Thursday, May 25, 2006

Social Engineering in MMORPGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2006

Game Worlds Should Be Internally Consistent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2006

Do We Need a "Corporation for Public Games"?

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

I would say no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gameplay Pacing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Toward More Plausible Mob Behavior

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

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

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

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

Juvenileplayrun to parentdefendescape
Juvenileinvestigateattackrun to parentescape
Juvenileplayinvestigaterun to parentescape

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

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