The Laws of Online World Design


These are taken from both experience and from the writings of others. Most are the sort of “Duh” things that many who have done this sort of game design take for granted, but others may be less intuitive. Many of the laws here were actually stated as such by others, and not by me.

A Caveat

Ola’s Law About Laws
Any general law about virtual worlds should be read as a challenge rather than as a guideline. You’ll learn more from attacking it than from accepting it.

Design Rules

The secrets to a really long-lived, goal-oriented, online game of wide appeal

  • have multiple paths of advancement (individual features are nice, but making them ladders is better)
  • make it easy to switch between paths of advancementt (ideally, without having to start over)
  • make sure the milestones in the path of advancement are clear and visible and significant (having 600 meaningless milestones doesn’t help)
  • ideally, make your game not have a sense of running out of significant milestones (try to make your ladder not feel finite)

Modes of expression
You’re trying to provide as many modes of expression as possible in your online world. Character classes are just modes of expression, after all.

Persistence means it never goes away
Once you open your online world, expect to keep your team on it indefinitely. Some of these games have never closed. And closing one prematurely may result in losing the faith of your customers, damaging the prospects for other games in the same genre.

Macroing, botting, and automation
No matter what you do, someone is going to automate the process of playing your world.

Looking at what parts of your game players tend to automate is a good way to determine which parts of the game are tedious and/or not fun.

Game systems
No matter what you do, players will decode every formula, statictic, and algorithm in your world via experimentation.

It is always more rewarding to kill other players than to kill whatever the game sets up as a target.
A given player of level x can slay multiple creatures of level y. Therefore, killing a player of level x yields ny reward in purely in-game reward terms. Players will therefore always be more rewarding in game terms than monsters of comparable difficulty. However, there’s also the fact that players will be more challenging and exciting to fight than monsters no matter what you do.

Never trust the client.
Never put anything on the client. The client is in the hands of the enemy. Never ever ever forget this.

J. C. Lawrence’s “do it everywhere” law
If you do it one place, you have to do it everywhere. Players like clever things and will search them out. Once they find a clever thing they will search for other similar or related clever things that seem to be implied by what they found and will get pissed off if they don’t find them.

Hyrup’s “do it everywhere” Corollary
The more detailed you make the world, the more players will want to break away from the classical molds.

Dr Cat’s Stamp Collecting Dilemma
“Lots of people might like stamp collecting in your virtual world. But those who do will never play with those who like other features. Should you have stamp collecting in your world?” We know that there are a wide range of features that people find enjoyable in online worlds. We also know that some of these features are in conflict with one another. Given the above, we don’t yet know if it is possible to have a successful world that incorporates all the features, or whether the design must choose to exclude some of them in order to keep the players happy.

Koster’s Law (Mike Sellers was actually the one to dub it thus)
The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing.

Hyrup’s Counter-observation
The higher the fee, the better the roleplayers. (And of course, the smaller the playerbase.)

Enforcing roleplaying
A roleplay-mandated world is essentially going to have to be a fascist state. Whether or not this accords with your goals in making such a world is a decision you yourself will have to make.

Storytelling versus simulation
If you write a static story (or indeed include any static element) in your game, everyone in the world will know how it ends in a matter of days. Mathematically, it is not possible for a design team to create stories fast enough to supply everyone playing. This is the traditional approach to this sort of game nonetheless. You can try a sim-style game which doesn’t supply stories but instead supplies freedom to make them. This is a lot harder and arguably has never been done successfully.

Players have higher expectations of the virtual world
The expectations are higher than of similar actions in the real world. For example: players will expect all labor to result in profit; they will expect life to be fair; they will expect to be protected from aggression before the fact, and not just to seek redress after the fact; they will expect problems to be resolved quickly; they will expect that their integrity will be assumed to be beyond reproach; in other words, they will expect too much, and you will not be able to supply it all. The trick is to manage the expectations.

Online game economies are hard
A faucet->drain economy is one where you spawn new stuff, let it pool in the “sink” that is the game, and then have a concomitant drain. Players will hate having this drain, but if you do not enforce ongoing expenditures, you will have Monty Haul syndrome, infinite accumulation of wealth, overall rise in the “standard of living” and capabilities of the average player, and thus unbalance in the game design and poor game longevity.

Ownership is key
You have to give players a sense of ownership in the game. This is what will make them stay–it is a “barrier to departure.” Social bonds are not enough, because good social bonds extend outside the game. Instead, it is context. If they can build their own buildings, build a character, own possessions, hold down a job, feel a sense of responsibility to something that cannot be removed from the game–then you have ownership.

If your game is narrow, it will fail
Your game design must be expansive. Even the coolest game mechanic becomes tiresome after a time. You have to supply alternate ways of playing, or alternate ways of experiencing the world. Otherwise, the players will go to another world where they can have new experiences. This means new additions, or better yet, completely different subgames embedded in the actual game.

Lambert’s Laws:

  • As a virtual world’s “realism” increases, the pool of possible character actions increase.
  • The opportunities for exploitation and subversion are directly proportional to the pool size of possible character actions.
  • A bored player is a potential and willing subversive.
  • Players will eventually find the shortest path to the cheese.

No matter how many new features you have or add, the players will always want more.

Pleasing your Players
Despite your best intentions, any change will be looked upon as a bad change to a large percentage of your players. Even those who forgot they asked for it to begin with.

Hyrup’s Loophole Law
If something can be abused, it will be.

Murphy’s Law
Servers only crash and don’t restart when you go out of town.

Dr Cat’s Theorem
Attention is the currency of the future.

Dr Cat’s Theorem as expressed by J C Lawrence
The basic medium of multiplayer games is communication.

Hanarra’s Laws

  • Over time, your playerbase will come to be the group of people who most enjoy the style of play that your world offers. The others will eventually move to another game.
  • It is very hard to attract players of different gaming styles after the playerbase has been established. Any changes to promote different styles of play almost always conflict with the established desires of the current playerbase.
  • The ultimate goal of a virtual world is to create a place where people of all styles of play can contribute to the world in a manner that makes the game more satisfying for everyone.
  • The new players who enter the world for the first time are the best critics of it.
  • The opinions of those who leave are the hardest to obtain, but give the best indication of what changes need to be made to reach that ultimate goal.

Elmqvist’s Law
In an online game, players find it rewarding to save the world. They find it more rewarding to save the world together, with lots of other people.

A corollary to Elmqvist’s Law
In general, adding features to an online game that prevent people from playing together is a bad idea.

A caveat to the corollary to Elmqvist’s Law
The exception would be features that enhance the sense of identity of groups of players, such as player languages.

Baron’s Design Dichotomy
According to Jonathan Baron, there are two kinds of online games: Achievement Oriented, and Cumulative Character. In the former, the players who “win” do so because they they are the best at whatever the game offers. Their glory is achieved by shaming other players. In the latter, anyone can reach the pinnacle of achievement by mere persistence; the game is driven by sheer unadulterated capitalism.

Online identity
We spend a lot of time making people able to have a very strong personal identity in our worlds (letting them define themselves in great detail, down to eye color). But identity is portable. How many of you have been playing the same character in RPGs for 15 years, like me? You cannot count on a sense of identity, of character building, to keep someone in your game.

In game calendars
It’s nice to have an in-game calendar. But emotional resonances will never accrue to in-game holidays. The only calendar that really matters is the real world one. Don’t worry about breaking fiction–online games are about social interaction, not about fictional consistency.

Social Laws

Koster’s Theorem
Virtual social bonds evolve from the fictional towards real social bonds. If you have good community ties, they will be out-of-character ties, not in-character ties. In other words, friendships will migrate right out of your world into email, real-life gatherings, etc.

Baron’s Theorem
Hate is good. This is because conflict drives the formation of social bonds and thus of communities. It is an engine that brings players closer together.

Baron’s Law
Glory is the reason why people play online; shame is what keeps them from playing online. Neither is possible without other people being present.

Mike Sellers’ Hypothesis
“The more persistence a game tries to have; the longer it is set up to last; the greater number (and broader variety) of people it tries to attract; and in general the more immersive a game/world it set out to be–then the more breadth and depth of human experience it needs to support to be successful for more than say, 12-24 months. If you try to create a deeply immersive, broadly appealing, long-lasting world that does not adequately provide for human tendencies such as violence, acquisition, justice, family, community, exploration, etc (and I would contend we are nowhere close to doing this), you will see two results: first, individuals in the population will begin to display a wide range of fairly predictable socially pathological behaviors (including general malaise, complaining, excessive bullying and/or PKing, harassment, territoriality, inappropriate aggression, and open rebellion against those who run the game); and second, people will eventually vote with their feet–but only after having passionately cast ‘a pox on both your houses.’ In essence, if you set people up for an experience they deeply crave (and mostly cannot find in real life) and then don’t deliver, they will become like spurned lovers–somebecome sullen and aggressive or neurotic, and eventually almost all leave.”

Schubert’s Law of Player Expectations
A new player’s expectations of a virtual world are driven by his expectations of single-player games. In particular, he expects a narrow, predictable plotline with well-defined quests and a carefully sculpted for himself as the hero. He also expects no interference or disruption from other players. These are difficult, and sometimes impossible, expectations for a virtual world to actually meet.

Violence is inevitable
You’re going to have violence done to people no matter what the facilities for it in the game are. It may be combat system, stealing, blocking entrances, trapping monsters,stealing kills to get experience, pestering, harassment, verbal violence, or just rudeness.

Is it a game?
It’s a SERVICE. Not a game. It’s a WORLD. Not a game. It’s a COMMUNITY. Not a game. Anyone who says, “it’s just a game” is missing the point.

You will NEVER have a solid unique identity for your problematic players. They essentially have complete anonymity because of the Internet. Even addresses, credit cards, and so on can be faked–and will be.

Jeff Kesselman’s Theorem
A MUD universe is all about psychology. After all, there IS no physicality. It’s all psych and group dynamics.

Psychological disinhibition
People act like jerks more easily online, because anonymity is intoxicating. It is easier to objectify other people and therefore to treat them badly. The only way to combat this is to get them to empathize more with other players.

Mass market facts
Disturbing for those used to smaller environments, but: administrative problems increase EXPONENTIALLY instead of linearly, as your playerbase digs deeper into the mass market. Traditional approaches tend to start to fail. Your playerbase probably isn’t ready or willing to police itself.

Anonymity and in-game admins
The in-game admin faces a bizarre problem. He is exercising power that the ordinary virtual citizen cannot. And he is looked to in many ways to provide a certain atmosphere and level of civility in the environment. Yet the fact remains that no matter how scrupulously honest he is, no matter how just he shows himself to be, no matter how committed to the welfare of the virtual space he may prove himself, people will hate his guts. They will mistrust him precisely because he has power, and they can never know him. There will be false accusations galore, many insinuations of nefarious motives, and former friends will turn against him. It may be that the old saying about power and absolute power is just too ingrained in the psyche of most people; whatever the reasons, there has never been an online game whose admins could say with a straight face that all their players really trusted them (and by the way, it gets worse once you take money!).

Community size
Ideal community size is no larger than 250. Past that, you really get subcommunities.

Hans Henrik Staerfeldt’s Law of Player/Admin Relations: The amount of whining players do is positively proportional to how much you pamper them.
Many players whine if they see any kind of bonus in it for them. It will simply be another way for them to achieve their goals. As an admin you hold the key to many of the goals that they have concerning the virtual environment you control. If you do not pamper the players and let them know that whining will not help them, the whining will subside.

Hal Black’s Elaboration
The more responsive an admin is to user feedback of a given type, the more of that type the admin will get. Specifically, as an admin implements features from user suggestions, the more ideas for features will be submitted. Likewise, the more an admin coddles whiners, the more whining will ensue.

J C Lawrence’s “stating the obvious” law
The more people you get, the more versions of “what we’re really doing” you’re going to get.

John Hanke’s Law (cited by Mike Sellers)
In every aggregation of people online, there is an irreducible proportion of … jerks (he used a different word 🙂

Rewarding players
It is not possible to run a scenario or award player actions without other players crying favoritism.

The longer your game runs, the less often you get kudos for your efforts.

Dundee’s Law
Fighting the battle for nomenclature with your players is a futile act. Whatever they want to call things is what they will be called.

Ananda Dawnsinger’s Law
The less disruption that occurs in a community, the less able the community is able to deal with disruption when it does occur.

Rickey’s Law
People don’t want “A story”. They want *their* story.

Socialization requires downtime
Whatever the rewarded activity in your game is, it has to give people time to breathe if you want them to socialize.

Darklock’s First Law
Cheating is an apparently advantageous violation of player assumptions about the game. When those assumptions are satisfied, all apparently advantageous methods are fair. When they are violated, no apparently advantageous methods are fair. “Using exterior means to influence the play of a game is not necessarily cheating. It is only cheating if it violates the assumptions of other players *and* provides an advantage. When a player expects that gaining levels in a game takes a long period of time, he will call any method of gaining them rapidly “cheating” — even if it is an intentional feature of the game. When he expects that gaining levels is a rapid process, however, he will not think the people gaining them slowly are cheating… because that is not an apparently advantageous situation. It does not matter whether this actually *is* an advantageous situation, only whether it *appears* advantageous.”

Corollary to Darklock’s First Law
A bug is an apparently *disadvantageous* violation of player assumptions about the game. “This may be viewed as a specific application of Dundee’s Law, “Fighting the battle for nomenclature with your players is a futile act. Whatever they want to call things is what they will be called.” It does not matter whether “cheating” or a “bug” was an intentional part of the game design; it only matters whether the players *assumed* they were intentional.”

Darklock’s Second Law
Any violation of player assumptions is bad. “This follows from the first law because allowing violation of player assumptions is — pathologically — a unilateral “license to cheat”. When you license any player to violate the assumptions of others, you imply a right for ALL players to violate the assumptions of others, and they will attempt to do so in an apparently advantageous fashion. This turns your playerbase into a society of cheaters, under the umbrella of truths we hold to be self-evident. (Which is, of course, a “slippery slope” argument. It does not logically follow that *any* such playerbase MUST degenerate into a society of cheaters; only that human nature and psychology make some degree of such degeneration likely. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.)”

J C Lawrence on Utopias
Don’t strive for perfection, strive for expressive fertility. You can’t create utopia, and if you did nobody would want to live there.

Who contributed (purposely or inadvertently!), sorted alphabetically:

  • Myself, of course.
  • Richard Bartle: along with Roy Trubshaw, developed the first MUD.
  • Jonathan Baron: producer & designer for Air Warrior.
  • Hal Black: And another MUD-Dev member!
  • Dr Cat: the man behind Dragonspires and Furcadia.
  • Niklas Elmqvist: another active MUD-Dev member.
  • Ola Frosheim Grostad: researcher into virtual spaces, MUD-Dev member.
  • Marion Griffith: leads the !Overlord Project.
  • Hanarra, aka Jason Wilson,: of Nightfall.
  • Darrin Hyrup: designer and/or programmer for Gemstone, Dragon’s Gate, Darkness Falls, and Magestorm.
  • Jeff Kesselman: helped run Dark Sun Online, and is developing DSO2.
  • Amy Jo Kim: consultant and web designer.
  • Jon A. Lambert: active MUD-Dev member.
  • J C Lawrence: moderator for the MUD-Dev mailing list.
  • Damion Schubert: a key designer for Meridian 59, Might & Magic Online, and Ultima Online.
  • Mike Sellers: a prime mover behind Meridian 59.
  • Hans-Henrik Staerfeldt: one of the guys who wrote the original DikuMUD.
  • Jeff Freeman, aka Dundee: UO emulator shard developer.
  • Caliban Tiresias Darklock
  • Dave Rickey: currently a designer for Dark Age of Camelot
  • Ananda Dawnsinger
  • And all the members of the MUD-Dev list as well.

  6 Responses to “The Laws of Online World Design”

  1. […] These are taken from both experience and from the writings of others. Most are the sort of “Duh” things that many who have done this sort of game design take for granted, but others may be less intuitive. Many of the laws here were actually stated as such by others, and not by me. Raph Koster “laws of online world design” […]

  2. […] These are taken from both experience and from the writings of others. Most are the sort of “Duh” things that many who have done this sort of game design take for granted, but others may be less intuitive. Many of the laws here were actually stated as such by others, and not by me. Raph Koster “laws of online world design” […]

  3. […] deep trusting relationships definitely do form online. But they also, as is even enshrined in the Laws of Online World Design, migrate out from the virtual setting to the personal (it’s even called “Koster’s Theorem,” […]

  4. […] Summoner, Griswold, Wirt the Peg-Legged Boy, The Butcher, Adria the Witch, Ogden the Tavern Owner, Raph Koster, Gillian the Barmaid, Tremain the Priest, Leo Jackstaedt, Marius, Tyrael, Guybrush Threepwood und […]

  5. […] another thing that makes Valheim more like Minecraft than an MMORPG.  As Raph Koster recorded the laws of online world design, “The client is in the hands of the enemy.”  I suspect that this will become an issue […]

  6. […] There is an saying in the Laws of Online World Design: […]