Oct 082010
 

MUD
Messrs Bartle and Trubshaw’s astonishing contrivance.

[edit: Follow along with Richard’s slides available here (PDF)]

Thank you all for getting up early or not having gone to bed yet. Feel free to keep cellphones on so if they ring they can wake people up.

I am going to tell you things that i have never told others before about the origins of MUD.

I am here because i cowrote the first virtual world MUD. Almost all today’s MMORPGs descend directly from them, but that isn’t actually relevant. What mattered isn’t that we were first, but that we were unaware of any others. We would have gotten virtual worlds anyway, the important thing is that when we did it we didn’t have anything to base it on, which meant we had to establish some principles and guidelines, and form views on what we were making and why.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson. So i won’t be talking about how our computers were the size of exhibition halls, or telling you how great text is compared to graphics, because it is an argument i have won many times and still lost, i won’t be telling you about how great permadeath is …. God uses it, it can’t be bad… And i won’t talk about customer service and how we managed the game back t hem, or how we tried to get money and what legal systems we used or didn’t care about.

Instead, “if i am to create a world, how shall it be, and why?” that is what i will be answering.

This is a picture of a snowman in a furnace in world of Warcraft.

When Trubshaw started, he was interested in the machinery, the technology. Rube Goldberg. Build an intricate machine and set it ping and whoa, it works. But he was also interested in making a world that was separate to and hopefully superior to reality.

I was more interested in the world creation side, to build a world where people could BE and BECOME themselves, all to do with freedom. But i also was interested in systems. Therefore from both these points of view, it was important for both of us that players would feel that they were part of the world, that when they visited, they were IN the world, a concept now called immersion. Because then, it shows that your programming works but also because it means we could give you what it was about– LIBERTY.

Computing dept 1978, not a lot of girls around. I married one of the two girls, two years below me. Not a lot of social graces around, you’d speak to a girl, even if you were pathetically charming, they’d grab your heart and throw it on the ground… But in a virtual world, that didn’t matter.

So we wanted to make a world that was separate from the real world.

When Roy started, he wanted to make sure that the technology worked. That took hm about an hour. Sending messages from one player to another. The next thing was implementing the physics, how the world worked. That took him about a month.

Today, if someone hands you 30 million dollars to start an MMO, you might think oh i should make a fantasy world, or you might thing about genre, and where to put expansions. But you wouldn’t think about the core physics.

If you are a game developer, you don’t make games you want to pay, you make games you want to develop. When i ask students why they want to make games, they say that they have liked games their whole lives, so i ask them if they like beer. Brewing is nothing to do with drinking beer…

So starting from physics is about asking what are the tools in your toolbox… If you start by thinking about the world, you are making assumptions about what is possible to implement, whereas if you think about the physics, that lets you go beyond what is possible.

Roy and I had another good reason for trying to think in terms of basic science. This is news to many in this part of the world, but there is this wacky theory called “evolution”… One of the things that the human brain has gotten through evocation is the ability to process information in an instant.  I can’t stop my brain seeing you as people. I can see o this stage that i am above the ground, and millions of processes in the back of my head have figured out that there is distance here.

The brain expects the world to work in a mundane fashion. When we were designing MUD we felt we should put as few barriers as possible i the way of believing that you are in the world. So we tried to make the world appear to be as realistic as we could. When it didn’t, we wanted people to think there was a reason, that it was intentional and not a bug. If there is not explanation for something, it is either a bug or players shouldn’t notice it at all.

Our rule was, if there is no reason not to conform to reality, then conform to reality’ so that people aren’t constantly challenged to suspend disbelief. This is why it was more simulationist than we might do today. This was a coarse approximation… If you carry an icicle it would melt, but we wouldnt implement the equation for heat transfer.

And yet in world of Warcraft my orc is carrying the same glass of milk in her backpack after four years!

So when i talk about physics, it is this kind of thing. Light cannot pass through a closed wooden door. Most MMOs don’t have doors these days… Or what happens when you pour four pints of water into a three pint container. Most MMOs don’t do this. And plate armor doesn’t float… Barbarossa on the Crusades got really hot and decided to swim in a stream with his armor on and never came out.

So this is what an uninformed player would have expected to have happen without evidence otherwise. When you poke with a sword, it should give you a nasty cut, it is what “should happen”. And then the more inclined you are to believe it really is real.

In a text world, people rally did get very immerse, because there were not pictures to persuade you otherwise. But sadly the principle of mimicking reality was carried forward, the reason for it was not. And that means that if you don’t know why it is there, you change it for operational or other design reasons. And over time, people have left this simulationist aspect behind, and now people are not simulating reality but rather the last MMO. Things we do today that would have baffled players in the 80s:

If the goblin had a sword, why was it hitting me with a stick?
You can dye armor but not paint it? But you can paint the walls of your house, but not any other walls? Wall paint is special paint that only works o the walls of MY HOUSE.
I can build a snowman in a fire, and neither is affected. In real life, one of them is going to lose.
Why don’t those foul creatures come to help their allies? I can see them, why can’t they see me? Does this axe have a silencer? You walk into a dungeon, armor clattering… So in MUD, you are being attacked by a goat, and there is a thief in the room,m, and maybe if the goat was doing well, he might join in, but if the goat was losing, the thief would leave in case he was next in line.

In mud2 there were a baton and bow, wave one and it would teleport you to the other.  One player dropped the bow in a well, where it fell in a river at the bottom, and was carried by the current and got stuck in a grate that led to a secret room, and people used it as a secret place to stash your stuff. A player did all this, realized there was no other way into the room.

MUD2 also had a keg of gunpowder, usually employed in shooting out a door with a cannon. But another player put it in a coracle, set fire to it, dropped it down the well, the coracle flows downstream, hits the grate, fire spread to the gunpowder, and exploded and killed the guy in the secret room who thought it was safe.

This worked on 33mhz box with 50 simultaneous players. It would probably work on my remote power point clicker. It is not hard to program or expensive to execute. It isn’t too complicated for players… Rather, it makes less sense for things NOT to fall with gravity.

It also doesn’t leave the door open to exploits unless you have implemented physics inconsistently. If you use multiple inheritance, you get a lot of this behavior for free. Just inherit from explosive object…

However, it CAN annoy players. So a player had 10000 sovereigns, or 176lbs. So carrying his money is carrying a fully grown man on his back. But this does open up puzzles.

But exasperating players is a valid reason not to do something. That is why when you go into the restroom in a movie, you know that something bad is going to happen rather than us seeing them go to the restroom. In real life, we do need to go, unless we are british royalty, or are in Star Trek and have it beamed out of us…

You could actually piss on a fire and put it out in MUD… Unless you were s female character… There were more than cosmetic differences between male and female characters.

But today’s virtual worlds are really quite superficial. Why?

This lack of understanding of immersion goes beyond the physics. There are some things that people do for a laugh that break immersion. You go into the bank in storm wind and thief are NPCs named Olivia, newton, and john… Is this bad? No, the question is whether you even thought about the issue in the first place. You should know the consequences of it. If you do it because people seem to like a joke, then it is at a superficial level.

Likewise the horror a mud player would have of the following exchange

/salute
You salute smartly.

I didn’t say smartly! Ask your self, do you want players to be immersed or not? The answer No is perfectly fine, but you should make the decision consciously.

Here is Dagna the dwarf from Dragon Age…

Once physics existed, then there was the setting. I could have chosen anything. I wanted it to be immersive, in some ways familiar but also unfamiliar… So i decided to root it in English folklore. These days that is called just “fantasy”. I had experimented with it in a board game. I wanted players to know enough about the world to think they could survive, but to feel disquieted… Not knowing if the gait was friendly.

To this end… I had read Tolkien. But i didn’t put in orcs. I had wad Robert e Howard because i was a boy. I had layer dungeons and dragons. But i eschewed all of these.

I could have done things that i liked instead. Serious candidates included three musketeers… But there were no good roles for women.  There was the arabian 1001 nights, it has a magical world, it would have worked well. Another idea was escape from a prisoner of war camp, escape from a Colditz castle sort of thing, but it was depressing, and if you escaped, then what? And Camelot was also on my list

But i went for English mythology was because it was a continuum, it just goes back in time, not a point in time like the others. And then i could use time as a metaphor for menace… Back then we didn’t flag a zone with just levels, we used time to flag menace, if you were in the1930s it was somewhat more safe, but if it came from the 1830s it was dangerous, and if you saw something from the neolithic, you were going to die.

How many designers today have the luxury of using metaphor?

You all do. You just don’t.

I am not here to gloat. I am here to say that you do have the choice. Why make MMOs? You could be working in a bank. If you want to do it because you want to help the world, go work at a charity. Why do you do it? Because somehow you want to express something, and yet people don’t even though they have the tools right there.

I chose fantasy because it provided resonance, and dissonance. But today choose fantasy because it is a well understood trope that delivers solid knowledgeable expectations. If you are being progressive your dwarves aren’t drunkards with a scottish accent. I noticed that in Dragon Age. O love dragon age. I played it all the way through and will do it again, because i have no life.

MUD didn’t even have dwarves, it had dwarfs, and not as player characters, and tolkien couldn’t spell.

Inventive doesn’t mean a new class hybrid. There were text MUDs with hundred classes and 30 races… I didn’t know what to choose? Which collection of consonants with no vowels or vowels with no consonants? Di you even need classes?

When I this talk supposed to finish? Five minuets? You say that but you haven’t got the tasers.

Trubshaw didn’t build in game rules. It was more eve online than second life though, acting within the context. But the hardware was not up for it. So we had to gameify it… Adding game elements into the physics. It was a major change in our philosophy. MUD lacked a sense of purpose. So i out in what we now call an achievement system, examining options like equipment, which we ruled out because of lack of disk space, skills, levels, xp without levels, linked quests which we decided againt because they were too structured. I also had ideas Ike democracy, ,be voted on to gain a level.

I settled on levels, because they were easy to understand, and gave you a sense of your place in the social order. And they give you intermediate goals. The thing is, other things would have done that. So why choose levels? What tipped the balance in favor was that they showed CURRENT social order. Roy Trubshaw and I raged against the british class system. To you Americans, my british accent sounds like erudite and Ike a hollywood villain. To british people, i sound like I work on a farm and roy like he works in a factory. Do i hate VOIP, yes! So we had levels so you could break out of class structure. MUD only had ten levels, each which had its own personality. Players spent enough time to know that what level 9, legend meant [puts his Legend award on table, applause]

There was nothing to stop you from advancing except ability and strength of character. It was meritocracy. So all of you playing these MMOS with levels, it is because you are raging against the british class system. It was a political statement.

Not a chance i would get this Legend award in England.

The people who followed the subsequent MUDs and MMOs didn’t know this. They added other things, and didn’t understand the soul behind this, and added more levels. Again, it is fine to have a million levels, it is about KNOWING WHY.

At the moment, gear is the preferred achievement system when you reach the level cap. Why are you doing that? What is it saying? It is consumerism is good, the more stuff you have e more important you are. I am not going to make judgements about it, you give me stuff, i am aas happy as anyone else. But if that is what you want to say, why not have a fully consumerist game? Why not have a no levels? If you know the point you are trying to make you can remove the distractions and press on with what you are really trying to say.

This is a man in a shop.

Roy thought that combat would be handled by the physics of the world. The first thing that i made in MUD was an ox that if you hit it with an axe, it died. Much like a real ox. But that wasn’t a lot of fun… Kind of, but not the kind of fun where you think the ox might hit you, sort of a like taking an axe to a toddler.

There are basically two ways to make fighting… Where you did it command by command, or as an event stream where stuff happens automatically. Roy did the second becaues he was short on time. I interspersed the other kind,  so you could do special things while the stream happened.

Today this remains. But the range of combat options is wider while the CHOICE is narrower. Fifty spells you could cast but you only use four.

We had different weapon effects on different monsters, and creatures could level up.

But we didn’t have classes. We didn’t have races, and i still think races are a bad thing. We felt they were a racist concept. Character classes came later, with wholesale adoption of ideas from dikumud.

So MUDs changed from being about being yourself, to being a guided experience.

Combat was one of the weakest areas of MUD and it has gone on unchanged since then…. Why are there no experiments?

It is as if you “man shop” it. A woman looks at everything and picks the best one. A man shop is where you walk in and say “that one will do.”

So we had to think through everything from first principles. We tidbit have a paradigm to work to. I am sure that the other folks who invented these things like Jacobs, Flinn and Taylor, Farmer and Morningstar, Klietz and Alberti, would have the same anecdotes.

I have two points.

The WHY you do things are important.

And the choices are still available to you.

Normally my slides look like this other look. Why did my slides look like this old fashioned style?

So i could criticize today’s game design principles under the guide of a history lesson. It was a contrivance.

And that is what mud was too, roy and I ripping into the class system… We were the first in our families to go to university ever. It let us say unpalatable things about the real world under the guise of a game.

We wanted to make a virtual world because we didn’t like the real one. And you can do the same thing.. If you are a game designer, you have to have some of your soul in the game design.

  35 Responses to “GDCOnline: liveblog of Dr Bartle’s talk”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Raph Koster, Simon Carless, Max Geiger, Nicole Lazzaro, Christian Arca and others. Christian Arca said: RT @simoncarless: RT @raphkoster Loved Bartle's talk… Liveblog posted on my site #gdconline [http://bit.ly/9rNU7f] […]

  2. Brilliant stuff. Thanks, Richard, for the thoughts and thanks, Raph, for the post.

    The reason I quit WoW was because there wasn’t enough “why.” The reason I can’t stomach SecondLife for more than a few days, here and there, every couple years, is because it’s almost entirely “why.” I keep hoping for something in the middle…

    Question for Richard… if levels come from a hatred of the British class system, what does that make RMT leveling? The equivalent of buying a title?

  3. Now that was worth reading. That is game design as a good songwriter might see it. Do it because you have something you want to get off your chest.

    Excellent.

  4. For some reason, I thought of Harold Bloom’s construction of great art as a recognition of previous art and going, “Well, that’s mostly wrong. This is how you do it right.” I’m probably misrepresenting the man badly, but meh.

    It also reminds me of this, which I read recently:
    http://www.stevenerikson.com/index.php/the-world-of-the-malazan-empire-and-role-playing-games/

  5. Wow, Raph, that’s some amazingly fast typing!

    Thanks for making me sound a lot saner than I’m sure I did at the time.

    Richard

  6. Oh, believe it or not, I typed it on an iPad!

  7. Good job Raph.

    Richard is always utterly thought-provoking and fascinating. I feel I am learning just from being asked the questions he poses.

  8. Lucidity in a crazy world, at last!! Very inspiring!

    Thanks Dr. Bartle and Raph.

  9. The whole of the talk was entertaining, thought provoking, and educational, but the last few minutes was what really spoke to me the most. It was very inspirational and reminded me why I quit being a lawyer and decided to make games in the first place.

    Thanks Dr. Bartle,

  10. Fantastic.
    But I feel cheated by time. Richard didn’t get enough into reasons for social design (although he touched on it with perma-death and elsewhere), and without social design it might as well be a single player game, maybe with multiplayer options…like WoW.

  11. Ahh, I see. That was Raph’s thing to do.

  12. Amaranthar >Ahh, I see. That was Raph’s thing to do.

    We didn’t arrange it in advance…

    Richard

  13. yes. “why”, not “how” IS the central factor that has been devalued by “virtualization” and its interface via the computer over the last 25 years.

    as for “social game design”.. and any “whys” behind it, well the sad truth is that the “social” has very little to do with the people, but much more with designs for the machine systems that distribute them.

    yes we all still have choices. Just realize “why” is much harder “game” puzzle than “how” when others have made it possible for you just to click a button to “win”.

    other than yucks that’s about ALL one can learn from Digital GAMES… sorry to kill other book deals..;)

    c3

  14. I had always assumed that the MUDs borrowed conventions such as levels and loot fixation from Gygax, Arneson and company.

    I don’t say that in any way to diminish the work of the MUD pioneers. I know there are critical differences between a multi-user design and a tabletop RPG. But if the launch of Champions demonstrates nothing else, it shows that designers are still mining a rich legacy of material that predates MUDs… with or without understanding the ‘why’ of those systems.

  15. Champions doesn’t predate MUDs actually. :) 1981, sez Wikipedia!

  16. As a player, I’ve never experienced loot acquisition as consumerist. Instead, for me the act of acquiring relates directly and (more importantly) solely to the enhancement of the characters’ abilities. Emphasis added as I’m talking about the feelings and experiences of desire, acquisition and possession.

    Specifically, I rarely have a desire for a specific loot item apart from the generalized desire for a stronger character that is the movitvation base for ALL actions within the MMO. It isn’t the same kind of desire as the RL desire for stuff; if anything, the motive in MMOs feels to me to have less stuff, to continually streamline one’s inventory to only have what’s optimally useful.

    Granted, there are consumerist elements, but I think there are significant abstract differences. Unlike RL, game items (generally) do exactly what they say they will, immediately, and permanently. Buying loot feels more akin to buying a license for a higher stat value (and all its cascading effects) than to buying a “time-saving” kitchen gadget or “energy-boosting” energy drink. It is as much ritual as anything else, the cashing in of game-accomplishment credit dressed in familiar consumerist clothing (so that you can tell him apart from his twin brother Level).

  17. Oh, and forgot to say: great and inspiring piece. :) The above was, is, just a thought I had about part of all that discussion that I felt like tossing out there. As ususal, it grew in size and got away from me. :P

  18. Champions doesn’t predate MUDs actually. 1981, sez Wikipedia!

    You’re right. First MUD was ’78.

    The general point stands — MUDs were build upon the shoulders of RPGs, and MMO developers are still dipping into that well. DDO would have been a better example, perhaps, as the tabletop mechanics are clearly visible.

  19. As a player, I’ve never experienced loot acquisition as consumerist. Instead, for me the act of acquiring relates directly and (more importantly) solely to the enhancement of the characters’ abilities.

    But isn’t this just the subjective experience of consumerism? We always buy the new thing because we think it will give us some ability we didn’t have before, perhaps an abstract one such as getting a romantic partner, social acceptance or a new confidence.

    Mindless consumerism is something we ascribe only to other people whose motivations we don’t understand, or for whom we can be more objective, seeing that consumption won’t really get them the thing they might want.

    But when we do it, it always seems to make sense.

  20. Yukon Sam>I had always assumed that the MUDs borrowed conventions such as levels and loot fixation from Gygax, Arneson and company.

    I did borrow levels in MUD1 from D&D. However, I looked at several things that could potentially do what I wanted to do, and chose levels from those. If D&D hadn’t have had levels, I might have gone with either a straight XP system or a skills system, or if I’d thought about it more then perhaps a linked quest system. The reason I chose levels over the other techniques that would have done the same job was because it dug at the British class system. I mentioned this to Roy Trubshaw when I described what I was planning on doing with the gamification, and he liked it; we didn’t have a big debate about it or anything, though, because we basically agreed on that kind of stuff. Roy hadn’t even played D&D.

    Loot was just one way to get XP in MUD1. You also got it for beating things in a fight and for doing certain difficult-to-do things (eg. entering the Fountain of Wisdom). The way you scored for loot was to destroy it, too, so you had to decide whether you wanted the longsword or the points you’d get from destroying it (inventories weren’t saved across play sessions – they were for about a year in an early version, but we ran out of disc space so had to drop the idea).

    Richard

  21. Mindless consumerism is something we ascribe only to other people whose motivations we don’t understand, or for whom we can be more objective, seeing that consumption won’t really get them the thing they might want.

    The extra adjective there isn’t actually redundant. Consumerism isn’t “consuming stuff is a badness people do”; it’s a consumer-centric worldview. Or in this case, a consumer-centric game design. Basically, a game designed around having people go and get more stuff all the time is consumerist.

    It’s not like Bartle is saying it’s a bad thing. Actually, he quite pointedly says he’s not judging it as a bad thing.

    I, on the other hand, have no qualms about denouncing the non-satirical renditions of it. :P

  22. So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but designers had better be able to explain from first principles why the wheel is the perfect fit for the vehicle they’re building.

    And it wouldn’t hurt players who frequent message boards to consider those same principles before asking for spoilers, cup-holders, and hood-mounted .50 cals.

  23. A fascinating talk! Thanks to Dr. Bartle for giving it and to Mr. Koster for helping those of us not there to experience it. Incidentally, Dr. Bartle, as an aspiring online game designer I recently finished your “Designing Virtual Worlds” and it was a truly revelatory and enlightening experience. Thank you for writing it.

    Although it is very unclear right now as to whether I will ever be able to implement any of my design concepts for online gaming, I very much appreciate the call to innovate you have given and the lessons you provide from your own experiences. I hope that in the near future we are able to see a multitude of different ways to solve the many problems posed by MMOGs.

    However, I fear that with “World of Warcraft” we have experienced a “Birth of a Nation” moment, in that a new art – used loosely – form has had its first runaway smash success, attracting immense amounts of external attention, just as film had with Griffith’s magnum opus. For the foreseeable future I think that the virtual world medium is going to continue to move to solidify the design decisions made in the seminal work. Of course, Griffith led to such great things as United Artists and Eisenstein, so perhaps not all hope is lost…but I feel that we are moving into a momentous time for virtual worlds and that the next five to ten years will be perhaps the most important time span to establish what is acceptable in them and what is not for a very long time.

  24. @Marc,

    We always buy the new thing because we think it will give us some ability we didn’t have before, perhaps an abstract one such as getting a romantic partner, social acceptance or a new confidence.

    In a sense, this is my point. The consumerist experience is very heavily based on the ephemeral and subjective. Consider the Porsche versus the Protege.

    In contrast, the purchase of a given piece of gear in a given MMO is rooted very firmly in the objective, in the explicit stat bonus the gear will absolutely provide. The +5 sword versus the +2.

    While there is an element of prestige to having the top-most equipment and an even stronger vanity element to having gear that looks unique or cool, in my own experience I’ve based purchase decisions almost entirely on the greatest efficiency of converting acquired gold to heightened game statistics (bang for the buck).

    No one goes to a McDonalds because they desire 450 calories of nourishment. Even a price-conscious consumer that’s trying to get the most / best meal for the dollar isn’t making their choice based on the statistics of nutrition. Contrast this to someone trying to figure out how much higher they can raise their armor value with the gold they have on them.

    The strongest drivers of consumerism lie in the subjective elements of desirability that are largely subtracted in the MMO, both by much more explicit information (and much stronger guarantees) about an item’s actual effect and the level of removal of the player from actual experience of the purchased good (you might as well base in-game food choice on how “nutritional” it is since you don’t really get to taste it, and you don’t have to care how comfortable that armor is to run around in).

    Further, most of the prestige motivations don’t emerge until the higher levels of play, and purely vanity items are often capitalized in the traditionally consumerist cash shop, turning them into traditional consumerist goods.

    Thus, hmm… thus I suppose my point that with more perfect markets and more rational behavior consumerism diminishes? That’s actually an interesting conclusion I seriously just saw now, as I was typing this. (No, literally this sentence. :P )

  25. Yukon Sam>So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but designers had better be able to explain from first principles why the wheel is the perfect fit for the vehicle they’re building.

    Maybe not from first principles, but they had better be able to explain why this wheel is better than all those other wheels they could have used, and why they actually want a wheel in the first place. “Hey, they work on cars, let’s try them on our boat!”.

    Richard

  26. Andy>I recently finished your “Designing Virtual Worlds” and it was a truly revelatory and enlightening experience. Thank you for writing it.

    Well, I had to; otherwise, someone else would have.

    >Although it is very unclear right now as to whether I will ever be able to implement any of my design concepts for online gaming

    You probably can implement them, because unless they’re graphics-specific you can do it in text. However, if you want people to play your ideas, well, that’s a different matter…

    >However, I fear that with “World of Warcraft” we have experienced a “Birth of a Nation” moment

    Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to write my book before WoW came out…

    >I feel that we are moving into a momentous time for virtual worlds and that the next five to ten years will be perhaps the most important time span to establish what is acceptable in them and what is not for a very long time.

    My worry is that we will lose all that’s special about them. We’ve already lost so much; back in the early days, there was no equivalent of character sales or gold farming because playing MMOs (MUDs as they were back then) was itself fun. People would no sooner have bought a high-level character back then than today’s Dragon Age players would buy a save file. The slide is long but inevitable – even WoW today is thin and watery compared with what it was like 5 years ago. We’ll need revolutionary change, not evolutionary change, if the players of the future are to see MMOs that bring back the awe.

    Richard

  27. “Hey, they work on cars, let’s try them on our boat!”.

    Funny thing; the analogy I made originally had tank treads and GEV fans before I cut it down. Had to make room for the cup-holders.

  28. Richard said, My worry is that we will lose all that’s special about them. We’ve already lost so much; [snip] We’ll need revolutionary change, not evolutionary change, if the players of the future are to see MMOs that bring back the awe.

    One direction I’ve wanted to go in is to target the education system rather than ride the entertainment industry. Granted, that piggybacks off my belief that we can fix the damned thing, but surely you’ve seen the article on Quest to Learn by now. (IIRC, it was in NYTimes.) But when I was working on mine, I made it a fairly explicit that since my goal wasn’t profit (breaking even would have suited me), I was free to choose schools for my demographic. Whole other question of actually getting it endorsed or played… but baby steps.

    Oh, found article:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19video-t.html

  29. Great article! I particularly liked the bits about the snowman in the fire, etc. I remember playing Alone in the Dark (some 18 years ago) and being very disappointed that I couldn’t pour the pan of soup over a fire to put it out. Instead I had to find (***spoiler alert***) a pitcher of water in the bathroom. I still enjoyed the game, but felt the playtesting had been a little lax. Haven’t played a MUD (didn’t want to get addicted!) or any MMOGs yet, but love playing RL RPGs. I’m sure somebody will manage to make a virtual RPG that can work out the physics like a real GM can!

  30. Richard>My worry is that we will lose all that’s special about them. We’ve already lost so much; back in the early days, there was no equivalent of character sales or gold farming because playing MMOs (MUDs as they were back then) was itself fun. People would no sooner have bought a high-level character back then than today’s Dragon Age players would buy a save file. The slide is long but inevitable – even WoW today is thin and watery compared with what it was like 5 years ago. We’ll need revolutionary change, not evolutionary change, if the players of the future are to see MMOs that bring back the awe.

    I think I understand what you are saying here, and I have to say it does seem like a backwards slide to me in many ways as well. I stopped playing WoW over a year ago, but I spent 3.5 years with the game and remember well the shift from a huge, epic, wild-and-wooly VW to one where the rough corners have all been filed away and the vast majority of gameplay became a matter of going through the motions as you are gently funneled through content in the equivalent of a choose-your-own-path theme park ride.

    My bet is that this happened because, once it became obvious that WoW was a money-printing machine, there was no (or not enough) infrastructure there to prevent the focus being shifted from providing a fun game experience to growing and maintaining the subscriber base, with lowest-common-denominator pandering (i.e. Cataclysm) becoming the inevitable means to the end of keeping it just fun enough to prevent people from cancelling their accounts until the servers go dark.

    For the immediate future, I don’t see this trend reversing itself — the potential (if illusory, maybe) financial rewards are simply too great to buck it right now. The new Star Wars MMOG appears to be “WoW in Space”, and from what I’ve seen the Warhammer 40k MMOG will be the same. The one major different MMOG, EVE, has the vehicle-based and wide-open sandbox MMOG genres pretty well cornered at this point, and anyway I’m not aware of any big-buzz competitors to EVE under development. Bungie seems to have a big secret project going on now that Halo is over (at least for them), but although they have proven themselves able to revolutionize game genres it’s not clear yet what they are planning, and even if it is an MMOG I suspect it is at least 3 years away.

    I personally have no aversion to text (my philosophy degree speaks to that) but although I’ve done some work with a text adventure game idea, I’m at a loss where to begin working on a MUD. Could you give any advice?

    One final note, I suspect that the reason people pay for VW avatars is because it is impossible to duplicate and share them, thus (due to supply insufficient to meet the demand) they are valuable. If players had a means to do this, they would be much less expensive, although it would also completely reshape persistent virtual worlds, and not for the better in my opinion. But there has long been a save-file-swap culture with many games, and for some (like Dwarf Fortress) it is an important part of the game’s community.

  31. It was inevitable that WoW would slide as it did. The game was based on “easy”, so much so that players didn’t even have many decisions to make on their own. A game based on that, the “Year 2525 syndrome”, is going to go in no other direction than deeper into it. Human nature, from both the player and the producer perspective, is the obvious cause.

    Human nature is a complicated thing. What once was desired goes out of fashion. People rebel against what they once wanted. They find that it wasn’t what they really wanted after all, and almost feel misled. The fashionable becomes the mocked. But not until they move on. This is WoW’s future. And at this point, it’s only as far off as the coming of a better MMO gaming experience. Which seems to be stubbornly shy.

  32. I’m looking at the same stagnant pool of MMOs as the rest of you, but I don’t see doom. I see potential. I see opportunity. I see a supercooled beaker of liquid waiting only for the right seed to hit it and turn it instantly into a brilliant crystal, leaving everybody to wonder, “Whoa! Where did THAT come from?”

    I can’t predict where that seed will come from. But I would guess that there’s an above average chance that it’s somebody who reads this site on a regular basis.

    And if it is, all I can say is, “kid, what are you waiting for? We need you!”

    Dare.

  33. Amaranthar>It was inevitable that WoW would slide as it did.

    I don’t agree with this completely, although I do agree in large part. Part of the problem I see with WoW is that the designers consistently failed to plan ahead more than a few patches, and every time an expansion has been released there has been a massive overhaul of game mechanics. A good example is the defense stat – it went from being a bonus to tanking in vanilla, to crucial in TBC, to crucial (for some classes) in WLK, to now removed from the game in Cataclysm.

    While I expect mechanics to develop as the game develops, these wild swings do not indicate to me that there has been enough long-range planning going on, and thus what look like uncontroversial decisions made early in the process end up coming back to foul things up badly after a few iterations. (See the notion of “generative entrenchment” for a philosophical basis for why it is important to make early design decision carefully…indeed as it is obvious that Dr. Bartle and Roy Trubshaw did way back in the days of MUD.)

    That’s easy for me to say, though, I’ve never developed an MMOG and no doubt my armchair quarterbacking is laughably simplistic. I do think, however, that WoW has really devolved into an exercise in pandering to the base. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it usually is and in this case certainly could have been handled better. And hopefully will be in the next generation of MMOGs.

    Yukon Sam>I’m looking at the same stagnant pool of MMOs as the rest of you, but I don’t see doom. I see potential.

    I absolutely agree, and that is a major reason why it is that I am very excited at the idea of becoming a MMOG designer. However, I really recommend that people look at what happened to the medium of cinema when “Birth of a Nation” was released and look at what is happening to MMOGs in the aftermath of WoW. Although there had been feature films before, BoaN standardized the feature as the standard format for cinematic works, and codified a huge number of cinematic tropes (most or all of which had been discovered/invented years if not decades before) into the standard filmmaker’s toolkit of meaning. It also made an unbelievable boatload of money and attracted attention to the medium (which had long been marginalized and dismissed) like nothing had before. I suspect that in the next 5-10 years we are going to see the typical high-profile VW have a scale very similar to that of WoW, all using different combinations of WoW tropes until we shake them out into a well-developed toolkit that can be used modularly across VWs to provide a familiar (but not necessarily realistic) set of devices that players will use to make VW experiences meaningful independent of the particular VW they are playing, just as we can understand various types of shots and cuts in movies without having to relearn what they all mean every time we see a new film.

    (Dr. Bartle, if you are still reading this, I guess my analogy makes you a Porter, or maybe both of the Lumiere brothers…sorry my film history is a little rusty, I know there were some very important early British filmmakers but their names escape me at the moment.)

    Again, my point here is simply that WoW is a watershed moment in VW design, and like any such moment there are going to be consequences. But it is also a very exciting period we are entering, and for the best and brightest and luckiest now is the time when you will be able to make your mark on everything in VWs from this point onward.

  34. Andy>Dr. Bartle, if you are still reading this, I guess my analogy makes you a Porter, or maybe both of the Lumiere brothers…sorry my film history is a little rusty, I know there were some very important early British filmmakers but their names escape me at the moment.

    Heh, when I wrote Designing Virtual Worlds I was thinking more along the lines of Eisenstein. Whenevr today’s film theorists want to talk about montage, they reference Eisenstein; his name is like a keyword for a whole body of montage theory that came afterwards but was based on his work. I saw that virtual worlds didn’t have anything like that – some early coherent body of work that could be used as a foundation for later theories – and so that’s what I tried to write. Maybe a hundred years from now, virtual world theorists will refer to DVW, and maybe they won’t, but they’ll refer to something. I just gave them one thing they could latch onto if they wanted, but it’s not as if I care whether they do or not as I’ll be long dead by then.

    Richard

  35. Andy>I personally have no aversion to text (my philosophy degree speaks to that) but although I’ve done some work with a text adventure game idea, I’m at a loss where to begin working on a MUD. Could you give any advice?

    Figure out why you want to work on one.

    Richard

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