Stream of consciousness for a cyberpunk MMO

NOTE – this is a long and mostly personal-reference post. You can read the first bit and skip the notes, or just not read it at all. YHBW.

Damn you, Psychochild*, damn you! I was all set to wake up, have my coffee quietly, zip through my email as fast as humanly possible (still took an hour), and get some quality gaming time that I haven’t been able to snatch in the last few days by dint of having too much work (yay!) and being too tired afterwards (boo!).

This happened to me yesterday, too. But I’m the forgiving sort and I’m also a cyberpunk fan so I am going to drive all five of you (Hi Joe, hi Billy Bob, hi Fuchsia, hi Dickie, hi Scaryboo!) to go check it out. I haz cattle prod and I’m not afraid to use it.

If you need more direction, you spineless internet zombies, here it is. Exhibit A: A Cyberpunk MMO would be a terrible idea! And Exhibit B: A Cyberpunk MMO would rule!

Should we be concerned that Ex.2 is shorter than Ex.1? Naaah. We’re armchair designers (or even real designers in Mr P’s case) and we do so love to pick shit apart and point out just how BAD a given idea is.

So where’s this whole stream of consciousness crap, you ask? It’s coming. I just thought I should throw in a few relatively cogent paragraphs first. I don’t think there’s enough there for a proper post about Cyberpunk as an MMO genre — and if there is then I’ll tease it out at some later date, or even submit it to TIC as a guest post. Right now it’s just the transcript of stuff I scribbled down on paper yesterday. I know, right — paper? Who still uses that old shit?

(I do. I think better with a pencil in my hand.)

My usual silly rhetoric aside, there is a point to this post other than driving you like sheep from one end of the internet to the other. If any of you have an interest in the genre and if this sparks some ideas and some debate and even, god help us, some creativity, then it might help Psychochild – Brian ?- Mr. Psycho? – get his game idea out the door. And I really would play a cyberpunk game. As long as it’s not The Matrix.

Like I said, there’s no structure to the notes below. I’m just riffing (and I have ZERO musical talent, so be warned).


I would dump levels for a CP game. Skill-based is all the rage these days and it also makes sense from the perspective of a world where you can just plug in new knowledges and skills and/or use helper apps while you’re online.

I would want a game that includes both VR and RR components. Being in a Tron-like state all the time would get boring pretty quickly (which is one of the issues of designing a CP game). Being in RR with no VR ever would probably end up not feeling very Cyberpunky. (RR = real reality (in game) as opposed to VR/Virtual reality. Just to distinguish it from RL which is NOT in the game. Confused yet?)

Death penalties – you can’t not have those. Well, maybe you could have part of the game (game areas, whatever) with fewer/less severe penalties but if you go with a typical fantasy MMO little-risk many-rewards (aka WoW) model you’ll lose some of the dystopian gritty feeling that makes CP what it is.

You could have scales of danger and risk/reward. E.g. safe, common net areas (& “RL” neighbourhoods) where nothing much can happen to you through to corporate networks of varying strengths and peril all the way out to the fringes of the net where there beย  rogue AI dragons that might (or might not) fry your brain if they become aware of you.

Add in “ghost in the machine” spirituality (see Gibson’s stuff among others) and you have a lot of room to maneuver in terms of “death” penalties, whether they happen, how bad they are, etc.

Death Penalty example or two:

— loss of gear, temporary or otherwise. Neural hardware can get damaged or destroyed (VR or RR effect), RR hardware same (decks, house, whatever). Software (tools, apps, but also interface stuff like weapon smartlinks etc.) can get compromised for x amount of time or entirely destroyed.

— Loss of skills, temporary or otherwise. This might not be very popular though because you could potentially end up with a char you can’t play for X many real hours.

— RR penalties vs. VR penalties — some penalties might prevent you from operating in one environment but not the other for a while (broken legs vs broken deck).

My big question would be: what would you DO over the long term in an MMO like that? I don’t think I could hack a cyberpunk game (MMO or otherwise) where everything just respawns after X minutes, except maybe in certain places, or where nothing I do actually has a lasting impact on the game world. (I’ve talked about this before.)

I have a feeling that to have a truly CP MMO you’d have to base it on a lot of player v. player interaction — not necessarily just silly duels and the usual zerg-definition of PvP — but in the sense that most of the day to day stories and events are player driven.

Have players be able to be CORP players as well as hackers. (The question is would anyone want to? Could being a wage-slave be made a viable and attractive play option? Not all hackers are endearing basement nerds so I guess Corp types don’t all have to be suited robots either. There’d be plenty for them to do too: uncover & fight industrial espionage, fight the bad hackers, fight the bad terrorists, engage in industrial espionage, be the bad terrorist, take over the world…)

You’d need some depth. Definitely more than 2 sides and a blurring of sides as much as possible. In CP you’re not always sure who’s wearing what colour hat, and indeed hat-colour can change… at the drop of a hat. BobTheHacker could work for Yoyodyne one day and the Hacker Freedom Front the next (if he can survive the transition) — or indeed be working for both from the start (hard to portray in an MMO though?).

Interesting point. Being able to belong to more than one organisation/side increases the possibility of treachery, lying and backstabbing that is integral to the “noir” element in CP literature. MMOs don’t usually let you do that kind of thing — even EVE requires that you be part of ONE corp and one corp only. (A Tale in the Desert is the only game that allows & encourages multiple guild memberships.)

Re: gritty and controlling / dystopian atmosphere in CP — you can do all of those but I’d be wary of faithfully reconstructing anything too totalitarian (i.e. 1984) or indeed anything too obviously dark (Strange Days). Maybe something that’s more or less like what we live in now only with some of the conspiracy theories (“the military industrial complex owns us!”) being more fact than theory.

And no, NOT The Matrix for me, thanks.

The next problem is selling it to a game-aware and jaded audience. You can probably trade on the novelty angle for a while, but you’ll instantly lose all the fantasy fans. Then again, maybe you don’t want most of them in the first place. You either go for the WoW-base (“Cyberpunk with goblins and glitterponies!”) or you go for the EVE-base (the Chumbawumba player). No idea which of those is more lucrative but I do know which one I’d prefer to play.

Then there’s the time period issue. When do you set it? Now? 2030? Go too far forward and you risk ending up with SF rather than CP. Not far enough and your speculative future may look silly when realtime catches up with it. Maybe a fuzzy “modern day, slightly different” approach which is essentially what The Secret World seems to be aiming for (only with tentacles instead of terminals).

The ADVANTAGES of a CP MMO are, however, legion. If you want to include fantasy-game VR elements, you can. If you want to do spaceship VR elements, you can. That very breadth of options could also become a major headache.


Fantasy MMOs have established and can maintain this vacuum-like setting in which the world (mostly) never changes and every player repeats what every other player has done before. I’m not sure that would work for a CP genre MMO (it hasn’t really seemed to so far — we’re more tolerant of our fantasy being formulaic).

You’d have to sell players on the idea that even a small victory is a victory and not every adventure involves saving the world. Sometimes all you save is your own ass.

A CP game would (and I’m pretty sure has) work well in a MUSH format. Why? More meta-PC and GM involvement? More malleable worlds, that are more open to global changes on the fly (so to speak). Downside is that you can inadvertently wreck your game and that you need GM-like manpower – or you need to code levels of player power and that can be a very slippery slope. Not to mention probably not easy to develop.

How do you make a CP game FUN (while remaining gritty etc.) with0ut losing all the risk OR alienating your genre-loving but risk-averse players (like me)? One thing – give them avatars (unlike EVE, which is working on those as we speak).

What do you want players to strive for? What’s going to keep them logging on? Power? Money? Security? I think here again you need a model more akin to EVE than WoW. How many purple Decks of ICEbreaking +3 do you really need?

Give players the ability to build their own structures & communities. And hell, maybe even carve out their own empires, RR or VR or both. High-sec villas in Nicaragua and/or heavily fortifies net-enclaves. Players love to build stuff and players love to tear other people’s stuff down.

Build their own tech? Not sure how you’d work that, but building your own gear is a cornerstone of computer geek culture and hence CP.

So what would I want to be able to do when I logged into CP-the game?

— Fight stuff. Both physically (RR) in terms of avatar combat, eg physical infiltration missions, assassinations, kidnappee retrievals… or just beating up on some gank of punks that’s victimising my neighbourhood. Also virtually (VR), from the usual CP data-related activities to VR-versions of RR missions (spying, hunting/killing, defending…) to things like PvP arenas, fight clubs, fantasy themeparks (think Tad Williams’ Otherworld series – I wasn’t a huge fan but it’s sort of cyberpunk all the same), minigames, whatever. Lots of work, I know.

— Face stuff that is somehow much more powerful and scary than me and live to tell the tale. Maybe not every day.

— Socialise

— Work on my gear — whether it’s looting or making or both, whether it’s RR gear or VR gear or both. Acquire skills. Achieve and progress — the cornerstones of most games.

— Make money and spend it. Buy things and sell them.

— Build things… and destroy other people’s things (not so much on a griefing level, but there’s great scope for Corp v Corp or Corp v Hackers or Corp + Hackers v WeirdAlienAI or whatever).

— Compete. Not so much me personally, but many would be bored titless without some element of competition and measuring.

*I am being too clever for my own good. If you ended up at, click on Child and not Psycho. You probably did not see what I did thar.

11 thoughts on “Stream of consciousness for a cyberpunk MMO

  1. I only got so far before I realized that you and I are 100% on the same page…

    Back in Ye Olde Metaplace days, I made an ass of myself by trying to use the tools to create a cyberpunk game. I had the whole thing mapped out, including PvP, crafting, shopping and even, yes, corporate suit as a class.

    Seeing this mini-meme rolling about, I might just go back and write it all up in my OWN stream of consciousness post XD

  2. > I would dump levels for a CP game.
    I would do that anyway, but that’s personal preference, not anything approaching a rational decision ๐Ÿ˜€

    > I would want a game that includes both VR and RR components.
    Me too. Besides, outfitting your deck with the latest hard- and software should be a nice replacement for finding gear for those hunter-gatherer types of Diablo-influenced players.

    > Death penalties โ€“ you canโ€™t not have those.
    If it’s a game that uses information trade as part of it’s appeal, defenses in VR could incur partial (and possibly reversible) loss of information == loss of monetary resources. Death penalty.

    > My big question would be: what would you DO over the long term in an MMO
    I think information trade should be a huge motivator. That does make it a bit like Elite or other trading-heavy games. Raid-type stuff to do would be to gain information that you can sell to NPCs.

    A new level of fun could be introduced by allowing trade of real information (as opposed to the token information you give to NPCs) between players, but that’s always fraught with difficulties. You’d have to have a system where the MMO must register the trade for the recipient to be able to make use of a piece of information, or internet forums would undermine that effort immediately.

    > Have players be able to be CORP players as well as hackers.
    Defense hackers.

    > Being able to belong to more than one organisation
    I never liked the “one guild” paradigm anyway, sucks if you’re the sort of player I am. You’re either stuck in a “casual” guild that never goes for high-level content, or you lose your spare time. Yes, that’s an intentionally polarized version of the truth.

    > but youโ€™ll instantly lose all the fantasy fans
    Shadowrun has fantasy races by virtue of nuclear fallout. Pretty easy to copy that idea.

    > Then thereโ€™s the time period issue. When do you set it? Now? 2030?
    Alternate 201x where cyberspace became what it was dreamt up to be.

    > What do you want players to strive for? Whatโ€™s going to keep them logging on?
    Definitely more EVE than WoW. Virtual real estate comes to mind as something to strive for.

    > Build their own tech?
    I think in the way Robo Rally let’s you “program” robots, you should be able to “program” offensive and defensive agents to help in your hackery. That’d actually be fairly intense to pull off, but fully-developed “programs” could be traded or gained, etc.

    Attach a “patent” system to programs that tags every creation with the user that created it, and give the creator virtual currency for every trade of every copy of such a program, based not on program identifiers but program signature (so that posting a program on a website does not give anyone an advantage), and you have a very strong incentive for real-life hacker-types to come up with cool stuff.

    Could get out of hand. Could be excellent fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

    > Socialise
    It’s been a criticism of mine for many years that MMOs mimic real-life services such as email, instant messaging and social networking sites, but badly. For a cyberpunk-themed MMO, I think such services should be developed to a high standard – maybe use email directly, which could help open up the MMO silo and let player socialise while not in-game.

    That sort of stuff has a lot of knock-on effects, of course. Easily said, hard to get right.

    Anyway… I’ve made notes about cyberspace-themed MMOs before ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. A couple of quick thoughts and then I’ll come back after the ol’ subconscious ruminates a bit:

    One, with the popularity (deserved or no) of Inception (that DiCraprio movie), “altered, malleable realities” may be a good hook. Cyberpunk does that nicely, and flexible rules of “reality” can make for some really fun gaming. I keep meaning to check out Psychonauts, since I heard it does a bit of that.

    Two, for setting… I can’t help but think of Sliders. I miss when that show was good.

    Three, death penalties… making them variable according to activity lines up nicely with what I’ve been asking for lately; a spectrum of risk/reward in the players’ hands rather than the same ol’ corpse run.

    Isn’t there an Otherland MMO in the works? That seems cyberpunk…ish.

    Oh, and yes, PLEASE kill levels and use skills! Did you ever play Tron 2.0? It had levels of a sort, but it also made you shuffle around your “loadout” of skills and abilities according to where you were. Your abilities were blocks of memory that were shuffled around in a spatial ring, and the OS you were in limited your available space. It’s a nice system that makes each place feel and play differently by making the player choose what to bring along and how they approach the challenges. Playing a level in a PDA was very different from the mainframe level.

    I’d love to see that sort of thing in an MMO.

    1. +1 Agree.

      Shadowrun is begging to have an MMO made out of it. Begging. And not this craptastic 4th edition “lala everything is pretty and new.” I’m talking down and dirty, ugly, desperate 1st/2nd edition Shadowrun. The way Weissman and Stackpole dreamed it up in the beginning.

  4. I dislike Shadowrun, personally, because it can’t seem to figure out if it’s based on magic or technology.

    A big part of what makes CP == CP is the question of humanity. Deus Ex 3’s subtitle is really a double entendre: Human Revolution. It plays on the chaos traditionally associated with the cyberpunk universe, but also hints that the melding of man and machine — and the loss of humanity when it goes too far — may be a viable step in human evolution.

    When you throw elves and orcs and crap into the mix, it’s not cyberpunk anymore, IMO.

    1. For my two cents Scopique, adding fantasy races brouht that primary question of cyberpunk into clearer focus. Although it doesn’t show up in the tidied up 3rd and 4th editions of the game, a primary element in the beginning was a new wave of racism – literally. So now the question of humanity has two forces in tension – not only machines, but other, alternate versions of “humanity.” Is it better or worse for humanity to be melded with a machine? What happens when humanity finds itself trapped in an 8 foot tall, wart-covered shell? Is there a difference between sacrificing your body to machine and sacrificing it to magic? Etc.

      1. No, I see your point. I just finished reading “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, and while entertaining, I wouldn’t call it historical. It has historical ELEMENTS to it, but it’s not “history” per se.

        Adding vampires to Abe’s history or orc and elves doesn’t devalue either, but I’m a purist when it comes to my cyberpunk ๐Ÿ˜€

  5. Interesting notes, Ysh. I have a ton of these types of things floating around, so I understand how to decipher them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    One point I’d disagree on is trying to do VR and RR at the same time. I think even a well-funded game (let alone an indie-scale game as I’d make) would have trouble making the two parts really feel like their own vital element of the game. I think in most cases one side or the other would get short shrift and upset people. Think about the PvP vs. PvE split in a lot of games as an example.

    I think focusing on one part and making it really good is the way to go. That requires limiting the game’s focus. As much as I’d love to have the decker sliding around in a system while his buddies keep him or her secure, I don’t think it’s feasible in a game.

    The question is which one to do first? I’d prefer to do VR because there’s a lot more flexibility there. But, it might be a harder hook to sell to most people. However, I think a well-implemented VR setting would appeal to the cyberpunk faithful.

    Anyway, as for that guest post, don’t hold back! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love contributions; it means I can be lazier. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Have fun,

  6. Great stuff Ysharros! It seems we all have had armchair design sessions for cyberpunk MMOs lol.

    I had focused on trying to figure out what the quest/missions would be though since I got tired of the kill X collect Y quests. Long story short what I came up with was basically a system that gave you a goal and as long as you accomplished it you could do it any way you wanted. Then the what if questions started and I haven’t gotten much further than that. On the other hand doing so has lead to figuring out what all in a level the player should be able to interact with.

    Anyways … WOO CYBERPUNK MMO lol.

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