» the skewed views of a large opinion: Persistent World Design
Thursday, May 20, 2004
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How do we engage the mass market? Persistent worlds have a horrible time even engaging those within our own niche - so it's not surprising that the mass market has almost no chance to pick up and play. A mass market gamer is like our casual gamers with ADD. They'll play perhaps 60 to 90 minutes at a time. In the traditional design paradigm, they'd be lucky to do their housekeeping (buying/selling/trading/leveling), find a group and get to a point of interest in 30 minutes. How can we hope to engage them when half their session is maintenance?

The first step, the one I talk about incessantly, is obvious: Remove the level grind.
The metagaming is too much. The repetition is too much. A player should never be sitting in one place killing respawning monsters. A player should never be forced out of the flow of the game to make an irreversible meta-level decision. If there is advancement, or metagaming involved, they have to be completely secondary to the 'story', and every step along the way has to be fun. Every session has to be equivalent to a 'quest', and every quest has to be fun.

Which really is the kicker: how do you possibly create enough engaging content? How do we get the player to the content? How can we possibly create enough content?

Naturally we can easily retain some exploration and current-genre-style gameplay as filler the player can choose to do. Still, powergamers are going to hit the wall. If the content is to be digestible by the casual gamer, it will be in such small chunks that the powergamer will burn through it faster than we could ever create it. Keep in mind though, this is no different for the status quo. They already burn through levels and epic encounters and quests faster than designers and live teams can draft, implement, tweak, release, and rebalance them. So it's really no different than before. We're just not soaking up so much of the player's time with repetitive tasks. The only difference, is that powergamers will see casual gamers 'catch up' in record time.

So what about progression through the story? Having a stage crafted experience is going to effectively ensure that (for the most part) every player will run through the same path of content exposure. Every dwarven fighter is going to experience the content in essentially the same order. Again, the interesting thing, is that it's already the norm. Every dwarven fighter in Everquest ran through essentially the same camps in the same order to level up. There might have been slight variations, but in the grander trend they're entirely insignificant. Placing an emphasis on the quest effectively maintains the status quo of static, predictable content. It just requires less time, and less repetition from the player.

The biggest question, is how do we maintain the social element? If everyone is wandering through a series of handcrafted 'adventures', the odds of them meeting are much lower. If a mid-level group in Dark Age of Camelot is camping pygmy tanglers - the probability of running into other characters their own level approaches 1. If everyone is running through the world, completing quests - then even if the world isn't instanced, the motion will drop the probability of encountering other players on the same quest much much lower.

Consider the analogy of 5 people running in a circle. If that circle is small, and many laps are required to complete the race - the odds of being next to another runner are extremely high even if the runners don't all start at the same time. However, if that circle is a 1 mile circuit that require only 1 lap - the odds of being next to another runner are much much lower, particularly if the runners don't start at the same time.

So do we require a group for content, effectively queuing up everyone who wants to run through 'episode 81' and send them all together once 'enough' have collected? Is everything heavily instanced to preserve the integrity of the experience, or is everything persistent to preserve the integrity of the world?

How do we handle travel? Is every trip from town to town an adventure? Is it dramatically-condensed? Do we allow the player to choose between an uneventful, dramatically-condensed travel, or a horsechase with would-be bandits?

How do we reconcile the desire to take the reigns in an interactive, to steer the story - against the desire to have adventures that are consistently as engaging as a narrative? How do we pace how long an adventure or episode should take, when we have no control over the player? Can we even pace tension, build suspense, or plan a series of peaks and lulls leading up to a climactic encounter in a dungeon? Is that even possible when a player might log out, teleport back to town, or (worst of all) try and fail at any moment? Is it even possible to take such powerful tools from narratives, and apply them in a persistent world, when who knows who might come running along at any moment?

There is a broad generalization in writing, that there are two ways to write a story: Event-based, and character-based. In an event-based story, we start with exciting events and situations that we want to show to the viewer/reader. Then we try to contrive characters that fit into these events. The common result is that we have impressive, exciting and engaging action sequences, but that the characters aren't very interesting, and don't make very convincingly plausible decisions in between.

In a character-based story, we concentrate on coming up with interesting characters, and then try to contrive ways to bring them together. The common result is that we wind up with consistent plausible characters, whose interactions are all-to-often boring and mundane. There's a common feeling amongst character-based story writers, that the characters write the story, and that it's up to the characters to make it interesting.

That certainly sounds familiar. The catch is that in a persistent world, we're asking our players to experience all those failed interactions that writers of narratives get to toss in the round-file.

Now consider that the mass market audience is more accepting of event-based narratives with lame characters and weak cohesion, than they are of a character-based narrative with lame interaction. So while its entirely possible to create a character-based story that engages the mass market - it's easier to create an event-based story which everyone can accept.

Consider how most television series hinge primarily upon tried-and-true gimmicks for episodes. Similar situations hashed over and over again with slightly varying characters across different shows, genres, and networks. Yet they find an audience in the mass market. Think of how most action movies wind up in the same places - the same major events, explosions, ticking bombs that stop at .02, car chases, all of which are vastly more exciting than they are plausible.

So perhaps that's a key. Perhaps moving away from the character-based simulationist approach and moving into an event-based stagecrafted approach is the way to go. Perhaps the key to the mass market is to concentrate on condensing the cool events, and cool set-pieces to be involved in - and allow the players to fill in the gaps that verisimilitude makes more difficult (E.g. reconciling how everyone gets a shot at freeing the slaves and killing the dragon). Perhaps sacrificing verisimilitude of the world is requisite for having a better shot at engaging the audience.

Curiously, in just thinking about how I would engage the mass market consumer - I've wound up with what sounds like Blizzard's core design philosophy for World of Warcraft. (complete with the same unanswered questions) I'd like to think that's more than happy coincidence. The upside of course, is that we will get to see how a few of these questions play out.
How will WoW's community be affected by the focus on stagecraft and the lesser instances of interaction?
How well do players accept a concentration on excitement over consistency?
What will Blizzard do with powergamers who burn through all the content in record time?
What will casual players think of those powergamer-pleasing systems that so clearly aren't made for them, yet coexist with the rest of the game that so clearly was?
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