Game talkThe march of commodification

 Posted by (Visited 7374 times)  Game talk
Dec 122007
 

So I got an email announcing ChatBlade, a new MMOG chat system middleware package; a specialized enough need that it would have been kind of inconceivable a few years ago as a business. Which leads to speculation on where we are headed in terms of innovative virtual world tchnologies. And now, I have to open this post with an anecdote (even though they say to write for blogs the way you write for newspapers: put the lead first!).

Once very long ago (“long ago” here defined as circa 1995), I logged into some random LPMud. I don’t remember which one it was, but it had an idea I liked a lot and decided to steal for LegendMUD. In that mud, you see, they had simple moods & what today gets called by some “say alts” — commands that were exactly like the SAY command, only you could grunt or groan, wail or whine, and these say alternates carried emotional content that you didn’t get with plain old SAY, WHISPER, SHOUT, and TELL. I went back to Legend and designed a speech system that handled moods and say alternates.

At the time, it was common for muds to have those four commands, which do four very different things; and it was common to have language systems, which made elves not understand orcs, etc.  Drunken garbling of text was also a common feature.

At first the system supported a sort of “natural language” reading of text:

Herodotus says absentmindedly, 'Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.'
Herodotus whines, not really paying attention, 'Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.'
'Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,' Herodotus proclaims absentmindedly.

You could make your whole character moody (“sticky” moods), or you could use a mood as a one-off prefix.

Because the natural language look didn’t always have the name first on the line, some folks disliked it; it made it harder to scan text to visually filter the chats you were interested in. But stats a while after it was introduced showed that the vast majority of players were using it. It turns out that prose is plain old easier to read for a lot of people, perhaps because we get so much practice. And roleplayers loved it. Over time, moods support got added to entrances and exits:

Herodotus wanders in from the north, staring vaguely about.
Herodotus wanders off to the north, scratching his head in befuddlement.

and to global chat, socials, and so on. Meanwhile, those who hated it (powergamers, mostly) wanted more efficient text streams, so from that side, support was added for a variety of highly concise text layouts that looked more like IRC. These spread eventually to combat messages, so you could get a highly mathematical view of the action.

Later on, we put pretty much the same moods system wholesale into Star Wars Galaxies (and even made room for a pretty concise combat text stream on a tab, for powergamers to use in fight analysis). I think EQ2 then also integrated moods. And in SWG, taking a cue from Microsoft Research’s Comic Chat, I got the chat parser to also detect certain keywords — but more importantly, emoticons — and automatically play socials and moods, tie into chat bubbles and their artwork, and so on. This turned out to be incredibly powerful, just like “sticky” moods were, and most everyone used it. (Footnote: I had almost forgotten about Comic Chat at the time, but was prompted to recall by this MediaMOO panel, plus seeing the wonderful implementation in There, which supported intensity by doing emoticons that looked like this: :)))))

I could walk through almost the same narrative all over again with chat bubbles, by the way. But it doesn’t matter. All of this is by way of pointing out that ChatBlade supports moods out of the box. And elvish. And drunken speech. And even stuff that back in 1995 when we were doing moods was weirdo cutting-edge roleplayer stuff that few muds implemented, like nickname support; and stuff that was added over time like verbose versus concise chat formats.

It’s part of the march of commodification: what once was basically an R&D effort (in the case of Comic Chat, quite literally an R&D effort) is now an out-of-the-box feature in middleware. This is a natural progression: something useful comes along, it raises the bar, competitors have to adopt it, then over time someone makes it a common piece of tech and everyone has it.

Well, MMOs used to be moon shoots and increasingly aren’t. In fact, even some of the really tough stuff is starting to get incredibly easy (and I am not just talking about Metaplace here, though we keep finding that stuff that used to be scary huge engineering effort turn out to be easy).

Commodification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it theoretically enables greater innovation because “the basics” are covered for you. On the other hand, you can end up with “stock mud syndrome” where all the games look the same. On the gripping hand, having lots of offerings that are basically the same limits the audience, creates monopoly situations, and caps the market.

At some point, of course, even selling chat middleware will make little sense because even big complex systems like this will be commodified as well: so common that they get given away. It’s instructive to think about what the crazy things are that will be commodified to the point where they are given away: software for seamless multiserver clusters? RMT-in-a-box Station Exchange style systems? Spore’s procedural modeling and animation techniques? Robust alife-based procedural world simulation systems?

At some point soon, all of those things which seem somewhere between hard and R&D are going to be off the shelf components. And perhaps the key sign of it is that the current big wave of mainstream MMOs have virtually no R&D in them. Off the shelf SmartFoxServer, Makena engine re-uses, simplified versions of AAA MMO game systems… It’s time to start thinking about what the new R&D is now, because based on this press release, it takes 10 years to get from R&D start to middleware end. :)

  24 Responses to “The march of commodification”

  1. Yes, but does it have a “talk like a pirate” dialectizer?

    Can it translate the twerp dwarf when he types “D00d, dat wuz so awzome” to “Heh, I that was the most fun I’ve had outside a meadhall in three hundred years.”

  2. There’s other things to watch out for as well —

    “stock home syndrome”, where you start to identify with your furniture

    “stock boy syndrome”, who has you want, but doesn’t want to climb that damn ladder again

    “stock yard syndrome”, maybe your game has too much senseless slaughter? aw, what am I saying… it’s all about the senseless slaughter…

    “stock photo syndrome”, huh… this tree looks just like the last dozen I passed…

    “stock car syndrome”, your epic mount only turns left…

  3. Reading their FAQ, I noticed that they say everything is written in standard C++, there’s nothing specific to Windows/DirectX/OpenGL/etc (except in some of the examples). The thought occurs to me that something like this might make a good open source project, as part of an open-MMO ecosystem.

    Also, note to ChatBlade: 1997 called, they want their “Web Design for Dummies” back.

  4. I just had to comment because the mood/emote system in SWG was one of my favorite things about any MMO/virtual world, ever. When you started describing its implementation in LegendMUD, I was thinking, “Hey…I remember that in Galaxies.” Raph, thank you for putting such an awesome system into the game!

  5. R&D – I’ve been pushing text-to-speech for quite awhile, as well as better conversational AI.

    Chas wrote – “Can it translate the twerp dwarf when he types “D00d, dat wuz so awzome” to “Heh, I that was the most fun I’ve had outside a meadhall in three hundred years.”” – Personally, I’d rather the client on the d00d’s side give him an electric shock through his mouse/headset.

  6. I hope that Chatblade allows for user definitions of verb effects. One thing that really annoys me about today’s implementations of emotion verbs is the way they stick some descriptive text on the end. I type /laugh, it says I “laugh uproariously” or somesuch. No I didn’t, I just laughed! If I’d wanted to laugh uproariously, I would have typed /laugh uproariously. On another occasions, I might want to /laugh at your enormous weapon. Why the fixed text? It makes my character do things I don’t want it to do.

    MUD2 had hundreds of these verbs. It only takes an afternoon and a thesaurus to add them. It also had useful ones for other purposes, for example exiting the game world, so in today’s parlance /bye have fun would send everyone on your default channel the message “Richard bids you bye, have fun” and then quit you. There are legions of things people can do using this kind of old technology if they care to look at it.

    We also had synonyms. You could synonymise anything in the vocabulary with any unassigned text, including verbs. In today’s usage, /syn mmnnnmnmnn y would mean you could use y instead of mmnnnmnmnn, for example – useful for those tedious names, but also for commands or spells or NPCs or whatever.

    Simple emotes are absent from many modern worlds, too. You have to hit return to type a message, OK, fair enough, but by make it JUST a return? How about allowing ‘ or ” instead of return? OK, so that isn’t in itself a great gain, but once you accept the possibility of entering communications text without hitting return, you can use other forms, too, for example ;taps you on the shoulder. I’m staggered that simple freeform emotes like that didn’t make it to WoW. Maybe they wanted to cut out the cybersex…

    Other simple input parsing can make a difference, too. If I type “How are you? then how hard it is to notice that ? and report it as “Richard asks ‘How are you?'” (or however you like it punctuated). End in ! and you get exclaims. If you want to override it, use the verb: /exclaim This is odd?

    Oh well, I’m sure all these wheels are just waiting to be reinvented…

    Richard

  7. Freeform emotes in WoW:
    /em text goes here

    gives custom emote of the typed text with the character’s name in front of it.

  8. Raph, in response to your post a while ago about what I/we think your blog should be about–this is it. This is the kind of post i look for from you that spurs my thoughts on design and the implementation of technology that affects my design concepts/philosophies.

  9. Simple emotes are absent from many modern worlds, too. You have to hit return to type a message, OK, fair enough, but by make it JUST a return? How about allowing ‘ or ” instead of return? OK, so that isn’t in itself a great gain, but once you accept the possibility of entering communications text without hitting return, you can use other forms, too, for example ;taps you on the shoulder. I’m staggered that simple freeform emotes like that didn’t make it to WoW. Maybe they wanted to cut out the cybersex…

    SWG and UO supported the MUD conventions of using : for emote and for say. SWG, WoW, EQ, etc, all support /emote (which is abbreviated to /em for most folks) and I think many systems also support /me which is the IRC standard.

    Other simple input parsing can make a difference, too. If I type “How are you? then how hard it is to notice that ? and report it as “Richard asks ‘How are you?’” (or however you like it punctuated). End in ! and you get exclaims. If you want to override it, use the verb: /exclaim This is odd?

    Legend (and SWG) did the opposite, which was to pretty up the text for yo: add capitalization, put the ! ? or . there for you (depending on the mood, command, etc). It was optional, but it made everyone at least look literate. :)

  10. I’m not so sure the commoditization of this kind of chat feature is inevitable. Has any major MMO since SWG implemented either persistent moods or smart prose for chat? In our case we talked for a while about “stances” (which were exactly the same as moods only sounded more piratey, I guess) but ended up not doing them because that was a couple days of coding and a ton of animator time that we wouldn’t be spending on core game systems. I would certainly enjoy spending a weekend implementing such things, but I would put them pretty far down the big sorted feature list. They would probably starve to death down there.

    It really seems like animations and sound effects are a more common way to spend this kind of dollar these days. See the explosion of dance emotes and things like /train in WoW for examples.

  11. I always liked the excellent option-return for emote implemented in the old Hotline clients. Spell checker and adaptive auto-complete seem like some features that would be nice, and doubly nice would be a simple voice client in it.

  12. @CPinard

    L33t translator! :) If we’re doing auto-completes.. It could be a client-side option “translate all l33t speak to human readable format”.

    @Raph

    I think there are still lots of opportunities for R&D in MMO systems, just maybe not in the very basic stuff like movement/chat/etc. For example, we’ve yet to see an MMO really do underwater environments extremely well. Or dynamic weather. Or heck, something we’re missing from MUDs, the ability to examine items and objects and learn more about them, and maybe pick up hints and clues for later. Example:

    ———————

    >You go North.

    A Plaza
    A giant pillar rests here, fallen on its side in the center of the plaza. Ruined buildings line the edges of the plaza, most fallen in upon themselves, with plants and small weeds struggling up through the cracks in the debris. The center of the plaza is a tile mosaic depicting some kind of religious scene.
    Exits: North South West

    >look mosaic

    The mosaic shows a priest standing at an altar in front of a great temple. The priest holds a staff with a large green crystal in one hand, and another, larger green crystal can be seen glowing inside the temple.

    ——————

    Graphically this stuff doesn’t get done nearly as often as it did in text MUDs, which is really a shame because it adds a lot to the world.

  13. Raph>SWG, WoW, EQ, etc, all support /emote (which is abbreviated to /em for most folks) and I think many systems also support /me which is the IRC standard.

    Yes, I know, but (except for SWG) they don’t have a single character for it (ie. : or ; or both). I really don’t know why they decided that; it’s as if they wanted to discourage it.

    In addition to drunk mode, of course, there are other modes such as lisp, stammer and stutter that players like for role-playing sometimes. Probably politically incorrect nowadays, of course…

    David>something we’re missing from MUDs, the ability to examine items and objects and learn more about them, and maybe pick up hints and clues for later

    I’m not in favour of this kind of thing myself. If you have to examine every single object just in case it gives a clue, why make people type the command? Just tell people outright, or give the text in a mouseover.

    Richard

  14. Yes, I know, but (except for SWG) they don’t have a single character for it (ie. : or ; or both). I really don’t know why they decided that; it’s as if they wanted to discourage it.

    Why just a single character? Why not an entire window? I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but I think Guild Wars uses an icon dropdown next to the input box. If you had an input box devoted to outputting emotes, you wouldn’t need a single character to trigger the emote. Just the Enter key. Or maybe mouse gestures? How could emotes be improved beyond textual input?

    Voice recognition? Real-time motion capture? Do away with the chat window altogether. Equip users with mocap gloves and headsets, give the technology a big push, and there you have an advancement in human-computer interaction. But then you have to think about accessibility, so the chat window comes back for those who can’t speak or move their arms.

  15. I did a lot of research for the HumanML project prior to walking away from it. The basics of emote systems are not difficult when under user control. They get a little more interesting when you add proxemics because that adds emergent effect. Once you allow for cultural properties and individual history properties, they are expensive but still not difficult. They are all applications of vector-based logic systems not unlike the concepts of Topical Vector Indexing and Topic Maps.

    The sad bit was reading an application for a patent on the basic concepts as elaborated in the OASIS lists for HumanML from a small beltway company financed by the usual suspects this year. This is why commodification has a rotten side effect: work done in the open to advance the standardization if not quickly patented or submitted as IP to an open IP organization will be harvested, rebranded and captured by a private organization.

    Anyone doing open list work, in fact even contributing ideas to blogs such as this one should understand the risks.

  16. It’s instructive to think about what the crazy things are that will be commodified to the point where they are given away: software for seamless multiserver clusters?

    Errr… Project Darkstar is already an attempt to provide that for free.

  17. SWG had the best chat out of the MMORPGs I have played. Lots of nice innovations. I have not played any since with as good of a chat system. Most MMOG’s tend to have very rudimentary chat.

    ChatBlade supports Quick Commands as Mr. Bartle suggests. ; and : are both the same as typing in /emote. In addition a few other Quick Commands are included (! = /say, @ = /guild, $ = /auction, etc. ).

    Freeform /emotes are included in ChatBlade, so Richard could type in /em Laughs uproariously. But any emotes which include animations are left to the Game Studios to implement.

    Players are also able to create their own Slash Commands out of existing Commands, so one could “/syn Backflip, /emote Backflips” to make a new Slash Command called /backflip, which is the same as typing in “/emote Backflips”.

    Players can also modify the initial Slash Command interface to be what they are used to without having to issue a /syn command. So if the player is used to /g being group chat, they can set that up and are not reliant on what the Game Developer thinks should be the command that initiates chat with ones group. Most current MMOGs all have hard-coded Slash Commands and too often they change what the players are accustomed to.

    An Underwater chat filter might be an interesting thing to see in chat.

  18. [...] Raph Koster blogs about ChatBlade and Commodification   [...]

  19. [...] competitive advantage. Instead, it is the unique (and fragile!) community that a service fosters. What we are missing: Another Raph presentation. Worth reading if you have somehow missed the joyous [...]

  20. [...] competitive advantage. Instead, it is the unique (and fragile!) community that a service fosters. What we are missing: Another Raph presentation. Worth reading if you have somehow missed the joyous [...]

  21. [...] competitive advantage. Instead, it is the unique (and fragile!) community that a service fosters. What we are missing: Another Raph presentation. Worth reading if you have somehow missed the joyous [...]

  22. [...] Koster had a recent post on his blog that was pretty interesting. He talked about how we’re slowly moving to a more [...]

  23. [...] worlds merrily went on developing more elaborate systems, such as moods and adverbs, and eventually these made the jump to a couple of graphical worlds. We also saw systems like that [...]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.