[MUD-Dev] DESIGN: My current grand unified theory of avatar games

Mike Rozak Mike at mxac.com.au
Sun Oct 2 16:43:58 New Zealand Daylight Time 2005

I've been doing some more deeply randomly thinking again, and have
been trying to figure out the fundamental "recipee" for CRPGs and
adventure games, and to an extent, even MMORPGs. I wrote up my ideas
in http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/GUT.htm, and also pasted them below.

I haven't seen these ideas written up elsewhere in this consolidated
form, although I have found them scattered about documents/books
here and there. Despite the rules not being written all in one
place, (I think) they're obviously used by designers. I suspect that
most designers understand these rules at an intuitive level,
although I could be wrong. Personally, I try to understand issues at
both a logical (left brained) and intuitive level (right
brain). This is my attempt to translate my right brain's intuition
into left-brain words.

For those of you who have been doing game design a lot longer than I
have (which is most people here), does this "recipee" seem right? If
I am missing something or am way off the mark, please tell me.

--- Text from http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/GUT.htm ---

I've been trying to figure out what adventure games and MMORPGs "are
all about". When I originally broached the beasts, and that
first-person shooters were from a different planet. I'm not so sure
any more...

"Avatar" games

Adventure games, computer role-playing games, MMORPGs, first person
shooters, and modern platformers all fit into a category of game
that I'm calling an "avatar game". (Anyone have a better name?) The
characteristics of the game category are:

  1.  The game's physics are very similar to reality; Apples fall to
  the ground, objects break when they're hit by a large force, and
  characters look like people or animals. The advantage of basing
  gameplay on reality is that players already know what reality is
  like, so they automatically the basic rules of the game; all the
  game has to teach the player is how to translate their intent into
  keystrokes and joystick movements, and how the game world's
  physics differ from real physics. Additionally, when a game world
  is closely linked to reality, it's easier to escape into.

  Conversely, chess, go, card games, and tic-tac-toe have a physics
  that's very different to reality. Racing games, flight simulators,
  and sports games are in the grey middle, since they're based on
  reality, but only on a very limited slice of reality.

  2.  The player controls a single character that is an extension of
  the player within the world, although occasionally games stretch
  this to a few characters.

  Real-time strategy games are different because the player controls
  an army. A pet-raising game isn't an avatar game because the
  player doesn't control his character directly.


Within the world (and associated physics), players uses their
characters to participate in sub-games. The most common sub-game is
combat, but sub-games also include jumping over obstacles, climbing,
solving puzzles, talking to NPCs, etc. See Virtual world as

Some important characteristics about sub-games are:

  - They should fit in with the setting and physics of the
  world. Making a knight solve a crossword puzzle to slay a dragon
  doesn't make much sense to the player, so crossword puzzles can't
  be used to slay dragons.

  - The must be fun, at least the first few times they're
  played. They may become boring after awhile, but some remedies
  exist. See below.

  - They must include variations so that when players play the same
  sub-game for the thousandth time they aren't bored out of their
  wits. See Sub-games with variations.

  - The difficulty of the game must adjust to the player's and the
  player character's skills.

  - Sub-games should be short.

  - Synergy... Sub-games feed off one another. The simplest form of
  synergy is being able to take the loot from a monster-kill and
  sell it in the trading sub-game, or use the monster's horns as raw
  materials for the crafting sub-game.

  - Conversely, if two sub-games work against one another, only one
  can be kept. Second Life allows players to build anything they
  want, but because of this, SL cannot include competitive sub-games
  (like combat) since players, who can build anything, will build
  the ultimate weapon and make combat moot.

  - "Cameo appearances" can be made by sub- games that break these
  rules, but such sub-games can't be used as the main
  experience. Cameo sub- games are expensive to produce,
  particularly in a graphical environment.

As I noted in Choice, sub-games can be strung together to form


A quest includes a goal, problem solving, and a series of sub-games
that a player must complete to achieve the goal. The goal is tightly
tied into the quest, and usually handed out by the game world,
although sometimes games (like MMORPGs) let the player effectively
create their own quests, deciding their own goals and determining
the actions (sub-games) that must be completed to achieve their
goals. A well designed quest leads to follow-on goals.

An example of a quest would be:

  - Goal: To collect cherries for an old woman and get a reward from

  - Problem solving: The player must determine the best rout to the
  cherry grove and how to carry all the cherries back.

  - Sub-games that must be completed in order:

    -- Narration - Talking with the old woman.

    -- Travel - To the cherry picking location.

    -- Combat - To kill the troll who is guarding the cherries.

    -- Gathering - Pick the cherries.

    -- Travel - Return to the old woman with the cherries.

  - Follow-on goals - A follow-on quest might require the player to
  get flour and sugar so the woman can bake a cherry pie that she'll
  share with the player's character. With character's half of pie,
  the player has an excuse to visit the mayor, who happens to be a
  sucker for cherry pie. While devouring the pie, the mayor mentions
  he has a job that needs doing...

Quests are used to keep sub-games "fun" since collecting a bag of
cherries in order to help a kind old lady is more "fun" than
collecting cherries for the hell of it. Quests also tie consequences
into the sub-games. See Choice and consequences and Sympathetic

Quests can be used as sub-quests in larger quests.

As I point out in The four pillars, the sub-games listed for a quest
represent optimum solutions, and players should (theoretically) be
able to approach the problem however they like, including growing
their own cherry trees and waiting a few years for the first
cherries to appear.

Meaningful choices

The experience must be overflowing with meaningful choices. (See
Choice and Choice 2.) These include:

  - Choice about which quests to accept.

  - Choice about which order to perform the quests.

  - Choice about how to complete the quest.  Unfortunately, my
  "cherry picking" quest doesn't illustrate this, but ideally each
  quest should be solvable in different ways. For example: The
  player could opt to buy the cherries from market, or barter with
  the troll.

  - Choice within the sub-games of the quest. Even within a
  sub-game, such as combat, players will have choices about how to

  - Choice about the outcome (goal) of the quest. At its simplest,
  the player should be offered a menu of rewards, but choice goes
  much further. One ending for the cherry quest might allow the
  player to team up with the troll and lead it to the old woman,
  whom the troll then eats.


I hate to use the term "story" because it's so loaded with meaning,
but some elements of story come into play:

  - As Richard Bartle pointed out in Designing Virtual Worlds,
  backstory is used to describe the world and its physics to
  players, almost as an alternative to documentation... "Player
  characters are automatically resurrected because they're special
  servants of the Gods...".

  - Backstory and narration are used to introduce the quest and
  explain why the sub-games must be completed, and in what
  order. "You have to go kill a troll and then collect a bag of
  cherries" will have players scratching their heads, but "You have
  to collect special cherries that can only be found in the valley
  of Whyern. Unfortunately, an evil troll relishes them too, and
  guards them voraciously," is more compelling.

  - Story and narration can be used to internalise the quest's
  goal. Which is more compelling? "An old and frail lady hobbles up
  to you with her walking stick. In a creaking voice, she begs you
  to fetch her a bag of cherries from the distant valley, a walk she
  cannot possibly make." vs. "An obese knight, who has never seen
  better days, interrupts your conversation with the old lady and
  demands that you get him a bag of cherries immediately... or
  else.". (I wonder if trolls like to eat obese knights?) See
  Sympathetic goals.

  - In turn, story and narration can be used to unify all all the
  game's quests into a large story/quest arc.  "You must complete
  these 50 quests to win" is less compelling than "The evil overlord
  killed your father and holds your sister captive. To defeat the
  evil overlord and rescue your sister, you must find the sword of
  knowing, armour of vaulting, and lyre of gold... which ultimately
  involves completing these 50 quests."

  - Backstory and narration can provide clues to how to solve the

  - Story can be used as a reward for completing a quest... although
  it makes for a fairly weak reward. If a game only uses story as a
  reward then the game degenerates into a story whose progress is
  halted until the player solves a series of unrelated puzzles
  (quests), a particularly common problem in adventure games.

How games differ

As I said at the beginning, a large variety of games are avatar
games. They merely differ in their emphasis:

  - Adventure games require the player spend most of their time
  problem solving, and include a large variety of cameo sub-games.

  - CRPGs rely on a few sub-games (combat, travel, resource
  allocation, etc.) that are played over and over with variation.

  - MMORPGs introduce other players into the equation, allowing for
  more interesting and/or different sub-games (like trading goods in
  a thousand- player economy). Other players also produce an
  environment where players produce their own goals, usually
  involving defeating or helping other players.

  - First-person shooters use sub-games that are based on the
  player's dexterity.

  - Contemporary platformers are like first-person shooters except
  they don't rely on the combat sub- game.

  - Interactive storytelling (as best as I can tell) involves
  sub-games involving intelligent AIs.

Having said that, some virtual worlds, like Second Life, can only be
fit into this grand-unified theory with much contortion. Racing
games, flight simulators, and sporting games are in a grey zone too;
their slice of reality is so limited that quests are difficult to

Mike Rozak
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