Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Exploration in MMORPGs +

Originally Posted by eventhorizen:
Flatfingers, how do you go about creating an enviroment or items or mechanics that accomplishes that continual sense of exploration and discovery, and this exploration and discovery is more than just eye candy for the Hubble fanboys? Even Second Life with its vast volumne of continually player created content is little more than an electronic catwalk. How do you reconcile the difficulty of actively producing the 'new', with the contents and activity within the boundaries of a virtual world?
The short answer is that I don't have a good answer. I have ideas, but I don't pretend to know that they'd work. I just know that Explorers need something more than they're getting, and that some games are more appropriate for that something than others.

I also suspect I know the three hardest problems involved:

  • striking a game-focused balance between grinding (too much structure) and griefing (not enough structure)
  • devising gameplay rewards that appeal more to Explorers than to Achievers
  • designing the system to reveal its secrets slowly over time no matter who plays
I'm pretty sure I understand what you're asking. As I've said, I think a good exploration game includes not only physical exploration of geography but the mapping of abstract rule-systems as well. So just making 1000 identical copies of the identical item that every other crafter is making holds zero interest for me as an Explorer. There's no mapping of the unknown possible there.

On the other hand, exposing a mechanism for scripting completely unconstrained objects (as in Second Life) is guaranteed to lead to people making things that have nothing to do with the game. You're also guaranteed to get people using this ability to hose each other, as in Randy Farmer's now-legendary "Invisible Teleporting Grenades of Death" from Second Life.

The key word here is "game." Too many constraints on behavior and it's not a game, it's a manufacturing simulation. (I happen to like simulations, but they're not really games.) Too few rule-based constraints on behavior and it's not a game, it's a social world.

For an exploration/discovery feature to be fun as a game, it's got to hit some middle ground between too much structure and too much freedom.

The usual solution suggested is some kind of "construction kit." I've proposed that idea, too. I like the idea of building new things from simple rules; it seems to live at about the right place between structure and freedom.

But for a while now I've been thinking that focusing on exploration as item-construction is too limited, that maybe I need to bounce out of the box a little bit. (This follows the systems design rule of thumb that if you have a problem that isn't yielding to conventional solutions, then consider that you might actually have a meta-problem. That means it's time to step back, identify assumptions, and start selectively questioning them.)

What I came up with was the idea of distinguishing between artifacts and processes. Instead of letting players create entirely new kinds of objects under an existing set of rules, what if they could discover new rules? That is, what if discovery were about inventing new processes for making things?

From this I've been thinking that it might make sense to divide crafting into Manufacturing and R&D. (Or the equivalent names for a given genre/time.) Manufacturing would be the typical perfect competition sales-crafting game as it exists today in most MMORPGs. Achievers would be able to play the economic competition game they enjoy by acquiring raw materials at low prices and turning them into goods that can be sold for high prices.

Meanwhile, Explorers would enjoy R&D, which would be designed as more of a pure research game. This would be about coming up with hypotheses for how things work, devising experiments to test those hypotheses, and then documenting the results in a useful (repeatable) form.

As an example of this, R&D players might be able to use this method to apply various raw materials to each other to see what happens. From the results, they'd define processes for extracting useful minerals from their ores. These processes could then be combined into larger-scale processes that Manufacturing players would then pay to use in mass-producing desirable items.

For example, here is the well-known Hall-Héroult process for extracting aluminum from its primary ore (Al2O3, or "alumina"):

1. Crushing: alumina precipitate, Al2O3, is crushed to pebble-size.
2. Grinding: the crushed alumina is ground to a powder.
3. Melting: the ground alumina is dissolved in a carbon-lined bath of molten synthetic cryolite, Na3AlF6; aluminium fluoride, AlF3, is also present to reduce the melting point of the cryolite.
4. Electrorefining: electrolysis of the alumina-cryolite mixture produces carbon dioxide (from the anode) and liquid aluminum which (because it is denser than the molten cryolite) sinks to the bottom of the bath at the cathode as a precipitate.
A player who wanted to dominate some part of the Manufacturing game could license (or, for a much higher price, purchase) this process and a few others. Once a supply of alumina is obtained, the Manufacturing player could start making items out of aluminum.

But there's an obvious problem here. Namely, processes have economic value -- the more efficient processes are more valuable. That makes R&D a prime target for Achievers to create researcher alts so they wouldn't have to pay anyone for new processes. Unfortunately, Achievers are so good at brute-forcing their way through system spaces that it's possible they'd crowd Explorers out of the process-discovery game.

I haven't solved this problem yet. I have a feeling it's going to involve making the actual mechanism of forming and testing hypotheses so mentally challenging (i.e., not conducive to being solved by brute force, either individually or in large groups) that Achievers just won't be interested. There are some fairness issues with that approach, too, however.

At any rate, there's a snapshot of my current thinking on this subject.

So far. :)

Meanwhile, I tinker on....

Originally Posted by eventhorizen:
So what then? A massive scientific overhaul of every aspect of the game to provide virtual chemistry, physics, biology and methods of invention, research and creation? That sounds great to me, but it also sounds like more work than is generally added to any game, let alone a MMORPG.
I would say I'm aiming for something a bit less extreme than that, but yes, that's in the general neighborhood of what I'd like to see someone offer. The fun would reside in the exploration of the fundamental rules of the game universe.

Figuring out how to make it work as a practical matter, however, is hard. I admit that freely. Making sure all the secrets of the universe aren't posted on a discussion forum somewhere within the first month after the game launches, for example. (Sigh.)

But I also think something that accomplishes this is worth trying. The alternative is to continue to fail to attract what I believe is a severely underserved market of Exploration-driven gamers... and why let that revenue stream flow past untouched if there's a cost-effective way to tap it?

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