We’re all too ready to do things in familiar ways. You know, when we were working on music systems for Galaxies, we thought very much in terms of loops and whether we could get all the sound to synch up. But maybe this video of the Reactable music prototype shows that instead, a multiplayer music system might be better suited towards soundscapes.
When I look at what they did here, I say to myself, “they exploited the uses of a table.” What are core characteristics of a table? It’s usually large enough to handle multiple people. It is a surface on which objects are placed, and interesting things happen in terms of what objects, where, and how they are positioned relative to one another. Using the traditional metaphor of musical instruments would never get you this instrument. Instead, you’d end up with light-up piano keys on the table surface.
What are the core characteristics of virtual worlds, and how do we exploit the space in a way that simply wouldn’t otherwise?
I think it just goes to show that often, we are so bound up by our preconceptions of how things work that it can be hard to break out of them. So now I am thinking along these lines… the core characteristics of online worlds are
- the simulation of space
- multiple users in the space
so we should be thinking of game systems and social systems that are driven above all by these three characteristics. If you’re willing to bear with me a moment — forget all the trappings of combat, elves, spaceships, whatever, and think very abstractly with me.
Space means, among other things,
Persistence means, among other things,
- periodicity (e.g., cycles — they only become visible with time)
- a potential for slow paces
And the quantity of users is, of course a quality of its own.
Are these qualities, then fundamental characteristics of the virtual world that we ought to be exploring more in our designs? These would be things that are to varying degrees hard for other games. Many have commented, for example, that Animal Crossing: Wild World feels like an MMO in some ways. Is this perhaps because it make use of the “slow cyclical behaviors” pattern that can only arise with a certain sort of persistence? And that this pattern is something that is a core element of MMOs?
This suggests that we ought to be leveraging these unique qualities more in MMOs, because they play towards the strengths of MMOs. Among the things that come to mind are:
- Systems affected by distance or proximity between players, player emplacements, NPC centers, or even characteristics of the space
- Systems affected by spatial relationships between entities
- Systems affected by sine wave or other periodic cycles moving in the background of the simulation, perhaps at very slow rates
- Systems affected by historical events at given locations
- Systems affected by the length of existence of a given characteristic at a given location
Obvious and non-obvious applications towards nifty game systems would include things like
- systems that rely on slow cycles, like seasons, annual festivals, and so on. Perhaps magic is affected by the three-month long cycle of the year. Perhaps spawns shift cyclically: still predictable, and therefore not obnoxiously random, but more varied than now. Maybe the pulsating heart of evil is on a one month beating cycle.
- systems that rely on long-term persistence and a sense of history, like archaeology of past great deeds. Imagine coming across relics from the first team to ever complete a given raid, a year before or longer. Picture game elements that accumulate only over the course of months of activity by players — and not ones that one player has to manage constantly through the process, like player cities, but things where everyone can do a little here and there, and it still counts. Maybe the more players do a gvien action in a place, the more resistant or susceptible to that action the place becomes.
- systems that rely on spatial simulation. MMOs treat space very literally. But we don’t make use of its special qualities. Obviously, there’s things like territory we should be exploring, but what about systems based on proximity, line of sight, and so on? Thinking again in terms of magic systems, mana whirlpools or “gravity wells” that affect topology, or magic based on ley lines, so that tactical positioning mattered. Higher ground actually affecting combat. Or, as in this cool musical table, a group chanting magic system based on people’s proximity and relative positioning. But you could expand this to whatever — formations for combat, performances for music, whatever. Can you imagine a world where every player was actually one of those blocks? As users moved around, they would change what was going on, and they could effectively make dances that actually created the music…
- combinations of the above, of course. Picture a ley line node that increases mana, but that remembers what sort of spells were peformed there over time, based on the relative positions of the mages involved…
When I read an article like the recent one on Gamasutra about “fixing MMOs” it strikes me as a curious mix of importation of features from elsewhere, and elements that leverage the real power of MMOs — but I’m unable to put my finger on why. And maybe the Reactable gives me a clue. Always try to leverage the strength of your medium — cut with the grain, not against it.
(the Reactable video came via Todd McKimmey)