Notes On Dynamic Worlds in MMOs (Long - But You Knew That)

My old SWG PA’s still going and set me a note they’ve moved to Guildcafe. Some nice toys over there and as I was poking around I stumbled across this older article by a gamer named Aaron Smith. Some neat stuff but it did get me to thinking:

Here’s his article:

And here’s my response in a PM to him on an MMO oriented site he runs:

Just ran across this and thought you’re coming from a very good place. This is stuff I’ve been talking about here and there for a decade and change. Back in the days of the Computer Gaming Magazine’s forums I put up with alot of very confused and irritated folks when I talked about the importance of “social” advancement as opposed to “personal” advancement when designing MMOs. My experience was limited to Asheron’s Call back then but as a an old, old school, tabletop roleplayer (look up Chivalry and Sorcery for a 70’s roleplaying game with realistic politics, economics and mass warfare) and a strategy/sim gamer I could tell what was missing right away.

Politics or economics in a game, assuming a believeable setting and mechanics, with real stakes would be fodder for roleplaying even for nonroleplayers. The game systems dictate what will be talked about and if they’re doing a good job of invoking the local reality players will adapt to what’s going on and start sounding like characters from that setting. Just listen to SWG players in the old days going on about prospecting or the best designs for various items. Effortless immersion thanks to smart game design. Pity they didn’t do as good a job with arguably more important iconic elements and, here’s where I start diverging from your premise, in this particular case PvP was a setting killer.

The problem with PvP is the players. Players aren’t very good at creating an immersive environment for other players even with the best designs. They’re tourists at the RenFaire at best - drunken biker tourists at worst. In SWG even a brilliant, dynamic, design for conflict would still have had us dealing with Stormtroopers that talked in l33t and insisted on teabagging opponents.

If you want a believeable world as your end result, the very justification for a dynamic design, the game must first be designed with a setting in mind. To the extent a world setting can embrace t-bagging, or whatever equivalent, wide open strategic PvP is the best answer. Post apocalyptic settings, modern urban settings, rough and tumble frontier settings, barbaric settings - these all have room for gang mentalities and behaviors that a modern player might intuitively indulge in. Sure, add in resources and settlements and all that other good stuff. Hell yes, make it destructable too for that matter.

For other settings you need to think how the natural behavior of players, which you rightly point out can be fodder and motivation for wonderful emergent stories (whether the players recognise that or not as they’re in the middle of it - most of us are Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern) in dynamic systems, might not serve an immersive end.

In SWG, for example, there can’t really be any question that Imperials should have been NPC foes so that the Star Wars setting would have been preserved. Without a scarey, monolithic, uniform Empire pressing down everywhere you can’t have Star Wars. But give The Empire all the advantages it should have and you don’t have much of a PvP game. Even trying to play with the formula would lead to very stilted constructions that probably wouldn’t please anyone for long and would be inherently uneven - like two kids on Christmas they’d each decide the other got the better gifts. And, plus, teabagging doesn’t cut it in that melieu.

Another caution about PvP comes in the form of the more recent Pirates of the Burning Sea. I’ll just link to a post I made recently called “A Vacation From My Vacation” to discuss the stresses of 24/7 PvP in a strategic context. I love everything about this game but I can’t have a game become my life. Way too much stress and it never ends:

A dynamic game with dynamic conflicts absolutely must conform, first, to the setting. Absolutely have to have PvP and contested resources in an Star Wars game? Make it all about the Underworld. Hutts v. Blacksun. Smuggling, illicit goods, dodging the Imperials and the Rebels while fighting with each other for turf. Leave the iconic Rebel vs. Imperial conflict in developer hands where they can do it justice. See? A teabag accessible zone. It works here. Balanced sides, rude behavior. Immersion.

Secondly, a dynamic game with dynamic conflicts must have an entertaining way to participate and feel like you’re contributing without directly exposing you to the PvP conflict. Otherwise you risk burnout. In Eve Online you had a setting so vast it was easy to get lost and just recoup, rest up, build your warchest. You could quit one group and join another entirely. In Pirates of the Burning Sea the missions, the economy, even grinding NPCs almost always could end you up in a contention zone. That’s no way to take a break! The pace of the conflict was so fast, and the RvR design made for such imbalanced populations, that it seems unlikely a casual gamer could keep up or would want to.

Also the bad behavior of players, again, wrecked immersion. If this were just a game about pirates that would work but it’s also about Master & Commander like nationals, honor and duty. Seeing them cussing and taunting like, well, drunken bikers at a Renfaire…that’s anti-immersive and, thus, defeating the purpose.

Long letter but I hope you had a chance to read it. I’ll be posting this and a link to your original in the forums for discussion.

Interesting post, Brian. If anybody ever hires you to design The Best MMO Ever, I’ll be first in line to subscribe!

Actually I think Eve Online has the MMO pretty close to something I can play and feel like I’m making a difference.

  • You can own parts of the game world
  • You can corner and influence the world market.
  • You can become known for your actions.
  • You can create your own missions, kind of.

There’s probably a few things I’d add to Eve to make it more “I can affect things”.

  • Item design ( Kind of like Chromehounds but with everything )
  • Planet control / assimilation ( owning a planet gives corp bonuses depending on the planet thus making areas of space worth more )
  • More rewards for being skilled in a particular career path ( You’ve contributed 100 hours to mining/killing rats/defending the station for your corp? Well now you get this skill/item/bonus to a stat ).

The only thing I’d like to add to Eve ( off topic but oh well ) is the ability to switch to a free-form control mode ( key control not clicking where you want to go ). It’d certainly make battles a bit more intense.

I think for me to come back to Eve would require much more in the way of meaningful avatar oriented content along with the space content. I have trouble identifying with or caring about space ships after a certain point. The underlaying machinery is pretty damn brilliant. The setting is rather bland but that does suit a game where the players, not the backstory or scripted encounters, are the focus. But the roleplayer in me really needs an avatar to sit around the table and hang out with other pilots, or plot in a command center, or journey into abandoned derelicts, lead a boarding party or explore more terrestrial locations. Some of my wishes conflict with the setting but the setting seems more like a collection of rationalizations for the gameplay (which can be a great way to think about setting with the exception of licenced properties or historical eras). If the gameplay changes the setting can easily change to match.

This might not be crucial to alot of players but I suspect we’re a sizeable group because CCP keeps saying they’re going to introduce avatars at some point. But it needs to be more than just a graphical chat room in some station’s tavern. One of the things I really like about PoTBS is the mix of avatar content, both adventure oriented and social, with the shipbased combat and the overall strategic game.

I agree that the biggest problem in most MMOs is the playerbase. The reason why games like WoW and such are so popular now is simple.

Players want to dish it out but not take it.

That sums up my feelings on Eve perfectly. I do think it is a fantastic game, but most of the time it feels like you are a mere number, as opposed to being a distinct figure in the universe.

I think that succinctly sums up 98% of any MMO’s playerbase.

And the human condition in general as well.

One thing I’ve found myself reflecting on before is my time on a permadeath MUSH. Hardly anyone ever died.

Partly this was due to a system of consent where players had to give permission before anyone could permanently harm them. This was kept in check by social peer pressure not to be a dick. Be a dick, inflict harm or heap insults on someone and fail to accept the consequences, and you end up with nobody wanting to have anything to do with you. Consent along these lines and sensitive enough social webworks like these might be hard to pull off on a commercial MMO.*

But this can be problematic, generates a good deal of bickering and cliquish solipsism (“We’re all ignoring you.” “Well, we were all ignoring you first!”), and tends to create too many hands on situations where administrators need to step in and adjucate disputes in order to maintain some kind of objective, shared, continuity. On a small MUSH this is a decent system. On a commercial MMO - not so much. An additional problem with active administrators, aside from the impractical logistics on an MMO, is the inevitable perception of favoritism, nepotism and bias whether real, all too common, or imagined: ubiquitous.

The other factor was what I’d call “Conan” effect. Ol’ Conan used to gripe and moan about how uncivil those supposedly civilized folks could be because they didn’t have to worry about an offended tribesman cutting them down for their bad behavior. And you’ll hear all the time, rightly or wrongly, about how folks in the Old West behaved themselves because everyone carried a gun. Politeness counts in a world full of gunslingers evidently.

The potential for violence extended a great undercurrent of tension and excitement even to casual exchanges because the implications were always bigger. Politics, power, life and death, etc. Folks tended to really think about what they were saying and doing rather than just running around like videogame sprites with nothing better to do than engage in constant ADD mayhem.

I tend to think an MMO that understood how to parlay a realistic system into very serious gameworld consequences, whether via the permadeath mechanism or something else, and was willing to pace the nature of its conflicts to give folks plenty of time to reflect on and prepare for each one, could capture a good deal of this tension without overwhelming folks with constant cartoon violence for its own sake.

Again, Eve Online does this pretty well. It’s not about dishing it out or taking it. It’s about why things matter and how to make players care about what’s going on in the world without overwhelming them in the process.

  • Eve Online’s system of keeping a publically available “employment history” for each avatar can help with this and SWG’s one avatar per player per server certainly created a broad sense of community where reputation counts.

The problem with your permadeath MUSH as an example is that it’s a fairly self-selective group. It’s like saying your pen and paper RPG group had permadeath. Well, OK, you also had a gamesmaster willing to weigh in if a player was being a jerk with a crossbow (three guess who crossbow guy was).

In a larger setting you have anonymity. Anonymity enables people to be jerks. The less anonymity and the more opportunities for social shunning/rewarding, the more impact being a jerk has (a level 15 in WoW has a lot more freedom to be a jerk than a raider in a top-end guild).

Enabling this social reputation in a meaningful way is pretty critical, especially in a way that it can’t be used itself as a tool of grief.

I have trouble with the idea of permadeath in an MMO too which is why I included “or something else” in that sentence. Not because it would discourage the right kind of players, ideally permadeath would cause random violence to go way down and make societies and the protections they offer that much more meaningful, but because, as you noted, it’s really uncharted territory and you’d need to factor in alot of things I haven’t considered yet.

On the topic of permdeath, when we first launched our Down In Flames game at Battlefront, the game had permadeath.

Our goal was to be different and more intense since you could actually lose a pilot in a permanent way. True, having a high level pilot die would sting, but in the end, people would like it because it would add to the intensity. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

People hated it, and we got hate mail.

True, the game had a couple layeres of protection built in, so permadeath didn’t happen often, but when it happened to a high scoring pilot, people howled.

It has since been removed.

We also had a buyable skill called “Target Pilot”. When you shot down another plane, if you had Target Pilot, their chance of dying went up.

People really hated this one.

It has since been removed.

-Dan Verssen
Designer of Down In Flames

Well, yes, but your goal is to encourage a believeable simulation. You’re counting on people killing each other. My goal, if I thought permadeath could work - which I’m not sold on, I’m just sounding it out, would be to reduce violence because the consequences would be so great. Perhaps, if an MMO can wring all the potential drama and excitement out of conflict without having physical combat utterly dominating gameplay you’d appeal to a different audience.

Look at how violence plays out in most storytelling. It’s not what’s dwelled on. The reaction to a past violent act or how to deal with potential violent acts in the future are the meat of things. Game systems, and this goes back to the very roots of roleplaying games as miniatures battles games, seem to focus too much on the ins and outs of the violence itself.

I think violence is the center of most commercial games for a good reason. Most successful games focus on killing stuff, or players quickly lose interest.

Also, the gaming audience is male. If you think about the movies this group watches, they involve huge amounts of action and violence linked together by a minimal story.

As the story time of a movie increases, and the action/violence time decreases, its market shifts toward female.

The same stuff happened with Urbandead. Permadeath is okay in some games, but increasing the likelihood of it happening pisses people off. And lamers will exploit any system that offers them a chance of ruining other people’s time.

I’d be totally okay with MMOs that appeal to women as much as men! There are more of 'em! I’d also be okay with MMOs that appealed to an older and more sophisticated audiences.

A corollary is that I don’t like the idea of doing away with violence entirely nor, depending on the setting, some kind of approach to PvP. As the initial article I linked to explained, and I’ve been saying the same thing for a while, emergent narratives born of natural conflicts between players and player factions is great gist for, intentional or otherwise, stories. We players, if properly harnessed, can be a perpetual motion machine that does a fine job of entertaining itself.

Right now the engine is crude. Pollutants and impurities utterly saturate the experience. Big old industrial machines hammering out a very crude and basic context - the fight, the ego, the epeen. It’s not for the faint of heart or the casual gamer.

Games like Eve and PoTBS come closest to creating meaningful contexts for the violence but they’re outliers right now.

On the other hand you’ve got pacifistic, light, games like Sims Online or A Tale in The Desert. These games don’t seem to have enough adrenaline, however adulterated, to keep most people awake and engaged. “In walks a man with a gun…” Oh, now you’re paying attention!

Did you ever consider some type of pseudo permadeath? Your character can die but his decedent with the same last name gets his items and most if not all of his perks/exp.