Mermaids MMO


Project Director: Celia Pearce, Ph.D. at LCC, Georgia Tech
Project website:
Project demo: Mermaids Prototype Trailer

Celia Pearce's Emergent Games Group has been developing Mermaids, a massively multiplayer game on the Multiverse platform. The ethos that guides the project is cooperative social play through new game mechanics and agnostic rule structure that foster emergent cultural practices and player behavior. The game utilizes large-scale emergent group behavior as a design material. The game structure encourages activities beyond the monotanous "grind/kill/fetch-> LEVEL -> grind/kill/fetch" model found in so many MMO games. Exploration, resource management, mentoring, crafting, and community building are some example activities that players might pursue. Similarly, the game eschews traditional reward systems, like leveling and experience points, in favor of less rigid and inherently hierarchical recognition.


The group worked out gameplay ideas collaboratively, which reinforced the emergent social focus of the game. Dr. Pearce asked me to join the Mermaids team to art direct and develop the spatial narrative and environments within the game world. Part of my work as art director included developing and refining the visual style of the environments, which look to the translucency, softness, and fluidity associated with watercolour painting. I experimented with traditional watercolors, but the time required to produce them would not fit our production schedule. Experimenting with flow, brush shape and angle, and opacity, I created a set of tablet tools in Photoshop that would produce the luminous, magical feel we wanted, within the time constraints we faced with impending demos. This painterly approach resulted in great concept art, as well as imposters and textures that went into the game world proper.

World Design

The new world design would be much larger and more ambitious than the original one they had. In thinking about the world design, I wanted the different environments to function as an integrated landscape that could further player activity and experimentation, while also feeling like a "real"place, with a history and credible shifts between ecological zones. The world narrative was built around an ancient mermaid civilization that had suddenly disappeared after a catastrophe. We incorporated that narrative into the world environment, including ominous areas like a deep sea trench and volcano that might suggest possible answers for the civilization's demise. Open expanses separate the distinct zones, much as one finds in actual marine environments, allowing the zones to blend into one another through flora and fauna as well as terrain. What would be otherwise familiar, such as a field of anemones and sea urchins, however, is made wonderous by exaggeration of size, proportion, or color.

The coral caves (above) and the seagrape forest (below) are my favorites out of the new environments planned for the world design. The filligree effect produced by the fan coral that forms the coral caves gives an otherworldly feel to what is essentially a maze environment. It's simultaneously an interior and an exterior place, which increases it visual interest while also making it more challenging to navigate.

The seagrape forest turns the idea of a forest on its head - literally. The plants grow downward, into the water column, from a root mass formed by bouyant bulbs that float near the surface. The inversion of the how the space is filled makes it unique, from the lighting effects and the chiaroscuro, to the relative openess at the floor level that contrasts with the desnse foliage higher up. The seagrape forest can support a variety of possible player behavior, from gathering and farming of vegitation and the glowing fruits, to hide-and-go-seek, to hunting for animals that live in the biome.