[MUD-Dev] DESIGN: The game with a thousand faces

Mike Rozak Mike at mxac.com.au
Thu Apr 21 10:29:34 New Zealand Standard Time 2005


I've been thinking some more about alternative virtual world genres,
and decided to try a different approach to hopefully find some
yet-undiscovered genres. Many of the "genres" the approach comes up
with are not actually virtual worlds (which might be considered
heretical by some), but they might spawn some interesting
discussion, which could lead to even more genres. (I have mentioned
some of the ideas before, such as private virtual worlds.)

The writeup is on:

  http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/GameThousandFaces.htm

Attached below:

-----

The game with a thousand faces

To state the obvious,  standard MUD/MMORPG has the following features:

  - Races
  - Classes or skills
  - Movement
  - Inventory
  - Combat
  - Magic
  - Crafting
  - Trading
  - Guilds
  - Pets
  - Etc.

This ubiquitous list appears in virtual every MUD/MMORPG "feature
list" web page, along with their documentation's
table-of-contents. The implementation specifics change from game to
game, such as what races or spells are available, but not the
generalities. (Some MUDs/MMORGs don't even have different races and
spells, relying on the same humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, and
fire-ball spells.)

In abstract "game" terms, this means that most MUDs/MMORPGs are
essentially the same game, but with different window dressings. In
his book, "_The Hero with a Thousand Faces_," Joseph Campbell says
the same about many hero myths. Hence, the title for this article;
While there are thousands of MMORPGs and MUDs, they are really the
same game with different faces grafted on.

I found such homogeneity disturbing, so I spent time searching for
different "genres" in descriptions of the thousands of existing MUDs
and MMORPGs. It seems that a handful of genres covers almost all
MUDs and MMORPGs:

  - Standard MUD/MMORPG - This is the standard game described above,
  with races, skills, combat, etc. Standard MUDs/MMORPGs have a few
  sub-genres:

    + Player-vs-environment - The fun of the game is derived from
    going on quests and killing monsters.

    + Player-vs-player - Fun comes from competing against other
    players, usually with combat (individual or guild-based), but
    this could also include trade and politics. PvP games also
    include a lot of "player-with-player" activities.

    + Player-vs-storyteller - [Skotos][4] runs games where much of
    the fun happens when a trusted player or employee takes control
    of the world and customises the experience for a group of
    players, much like a table-top RPG game master would.

    + Role playing - Many text MUDs encourage or require
    role-playing, where the fun comes from cooperative story
    telling, each player controlling their own character in the
    larger story.

I have labelled these sub-genres because it's possible to produce
one virtual world and customise the shards of the world to produce
different sub-genres. For example: World of Warcraft has mostly PvE
shards, some PvP shards, and a few role playing shards. Aficionados
of a sub-genre will point out that failure to specialise in a
sub-genre produces an inferior experience; Many MUDs/MMORPGs
specialise in only one sub-genre.

  - Creation worlds - These are virtual worlds, such as Second Life
  and text MOO's, that allow the players to freely create their own
  world, and then spend time in the world socialising. Unlike
  standard MUDs/MMORPGs, creation worlds don't usually have avatars
  with "skills" and "levels".

  - Cooperative worlds - "A Tale in the Desert" presents a different
  scenario, where the players cooperate to build a new world. Their
  building capabilities are much more restricted than those in
  creation worlds. Unlike creation worlds, players' avatars have
  skills that they learn through in-game experiences, like a stock
  MUD/MMORPG.

  - Adventure game worlds - Stock MUDs/MMORPGs are largely based on
  a CRPG game. If the world is based on adventure game, you end up
  with an online adventure game, like the defunct Uru Live. See [The
  trouble with explorers][5].

The "Standard MUD/MMORPG" genre attracts the bulk of the players
(80%-90%), with PvE worlds being the largest sub-genre.

When I asked about this issue on the [Mud-Dev][6] mailing list,
several people replied that other genres undoubtedly exist, but that
they haven't yet been discovered. This could be because of:

  - Unwillingness to take risks on the part of game producers.

  - Virtual worlds are so young that no one has stumbled upon the
  other genres yet.

  - Other genres may be too small (at the moment) to be recognized
  as a genre.

  - As the player population evolves away from hard-core gamers, new
  genres will appear.

  - As technology improves, new genres will appear.

Looking at the problem in a different way

Since I couldn't find other genres, I thought I'd do a thought
experiment to bypass my near sightedness...

I asked myself: What fundamental technologies are used to produce a
MUD/MMORPG? The answer:

  - A client with...

    + Avatar control user-interface.

    + Chat capability.

    + A graphics engine, along with models, textures, and
    animations, that is geared towards producing a first person
    POV. (As opposed to a graphics engine used to produce RTS
    games.)

    + Sound.

  - A secure server that provides for...

    + Multiple players (potentially 1000's) in the same world.

    + Persistence of player information, such as character
    statistics.

    + Persistence of the world, such as any changes players have
    made to the world.

    + Scripting language.

    + An army of artificial intelligences to control the enemy
    monsters and NPCs.

    + "World physics" (simulation) are calculated on the server for
    anti-cheat and anti-piracy reasons.

  - A network standard supported by both the client and server
  with...

    + Client-server architecture for security. (As opposed to
    pier-to-pier.)

    + The ability to automatically transfer new content (such as 3D
    models) and software updates to the client.

These statements are generalised... Text MUDs don't use graphics,
and many MMORPGs are still based on 2 1/2D sprites. However,
70%_(?)_ of all virtual world gamers are using 3D accelerated
engines, and this percentage continues to increase. Likewise, not
all virtual worlds have artificial intelligence, sound, a scripting
language, persistence of the world, or the ability to seamlessly
transfer new content/software. The trend, however, is for their
inclusion.

Now that I know what technologies are used to make a virtual world,
my next question is: What genres of entertainment can be produced
using such technology?

To use an analogy: A book is made from paper and ink. An origami
crane is made from folded paper (and perhaps some ink). An origami
crane is obviously not a book. However, a pop-up children's book has
the properties of both an origami crane and a book, so it is a book?
Most people would agree that it is a book. Without stepping
"_outside the box_" to a different level of abstraction, pop-up
children's books would never have been invented. Can different
virtual world "genres" be discovered using a similar technique?

Existing single-player game genres

Once a developer has developed the technology necessary to produce a
MMORPG, the following single-player game genres can "easily" be
created from the same technology: ("Easily" is a relative term.)

  - CRPGs - Turn a PvE MMORPG into single player CRPG by putting the
  server on the same computer as the client.

  - Adventure games - Instead of content centred around killing
  monsters, include content with lots of puzzles.

  - First person shooters - Since the Internet has such a large
  communication lag (250 - 1000 ms), MMORPGs are designed so that no
  feature requires a quick reaction time. If the server were on the
  same computer as the client, or even a low-latency network
  connection, a MMORPG's technologies could be used to write a first
  person shooter.

  - Action-adventure games - Similar low-latency design issues as
  first-person shooters.

  - Platform games - Similar low-latency design issues as
  first-person shooters.

  - Vehicle simulation games, such as auto racing, flight
  simulators, and space combat - Instead of the player's "character"
  being a humanoid, it's a machine. Flight-sim and space MMORPGs
  already exist, with ship-based and auto-based MMORPGs coming.

  - Interactive storytelling, as expoused by Chris Crawford.

Some genres require different technologies and can't be easily
produced from a MMORPG's components:

  - A game like The Sims (offline) requires a client and server that
  doesn't assume the player has only one avatar.

  - Real-time strategy games require a different rendering engine,
  AI, and no 1-to-1 assumption about players and avatars.

  - Sports games require different AI and no 1-to-1 assumption.

  - God games also present problems for the rendering engines, AI,
  and 1-to-1 assumptions.

  - Chess, checkers, and card games use technologies that are very
  different to a MMORPG's technologies.

What else can be done?

I brainstormed some other games (and entertainments) that could be
created, using essentially the same technology that's present in any
MMORPG. These ideas are half-baked, and most won't work. They do
illustrate some possibilities, and (at the very least) a different
way to approach the problem:

  - "Virtual world" like - A few of my ideas produce an experience
  similar to today's MMORPGs, although with significant variations:

    + Multiple avatars - Instead of players controlling just one
    character, they could control a group of them, as they do in
    _The Sims_. Control could include some form of "programming" (or
    behaviour modification/reinforcement), so the fun of the
    experience is getting the characters to do what you want them
    to, and to see how they interact with other players'
    "programmed" characters. Unlike MMORPG PCs, player characters
    could continue operating even when a player logs off.

    + Short MMORPG - Instead of a MMORPG being designed to keep
    players around for 400+ hours, and longer if possible, design it
    so that the experience will only last around 40 hours before
    players "win" the game and are encouraged to find another MMORPG
    to play. See [The anti-MMORPG][7].

    + Completely instanced world - As Richard Bartle has pointed
    out, a virtual world with instancing (aka: private dungeons)
    ends up turning into a large lobby where players meet one
    another, form small groups, and then go off into their own
    private worlds. At the moment, _Guild Wars_ relies on instancing
    the most, but tries to hide the fact that the main world is a
    lobby.

What would happen if an instanced game went all the way and admitted
that its main world was just a lobby? The instances could be much
more rich and varied, especially if players were given new (and
customised) characters every time they entered a new instance. For
example: If one instance were a murder mystery that required
Sherlock Holmes-like characters to complete, the players would be
given such characters. A different instance might rely on combat, so
combat-skilled PCs would be provided. A world where players bring in
their own characters can't require specific PC skills to complete an
instance without preventing many players from experiencing the
content.

    + Private world - A single-player CRPG (or adventure game) could
    be written to support a party of players. A group of friends
    would purchase the game and arrange to play it at a set
    time. One player would host the virtual world on his
    machine. Uninvited guests wouldn't be able to connect. When the
    players finished for the night, the world would be suspended
    until they next return. (I think Neverwinter Nights does
    something similar.)

    + "Computer-top" RPG - The private world experience could be
    modified so that one of the players was given the role of "game
    master", and could add/change the world and control
    NPCs. Basically, this would create a table-top RPG played over a
    computer network instead of someone's kitchen table. (Pizza
    delivery to six different addressed might be a problem though,
    even with a "/pizza" command...)

    + Live action role playing - In LARP games, as well as "host a
    murder" games, each player is given a specific part to role
    play. The pre-written PCs are designed to fit in with the other
    characters and produce interesting role-playing
    experiences. This system might work in a virtual world if a
    group of (non-griefing) players could guarantee they'd be able
    to play a specific scenario for a few hours... which is asking
    for a lot.

  - Stories - The technology used to produce a virtual world can
  also be used to produce linear stories.

    + Machinima - The term "[machinima][8]" is used for amateur
    animations produced using real-time rendering and animation
    systems from customisable games like Quake. These animations are
    recorded from an in-game camera, spliced together, dubbed, and
    saved as a movie file. A machinima could just as easily be
    produced in a MMORPG (which has already been done), and have the
    animation scripts saved to a file instead of the raw movie
    frames. Animation scripts are "better" than the movie files
    because they use significantly less bandwidth, just as MIDI
    music-synthesis files are smaller than wave files.

    + Machinima "TV" series - Amateur machinima directors/authors
    could produce a weekly/monthly 30 minute story. Viewers would
    download and watch the machinima in real time because it would
    be stored as an animation script. Of course, viewers would
    provide heaps of feedback to the directors/authors, allowing the
    directors/authors to adjust their plot based on community
    requests, creating a marginally interactive experience. The
    flavour and quality of the animations would probably be similar
    to amateur web comics.

    + Customised story - The viewer of a machinima could specify
    what type of story they like, whether it's action, romance,
    intrigue, or lots of back story. Based on the viewer's
    preferences, the machinima's server could omit scenes or include
    extended scenes. For example: Viewers that dislike romance and
    like backstory would get shortened romance scenes, and extra
    backstory scenes. Viewers wouldn't be able to change the outcome
    of the story, however.

    + 3D story - Since the machinima is being animated real-time on
    the viewer's computer, let the viewer wander around the scene
    while it's being played out. The viewer might even be able to
    follow certain characters around the story world.

    + World of stories - Players would wander around a world and
    meet NPCs. Many NPCs would tell stories (machinima). The actions
    of the PC could be used to advance the stories, or affect their
    outcome.

For example: A PC could talk to a bereaved farmer, who relates an
anecdote about how his fiance was captured by orcs. The anecdote
would play 5-10 minutes of machinima, enough so the player cares for
the captured fiance. Then, the player would have the chance of
rescuing the girlfriend (or not), and see how the story
ends... perhaps with a 5-10 minute machinima wedding for the
romantically inclined.

  - Hybrids - Some hybrid solutions, part story and part game, are
  possible:

    + Intermixed machinima and sub-games - The experience might
    include some machinima (very long cut scenes) followed by
    [sub-games][9] that allow the plot to be advanced.

    + Choose-your-own adventure - Everyone is familiar with CYOA
    books. The _Tunnels & Trolls_ table-top RPG (as well as _Melee_
    and _Wizard_, the predecessor to _GURPs_) had solo adventures
    similar to CYOA books, but which included single-player RPG
    elements amongst the CYOA activities.

For example: A player would select option A (knock down the door) or
B (knock on the door), which might then lead to a room where they
would have to fight a troll, or the same room with the troll in a
talkative mood. Machinima would be used instead of traditional text
narrative. Some clever design might even be able to make the
experience multiplayer.

But are they really "virtual world" genres?

Some of the ideas I described are virtual worlds, but most don't
subscribe to any commonly accepted definition of "virtual world",
even if the definitions are stretched beyond recognition; they are
not virtual worlds. If it's any consolation, they do use the same
fundamental technology that's needed for a virtual world.

If you can get past the fact that virtual world technology is being
used to create something that is not a virtual world, you face
another hurdle: Undoubtedly, most of the ideas won't work. One or
two of the ideas might succeed, and might provide a welcomed
alternative to the standard (and cliche) MMORPG formula that's used
today. Unfortunately, I can't tell you which ideas will work, if
any.

Even if none of the ideas work, the approach of trying to build
something new with the technology pieces from a MMORPG might prove
fruitful.
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