Nov 212014

500px-WOW_logoTen years of World of Warcraft. Well. So many thoughts.

WoW has always been a contradiction of sorts: not the pioneer, but the one that solidified the pattern. Not the experimenter, but the one that reaped the rewards. Not the innovator, but the one that was well-designed, built solidly, and made appealing. It was the MMO that took what has always been there, and delivered it in a package that was truly broadly appealing, enough so to capture the larger gamer audience for the first time.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not a knock on it. If anything, it’s possibly the biggest game design achievement in all of virtual world history. After all, we’re talking about taking a game skeleton that was at that point already almost a decade and a half old, one which had literally had hundreds of iterations, hundreds of games launched. None of them ever reached that sort of audience, that sort of milestone, that sort of polish level.

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Nov 222013

Here is the full video of my talk at EVA13, entitled “El mundo de sistemas” (the world of systems). It’s in Spanish, and it’s an hour and a half long!

Sorry, no translated subtitles or anything. The talk starts out talking about systems and games, how there are many sorts of games but that a large proportion of them have what I call ludic systems underlying them. I talked a little bit about what some of the implications of systems are, how we learn from them and what sort of lessons they teach. And, of course, also how flaws in systems (or even emergent properties) can cause systems to really run amok, or enable players to really break everything.

That then leads to some anecdotes and postmortem thoughts from Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Most of these are probably ones that many of you have heard about before:

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Nov 052013

Here are the slides for my talk at EVA ’13 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. They are in Spanish, of course.

If I had to summarize the talk, I would say that it covered a lot of the same sort of ground I have touched on before in terms of the ways in which games teach systems thinking. I open with some discussion of the wide range of stuff that we call “games” — something that is also discussed in the GDCNext talk I am posting shortly. I talk about what a ludic structure looks like (something that folks who read the blog will probably find familiar), and the way in which ludic structures arise naturally in the world, and thereby are playable even though they are not designed games.

And then I move into anecdotes on exploits and loopholes and other ways in which we didn’t grasp everything about the systems we ourselves had designed, in games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. The talk ends on speculation on what we’re doing to the world, as we create systems that break outside of games. Are we the most qualified to do this? We might be.

It likely loses a lot without the actual speech, compared to most of my slideshows, but hopefully the video will go up at some point. In the meantime, the PDF is here.


Sep 172012

On Saturday I met with the Omaha Game Developers Association in a Google Hangout for a couple of hours of interview-style questions. The whole thing was streamed live on YouTube and also captured afterwards, so here it is for those who have the patience.

Among the things we talked about:

And way more… vid after the break.

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Mar 202012

Once upon a time, there was a game set in a science fiction universe where the economy was very important. Its name was not Eve.

In this game, players could, if they so chose, run a business. They could

  • designate a building as a shop
  • hire an NPC bot to stand in it
  • give the bot items to hold for sale
  • specify the prices at which those items would sell
  • customize the bot in a variety of ways
  • make use of advertising facilities to market the shop
  • decorate the shop any way they pleased

With this basic facility, emergent gameplay tied to the way that the crafting system worked resulted in players who chose to run shops being able to do things Ike build supply chains, manage regular inventory, develop regular customer bases, build marketing campaigns, and in general, play a lemonade stand writ large.

The upshot was that at peak, fully half the players in Star Wars Galaxies ran a shop.
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Game talkSWG is shutting down

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Jun 242011

Star Wars Galaxies, a game I was the creative director on, is shutting down. It’s happening in mid-December. You can read an interview with John Smedley about it  on Massively. The short form, though, is that the contract with LucasArts is up.

I am sure there are plenty of people who are prepared to mourn; I went through my own emotional arc of moving on years and years ago at this point, so I am not going to dwell on it.

Instead, I’ll note that sandbox, worldy MMOs do not seem to have gone away despite the economic currents that run against them. It’s too big a dream, I suspect, and games like Arche Age, which isn’t out yet, Wurm which is, and of course EVE, show that there is a passionate audience for the sort of experience that lets you step into a more fully realized world and live there.

Some will say that SWG was a failure. They’ll cite the NGE, of course, and they’ll point out that it fared poorly against the juggernaut of WoW, despite the power of the license. My postmortem would be much like Smedley’s:

Here’s what I would have done differently. I would have made sure the ground and space games were launched all at once. I would have given the game another year to develop and really polish it quite a bit. I think we created one of the most unique and amazing games ever created in the MMO space. It is the sandbox game. Nothing else even comes close to what we did there. I would have really taken our time and polished combat right so we never had to do the NGE.

In the end, the game was quite profitable, it ran for eight years, and it entertained a few million people. I’ve been told it had a qualitatively different and more powerful community than other games, by objective metrics. It was built with some rickety tech — and some that won awards and led to patents (1, 2, 3). It was more casual and more broad appeal than what the license could even handle, in some ways, and many individual features that SWG had today power entire blockbuster giant companies in the social game space (hey look, farming where you come back the next day… where have I seen that before…?). And it gave us features that continue to amaze people who don’t realize what can be done: real economies complete with supply chains and wholesalers and shopkeepers, that amazing pet system, the moods and chat bubbles (anyone remember what chat in 3d MMOs looked like before SWG?), player cities, vehicles, spaceflight…

And dancing. Which everyone made fun of. But as far as I am concerned, it may have been the biggest and best contribution, the one that spawned a jillion YouTube videos and may well be the lasting influence the game leaves behind, an imprint on all the games since: a brief moment where you can stop saving the world or killing rats and realize the real scope and potential of the medium.

In the end, SWG may have been more potential and promise than fulfilled expectation. But I’d rather work on something with great potential than on fulfilling a promise of mediocrity. There’s a reason people are passionate about it all these years later. I’m proud to have worked on it.

Game talkDynamic POIs

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Apr 302010

Way back in Pre-CU [Star Wars Galaxies] while ‘walking’ from Eisley to AnchorHead a Twi’lek (I think) stated my avatar by name (could be wrong) and gave me a disk then some stormies spawned and killed her then came after me.

Anyone ever finish this quest? What was it like?

This was a rather complex quest. Does anyone know how this was coded? Why would my avatar be chosen over others?

Daylen, posting over at

The Twi’lek slave girl quest was part of what we called “dynamic POI’s.”

A normal POI is a “point of interest” — something to break up generic wilderness. it was a term we used back in the UO days that we got from Richard Garriott, and was probably older still. POI’s are normally placed by hand, of course; you sculpt a location for them, add a little bit of something unique or flavorful, maybe some interaction, and there you go. They can be as small as a little faerie mushroom ring, or as large as a bandit camp or something. In other words, they are the static content of a world… usually not the main quest lines, but just “interesting stuff.”

Of course, adding these in by hand is excruciatingly slow and requires an army of developers. That’s the cost of content. In a game as large as SWG, we had a real issue here. At one point, there was a large roomful of junior developers who did nothing but put down little interesting locations on the maps… and it was nowhere near enough, particularly since they had no interactivity with them.

Part of the solution that we wanted to try, then was dynamic POIs.

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Game talkReadingGreat primer on comic book balloons and lettering

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Feb 082009

Blambot Comic Fonts and Lettering exhaustively goes through dozens of variations of word balloons and lettering choices in them.

I have often argued that in dealing with chat bubbles in MMOs, we should just steal these conventions, because so many people are familiar with them just by osmosis, even if they are not comics readers (many of these conventions are used in the funny pages too).

We had huge debates on SWG about whether to use “plain chat bubbles” or to invent something that was styled more like Star Wars. Plain won, in the end — and we ended up supporting regular, shout, thought, whisper, musical, caption, and more.

Game talkName your MMO dream team: eep

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Jul 312008

So Massively asks for people to list IPs & developers for “dream teams.

My dream team would be to purchase the MMO rights to MechWarrior, have FunCom develop it under the excellent command of Raph Koster! And use Valve to distribute over steam.

I’d like to see Raph Koster’s vision applied to the GI Joe world. A GI Joe Online similar to the original vision of PreCU SWG would be great, and without a mythos-engrained alpha class, I think it could work.

I think my brain broke.