a shield device which they use to keep from getting overwhelmed in the field, but if you can clear out a space with one or two suitable patients, they can expand the field to include those. (Pirates might want to steal the shield device!) If you put them in with a psychotic or someone in extreme pain, they take mental damage, and if you do that too often, they'll quit.

Not necessarily the stereotypical pacifist -- they might well kill some patients as "mercy killings" or just self-defense. Making them a humanoid would be simpler, but an insectile or vegetable form would make a nice shout-out to James White or Roger Zelazny respectively.

Also, you might have some doctors who specialize in exotic (alien) patient types, such as silicate biologies or Very Large patients. Heck, any sort of specialists would seriously complicate the player's staffing decisions!

October 11, 2007 3:53 PM

Blogger Alex Ware said...

I too, would absolutely love to play this game.
If you made it, it's almost a certainty that it would be the *must own* mac game. I'm already loving the robot doctors character, it sounds like it would be a wonder to play.

November 01, 2007 2:11 PM


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