[MUD-dev] Fun in Games (Long)

Ron Gabbard rgabbard at swbell.net
Thu Apr 25 12:54:30 New Zealand Standard Time 2002


From: Raph Koster

> Which brings me back to the statement, "why don't we fix the fact
> that comic books do a better job of portraying the human condition
> than our games do?"  There are many ways to provide fun, as you
> cite, and frankly, we as designers tend to explore only a very
> small subset of the possible means of doing so.

> FWIW, despite the extensive quoting of my writings in your
> original essay ;) my main quarrel with your entire premise is that
> online worlds aren't just games.

The extremely limited scope of activities and the accompanying
inefficiencies are the crux of the problem with most online worlds
out right now and is a primary reason online worlds don't 'portray
the human condition' well.  A short story that illustrates this
principle:

My grandfather was an engineer at the University of Illinois U/C
back in the 1960's and 1970's.  He wasn't a researcher or
instructor... he was in charge of the physical plant of the
university, i.e., the buildings, sidewalks, etc.  One year he was
charged with putting in sidewalks in the quadrangle (the grassy area
between the student union and other major buildings).

Grass had just been put in and he knew that no matter how he
designed the layout of the sidewalks the students would use
shortcuts and ruin the grass.  So, you know what he did?  Nothing.
For the next year, he allowed the students to walk across the grass
with no sidewalks.  Pretty soon paths began to wear in the grass
that indicated the major traffic routes that the students travelled.
That summer he went in and laid concrete over those worn paths and
made the diagonal sidewalk system that is still used in the UIUC
quad today.

The students got a sidewalk system that met their needs.  My
grandfather wasn't having to repair ripped up grass.  A win-win
situation with maximum efficiency for the greatest number of people.

In the case of online worlds, the sidewalks are being 'hardcoded'
then the players are being told 'this is where you walk.'  This
process can work in games as there is a definite linear 'path' the
designer wants the player to follow in order to 'win' and incentives
and rewards can be placed along this path.  In the case of worlds,
you have a non-linear 'experience' presented to the player.  By
hardcoding the 'sidewalks', the designer has necessarily introduced
inefficiencies into the world.  ('Inefficiencies' are defined as
activities the player must perform while receiving no
utility/enjoyment).  It's these inefficiencies that are either
addressed by player activity or remain a frustration to players.
Between EQ, DAoC, AC, and AO, EverQuest definitely has the greatest
number of glaring inefficiencies.  However, it also has the most
examples of players stepping in to fill these needs:

  1. Travel time between locations is extremely high and sometimes
  dangerous.  Thus, druid and wizard 'taxi' services formed and a
  market formed for buying run speed buffs.

  2. Replenishing supplies and depositing coin in the bank for
  players in remote zones like Lake of Ill Omen is 'inconvenient' at
  best.  Thus, you have players selling food, drink, arrows, and
  performing 'money-changing' services for other players in these
  zones.

  3. Gathering skins and spider silks for the Tailoring craft is
  extremely tedious for higher level players.  Thus, a market for
  these items formed where lower-level characters can actually make
  decent money while hunting creatures appropriate for their level.
  (Same can be said of bonechips for necromancers.)

  4. The penalty for death is extremely severe which has created a
  market (however dubious from an RP perspective) for clerics to
  provide high-level resurrections for a fee.

  5. Fine steel weapons dropped by mobs in Lower Guk, Cazic,
  etc. have a good market value but are also cumbersome with no
  convenient means of selling them.  This has created a market for
  players to purchase the weapons from other players in dungeons at
  a discount and make a profit selling them to vendors.

  6. Mana regeneration is extremely slow which has created a market
  for mana regeneration buffs.

The player-created 'tradeskills' of taxi driver, money changer,
hunter/gatherer, ressurector, 'crack' dealer, and middleman are the
most valued trades to the community as evidenced by the fees earned
by these players compared with the profits earned by the hard-coded
tradeskill roles of blacksmith, cook, tailor, alchemist, brewer,
etc.  That is the difference between designing online games versus
online worlds.

Another good example of how inefficiencies were addressed by
players, thus increasing socialization and community, is in
Asheron's Call.  (Note: I haven't played AC in quite a while so this
may have changed).  AC is the soloer's dream.  A player can venture
out with a backpack full of healing, stamina, and mana potions, slay
beasts for a time, and come back with packs full of loot.  However,
the absence of a banking system causes players to create storage
mules.  This results in the formation of 'recovery' areas where
everyone knows everyone and knows they can trust those people to
hold their gear while they log on their mule.  (Mine was a pub in
Hebian-to).  While I don't recommend forcing players to create mules
in role-play environments, the inefficiency and the player-created
work-around facilitated the formation of the community.

The other extreme is the super-efficient world of Anarchy Online.
(That game is the Achiever's dream.)  Insurance terminals, banks,
and mission terminals can be found even in the remotest zones.
Travel around the world can be achieved quickly at a relatively
low-level via whompa (port) or the Grid (picture the Matrix).
Players can get mission keys to dungeons that are theirs without
having to worry about the spawn being 'camped'.  This efficiency can
be achieved because the NPC owners of these terminals and
transportation systems can print their own money and operate them
regardless of player demand for the services.  The downside to
super-efficiency is that you end up with fewer logical gathering
spots as the players have been diffused throughout the world with
little to no need to travel to a central location. (Note: This
diffusion of players may be necessary to alleviate some of the
technical issues encountered at release.)

It is not possible to create a world completely without
inefficiencies...  nor would you want to as a certain portion of the
player base enjoys filling that role and can probably do so in ways
better than the designer could ever dream.  However, in an online
world, these inefficiencies have to be able to be removed (or at
least lessened) through player interaction.  This forms community
and interdependence and provides more roles to be played within the
world. Which circles back to Raph's question...

Why do comic books do a better job of portraying the human condition
than online worlds?

That may be the nature of the beast in online worlds given the
concept of 'fair'.

In comic books, the innocent are allowed to be victims.  The
villains exploit the weak and ultimately pay the price of justice
dished out by the 'hero'.  In online worlds, anti-social behavior is
either not allowed (play nice policies) and/or justice is withheld
(no player-killing).  It's like a Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) where both
sides are told they must cooperate... and most game theorists will
tell you that cooperation in a PD is irrational.  The total utility
gained by both sides is higher than if the people were left to make
their own 'rational' decisions.  However, it's contrary to the human
condition (but almost necessary) in worlds where there is no means
to enforce social contracts.

Secondly, online worlds typically ignore Adam Smith's 'Invisible
Hand'.  As in the initial example of the sidewalks, online worlds
currently hardcode the paths and tell the players to walk on them.
This reflects a central planning (Communist) attitude which has
proven worldwide to be a failed societal system.  Future online
worlds that allow for the player-driven construction and ownership
of banks, bind stones, travel systems, and vendors (with the
associated competition and maintenance costs) will create worlds
that are more efficient and more accurately reflect human behavior
as the worlds will be a culmination of every player acting
rationally (in their own best self interest).

In order to create worlds that accurately reflect the human
condition, designers are going to have to abandon one core
concept... fairness.  The powerful players will have the ability to
prey on the weak and the rich players will have the ability to
dominate the poor.  The challenge is then to replace 'fair' with
'just' and allow for the formation and enforcement of social
contracts.

Wow... this ended up much longer than I had intended.  Sorry. =/

Cheers,

Ron

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