» the skewed views of a large opinion: Persistent World Design
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
  < Mothballed >        
If you hadn't noticed, this blog has been mothballed.
  < / Mothballed >        
Monday, July 19, 2004
  < Somewhere in between >        
I've been away from posting; life can get like that.  We might know where we'd like a project or a plan to fall, but often those we depend upon deem our original goal untenable.  Change is needed, compromise.  Persistent world design is much the same.  I spend an awful lot of time pontificating about the joys of casual design and dynamic worlds.  But is a pure casual/dynamic world something I'll even want?
To take dynamic worlds to the extreme, nothing can be taken for granted.   A brand-newbie might spawn into the world for his first time, only to find himself on the end of a goblin spear during a raid.  He might find the town he was to start in smoted, the shopkeepers murdered.  If we try to protect against such problems, we'll find ourselves slowly repealing what is dynamic, and what is static.
To take casual design to the extreme, all inconvenience should be removed.  Travel isn't fun, so let's just rip it out, right?  Losing isn't fun, so let's remove 'losses' and instead slowly taper off a monster's effectiveness, so the hero never does lose.  But do we really want that?  Isn't some risk, some inconvenience required?  Not to the extent of forced downtime waiting for progress bars to fill; nor bad UI design which makes tasks unnecessarily cumbersome.  But travel for instance: isn't there something about travel that is required for adventure?  Isn't there something about struggle, and failure, that is necessary for accomplishment?
I've recently been battling back and forth in my mind about precisely where in between dynamic and static is 'best'.  Is it enough to protect the newbie experience?  Do we need to protect the viability of the dynamically generated quest by ensuring that certain NPCs never die?  Do we need to protect the target of a quest, to ensure that it will be present when the hero arrives?  And yet, at what point do we wind up with so many static items, that the attempt to create verisimilitude with dynamic populations and resources is lost? 
Similarly with inconvenience.  Do we force travel at a constant rate to avoid world shrinkage?  Do we allow re-travel to previous destinations, at an accelerated or instant rate?  At what point do dynamic or local economies lose any benefit with speedy retravel?
Nor can we discount the FUN angle.  It may be realistic to have a player-made town destroyable -- but what fun is it, if the siege occurs while everyone sleeps?  What fun is it, if everything the guild has and stands for is in that town?  Does verisimilitude betray fun, does dynamic preclude enjoyable?
Then considering the implications we arrive at: allowing any goal to be attainable to the casual player, we must ensure that the process of attaining that goal is enjoyable.  If everyone will be able to defeat king koopa eventually, each chunk of the journey must be enjoyable in and of itself.  Sticking to the extremes of the dynamic world, makes the experience inherently non-casual.   Sticking to the extremes of a static world, we can trivially make the experience entirely casual, but we risk making it unfun by destroying the magic circle, and reducing the game.
It seems the designs themselves may not be the stumbling block.  Rather, the design concepts themselves may be as much barriers to intended experience as they are benefits.  Making a dynamic ecology gives life to the world, but it seems at the expense of adventure and accessibility.  Making a world fit for casual play, seems to be completely at odds with making the world dynamic.   The causes I champion on a regular basis, just may be mutually exclusive.  So I'm sent back to the philosophical drawing board, to try to figure out the where in between casual and dynamic provides the most benefit without infringing too far upon each other.

  < / Somewhere in between >        
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
  < NPCs as Vending Machines >        
NPCs are mindless automatons -- they're dull, dumb and disposable. Every so often someone brings up the idea of using warm bodies to actually play out the interactions that players have, rather than subjecting them to flat conversation trees, or rather maddening text parsers. I happen to think it's not only a waste of time, but a step in the wrong direction.

NPCs are particularly delineated from players because they aren't intriguing characters in the grand stories that RPGs are all about. They aren't supposed to be engaging or interesting. The story isn't about them, it's about us. If the shopkeeper is really interesting, if she's more interesting than we are, she becomes the actor and we become dull and disposable.

Visiting towns itself is simply a means to the end of continuing the adventure. This is why traditionally pen-and-paper games condense and abstract it. The only time actually going through the motions of talking to a shopkeeper is desirable - is when something interesting is going to happen.

Therefore, the only potential benefit to actors-as-NPCs, is if they're going to provide 'live' content. However, the cost-effectiveness and quality of content created is going to be highly questionable. These thespians either have to be excellent scripters, writers, typists, and storytellers - all at rock-bottom prices; or they're selecting quests from a predefined menu, which sounds conspicuously like what we already have.

Making good content takes time, talent, and tools. Doing good content 'right' requires revisions, editing, and testing. All of these factors conspire together against live content. Live content provides no time, requires flawless talent, extremely powerful and robust tools, and provides no opportunities to review, rewrite, or rebalance. It's not the fault of any particular GM that 'live' content largely sucks -- it's an eventuality.

The trend toward pre-tested monthly 'themes' and such (in the style of SWG and AC), rather than ad-hoc 'events' (in the style of EQ and Horizons) is a step in the right direction regarding 'live' content. Putting money into live GM 'events', much less thespians-as-NPCs, is a step backwards. Players should be the center of the story. As difficult as that may be, making them effectively errand-boys in other, more interesting people's stories is not what the genre is about.

In the dynamic content end of the genre, the importance is greater still. If a handful of NPCs are 'live', and thus provide 'better' feedback and hand-crafted content, they become contended resources in the style of static spawns. As dynamic content is consumable, players will conflict over who gets to perform which task, robbing most players of even being disposable participants in the content. A few get to be lackeys and henchmen, the bulk get to be viewers. And frankly, our genre's narrative product isn't worth $15/mo to read.
  < / NPCs as Vending Machines >        
Thursday, May 20, 2004
  < Engaging Content for the Mass Market >        
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?
  < / Engaging Content for the Mass Market >        
Thursday, April 29, 2004
  < Advancement >        
A level-free design is not a design without advancement. Rather, it is a design centered primarily on diversification, rather than amplification, of power. The goal of such a system is to reward the veteran with capability, but not at the expense of the newcomer.

As is the norm in persistent worlds, most designs are currently just going back to the well. Amplification of power is an acceptable, and predictable design that draws in a certain core playerbase who never seems to tire of watching numbers increase geometrically (if not outright exponentially). Business realities all but require it in the case of commercial offerings - as almost every attempted level-free game has steadily become a level-based one.

If anyone needed a proof that diversification is a plausible tactic to convey advancement without imbalancing power - consider Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Both of these games have added diversification systems in the last couple of years. With their power amplification limits largely met by their playerbase - they're beginning to recognize just how accepted such advancement truly is. Surely their implementations aren't without problem -- Dark Age's planned RA overhaul is evidence of that. But that are a shining proof-of-concept.

Now I'm certain 'tank mage' was uttered by most readers at some point in the first paragraph. Clearly it is undesirable to have a character who can do all things at all times. But why limit capability artificially through 'classes'? Why not simply require players to 'prepare' their capabilities for use, and limit the number of capabilities?

Collectible-Card Games (which I personally don't care for) demonstrate both diversification-based advancement, and tactically-limited infinite capability. A player could easily own every card ever printed - yet their 'active' capabilities are assembled into a much smaller domain before a match. The near infinite capability of the player has no bearing on his ability to overwhelm a newcomer. Indeed the place where CCG systems tend to fall apart - is when they produce cards with overt amplification of existing capabilities - falling into that old, familiar trap.

Simply by placing limits on the number of abilities that can be actively selectable and the gear that can enhance those abilities solves the tank-mage problem. Current designs balance specialized capabilities with the express lack of other specialized capabilities. If one assumes that powerful magic is mutually exclusive of powerful melee, then surely it's disruptive when both abilities manifest on a single character. However, if capabilities are balanced only in respect to one another, there is no reason to assume diversification is a problem.

Consider a professional athletes for a moment. Surely an American football quarterback who can both run, and throw has more diverse capabilities than one who can either throw well and runs slow, or throws poorly and runs well. Yet since the rules dictate that the quarterback can only use one of these two tools on any given play (he can't throw past the line of scrimmage) it isn't an imbalancing advantage.

The primary benefit of a focus on diversification, is that it obviates many of the problems amplification gives us. In level-based systems, if a player refers his friend to a game, that newcomer won't likely be able to play the game with his friend for quite some time. There are many band-aid fixes to this problem, such as City of Heroes' sidekick system, which grants limited temporary levels to bridge this exact problem. Player vs Player conflict is similarly troubled by amplification designs. Balancing conflict between even small delta's in level is often a major undertaking. Without exception, trying to balance the expected reward of leveling, with an even playing field for all level ranges, is a huge design sink that pleases no-one.

With a design that rewards primarily with diverse capability, pvp conflict isn't a problem. All players have a very tight delta in total power for a given encounter. Some may be more useful in a broader range of encounters, but all are competitive. Similarly, referrals have little problem jumping into such a game - as even a novice character is competitive in the same types of challenges as his more experienced friend. The player doubtlessly has some learning to do - and may not have the most effective tools for any given encounter - but his contribution would not be trivial.

A diversification-based system can solve almost all of the problems of level-based design, from player stratification, to economic caste-ing, to wasted content. The only question remaining is: are players too attached to level-based systems?
  < / Advancement >        
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
  < The Price of Loot >        
Much attention is given to the loot mechanisms in persistent world games. Sure, the Blue Foozle may have a well designed lair, or even a solid context for conflict - but if the reward sucks, who cares? At the same time there is much concern about the prevalence and undesirable effects of 'MUDflation'. Clearly the two are related, but how does one reconcile a stable economy with providing valuable rewards to the players? In all honesty, this update is late, precisely because this problem is thoroughly without a clear solution.

Simultaneously scaling the capability to deal damage, and survive damage imbalances combat between levels. Similarly simultaneously scaling monetary rewards for challenging encounters, and survivability imbalances the economy between levels. The core concept of most loot systems (bigger mob == bigger loot), directly results in more money coming into the economy today than yesterday, regardless of changes in player behavior.

Attempts to stem MUDflation generally manifest in the form of moneysinks. The problem with these moneysinks - is that they are balanced according to the initial economy. They don't take into account the ways that new spells, new tactics, and new content will allow players to amass money more quickly. They stall MUDflation at the expense of making the game more challenging at its initial state -- precisely where MUDflation is rarely a problem.

So why do designs simply accept the status quo of (bigger mob == bigger loot)? Is it because players prefer the instant gratification of seeing a large reward, and don't care if today's reward is irrelevant in tomorrow's MUDflated economy? Everquest has been an overwhelming fiscal success for SOE, despite 5 years of rampant MUDflation. Even if EQ's entire population disappeared tomorrow because of MUDflation - would they even hesitate to jump into a different persistent world with a similar economic structure?

In general, there are two types of moneysinks. There are those that are 'required', and those that are 'desired'. A required moneysink would be expenditure for the weapons, armor, tools, and spells necessary to support a playstyle. A desire moneysink is expenditure on items of primarily social value.

Required moneysinks are generally not effective at balancing MUDflation. They must be balanced under the assumption that players will spend only as much time harvesting content as necessary to advance their character. As soon as players continue to harvest content regardless of its value for advancing their character, the systems break down. Perhaps players are camping for drops, or have simply reached the level-cap. Whatever the cause, as soon as a large-enough contingent of players begin these behaviors, the same effect is seen.

Desired moneysinks are no silver bullet. Generally they rely on the playerbase ascribing value to something they know has no value. Further, as the entire playerbase begins to acquire such status, the status itself loses value. If everyone is wielding a glowing long-sword, exactly how cool is it? Desired moneysinks fall victim to social MUDflation.

If there were an easy way to end MUDflation, I wouldn't hesitate to share it. Frankly, I have no idea how one could manage it in a persistent world game. This post is so delayed because I thought I had workable solutions in mind. But as I worked them through it became apparent that I don't. The options that remain are: balance wealth with scarcity, or stall it with style.

When balancing with scarcity, it is necessary that loot be wholly consumable. One player mining gold outside of town necessarily deprives everyone else of the ability to mine that gold. Every source of incoming wealth would need a finite limit. Inevitable social results would include player contention for resource harvesting rights, the concentration of wealth, and collusion by large groups to explicitly prevent others from the ability to harvest. Essentially, all of the undesirable behaviors that haunt games with scarce static spawns would translate over to player behavior regarding wealth collection. This might give one a more stable economy - but at what cost?

'Stalling with style' boils down to acknowledging the conventions of the genre, and making clear boundaries in the system regardless of impact on immersion. Such tools would include leveraging flags on loot such as no-drop, no-trade, and no-sell, NPC-sell-only, making static content that can only be 'consumed' 1 time per player, etc. These systems boldly break immersion, yet their mechanics are all but necessary if designers are going to have any sort of reasonable expectation of balancing new wealth resources with new moneysinks. There would still need to be careful attention paid to the top-end, when players are done advancing, and have nothing better to do. If the 'end-game' involves gathering wealth, we still have a problem.

The jury's still out on the 'fix'. If immersion at all costs is our aim, scarcity might work. Though, most of us will likely have to strike a balance somewhere between reasonable economic control, and avoiding the encouragement of anti-social behavior. The most interesting solution to date, is the one seen in City of Heroes: the effective lack of loot and economic need. 
  < / The Price of Loot >        
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
  < Stagecraft v Simulation: Quests >        
Stagecraft and Simulation represented the two philosophical extremes in persistent world design. In short, simulationists believe that content should be derived from a dynamically simulated environment to maximize verisimilitude -- the 'sandbox' approach to content. Those in favor of stagecraft feel that content should be persistent, hand-crafted, and emulated to maximize convenience and enjoyment; the 'themepark' approach. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I have been thinking for some time now, about how 'questing' works into the picture.

My previous few articles were based on a heavily simulationist approach to creating dynamic questing and content. However, I also intentionally designed the system to assume a designer would be hand-tuning many of the variables to set much of the content in motion. Why not just have planning AI's select goals at random, based on the mob-type they control? Why should developers spend time crafting a 'director' AI to allow designers to create static, hand-crafted, one-time-experience quests when a generalized pure-simulationist approach could provide limitless content for everyone? My reasoning for this comes down to just one concept: dramatic context.

An acting character (actor) within a world is by default aware of little to no dramatic context for his actions. A fire-fighter works to rescue someone from a burning building because that's his job. He doesn't know whether he's saving a line-worker, a lawyer or a drug pusher -- he's saving people from a fire because that's what firemen do. In dramatic narratives, the audience/viewer/reader is treated to 'outside knowledge' that the actor is not privy to. They might be shown a weak spot in the building, foreshadowing a collapse and lending tension to the action. The actor themselves might be similarly exposed to information that is not normally given. They might receive a call from the arsonist, who conveniently explains the mad brilliance of how he booby trapped the building to ensure casualties. This knowledge increases the dramatic tension in the scene immensely.

For interactives, our situation is slightly different: our players are simultaneously the viewer and the actor. Actions that actor performs that are devoid of dramatic context are essentially all equivalent. The player has his dwarf kill orcs, because that's what dwarfs do. Whether those orcs come from a static spawn, or a dynamic ecosystem doesn't matter too much. A dynamic ecosystem without dramatic context might be more desirable than a static spawning environment devoid of dramatic context - but how do either stack up to a system with dramatic context?

In a simulated world, dwarf/orc combat could indeed have more context than in static spawning. However, such context relies on each individual players to have knowledge of historical monster movement in the area, and invent some imaginary 'purpose' behind such actions. For the average player, devoid of local historical information - the experience would appear largely the same as static spawning. Orcs would appear to exist merely to be killed by dwarfs. The primary difference would be that the locality of orcs to be killed for fun and profit wouldn't be consistent. Dwarfs would still kill orcs simply because that is what dwarfs do.

Stagecrafted quests allow designers to give dramatic context to these acts for every player. With a bit of flavor text, and a hand-tuned specific challenge and reward - the player is given context for his dwarf's struggle against the local orc tribes. The purpose of the flavor text is to create such context, and if possible, lend emotional weight to the action. This is most often achieved through having NPCs, gathered information, or enemies give more information to the acting character than he would otherwise know. Instead of merely rushing off to fight orcs for fun and profit -- the player is rushing off to foil an orcish kidnapping plot.

Indeed, often in narratives the information given to the acting character exceeds the plausible. We can see this when Bond villain's unwisely share their entire plot to a confronted hero. Inane, implausible, and oft-times comical - such indulgences are used purely to establish dramatic context. If a cop was merely hunting down a drug-lord it wouldn't be nearly as urgent or tense as it would be if the cop was aware that the drug-lord was on his way to kill the mayor.

Truly, in a thoroughly simulated game world, where player failures could be penalized by a loss of content, even dramatic context could be managed. However, not even the majority of simulationists would argue in favor of such a world. Allowing a dragon to level a city in retaliation for a handful of ill-fated adventurers who disturbed its slumber is a fairly extreme design philosophy. Allowing for one player to be assigned a quest, only to have it be completed for him by other adventurers who completed the objective by happenstance also raises some extremely thorny issues. Similarly, coding a simulation to facilitate assassinations, kidnappings, political intrigue, saboteurs, secret messengers, and border disputes is a daunting task -- let alone balancing a simulation to appropriately reward questors for their time investments.

Stagecrafted quests do lose a bit of their context due their static nature. As no content is ever removed from the game - no enemy can actually succeed with their nefarious plot, and no player can actually stamp out the effort. The same situation will always be played out again and again for the benefit of other players. However, this situation already exists in any story-based interactives, or narratives. No-one expects James Bond to lose, and no gamer is forced to put down the controller when Tommy Vercetti plunges a banshee into the ocean. Failure in interactives leads directly to a reload/retry until victory is achieved. And though failure in narratives does happen from time to time -- the commercial success heaped upon the 'Hollywood ending' shows that audiences do not have a problem with such dramatic predestination.

For the most part, it appears as though establishing dramatic context is sufficient to make even static spawning worlds intriguing. Indeed, Blizzard is set to test just such a hypothesis with their quest-centric approach to static world design. Though their renegade dwarves (complete with seaforium;) can never truly be defeated, thus far no World of Warcraft beta-tester has grown weary of trying to do just that through their stagecrafted quest system.
  < / Stagecraft v Simulation: Quests >        

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