Affecting the world and other things smelling up our fridge - by Joseph Hewitt

Liza: This post, aside from this brief introduction, was written by Joseph Hewitt. I met Joseph at Interzone Games, where he tried to do his job as Creative Director while I waved bug lists at him and got on his case about design specs. He is now Creative Director at Jet Set Games, where he works on Highborn and makes all kinds of awesome stuff happen. Joseph also has his own blog: Working as Designed. Oh and he worked on one of the first (if not the first) video games I’ve ever played - Disney’s The Lion King. I fricking loved that game. Also he dumped a stack of George R. R. Martin books on my desk one morning and introduced me to A Song of Ice and Fire. Anyway, on to the important stuff:

Affecting the World and Other Things Smelling Up Our Fridge

The conversation that started this was about MMO games, Fed-Ex quests (where you go get or go deliver something), and how these games would be better if the players had some impact on the world. I rambled and fired off several, mostly incoherent, thoughts on the matter. Now I am attempting to reorganize those thoughts into something more readable that Liza can post. It won’t be all that coherent because I have about an hour to write this. I really need about a week with lots of editing and focusing. This is still going to be bumpy and pretty erratic, so hold on.

The first thing I started with was a tale, and I have to admit I heard this second-hand, that there were many complex systems built into Ultima Online at its launch. An example that I was given talked about the ecology of the world where dragons fed on the deer who ate the bark of the trees. If the players cut down too many trees, the deer starve and their population lessens leaving nothing for the dragons to eat and so they attack the major towns.

The problem is that Ultima Online wasn’t the real world. It was (and actually still is) a game. Thousands of non-ecology friendly players slapped down their money, logged in and wanted to get some skill or other maxed with trees and deer be damned. All the systems blew up almost instantly and they had to turn them off. That was the equivalent of millions of dollars of development time put into something that failed on day one.

It would have been much easier for them to fake it. Just have the monsters attack the towns based on some random roll with some minor input from other systems and then just say the reason they are attacking is -insert fiction here-.

That example doesn’t really address the premise of players affecting the world, but Ultima Online was player driven. There wasn’t a quest system, no experience system, no levelling. It was skill based; you did something and you got better at it. What did people do though in this world without quests? A lot of them went off on their own adventures: exploring the lands, building castles, killing other players and taking their stuff.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll get back to players being dicks in a minute. The example I was setting up there was that they spent all that time and money on those systems and they didn’t work. Not even a little bit. What if they couldn’t have turned them off and still had a game, what if they had built their entire game around those failed concepts, and it didn’t work when exposed to the masses? People are afraid to invest millions of dollars into games with that much risk for exactly those reasons.

I don’t mean that letting players have a major impact on the world isn’t a good idea. What I am saying is that it isn’t easy and isn’t going to happen tomorrow. It is going to take small baby steps, one game at a time, to get there and there will have to be a lot of thought put into it.

Each little step is probably much more complex than you are thinking. How about as an example we use letting the players elect some other players as the rulers of areas of the game? The ruler could set taxes, maybe adjust some game setting for their area, give it a name, and declare war on other areas. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?

Let’s think about it. First of all you have to make sure that you aren’t spending a lot of time and money on systems that only a few people will ever experience. Sure the ruling guy and maybe his guild could have some fun, but most players would never see all that. Second you have to make sure you idiot and jerk proof the hell out of those systems. People are dicks (told you we’d get back to that) and a whole lot of them will be more than willing to screw over everybody else for their petty fun.

Back when playing Everquest, I gave a lot of thought to a system for players to give positive and negative karma to other players. I even got to playtest it a bit in the large live-action game I was running at the time. Basically, you could give positive karma away one for one, but if you wanted to give somebody negative karma it would cost you double what you were taking away from them. There was more to it (how you earned it, how much you could have at one time, and what it would do in the game), but the point is the only thing that I could come up with in my live-action game that didn’t have everybody being dicks to anybody who wasn’t their friend was to have negative actions cost them more. They were forced to cut their own nose to spite somebody else’s face, to twist a metaphor around until it screams.

People love to bring up Eve Online when talking about players running the world. Eve has a lot in common with Ultima Online; both are skill based systems without any artificial quest and story. They are both player driven.

There are many cool stories we’ve all heard over the years about neat-o things that happen in Eve Online. Excuse me if I get details wrong, the points still stand. One such was the tale of a player starting his own bank that loaned money and paid interest. It was great until he got bored and took all the money.  Another story is about corporate espionage and paid assassination. A group was paid to infiltrate a major corporation by that corporation’s rival. The assassins rose to prominence in the guild, gained the trust of its leaders, and convinced them to fly their very, very, very expensive battle cruiser on a tour of the galaxy and right into an ambush. The group also robbed the corporation blind and stole all of their ships.

These stories sound cool. But they really aren’t for most people playing those games. Most of them never see that kind of action, they are just out there mining asteroids and trying to get money to get a better ship while they skill up. Those things certainly aren’t fun for the people who just lost all their stuff. How many of them do you think used that as a breaking excuse to leave the game? Breaking excuses are a big concern to me.

The thing that really annoys me about those types of Eve Online stories is that the real world breaks them.  You just got all your stuff stolen by another character, what can you do about it? Nothing. You can’t do a thing because the character that stole that stuff from you is gone. He transferred all that stuff to one of his other characters and there is no way for him to be tracked. Oh sure, he is still taunting you in the forums, but his in-game character is gone. There have been ideas revolving around marking things as being ‘stolen’ goods which have some detrimental effects in game or maybe even some way of being tracked, but there is a lot of stuff you have to work out and get right in order for it to work.

Another game I’ll bring up is Shadowbane, though note that this is another second-hand story. It had many problems where designers didn’t think things through.  A good example was unlimited guild size meant that eventually one guild took over the server. Players either joined or were beaten into submission. People started leaving the game. There was also nothing else to conquer so even the winning guild faded away.  If only they had implemented some sort of back pressure system, so that guilds couldn’t sustain such a large size. Maybe have their effectiveness work on an incremental curve where adding new members wound up costing them more upkeep than was worth the smaller amount of power they gained.

The actual point I wanted to mention about Shadowbane was that they had city sieges. The city walls had sally ports and anybody on the defending side could open them…and let the enemy in. No other defenders could stop them, because they were on the same side and you couldn’t attack your allies. Why were people letting the enemy in? They were secondary characters of the people on the other side and/or they were just being dicks. They really need a better system to handle those doors. I was thinking of a system where only the defending players could go through them, but have something on the outside where the attackers could hold the area in front of the door at the same time while not allowing the defender to just step back in and be safe. Maybe just having it be a one-way door would be enough?

Okay it is getting late so let me wrap this up. In all of those examples you have to remember that getting screwed over again and again, losing all your stuff again and again, isn’t fun and those players will leave the game. Then the people doing the screwing have nobody to screw over, they get bored and they too leave your game.

Those are big risks when you are spending millions on your game development. People are afraid that when Little Timmy logs in, he might not have a good time and instead of sitting around providing an income stream to the game, he leaves and goes off to play Defense of the Ancients. Even if Little Timmy stays, he probably won’t be able to affect the world even in a game where players affect the world. He might want to, but maybe all he can manage to do is mine asteroids while other players with more time and money have all the real fun. Think about all the cool ideas you have for a game where players affect the world. Think about all the players much, much, much more powerful and skilled than you in every game you have ever played. Do you think you will be the one doing all the world affecting or will you be mining asteroids? I was in one of those top of the game, first content, envy of the rest, uber guilds (two in fact). The funny thing was, I still felt the same while playing. Instead of a peon in the world, I was a peon in the uber guild because even inside those guilds that ruled the game, there were people who ruled the guild.

Personally, I think maybe the MMO as we are used to seeing it is going to fade into the background for a while and the two things you are going to see rise in popularity are more free-to-play game with micro-transactions (Yes, you hate them but remember that there are players who are willing to buy this or that for cash, and those players are letting you play for free.) and maybe games where player skill is made important (think Planetside 2 and Terra). I have a few ideas in those directions too, but I’ll kept those to myself for now.

© - 2021 · Liza Shulyayeva ·