[MUD-Dev] Re: Levels versus Skills, who uses them and when.

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Thu Jan 14 18:07:37 New Zealand Daylight Time 1999

On Wed, 13 Jan 1999 17:32:35 -0600 
Koster, Raph<rkoster at origin.ea.com> wrote:

>> From: Marian Griffith

>> You could of course put the ladder on quicksand.  A special type
>> of quicksand that sinks faster the higher you climb the ladder.
>> In this way you can easily stay out of the bog but climbing to
>> fame means you have to work hard at it, and keep working hard.
>> As soon as you stop working then you sink back into anonymity,
>> fast at first but increas- ingly slower after a while.

> EG, "atrophy." Unfortunately, players tend to react very
> negatively to it. I haven't heard of a better way to handle the
> problem yet, though.

This is really an exercise in economics and the old Bartle/Lawrie
argument on endless growth and permadeath.  Their argument was based
on the premise that without permadeath any player, even the mortally
incompetent and boring (the worst sin) can make wizard by merely
persisting for long enough.  A simple examination reveals the
economics underpinning: there is no deflation.

Without atrophy (deflation), there is only endless inflation (the
descreasing value of the advancement).  Once someone is level 10,
what is the value left in levels 1 thru 9?  

There are two approaches:

  1) Keep growing the game so that there is always room for the
inflationary sprial to grow into.  This means that the requirements
for the top levels of advancement must recede (become more
difficult) for the base player base at the same rate that the base
player base approaches them.

  2) Something must devalue accumulated value (levels etc) such that 
players ever fall down the ladder and thus retain something to

Comments on zero-sum games etc are apt and welcome.

The problem with both of course is that they are demoralising.
There is no winning, you can only stand still or fall behind.  We
can cover up this flaw in #1 by repainting it as "re-inventing" or
other cute terms.  The principle remains the same however, the game
is regeared to put everybody back at ground zero -- just without
making them feel that they've lost in the process (concentrate on
the new race/game instead of what is lost).

The problem from a game design viewpoint is that #2 is horribly
expensive.  It means that you can't just put a game on maintenance,
but you have to actually re-write and re-design and re-do the whole
damn thing with fair frequency, and sooner or later you are going to
get caught with your pants down, stumble, fall, and wipe out.  This
is not just newer graphics and other presentation touches ("Quake
is, Like, DOOM, but bloodier!), but real game creation -- that
horribly messy and unpredictable practice or braintrust.

What's the key problem?  The very concept of the advancement scale.
It just doesn't work over the long term.  It is an evolutionary dead
end.  Why?  Because you can't maintain the process that drives the
advancement scale.  No matter how hard you try to make and keep the
game open ended (which is really what I am talking about), sooner or
later, and likely far sooner than later, burnout beckons.  You
*have* to divert to softer more organic realms where
non-deterministic development is more important than direct
comparison and ranking and linear genetalia measuring is no longer
your stock in trade.

Even then atrophy isn't really a solution.  All it really does is
make the scale longer.  Now, instead of being able to climb from 1
to 100 in simple fashion, you're now walking uphill against

Take a typical combat MUD.  You play, and finally ascend all the
levels to wizard.  What is next?  This is a problem.  Linear
advancement scales just don't scale.  You can hide the problem by
making lots of ladders (one for mages, one for warriors, one for
stamp collectors, etc), but that merely clouds the problem.  It
doesn't remove it.


Expressive fertility seems like the real key here.  Have a look at
the Walled City in Gibson's Idoru.  Look at the general handling of
virtual reality in the same book.  There's a *LOT* of careful,
detailed, highly imaginative and really really engrossing (to the
people who created those things) expresiveness in there.  look at
the construction and details of the shrine/hut (I'm working on
memory here) where she first meat the Japanese fan club contingent.

Advancement scales are fun.  That's great, but you have to get
people off that bandwagon and into more interesting and less
deterministic affairs before they realise that the ladder ends and
that there is nowhere to go from there.  You have to distract them,
get them enmeshed in talking, role playing, coding cute objects,
holding Egg parties, or otherwise goofing off.

How to do that?  Make things other than advancement more and more
enticing.  You don't want it (non-advancement) TOO enticing too
quickly, as the presence of the scale is important.  It gets people
playing the game and knowledgable about the game and game world.  

So, the levels scale is the bait, the expressive fertility is the
hook, and the instant they step off the advancement scale, the hook
can be set.

End rant, at least until I get a chance to muse on this some more
(the advantages of a 50+ mile commute).


J C Lawrence                              Internet: claw at kanga.nu
(Contractor)                             Internet: coder at kanga.nu
---------(*)                    Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honorary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

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