[MUD-Dev] Something in the water

Dave Rickey daver at mythicentertainment.com
Tue Jul 24 18:44:55 New Zealand Standard Time 2001

-----Original Message-----
From: Koster, Raph <rkoster at verant.com>

>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: Dave Rickey

>> I think that once we accept that what we have is not a new
>> dramatic medium, but is instead a superior form of escapism,
>> we'll make a lot more progress.

> To me, that characterization carries with it assumptions as
> well. I don't see those two statements as necessarily being in
> contradiction. Is the written word not both a form of escapism and
> also a dramatic medium (and a communications medium, and several
> other things to boot)?

But in most "media", utilitarian applications come first.  I'm not
so sure we'll *ever* see a virtual world filled with people
conducting mundane activities.

> It seems undeniable to me that there is significant potential for
> online worlds as a dramatic medium, just as it is patent that it
> is a form of escapism. It's clearly a medium of communication, of
> course.

Where my stance is the opposite, traditional storytelling was
directed, the teller aimed it at an audience.  We *can't* seem to
tell stories very well in this environment, the usual player
response to attempts at "plot" is a yawn.  Is it because we don't
know how, or because it just isn't a place to "tell" stories?

>> We're *entirely* too wound up in concepts from other mediums,
>> ideas of story and pace and symbolism.

> All new media begin this way. Theater started with the
> underpinnings of verse, film with theater, the novel with the
> letter and the modern notion of song with the news report. Some
> concepts translate, and some do not (we don't see nearly as many
> topical songs, epistolary novels, plays in verse, or stagey films
> as we used to).

We don't see nearly as many games with strong story emphasis,
either.  Even single-player games seem to be moving in the direction
of non-channeled playgrounds.

> Some concepts translate pertty well. Symbolism, as an example,
> strikes me as thoroughly bizarre for you to place on your list. We
> live lives rife with symbolism, and I'd be hard-pressed to imagine
> a medium that does not make use of it in one way or another, even
> ones devoted mostly to dryly factual content. I don't think that
> as a medium online games have yet made good conscious use of
> symbolism in ways that do not borrow liberally, though there are
> some neat ones in common usage (the Void, as used by many Dikus,
> is a great example).

Symbolism in other media is a form of shorthand, a way of evoking
meaning without exposition.  In these games, the players look behind
the curtain and often see that the symbol is a cardboard cutout.
You can't just invoke a symbol, you have to embody it.

>> All of these things represent the embroidery around a very simple
>> thing: People's desire to escape from the here and now into a
>> world that isn't just strange and different, but strange and
>> different in ways that make them happier.

> Here I believe you are carrying with you the baggage of a very
> particular approach to online world design, one perhaps inevitable
> given the preponderance of entertainment uses of the medium when
> compared to other uses. There are many other applications for
> online worlds beyond the game.  It may well be (and I tend to
> believe this personally) that going forward, the most prominent
> use of the online world is as an escapist entertainment, but that
> does not mean that such is what online worlds are FOR.

What *utility* does a virtual world offer for real-world operations?
If an interface for real-life activities does not allow greater
control or convenience, people won't use it.  Why should Joe Shmoe
virtually walk up to a virtual ATM, when he could just peruse a
web-page for his online banking?  Which is more *convenient*?

> Can escapist, wish-fulfilling forms of entertainment not also
> inform, educate, and challenge? Of course they can, and they often
> do. Granted, the most common theme is the very Apollonian
> affirmation of custom, but there's a wealth more even in heavily
> conformist and thematically conservative mass media forms of
> escape such as TV and the Hollywood film. Online worlds could be
> put to many uses, they just haven't been yet.

Educate, inform, challenge, anything that occurs primarily inside
the skull of the user, we can potentially do.

> Online worlds are most successful when they manage to make you
> forget about the technological crutches and impedimenta that got
> you into the shared world in the first place. Books are most
> successful when they make you forget you're reading, movies when
> they make you forget the seat and the sticky floor, music when you
> lose track of your body.

But is it really the same thing?  It's the active vs. passive
question in another form, is an active entertainment fundamentally
different from a passive one?  I say that it is, few would get
engrossed in *watching* someone play one of these games.  In spite
of all efforts, sports-style broadcasts of Quake matches just
haven't caught on.

> Yet live action roleplaying, improvisational theater, and the
> murder mystery party game have all had to build up a repertoire of
> tricks too, despite the environment being interactive and the
> other participants being real. I suspect you'll argue that they do
> not present an alternate world in which the action takes place,
> and this is true. Yet the mere fact that it is an alternate world
> seen through a screen means that there's substantial reason to
> need tricks, and we work assiduously on them all the time: cleaner
> interfaces, better expressivity for the avatars, more realistic
> worlds, etc.

All of those tricks are based on "Pretend that didn't happen" when
something out of the context occurs.  In these, you don't have to do
that.  You still have to pretend things *are* happening that are
not, especially on realism questions, but that's not a long-term

>> How "real" is a friendship?  How "virtual" are the feelings of
>> grief in "A story about a tree"?  How imaginary was the original
>> Siege of Trinsic (The one between the Obsidian Order and the
>> Trinsic Miner's Co-op on Baja)?  When these games succeed, they
>> succeed because what is important to the players is reflected in
>> the game, not by making what's important to the game affect the
>> players.  It's the reverse of dramatic liscense.

> And yet, it seems that most often, what's important to players is
> the game's reaction to their actions. The feedback loops, the
> "ding," the level up and the new skills. Perhaps what is most
> insidious about this fact is the way in which it undermines the
> presence of others in the game; one works with others for the
> game's approbation, not for the approval of one's peers.  There's
> no reward mechanism established right now in the genre for
> "interacting with others" which is the key differential between
> online worlds and single-player ones. One might argue that until
> players shift their attention from the game/world's reactions to
> the reactions of others in the environment, that we're still in
> silent single camera movie days.

That, I can agree with.  Leveling treadmills are simply an
expedient, we use them because they work, not because we want them.

> Currently, the mechanisms of approval by others, of friendship, of
> emotion aroused by human contact, are still second-order effects
> in online games.  The primary mechanisms are still that of
> recognition by the system.

Recognition, or empowerment?  In the game context, you are gaining
in strength, given enough time you can become arbitrarily strong.

> It may be that until we jettison the trappings of roleplaying
> games, which enforce those mechanisms, online worlds cannot
> evolve. Yet despite many attempts going back to 1989, we seem to
> have real trouble doing so.

I think we'll never entriely ditch them, because if we do people can
progress only up to the limit of their personal abilities.  Since
only 1 person in 1000 has 1 in a thousand capability, that wouldn't
deliver empowerment.  Without empowerment, I don't think you'll see
them *engage*.

>> Realism is important only to the extent that it makes the
>> player's actions resonate as "real" on a gut level.  It's not
>> "realistic" to throw around spells, but if those spells allow the
>> player to interact with the world in an empowering way, the
>> player doesn't care.

> Empowerment is often seen as the cheapest, easiest target to hit
> in entertainment and art. Are you aiming too low?

In trying to make thousand of people all feel empowered, while
interacting with (and measuring against) each other?  Okay, granted,
empowerment is not enough, we have to allow them to reach each other
in meaningful ways, as well.  Otherwise, what's the point?

>> "Virtual Tourism" will succeed only to the degree that it allows
>> the player to be someone of *consequence* in that context.  A
>> simple walking tour of Rennaissance Italy or the Ch'in Dynasty
>> Middle Kingdom, realistic or not, does not do that any more than
>> a documentary of the same setting, but being minor nobility in
>> the same contexts *would*.

> Being minor nobility in those contexts is also a far more
> educational experience than a documentary could ever be. If all
> you get out of it at the end is a virtual execution and an acute
> understanding of the limitations of a given role in that society,
> do you deem that experience a failure? (It may well not have
> commercial viability, but neither does lots of other valuable
> stuff).

Hmm....  Actually, one of my favorite characters in P&P gaming was
the one that got so strong and arrogant the rest of the party
conspired to kill him (successfully).

As the market for these games grows, and the population of each
rises, I expect to see a lot more movement towards custom server
sets.  In a way, DAoC is three different games, with a lot of
commonality but still distinctly different.  Once we've got servers
for peak populations of 30K+, we've got enough money coming in that
each can have a full-blown development team in it's own right.
That's a fairly "niche" interest we can potentially serve, if our
systems are robust and flexible enough.  I expect we'll be
redefining what a "Commercially Viable" concept is.

Escapism is *more* than entertainment.  If reality is defined
through concensus, how real is an escape you share with such large
numbers of people?

--Dave Rickey

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