[MUD-Dev] Laws of Online World Design

Koster Koster
Sat Oct 10 12:50:39 New Zealand Daylight Time 1998

A first pass on this project. Please feel free to question, debate, add,
etc. Only try to do it in pithy little statements. ;) Many thanks to all
those who helped with some of these laws, too.

BTW, it looks possible that I'll be runnning a roundtable at the Austin
CGDC roadtrip on exactly this topic. :)



Design Rules

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.

Game systems
No matter what you do, players will decode every formula, statistic, 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

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.

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

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.

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.

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
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."

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

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
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

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

Hans Henrik Staerfeldt's Law of Player/Admin Relations
The amount of whining players do is positively proportional to how well
you treat them.

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 :-) 

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