Massively Multiplayer Robot Game (virtual reality without the “virtual”)

Here’s an idea that has been cooking in my head for years: Making the most real computer game still to be seen anywhere. How? By actually making it happen in reality.

I’m not thinking about games that blur the boundaries to real life and make yourself a character in the plot (Alternate Reality Games, they’re called) like EA’s Majestic. What I’m talking about is making a fairly typical computer game that actually uses reality as a rendering engine. What better way to get realistic effects? And what better way to avoid predefined rules that limit what players can do to the imagination of the game designers?

I will use an example to explain the concept. Let’s call my imaginary game “The Robos 2004” or something. In “The Robos”, you control a robot in a similar way as you control a character in a first person shooter or a massively multiplayer game. Your “Robo” lives on an island together with a ton of other robots, all of whom are owned and controlled by other players in the game.

You can make your robot build houses, explore the outskirts of Robo Island, chat with other robots, or in fact whatever you want it to do. The most straight forward way would be to make the whole world out of LEGOs or some of the other clever brick construction sets.

When you sign up to play the game, you are actually buying a pre-made robot. There could be a lot of different types of robots to choose from and alternatively you could design your own. Different robots would obviously be suited for different tasks, some very specialized other very general, capable of taking care of a lot of different tasks. Some go fast, others can climb steep slopes; some are builders, others are transport vehicles, etc. Some of them may walk on long legs; others may have belts like a tank. Some robots could even be boats or helicopters for that matter.

Every robot is equipped with a mounted camera, and when a player is playing the game he or she sees the world through this camera and controls the robot, using a computer. When the player is not online, a certain degree of automation could take over, or alternately the player would have to park his robot in a safe spot somewhere.

There are a lot of different ways to implement the details here, but I would believe in a strategy of minimum rules and see how this society would evolve. A market would be likely to emerge with all the benefits and quirks of an economy. War would be likely to break out, and then the peace loving robots would have to defend themselves or at least find a way to cope with the situation (needless to say, this could be a very real war game indeed – imagine e.g. if one of the robots would find a bag of explosives!).

Alliances would be formed. A group would be likely to claim a piece of land and declare its independence. Others might build a ship and see what lies beyond the “horizon”. Robots could get badly hurt or even “killed” – but it would never be the work of an algorithm to calculate the damage or to see if a newly constructed bridge will hold the weight that is put on it. Physics will be the judge of that. Players could try to do whatever they can think of, and there would never be any programmed rules to stop them.

A game like this should be relatively simple to set up. All you need to start the game is an abandoned warehouse, a creative architect to make the initial environment and a BIG barrel of LEGO bricks, with cameras and a control chips – probably a little more sophisticated than LEGO Mindstorms RCX, and finally a wireless network to allow it all to communicate.

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