Justin Achilli

Month: May, 2010

Melancholy to Celebratory

Congratulations, you’re the new lord of… Cragspire Keep, a ramshackle ruin perched atop a harrowing mountaintop.
Many of the original works by the pioneers of the modern fantasy form characterized their work with a sense of loss, melancholy, or active decline. Jack Vance had his Dying Earth. Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon was a medieval Koch-era New York mixed with Rome at its lowest. Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne lingered in a post-Dark Age and his Zothique teetered at world’s end. Robert E. Howard’s Conan (and Kull, and Bran Mak Morn) stories made much of the loss of Atlantis and the decadence of the world’s cities in decline. Even Tolkien, whose writing is the very model of epic achievement in the face of overwhelming enemy opposition, made it clear that “Middle” Earth was one in transition, a place from which the elves were leaving, into the depths of which the dwarves retreated, and even men were only temporary occupants. Later-generation works, such as Gene Wolfe’s New Sun tales took place (speculatively…) in a future earth after an unnamed cultural shift in which mysterious ruins and lost technologies pose threats to man’s descendants.

Many of gaming’s modern titles abandon these feelings of loss, sorrow, and nepenthe. (Of course, the current trend in modern fantasy fiction is away from this fin de siecle, too, with its plowshares-to-archwizards and its definitive victories over unrepentant evils, but that’s a different kettle of squid.) It’s a fairly straightforward design decision: You don’t necessarily want your players leaving your game with a sense of dread or imminent collapse. You want them to feel good about their game experience. You want them to have collected an achievement. You want them to publish their success to their Facebook wall. You want them celebrating their gaming experience. Whether acquiring a new level in a tabletop environment like D&D or acquiring a new piece of epic equipment in WoW, you want your players, most of all, to experience a sense of accomplishment, of pride in reaching goals. 

Or do you? The empowerment I suggest here in this design blog isn’t always heavy on the “power” in empowerment, it’s often about the ability to share an experience.
Chris Hecker suggests that we may be making junkies out of our players via achievements: Are we training players to love the achievement but hate the task they have to accomplish to receive it? Constant positive reinforcement sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? But are you doing the thing for its own sake, or for the “ding!” artificially associated with it? 

And what of those wonderful worlds mentioned above, with their heady decay and marvelously evocative expressions of decline and ultimately loss? Is there room for them in modern gaming? There’s no definitive answer to the question right now. But would Conan have been so compelling if he sat the throne of a nascent world empire instead of crumbling Aquilonia? And would you have wanted to play Aragorn’s tumultuous rise to ersatz Gondor’s crown? What do you think?


Your Players’ Stories Are More Important Than Your Stories

Trust me. I’m a professional.
Understand that what’s being proposed here is a departure from most modern MMO design. The intent is to create a very different experience, with an emphasis on the living virtual world rather than on the static theme park or on the strict systems of the game. The results of what I’m talking about here would be more like a hybrid of Puzzle Pirates, EVE, and Facebook than they would WoW. In fact, for many of these, you don’t even need a heavy, processor-intensive 3D world client. That sort of graphical presentation is just gravy on the cake (to mix a metaphor in a pretty disgusting way).

Not that there’s anything wrong with making a game like WoW. Just acknowledge that you’re making a version of WoW with different static quests and that you’re never going to unseat WoW, and you’re good to go. 

But I don’t want to make a reskinned WoW.

Let the Player Do It 

You know that statement I keep making here? I mean it. Players like to undertake tasks that add depth and flavor to a world. If you think a task is boring and no one will do it, well, then 1) you’re wrong, and 2) why the hell are you designing such a boring game? Remember, if you make it possible for people to do, people will do it, so everything that makes it into your game needs to be compelling for someone.

For example, look at the Paragon Taxi Service in City of Heroes. (Thanks, @fauxreigner!) The Infinity Taxibots offer transportation, sightseeing, and help to players of the game, and they do it because they like interaction and helping make the world a unique place. Here’s an example of something in-game that people want and like to do not for the sake of advancement, level-grinding, or loot, but because in providing their services, they’re forging relationships and they’re making the game world an interesting place. 

Ditch Quests

This goat-headed thing is an NPC and thus a game piece, and in a static-content environment, no matter how many times you kill him, he’s going to respawn with the same non-goals of his own at the same stage of not doing what he says he’s doing.
More specifically, ditch doing quests for NPCs. Put the goals and objectives in the hands of the play— that’s right, you guessed it, “let the player do it.” 

This is the simplest, most fundamental element of living world design, and it’s the one that almost no one does at all. In fact, I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to go ahead an make a declarative statement. Achilli’s Maxim maintains that

A task undertaken for a real person in a virtual world signifies that the inhabitants have a stake in the condition of the world. 

By way of corollary,

A task undertaken for a computer-controlled entity in a virtual world signifies that the inhabitant may make no significant change to the world with regard to the terms of that task. 

These are universal truths, and any disagreement will be punished by horsewhipping in the streets.

Simply put, another player cares when you do something for him. A task you do for another player gives that player something he wants in the world (and you hopefully gain a reward from him, even if that reward is non-monetary or otherwise not a virtual item). An NPC doesn’t care, and the results of a task done for him at best create an illusion of change, and more likely result in no change at all.

So if you want players changing the world you’ve created for them, if you want an evolving virtual world rather than a static theme park, you need to have the players doing things for one another rather than doing things for imaginary people who don’t really care one way or the other if the task is completed.

What this means is that you’ll still need a tool by which you can create and verify the completion of objectives (and probably provide rewards). The twist here is to put it in the hands of the player. You shouldn’t have a legion of content devs writing quests. You should have a simple, player-available tool by which a player can create a task and shop it out to other players. No more bringing rat tails to apathetic NPCs — in a living world, your players are performing tasks for other players, and only when those other players want them done. 

A strong attempt, but CoH’s Mission Architect doesn’t break free from the yoke of static content.
Admittedly, player-created content is a grail quest in MMO games. The problem thus far is that it’s been implemented incorrectly. Second Life, for example (while not a game by strict definition), places no limits on what users can introduce into the world, and likewise gives them no directive as to what’s “supposed” to be happening in the world space. It’s a complete free-for-all there, and the experience reflects that, with its flying penises and furry sex romps in place of content that’s… well, less appalling and more consistently themed, to be charitable. The other side of the coin is City of Heroes’ Mission Architect system. This system allows players to write new missions for CoH — but they’re static missions and they don’t relate to player goals. In effect, they’ve made their story editing tool available to the players, but the players aren’t allowed to set their own goals or directly affect the world with the tool. The players in this case are just quest writers working for free (or for notoriety, etc.). It was certainly an interesting and laudable step for CoH’s devs to take, but the results are limited by the fact that they don’t really create content that benefits the players of the game over the course of their playing.

EVE has a system that’s similarly ambitious, but limited in practice. EVE’s contract system allows players to create a binding agreement by which the guy who wants his stuff taken somewhere leaves the stuff and sets the price, and the guy who transports the stuff gets paid on completion. It’s a great way to get a player to move items for another player. The only problem is that’s it’s effectively limited to courier tasks. There’s a “free-form” system also available in EVE, but all it really does is allow for player text input and price setting. It doesn’t actually check to see if stipulated objectives have been achieved. Thus, it’s little more than a verbal agreement, not much more robust than players chatting in the context of “do a thing and I’ll pay you for it.” 

What a player-driven task system requires is a way to set terms and a way to guarantee rewards. (It actually doesn’t need this last, and if you want your gameplay to have a lot of screw-you moments, or you want P2P tasks to become an issue of trust, you can skip it, but that’s an even more radical step than I’m proposing here. Human nature and all that….). For this system to work, the developer must expose a system by which a player can specify terms to be completed, such as with pull-downs, text-entry fields, or some other clever UI. Here, you’re basically constructing a sentence: Your task needs a noun subject and a verb to be performed on it. Bring Item X to location Y. Collect Z quantity of items A, B, and C. Protect player character D for a length of time. Kill player E. 


None of these goals themselves are radical. If you’ve played an video game before, you’ve probably done any number of them for NPCs in the past. The difference here is that you’re doing them for another player, and those player desires create more content and relationships. You’ve double-crossed me in the past? I take out a contract to kill you. I want to perform a world-altering event, but I’m worried about the other logistics right now, so can you grab three vials of ectoplasm for me? If you do, I’ll pay you, or I’ll grant you the benefits of the special event. Et cetera.

The outcome here is that you’re doing something for another player that’s allowing that player to affect the world, and, in doing so, you’re building relationships that likewise affect the world because they give you common ground (and thus common goals, which equal gameplay content) with other players. EVE called this the butterfly effect. 

Introduce Your Players to One Another

Oh, hey, look, a bunch of people who might want to play with me and who might even be subscribing to the service already. Make it easy to let your players take advantage of existing relationships.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why this isn’t more prevalent in MMOs. Where it is present, it’s in a half-assed way. One of the quests in FFXI, for example, was to assemble a small group and stand in front of a statue. Kind of cool, in that it was showing players how to group and doing it in a context that fit the world, as they were supposed to be revering a statue. But all the quest did was say, “get some dudes together and stand here.” It never introduced you to “how to meet other dudes who are playing this game.” 

Most games just throw you into the mix. WoW, for example, has quests labeled as multiplayer quests. You need two people to do this, it says in its conditions. Great. Where and how do I meet them? EVE falls a little flat here, too. New players begin play as members of a world-imposed starter corp… but they’re never told this and, worse, they’re never told that their gains are taxed as part of corp membership. You have to root through the corp tab to learn that. EVE does have a player-to-player introductory system, but I don’t know what it is and I couldn’t tell you where to find it, so, again, it’s buried somewhere in there and you have to happen across it.

Let your players search for friends via social media, make friend suggestions via interest, match players through playstyle analytics. (LOTRO does this last. Well, it shows a playstyle analytic in the social network, but it doesn’t actually suggest that players introduce themselves to one another based on the outcomes of those analytics.) Don’t just put a recruitment channel in there and assume that covers all your bases. Let them import their friends via outside social media, for example, and allow them to capitalize on the network of friends and other player’s they’ve already worked hard to cultivate. God bless you, Steam, for this wholly awesome feature. 

Create Supporting Content

To paraphrase a discussion I had earlier this week with an individual whose secrecy at this stage I shall protect, the function of your virtual world content is to make people want to tell stories (or form tokens). The function of your virtual world content is emphatically not to tell those stories on the content’s terms. 

The content in a virtual world must be places to explore, environments to affect, objectives to seize, mysteries to resolve. Virtual world content must foment player interaction and, if the players so agree, be the basis of crtain elements of player relationships. The content in a virtual world must not be NPC quests. NPC quests create dioramas, not worlds.

Let me find an item in your world that has a history attached to it, and some mechanical function. If the function appeals to me, I’ll use the item (probably on another player’s character…) or I’ll find another player who wants to use the item for her own ends. Remember those world-changing events and player-driven objectives above? They are the most valuable currency of your game. They create the infinitely refreshing content of your world and they are the vehicle by which you keep driving people back to your game. 

And that’s what you want, isn’t it? People playing your game?

In Conclusion

I say all this stuff like it’s a fait accompli, like you can just throw together a game that accomplishes all these things and you’ll be a millionaire.

The truth of the matter is that game development is hard. Extremely hard. The second-hardest thing I’ve ever done, behind being a parent. To put together a game that doesn’t do anything anyone has ever done before is even harder than extremely hard, because you’re making it up as you go along and you have to learn from your own design mistakes and the shortcomings of your actual game as it’s played in prototype, alpha, and beta. You have to listen to your players and accommodate their feedback — but not all of their feedback, or to the degree they suggest, because they’re likely primarily looking out for their interests first and foremost. (The best measure of this, so says my friend Sam, is when you have an equilibrium of complaints in your forum between “nerf X!” and “X is underpowered!” for each option available to players.)

But those are all concerns that happen later on down the line. It all starts with a good design, and a good design for an MMO is one that lets players play with other players rather than isolating them or restricting how they’re allowed to interact.


Another Reference in the Living World Discussion

Okay, I know I owe you all a new article (and a new Belluna installment, etc.), but this just turned up along the same lines as the conversation we’re having (at least partially). The point most relevant to our current discussion is:

[In EVE, ] A pilot with close to 7 years of experience is not about to ‘finish’ the games content, he is not about to ‘max out’ or finally acquire the ‘best in slot’ in everything. He is not waiting for the next content patch to have something to do. He is not taking a break until more ‘stuff’ is added. He is, in the purest sense, going about his business…

The rest of the article is available here, and it’s a good read.

Guild Wars 2 Plans a Living World

You know who has balls? Those Guild Wars 2 dudes. Ethan pointed me at this, which is in line with our current discussion here. So while I’m still banging away at part two, here’s an example of one planned method of creating the living world.

The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the NPCs

Disclaimer: I’m not speaking in any official or teaser capacity on this. This is just me talking.

If you’ve played many video games at any time over the past three decades, chances are you’ve run afoul of an NPC at some point. He probably stood there — or maybe he was extremely advanced and walked a patrol route of one to six line segments before returning on the exact same path — and asked you to do something for him. The first million times you did this, you were probably fine with it, but then it hit you: That NPC isn’t really a person. He doesn’t really care if I find his missing daughter, gather four corpse-thistles, or stick a knife in the ambassador’s eye.

NPCs make sense in a tabletop game. Tabletop games are run (in most cases) by a single individual, so all of the personalities in the world who aren’t players’ characters, are managed by that single individual. They also make sense in single-player games, in which a sense of interpersonal relationships has to be conveyed.

They are the bane of MMO design, however.

In a single-player game, this is fine. Especially a single-player game from the 8-bit era.
The entire function of an NPC is to create the illusion of an interaction with another person. One of the greatest travesties in the age of internet-connected gaming is the continued presence of NPCs. Why? Because, in an MMO, you have all those other real people. You don’t have to stick content-bots on your street corner to fool people into believing other people are there. It’s because
they’re actually there.

Back in 1643, when people were playing Wizardry and Pool of Radiance, NPCs were great. They took that tabletop RPG experience and let you play by yourself, assuming the role of the GM for you. They ultimately let you replicate the social activity of tabletop gaming if you couldn’t find a gaming group or had only finite time, or whatever other reason sent you to your computer instead of your gaming table.

Now, with high-speed internet connectivity, worldwide propagation, and greater numbers than ever before of people playing games online, NPCs in MMOs have only two excuses to exist:

The developer wants to dump giant buckets of exposition on its players, and uses NPCs to do the dumping via the clumsy illusion of dialogue.

The developer believes that people won’t want to fulfill the more commonplace duties of the world such as shopkeeping.

These are both bunk. Okay, maybe not pure bunk, but they’re the vanguards of developers that don’t want to let their players truly touch and shape their worlds, or that don’t have faith that their worlds are interesting. Consider the drawbacks of NPC-delivered content.

They Violate the Cardinal Rule of MMOs

The cardinal rule, of course, is “let the player do it.” With the massive amounts of people playing games, someone will take on whatever role emerges as necessary or enjoyable in the game. The tasks they undertake may be rare, but that’s okay — that rarity then becomes a facet of your virtual economy. When you have players depending on each other for in-game items and assets, you have a reason for them to be in contact with another. Playing together forms relationships, and socializing is what games are all about.

They’re the Anchors of Static, Stagnant Content

This guy is a terrible father. How many times a day, every day, can a guy lose his daughter?
When they die, they respawn. A world in which named entities respawn gives the impression that your actions don’t matter. You do a thing, it resets, and the world continues as if you had never done the thing in the first place.

You can cheat this a bit with clever naming schemes or instancing, but it doesn’t change the fact that the content in question remains static. For example, you can hide a quest-giver in an instanced location so that people who have already done the quest won’t see him again and won’t be reminded that he’s handing that quest out to every SOB who staggers past him (see the point below about disenfranchising players).

Even if you’re talking about a non-combat situation, an interaction in which the NPC disappears or appears elsewhere, or whatever takes him away from his sentry point or patrol route goes beyond the border of illusion and into the realm of blatant lie. Isaac the Arms Merchant isn’t really an arms merchant. Titania isn’t the faerie queen. Agent Jenkins isn’t your SAS contact. He’s not even a person, there because of his own motivations. He’s just another game piece placed there. You’re not having an interaction with him, you’re working your way through a preprogrammed exchange.

The One Thing They’re Designed to Do, They Do Poorly

Again, this is excusable in the early days of the medium, when everything was new, or in a game without other players, where individuals trade verismilitude for the opportunity to play a game with interpersonal interactions at all. But today? When technology as simple as text chat can allow a real person to be at the other end of that conversation? It’s inexcusably lazy design. It’s unquestioning adherence to “Oh, of course it’ll have quests. It’s an MMO, and MMOs have NPCs who dole out quests.”

At best, your “conversation” comes from an elaborate or randomized dialogue dictionary that vaguely conveys a sense of senility. (I remember walking out of my apartment in Grand Theft Auto IV and bumping into a bum on the street who shrieked at me, “You can’t get good drugs anymore!” Uh, okay. You’re telling me this why?) At worst, you get a single line of dialogue over and over. And most of the time it harangues you for having not yet performed the menial task the NPC doesn’t even really care if you do.

They Disenfranchise Players

You know who already has this exact same ring? Six thousand other dudes.
You did the epic quest? You fought your way to the top of the mountain? You faced down the perils of the avalanche, outwitted the wicked Ice Lords, endured the chilling winter winds, discovered the shortcut through the Rift of Frozen Souls, leaped the Hoarfrost Chasm, and finally plucked the Truesoul Gem from the deathless grasp of the Spiretop Witch?

Big deal. So did I. So did everyone who takes the quest at the bottom of the mountain, where Starchy Bushysprouts is offering it. It happens about sixty times a day. I have the exact same photocopy of the Durandal item you do. You’re not so cool.

So, What?

Despite my tone, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If “Hands off my world, you filthy, filthy player” is the developer’s intent, they’re a fine way to maintain setting integrity via stasis. Eleven million people subscribe to World of Warcraft, after all, so many players either actively like static content or don’t care. Or they haven’t considered it enough to seek an alternative. But this is also why Puzzle Pirates is a better MMO than WoW — all of the activities in the game affect the world the players share. Even if the player doesn’t know she’s creating an effect, or just wants to solo, she’s a part of every other player’s experience.

Next time, Part Two: What Am I Gonna Do About It?


Back From Mexico

Hola, amigos. I’ve been out of town for about a week, but am now back in the saddle. Content updates should resume presently.


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