[MUD-Dev] DESIGN: More thoughts on the player pyramid

Mike Rozak Mike at mxac.com.au
Thu Apr 7 12:13:53 New Zealand Standard Time 2005

I did some more thinking about the player pyramid (which I posted a
few months back), and came up with some more thoughts about what
makes virtual worlds tick. Much of the document is stating the
obvious, but I often find that helpful to clarify my thinking,
particularly when I'm trying to figure out how to design a VW that's
not a "stock MUD" like EQ, WoW, and Ogre Island.

You can find the writeup at


(The editor will probably use his nifty HTML-to-Text tool and attach
it to the end of this post.)

Mike Rozak

<EdNote: I am fore-caught!  w3m is my friend.>

Virtual world equation
6 April 2005
by Mike Rozak

As I stated in The authoring equation, computer graphics thinkers
have come up with an all-encompassing mathematical equation that
explains 3D rendering. Most of the computer graphics lighting
techniques that you may have heard about, such as radiosity, global
illumination, ray tracing, motion blur, etc., are just
approximations to the full solution described by the rendering

Since I like to examine the underlying principles of ideas, I keep
wondering if there's a similar all-encompassing "equation" that
explains virtual worlds...

Here's my latest attempt.

What a virtual world is...

A virtual world is...

  1. A virtual place simulated on a computer.

  2. The place is populated by various "players" visiting the
  world. The most common type of "player" is an ordinary
  player. Other types of players exist though, including the author,
  members of the live team, and trusted players. (See Player

  3. Each player has the ability to control their avatar, affect the
  world, and affect other players, either directly or
  indirectly. The type of control depends upon the player
  type. Authors, for example, have much greater ability to change
  the world than ordinary players.

  4. Players visit the world because they want something out of the

     The most common "desire" is entertainment from the author's
     content, which the author created using their authorial
     player-powers. Most players also want to play with friends, or
     meet new people. Some want to run inns. Others wish to be
     kings. Many want to dominate others. The author and live team
     "play" (in part) because they wish to earn real-life money.

     The players' desires are conscious, sub-conscious, and maybe
     even something unknown or unwanted to the player when they
     first begin playing, but which is ultimately "good" for them
     (such as Richard Bartle's "Hero's journey"). Does the the
     author's choice of what is "good" for the player mimic the
     "theme" of a novel? (More on this in a future writeup.)

     To state the obvious: If the player's desires didn't somehow
     involve other players, the players would probably be playing a
     single-player game instead of dealing with all the headaches of
     the Internet and other players.

  5. When players try to fulfil their desires, they often annoy
  other players in the process. A player fulfilling his desire
  occasionally benefits other players.

     For example: A player who wants to role play is annoyed by
     non-roleplayers, and vice-versa. A player who wants to grief
     annoys just about every player he meets. A player who wishes to
     be an innkeeper and chat with his customers annoys those
     customers who just want to buy a beer and get back to

     Of course, not all players cause each other grief, and some get
     along quite well; A player who wishes to play Florence
     Nightingale is appreciated by wounded fighters. A player that
     wishes to to sing bawdy songs at an inn is usually welcomed by
     the inn's visitors, although some customers may disagree.

     How much one player's desires affects another player depends
     upon the individuals and their particular moods and
     circumstances. Some people may not like being healed by
     Florence Nightingale, while a small minority of others might
     actually enjoy being griefed. Annoyance can be conscious and

     See The player pyramid and Altruism.

The equation

Looking at virtual worlds in this light makes "the equation" to
solve fairly obvious... The goal of a virtual world is to:

  Sustainably maximise the fulfilment of the players' desires (aka:
  conscious and sub-conscious enjoyment of the VW), while minimising
  the amount that players get on each others' nerves. (To make
  matters more difficult, players getting on each other's nerves
  sometimes leads to fulfilment of the players' conscious or
  sub-conscious desires.)

Of course, this is easier said than done.

Some obvious solutions

Some solutions naturally follow:

  1. The author and live team need to produce the "entertainment"
  that players consciously and sub-consciously expect from
  them. Such entertainment is usually in the form of hard-coded
  content, scripts, and AI... what most people would call the PvE
  game. Some virtual worlds (see below) rely on the live
  participation of the author and live team, while others have no
  PvE content whatsoever. (See Player powers.)

  2. The world should be designed to attract "complimentary" player
  desires. These could be self-attracting desires, A <-> A, such as
  players looking to meet people wanting to meet other players
  wanting to meet people. They could be mutually beneficial
  relationships, A <-> B; Players who wish to be leaders must be in
  worlds with players who wish to be led, and vice-versa. Or, there
  can be more complex relationships of A -> B -> C -> A. See
  Intertwined relationships.

     The player pyramid discusses one possible relationship, where
     some players pay the real-life bills in order to have the other
     players around.

  3. The virtual world's advertising should do its best not to
  attract players that won't fulfil their desires in the
  world. Attracting the right players is also important, but is (in
  many ways) secondary to not attracting the wrong players. If the
  wrong player visits a virtual world they will not enjoy their
  experience and will tell ten friends how lousy the world is, just
  like people who see a movie they didn't like. Unlike movies,
  players who aren't enjoying themselves will also make life
  miserable for the virtual world players who are playing and
  enjoying the world. (Note: Similar behaviour does happen in movie
  theatres... Occasionally, a disgruntled movie viewer will provide
  a running criticism of the movie to everyone sitting in
  neighbouring seats.)

  4. The virtual world's advertising should attract a "balanced"
  distribution of players. If more players wish to be innkeepers
  than there are inns, some of them will be unhappy. Damion Schubert
  pointed this out in his response to the player pyramid.

  5. The world should attract and empower altruistic players. Some
  people are naturally friendly and altruistic, and are a net
  benefit to a virtual world. The virtual world should attract these
  players and give them powers to maximise their beneficial
  effect. Other players (griefers) annoy virtually everyone else and
  should be kicked out. (See Damion Schubert's response to the
  player pyramid.)

  6. The powers provided to various types of players should be
  designed so the players can attain their desires. If a world
  attracts players who wish to lead, the world should provide
  tools/abilities so the players can actually lead. A world that
  attracts players who want to be innkeepers should provide
  player-run inns. Alternatively, an option for "looking to group"
  ensures that players that wish to meet other players can easily do

     The powers might be dependent on other players, so that player
     A cannot fulfil his desires with his own powers, but must
     convince player B to use his powers.

  7. Players should have a choice about what they want to do, and
  who they typically interact with. This allows players interact
  with people that help fulfil their desires, and avoid annoying

  8. The world should naturally funnel players to meet other
  compatible players. Guilds ensure that leaders and followers meet
  up. Likewise, PvP players are given their own PvP region of the
  world so they don't kill a PC that doesn't want to partake in
  PvP. In some worlds, fantasy races with strong personality
  associations attract people of like-personality into the same
  region of the world. (Giving players exactly what they want isn't
  always best though. See below.)

  9. Players are rewarded for fulfilling the desires or other
  players, and penalised for being annoying to other
  players. Players naturally reward and punish one another through
  in-character actions, such as as insults, avoidance, and PvP

     Role playing virtual worlds sometimes provide each player with
     role-playing points that he/she can award to another player
     that he/she thought did a good job role playing. The points
     could just as easily be handed out for "making my experience
     more enjoyable". Negative points could be awarded for "being a
     jerk"... so long as the true jerks aren't allowed to label
     other people as jerks and their friends as enjoyable, or the
     world will turn into a world of jerks, which is fine if that's
     what you're after.

     Rewards can be simpler than this; in the case of a virtual
     world with player inn-keepers, making goods less expensive at
     the player-run inn than the NPC-run inn acts as a reward for
     players who visit the player-run inn.

  10. Role playing points and/or real-life cash payments can be
  accumulated and used to "purchase" potentially negative
  abilities. For example, if a player accumulated enough role
  playing points they could become king, which would allow them to
  impose their will (to an extent) on other players. Inevitably,
  such an imposition would be a minor annoyance to a large number of
  players. To become king, and thereby mildly annoy large numbers of
  players, the player had to do good deeds, either by getting lots
  of role-playing points or by paying real-life bills, so on the
  whole they make the world a better place to live in... This system
  acts like the inverse of Hindu theology, where the
  positive/negative actions of this life affect what you're
  reincarnated as. Instead, the positive actions of this life allow
  you to act negatively in your next life.

     Notice the semi-interchangeability of role-playing points and
     real-life money. Does this mean that virtual worlds which are
     expensive to run (ones with plenty of eye candy) will value
     wealthy contributors above those who earn role playing points,
     and vice versa?

  11. Worlds with democratic player politics have a similar
  effect. A player who desires to be elected will only be elected if
  he makes enough other players' desires come true. Unfortunately,
  democracies inevitably lead to factions where 51% of the players
  are getting their desires met, and 49% are unhappy with the
  current administration. Role playing points used to purchase
  kingdoms could produce similar outcomes.

Notice that these solutions almost all require that the player makes
a conscious choice, which means that the player will tend to fulfil
their conscious desires and often fail to heed their sub-conscious
or "good to have" desires.


Applying this model to contemporary virtual world genres (partially)
explains why they succeed:

   - Single-player worlds - Players are looking for canned
   entertainment from the author and live team, in the form of
   content. The author and live-team are looking for a real-life
   income, which the players pay in exchange for entertainment.

   - Player-vs-environment worlds - The single-player world's
   player/author relationship of entertainment/money exists. Plus,
   the players wish to play with their friends (who in turn wish to
   play with the player), and to meet new players (who wish to meet
   the player). The author reorients the single-player content so it
   provides a vehicle for playing with friends or meeting new

   - Player-vs-player worlds - As with PvE worlds, players who wish
   to play with friends, or who wish to meet new people, are
   attracted to the world. Furthermore, the world attracts players
   wishing to compete against other players (who in turn wish to
   compete). Leaders and organizers are attracted to the world, as
   well as people who wish to be led or organized. Many PvE worlds
   include PvP elements, but the PvP elements are usually in
   separate sections of the world or PvP is optional.

   - World-like worlds - Players who wish to be innkeepers, mayors,
   or kings end up paying the real-life bills. In order to have
   clients or subjects to rule, they pay for the author and live
   team, who provide free content that attracts players who like
   single-player or PvE worlds. See The player pyramid.

   - Creation worlds - Players that wish to create scenery or other
   works of digital art wish their creations to be seen. Players
   that wish to socialise visit these worlds because (a) the scenery
   and artworks provide something to socialise about, and (b) the
   artists often pay the real-life VW costs for the
   socialisers. Since creation can also be used as a status symbol,
   some socialisers partake in creation (and help pay the real-life
   bills) to increase their social standing.

   - Role-player worlds - Players who wish to role play like to play
   with other players who role play, and without
   non-role-players. The role players need the author and live team
   to create the stage as well as to police the role playing in a
   non-political manner.

   - Table-top RPGs - Since the players and author (the GM) are
   friends, all players participate to continue and strengthen their
   friendship. The GM is the player in the group who most likes
   creating and role-playing, while the other players enjoy the

If this model is applied to single-player games, as shown at above,
then you'll see that a single player game is a world with one player
and an author in absentia. The absent author is limited to
hard-coded elements, scripted elements, and artificial
intelligence. The author "learns what the player desires and
dislikes" by providing the player a choice of play styles in the
guise of races and classes, as well as choices throughout the game.

A story is 0-player world in which the reader has no input. The
author of a book or movie can only use hard-coded elements; scripts
and AI are not possible in books.  Furthermore, the author cannot
even ask the viewer what they're interested in, so instead, the
author designs the content to satisfy a stereotypical
reader/viewer. (Theoretically, a piece of linear fiction on a
computer could ask the reader what type of experience they want, and
use scripts and AI to tailor the fiction.)

A more complex solution

If you have a hammer, all the world's problems look like nails...

All of the "obvious" solutions are already used in contemporary
virtual worlds. Let me propose a more complex (and robust) solution
that may be a bit controversial:

   Create an AI (or members of the live team) whose job it is to
   figure out what a player desires, and hook him/her up with other
   players (or content) that fulfils the player's desires, while
   also fulfilling the hooked-up players' desires.

In other words,

   Create a god/director for the world whose purpose is to make the
   world fun based upon its knowledge of each individual. Much of
   what the god/director does is act as a "dating" service,
   arranging "chance" encounters between players (or content).

Basically, the AI's job is to maximise the fulfilment of desires
while minimising the amount that players get on each others
nerves. For example: It needs to get chatty players to visit the inn
run by the chatty innkeeper, while steering rushed players to a
vending machine.

This isn't any easy task, and isn't likely to be solved anytime

The first problem is finding out what the player desires:

  1. If you ask players what they want, they will be able to state
  their conscious desires. They won't be able to tell you their
  sub-conscious desires, and won't have clue about unknown desires
  that would be "good" for them.

  2. Players may not be able to put their desires into words or
  settings that an AI can understand.

  3. Players may lie about their desires.

  4. Players' desires change from day to day, hour to hour, and
  minute to minute. A virtual world can't possibly ask players what
  they want every 10 minutes. Polling the player once every few
  weeks might work, since the player's desires probably fluctuate
  around a mean.

  5. Some desires should not be fulfilled... Even though players may
  think they want to fulfil a desire, they will be unhappy if they
  actually do.

     It's the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for. You might
     just get it."

     Or, to paraphrase Frank Herbert in his Dune series: Most people
     will tell you they wish to know the future, but what they
     really want is to know which lottery number to pick and how to
     avoid accidents. They don't really want to know everything that
     will happen to them.

Somehow, the AI (or live team) needs to watch a player's actions and
reactions, and guess what the player is trying to get out of the
virtual world experience... I said it wasn't doable in the near

Furthermore, the AI (or live team) must determine what annoys the
player so that content and encounters with potentially annoying
players can be minimised. Attaining a list of "annoyance" factors
comes with the same difficulties as determining the player's

Once the AI (or live team) knows a player's desires and annoyances,
it needs to steer the player to the content or players that will be
most compatible. An even more complex solution would have the AI
create content designed for the player, just like a table-top RPG GM

If this wasn't complex enough for an AI, the AI will probably need
to be very subtle about its machinations. Many players will resent
an AI playing matchmaker, even though they might appreciate the
results. If the players know they are being manipulated, or in what
specific ways, they might rebel and purposely try to subvert the
AI. Griefers will find all sorts of ways to subvert the system. For
example: If a griefer is given a quest that's obviously designed to
benefit another player, this provides the griefer with information
about what the other player wants, and can be used by the griefer as
a weapon against the other player.

Table-top RPG's successfully implement this more complex solution
because the GM (acting as the AI) only deals with four to six
players, and knows them well enough personally that he can deduce
their desires and dislikes. The players know such machinations
occur, but accept it because the GM is their friend, and is trusted
so long as he doesn't go too far.

Even though its a long way off, the idea is not that far
fetched... Amazon.com uses data mining and analysis to produce
reasonable (but imperfect) book recommendations based on what books
you have already ordered. When I log onto Amazon.com, it recommends
that I purchase a collection of books about 3D rendering and game
design, along side a Thomas the Train electric train... I have
ordered Christmas gifts for my nephews through Amazon.com, and the
AI isn't intelligent enough to realise that the gifts weren't for

Copyright 2005 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
Mike at mXac.com.au

and for bonus measure:

Player Powers
6 April 2005
by Mike Rozak

I thought I'd spend some time stating some obvious facts about the
powers that players are given to affect a virtual world...

Player powers

Players have the following basic powers in a virtual world:

  - Character control - The player can control their character. The
  character can do whatever it is would be expected of a character,
  whether PC or NPC. This includes:

    - Moving around

    - Communication

    - Manipulating objects

    - Attacking other characters

    - Magic, which sometimes allows for extra-character control.

    - Etc.

  - Influence other players - The player can influence or coerce
  other players to undertake actions on their behalf. The means of
  influence can be:

    - Social influence

    - In-game money or payments

    - Game-supported rewards, such as experience points or skill

    - Etc.

  - Influence NPCs - Players can influence or coerce NPCs to
  undertake actions on their behalf. For example:

    - Rile up a hoard of monsters and get them to chase the player,
    who leads them into the path of another (unsuspecting) player

    - Get NPCs to like/dislike a player

    - Pets

    - Hire NPC for guards, couriers, etc.

    - The live team and trusted players can "demonically" possess

    - Etc.

  - Create static content - Static content is content that doesn't
  require the player to program. It can include:

    - Message board posts

    - Artwork of character appearances

    - Crafting of in-game objects

    - Backstory (usually created by the author)

    - Sprites, 3D models, sounds effects (usually created by the

    - Landscape creation

    - Player housing

    - Etc.

  - Create scripted content - Scripted content requires programming,
  but isn't as complex as AI's programming. Scripted content

    - Traps that go off when triggers are set off

    - Instructions for a hired NPC... or is this influencing a NPC?

    - Scripts for object behaviour

    - Etc.

  - Create AIs - Most developers think of AI as merely a bunch of
  scripts, which it is... at the moment. I suspect that in the
  future, AIs will be much more than scripts, so I have placed AI in
  a separate category. AI creation can include:

    - Creation of an instance of a known AI... "Create me an orc".

    - Customization of a known AI... "Create me an orc that
    occasionally tells jokes."

    - Entirely new AI personality.

    - Etc.

  - Etc. - The list of player powers is by no means limited to the
  categories I have listed.

Notice that character control, influencing player characters, and
influencing NPCs are online activities that must be done by a person
real-time. Creating static content, scripts, and AI can be done
offline, and affect non-specific players at a later point. I'll
reference online and offline activities later.

Player categories

Virtual world "players" fit into the following categories...

  - The author and development team - As a general rule, the author
  and development team have full offline powers. They might also
  have full online powers, but they spend so much time creating the
  offline content that they don't get a chance to use their online

  - Game masters - Game masters often have full online powers, and
  fairly weak offline powers.

  - Trusted players - Trusted players, "wizards" in text-MUDs, have
  the same or similar powers to game masters. They have full online
  powers, and weak offline powers.

  - Ordinary players - Ordinary players are usually limited to
  character control powers, and bits and pieces of the
  others. Ordinary players are often sub-categorised further:

    - Party members - Party members have powers over other party
    members that other player categories do not. For example: A
    party member can see the health and buffs of another party
    member, or may even be able to borrow equipment from an
    unconscious party member.

    - Enemies - Game-sanctioned PvP enemies are able to attack one
    another. In World of Warcraft, a member of the Hoarde cannot
    attack another member of the Hoarde, but can attack a member of
    the Alliance. (Given the right circumstances.)

    - Neutrals - These are players that are neither party members
    nor enemies. They usually have the least amount of power over
    each other.

  - Etc. - There might well be other player categories.

The matrix

For any virtual world, it's possible to create a matrix of player
powers vs. player categories. Each cell can be filled with the
specific abilities that a player has. (By the way, Richard Bartle
categorizes worlds based on persistence vs. player category in his
book, Designing Virtual World.)

   |           |         |           |          | Ordinary | Ordinary | Ordinary |
   |           | Author  | GM        | Trusted  | players  | players  | players  |
   |           |         |           | players  | -        | -        | -        |
   |           |         |           |          | Friends  | Enemies  | Neutrals |
   | Character |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | control   |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | Influence |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | other     |         | Table-top |          |          |   PvP    |          |
   | players   |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | Influence |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | NPCs      |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | Create    |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | static    |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | content   |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | Create    |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | scripted  |         |    PvE    |          |          | Creation |          |
   | content   |         |           |          |          |          |          |
   | Create AI |         |           |          |          |          |          |

<EdNote: The top left 9 squares are gray, the top right red, the
bottom left 9 blue, the bottom right green>

I haven't bothered filling in this matrix for a specific game. I did
colour the cells and label them; see below.

Interestingly, if you examine a game and ask "Where does the fun
come from?" you'll notice some trends:

  - Player vs. Environment worlds provide most of their "fun" from
  the lower-left corner, where the author (or GMs or trusted
  players) create static content, scripts, and AIs for the players
  to experience.

  - Player vs. Player worlds derive their "fun" from the upper-right
  corner. The fun comes from players interacting with one another.

  - Creation worlds, like Second Life, derive their "fun" from
  players creating stuff and showing it off to the rest of the

  - Table-top RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, and Skotos games, are
  "fun" because the author (or GMs or trusted players) intimately
  partakes in the player's experiences, in real time.

Some other observations:

  - Large companies should prefer virtual worlds based on static,
  scripted, or AI content, and written solely by their own authoring
  team, because the amount of work to create such a world is
  independent to the number of players. Thus, they can derive large
  economies of scale. This seems to hold out, since the largest
  worlds are PvE.

  - Very small fee-based operations should prefer virtual worlds
  based on the author, GMs, or trusted players intimately
  controlling their own characters, influencing players, and
  influencing NPCs. The cost is proportionate to the number of
  players. This seems to hold out; the smallest worlds are from
  table-top RPGs with a GM and 4-6 players, and Skotos text-MUDs.

  - Mid-sized companies should prefer the right-hand side of the
  matrix, where players have the most influence, mainly because
  that's all that's left. They can't compete against the table-top
  RPGs at all. They can compete against large PvE worlds, but only
  with lower-quality eye candy, which means their market is much
  smaller. (Text MUDs attract 1/100th the number of players as a
  bleeding edge MMORPG.)

  - Worlds whose "fun" is derived from the left side of the matrix
  have an experience that depends upon the quality of the authors
  hired. The quality of players that are attracted to the world is
  less relevant.

  - Worlds in the middle of the matrix depend heavily on
  volunteers. The quality of the players' experience depends upon
  the quality of volunteers that can be attracted to the
  world. These worlds are restricted in size by the number of
  skilled volunteers available.

  - Worlds on the right side of the matrix rely on the players. A
  bad player population will ruin the game, while a good player
  population will make it shine. The world's staff is concerned with
  attracting good players and weeding out the bad. Because these
  worlds must be picky about the players they attract and let in,
  their size is limited, just as the size of popular nightclubs is
  limited. A very good weed-out process creates a role-playing
  world, while a poor weed-out process creates a PvP blood-bath

  - Static content is quickly consumed by players, just as "static"
  movies are only watched once by movie viewers. Scripted content is
  more repeatable. AI content is highly repeatable, especially when
  it become as good as a real person. Of course, scripted content is
  more difficult to create than static content, and AI is more
  difficult than scripted content.

  - If/when AI gets good enough, large companies will use their AI
  to replace live authors, GMs, and volunteers, and encroach into
  the "table-top" corner of the matrix. This won't happen for many

  - Single player games fit in the "PvE" corner of the matrix, and
  compete against the large PvE virtual worlds. Consequently, PvE
  virtual worlds must make themselves different enough from a
  single-player game to justify their existence, but not so
  different that they lose all their economies of scale.

  - Novels and movies fit into a single cell, which is
  author-created static content.

and finally:

8 March 2005
by Mike Rozak

A recent discussion on Terranova got me thinking about altruism and
its role in virtual worlds, particularly how it pertains to the
world vs. game nature of a virtual world.

However, before I discuss altruism, I will spend some time "boiling
down" linear fiction, single-player games, and multiplayer games
into their fundamental constructs...

Boiling them down...

At its most fundamental, a piece of linear fiction (aka: story) does
the following:

  1. Provide a setting and "laws of physics" that govern the
  world. Does the story take place in the 18th century or the 25th
  century? Is there magic or warp technology?

  2. Get the reader to like one or more non-player characters (NPCs)
  in the fictional world.

  3. Have the "liked" NPCs make interesting choices and undertake
  interesting actions. The choices and actions aren't necessarily
  interesting for the NPC though; they are designed to be
  interesting for the reader.

  4. Have the world, NPC, or other NPCs change in interesting ways
  as a result of the NPCs actions. Again, the change must be
  interesting to the reader.

     One of the ways to make the change more interesting is to make
     it believable but unexpected. A good story teller never gives
     the reader exactly what they expect.

  5. In a story, all the changes lead the "plot" to its final
  conclusion. Those choices and changes that are not needed to reach
  the conclusion are generally removed from the story.

  6. Each story has a theme, which is the ultimate message of the
  experience, such as "You walk though history and are part of
  future histories." The theme permeates the work.

The fundamental elements of a single-player game are:

  1. Provide a setting and "laws of physics" that govern the
  world. This is the same as with a story, although setting and
  physics seem to be more important in a single-player game than a
  story... Could this be because the other elements (see below)
  aren't handles as deftly by contemporary game designers? Or, are
  world and physics inherently more important to a single-player

  2. Get the player to identify with his player character (PC).

     Unlike linear fiction, games do not usually try to get the
     player to like any NPCs; Artificial intelligence isn't
     sophisticated enough to make likeable NPCs. At best, cut scenes
     or other pre-programmed scripts are used to make NPCs likeable,
     but the effect pales compared to linear fiction.

  3. Provide interesting choices and activities for the PC to
  undertake. The choices and actions are mainly designed to be
  interesting to the player, not the player's character.

     An activity might be interesting in a game but not a story:
     Real-life hiking is an interesting activity to partake in
     because it requires mental concentration to avoid slipping,
     tripping over rocks, and being bitten by snakes. It is
     dreadfully boring to read about though.

  4. The world, PC, and NPCs change in interesting ways as a result
  of the PC's actions. Generally, changes occur only after the PC
  correctly performs a specific action, like pressing the correct
  button, killing a monster, or saying the right phrase to a NPC.

  5. Single-player games have conclusions and plots, just like
  stories. The player's choices, activities, and their results are
  designed to lead to this conclusion.

     Players make an unwritten agreement with the author that they
     won't try to subvert the built-in plot (too much) if the author
     provides them with an enjoyable experience. Of course, in most
     games, it's impossible for a player to subvert the plot beyond
     refusing to advance it.

     Occasionally, a single-player game allows for several different
     conclusions, letting the player's choices affect the
     outcome. There are never more than a few possible endings
     though, so in reality, the player has very little choice in the

  6. Some single-player games have themes, although most are the
  same chiche, "You too can save the world."

Multiplayer games are like single-player games, except that other
players perform some of the roles that NPCs do linear fiction. A
multiplayer game does the following:

  1. Provide a setting and "laws of physics" that govern the
  world. Setting and physics seem all-important to multiplayer
  games. Again, could this be because virtual-world authors don't
  know how to use the other elements? Or is it a fundamental

  2. Get the player to identify with his own PC and to make friends
  with other players. Again, NPCs are not yet sufficiently
  intelligent enough for players to like them.

  3. Provide interesting choices and activities for the PC to

  4. The world, PC, other PCs, and NPCs change in interesting ways
  based on the players choices and actions.

     Change that results from player to player interaction is
     believable, and often unexpected. Change resulting from PC to
     NPC interaction is sometimes unbelievable, and usually too
     predictable. Thus, the changes brought on by player to player
     interaction are (usually) more satisfying, and have fewer
     pre-programmed limits. However, "interesting" also implies
     "appropriate to the world", which is unlikely, since most
     players don't role play.

  5. Multiplayer games don't seem to have plots, at least for the
  moment. This is a strength and a weakness.

     It is a strength because some players don't like making an
     unwritten agreement with the author. It's a weakness because
     many of the player's choices and actions lead to naught. In a
     story or a well-written single-player game, all choices and
     actions have a purpose.

     I suspect that as multiplayer games try to attract a more mass
     market audience, they'll need a plot. See The End.

  6. Theme? What theme? Most multiplayer games don't have a real
  theme. Themes are particularly difficult to maintain over long
  periods of time and with thousands of players trying to subvert
  the theme. Does this mean that virtual worlds can't/shouldn't have
  a theme?

You may be reading some of the observations I made about multiplayer
games and thinking, "That's wrong. They don't really work like
that!". You're right. A typical MMORPG divergs from my predictions:

  1. Setting and physics are everything, to the point where most
  MMORPGs seem to have little else.

  2. MMORPGs don't do enough to get players to meet other compatible
  players. This is easy enough to remedy.

  3. They provide very few choices, and very few varieties of
  activities. See Choice, Choice2, and Virtual World as Platform.

  4. The player's character and other player characters can be
  changed by the player's choices and actions, but the world and
  NPCs are generally static.

  5. Contemporary MMORPGs include quests, which are
  "mini-plots". Personally, I like quests, but I don't know if they
  work well in the grand scheme of things. I sometimes wonder if
  quests are vestigial remains from single-player games.

     Example: Early written fiction was often written as epic
     poems. Poetry was used in bardic tales, the precursors to
     written fiction, as a memory aid and because music was played
     with narration.

  6. Themes, if they exist at all in a MMORPG, are incorporated into
  the quests.

Altruism and NPCs

>>From the "Boiling them down" section, it's obvious NPCs are
necessary for linear fiction and single-player games. Without NPCs
there would be far fewer interesting choices and their effects, and
little plot or theme. Without NPCs all you have is a world, and the
laws of physics that govern it.

However, a multiplayer game (theoretically) doesn't need NPCs at
all. Everything that a NPC does can be accomplished by a PC, but
much more intelligently and believably. After all, NPC AI is so poor
that NPCs are limited to mindless roles like cannon fodder.

NPCs are not replaceable, and provide a vital role in multiplayer

  1. They always stay in character, adding to the believability of
  the world as a whole. Very few players role play.

  2. A NPC works 24/7. Players are only logged on an average 20
  hours a week (with more mass-market players on for less
  time). While it's possible to get players to work in shifts to
  fulfil a role, they each bring their own personality and knowledge
  to the role, making for an inconsistent experience... "Why are
  there 18 different shop keepers for one store?", or "Why does the
  shop keeper have 18 different personalities?"

  3. NPCs are designed to be altruistic. Some players are altruistic
  too, but most are self-centred...

Most players make choices and undertake actions that are fun or
beneficial for themselves. Some will uncaringly destroy the
enjoyment of other players just for their own enjoyment. A few will
purposely destroy another player's enjoyment.

NPCs are designed by the author to be altruistic and make the game
fun for the players. Even in cotemporary MMORPGs, where NPCs are
incredibly stupid, NPCs are still designed for the players'
entertainment. A monster is designed to be easy to kill, and not to
run away to save its own life, nor to call in all its buddies within
shouting distance.

A virtual world can be created without NPCs, but there are

  1. If few players are logged on, a NPC-less world is desolate and
  boring. This causes players that log on to quickly log off, which
  ultimately creates a feedback cycle that produces an empty world.

  2. The virtual world becomes very dangerous, with self-centred
  players running around in groups killing one another. NPCs could
  do the same, but their altruistic programming forces them to stay
  in a portion of the world appropriate to their level of

  3. To make the world less dangerous, authors provide rules of
  engagement and safe zones at the expense of allowing players'
  actions to have interesting effects. Dark Age of Camelot only
  allows PvP combat in certain areas and only against official
  enemies, creating a everlasting battle with no possible victory
  and no real consequences. World War II Online has official
  enemies, but doesn't limit where the combat occurs, creating a
  more dangerous game where players' actions have
  consequences. World War II Online has fewer players than Dark Age
  of Camelot... Is this a consequence of the heightened danger?

  4. A virtual world can be designed to completely eliminate danger
  and (hopefully) attract mostly altruistic players. I believe this
  is what A Tale in the Desert does. In the game, players try to
  cooperatively build a civilisation. There is no combat, and (as
  far as I know) no sanctioned PvP of any kind. A Tale in the Desert
  doesn't attract many players though... Is this because it's
  designed for more altruistic players, a rare breed?

World War II Online and A Tale in the Desert both attract a small
but enthusiastic group of players. I suspect the reasons for this is
that they also allow players to change the world, something which
other MMORPGs do not allow. Most players don't seem to care if they
can change the world, but some do, enough that they're willing to
accept a higher danger level or to exist in a world where they must
cooperate with one another to achieve anything.

Interestingly, neither game relies on NPCs for entertainment,
contrary to most MMORPGs. Does this mean that the more NPCs in a
world, the more static it will become?

The opportunity costs of NPCs

NPCs are beneficial to a virtual world because they're
altruistic. However, their existence lead to static worlds, which
means that players' choices and actions ultimately come to naught.

The reasons why NPCs result in a static world are obvious:

  1. Interesting NPCs (quest givers, shop keepers, etc.) are a lot
  of work to create, and authors can't afford for their work to be
  lost just because a player decides to kill them or otherwise make
  the NPC irrelevant.

     For example: It takes a bit of work to create a NPC that hands
     out a quest to "kill all the orcs on the other side of the
     hill" to players. If the quest-giving NPC is killed, then
     players may never know to attack the orcs on the other side of
     the hill. If the orcs are all killed, then the quest-giving PC
     is out of a job. Either way, the world can't afford to change.

  2. Uninteresting NPCs (monsters) are easy to create, but must
  still be spawned. Ideally, players should be able to make a
  concerted effort and kill all the orcs in the world to be rid of
  them, permanently changing the world. However, if all the orcs are
  killed, what do players do for entertainment?

     MMORPGs prevent all the orcs from being killed by continually
     spawning orcs in one area of the world. Unfortunately, this
     leads to a static world since nothing the players can do will
     eliminate the orcs. The orcs' altruistic programming that
     prevents them from leaving their spawning region makes for an
     even more static world.

  3. Quests (which are a by-product of NPCs) also ensure that a
  world is static. They too take effort to create, and authors don't
  want to waste the effort once the quest has been completed by just
  one player.

I have heard of several solutions to this problem:

  1. Get rid of NPCs altogether. World War II Online and A Tale in
  the Desert do this.

     As described previously, removing all NPCs has its own

  2. Improve the artificial intelligence behind NPCs and the code
  that creates NPCs. Make sure that if all monsters are about to be
  killed off, at least some manage to escape. Allow non-monster NPCs
  to react to their environment and make intelligent
  decisions. Furthermore, let NPCs create their own quests based on
  their goals and needs.

     Even though AI can be improved beyond what is seen in
     contemporary MMORPGs, AI has its limits. The world will still
     be static, but on a higher level of abstraction than
     contemporary MMORPGs. The NPCs and quests will appear to be
     dynamic, until players realise that the same quests and NPC
     templates keep reappearing in different disguises. Furthermore,
     the AI must be designed so that it's "altruistic" but not a
     pushover, however one does that.

     I haven't seen this implemented.

  3. Hire human GMs to continually tweak the world, spawning NPCs
  where they see fit, and providing some higher-level intelligence
  for NPCs. Unfortunately, this can become very expensive.

     Volunteer GMs would work too, as long as they remain
     altruistic. Giving ordinary players power over NPCs poses a
     problem, since the controlled NPCs would lose their altruism
     and fail to fulfil one of the reasons they're in the world.

     A major problem exists with human GMs: The players must believe
     that the GM is impartial. As soon as the GM shows favouritism
     the players will revolt. The same rule applies to AIs, but it's
     easier for players to believe that an AI is impartial.

     Wish was going to implement such GMs, but it was cancelled
     during beta, citing low player numbers. Again... Does the mass
     market player want to change the world?

  4. All of the above. An author can reduce the number of NPCs (per
  player) to create a more dynamic world but more dangerous
  world. AI can be improved. Payed GMs or altruistic volunteers can
  guide the AIs.

Encouraging altruism in players

Despite all I've written, player's aren't completely
self-centred. Virtual worlds often try to encourage altruism:

  1. They encourage players to become altruistic role players, by
  guiding them towards acceptable behaviour and rewarding them with
  experience points or loot. Most MMORPGs do so already by handing
  out experience to players that kill monsters, but their efforts
  might be directed more effectively.

  2. Multiplayer games provide tools so that altruistic players are
  welcomed and provided more influence. These include constructs
  such as guilds and mentors.

  3. Some virtual worlds award role-playing points (related to
  altruism) for players who are doing a good job role playing.

  4. Another possibility is a world-design that attracts altruistic
  players. I'm not exactly sure how to accomplish this.

A quick summary

To sum up what has been covered so far:

  1. A virtual world without enough altruistic PCs and NPCs becomes
  dangerous, and attracts a smaller audience. Free-for-all PvP MUDs
  don't have too many players.

  2. The danger can be removed or reduced with hard-coded rules, but
  then players are left in a less-interesting world that is often
  static. Ultima Online originally had open PvP, but was ultimately
  forced to impose PvP restrictions. In Dark Age of Camelot, the PvP
  restrictions produce a more static world; none of the three realms
  can ever win the PvP war.

  3. Although altruistic players are rare, altruism can be
  encouraged with the proper tools and using appropriate
  rewards. Role-playing points, guilds, and mentors are a common

  4. NPCs, which are (always) programmed to be altruistic, can
  counteract the PC's self-centred-ness. Interactions with NPCs are
  pale imitations of interactions with real players
  though. Furthermore, the more NPCs in a world, the more static the

  5. Improving NPC AI can reduce the amount that NPCs constrain
  world change and make the world less static. Improved AI also
  makes the NPCs more interesting to interact with.

Consequently, a safe and interesting (mass-market) world that
doesn't rely on altruism is static. (Such as World of Warcraft or
Everquest II.)

So what?

What's the big deal if NPCs aren't intelligent and a virtual world
is static? Most players don't seem to mind not being able to change
the world; Everquest (I & II) and World of Warcraft own much of the
US market. In all three worlds, players run around, undertake lots
of action, and pretend that they are changing the world even though
the static nature of the worlds is obvious.

Obviously, I can't argue against the fact that most players don't
seem to mind static worlds. A few thoughts do arise though:

  1. Players didn't mind sprite-based graphics when their computer
  could only produce sprite-based graphics. They got "spoiled" by
  3D-accelerators and now expect more. They might do the same for
  static vs. dynamic worlds.

  2. Mass-market virtual worlds may be able to get away with a
  static environment, but niche worlds might require dynamic worlds
  to compete. The trend already points strongly in that direction.

  3. Applying Richard Bartle's player model: Achievers and
  explorers, who are more world-oriented, are also more interested
  in dealing with altruistic NPCs. Socialisers and killers would
  rather interact with players, who are more interesting than
  NPCs. Socialisers are altruistic, while killers are self-centred.

  4. Looking at the player pyramid in this light reveals that
  players at the bottom of the pyramid are happy with existing AI,
  while those at the top require more complex, human-like AI. As AI
  improves, players at the top of the pyramid will have less and
  less need for players below them.

  5. Damion Schubert's response to the player pyramid is a version
  where altruistic players occupy the top layers. My player pyramid
  assumes more self-centred players would impose their needs on
  players below, requiring that players at the top of the pyramid
  financially subsidise the experience of those at the base, if they
  wish to attract any players to be a base. If altruistic players
  could be found to fill the top layers, the altruistic players
  would actually improve game-play for those at the base and a
  different business model could be used.
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