Tuesday, January 31, 2006

MMOGs as Balanced Systems

As much as I go on about needing more "world" in the very game-y MMOGs being developed these days, I don't mind there being game aspects within the world. In fact, I think a successful MMOG needs both.

The big thing I've been headed toward lately is what I'd call "balanced focus." (Or "focused balance.") That is, pick one or two key experiences you want your subscribers to enjoy, and focus your entire design on providing those experiences... but be sure that the actual features that generate those experiences are balanced for breadth and depth.

In other words, first decide how your players should feel when they end a session of your game: tired, exhilarated, pumped, satiated, clever, happy, proud, etc. Then, as you imagine what features can produce the feeling you want, try to balance them within each system and across all systems so that everything adds up to the same effect, and nothing detracts from that experience.

By "balancing within a system" (balancing for depth) I mean trying to insure that both the low levels and high levels of any system are enjoyable, and that they feed back appropriately with each other. This is the kind of thing I'm trying to achieve when I yap about having tactical, operational, and strategic levels of gameplay -- each should be fun in and of itself, but each should also supply something useful to the other levels and depend on resources supplied by the other levels. This internal balancing process makes each system coherent.

By "balancing across systems" (balancing for breadth) I'm trying to describe making the whole supersystem coherent as a persistent environment. Consider the range of systems often developed for a MMOG:

  • economics
  • lore/backstory
  • physics
  • crafting
  • graphics and sound
  • quests/missions
  • mob AI
  • socialization
  • travel
  • communication
  • exploration/discovery
  • grouping
  • character maintenance
  • combat
MMOG designers also have to make high-level choices for systems:

  • fear/anger/terror vs. sense of humor
  • hardcoded anti-griefing measures vs. player policing
  • character advancement vs. complete characters
  • classes/levels vs. standalone skills
  • rewards for destruction vs. rewards for construction
  • XP earned through player action vs. real-time skill improvement
  • permadeath vs. cloning/resurrection
In a multiplayer online game, every one of these choices (and many more I haven't listed) should all be balanced among themselves so that no one system takes over. If one or two game systems get too much attention relative to the others, you'll wind up with a game that's too much a simulation, or too much a button-masher. That's not necessarily a problem for a simple single-player game (in fact that kind of focus may be an advantage), but in a large multiplayer online game that needs "world-y" qualities, letting one system dominate the others is likely to detract from achieving the emotional result state you want your players to experience. Balancing systems with and across each other aligns them to produce the strongest possible effect.

Essentially I'm saying I think a masssively multiplayer online game needs to be both a satisfying world and a fun game for as many people as possible. A MMOG isn't just a game, and it isn't just a virtual world -- it's both. It's going to be both lived in (world) and played in (game). So its designers need to try to accomplish both of these goals in one seamless product... and that means having balance, Daniel-san.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Designing Without Character Levels

Let's take a look at character levels. Are they really necessary?

I don't mind character levels per se. They're just a mechanism for accomplishing two goals:

  • Minimize access to content so that players can't burn through all the content immediately.
  • Provide short-, mid-, and long-term goals that players will keep playing to attain.
The question is whether there are other mechanisms that offer most of the benefits of levels with fewer of the problems.

I think there might be a way to allow levels that doesn't create the situation where players grind out levels to rapidly reach the highest level. The key is to better define differently-focused but content-rich gameplay at low, mid and high levels, then allow players to choose the level of gameplay they most enjoy.

We can break this down into the following design features:

1. Gameplay changes as a character climbs the ranks of a profession, moving from tactical to operational to strategic. Each of these three levels requires a different way of playing the game, and each is supported with gameplay that's satisfying at that level.

2. Advancement is always optional -- if you're at a rank you enjoy, you can choose to stop advancing and enjoy that content.

3. With increasing rank comes more responsibility for insuring the enjoyable gameplay of others.

The result of these changes is twofold. First, gaining levels is no longer an unalloyed good -- now there's a cost as well as a benefit. As you increase in level, and your gameplay changes from tactical to operational to strategic, you become more responsible for the satisfaction of other players at the lower levels of your chosen profession or class. When power comes with responsibility, not everyone will choose to chase the "highest" levels.

Second, players are explicitly given the power to decide where they feel most comfortable on the cost/benefit scale. If you enjoy fast-paced squad level combat with few responsibilities, then you're free to remain playing at the tactical level. (Some people like being sergeants.) If you feel you know how group actions ought to be organized but you're not interested in trying to define high-level goals, then once you've been promoted to an operational role you can choose to keep playing at that level. And if you yearn to win large-scale engagements over the long term, and you're willing to accept responsibility for the consequences to large groups of players of your decisions, then you can seek and accept promotion to the highest levels which reward successful strategic gameplay. What level you want to play at should be your choice; you shouldn't be forced to play at levels you don't enjoy.

The result of these two effects should be that the burden of having to constantly chase levels is removed, as is the letdown of wondering "is this all the high-end content there is?" when the highest level is achieved. By designing content to satisfy tactical, operational, and strategic gameplay and providing plenty of content for each type, by designing professions with levels explicitly defined to provide those three gameplay types, and by allowing players to choose which gameplay type to enjoy, it seems to me that a lot of the good that levels offer is retained while a lot of the bad is designed out.

So do I have it right? Does this system offer most/any of the benefits of conventional level systems? Does it avoid most/any of the problems? What would prevent a design like this from being broadly successful? Could its flaws be corrected by minor tweaks, or is there some piece that dooms the whole if implemented to any degree?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Classes vs. Skills

Is a skills-based character ability system enough in and of itself to discourage minmaxing? I don't think so... but I suspect it's good enough.

To start with, let me spell something out: I think the flatter the curve describing the number of characters with similar skills, the more fun the game is likely to be. So the point of all this isn't "discourage minmaxing" -- it's to encourage maximum diversity of character abilities.

If there are any game-y features in your virtual world, you're going to get minmaxers. There'll always be people whose entertainment comes from finding the saddle points in any equation, and then deriving as much gain from that knowledge as possible as quickly as possible. These are clever people by themselves, and they're even more effective when they work together to divide and conquer a set of data. And they'll do their thing regardless of whether power in your game comes from class-derived abilities or skill-derived abilities. But there's a still a difference in how this peak-seeking behavior can be addressed between games with classes and standalone-skill games.

A pure class system (every skill in a class is unique to that class) is actually more boring to minmaxers than a multi-classing or standalone-skill system. With a pure class system you can only compare one full class against another for power; it's an all-or-nothing deal. If you only offer a few classes, many players will take the one "best" class. That can make your game world look cookie-cutter pretty quickly -- the curve has just one very sharp peak.

The curve flattens slightly if you offer many pure classes, since -- assuming you've tried to power-balance the classes that have similar roles -- there'll be less agreement about which is the "best" class. Even if there's some argument about which class is the best, however, there'll still be a lot of clustering around the top two or three contenders for best class. Now the curve looks more like the classic bell curve as the "best" classes cluster around one favored game role. (Another aspect of the many-class approach is that you'll have to spend a lot of time generating the many distinct classes available, which doesn't seem to be something many developers want to do.)

A multi-classing system is a little more interesting to minmaxers because now they can mix and match dissimilar skills; they can combine skills from systems that were never thoroughly tested together (because no one ever imagined that anyone could be interested in such a combination). In this case, what can happen is that certain combinations will show "spikes" in power (until whatever allows the spike gets nerfed), but those spikes will show up in several different combinations. The result is that you again have just two or three "best" combinations of classes, but there's less clustering around a particular gameplay role than was the case in a many-class system -- the curve just appears to have several random spikes of the number of people taking certain multi-class combinations.

And then there's the the standalone-skill approach. This one has the same "problem" as the multi-classing system, only in spades -- there are likely to be more oddball combinations of skills that the QA folks or beta testers didn't think to try... but the minmaxers will. So there are likely to be more spikes as there'll be more combinations seen as having special benefits -- but from the point of view of trying to maximize the diversity of character abilities, that's actually a Good Thing. Each spike will be a little lower since there are more of them available. The result is that the standalone-skill model produces the flattest curve of characters with similar skill sets. There are still spikes, but because it's harder to tell which complete set of skills produces the overall "best" (most powerful) character, there are more spikes and fewer players per spike -- i.e., a flatter curve.

Therefore I favor a system in which any player can learn any skill over one in which skills are restricted by class. Not because the standalone-skill approach is better at preventing min-maxing than a class system, but because the inevitable minmaxing is distributed over a wider range of skill combinations.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Strategy vs. Tactics 3

Because a few words are never enough, here are several more on how strategy, operations, and tactics differ usefully from each other.

1. Each of the three main levels has an enabling characteristic that distinguishes it from the others:









What this means is that the capability of players to perform at a particular level will be determined by the breadth and depth of in-game features that support the enabling characteristic.

For example, the range of tactical options available to your players will depend on how completely the environment is modeled. If all you offer is line of sight, then "tactics" will amount to two guys running up and hammering on each other as fast as possible until one of them falls over. The more that players are able to interact with their environment -- the more gameplay-relevant features the environment has -- the more tactical options will become available.

(I discuss my ideas for environmental richness in "Environmental Richness and Tactics" and Environment and Tactics.")

Likewise, satisfying operational gameplay depends on players having in-game features allowing them to create and fill organizational structures. (The system I describe in "Player-Defined Organizations" for allowing players to design their own organizations in MMOGs is intended in part to support this goal.)

And fun strategic gameplay depends on integrating logistical action and high-level organizational control -- in other words, on being able to move significant quantities of specific resources to where they're needed. "Resources" could include not just people, the greatest resource of all, but the food products Seth mentioned as well as transportation systems (and their requirements), housing if necessary, repair/maintenance services, and so on, and all in big quantities. That's a very different kind of challenge than tactical action, and it requires a different kind of thinking that isn't often called for in MMOGs... which seems like a shame.

It seems to me that the only reason there aren't many games that offer all these features is time. Doing a good job on one level means less time available to focus on another level.

That's not always a bad thing. Take Advanced Squad Leader, for example, which is still the gold standard of tabletop tactical-level simulations. ASL was detailed -- hoo, boy, was it ever detailed -- to the point that you wouldn't want to have to also deal with higher-level needs. You'd go nuts!

But having said that, I don't believe it's necessary to go all the way to "simulation" to get a lot of the fun out of the three levels of engagement. The trick -- and it's not an easy one, I'll admit -- is to find the right balance point among the three levels for the environmental, organizational, and logistical features that you offer players.

And then test that whole system like crazy!

2. When we talk about tactics and operations and strategy we typically assume the subject is military action, but that's not necessarily always the case. In fact, these levels show up in any multi-person competitive engagement of an appropriate scale.

Sports, for example, is often described using military terminology as metaphors. So is business. And that's because the range of possible actions in both of these competitive fields is determined by the same enablers as in combat: environment, organization, and logistics.

This can be applied to MMOGs. Tactics and operations and strategy don't automatically imply combat -- they can also be enabled in other areas. In particular, I believe they could be implemented to great effect in an economic subgame.

Can anyone imagine the analogs of "environment," "organization," and "logistics" in an economic/business context within a MMOG? What might an economic subgame look like that offered detailed environments, organizations, and logistics?

3. But getting back to combat.... of all the questions related to implementing interesting tactics and operations and strategy in a MMOG, one of the toughest is: How do you deal with failure in combat?

In a military context, failure = death. ("War is hell.") In a MMOG, that means character death; there has to be some meaningful risk worth the reward of controlling something of value (like territory).

But players don't like permadeath. They really, really don't like permadeath. And yet anything less is easily shrugged off as just another trip from the cloning station or magical resurrection.

I don't feel too bad about not being able to suggest some magic bullet solution, given that no Professional Game Designer has been able to accomplish that, either. :) Still, it's worth some further thought -- maybe the strategy/operations/tactics categorization will offer some inspiration.

Strategy vs. Tactics 2

I'd like to see a MMORPG that actually offered real, honest-to-gosh strategic gameplay.

I previously wrote a little essay on the difference between tactics and strategy that focused on the concepts. Now I’d like to look at these concepts with more of a focus on their role in MMORPGs.


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


medium-termtactical engagements organized to achieve a regional objective


long-term operations organized and logistically supported to win a war

Grand Strategy

very-long-term strategic actions intended to make military conflict unnecessary

Typically all we get in a MMOG is tactics... and not really even much of that because so few environmental factors are implemented. (Picking which special actions to spam at your PvP opponent while he does the same to you is not tactics. At best, you might call it "sub-tactical.") Line of sight is usually implemented, so sometimes you can hide behind a tree, but how many MMOGs do you know that really implement stealth? How many MMOGs allow you to ambush a column from the cover of trees alongside a road in the dark, firing in enfilade from concealed positions and cutting off their line of retreat with pre-placed mines? How would you respond if you were the lieutenant in command of a platoon that got ambushed like this? That's tactics.

Even those MMOGs that offer something like this rarely also support operational play. Usually that's a matter of guilds that plan raids, which is completely up to the players. There's no in-game support for this kind of company- to battalion-level activity. This is the level where you start benefiting from focused staff: Intelligence (S2) to acquire information about the battlefield environment and design counterintelligence operations, Operations (S3) to plan tactical engagements and conduct training, and Logistics (S4) to insure that supply, transportation, maintenance and services are adequate for any eventuality. I'd really like to see a MMOG that was rich enough for players to be able to do these kinds of things meaningfully. With them it would be possible to carry out sustained actions over more than just one night's play. Without them, the tactical engagement you enjoy today never even happened tomorrow. And that runs counter to the desire expressed by so many players to be able to "make a difference" in the game world.

And then there's strategy. This is the level of the brigade, the division, the corps, and the army. This is where the comment that Napoleon supposedly made that "an army travels on its stomach" comes into play, and where someone who (like George C. Marshall) is capable of consistently maneuvering the right resources to the right place at the right time over a long stretch of time can win a war, and can do it decisively. It's not just movie fiction that General George S. Patton was able to disengage part of his Third Army from an enemy force, turn it ninety degrees and march two days through drifting snow, and engage in operations to relieve the besieged 101st Airborne defending what was left of Bastogne. He could do it because he could think strategically; he already had plans for doing it before he needed it because the capability to do it was always a part of his strategy for winning. He planned in advance as best he could, and maneuvered all the resources he could get into position ahead of time as often as he could.

Has there ever been any MMOG developed that allowed some player the chance to exercise that level of long-term, large-scale command?

Hard Caps on Skills

One of the classic design features of MMORPGs is to allow characters to "grow" by gaining new abilities. This winds up becoming the core driver of all gameplay because designers "gate" advancement -- they don't let you have everything at once. You're forced to do a bunch of little things to collect resources that add up over time to allow you to purchase additional abilities, either directly as individual skills or indirectly as abilities derived from rising a level in a character class.

In such games, the question arises: Should there be hard caps on the number of abilities a character can learn?

Hard caps on the number of skills or skill levels a character can posses do a couple of useful things in MMORPGs. One is to simulate the difficulty people have in learning new skills. The other is to increase uniqueness among characters by limiting the skills that can be learned to a subset of all possible skills.

Are those benefits valuable enough to use a hard cap system? Are there other ways of getting these benefits (assuming you agree that they're benefits) than hard caps?

For example, take that first benefit of simulating the difficulty of increasing one's abilities. Instead of a hard cap, you could use an economic approach that makes later skills cost more than skills taken earlier in a character's life. Rather than being an arbitrary number, this would actually be a more accurate way to simulate limits to learning.

There are a couple of obvious ways to do this. One is to rank skills by power and make the more powerful skills cost more to obtain. (A lot of MMORPGs use some form of this approach.) Another would be to treat all skills (and all levels of skills if you have skill levels) as equally difficult, but calculate the learning cost of each new skill based on the number of skills you already have -- the more skills you have, the harder it is to learn a new skill.

As for limiting skills -- usually through a class system -- I believe that casual players are better off with an unlimited skills system than they are with a class-specific skills system.

As evidence, I offer the continuing success of EVE Online and its effectively unlimited skill system. I say "effectively" because while there are a limited number of skills, the amount of time required to learn all the highest levels of all the existing skills is so great that it would take years to do so, by which time the developers will have added new skills to learn. But EVE is still playable by casual players because skills are learned over time, rather than by collecting and cashing in skill points.

Consider the skill Connections (which improves your standing with NPC agents, opening up more quests that you can take). No matter who your character is or what other skills your character knows, no matter when you started playing EVE Online or how many hours a day you play, your character is going to require at least two real-time weeks to learn the fifth and highest level of the Connections skill. Your character learns at the same rate regardless of whether you the player are online in the game or offline, so every player enjoys an absolutely level playing field.

In short, there's no level grind in EVE Online, and thus over time no significant disparity between veteran and casual players. It's a thing of beauty. And there's no reason at all why other games can't figure out some equally creative alternative to mindless grinding.

Why impose hard caps on skills when there are other (and better) ways to regulate the growth of character power?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Improving NPC AI

What do NPCs amount to in most MMOGs?

1. Mobile loot bags. Pop them like piƱatas! Repeat as long as you like.
2. Quest dispensers. Push the button, out drops a quest pellet.
3. City decorations. Because the appearance of life is close enough.
Personally, the impression I get is that developers, when pressured by the money people to justify the costs of creature AI and motion capture sessions for player character models, try to combine those two activities to claim that "we'll have amazingly realistic non-player characters!" You've got the humanoid walk cycles; you've got the mob AI... just slap on a coat of pre-scripted conversational paint and bingo! Perfectly acceptable NPCs.

Like I said, the technological side makes it tough to give NPCs plausibility. But it sure would be nice if someone gave it a serious try. Even if having "smart" NPCs limited the number that could exist in the world, that might be a tradeoff worth making.

Better to have a few reasonably sensible-acting NPCs than a world full of sheep-mobs in people clothing.


It's not that I don't like NPCs in MMOGs -- I just expect more plausibly sapient behavior from something that looks like a sapient being. If NPCs can't act in a plausibly intelligent way, it might be better not to have them. An NPC that just stands there when a battle starts raging three feet away does more harm to a game world than it helps. It's just not plausible behavior.

Of course that word "plausible" is open to interpretation.

There's been a lot of work done on game AI (by which I mean behavior, not pathfinding). Will Wright referenced this in a Powerpoint presentation he gave that used his upcoming Spore for examples. One of his points is that you can get plausibly intelligent behavior out of simple systems. It's not necessary to spend years and millions of dollars on an AI system for your game that brute-forces apparently intelligent behavior -- there are ways to do it that rely more on designing a simple system whose apparently complex outputs arise from internal state-transitions.

(Again, this isn't some recent breakthrough. John Conway was talking about it with his Game of Life for cellular automata back in the 1970s, and the alife people have been chattering about this approach to AI ever since.)

I'd say you could probably get the job done in a MMOG with three key features:

  • The mob can express a range of appropriate actions (fight, run, barter, converse, etc.).
  • The mob contains a few internal variables with multiple states.
  • There are a few rules that define how states can change and which actions are triggered for each state.
This is probably close to the system most MMOG designers already use for NPC AI, of course. The thing that puzzles me is why MMOG designers stop at just two or three state variables and only two states per variable -- that's where the power of this system resides! (Your homework assignment for today: "deterministic finite automata" from the Compiler Theory branch of Computer Science. Great stuff.)

At any rate, I'd like to see a little more effort put into NPCs. They don't have to act like players, but they do need to appear to have some plausible motivations and behaviors or they really hurt the believability of the game world.

Oh, and on the subject of "memory" of quest completions and so on: Yes, it's true that you don't have to actually store the memory of who completed a particular NPC's quest with the NPC. You can store it in the player's records in the database.

The thing is, "completed quests" probably get their own table, assuming the game uses a relational database. From the storage perspective, there's no difference between locating quest memory with an NPC or with a player -- the fact of completing an NPC's quest still gets stored somewhere. And that stuff adds up.

Which brings me to the larger point I was making (though not very well), which was that it's always easy to say, "Hey, I just want to add this one new table for storing when players do [X]." But every one of those tables gets multiplied (in the worst case, which you have to prepare for) by the number of players you have. Each individual new table (and the pointers to the records in those tables) adds up.

If a MMOG designer doesn't take a hard position on the creeping accumulation of new features that require more database storage, eventually it could start increasing your storage hardware costs... and if it really gets out of hand, you could wind up with performance problems.

So (I conclude) every new feature has to be considered not just for its coolness factor, but also for the storage cost (in addition to the development costs). If the value of the feature is clearly worth the cost, OK -- but that question has to be asked.


If I seem like I'm contradicting myself here, I sort of am. On the one hand, I'm agitating for better NPC AI; on the other, I'm shaking my finger and warning against feature creep.

That's what happens when you wear both a player hat and a wannabe game designer hat....

Monday, January 23, 2006

Instant Travel Considered Harmful +

Reasonably fast mounts aren't a problem, but teleporting is. Mounts and vehicles -- if implemented carefully -- add to a world by giving players interesting choices to make.

Both super-fast vehicles and teleporting fail that test because they take the "interesting" out of "interesting choices." When a feature is all plusses and no disadvantages (and costing a lot never remains a disadvantage for long after the game launches), there are no choices to make! When there's an obvious "best," everyone who can will always take the best. El yawno.

Mounts and vehicles need disadvantages to balance their advantages. I don't mean gimping them in some obvious way just to quickly solve a gameplay problem; I mean limiting their utility in appropriate game situations so that there's rarely a "best" solution in all cases.

For example, let's say there are four main modes of travel: walking, mounts, vehicles, and ships. Walking can take you anywhere on land, but it's slow. Mounts can move you on land faster than walking, but can't negotiate steep terrain. Vehicles can go very fast on land (and some might be able to go slowly on water), but can only travel quickly over roads; in other terrain, they're not much faster than walking (but they can carry more stuff than a person). And ships can go relatively quickly over water, and can carry big loads of stuff, but can't go over land and are subject to being blown off course (this last might be optional).

This creates a system in which not everyone is traveling in exactly the same way because some travel options work better than others in different situations. People get to make interesting choices based on their goals.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Character Advancement in MMORPGs

Why do we need character levels in MMORPGs?

The usual reason given seems to me to be little more than an unquestioned belief that characters must "grow" in MMORPGs. Level mechanisms are then implemented to achieve that goal.

But where's the evidence that all characters in MMORPGs must somehow advance in power? It's a common belief, but are there valid objective reasons to support that belief? Is character advancement really the most revenue-positive of all possible approaches to the online RPG play experience? Or do most games only wrap their gameplay around a character advancement model for no reason other than because most other MMORPGs work that way?

Let's look at this character advancement model thing. To keep the conversation interesting, I'm going to diverge a little from my preferred objective approach and instead begin with a conclusion: the assumption that characters must "grow" through some in-game mechanic is no more than an assumption; it has no basis in objective reality as being so much better than any other approach that it must always be the core of every MMORPG. Character advancement, in fact, imposes some problems, which means that it's not necessarily the best approach for every MMORPG -- some games would benefit from a core design in which characters don't advance in innate abilities as a result of (or reward for) gameplay.

The rest of this essay will follow that "we don't need no steenkin' character advancement!" belief to see if it can be justified. Can we really have good MMORPGs that aren't wrapped around character advancement?


To start with, there's nothing sacred about character advancement. It's a gameplay mechanic, and that's all it is. That means it's not perfect (because nothing related to human behavior will ever be fully acceptable to everyone). Implementing any kind of mechanism for improving innate character abilities (such as skill-learning or level-raising) as a reward for accomplishing gameplay goals generates certain pathologies in online games because people will abuse any automated reward system.

Specifically, character-advancement games, with their emphasis on "high-end" content, send the message that you can't access the really fun content until you've maxed out your character's levels. This causes players to grind for XP in order to reach the highest level as quickly as possible. Instead of having fun playing a game, players must work to reach a point where they can (eventually) start having fun playing a game.

By acknowledging this problem -- which is what a good designer ought to be able to do -- we can start to look for alternative mechanisms of play that don't suffer from this effect. These alternatives might have problems of their own, but at least then we've got a palette of design choices. If our game doesn't need the "character level" advancement mechanism, we don't have to use it; we can try something else... like not having character abilities that "grow" through gameplay at all.

The one great advantage of deep-sixing character levels is that you as a designer no longer have to worry about pacing the leveling treadmill because there are no levels. You could still have skills; you could even have different levels of particular skills -- they'd just all be learned during character creation. Instead of trying to find way to minimize grind time to level up as rapidly as possible, players would be free to spend their play time enjoying using the skills they gave their characters.

I happen to like this approach because it's oriented more toward exploration and artistry than toward achievement, which is already plenty advantaged in MMORPGs. But the fact that I personally like it may not be the best measure of the value of an idea. Like any design solution, a MMORPG without character advancement is definitely going to have some kinds of problems of its own. The question is, what are those problems, and are they really worse than the problems generated by character advancement?

So OK, let's consider the usual objections to designing a MMORPG that's not wrapped around the idea of character growth. Here are some of the perceived problems I've heard expressed regarding the "no character growth" design, and my responses to those objections:

1. Players are used to progression-based games, and will reject a no-character-growth game as too different.

This one could be true of many who currently play MMORPGs... but who says a game has to focus on attracting only current players?

I don't even know that the assertion in the objection is true. How do we know that enough players won't adopt a different kind of game to make that game viable? Remember that once upon a time there were no MMORPGs at all -- a lot of tabletop RPG players managed to make that transition. Personally, I suspect that the only people convinced that "players don't like change" are the publishers who want players to stay locked into genres that they (the publishers) think they have a big market share of.

Should game designs be dictated by publishers? or by designers?

Overall, I don't believe there's enough hard evidence on either side to decide this one. The best way to find out if this objection holds true or not is to test it with a few otherwise well-designed no-character-growth games and see how they do. If we build several of them and no one comes, then fine, we can all go back to cranking out character growth games.

2. Without leveling up to occupy their time, players will focus even more than they do now on burning through content, so a no-character-growth game will have to provide a lot more content.

This objection is probably valid. The only way I can answer is to say: OK -- so provide more content than the usual character-growth game. If you're going to have an exploration game (as opposed to a collectible/achievement-oriented character growth game), then there had better be plenty to explore.

Best bet: Create large worlds (if fantasy) or large galaxies (if SF), then manage the expansion rate by limiting the top travel speed and not resupplying characters who go too far beyond the current frontier (sort of like the old tabletop wargame concept of units losing quality when they go out of supply).

The problem of providing plenty of content is a real one, and I don't want to sound like I'm brushing it off. I'm not. But I do think it's a more manageable problem than some people think, as long as we're willing to do some hard thinking about what we mean by "content." For example, I suspect that hand-tweaking procedurally-generated content holds considerable promise as an effective middle way between pure random-generation (too inartistic) and pure hand-crafting (good artists are expensive and need time).

Basically, if you're determined to define "content" only as loot and leveling up, then you might as well just make yet another character growth game. If OTOH you're willing to see content less as "stuff" and more as "experiences," then your game design options become a lot more open.

3. Not letting characters grow impedes the growth of the players who run those characters.

This is a concern that Richard Bartle in particular has expressed. One of Richard's beliefs is that some players grow as real people by playing characters. Through the act of pretending to be someone else, they learn about themselves; as they learn, they grow. Through this process, players slowly become more like the characters they play, and their characters become more like their players. Eventually there's no real distinction between the two; for Richard, this player has completed his or her Hero's Journey. (This is my very brief restatement of Richard's position; if you're at all interested in it you must read Richard's book Designing Virtual Worlds to get this argument in his own words.)

To some people (probably those more interested in virtual worlds as games to be played than as places in which experiences can happen), this will sound like a silly argument. I don't agree; I think it's a serious statement about what it means to be human. In the end, how we behave as human beings is the only thing that matters. The way that these game worlds help people engage in that process of becoming full humans makes them important, and makes this question of player-growth-through-character-growth worth considering respectfully.

That said, while Richard may be correct that players can grow by playing characters (and I believe they can), I'm not sure he'd agree that character growth is necessary for player growth. The key is not whether some arbitrary system for leveling up is implemented -- what matters is that players can have a wide range of experiences (through their characters) that illuminate their values. In that case, a game design that rewards players for engaging in different kinds of gameplay could be just as effective for helping players grow as persons as a game design that rewards players for scaling an artificially constructed ladder of character levels.

I'm not saying I think KOTOR should be used as a values education tool, but I do think it's a good example of how "character growth" can be about more than just gaining power, and can still be a lot of fun.

More to come on this subject....

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Achiever Rewards vs. Explorer Rewards

The more I think about MMOG design, the more importance I place on recognizing that people have different playstyles. What's "fun" for one person is boring to another. So games need to be designed with this in mind; designers ought to understand the major playstyles and evaluate every game mechanic according to how it supports the preferred playstyles of their intended audience.

Assuming we can agree that there are such things as "Achievers" and "Explorers," and that both kinds of gamer are worth attracting, how can we uniquely reward each of these playstyles? (Note: I believe Socializers are also worth attracting, but that's a different thread.)

To appeal to each of these types I come back to the main difference between them, which I believe is an emphasis on what is concrete versus what is abstract.

Consider the old adage "give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll feed himself for a lifetime." You can imagine this kind of conversation between an Achiever and an Explorer in a MMOG. The Achiever walks up to an Explorer and asks, "Hey, is the fishing good here?"

The Explorer, assuming that the Achiever needs a long-term solution, will reply by explaining how sunlight, air temperature, water convection rates, and local vegetation patterns interact to determine how likely the fish are to be biting in any place at any time of day.

After about ten seconds of this, the Achiever reaches into his backpack, pulls out a Potion of Exploding, throws it into the water, and walks off with an armful of the fish that float to the surface. And the Explorer will be left standing there with his jaw hanging open.

What's going on here is that we have different concepts of what's important, but we tend to assume that everyone else shares our style. When that proves not to be true, we're surprised; we assume that the other person is a fool or a nut. In fact, they're just operating under a different set of rules about what really matters than the rules that we use.

In the case of Achievers and Explorers, what really matters starts with externals and internals, with form and function, with concrete facts and abstract theories. (It doesn't end there, but it's the most important difference.)

For the Achiever, things and data are more valuable than ideas and feelings. Intangibles like perceptions and theories and concepts aren't "real"; they aren't things that can be collected and stored and spent and measured. So Achievers prefer rewards that are immediate and material. The bigger the pile of stuff, the more security you have in an inconstant world. (Killers, whom I prefer to think of as "Manipulators," also prefer concrete rewards. But because their secondary motivation is change rather than the Achiever's desire for stability, they're much more interested in spending than in saving. Manipulators lust for the thrill of the kill, the rush of the object- or person-manipulating experience.)

Explorers don't see as much value in objects as Achievers. As far as the typical Explorer is concerned, anyone can collect tokens; what really matters is the knowledge of the principles and effects of token-collecting. Explorers value seeing beyond the external forms of things into the internal rules that determine the functionality of things. Knowledge about a thing isn't particularly worthwhile unless it gives you some insight into the structure of that thing and the nature of that class of things.

So what about MMOGs? What does all this analysis tell us about specific game systems and mechanics for rewarding both these kinds of gamers?

As noted earlier, the Achiever's preference for concrete rewards makes them relatively easy to satisfy. Cash and shiny loot, accurately keyed to the difficulty of the challenge that was overcome to obtain them, are the main motivators for Achievers. After that come the more social rewards, which we can summarize as "badges" -- that is, public indicators of achievement. If you offer them the chance to collect money, an interesting variety of pretty loot, and plenty of public status markers, Achievers will play. (Note that these three rewards constitute short-term, medium-term, and long-term inducements to continued play.)

Explorers are harder to satisfy because their needs are more abstract. The key may be to consider the difference between surface data that can be collected in bulk by immediate observation (which Achievers can do) and analysis of data within which patterns can be discerned and from which principles can be derived (these being Explorer specialties).

This why I keep harping on depth of systems. If all you have are surface connections, Achievers will quickly do whatever grinding is necessary to list those. Game over, man! But if there are deep and nonlinear connections within and between systems -- if different configurations produce different effects, and if those connections can't be fully understood by simply grinding through all the possible options -- then the people most likely to master these systems are Explorers.

To summarize: Achievers can discover facts, but Explorers discover principles. Explorers will love a game that has deep principles and rewards the discovery of those principles by the truly curious player. In a word, let Explorers "tinker" with things. We love that; we'll spend all day tinkering with things if you let us, and we'll feel rewarded in the process of tinkering.

Another way of highlighting this difference between Achievers and Explorers can be summed up in the words "factory" and "laboratory." Where an Achiever will usually be interested in Production and Sales, an Explorer is more likely to gravitate toward Research and Development.

Explorers want to be "creative." The opportunity to create new things will draw Explorers like honey draws bears. But note that "create new things" does not mean "crank out a bunch of identical new objects." That's Production, and it bores Explorers. (On the other hand, designing a new process that increases productivity might not be boring at all to some Explorers.)

What Explorers want most, I believe, is the opportunity to design uniquely new objects. A game that requires creativity and a deep understanding of functionality to develop an entirely new class of objects, and which permits players to do so, would instantly capture the enthusiasm of every Explorer. Even better would be if this included the possibility of designing very large and extremely complex systems that allow other players to tinker -- you wouldn't be able to keep most Explorers away from such a thing! (Explorers aren't tool-users; they're tool-builders.)

Unfortunately, this is tough to offer in a multiplayer game. "Sandbox" virtual worlds allow players to create new objects. Second Life, for example, lets players use its scripting system to create interesting new objects which can then be manufactured for other SL players. Explorers tend to love Second Life for this reason. But virtual worlds such as WoW and SWG that are much more game-like almost never allow this level of creativity from players. In the first place, there are technical constraints to allowing anyone/everyone to generate unique kinds of objects; in the second place, there are serious gameplay balance concerns related to giving players design powers; and in the third place, publishers cite potential legal questions of who owns the "new" player-created objects.

Having said all this, I believe there's an opportunity for a clever developer to allow some kind of R&D feature in a game world. Personally, I'd love to see this in a MMOG in either a system allowing the design of new objects or new magic spells (or, best of all, a way for intrepid players to discover new ways to combine these two disciplines). But I recognize the difficulty in this; it may simply be too time-consuming to create such a powerful feature when there are more critical gameplay features that must be developed. (Although I would argue that offering such an Explorer-friendly feature would go a very long way toward creating a valuable balance between Achiever and Explorer subscription numbers.)

Finally, it's possible that, rather than an in-game reward, Explorers might be better motivated by meta-rewards, by benefits provided not in the game but outside the game. (Presumably Achievers would find such rewards less satisfying.)

Membership in something like an "Inventor's Network" or "Arcane Association" might be a nice reward for players who demonstrate both a strong understanding of the principles of the more abstract gameplay features and a willingness to help other players understand those features. (The alternative of letting anyone mark themselves as a "Helper" was tried in SWG. Mostly it just resulted in anyone so marked getting pestered for handouts by beggars.)

I suspect it's the more social Explorers who'd value membership in a group as a reward, though. Extroverted Explorers would probably enjoy such organizations. The less social Explorers would probably prefer rewards that recognize curiosity and creativity without requiring interaction with strangers.

Honestly, "how to reward Explorers" is a really hard problem. We don't even know how to do this properly in real life! The typical Rational (Explorer) who quietly figures out a principle will inevitably be overlooked by the company they work for, while the Guardian (Achiever) or Artisan (Manipulator) who applies the principle reaps the credit, the cash, and the promotion. Application is just easier to see and appreciate than design -- it's simply how we humans work, and I don't seriously expect the developers of a multiplayer game to figure out a solution to that when so few others have.

The best I can suggest is this: be aware that there are Explorers, and that they have useful roles to play in a persistent game world. Try to design game systems for them to explore in creative ways, but don't offer concrete rewards for doing so -- focus instead on building world systems so deep and technically rich that discovering their secrets is a satisfying long-term process in and of itself.

That should work. :)

Monday, January 16, 2006

How a Game Industry Institutionalizes

I got interested in systems design something like 25 years ago, and I continue to be fascinated by it. (It's fun to discover similarities in apparently dissimilar things.)

In all this time of looking at things as systems, and seeing some basic principles that seem to apply to almost every system, there's one in particular I find especially fascinating. It's that systems, when they're delivered, tend to create constituencies that, because they benefit from that system, don't want it to change. Unless the system's controller is able to fight this effect, eventually that system will cease to do what it originally did because its priority has shifted to self-preservation.

This effect shows up in a lot of places.

1. Any programmer can tell you what happens when you finally ship a product. If it's good enough that people want to use it, those users become a constituency. They become proprietary about certain parts of the program and won't let you change those parts in any meaningful way, even if you can clearly demonstrate that some significant change would actually make the product more useful for them. At this point, the only way you'll be able to make the major changes will be to replace the program entirely. In a way, because the old program could not adapt, it had to die to make room for the new one.

2. I stopped worrying about monopolies when I realized that they're a great example of this effect. When you get so big that you have no competition, you stop growing. You cease to adapt... and then technology changes, and some upstart company sells people what they really want while you're still trying to sell them what you happen to be able to make. Basing your product development plans on who's king of the mountain today is not a strategy for success when today's mountain can become tomorrow's molehill.

3. Government is another great place to find this systems-effect. Agencies are brought into being to solve a problem. If they do so to any degree at all (or if their PR is good enough), they develop constituencies, not just of the members of the public who are served but of the civil servants, bureaucrats and other apparatchiks who staff that agency. Once this happens, the agency's focus inevitably begins to shift from performing its stated function to preserving its current form. Systemantics by John Gall points out this process with devastating effect.

4. James Grier Miller's Living Systems Theory describes the multiple functionalities an organism must have to be considered "living." By his definitions, not only can individuals be said to live if they have certain functions, such as decider, encoders and timers, but group organisms from city councils can be considered to be alive. Accordingly, these systems also demonstrate the ability to adapt to changing environments, and the need to continuously adapt in order to survive.

5. The most powerful exploration I've seen of this tendency toward self-preservation over problem-solving can be found in Carroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations. Quigley observes this same effect operating on civilizations. As he put it, civilizations come into being when a producing society develops an instrument of expansion. However, the forces that enable this to happen because they benefit from it eventually divert more resources to themselves than to the civilization. Quigley called this process "institutionalization" of instruments of expansion, and presented evidence that when it happens, a civilization has exactly three choices: it can reform the institution back into an instrument of expansion; it can circumvent the old institution (which now cares only for its privileges) with a new instrument of expansion; or it can proceed to becoming a Universal Empire which, after it consumes its reserves in a final Golden Age, falls apart and is absorbed by a neighboring civilization that has an instrument of expansion.

What's the point of all this?

It's that chasing established constituencies is usually a dead end. Even when you do wind up being the successful copier -- the so-called "second-mover advantage" -- what you get for your effort is a fading constituency. The consumer can ignore your offering, thinking "Everybody knows that so-and-so already did X right, and I've already got X from them, so why should I get it again from you?"

So I modestly propose a couple of suggestions:

1. For MMOG developers, stop chasing World of Warcraft. After a market or genre is done right by a successful second-mover, there's little point in copying them unless you're satisfied with leftovers. Instead, be like Microsoft, who, after failing in the early 1990s to copy Novell's highly successful NetWare for local area networks, looked into the near future to see what would be likely to be the next technology controlling access to information and discovered this thing called the "Internet." Result: Novell tried to preserve itself intact by catering to its LAN constituency, but became a footnote in history when that constituency was circumvented out from underneath it by someone offering a clearly more powerful new technology.

2. The same lesson applies to computer game development generally. Instead of looking for what's popular today (existing genres) and refining it to its ultimate form, circumvent constituencies by a) looking for gameplay capabilities that are likely to be available in the near-term future, and b) building a game that will be ready to exploit those new capabilities when they hit sufficient penetration among consumers. Maybe that game will be a blend of two old genres. (Who's up for a turn-based strategic simulation game besides me?) Maybe it'll be the first game in a new genre we haven't even imagined because the technology to support it wasn't yet imaginable. Either way, as soon as you've done it, everyone will say it was obvious. ;-)

No, this approach won't guarantee success. "New" doesn't imply "good." But given that copying the most popular games in a well-mined genre is no guarantor of success, either, why not try the more revolutionary alternative?

Will the Real Explorers Please Stand Up?

I am an Explorer. Hoo, boy, am I ever an Explorer....

Some of you may be familiar with a famous essay by Richard Bartle, one of the two creators of MUD1, the earliest successful multiplayer computer RPG. After watching players for some time, Richard perceived four common styles of playing.

He documented these types in his essay, "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs". Bearing in mind that today's graphical MMOGs are basically souped-up MUDs, his conclusions are still required reading for anyone who likes thinking and talking about multiplayer game design.

I won't go into all the details; those of you who haven't read Richard's essay should absolutely go read it right now. (Go ahead. I'll wait here for you.) (Now that you're back, I should mention that since his essay, he has further developed his four-type scheme into a system of eight playstyles. You can learn more about this -- and many other things that are absolutely crucial to multiplayer game design -- in his wonderful book, Designing Virtual Worlds. If you're at all interested in this kind of thing, you will not find a better guide to what's really required. It's that good.)

Of the four player types that Richard Bartle proposed -- Killers, Socializers, Achievers, and Explorers -- I'd like to say two words about those last two types: Achievers, because so many games these days are strongly oriented to that playstyle, and Explorers, because so many games these days aren't... but should be.

(Note: What follows is my own interpretation of Richard Bartle's concepts. I'm not trying to relay his beliefs, so please don't criticize him for anything I say here.)

Here are what I see as the distinguishing features of the Achiever and Explorer types:

  • Achievers are motivated by a desire for security, and seek it through collectibles: loot, money, status, fame, loot, guild membership, leader boards, loot, badges, ranks, and loot.
  • Explorers are motivated by a desire to know and understand, and seek these through experimentation: building, observing, analyzing, hypothesizing, mapping, boundary-testing, and structural decomposition and reconstruction.
There are some important things to observe about these two playstyles.

1. Different playstyles need different in-game rewards.

Notice how the goals of Achievers are often concrete -- loot, badges, kill stats -- while the goals of Explorers are more abstract. Explorers seek knowledge of structure, theories, cause-and-effect relationships.

This distinction matters when we're talking about game design because it's a lot easier to imagine how to code a tangible thing than an intangible thing. Programming a leader board, for example, is fairly straightforward. (Though offering one in-game in an in-context way may not be.) Ditto for loot, and for money, and for badges. But how do you program a game reward for something like "boundary-testing"? What does a reward for "structural decomposition" look like?

As a result, MMOG developers produce more game features for Achievers than for Explorers. This is not a successful long-term strategy... but more on that in item #4. For now, suffice to say that Explorers just aren't going to be motivated by Achiever rewards, any more than Achievers would value Explorer rewards. Take public recognition as an example. While Explorers don't mind getting recognition for the quantity of knowledge they've collected, it's not a major motivator (and it can actually hurt Explorers by attracting recognition-seeking Achievers). The typical Explorer is, on the other hand, very interested in earning the respect of their fellow players for the quality of their knowledge and the competence with which they collect it.

This can be a difficult kind of reward to offer in a game where once anyone knows something, the whole world knows it because someone (or something like thottbot) stuffed it onto a Web page. This is why the "personal recipe" idea -- the notion that each player requires a near-unique list of items to craft a particular object -- has become popular. It increases the quality of information.

Although I think this kind of mechanic may be a step in the right direction, I'm not completely sold on it. My preference would actually be for a world where "knowing how" is the province of only a few particular kinds of players who personally enjoy having technical skills and using them effectively. If you don't pick up those skills, you won't be nearly as effective at technical tasks as someone who did choose to earn those technical abilities.

Mathematics is a great example of this. Suppose someone gives you an enormous ballista. By the time you got done figuring out through trial and error how to aim it to hit a target, your target would have pincushioned you with flaming arrows. But now suppose you can hire a mathematician, who after one firing can calculate exactly where you should aim to hit your target. You don't understand the math, and frankly you don't care to... but you sure can appreciate someone who did choose to master that technical skill.

That someone would likely be an Explorer, who would probably get a huge kick out of a game that actually rewarded them for picking up a "geek" skill... as long as there are other uses for that skill beyond just whatever helps an Achiever. Nobody wants to play a hammer -- nobody wants to have value only so long as they're a good tool for someone else to use.

Let Explorers have specialty skills that enhance the gameplay of others and that promote the discovery of even more arcane knowledge. Find ways to reward them for the quality of their knowledge and their skill at acquiring the most difficult knowledge. Let them achieve a reputation for learning and wisdom that has value far beyond merely acquiring loot. You'll wind up with a game whose players help each other have their own style of fun.

And that will be a Good Thing for everybody.

2. Exploration is about mapping terrain, but is not just about geography.

Certainly physical exploration of places is the most obvious application of "exploration." But when I say that "exploration is about mapping terrain" I'm not just talking about physical terrain (physical within the virtual world, that is). To create a "map" of "terrain" is to produce a more convenient but still useful representation of a thing that has texture.

Sure, a map could be of some place's topography. But we can also talk about mapping the frequency with which players visit certain cities, or about maps of economic activity, or even diagrams of crafting processes. All these things highlight what Explorers do: they discover and chart the internal features of systems. They uncover lore. (Explorers all think of themselves as Loremasters.)

If a MMOG implements "exploration" as game features allowing players to discover and map unexplored places, OK, cool. No objection. But it seems to me that a game that really wanted to reward Exploration would do more -- it would include game systems that are designed from the very beginning to be both broad and deep. That is, it would have numerous richly interacting systems ("broadness"), and each of those systems would offer meaningful complexity in itself arising from simple fundamental rules that interact with each other ("depth").

Once they'd laid that framework, developers of an Explorer-friendly game would then work hard to find many ways to reward players for discovering those interactions. Not through badges or leader boards or big recognition; those are Achiever rewards that tend only to encourage Achievers to act like Explorers (to neither's benefit). As hard as it may be for a non-Explorer to understand or believe, many Explorers value knowledge for its own sake. For them it's enough that they can put together a map of the Shadowy Chasm of Certain Doom, or figure out the secret code that reveals the location of Captain Greenbeard's treasure, or discover which ingredients increase by 25% the efficacy of the formula for making Potions of Clearmindedness.

Maybe they'll share that knowledge, or sell it. Maybe they don't. Maybe they use that knowledge. Maybe they don't. For the Explorer, it's just really cool to know it. A game that wants to encourage Explorers to play will find ways to respect that worldview through explicit gameplay and world features that reward it.

3. Crafting is not just about sales.

Explorers tend to enjoy crafting in MMOGs that offer it. SWG attracted a lot of Explorers initially by offering a remarkably full-features crafting system.

But too many people think that "crafting" means "selling crafted goods." Not so!

Many (most?) MMOGs put the two things together out of expedience; it's just simpler to let the people who make things sell those things. But these are two very different kinds of game.

Crafting per se is about creation; it's about making, building, constructing, and about trying new combinations to produce unexpected results. It's a non-zero-sum game because you're adding to the total of wealth in the world by creating new wealth -- your success doesn't depend on anyone else's failure. So the creating/building part of crafting winds up being very attractive to many Explorers.

Sales, on the other hand, is a competitive game. A big part of the fun is measuring your success against that of others. This means it tends to attract not Explorers, but Achievers, since the latter are the folks who most enjoy collecting things like money and seeing whose stack is biggest. A sales game can be a lot of fun in a MMOG (EVE Online corp and market players know this well), but it's not for everyone. And it's not inherently part of a crafting game.

So my request to developers is to recognize this distinction. Don't believe that you can attract Explorers to your game by designing a crafting game that requires sales. A sales game is good if it can be played by non-crafters, and a crafting game is good if non-merchants find it rewarding in and of itself.

I offer some ideas on how to accomplish that in my "Player-Centered Crafting Design" essays....

4. Explorers help maintain strong communities.

Trying to attract Explorers by offering game features that respect and reward their interests is not merely about bumping up your subscription numbers with Explorers... although I personally think that's a nice benefit.

A massively multiplayer online game isn't a single-player game. At least as important as your gameplay features (combat, crafting, sales, etc.) will be the community of players that develops inside your game once you release it. Otherwise, what's the point of being massively multiplayer? If your players never need to interact with each other, you might as well save yourself the trouble of writing client/server code and just ship a single-player game with really clever bots.

Assuming you still want to produce a MMOG, it's not good enough to cater solely to Achievers. Achievers tend to become bored quickly -- like locusts, they swarm to a new game, burn through anything resembling "content," then zoom off again to consume the Next Big Game. (Note that I'm not anti-Achiever. Achievers, in proper measure, are good for a multiplayer game; they add tremendous energy. Their approach to gameplay doesn't make them "bad" or "wrong," it's just the expression of their motivations. They expect to be actively and continuously entertained by your product's gameplay features; once that's no longer true, they'll leave. It's that simple.)

Explorers bring multiple benefits to a persistent world:

  • They're great at answering "how do I?" questions because they know the answers and don't hoard them for advantage.
  • They're great at helping keep a game fun by freshening content... if you let them.
  • They tend to add atmosphere to a world by just being around doing in-context things.
  • The more outgoing Explorers make fantastic guides for Achievers who appreciate them.
  • Reward their love of crafting and they'll keep your world supplied with crafted items forever.
If you want to promote a long-lasting community in your game, if in short you want your game world to function and feel like a world, then you need Explorers. You need to explicitly design your game to attract and retain Explorers -- and Socializers, too -- because these are the kinds of players who treat the game world as a world. They form long-lasting attachments to a world, and to the other players in that world, and just by doing the kinds of things they enjoy, they perform the critical world-maintaining functions that benefit every player in that world.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Magic as Art and Science

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- Arthur C. Clarke

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo." -- Anonymous

It's an old question, but it's still a good one: When developing a concept of magic for a work of fantasy (whether a book or a game), should it be presented as a form of science with consistent laws? Or should it be described as an ineffable thing that simply works because it does?

In other words, should magic be represented as a science or as an art?

Some fifty years ago, C.P. Snow (The Two Cultures) described a widening gulf between the artistic and scientific conceptions of the world. We don't seem today to be any closer to resolving that tension. I have trouble deciding it for myself (in general, and in how magic is implemented in computer games) because I can see both sides too well.

On the one hand I'm one of those crazy INTP "Architect" types. I make sense of the world by building taxonomies and cause-and-effect structures to see how well observed reality fits within that model. If some model doesn't match reality in some way, I try to change the model to achieve a closer fit with reality. Life is a quest for a better model of the world.

To someone like me who reads science fiction and fantasy, then, this "build a better model" attitude makes the temptation to try to construct some set of foundational principles for "how magic works" almost irresistible. It's even worse when I play a game or read a book in which no thought appears to have been given to how magic works, in which the creator just threw something together that seems to get the job done. That drives me nuts. Where's the logical consistency? Where's the coherence of effects? Where's the control point that allows for controlled experimentation? Where's the system that suggests opportunities for new forms of magical expression? (I said I was one of those crazy Architect types. ;-)

I naturally think of magic as a system, with rules governed by physical reality of some kind that can be described and understood. And then I want to explore those rules to see where the interesting exceptions live. That's what science does.

But on the other hand, something in me rebels at exposing beauty to harsh lighting and a microscope. Why can't art simply be? Isn't something of value lost when you analyze a thing down to its component molecules?

In his stories, Lord Dunsany liked to refer to the world "beyond the fields we know." Tolkien was going after something similar in his concept of "Faerie." These artists and others have shared a concern that once something becomes familiar, it loses its power to inspire. Without an incomprehensible and inexplicable Other beyond our power to understand, without a bend in the road beyond which anything could exist, without the possibility of joy and hope despite pain and loss, the world becomes a gray and dusty ant-hill of soulless mortals scurrying this way and that to no purpose.

For an artist, that's an unacceptably bitter thought. Existence in a world without beauty is unendurable.

I don't think of myself as an artist, but I respect that part of the artistic temperament that tries to ennoble human nature. Like the artist, I also want to think of magic as tapping into the power of a world of brightness that can't even be perceived by the gray bureaucrats of our world. Maybe it's possible to learn how to control this otherworldly power; maybe such power can only be requested in an extreme circumstance and is never certain. But what it can't be is understood, because it simply is. To understand it would be to crush the very quality of ineffability that gives it its power. You may use it, but you may never possess it.

I find this concept of magic strongly appealing as well.

So I'm stuck. I love the idea of building systems of magic, but I know that to do so risks squeezing the glamour completely out of magic. You probably have to build a system if you're designing a game that allows player characters to do magic... but when you do, it's no longer about beauty, it's about numbers, and a spark of something larger than ourselves is lost in the pursuit of cold game mechanics.

I'm still trying to resolve this dilemma, and I'm curious to hear what others think about it. Does the tension between art and science matter in general? Can it ever be resolved in a computer game?

Instant Travel Considered Harmful +

There's an interesting difference between a portal system and a summoning system. Namely, in a portal system you can choose to zip to a place for any reason (or no reason), while in a summoning system you're pulled to a place because you're needed/wanted there.

I believe this difference means that a portal system would result in people bypassing terrain by default, while a summoning system would have people zipping past terrain mostly to serve the specific group goal of a quest or raid. I think this favors the summoning approach as that would produce less content bypassing, but I'm open to disagreement on that.

Both portals and summonses have some interesting possibilities as transportation systems. Assuming that you've designed the world properly and that there's some reasonable world-story behind it, there's no reason why you couldn't assign the teleporter function (in either "push" or "pull" mode) to any in-world object.

So you could set up a teleport pad beneath an obelisk in a city as a gate to another place, letting it activate every ten minutes or so to send whoever's on the pad at that time to some specific location in the world. (Pretty much standard behavior.) Or you could assign the same function to a portable teleport pad that you pull out of your inventory and drop on the ground. Such a pad might be set to activate automatically when someone steps on it... and what if such pads could be invisible? It ought to cost a mountain full of cash to keep such things running, but it would be an interesting twist on minefields. *evil grin*

Another way to apply the teleport function might be as a kind of last-resort device. Push the button (or however it's invoked), and any enemy within ten feet of you gets transported to a random location (not inside any object!) 100 feet away. If you're getting ganged up on and need to make a quick getaway, such an object could be quite valuable. (Do I even need to mention how insanely expensive something like this should be to construct?)

An attachable teleport capability could work in pull-mode as well, albeit a little differently. For example, you could set up a one-shot summons marker in your home town plaza. When activated either on some condition (low on health/mana) or by a device ("Beam me up, Scotty!"), you're pulled to that location. Another possibility would be to put summonses on several small objects which could be given to friends, and key them to a master device. Activate the master device, and no matter where they are, whoever's got one of the small objects gets pulled to the location of the master device. Great for pulling groups together very quickly.

You get the idea.

Finally, the issue of griefing should be mentioned. (I didn't earlier, but this might be a good time.)

Blocking other people from accessing things, and doing things to other people without their consent (even if that consent is only implicit), tend to be considered griefing and will really, really irritate players. If a portal system can be blocked, that might make IC sense and even contribute to interesting gameplay, but it's still going to make some people very unhappy. They're not going to care that defense of a transportation node is realistic; they're just going to be upset that they can't go where they want when they want. A "summons block" (like the "teleport block" in Steven Brust's great "Jhereg" novels) will have the same effect -- it might be a very cool ability, but it's really going to tick off some players.

That means a couple of things. First, it brings up the question of whether objects should be collidable. If a game's developers haven't started dealing with this yet, eventually they'll have to... and when they do, they'll find it's a huge headache.

Among the flags that need to exist for every object are these:

  • Can the object exist in the world on its own (outside a player's inventory)?

  • Can the object be placed by a player, or picked up and moved by a player?

  • Is the object collidable to any degree?
If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, you may have a "blocked access griefing" problem. But if the answer to any of these questions is no, you may have other problems!

Not letting any objects exist in the world that can at some time have been in a player's inventory makes the world feel insubstantial. If you can't leave some mark on the world, how is anyone to know you've ever existed? As for collidability, it just feels strange to walk or fly through some large, substantial-looking object.

The second issue is the question of consent. If you allow players to do things to other players without their consent (like teleport them), you're absolutely going to hear howls of outrage. "I was right in the middle of [X]!" But if you require consent for teleports, you not only lose a number of opportunities for fun gameplay mechanics, you have to build a consent GUI ("Do you agree to [Y]?" And when you do that, you risk enabling "pester griefing" as someone repeatedly causes a consent GUI to pop up on your display.

I tell you, the code for MMOGs of any kind would probably be about half its usual size and take half as long to create if developers didn't have to hammer out special logic to prevent the many forms of griefing. Sigh.

Developing a massively multiplayer game is definitely not all fun and games.

Strategy vs. Tactics 1

Given how popular combat is in MMORPGs, there’s a lot of discussion about how to implement it. As I read many discussions of what people want, I'm noticing a lot of players -- and even some developers -- using the terms "strategy" and "tactics" interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. But they aren't -- they're two very different concepts.

I believe that the combat team leader who knows and appreciates the differences between strategy and tactics is going to outperform the one who doesn't. With that in mind, I offer the following notes.

(I should point out here that while I’ve studied this stuff pretty intensively as a historian and student of game design, I never served in any branch of any military. If that kills the value for you of anything I might say on the subject, feel free to skip to something else that looks more interesting.)

Modern military doctrine generally recognizes four levels of control in military action:

  • Tactics
  • Operations
  • Strategy
  • Grand Strategy
Tactics are the hands-on, environmentally determined actions taken to win battles. To put it another way: tactics are techniques. Examples of tactical action include: how to set and spring an ambush; how to detect an ambush; how to move quietly through hostile territory; how to probe enemy positions to gain intel; how to dig a fighting position; how to properly place observation, listening and command posts; how to place mines for maximum effectiveness; how to capture a bridge intact; how to rig charges to blow a bridge; how to cross a river without a bridge; how to place, set up, fortify, and guard an encampment; and so on.

Note that all of the examples given start with the word "how" -- that's not accidental. Tactics are all about "how," as opposed to "what" or "where" or "why," which are properly determined by the next military levels up. Every MMORPG I know of is almost exclusively concerned with tactics. So the first thing the good squad leader does when a new MMORPG comes out is explore -- go find out what the environment is like in lots of places, and play around to try to identify ways in which players can interact with each other and with the environment. That's how you learn what the physical rules are that govern the environment. This battlespace intelligence will cue the smart squad leader to the tactics that will make him successful.

The Operations level is the level concerned with specifying battlefield objectives -- the "what," as in "what bridge should we take?" "what hills, if we take them, could block the enemy's resupply lines in this area?" "what training do we need to be prepared to carry out our mission?" Operations is the "middle-management" of the military, translating the strategic goals enunciated by general staff officers into plans for action, and passing intel (friendly and enemy) back up the chain of command for decision-making. Ops bosses look at enemy positions and strengths in their area, and at the assets and capabilities of the units under their command, then based on these myriad factors devise operational plans for pitting strength against weakness to be able to advance constantly from victory to victory. In most MMORPGs, the only operations-level activity comes from raid leaders who keep their units together over multiple missions, and who thus keep track of player attributes and skills, types of weapons and amounts of ammunition, and who possibly coordinate with other raid leaders to achieve victory across an entire battlefield.

Then, and only then, comes "strategy." If tactics are how you win a battle, strategy is how you win a war. Successful strategic-level thinking is concerned with the logistical movement of entire armies and materiel to achieve total military dominance. If you've read Sun Tzu's The Art of War, you know that this general was not nearly so concerned with how to win any particular battle as he was with demonstrating such force of arms as to win entire wars (even before they begin if possible). Strategy, as Sun Tzu articulated, is the formulation of specific but broad-scale and long-lasting military goals. When General Norman Schwarzkopf was given his orders (from the "grand strategy" level of commander-in-chief and joint staffs chairman) to "liberate Kuwait," he didn't think about tactics or operations: he looked at the national maps; he looked at the intel on enemy strengths and locations; he looked at the troops and materiel gathered during Desert Shield; he listened to the ideas of his Central Command staff officers; and then he thought. The strategy he devised is what we now call the "Hail Mary Strategy" that moved entire coalition armies around to the west and then north of Basra to cut off the line of retreat for the Iraqi army in Kuwait, while feinting to distract enemy attention with a fake landing of Marines to the east of Kuwait City. This wasn't a tactic for winning a battle, or a plan for controlling an area, nor was it even a strategy for hammering a foe into dust. It was a strategy right out of Sun Tzu for demoralizing an entire enemy army to the point that it surrendered en masse -- which is exactly what happened. In Star Wars terms, Grand Moff Tarkin was acting strategically when he used the major power at his command (the Death Star) to destroy Alderaan. This wasn't to win any battle; it was to shatter the will of the Rebellion to fight, and thus to win the entire war. That's strategy.

Finally, the highest level of military control is the "grand strategy" level, where military force is combined with political force to achieve a restructuring of power among nations or even civilizations, creating balance of power effects which may last for centuries. The grand strategy of Rome two millenia ago was to expand by the dual use of military force to conquer new territories and peoples, and the political inducement of offering Roman citizenship to conquered peoples to eliminate rebellion before it even started. We today see mostly the fall of Rome after it declined into Empire, but their grand strategy served them very effectively for hundreds of years. Similarly, the grand strategy in Star Wars is devised and ordered by the Emperor Palpatine. It was Palpatine who encouraged the predations of the Trade Federation that led to his selection as Chancellor; it was Palpatine who directed Count Dooku to lead hundreds of star systems to secede from the Republic, thus permitting Palpatine to create the clone army that would serve him as he converted the Republic into an Empire. Pitting Senator against Senator, and clone army against battledroids, Palpatine skillfully executed a grand strategy of combined political manipulation and military force that allowed him to become the all-powerful Emperor.

Until the grand strategy of the light side of the Force proved stronger.


Personally, I'd be pleasantly astonished if there were any in-game mechanics to support operations-level activity. As far as being able (as a player) to make strategic-level decisions goes... well, they'd probably find me days later, an emaciated wreck, my hands still on the keyboard and a grin on my face. :)

Until then, it will reduce confusion to bear in mind that virtually all combat activity is current MMORPGs is tactical, not strategic.

Here are some useful references on this subject:

Wikipedia entry on Strategy
Strategy defined
Books on strategy

Instant Travel Considered Harmful

Should some form of teleportation from anywhere be allowed in game-y MMOGs?

This is an old and painful question. Achievement-oriented players typically object (loudly) to being "forced" to spend more than a few seconds going from Point A to Point B no matter how far in space these two points may be separated. For a lot of these players, the "world" aspect (travelling should take time) is far less important than the "game" aspect (any time spent travelling is time wasted because it can't be spent playing the game).

On the other hand, if you let most of your players avoid terrain, some undesirable things can happen:

  • less congregating, which is good (less lag), but also bad (less socializing)
  • less need for traveling merchants (which takes away a valuable economic activity)
  • less need for guides who know an area (again, loss of an economic activity)
  • less clustering of homes by roads (hurts immersion)
Insta-travel is definitely one of those "game" vs. "world" choices. It's the difference beween "playing in" and "living in" a virtual world. A metafeature that makes live-in players happy can frustrate play-in players -- and vice versa -- because it prevents them from playing the game they think they should be able to play.

Either choice of travel options has consequences for everyone who plays. That's why you have players "telling each other how to play the game." Transportation has consequences for everyone.

1. Consider the no-instatravel option. The good thing about expecting all your players to deal with geography is that it gives the game world texture. By "texture" I don't just mean physical topography -- I also mean economic and storytelling depth.

When you define some areas as being harder to travel through than others, and you carefully regulate the transportation mechanisms available, you immediately generate a large number and variety of interesting choices for your players. For example, maybe dangerous places need guides. A player who knows an area could serve a useful (and possibly lucrative) role guiding other players through the area.

Or perhaps it's possible to learn specific transportation skills, such as Ferrying or Short-Range Teleport. Allowing players to learn and use such specialized skills lets your players help each other. That contributes to an interconnected and diverse economy, which is usually a Good Thing. (Though it's also true that such skills need to be of limited scope, and payment models need to be reasoanably grief-proof. But that's a whole 'nother essay.)

In short, letting your world have geographical texture means more economic opportunities for your players. It's not just a RP thing; it's about making sure your players can do a lot more things than just beat up on the local wildlife. That's not just a worldy feature -- it's about having gameplay options. As such, it benefits everybody who plays.

2. At the same time, plenty of players just aren't interested in such second-order effects. If it's too hard to get to the exciting content, they won't play... and (up to a point) that's bad for everybody who plays, too, because a living, breathing, dynamic virtual world needs people in it.

The trick is to let these folks have the specific thing they want, but cut back on the negative effects by imposing a cost to this benefit. (This follows what I believe is an important game design principle: Let players do what they want, but every action should have a proportionate consequence.)

I never played Shadowbane, but I've read that it had a feature called Summoning that could teleport other players to the summoner's location. I like that... but with a twist: allow some players to be able to summon other players, but give this ability a cost that inversely proportional to how many people are grouped with the summoner. If you're by yourself, it's going to cost you a bundle to Summon one other person. But the more people you're grouped with, the lower the cost per Summons.

The value of this approach is that it enables groups of people who like playing together to get together with relative ease, but it retains the beneficial effects of geography in other situations.

There are probably a lot of other (and better) ways to resolve this particular tension, but this one seems like it might work... I think!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics

I’ve addressed elsewhere the question of whether magic in books and games should be presented as a science or as an art. I didn't come to a conclusion, other than that both forms can be fun to experience.

For example, Ursula K. LeGuin's original Earthsea trilogy (definitely not including the brutish fourth book tacked on years later) was in large part so wonderful because it evoked some aspect of what we find so fascinating about "magic." The Earthsea trilogy expressed the "magic as art" position superbly.

For the other approach, I can't think of a better example than Lyndon Hardy's novel Master of the Five Magics. There were two semi-sequels, but MOTFM nailed the premise of magic as a scientific undertaking.

Because it took a somewhat more mechanistic approach to magic (as opposed to LeGuin's naturalistic interpretation), I'm a little surprised not to have seen the concepts of magic as expressed in Hardy's book show up in some MMORPG already. For those who haven't had the pleasure, the five systems used by Hardy and their governing laws are:

  • Thaumaturgy
    • The Principle of Sympathy: like produces like
    • The Principle of Contagion: once together, always together
  • Alchemy
    • The Doctrine of Signatures: the attributes without mirror the powers within
  • Magic
  • The Maxim of Persistence: perfection is eternal
  • Sorcery
    • The Rule of Three: thrice spoken, once fulfilled
  • Wizardry
    • Law of Ubiquity: flame permeates all
    • Law of Dichotomy: dominance or submission
Hardy's Thaumaturgy is what we usually think of as magic. Using the principles of sympathy and contagion, it's possible to move things, to transform things into other things, and otherwise manipulate one's environment. (These principles were used to great effect by de Camp and Pratt in their very funny "Compleat Enchanter" novels, as when their hero shortens a jailer's nose by forming a model of it in wax and melting it.) However, a strong spell requires a great deal of energy, such a from a fire or a flywheel. And thaumaturgy, while rule-based, is not an exact science -- sometimes changes don't stop when they should....

Alchemy is mostly as you expect it: by properly blending items with the appropriate attributes you can obtain a final product with superior virtues, such as oils of heat resistance or gold from lead. The only problem is that each step of the blending process has a chance of failure -- for example, four out of ten times a particular step in a process might produce lightning or an explosion instead of the intermediate product you actually want. So you have to start with a much larger quantity of initial substances than you wind up with... and the more complex the changes, the more steps are required (and the lower the chance of success on each step).

Hardy's Magic is used to create magical objects. By repeatedly performing rituals of great complexity, common objects can be imbued with properties they can confer to their user. Rings can make their wearer invisible, carpets can fly, glass spheres can give light, and so on. The more perfect the ritual, and the more persistently it is applied, the greater the power of the object. Naturally, if you fail to correctly perform any ritual at any point, the object being given power will probably be destroyed.

Sorcery grants the arts of illusion, of enchantment, of clairvoyance, of fate, and of prophecy. Each of these is activated by speaking a charm three times, which sounds simple enough, but the more complex charms do not want to be said -- each word becomes more difficult to utter. The most complex sorcerous charms are nearly impossible to speak, but must be said without error (and cannot be abandoned once begun). A mistake will produce hallucinations, pain, and even death in the most powerful cases. But even if one succeeds, some amount of one's life force is drained away forever. Cast too great an enchantment with too little life force remaining, and goodbye.

Finally, Wizardry is about summoning and binding demons to your will. Flame is used as a connection to the demon's realm and the Law of Dichotomy requires that there must always be a contest between the summoner and the summoned. Fail to dominate, and the summoned demon will control the summoner.

The nice thing about all these powers is that there's a cost to them. None of the five magics are to be taken lightly, even if you succeed. In a story, that's great for setting up dangers to be overcome; in a computer game, it would be excellent for producing a more thoughtful approach to the application of power. No charging in swinging with these abilities!

Hmm. And maybe right there is the answer why these five styles of magic haven't been used in a new MMORPG....