Thursday, December 7, 2006

Freedom and Responsibility

I like the idea of sandbox games. I prefer games that give me the freedom to explore. But I’m not the only one who plays these games, which means there's a social point to be made concerning freedom: for it to work in any social system, freedom must be balanced against responsibility.

One thing that is crystal-clear about online games is this: freedom will be abused. If you design a game so that players receive an in-game reward for some in-game action (the usual Achiever-oriented design), there will be players who will do anything they can -- up to and including client-side hacks -- to perform those actions as rapidly and as continuously as possible in order to obtain an advantage over other players.

So we need to be very careful how we implement "freedoms" in an online/persistent-world game. Player A may enjoy some freedom responsibly, but Player B may take that freedom as license to disrupt the game for other players (including Player A). And you can't design a game assuming that the only people who'll ever play it will be just like Player A. It can't be all about freedom; any functional social system has to be survivable against the Player Bs.

On the other hand, it can't be just rules without freedom, either, where there is no possibility for unique or novel behavior. In a game world, that's just Progress Quest.

Thus, I think a maximally inviting mass-market MMOG has to be designed from the ground up to balance freedom and responsibility. Offering freedom for free (shades of Rush!) means it will not be valued. That holds true in both the real world and virtual worlds because we're talking about how human beings organize themselves socially. But gameplay can't be all responsibility and no freedom, either; a game run like a police state will probably not attract many players -- not for very long, anyway.

So, like the real world, the freedom to do stuff in an online, massively multiplayer game should be made directly proportional to a player's demonstrated willingness and ability to behave responsibly in the game world. Proven good citizens get more power -- it's that simple.

Well, simple in concept, anyway. Execution is always trickier. But "it's hard" is no excuse not to do something that's worth doing.

As a concrete example of what I'm talking about here, I've had a feature like this in my MMORPG design for over a year now. Although my game is mostly skill-based, rather than class-based, I do offer some professions, some of which have ranks. In my game, however, you don't just get to advance in rank because you've collected 8000 zorkmids or whatever -- advancement is built on service to other players. In short, your power in the game is directly proportional to the effort you put into helping other players have fun in the game.

Freedom and responsibility. One without the other is no fun. And I believe game designers who want to maximize fun in these social spaces ought to consciously design their games so that freedom and responsibility are in balance with each other.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Character Advancement in MMORPGs +

The online game industry is desperately in need of a MMORPG that's about actually playing a character, not grinding to grow a character.

It seems to me that the single most common cause of grinding in MMORPGs is the design choice of giving characters "levels" that determine the character's abilities and that can be increased to allow characters to improve their abilities. Designers appear to be accepting without question the assumption that characters must advance in power. They then grab the first obvious mechanism for accomplishing this that comes along: character levels.

As soon as this "characters must advance" assumption gets baked into a design, however, the same results follow inexorably:

  • Levels are increased by gaining "experience points."
  • XP is gained by performing specific tasks (quests, killing random mobs, etc.).
  • Different tasks give different amounts of XP.
  • Some tasks give little XP, but are easy/safe.
  • Players repeat easy/safe tasks (i.e., "grind") to rise in level with little risk.
  • Grinding easy/safe tasks takes time and is boring.
The overall result is that the first thing players get to do in all of these games is to spend weeks or even months in mindless, double-plus-unfun grinding before getting to the "high-level game" that is (theoretically) where the really fun content becomes available. Players don't have to do it this way, but they do because the design rewards it.

Grinding is thus an inescapable consequence of having character levels.

So why have character levels?

To begin with, let's admit something: a gamer who's determined to grind will find a way to do it in pretty much any game. The fact that the overwhelming majority of today's MMORPGs accept the character advancement assumption means that it has become what the current crop of online gamers are used to. Even so, why should designers shrug their shoulders and only make games that cater to this mindset, thereby turning all future online gamers into grinders as well?

A common objection to dropping the "characters must advance" assumption is that players absolutely must have some way of becoming more powerful in the game world, and that without character levels, players will simply replace grinding for XP with grinding for loot or in-game currency. There's some merit to this objection. In RPGs without character levels, character possessions become more important as one kind of marker of a character's personal history.

My suggested response to this boils down to loot atoms being "bigger" than XP atoms. Compared to XP-generating content, I think it's a little easier to define ways to generate loot (including money) that lead to less grinding because they occur less often. Since increasing in power is what these games are about, it’s OK for the rewards that support that goal to be medium-frequency rewards, rather than the very frequent little rewards (usually XP) they are currently. But that's open to debate.

Either way, that's a mechanistic response that begs the question of why all MMORPGs should reward power-chasing. Why do we accept this assumption that the most important attribute for distinguishing one character from another is power? Why is power the only thing that should drive gameplay? (Bear in mind that I'm using the word "power" here to mean both direct power over other players/characters and resource security with respect to other players/characters -- the defining characteristics of the Killer-Manipulator/Artisan and the Achiever/Guardian respectively.)

Certainly power -- gaining it and holding it -- is a strong motivator for some people. It's fine that there are some games that reward it. (It's also easier for designers to simply do another power-centric DikuMUD-style game than to dream up something new, and not a surprise that publishers are more willing to fund games that are like what's been done before.) But having power over others isn't the strongest motivator for everyone, and that includes people who play online games.

So why limit your audience when you don't have to? If you can create a game that Achievers can still enjoy but that is more welcoming to other playstyles (because it’s about more than just character advancement), then why not do that?

A final objection is from the customer-control perspective: designs that require players to grind out character advancement levels offer simple gameplay that keeps people playing. In other words, grinding for XP is a deliberately built-in time sink intended to keep subscription money rolling in.

That might seem to make financial sense, but it's not exactly a fun-centric approach to designing a game, is it?

On the other hand, there are counter-examples of successful games without character advancement... at least, there are in the tabletop RPG world. Probably the best example is Marc Miller's Traveller RPG. Traveller (and its descendants since 1977) offered an extremely full-featured character generation system, but once that was done you simply played the game. There wasn't any leveling or grinding necessary; the game was all "high-end content." And yet Traveller was at one time the most popular science-fiction RPG. (In fact, it's still popular -- a new incarnation, Traveller5, is being developed now.) A lot of gamers seemed very happy with an RPG that wasn't about character advancement at all.

Why wouldn’t an online RPG want a piece of that action?

In my copious free time I've been developing a design document for a MMORPG that doesn't force all players to level up their characters before getting to The Good Stuff, but which does provide a kind of level system for those who enjoy it. But I'm just a self-funded amateur with a day job. Where is the pro developer willing to profit from the stated desire of so many gamers to play an MMORPG that's not so grindy?

I don't claim that dumping the assumption that character levels are necessary is a perfect solution to grinding, or that it's "the future of MMORPGs" or any such thing. I just wish someone would give it a serious AAA shot so that we can see if it might work after all.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


There’s been some talk recently about a "doomsday device" in EVE Online. Apparently it's possible -- with the expenditure of a lot of time and 160 billion or so of the local currency -- to create a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in the game.

But is that really possible? Does something like that have a similar effect in today’s online games as the (unfortunately) real thing?

1. "Doomsday device" isn't an accurate description of a WMD unless it's capable of offing a significant (25% - 50% or more) percentage of the population.

2. What gives WMDs their power isn't just the destructive capability of one weapon -- it's the threat that where there's one, there may be many more.

It was to generate this perception that two bombs were dropped in 1945, rather than just one. One could be a fluke; two implies a repeatable process, which is far more dangerous than any individual weapon (unless it really is a doomsday device).

3. The real power of WMDs is not in their ability to destroy military assets, but in their political effects on civilian populations. In other words, WMDs are a strategic weapon, not a tactical weapon. To think of them only as tactical weapons is to fail to get full value from the time and money spent building them.

4. A big difference between using WMDs in the real world and using them in online games is that most (pretty much all?) online games don't have anything like civilian populations. There may be a few NPCs, but that's nothing like the tens of millions of souls that generate serious economic and political power in a real world society. A few hundred NPCs serving only as isolated loot piƱatas are not even remotely similar to millions of NPCs coordinating their actions in ways that have real effects on gameplay.

One of the ideas I've been mulling over for a MMORPG is to integrate it with a sim game. Part of the gameplay would be managing the political, economic, and social happiness of billions of simulated citizens spread over several worlds.

Wouldn't a game world like that be a lot more conducive to the application of a WMD? A WMD in one of the current player-heavy MMORPGs gets used more like a tactical weapon; it just kills (temporarily) a few players and breaks some stuff. So? It's not like there's permadeath; players will just shrug off even the biggest tactical device.

It's when keeping millions of civilians happy becomes a meaningful gameplay goal that the possibility of some Bad Guys having a WMD becomes an effective driver for interesting gameplay. Only when they present a strategic threat can WMDs realize their full terrifying potential in an online world.

But here’s the question: Would that be "fun?"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Player-Centered End-Game Content

On September 21, 2006, Iron Realms Entertainment CEO Matt Mihaly conducted an online interview with MUD1 co-creator Richard Bartle.

The major issue discussed was that of end-game design in online games. Richard's contention was that neither raiding for epic loot nor "relevelling"/"remorting" were ultimately the best kind of end-game content -- what's really needed, in his mind, is the "honorable retirement" of characters. Your character's name gets enshrined in the pantheon of heroes or whatever, but Achievement-oriented play as a regular character comes to an end.

My feeling is that Richard is probably right, but that it will be very difficult as a practical matter to offer this in an online game. The whole notion of forcibly -- by design -- retiring characters who reach the "top level" of a game is probably a non-starter with the publishers of the largest online games. I have the impression that they would regard any such design as telling players, "Nah, we don't want your money any more." Limiting the ability of high-level players to continue actively playing seems inconceivable in an industry dominated by a few big-money players.

But if it were conceivable, I'd like to see it work the way Richard describes, where players can still be in the game world but no longer seek the same material rewards as regular players.

The idea of "remorting" or letting the same character start over at Level 1, remains popular among players of MUDs. I can see this working for Achievers, especially with those who max out as quickly as possible. It's another way for Achievers to add to their public "I've done X" badges.

But I think other playstyles would look at remorting very differently. Explorers might like it because trying different characters would let them explore the possibility space of a gameworld. Even Killers might enjoy remorting as a way to keep experiencing novel sensations.

On the other hand, I suspect Socializers aren't much interested in remorting as an end-game reward or option. If you've spent years investing emotionally in a particular character, you're not likely to appreciate being forced to unceremoniously delete that character.

Still, at least remorting is an alternative to raiding-for-loot as an endgame, which is merely Achiever gameplay in another form. It's good to see designers thinking about providing end-game experiences that might satisfy some non-Achievers as well as Achievers.

But aren't there more end-game alternatives than just remorting or the semi-permanent public recognition that Achievers like? What about the other folks?

What if end-games were designed by playstyle? Just as some off-the-cuff ideas, you could have something like:






can earn Inspiration Points by Inspiring a selected PC or group

Killers [Manipulators]


can change odds + or - for any PC/group for a while



can write datapads/books/scrolls as player objects



limited ability to organize group events

Each of these end-game forms would let the player remain in the game doing something they enjoy, while offering a set of rewards that are (mostly) unconnected to the basic game.

Would this be a reasonable balance between the permanent playing that publishers want and the "honorable retirement" that Richard endorses?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Classes vs. Skills +

Among other projects, I've been designing a MMORPG. In the process, several ideas I once held about how MMOGs should be designed have been upset -- it's been a great learning experience. (Not that it's over yet; I still have a lot to learn.)

One of those ideas was that it's relatively simple to have a playable game world based purely on skills -- no classes. That's how my original design looked; I'd create a bunch of cool skills and then dream up a lot of things that players could do to use those skills. And then -- because I had to -- I started asking myself: how do I decide what content to add? How do I key features to character abilities?

If individual skills didn't interact much, I could dream up individual bits of content (which I loosely define as "things to experience") associated with each skill. Each content nugget could be designed in a near-vacuum, keeping the process simple enough to be manageable.

But in building a game world where players will group several skills together to try to achieve some gameplay goal, there wind up being so many ways that different skills can overlap and interact that I found myself hitting a combinatorial overload wall. Maybe it's just me; maybe I'm simply not sharp enough to figure out how to design content in a massively multiplayer game with 50+ completely independent skills. Or is it just really hard, period?

Either way, I wound up creating a set of "careers," and building content keyed to those careers instead of to individual skills. (That doesn't mean there's no other "content," just that the breadth of the gameplay-specific activities got condensed.)

By doing this, I reduced 50+ modes of play to 16. Sixteen different brands of "things to experience" is still complex, but it's comprehensible by mere mortals.

The point to all this is that I wound up designing a game with a form of classes even though my original intention was to create a totally skill-based game. The process of trying to construct my own game offered insights into why MMORPGs tend to look the way they do that I might not have gotten otherwise.

Which leaves me a little less ready to verbally hammer professional MMORPG developers for not designing the pure skill-based game I prefer. It might be possible, but I think I can see now that it's harder than I thought.

I wish someone would write a "design your own online game!" game.

Side note: Some of this discussion reminds me of the old CISC vs. RISC wars.

CISC microprocessors like my old friend the Motorola 6809 were said to be highly "orthogonal" -- they had only a relatively small number of instructions, but each one of those instructions had some function that was completely unlike the function of any other instruction. Usually each instruction had a lot of addressing modes (ways to operate on data). This made each instruction very powerful, but at the cost of being hard to design efficiently in hardware.

The RISC philosophy was to give each instruction/mode combination its own instruction. Each instruction would thus be relatively simple to build in hardware. The downside was that there sprouted a profusion of instructions, each subtly different. Writing an optimizing compiler for a RISC chip was thus hairier than for a CISC chip because the compiler had to have a lot more intelligence about which combinations of umpty-odd instructions were most efficient.

Like models, no analogy is perfect. But also like models, a good analogy can still be useful.

So is a class-based system like a CISC processor while a skills system is like a RISC chip? And if so, is there some insight we can glean about classes vs. skills from the CISC vs. RISC comparison?

Or is the fundamental difference between class systems and skill systems not really about complexity, but something else?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Ten Questions for Crafting System Designers

If I were a producer, and you came to me to ask for guidance in designing a crafting system for your MMORPG, here are some of the questions I might ask you:

  1. Who is the target market for the crafting part of your game? Do you think a market for crafting already exists and your features will satisfy it? Or do you think your crafting features have to be so good that they create a market for that kind of gameplay?

  2. What percentage of your subscription base do you want to encourage to try your crafting features? Just people who already enjoy crafting, or all players? (In other words, what level of development effort will you be putting into this portion of your game?)

  3. What do you think those potential crafting players want from a crafting system? How do you know that's what they want?

  4. Will your crafting system be very different from crafting in other popular MMORPGs, or very similar? Why might gamers think your crafting system is more fun?

  5. How will your crafting system help make your entire game more fun? How will it support your core gameplay experience? How does it tie into the game economy, storytelling, combat support, and other system(s)?

  6. Where does your planned crafting system fall on a graph of power vs. simplicity? Do either of those values change for a player over time?

  7. Will your crafting system satisfy both new players and veterans?

  8. Will your crafting system satisfy both casual players and hardcore gamers?

  9. Will your crafting system support both soloers and social gamers?

  10. Will your crafting system satisfy both those who want to craft as a creative act and those who want to produce items for economic competition?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Thottbot versus Explorers

I've mentioned this before (in "Will the Real Explorers Please Stand Up?"), but I don't see exploration as purely about walking around to uncover the physical layout of places -- I think it's more generally about adding to the sum of knowledge about the rules of the world. Mapping topography is part of that, but it also includes contributing to what's known about cultural patterns and the "laws of nature" -- that is, the structural rules created by the game's programmers that govern how stuff works in the game world.

One of the reasons I'm looking forward to learning more about Star Trek Online is that Star Trek was always about exploration. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is all about the challenge and joy of exploration -- not just of galactic phenomena, but of the hearts and minds of the people who live among the stars. [2008/04/25 update: This optimism was before Perpetual Entertainment, the former developer of Star Trek Online, abandoned -- or was forced to abandon -- its license to develop that game.] [2008/08/25 update: Optimism tentatively restored. Maybe Cryptic can do this right.]

That's why an important part of my game design is that it procedurally generates millions of planets, insuring that there'll always be some place remaining to be explored for the first time. (The game Infinity is attempting to prove this approach.) I'm also hoping to design a technological research system that's equally about continuous exploration.

Well... what happens to the challenge and joy of such exploration when there's no place that thousands of people (mostly Achievers) haven't already gone first? Why explore when thottbot proves there's no need, that there's no new knowledge to be gained by exploring?

This is why I'm reluctant to take the position that what other players do doesn't affect me, that other people using thottbot doesn't damage a game for me. Playing a massively multiplayer game means being part of a social system in which what you do affects me and what I do affects you. Those effects may be only indirect, but they're there and they matter (otherwise a single-player game would be preferable). Online games are communities, and as such they benefit from being designed to welcome Explorers as well as Achievers and Socializers.

So wanting to explore isn't about "being first." That's an Achiever perspective. This is about the personal satisfaction of being able to contribute new knowledge to the community -- that's what motivates Explorers, whether their name is on that knowledge or not.

I discovered just last week that an essay I wrote several years ago has been referenced in a Wikipedia entry. I can't tell you how pleased I was about that -- not because I'll get anything for it, or because I was the first to say it, but purely because someone felt that some ideas of mine usefully added to our knowledge about how the world works. In a very small way, I was able to contribute knowledge, and that's tremendously gratifying.

But when "knowledge" is deliberately defined by an online game's design to be a finite and static resource -- maps, hit points, quest solutions -- Achievers will insure that very little time passes before all knowledge is published, leaving nothing for Explorers to contribute.

Instancing, individualized crafting recipes and other user-specific content, BTW, aren't much help here. If you're the only one to whom some bit of knowledge applies, then learning it contributes nothing to the community. So while there's nothing inherently wrong with user-specific content as a way to personalize everyone's gameplay, it doesn't do much for Explorers. Better would be for a MMORPG to be designed in the first place to allow for continuous exploration, rendering thottbot irrelevant and user-specific content unnecessary.

Thus, my argument against thottbot is best understood as a minor aspect of my larger argument against finite, static gameworld designs. If your gameworld is completely explorable (as WoW and virtually all other MMORPGs are), then thottbot is a problem because it hastens the process of devaluing Explorer play. If OTOH your gameworld is designed so that some aspect of it is practically infinite, then both thottbot and manual data collection aren't as much of a problem. And Explorers will have a fighting chance to express their particular gifts.

In no way does that mean that players who are happy with collecting "mosts" and "firsts" can't do their thing. It just means there's at least one area where they can't crowd out other kinds of players.

That's not a threat to anyone's gameplay.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Quest Design for Explorers and Socializers

The mindlessness of quests in many MMORPGs has become such a well-known problem that it has its own name: "kill ten rats." That suggests that gamers want something more. I suspect some do... but I'm also pretty sure that some don't.

Most quests are externals-focused Manipulator/Achiever quests because most people (and thus most gamers) are Manipulators and Achievers. (For more on this, please see my essays "Bartle's Player Types and Keirsey's Temperaments" and "Styles of Play -- The Full Chart".) They like their games, like their lives, to be about action and accumulation. So while these gamers may complain that "kill ten rats" is boring, they'd be even more upset if they logged into their favorite MMORPG and discovered those simple, action/accumulation-oriented quests had been replaced with puzzles to be solved or emotional relationships to be nurtured. For a lot of people, puzzle-solving and emotional expression are tedious at best and incredibly frustrating at worst... and those are not things you want people feeling when they're paying to be entertained.

So I believe the simple action/accumulation "kill ten rats" task that isn't connected to anything (like knowledge or relationships) has to stick around in MMORPGs. Too many people prefer that kind of content to eliminate it. The question is whether that kind of quest content is enough.

I don't believe it is. Certainly there are a lot of people who prefer Do and Have over Think and Feel -- but that still leaves a lot of gamers whose enjoyment comes from opportunities to express their Thinking and Feeling. Although not gaming (yet) in the same numbers as Manipulators and Achievers, I'm pretty sure (from looking at the general population) that the number of Explorers and Socializers who might be interested in playing online games is not negligible. So in addition to Doing/Having quests, I think MMORPGs would benefit from consciously offering quests that reward clever Thinking (e.g., puzzles) and connected Feeling (e.g., roleplaying).

The question is, how do you implement such quest content? What's the difference between a Having quest and a Feeling quest? Is it even possible to characterize quests as being primarily about Having or Thinking or Feeling?

Well, let's try it. Here's my shot at listing some of the most common quest types, and attempting to characterize each one.




a mob (PC, NPC, creature)




an object (item or structure)




a known location (as in a waypointed race)




an NPC from one location to another




items to a specified player character or NPC




items [or player characters] to a specified location




a specified item




items for items or items for money




a mob, object or world feature whose location is unknown




a sealed container




an injured or sick character




the stats or capabilities of a specified character

Bearing in mind that this is tentative, a 2-1 ratio in favor of Do/Have quests over Think/Feel content is pretty lopsided, doesn't it? And it's even worse if you think I'm being generous in suggesting that healing and buffing quests are primarily about Feeling, or that finding something is primarily a Thinking (puzzle) quest.

If these are the usual kinds of quests, and few of them satisfy Thinking and Feeling playstyles, then what would be other examples of Thinking and Feeling quests? Do Thinking quests just mean puzzles? If so, what kind of puzzles work best in a MMORPG? If not, then what other kinds of quests might a Thinker enjoy?

And what about Feeling quests? What kind of quests would be satisfying to those gamers who like MMORPGs for the emotional responses and personal relationships generated by game worlds? "They should tell a story" doesn't seem like a complete answer to me, since any of the quest types listed above could be used to help tell a story. Or are there other quest types I failed to list that are particularly effective at storytelling?

Friday, June 30, 2006

Inside-Out Design

I started programming back in the early 80s when "structured programming" was still going to save programmers from themselves. One of the components of this model was "top-down programming."

Through experience I learned that neither top-down programming nor its bottom-up predecessor worked well for me. Both approaches missed important things. So I worked out my own approach to design, which I naively called "inside-out" design. Rather than starting either at the top or the bottom, I would start from the middle, seeing the whole system as a skeleton of core systems branching out into reusable subsystems.

Another way of putting it is that I learned to "flatten" the map of systems. Looking at either the top or the bottom hid necessary information -- by exposing systems from the middle outward, I could see all the key system relationships at once. (A key here for me was encountering John Gall's remarkable book Systemantics, which for its exploration of both theory and practice remains one of the most useful works on systems design I've ever read.)

Later on I discovered that although I personally was more comfortable with this systems-oriented approach to design, there were some people who still preferred top-down design... but there were even more people for whom bottom-up is simply the only way they are capable of thinking.

In the group of developers I manage, for example, there's one who regularly misses things because she "chunks" systems. Her code usually accomplishes what the customer really needs, and fits well with the rest of the system, and gets done in a timely fashion. But there's almost always some little piece that doesn't work, causing me to have to budget more time for testing her code than that of other developers.

But then there's the other developer who is constitutionally incapable of thinking in any way other than details-first. He is superb at collecting requirements, and at insuring that no requirement is missed in implementation... but his stuff takes forever to write, it often duplicates existing subroutines, and it doesn't always integrate well with existing code. Worst of all, it sometimes has to be substantially rewritten later because it didn't question what the customer asked for versus what they actually needed. So I have to allocate time to providing high-level organization for this developer's work.

No amount of direction or assistance from me has changed these behaviors. These are simply the ways their minds work, and the best I can do is find tasks for them that fit their styles.

All of which is an excessively long preface to my agreeing enthusiastically with the observation in the Situational Awareness thread on Terra Nova that "[d]esired is a form that reflects the priority of the player (and implicitly the world/game design)." This fits precisely what I've come to believe about MMORPG design, which is that in too many cases it's not player-centric enough. Or, more accurately, that features and interfaces are designed for only one type of person, that being the detail-oriented kind of person. If you're not that kind of person, sorry, you don't get a game.

Many people think in terms of concrete, external details. These folks want interfaces that let them interact directly and reliably with tangible elements of the game. They like the "radar"; they like having the numbers of the RPG exposed; they like seeing information about a potential target (either floating over its head or detailed in a pop-up window, or both). They like things that can be held, owned, possessed -- weapons, armor, tools, clothing, houses, furnishings, decorations -- and they want to be able to control the appearance, positioning, usage, and stats of all these things. Oh, and they want all of that Right Now. Like the jet fighter pilot, they value constant situational awareness. Clearly most MMORPGs are designed to satisfy people with this worldview.

But not all gamers see the world that way. Some of them naturally have top-down minds. They prefer not to see the nuts-and-bolts details; to expose that information breaks the illusion of being in a coherent, dynamic world-story. These gamers prefer surprise over certainty; they enjoy realizing how systems fit within systems to create a coherent whole; they like stories-within-stories that unfold over time; they want "ecological" AI rather than farmable loot bags; they prefer reading layerable maps over following magic lines; and by a large margin they want tools to build their own objects and stories instead of just taking whatever they're given. (If it's hard to provide examples of top-down game features and interfaces, that's because few MMORPGs offer those kinds of things!)

So where are the virtual worlds that consider both of these ways of looking at the (game)world to be valid? What MMORPGs support both top-down and bottom-up thinking in the design of both gameplay features and user interfaces?

Is such a thing even possible?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Playing a Jack-of-All-Trades in MMORPGs

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly."

Specialization is for insects.

-- from Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein
That concept of action has been with me pretty much since the first time I read it lo, these many years ago. And it's how I prefer to play MMORPGs. I like being a jack-of-all-trades.

Note that when I say "jack-of-all-trades" I do not mean a support class like Healer. That's not a jack-of-all-trades character; it's a class role character who is directly aimed at satisfying some developer's role requirement. When I say jack-of-all-trades, I mean a character who is capable of doing a lot of completely different things in a game. Maybe not perfectly, maybe not even well, but to be able to do many things at all is satisfying enough.

I'm just not interested in spending all my waking hours in some futile attempt to be the "best" at something in a game. I prefer to go my own way, do my own thing in my own time. Specialization would box me into a particular set of content -- why would I want to do that?

By having a jack-of-all-trades character, I not only improve my chances of being able to survive most basic problems the game flings at me, I'm also able to experience many of the different types of content available in the game. I can never master any of them -- in fact, being a generalist in a MMORPG pretty much insures that there's some content (the so-called "high end" or "endgame" content) that I will never be able to enjoy.

So? If it's that intense, I'm not interested. I get enough "intensity" in my life outside of games; I play games to get away from intense stuff. (Note that this doesn't mean I don't enjoy playing FPS games. It's just what I get out of them is different: I tend to play snipers because I like the chess match; I don't play them for the sensation/excitement of an intense firefight... and I absolutely hate being put on a countdown timer. That's too much like work.)

The jack-of-all-trades approach lets me enjoy a game on my own terms... unless of course the game insists on stuffing every player into a neat, tidy little class to fill some developer-determined role, rather offering a rich array of player-selectable skills so that players can write their own stories. A class-based game is the mortal enemy of the generalist.

So why don't developers respect gamers who prefer to be a jack-of-all-trades by designing content specifically for them?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Improving NPC AI +

The bottom line problem with non-player mob (that is, NPC and creature) AI is that it's reactive, not active. NPCs and critters are either loot bags waiting to be popped or mindless quest dispensers. They don't act; they exist only to be acted upon.

To some degree, that's how it has to be. Those are functions players want NPCs/critters to have, so that's what developers give them. Except that developers stop there. But why stop there?

Well, partly it's because there are only so many hours in a day, even if you work programmers like galley slaves. (Something that courts are beginning to take a dim view of.) Stop for a second and ask yourself: How many important systems are there in a major MMORPG?

Go ahead, come up with a number.

Now multiply that number by 10, and you'll start to be in the ballpark of how many systems there really are that somebody has to design, implement, and test. (And you can easily double or triple that number if you also take into account server code, behind-the-scenes "helper" systems, and tool development.)

With so much to do that absolutely has to get done, I'm sympathetic to not implementing super-AI. "Minimally plausible" starts looking like a more appropriate goal.

It's also the case that you don't necessarily want your mobs doing things when there's not a player there to be affected by those behaviors -- that can be perceived as a waste of processor cycles. (Do you want more lag?)

Finally, there's the argument that despite what some of them may say, most players don't actually want mobs that are smart enough to wipe the floor with them. The highly gameplay-oriented players -- to whom most MMORPG developers cater slavishly -- want mobs they can beat so that they can take their stuff. (Actually, that applies to PvP as well, but that's another thread.) Making mobs smart enough to run away or gang up on a player might wind up being very unpopular with many of today's gamers.

And yet... what a waste of good mobs. If a MMORPG is a game world, then shouldn't "world" be roughly as important as "game?" In which case, shouldn't mobs be designed to support the goal of making the gameworld feel like a living, breathing, dynamic place?

Bearing in mind all the objections, I think the answer to that (as the editorialist said) has to be "yes." To make the gameworld as dynamic as it should be to make it feel "alive," mobs need to be more than loot bags and quest dispensers. Instead of just existing to be acted upon, they need (to some degree) to be independent actors themselves.

I believe that accomplishing this will require non-player mob AI to improve in at least four specific categories: agenda, environment, communication, and ecology.


Agenda is easy to describe, but hard to implement: mobs need to have goals and desires and interests, and then (according to their level of intelligence) should be able to devise and carry out plans that will plausibly allow them to achieve their goals.

In some cases, that will mean that they do exactly what they do right now: stand around and wait to be activated by a player. Maybe they're in "guard" mode, which means patrolling a certain area to protect something (shops if they're NPCs, babies if they're critters). Maybe they're just lazy and don't have a job. Maybe they're injured, or lost. There are plenty of reasons why some mobs could do exactly what they do now; the differences would be that there's a plausible reason why they're doing it, and other mobs are capable of doing something else because now they have a reason for that.

Being able to form and carry out plans -- in other words, having an agenda -- along with the subsidiary capability of being able to describe this agenda to players who ask would tell players that they are part of a world that has a life of its own. Creatures would seek to feed and breed. NPCs would have player-like aspirations that they, like players, would attempt to fulfill.

Not being at the center of the universe could be a shock to some players... but there are, I think, a lot of other players who would feel much more satisfied to be playing in a gameworld where even the mobs have interesting stories to tell.


Why is it that I can unleash electric death on an NPC and another NPC who is three feet away -- who belongs to the same faction as the first NPC -- will simply continue lounging against the wall?

How can that some creature can detect me from a hundred feet away when I'm behind a tree, at night, wearing all black, downwind and masking my scent, and not moving?

I cannot think of a single MMORPG that implements the gameworld as a place where the various emissions of the electromagnetic spectrum are used to any serious degree. Most games let their mobs do simple A* pathfinding around collidable obstacles. Some games give you line-of-sight. A few games allow terrain or character position (standing/crouching/prone) to matter. But how many really incorporate sound? Smell? Environmentally-appropriate camouflage? Reduction in visibility due to darkness/rain/dust/fog/smoke? UV or IR detection/masking? Heat or power signature detection/masking? Weight/mass detection (as for pressure-sensitive switches)?

Can you imagine a game where mobs could detect and recognize other mobs (including players) through all these environmental cues, and could incorporate that information into their agendas?

Creatures could stalk their prey, and prey could use various means (natural, technological, magical, whatever) to avoid or break detection by predators. NPCs could see or hear when their allies are being attacked and run to the rescue. Mobs in general would become able to interact with each other and with players in a vastly more plausible way because they would finally have access to the same kind of environmental information that we as players take for granted when we’re deciding what to do.


Some mobs are social. While individuals, they are also members of a group or groups. Accordingly, these mobs ought to be able to communicate information to and among each other.

A mob who enters a "danger" or "opportunity" state ought to be able to transmit that information to other mobs who could benefit from the knowledge.

When a creature makes a kill, why can't he alert his packmates to come share in the bounty when doing so helps to insure the group's survival? When an NPC sees an enemy force coming over the town walls, why can't she race to the watchtower to ring the warning bell, then run through the town calling for all allied NPCs (and players!) to help repel the invaders?

A decent level of communication capability would allow mobs to share these kinds of useful information. Rather than acting purely independently, they would be able to act together as a group. And that would finally allow mobs to effectively match the ability of players to act in a coordinated way.

Which brings me to:


Why is it that I can whack the same mob eight zillion times, and he will respawn in roughly the same place to allow himself to be whacked for eight zillion more times? Why is it that I can wipe out an entire zoneful of orcs, and they'll just reform in the same place as soon as I turn my back so I can wipe them out again? How come I and other players can all take the same quest from the same NPC for weeks at a time and he never learns to recognize us?

Here's an answer: Player actions have no long-term consequences because mobs have no long-term memory or social decision-making capability. There's no ecological response to repeated external stimuli.

(The larger answer is of course "to make the game fair for all players." But there has to be a way to do this that doesn't turn the gameworld into a bizarrely static place! When it comes to gameplay challenges, is "equivalent" good enough? Or is "identical" required? Right, back to mob ecology.)

The last major component of a full, integrated mob AI system would be to allow groups of mobs to change their behaviors over time. Creatures (as less intelligent mobs) would simply react to player incursions by migrating elsewhere from their hunting or feeding grounds. (Unless of course they happen to regard players as tasty snacks, in which case maybe breeding rates go up to take advantage of the unexpected bounty.)

NPC mob groups would have even more types of long-term behavioral choices available to them. Maybe when you wipe out an orc encampment several times, the orcs move somewhere else. Now they're someone else's problem (or opportunity.) But perhaps instead you've stumbled across a particularly warlike band of orcs, and they don't take kindly to your depredations. So they've dispatched a runner to invite some of their friends over to hide in the woods around their encampment. The next time you show up to casually mete out destruction, you discover that you're facing not five orcs, but fifty. Surprise!

Or suppose a group of NPCs realize that a lot of players have been asking them for a particular type of quest. What if the rewards for that quest become less valuable to reflect an increased supply in reaction to demand? Conversely, what if those NPCs decided to offer more quests like that one, since obviously it's very popular? Why shouldn’t NPCs be able to change their behaviors in response to the ways that players interact with them?

As a final example, what if an entire faction of NPCs decides that players have been beating up on them a little too much, and coordinates a massive assault (maybe physical, maybe economic) on some player resource or location? Isn't that exactly the kind of large-scale action many players say they'd love to see in a MMORPG?

An ecological AI capability could enable precisely that sort of event.


Agenda, environment, communication, and ecology. Design your mob AI to incorporate those capabilities, and you will have a gameworld that players will remember with pleasure for years to come.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Crafting as a Process in MMORPGs

I've sort of started to wonder whether a lot of developers have a funny idea of what "crafting" is... or maybe I'm the one with the funny idea. Either way, there's a gap.

I can understand designers thinking of crafting as being about servicing the game economy. In other words, designers design a crafting system as an economic support system -- its purpose is to insure that other players can have the stuff they need/want to play the game.

Well, yes, that's a useful function of a crafting system... but what does that offer the people who like to make things?

My problem with crafting systems in nearly all current and discussed MMORPGs is that they're not focused on satisfying the people who craft because they actually enjoy crafting. "Crafters" aren't all automatons who thrill to the opportunity to grind out gazillions of copies of some uber weapon, nor are they all hypercompetitive economic PvPers who see crafting as a sales game -- they are creative people who enjoy imagining new things and bringing them into the (game) world. It's the enjoyment of making new things in and of itself that appeals to the crafter personality, not the utility of the end product.

Accordingly, my one great interest in any MMORPG's crafting system is that it be more about process than product.

Don't worry about whether crafters will crank out enough units of Product X to satisfy demand. Make the process of crafting so much fun in and of itself that lots of people want to do it and (assuming you also implement a free-market player economy) the results will take care of themselves.

So how can this be accomplished? I believe the three keys to enabling a fun crafting process are:

1. Great variation in resource and configuration inputs is possible.
2. The attributes of outputs mirror the attributes of their inputs. (a nod there to the Doctrine of Signatures)
3. Players can choose to trade quality for quantity in outputs.
In a little more detail:

1. By variation of inputs I mean two things. First, there should be a vast number of resources/components needed to make things, and all those resources and components should have multiple attributes of varying degrees. And second, there should be a appropriate number of ways to connect each of those resources and components to each other.

Variation of inputs allows players to experiment with inputs to see what works best for a given purpose. It supports treating crafting as an exploratory process.

2. Allowing outputs to derive their attributes from their inputs gives structure to crafting exploration. If through crafting some test items I can learn that using a certain kind of wood or a resource with a high level of copper turns my finished product green, that's information I can use later if I ever want to make something that's green.

Similarly, letting crafters experiment with how resources and components are connected to each other (in more complex crafting procedures) should also have some plausible effect on the final product. Perhaps connecting a flywheel to an engine through a gear will make the complete device more efficient, though perhaps also resulting in a higher maintenance cost due to more parts....

3. Letting players decide whether to optimize an individual crafting process for quality or quantity is a way to support both creative crafters as well as those current players who regard crafting as a competitive economic game. If you want to try to corner the market on widgets, OK, but optimizing your crafting process for quantity will mean that you can't make the "best" widget possible. Likewise, if you want to try to make the most perfect widget possible, you're only going to be able to make a very small number of them, and the cost in failed experiments will probably be pretty high.


A crafting system designed to incorporate these principles for focusing on process would, I think, be one that satisfies everyone's needs. The artistic crafter can create; the exploratory crafter can tinker; the sales crafter can meet market demands; and the developers can all buy Ferraris with the revenue from the subscriptions from happy gamers.

Cooperative Play in MMORPGs

These MMORPG things need more cooperative play options.

Of course that's a tricky thing to do. What the heck do we mean by "cooperative" play, anyway? Everybody knows what competitive play is like, but how do you implement the alternative? Worse, how does a designer offer cooperative play if doing so will be used by two players just to level each other up or gain money or loot rewards by playing like bots?

First, I think it's important to recognize that just as there are different levels of competition -- tactical, operational, strategic -- there are different levels of cooperation.

Combo moves are one type of tactical cooperation that's starting to get some attention. (The MMORPG Hero's Journey from Simutronics, for example, will be offering this feature.) Something similar could probably be designed for crafting by a clever designer, or even for socializing.

But what about operational and strategic cooperation? I can't think of any MMORPG that has even considered such features, much less implemented them. That would be a game that would definitely get my attention.

Second, regarding how to encourage cooperation generally, I feel pretty strongly that the ubercompetitive nature of most MMORPGs is driven by their fundamental design as zero-sum games.

Most MMORPGs are built as "lands" on some individual world, or as a few planets... and that's all there is. Those are the only places you can be. Which means that any game that allows players to compete for places are zero-sum games -- you just fight over the same patch of ground over and over and over again because that's all you can do.

A non-zero sum game takes that pressure off by offering an alternative. Instead of competing for scarce resources, players can choose to add to the total number of resources through exploration and discovery. In effect, they can compete by cooperating to see who can add more resources to the game world the fastest.

Very few gameworlds offer a non-zero-sum game. The only such game I can think of that's actually running currently is EVE Online. It's still highly competitive, however. Because the number of star systems, while relatively large (~5000), is still fairly low compared to the number of players, and because maintaining security in these player-run systems is a full-time job, players compete fiercely to keep what they've been able to wrest from tough NPCs.

An even more non-zero-sum game is currently being developed, called Infinity: The Quest for Earth. Although I disagree with some of the design decisions being made, there's one that I agree with wholeheartedly. (In fact, it's something I wanted to do myself before I ever even heard of Infinity.) Namely, Infinity's playing field will consist of literally billions of procedurally-generated worlds.

With that many worlds, it will take years before players are able to explore (much less exploit) even a fraction of them. And that should be enough to take the pressure off players to compete over every square inch of known ground, enabling cooperation as a viable way to play the game.

So where are the other persistent online games that offer both strategic and non-zero-sum play? Why expect cooperative play to emerge if the game isn't designed to encourage and reward such play?

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Passage of Time in MMORPGs

Let's consider the question of how time passes (or not) in online worlds. It takes us into multiple game systems, and winds up having some deep connections to how different people experience a game world.

The first question that has to be asked is, should time pass at all?

It's not a requirement for a game. You could simply make time in the game an eternal "now," and eliminate all questions related to the passage of time.

For some game worlds, that might be desirable. Social worlds, for example, probably don't need to create their own local time format. It's also possible to imagine game worlds that are more like tone poems; they're not about gameplay so much as experiencing a particular feeling or event.

It's when we consider larger and more complex game worlds in which players can, to some degree, tell their own stories that marking time in the game world becomes useful. For these worlds that try to balance gameplay and immersiveness, the next question is whether time should pass with reference to physical or social phenomena (or both).

Examples of physical phenomena related to time are things like the day/night cycle, circadian rhythms, tides, seasons (temperature, weather), erosion, plant and animal responses to long-term temperature changes (as during the "Little Ice Age"), and continental drift.

And examples of social phenomena related to time are interest on loans, labor organization, traffic patterns, housing styles, city growth, and migration routes.

To explore these possibilities for features in a gameworld, let's look at the most common ways in which time is measured.

The measurement of seconds only gains importance when you can measure them accurately. That means you need the ability to build clocks/watches. So does the technology in your game (whether mechanical or magical) support that?

And from a game perspective, do players need to know exactly what second something happened or will happen?

See "seconds."

Hours are primarily a social measure of time. As civilizations become more complex, they tend to develop labor specializations. To support people of different professions working together, it's useful to be able to coordinate times at which exchanges can be made.

Is this really necessary in your game? Is there gameplay value in players knowing exactly what hour (within some larger measure of time, usually a day) it is?

Is your game set in a location on a planet that rotates near a star, revolves around that star, and whose rotation period does not match its revolution period? If so, then logically it would have a day/night cycle. (Some orbital bodies are what's called "tidally-locked" -- from the perspective of someone on the body they revolve around, such a satellite always presents basically the same face. Our Moon is like that.)

And do you want to spend time developing the graphics and code to dynamically change both the ambient lighting and the sky textures?

If both of these conditions are true, if you implement a day/night cycle, then you'll probably want to define the "day" of your game to be shorter than a real-world day. All of the MMORPGs I know of with day/night cycles do this; it just seems to be perceived as more fun by most players -- probably a function of variety/novelty.

Another socially-generated measure of time that your game probably doesn't need.

Yet another primarily social measure of time. Because months are usually named, they're potentially interesting as lore flavoring if your game also implements days and years.

Seasons -- cyclically recurring periods of global temperature and weather variation -- are sometimes thought to be caused by a planet's orbit being elliptical, but that's not correct... at least not for Earth, whose orbit is not very elliptical. (A planet in a more elliptical orbit, such as Mars, does have orbitally-induced seasons.)

Earth's seasons are caused by its axis being tilted (rather than perpendicular) with respect to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Because of its tilt and average distance from the Sun, both of the northern and southern hemispheres get roughly four seasons. (Except for Minnesota, which has only two seasons: Winter and Construction.)

So if you set your game world on a planet, is that planet tilted on its axis? And will you implement weather in your game?

If so, then it's conceivable that weather patterns could change over the year according to seasons. Knowing when a season was about to start was incredibly important when survival depended on predicting when the local delta would flood. That permitted sufficient crops to be irrigated to feed a growing city. But as technology improved, and agriculture became less critical, seasons became mostly a mildly interesting way to break up the passage of a year -- basically they allow some variation in the local weather.

So are seasons worth the development time?

To put it another way: If weather is implemented at all in your game, will it have any practical effect? Or will it just be pretty?

If it has some actual effect, then seasons might be worthwhile. Otherwise, probably not.

The period of a planetary body's revolution around a star is its year. It's a good measure of the passage of time compared to a human's lifespan.

If characters in your game are effectively immortal, years might not be worth implementing.

On the other hand, if nothing else ever changes cyclically in the game, then there's no real downside to implementing years as an accumulation of some number of days (other than the time to write and maintain the code). If players can know that they started playing in the year 3371 and it's now the year 3402, what are the benefits of that, and do they outweigh the cost in terms of the time it took to code that capability?

What about if instead of numbering years, you named them (as in the "Year of the Fruit Bat")?

Decades and Longer Periods
It would be fascinating to see an online game world that tried to deepen its immersiveness by reflecting some of the phenomena related to multi-year spans of time. These could be physical, such as changes in tree types or animal migrations; or they could be social, as in organizing periods of years according to who's in charge politically ("the 12th year of the glorious reign of Planodigitus Maximus").

Perhaps someone will give this kind of thing a shot someday.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Price Stability in MMORPGs

The subject of how to keep game economies stable -- that is, to prevent both inflation and deflation -- keeps coming up over and over again. Price maintenance is about keeping the game's level of challenge balanced, especially for new and casual players. If prices rise too high, new and casual players can’t afford goods, making the game too hard. If prices fall too low, everyone can afford anything and the game gets too easy.

So, in a game where players can essentially create money and items, how can prices be kept stable?

The key to price stability is to hold the inputs equal to the outputs: the total amount of wealth entering the game should over time be roughly equal to the total amount of wealth exiting the game world. Some games have tried to do this with "closed" economies -- outputs are cycled back into the game as inputs. This approach has the advantage of insuring price stability, and resembles a simulation of a real-world economy, but it has the serious disadvantage of being very difficult to maintain.

Instead, most MMORPGs use an open economy model. Wealth enters the game world by simply being created out of nothing, and exits by simply being destroyed. In this "faucet/drain" economic model (originally developed for Ultima Online after the closed economic model proved too hard to manage), items are easy to create, but finding ways to remove money from the game economy becomes crucial. Compounding the difficulty is that some kinds of money drains are more palatable to players than other kinds. You can't just impose any kind of drain, because some kinds will make players so unhappy that they will quit the game.

So here are some ideas for MMORPG money drains. To reflect the point that not all ideas are equal, they're listed in rough order of popularity with players, from most acceptable to least acceptable. (It's important to realize that this is intended to be a descriptive list, not prescriptive. This is just an attempt to develop a reasonably comprehensive list of possibilities; I'm not saying that every game should offer all these drains.)

  • recognition for having the most money: (hoarding removes currency from the game economy) (Note: This isn't a true drain since money is not "physically" removed from the economy. But it's still a drain in that it does prevent money from having any practical effect on the game economy.)
  • purchase of system-created items: (Note: This isn't a perfect drain because players receive items for their currency.)
    • tradable commodity items:
      • "required" items (e.g., class-based basic gear not crafted/craftable by players)
      • consumables
    • unfarmable/untradeable luxury items:
      • house decorations
      • special clothing
    • one-to-a-customer benefits (such as a sign for a shop)
  • purchase of system-created non-items as status markers (titles, memberships, temporary appearance changes, etc.)
  • system-run games of chance (gambling):
    • lottery (someone will win big, but more will lose)
    • "house" games
    • NPC gamblers
  • fees:
    • public services:
      • transportation
      • skill training by NPCs
      • protection (city guards)
      • space for a player-operated public vendor
      • rental of public housing
    • maintenance:
      • structures -- usage/upkeep cost
      • objects -- damage repair cost (decay)
  • taxes:
    • on stored money
    • on each intermediated transaction ("auction house," Bazaar, etc.)
  • removal within the gameworld context (stolen by NPC thief, natural disaster, etc.)
  • outright removal by the developers
Note that this list refers only to money drains, to ways to remove currency from a game economy. But currency isn't the only form of wealth in an economy -- wealth also enters a game world in the form of items such as loot drops and crafted goods.

If your interest is to maintain price stability (that is, to avoid both inflation and deflation), then there can't just be currency drains. You’ll almost certainly also want item drains. This gives you another tool for keeping the total amount of wealth (money + items) entering the game world roughly equal over time to the amount of wealth leaving the game world.

Here are some possible item drains, again in rough order of popularity with players, from most acceptable to least acceptable:

  • selling items to NPC vendors (Note: this isn't a perfect drain because players receive currency for their items.)
  • recycling (e.g., junk dealer who takes multiple items and returns one item or some nominal amount of money)
  • consumables:
    • ammunition (bullets, arrows, etc.)
    • components (spell reagents, crafting subassemblies, etc.)
  • deliberate destruction by players
  • maintenance destruction (item is destroyed when condition falls to 0% through either usage or damage)
  • failure destruction (item is destroyed through some critical failure, as in combat or crafting)
  • destruction within the gameworld context (theft, story-based disaster, etc.)
  • outright destruction by the developers

One particularly good discussion of the factors involved in MMORPG economies is Zachary Simpson's analysis of the Ultima Online economy, "The In-game Economics of Ultima Online." Despite being written in 1999, a surprising number of the observations made by Simpson are still relevant to today's MMORPGs.

I strongly encourage anyone who's interested in this kind of stuff to review Simpson's essay. (Note: This is a Word document.)

In considering what might be effective money and item drains, it's useful to bear in mind what ideas actually don't constitute drains. (Not being a drain doesn't make something a bad idea; it just means it won't help to take stuff out of the game economy.)

For example, there's my Player Contracts idea (condensed version here). (I find it interesting to note that Simpson also proposes this idea as "enforceable contracts." One important difference is that he assumes that a third player would be required to enforce a contract, where I believe the game itself can and should fill that role.)

I think a player contract feature would be a valuable addition to any MMORPG that wants a meaningful player economy. For one thing, it would create a new reason for players to want to interact socially -- a Good Thing in a "massively multiplayer" game. But in a purely economic sense, a player contract feature would also help to level out the Pareto effect that concentrates the majority of wealth in a few hands. Instead of a few players hoarding cash, they'd be able to spread it around more by hiring other players to do things for them.

What's important to realize about this is that while it would be socially and economically useful, it would have absolutely zero effect on inflation/deflation because it would not alter the total amount of wealth within the entire economy. Letting players trade with each other wouldn't actually constitute any kind of drain -- rather than removing currency, it would simply shift currency from one player to another.

The same can be said about other proposals for ways to allow players to trade with each other. Player-to-player trades don't actually remove anything from the game world, so they can't be considered true drains. Only player-to-system interactions can be true drains.

Side note: There's an important difference between tangible wealth in MMORPGs and in the real world. In most MMORPGs, players generally aren't permitted to own or create two very important kinds of real-world property: land (real property, AKA "real estate") and ideas (intellectual property). (Side side note: property that is not real property is actually recognized legally: it's called "personal property," or "moveable property," or even "chattel property," and it's treated differently than real property in several ways under most modern legal systems.)

Concerning land, although players in some games can occupy land with a house or other object, few games allow player characters to actually "own" that land. (Second Life appears to be an exception to this, but SL is much more a social world than a game world.)

As for intellectual property, few game worlds allow players to create truly new kinds of objects or processes within the game world, either. The most you can do (if you're lucky and the game even has a decent crafting system) is make instances of predefined item types. So it's not possible to create original IP that either a character or player could own. (SL is again exceptional in legally acknowledging a right of players to own the scripts they can write to create new objects in SL. But again, SL isn't a game world.)

My question: What would a game economy look like that did allow ownership of real (virtual) property, creation of intellectual property, and the trading of both?

For example, suppose some MMORPG decided to allow characters to own land in the game world... would this require the game to have "eminent domain" rules? How would they be enforced? And what if players themselves could constitute the governments that applied eminent domain to some player character's land? Could this work, or would it only bog down in appeals to the developer?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Social Engineering in MMORPGs

What is this antipathy to "social engineering" that keeps cropping up in discussions?

If we're talking about real life, I'm with you. The belief that you can perfect human beings is responsible for more killing of humans by other humans than anything else in our history. Attempts to impose this perfection by any means, including the design of social structures into which people must be forced for their own good, needs to be resisted.

And if we're talking about sandboxes like There or Second Life, I'm also with you. One of the points of these games is emergent gameplay; to stick a finger on the scales by imposing certain favored social behaviors would be to reduce the value of the sandbox.

But a MMORPG is neither real life nor a sandbox. I like 'em to be simulations, but I also like 'em to be games.And if it's a game, then there is no alternative to designing social structures -- if you're a game designer, you have to set rules for social interaction. You must consciously encode rules that define punishments and rewards to encourage or discourage specific social behaviors or it's not a multiplayer game.

Having said that, I certainly agree that it's best not to design social structures that force people to interact, or that manipulate players for the amusement of the developers or others. Players should be free to choose. Take away player control over their actions and you're basically treating people like lab rats. Yuk. But there still need to be consequences, and developers still need to be able to encourage friendly social interaction (since that's kind of the point of "massively multiplayer online game").

If forced interaction is what you mean by "social engineering," then I agree -- that's bad juju. But the fundamental idea of the developers setting up sticks and carrots to penalize or promote specific player behaviors, and in particular to encourage (not force, but encourage) friendly interaction between players... I don't agree with hammering on that, because you can't not do it and still offer a game that multiple people can happily play together.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Game Worlds Should Be Internally Consistent

I'm perfectly fine with imaginary worlds that don't share the same physical laws as this Real World of ours, but I do expect that at a high enough level there's some consistency to the laws of any world.

I qualify that with "at a high enough level" because I'd even be good with an imagined world in which different parts of the universe operate under different physical laws... as long as there's some plausible high-level explanation for that effect. Maybe (as in more than one fantasy novel) there was a horrific magical disaster that shattered the universe into multiple planes of existence, each with its own slightly different physical constants but all interconnected in the same universe. Or maybe -- and it's conceivable that this is the case even for our own universe -- the physical constants at the extreme edge of the expanding universe aren't the same as those at the "center" (wherever that may be).

I've read science fiction and fantasy my entire life; I have no problem wrapping my head around alternate modes of reality. What I expect from a literary creation of an alternate reality is that it will be internally self-consistent so as to be effective at telling a good story. And as a form of literary creation (albeit one with extra constraints), MMORPGs are not exempt from this expectation. If they have any interest in telling a good story, a reasonable attention to internal consistency is mandatory.

Where this gets a little funny is that caveat about "extra constraints." That being, these MMORPG things aren't just literary creations -- they also need to succeed as games. (I think perhaps people don't appreciate just how hard it is to do one thing well, like make a fun game or tell a good story, much less do both at the same time.) If you see MMORPGs primarily or exclusively as "just a game," then sure, you probably think that caring about consistency is just a waste of developer time that would be better spent adding new kinds of loot drops.

But I can, have, and will argue that to think of MMORPGs as "only" games is to miss a rare opportunity to get in on the ground floor of defining a new art form. MMORPGs are sometimes compared to theme parks because both are about creating a massively shared entertainment experience. What sets MMORPGs apart from theme parks is that a MMORPG can do more; because it's just code and data it's easy to change, giving developers the power to tell a coherent story by defining the world and its inhabitants at will.

So for a developer to pass up that opportunity, for them to always rule in favor of game over world whenever there's a conflict, is to choose not to participate in exploring the possibilities of a new kind of art. Being a part of that process means taking the time to make the world literarily consistent -- there must be reasons why things are the way they are, and those reasons must be consciously organized in order to most effectively tell a good story.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Do We Need a "Corporation for Public Games"?

Should there be a "Corporation for Public Games" in the United States? Do we need more public media, and should games be one of those media?

I would say no.

I'm not persuaded that the US should be increasing its share of state-sponsored broadcasting. A private, commercial mass media certainly has its problems, but becoming a bureaucratized institution like the BBC doesn't seem like an improvement.

Assuming we can accept the premises that art is of sufficient public value that funding it with money taken by taxation is appropriate, and that videogames are a valid art form, I think we can still question the "CPG" proposal on two grounds: propriety and efficacy.

"Games in the public interest" sounds to me like "the state should use its power to tax workers because they won't voluntarily give me money for my brilliant game." In other words, it sounds to me like yet another impatient attempt to bypass the marketplace.

If people aren't interested enough in some entertainment product (regardless of its artistic qualities) to be willing to buy it, who is wise enough to say that, well, these people don't know what's good for them and what we really need is another public, state-run bureaucracy to provide this game to them whether they like it or not?

In a nation founded on the principle that the power of the state should be limited, is it appropriate to expand that power for any trivial purpose? What necessity is addressed by allowing the state to compete with the private sector by providing games that are (in someone's opinion) good for us?

The argument from efficacy is that even if the intentions are good, the results will eventually wind up being not so good: power corrupts. Instead of trusting the marketplace to do its thing, state-run media forcibly extracts money from people so that a few elites can broadcast the messages they think the people should hear. Eventually it becomes impossible to resist using that power to push one's favored point of view. The unbalanced and hysterically over-the-top charges made by the Moyers and Totenbergs of NPR in the U.S., and the BBC's frequent anti-Bush editorializing, are merely recent examples of how state power over communications channels can be abused. Conservatives could just as easily install their own mouthpieces if they assumed power and decided to fight fire with fire.

Do we really need more of that? It's all very well when the state favors your political views, but how will you feel when you learn that your tax dollars are subsidizing "World of Limbaugh"?

I'm skeptical. I don't think there is any mandate for citizens to accept being forced to pay for yet another bureaucratic agency, and in particular I don't think a public game development institution is justifiable. Given the examples of CPB handouts thus far (some foolishly political subsidies among many worthwhile disbursements), it's unlikely that a similar institution would fund games that people would want to play. And given the degree to which game developers tend to be left of center politically, it's highly unlikely that such an institution -- if headed by people with any professional experience in game development -- would remain unpoliticized.

The odds of a Corporation for Public Gaming serving all the people effectively are just too poor to make such a suggestion a serious one. I think we're better off without a CPG.

Please note that this is not some philistinic, torch-and-pitchfork-wielding, "ban Big Bird" argument. The question isn't whether art is socially valuable -- it's whether government is the best or an appropriate source of such art.

Maybe next time we'll take up the "are videogames art?" question. :)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gameplay Pacing

How "fast" should gameplay go in a multiplayer game? Should it be like a first-person shooter? Or like a real-time strategy game? Or should it be turn-based like 4X games?

For me this choice isn't so much about what kind of game I'd want to emulate as it is about what kind of gameplay I'm trying to support.

At a high level like this, I find it useful to break down action using the old military model:

Tactics: short-term, small-unit actions in which the local environment can affect the outcome

Operations: medium-term tactical engagements organized to achieve a regional objective

Strategy: long-term operations organized and logistically supported to win a global conflict

Grand Strategy: very-long-term strategic actions intended to make conflict unnecessary

Where this helps the current discussion is in determining the time allowed for decision-making.

Tactical activity is more about the moment; it's a visceral, heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping kind of thing. So tactical gameplay, to accurately reflect the level of this kind of activity, needs to use a model that presents problems and opportunities as a continuous flow -- in short, tactical action needs to be real-time to "feel" right.

Operational- and strategic-level gameplay, on the other hand, just aren't much fun when you're constantly being interrupted. So-called "real-time strategy" (RTS) games aren't strategic at all -- they're operational-level resource collection and expenditure games. You can slow time down a little to give orders to multiple units, but you can't really stop it. That doesn't mean these games aren't fun; it just means calling them "strategy" games is misleading.

For a truly strategic game, you need to have some reasonable amount of time to understand large-scale problems and devise solutions to them, which is why most actual strategy games (such as 4X games) are turn-based. They actually let you freeze time to do as much thinking as you like -- if you don't win, it won't be because an opponent (i.e., the game) jogged your elbow.

So what I'd like to see is the passage of time keyed to the current mode of gameplay. The bigger the problem you choose to consider, the more time you should have to solve it. In short:







If I'm playing a single character who gets jumped by someone with a knife, I should mostly be in real-time gameplay mode. You might let me slow that down slightly and occasionally (as in the "bullet-time" feature of F.E.A.R.), but tactical-level gameplay should mostly be real-time.

When I'm asked to go up a level, to make operational decisions about how to string together tactical actions to attain some regional objective for an organization, there should still be a sense of urgency but I need a little more time for good decision-making. At this level, I'd like to be able to slow time without actually stopping it -- maybe give me ten minutes (plus or minus five minutes or so) before the opportunity to make a decision ends.

And for strategic-level gameplay, I want to be able to pause time so that I can survey all the relevant high-level information, identify what's needed to move the current state toward my desired end-state, and develop a plan to accomplish that motion. In a persistent-world, multiplayer game, of course, you can't actually stop the game! But you can find ways to control the speed of large objects (whether physical objects or groups of people) so that players have hours or even days in which to make strategic decisions and set them in motion before the window of opportunity closes.

In summary, the speed of gameplay decision-making should be determined by the window through which the player is viewing gameplay. A personal-sized window should be real-time; an organization-sized window should be slow-time; and a world-sized window should be stop-time... or as close to it as you can get.

As usual, this kind of thing is easier to describe than to implement.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Toward More Plausible Mob Behavior

For me, changing the appearance of mobs isn't enough to give me the perception of a well-realized animal ecosystem in a game world. For whatever reason, the appearance of a thing is less interesting to me than the behavior of that thing. Sure, I prefer pretty over ugly; it's just not what matters most to me.

So I don't get too excited by the occasional developer suggestion for changing the appearance of a mob (whether a creature or an NPC) based on that mob's age. It would be a minor addition to the worldiness of the game, so I wouldn't object to it, but it wouldn't excite me.

What would excite me would be if the behavior of a mob changed according to the maturity of an individual mob, the normal intelligence level for that type of mob, and the environmental conditions.

Assuming a world with Juvenile, Mature, and Aged versions of a mob, it's fun to imagine them displaying different behaviors in different circumstances. Maybe something like:

Juvenileplayrun to parentdefendescape
Juvenileinvestigateattackrun to parentescape
Juvenileplayinvestigaterun to parentescape

(Note that this is primarily for combat interactions. For other kinds of activities, semi-intelligent and intelligent mobs -- NPCs -- would have other tables for generating other kinds of reactions in other situations.)

If distinctive behaviors like these were implemented (especially with a little bit of randomness, and with the ability for members of groups to signal their states to each other), the game world would feel vastly more dynamic.