Dead Monsters and Naked Emperors

I’m now doing much online catching up after a long trip, and Richard Bartle’s entry Fire in Their Bellies is the first place I landed. It's a nice provocation, and echoes some thoughts I had just before I took off about recent experiences playing games with my 3-year old, as well as my own frustrations with the current state of things in MMOGs.

I was especially struck by two things while playing with my daughter. She has really enjoyed the MMOG Toontown (and is frighteningly able to play unaided, stopped only when she absolutely has to read something in order to proceed) but recently asked me why we always have to go back and forth between all the stores carrying things for their owners whenever we get a "task". (Toontown is about as afflicted with the disease of FedEx quests as any MMOG I’ve ever seen.) “Why don’t they just do it themselves,” she asked. (She was especially annoyed when we helped to save one store from the bad guys and the store owner then acted like it had never happened when he assigned us a FedEx quest.) This is part of the general restiveness she is feeling with the repetition of the game. She would much rather create a new character, buy pets and decorate the character’s house than destroy twenty of the same kind of enemy in order to earn the ability to carry five more weapons. She loves seeing new content—when we recently went to the headquarters of the game’s bad guys, she was fascinated. But when we were gated out of one area of the new content because we hadn’t leveled up enough, she immediately said, “Let’s quit, Daddy. This is boring.” (No, I wasn’t prompting her! I promise!)

On the other hand, we’ve also been playing a lot of Monster Rancher 3 on the PS2 (it’s a variation on Pokemon). Aconsha, the monster she’s had since she was 2, finally died of old age. I was in the next room, but came running when I heard a horrible wail and tremendous sobbing. (She grasped right away what had happened when suddenly her monster was flying up towards the stars and a big heart in the sky.) After reassuring her, I reverted the game to the last save point and now the monster is alive again—he just can’t do anything that makes time move forward in his save slot. This really interested her—it’s a two-for-one deal, where she learns a bit about the emotional experience of death (her goldfish dying didn’t have the same effect) but also gets to learn about the tricks that games (or “ergodic literature” more broadly, to use Espen Aarseth’s term) allow you to play with temporality and narrative. It also suddenly freed her to want new monsters but only on other save games—something that previously she hadn’t wanted to do. I thought this whole experience powerfully demonstrated the unique cultural and psychological capacity of videogames in general and the potentials for emotional and imaginative investment that they still hold.

Richard Bartle is right that many games presently don’t come anywhere near that potential, or at least that the MMOG “virtual world”, which ought to be the most potent and capacious kind of computer-mediated play, doesn’t. Toontown is typical, and my daughter’s boredom is an emperor’s new clothes kind of moment. I have no good justification or explanation to offer her for why it is the way it is. It doesn’t even have the fig-leaf organicism that the repetition in gameplay in a game like Monster Rancher 3 has. You have to feed your monster once a month, just like you have to feed yourself every day—but even in the tedium of everyday life, we don’t typically get reduced to mere deliverymen, let alone in cultural contexts that are supposed to be full of adventure and imagination.

I think Richard is wrong to imagine that the imaginative needs or visions of designers, their need for creative control, is what is preventing MMOGs from allowing freedom of play. In fact, the current crop of MMOGs, mostly more restrictive than the first generation in many respects, is actually far less visionary and imaginative in story-telling and world-creation terms, as some commenters in the thread inspired by Richard’s entry observe.

For example, Asheron's Call 1 was a Bartle-type explorer's dream, allowing for free movement over a vast and interesting space--and it was so *because* there was a developer invested in the act of world-creation. Compare it with the off-the-shelf fantasy tropes of Shadowbane or Horizon or AC2, or the poor implementation of the beloved milieu of Star Wars in SWG and you see the (unfavorable) difference.

Developer investment in storytelling or imaginative vision or world-creation is orthagonal to freedom of play: it’s an interesting issue in its own right, but it has little to do with the restriction of player options and capacities.

One major thing that is causing increasting restriction of the freedom of play is the game-mechanical need of developers to make sure that what players do, they do predictably. Not so the story turns out right, but so the all-important (cursedly important) levelling mechanism and treadmill can be properly calibrated. So essentially developers are constantly trying to make players *into* programmable agents, to reduce their humanity down to a primitive AI. Contemporary MMOGs are the Turing Test in reverse, an attempt to engineer human players into dumb software.

The other important force driving developers to constrain what players can do in MMOGs is a historical arc that I think also affected the world of virtual communities. The initial generation of people to go online were incubated in BBSes and MUDs, moved into Usenet and the very early Web, and essentially experienced what we have now come to regard as the characteristic structures of virtual community formation and relation for the first time, de novo. I joined LambdaMOO about two days after reading Julian Dibbel's article in the Village Voice, for example, and was there through all sorts of political hysteria with the toading system, petitions and the like. I was having similar experiences elsewhere in text-based virtual communities and Usenet groups around the same time.

And one day, I just kind of burned out on it all after being fascinated by it for a great long time.

There came a day where I just didn't want other people to have freedom if it meant they were going to annoy me, spam me, troll me--I wanted selectivity, I wanted gated communities, I wanted restrictions on participants. The technology of online communities--including virtual worlds--allowed a single malevolent person to grossly magnify their social impact of their malevolence in ways that are only possible in the real world with automatic weapons or explosives. All it takes in a good, productive asynchronous conversation in the online public sphere to destroy that conversation is one persistent troll, unless all the participants have strong filtering tools or extremely disciplined determination to respond only to signal and ignore noise. All it takes in a virtual world to ruin the fun of others is a technically or socially imaginative griefer.

Do you learn interesting lessons about yourself and society when you’re in a virtual environment with no rules and no restrictions? Absolutely. Do you need to learn those lessons over and over and over again? No, and in particular, not in virtual worlds where developers must—even in the least restrictive old-style MUD—make certain kinds of prior decisions about what defines the “human nature” of avatars. If the only thing you can do to affect the virtual world in terms of your avatar’s capacities is to kill NPCs, creatues and other players, you’re going to find yourself killing players eventually. Just because that’s what you can do. If talking, socializing, inventing, and so on, make no persistent difference to a virtual world, then they’re not part of gameplay, they’re not part of the virtual world—they’re real-world referents that travel alongside and parallel to the action of the virtual world, not of the virtual world itself.

However, gated communities and heavily restricted virtual worlds grow tedious after a time: they’re monocultures, ticky-tacky boxes all in a row. It's why I came back out from the gated communities into the world of blogs. It's why I'm feeling just as cranky as Richard is about MMOGs.

Nothing online can ever be made impervious to griefing or trolling or whatever forms of disruptive play and action we can imagine. When outrageous forms of griefing are made impossible by the rules, then modest forms of griefing come to seem outrageous. Players in City of Heroes recently got the ability to toggle a no-teleport setting so that griefers could not involuntarily drop them into pitched battles—a minor nuisance by the standards of old-style Ultima Online murder and robbery, but one which had come to seem like a violation because so much of the rest of the gameplay is instanced and controlled.

The difficult question is this: do virtual worlds (and virtual communities) now have more controls, gates, filters, rules, because a single generation’s unique and unreproducible historical experience has become an inflexible structural precedent that defines all future online sociality, that is the ur-culture that gets reproduced as ritual and expectation, or because the first generation of players and talkers online discovered some universal and general truths about how modern human beings will behave socially when they’re given the technological capacities to do so? If we were to start from scratch, to get the fire in the belly that Richard seeks, liberate the players in virtual worlds, would we find that a generation that has grown up with videogames as a basic part of their cultural world create very different forms and norms of gameplay sociality than their predecessors? Have they acculturated to the structures and “common sense” of a world they never made? Or are we struggling with deeper fundamentals of modern human nature? In many ways, what is at stake in Richard’s comments is not virtual worlds, but the same deeply traversed terrain that always comes up when in modernity talk about freedom, society and individuality, and our answers to the question of “Why can’t players be more free in virtual worlds” are likely to echo the kinds of things each of us might say about freedom more generally. The more conscious we are of the feedback loop between our general political and social philosophies, our design precepts in virtual worlds, and our desires as players, the more generative our vision of the desired future is likely to be.


Comments on Dead Monsters and Naked Emperors:

bruce rogers says:

"do virtual worlds (and virtual communities) now have more controls, gates, filters, rules, because a single generation’s unique and unreproducible historical experience has become an inflexible structural precedent that defines all future online sociality, that is the ur-culture that gets reproduced as ritual and expectation, or because the first generation of players and talkers online discovered some universal and general truths about how modern human beings will behave socially when they’re given the technological capacities to do so?"

The latter.

Posted Sep 28, 2004 7:00:51 PM | link

Stefan Kubicki says:

I think you are unhelpfully grouping virtual worlds, MMORPGs, other online games, and virtual "communities" (blogs!?) into one big umbrella category. If we're talking about games, then criticism should be directed at design, and how it channels, restricts, and cultivates certain natural or learned--depending on whether you're a nature or nurture type of guy/girl--traits.

Many people make the argument for more "freedom" in VWs, but as far as games are concerned, freedom isn't necessarily as fun, or as interesting, as well thought-out and implemented rules.

Posted Sep 28, 2004 9:02:54 PM | link

blaze says:

I find these threads bizarre. I would assume that SecondLife is a pre-req for any posting on Terra Nova.

I've been in SL for 2 months and I haven't been 'griefed' yet.

Philip or Cory or someone has a theory that the more your users can create the less likely they are going to to grief.

This is absolutely true! Though a lot of people do like to build walls when people build purple houses next to them, but generally it's not an issue.

Posted Sep 28, 2004 9:16:54 PM | link

Raph Koster says:

I've read so many stories about creative grief in SL that I don't think that theory is at all true. A lot has to do with cultural expectations, though. You go into Second Life knowing that someone swing a fist that DOESN'T stop at the end of your nose, to use the Heinleinian formulation. So instead of grief, we see it as interesting social strife, like the question of whether or not flying objects are allowed over certain areas. We see the messy hodgepodge of themes as immersive on SL's own terms, rather than as, well, a messy hodgepodge.

The SL formulation, wonderful as it is, is not a panacea for the many other formulations of virtual world.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 12:09:33 AM | link

Raph Koster says:

Oh, and I have an answer for Tim's essay as well, but it's at almost 30,000 words and due at my editor's tomorrow, so I have to get back to writing it so you can all buy it in November.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 12:10:37 AM | link

Michael Chui says:

While I don't have anything immediate or cogent to say in response to Timothy, I found the first three comments here disturbing.

Bruce Rogers says, "The latter."

Why?

I think you are unhelpfully grouping virtual worlds, MMORPGs, other online games, and virtual "communities" (blogs!?) into one big umbrella category.

A community is a community, no matter how asynchronous it is. There might be different filters you have to look through to correctly interpret a collaborative blog or a wiki than a MMORPG. The fact that they are all virtual DOES tie them together, precisely because of the pseudonymity afforded by that fact.

I would assume that SecondLife is a pre-req for any posting on Terra Nova.

I think the only pre-requisites for posting on an academic blog is being able think and having an interest in the field. Not everyone can go and buy a copy of all the games on 100K lists (16 in total) as well as those under the Other Worlds category (which I count as 23).

What's more, not only can I not personally afford that, it'd be a waste of my money because there's no way on earth I'd be able to play them all to get the experience of it! I can't imagine anyone else who posts here has played 39 games at various levels of intensity (from mass-market to hardcore, as Jessica Mulligan rates them) and reports their firsthand experience.

I've been in SL for 2 months and I haven't been 'griefed' yet.

I've played Dragonrealms for 6 years and I haven't been griefed yet. I have, however, interceded on a victim's behalf, and I have also watched what I thought was griefing become an extremely well-done roleplay story arc.

Philip or Cory or someone has a theory that the more your users can create the less likely they are going to to grief.

To quote from Richard Bartle's paper, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS

"It should be noted, however, that massively increasing the number of explorers is the only way to reduce the number of killers without also reducing the player numbers in other groups. Because increasing the number of explorers in a MUD generally encourages others to join (and non-explorers to experiment with exploration), this gives a positive feedback which will eventually reduce the killer population."

Second Life is probably an example of a massive increase of explorers. It attracts people who like to code and design, who are highly likely to be explorers. And while I hesitate to equate "creation" with "exploration", I think that this has something to do with why there is little grief in Second Life.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 12:44:08 AM | link

bruce rogers says:

"While I don't have anything immediate or cogent to say in response to Timothy, I found the first three comments here disturbing.

Bruce Rogers says, "The latter."

Why?"

I'm terra nova's griefer. :)

Posted Sep 29, 2004 12:57:54 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Excellent post!

One minor quibble:

Timothy Burke>I think Richard is wrong to imagine that the imaginative needs or visions of designers, their need for creative control, is what is preventing MMOGs from allowing freedom of play.

It's one thing, but not the only thing; I wouldn't say it was either necessary or sufficient. I would say that it was important (but then I would say that!).

I have a paper due to be presented at the Other Players conference later this year which posits a mechanism for leading to increasingly poor virtual worlds, but for those who can't wait that long there'll be a rant version of it on Gamasutra shortly (just as soon as I finish writing it).

Richard

Posted Sep 29, 2004 2:14:46 AM | link

ren says:

Blaze > I've been in SL for 2 months and I haven't been 'griefed' yet.

Blaze > Philip or Cory or someone has a theory that the more your users can create the less likely they are going to to grief.

Raph > I've read so many stories about creative grief in SL that I don't think that theory is at all true.

There is lots and lots of griefing in SL. The ability to create and the fact that the world is ‘social’ just means that people think up particularly inventive and sometimes really socially unpleasant ways of griefing. I’ve spent very little time in places like LambdaMOO but from what I have read the kinds of issues / social tensions that one gets in SL are very similar.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 4:08:40 AM | link

ren says:

Its always easier to disagree with the question rather than answer it – so here goes,,,

To me the premise of the argument is a little off because we are focusing on a narrow range of virtual spaces.

Certainly if we look at the current crop of popular MMORPGs they seem to come out of the same stable: Levelling, FedEx’ing etc. But there are lots of other virtual worlds: Second Life, There, Habbo etc etc on the social side, A Tale in the Desert and others that put law / politics at the fore, Sociolotron and other that put other things to the fore.

What seems to be the case is the worlds that are more game like, that do follow these structures are by a very very long way the most popular. That’s the bit that I don’t understand – is it that they do have the magic formulae or is it force of brand / marketing that driving people by the millions to these worlds.

Online marketing is no where near as fluid as it has been cracked up to be and we should not under estimate the power of brands. But, it seems that we cannot deny things like the relatively low (technical) switching cost between worlds.

So, there is at least an argument that says – given that quite a verity of virtual worlds are available, and that one type of world is massively more popular than others – this structure actually is tapping into what people want. The fact that it keeps being replicated is simple market / investment logic.

This argument would be false if:
- The kind of virtual world that people want is not out there
- The brand / general expectations / switching costs are such that the market it locked into a current pattern

I would really like a Science and Technology studies person to do a study of the construction of virtual worlds.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 4:25:02 AM | link

Jim Purbrick says:

Great post! It really made me thing about the breadth and depth of games that can be enjoyed by children today. I have similar memories of playing computer games with my dad, but while there were some extraordinarily inventive games for the Spectrum, none of the characters made me grieve when they died and none of the games immersed me in a virtual world with other real people. Most of the games involved moving around and shooting things. I wasn't exposed to virtual worlds until I played Nanvaent at University. It had a profound effect (I did a PhD and ended up here), but at a much later point in my life. How much do my early moving and shooting experiences affect the virtual worlds I work on? How much richer will the games designed by today's children be? I can't wait to play the games Tim's daughter designs.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 4:57:42 AM | link

Betsy Book says:

Ren wrote:
Certainly if we look at the current crop of popular MMORPGs they seem to come out of the same stable: Levelling, FedEx’ing etc. But there are lots of other virtual worlds: Second Life, There, Habbo etc etc on the social side

While There does incorporate levelling into its profiles it's not an essential part of the experience for every player. I have successfully enjoyed There for a year and a half without paying the slightest attention to my level indications.

The real "levelling mechanism" of social worlds is social capital - basically the "whoever dies with the most stuff wins" theory. It's still a treadmill to be sure, but it's an economic treadmill with the end goal of acquiring virtual clothing, property, objects etc. Teens tend to really buy into this (how's that for a pun?) because the "cool stuff = popularity" formula is something with which they are intimately familiar and engaged with in RL on an everyday basis. One of the biggest griefing problems in social worlds is scamming and I don't think anyone could successfully argue that rules against scamming should not exist for the sake of a "freer" environment.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 7:18:19 AM | link

ren says:

Are we saying that levelling is just social hierarchy that in different virtual worlds has different way of being signified? Is this is so, then maybe the question is whether we can create a non-hierarchal virtual society, there certainly are efforts at what I might term ‘utopian worlds’ but I don’t think that these are successful. Or am I totally off plot now?

Posted Sep 29, 2004 7:49:53 AM | link

Iamblichos says:

I tend to agree with Bruce... "the latter" indeed.

Speaking as a long-term player of MMOGs, one of the things I have noticed about my fellow players is the predominance of socially liminal groups in the player community. This has both a positive and a negative affect on the virtual community. Positive, because it increases the amount of loyalty given to the community once a person makes a place within it; negative, because people who are socially liminal to start with tend to be hyperreactive to perceived slights due to their RL experiences. This often leads to conflicts and the type of ego-related group meltdowns common to RPing.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 8:06:09 AM | link

Lee Altman says:

In this discussion, I see no mention of the massive real-world industry in virtual goods, which has come to dominate most popular MMO titles. Depending on which estimate to believe, this industry may be worth billions per year.

When asking "Why can't players be more free in virtual worlds," I believe this industry cannot be ignored. Many designers plan their treadmills with this economy in mind, and their "anti-griefing" strategies are also influenced by the fact that griefing can involve cash rewards for bad behavior.

In my experiences playing about a half-dozen MMO titles, I have always been amazed at how many players "sell out" when they tire of the games. They seem to look at the games as an investment, conveniently ignoring the fact that their hundreds or thousands of playtime translate to a trifling hourly wage.

There are many other factors explaining the lack of creativity of the current crop of games, but I see the "cash economy for virtual goods" as a major corrosive factor.

Thanks for listening, and I enjoy this site. I only discovered Terra Nova recently, but it has already risen to the top of my RSS feeds. For a guy like me with a master's in history and 5+ years of MMO experience, these discussions are pure bliss.

Lee

Posted Sep 29, 2004 8:11:10 AM | link

Tobold says:

> Blaze: I find these threads bizarre. I would assume that SecondLife is a pre-req for any posting on Terra Nova.

Why would it be? The discussion here is already heavily centered on games with interesting concepts, but relatively low numbers of players.

Which poses the interesting question of which game is more important: The innovative game with 1,000 players, or the generic game with 100,000 players? The innovative games might well advance academic thinking on virtual worlds, but the commercially successful ones are the basis of popular culture for the much more numerous non-academics.

So if there was any pre-req for posting here, wouldn't it be Everquest?

Posted Sep 29, 2004 9:09:48 AM | link

Lordfly Digeridoo says:

Quantity of a virtual world's population doesn't make it more "important"; rather, perhaps the quality and variety of the playing experience is the key thing.

If only 2000 people play A Tale in the Desert, but come away with a profound experience that shapes their life in some way, compared to 250,000 players that grind away at the pre-determined levels of success in Everquest, not really "getting" anything in return except digital loot, which is the more important game?

Just because it is popular doesn't mean that it is right.

LF

Posted Sep 29, 2004 11:48:54 AM | link

Bruce Boston says:

Timothy Burke> “or because the first generation of players and talkers online discovered some universal and general truths about how modern human beings will behave socially when they’re given the technological capacities to do so?"
Bruce Rogers > "The latter."
Timothy Burke> “Players in City of Heroes recently got the ability to toggle a no-teleport setting so that griefers could not involuntarily drop them into pitched battles—a minor nuisance by the standards of old-style Ultima Online murder and robbery, but one which had come to seem like a violation because so much of the rest of the gameplay is instanced and controlled.”

I agree that it’s “the latter”, and I also think that not only did today's developers learn a number of ‘truths’, but so did the members of these same first generation experiences. To taht point, are we assuming that the reason CoH spent time programming the teleport and resurrect confirmation toggles is because it was on a long list of “freedoms to take away at some point” that they have had around the office for the last few years? I think I’d be quicker to guess that it was due to a high number of player requests for those features.

Which brings me to a question; Why are we so reluctant to say that players today have more rules for one simple reason? Mainly, Today’s MMO Players want more rules.

me> Isn’t freedom on the society level about societies building the rule set that they want?

Having worked on the community team of There for the last 16-monthes, or so, it’s been my experience that most of the cries for ‘new rules’ don’t come from the design room, they come from the players themselves, the very inhabitants of these virtual spaces. From day 1, There has had as it’s goal a type of utopian simplistic freedom, where ladders were for informational feedback and not inhibitors to new content, where people from any place, background or creed could come and be themselves, where anyone could come and relax in a virtual place where your imagination was the only limit. And, while I think we have built just such a world, on the other hand, I also think that we have found that members of these virtual worlds want new features to be fully equipped with a full set of rules.

With almost every feature in There, and I would assume this to be true in most social worlds, we have had to formulate, design, code, communicate, roll out, revise and fine tune a long list of social OKs, and NO WAYs for every new feature. Members these days seem to expect that the social aspects of new features be very well thought out before the feature is released. And, while we keep trying to say, “be free”, “enjoy” “have fun”, “don’t worry”, what we hear back is, “but this can be used to grief people by….” And so we have had to define a million things, What is the proper use of a paintgun, where can you drop stuff, who’s club can you link your club to, what types of speech can’t you use, what types of commerce are not allowed, etc, etc, etc. Along with how all of these rules are to be enforced, what are the punishments for breaking the rules, and what is the process of educating everyone of the rules.

We have set up a number of feedback loops from the forums themselves to a number of “Member Advisory Boards” where we get input on a very regular basis directly from members, and those that are appointed to gather their feedback. Again, all in all, we continue to hear to this day, “Please post the official policy for (fill in the blank)” as one of the top requests from members.

If this is the case for social worlds, I can only imagine that players in ‘game worlds’ want the rules of their games to be very well defined. Certainly in RL, the most popular games are games that are very well defined before anyone starts the game.

So again, both as a player in other virtual worlds, and as a developer of a social one, I see very little evidence that the majority of the members of the MMO market are looking for worlds with undefined social rules, or very broad freedoms.

And again I ask, why are we so reluctant to say that players today have more rules for one simple reason? Mainly, Today’s MMO Players want more rules.

-bruce

Posted Sep 29, 2004 2:35:13 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

Bruce Boston> "Today’s MMO Players want more rules."

But not all rules are created equal. The action/acquisition-oriented player wants rules that maximize his power by limiting the abilities of all other players, while the social/exploration-oriented player just wants rules to limit griefing. Both views are utilitarian, but the former is more concerned with externals ("How do I measure compared to other players?") while the latter cares more about internals ("Am I having fun?").

Lumping all player types together to say "they want more rules" misses something useful about what kinds of rules are wanted, I think.

And speaking of social rules....

ren> "maybe the question is whether we can create a non-hierarchal virtual society, there certainly are efforts at what I might term ‘utopian worlds’ but I don’t think that these are successful."

FWIW, a world in which humans are deprived of hierarchy could also be considered a dystopia.

It may depend on whether you see hierarchy as something imposed by a few powerful people on the masses, or as a voluntary recognition that some people are better than others at certain socially-valued activities. If you see hierarchy as an artificial means of controlling individuals, then a classless society seems preferable. If OTOH you think that hierarchies are an organization mode that forms naturally because it's an effective way to accomplish socially useful goals, then you will probably see imposing a classless structure on a social group as limiting productive group behavior at best -- and risking group destruction at worst -- by preventing the most able members of the group from applying their talents to the benefit of the whole group through their position in the group.

It would be interesting to create a virtual world without class or other hierarchy. I suspect that, as nature abhors a vacuum, hierarchies would develop naturally -- not because players are conditioned to believe they need control, but because animals at or above a certain level of intelligence have learned that hierarchies are optimal for responding to many social challenges.

Voluntarily giving up some of your freedom to take direction from someone else in the group (or, if you're at the top, to become responsible for the group's effectiveness) actually improves the likelihood of individual survival. As the group prospers, so does the individual. The only question is whether the results justify the cost in lost freedom.

(Note that if you eliminate challenges requiring efficient social responses, hierarchies become unnecessary... but wouldn't a society that is never challenged become stagnant to the point of being really boring to live in?)

There are certainly other ways to reflect hierarchy than the old D&D class system... but I don't see hierarchy -- in one form or another -- going away in virtual societies any time soon.

--Flatfingers

Posted Sep 29, 2004 6:26:12 PM | link

Bruce Boston says:

"But not all rules are created equal."

Agreed.

"Lumping all player types together to say 'they want more rules' misses something useful about what kinds of rules are wanted, I think."

Agreed.

-bruce

Posted Sep 29, 2004 7:52:36 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Bruce Boston> "Today’s MMO Players want more rules."

Is that saying something about virtual worlds and VW design, or about the people who play them and the societies from which they come?

Rules are only necessary because people might break them and it's best to have a written contract stating, beforehand, the consequences of breaking them. If no one would break the rules, they aren't necessary.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 9:14:30 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

Flatfingers: "Voluntarily giving up some of your freedom to take direction from someone else in the group (or, if you're at the top, to become responsible for the group's effectiveness) actually improves the likelihood of individual survival."

I think a strong case could be made without resorting to instinct, but based solely on rationality. Hierarchies are hardly ever one dimmensional. The *official* hierarchy may be one dimmensional (Lvl 35 > Lvl 25), but the effective hierarchy is much more complicated. Most people have some story about some powerful person who was marked low level by the game.

I would contend a hierarchy forms naturally among humans. Provided people have consistent names for their avatars, they will build their own hierarchies, using out of game tools if necessary. A classless society must be a truly anonymous society. (Still, you'll likely have people preceeding discussions with PGP signatures to verify their true identity)

This natural hierarchy is the hierarchy of respect. I will respect some people in the game more than others. How I determine this is individual: I may judge based on character level, skill at combat, or colour coordination. However, this purely relative hierarchy can be inverted to measure, in some unmeasurable way, the amount of respect flowing into each avatar. The ones receiving the most respect are at the upper end of the hierarchy, the ones with the least at the lower end. The power law suggests that there will be giant respect-sinks - people who are inherently more respected than others. (This is because if A respects B, and B tells A that B respects C, A will tend to increase respect of C. Thus we have the rich nodes getting richer scenario)

So, why do we respect anyone at all? I'd think it's because we recognize our own falliability. We realize we'll make mistakes, or not have enough time to fully research every issue. By listening to the thoughts of others, we can perform error correction. However, not everyone's opinions are created equal, so we learn we should weight incoming data based on source. This weight is respect.

The scenario is, of course, more complicated than this. The more careful humans track different types of respect differently. I may respect Scientist A when listening to their discussion of science, yet not respect them when listening to their discussion of morality. This is where I said the hierarchy isn't one dimmensional. One person's respect sink is another person's useless Roleplayer.

- Brask Mumei

Posted Sep 29, 2004 9:15:49 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

“Why can’t players be more free in virtual worlds” ?

I'm surprised no one has brought up the bottom-line argument, that regulating a society by coded rules is a lot cheaper that doing it using customer service agents. A third model (which Tim has also written about) would be a player State, but we know that won't happen.

And I think there's also a historical dimension related to the kinds of people that enter the mix as VWs go more mainstream. If there were better segregation by player tastes, many rules would not be needed. How I would have loved to play EQ on a server with people of roughly my own age and interests. If we follow things from LambdaMOO to SWG, you're getting a very different mix of folks. I mean, that's why democracy and governance are the way they are: they have to deal not only with us but also with the people who end up on those real-TV videotape shows. Human diversity in all its glory - often sufficient to break powerful states, more than enough to break an MMOG.

Posted Sep 29, 2004 10:17:41 PM | link

Tobold says:

> If only 2000 people play A Tale in the Desert, but come away with a profound experience that shapes their life in some way, compared to 250,000 players that grind away at the pre-determined levels of success in Everquest, not really "getting" anything in return except digital loot, which is the more important game?

Answer: Everquest.

Which is the same answer as I'd give to the question of whether "Harry Potter" is more important than Thoreau's "Walden". It is easy to see how the latter is more likely to be a "profound experience that shapes your life". But the former is "more important" due to it's much more shallow message being amplified not just linearly by the number of receivers, but exponentially through network effects. "Harry Potter" and "Everquest" are culture in the sense of popular culture, likely to have an influence on the life of many people. "Walden" and "ATITD" are "high culture", only having an influence on a small elite, but being totally un-important to the average person.

Posted Sep 30, 2004 2:03:19 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Brask> "I think a strong case could be made without resorting to instinct, but based solely on rationality. ... I would contend a hierarchy forms naturally among humans. ... This natural hierarchy is the hierarchy of respect."

Agreed on all counts, with the addition that hominids have been coming up with the answer of "hierarchical groups" to the question of "what gives me the best chance of survival?" for so long now that this reasoning has to some degree become innate.

But rationality is a double-edged sword. It can be used to decide in favor of hierarchy, but it also enables us to choose a different organization mode when the social environment changes. As our technology has advanced, our species has moved out of survival mode, with the result that hierarchy has over the past 200 years or so been losing its clear advantage over other organization modes.

So the situation we +have now is that while most people are still semi-programmed to think in terms of hierarchy, others realize that it's not as valuable as it once was and propose other organizational forms (including none at all). This gives us the classic squabbling between the forces of tradition and change.

Interestingly, even TN is susceptible to this question -- there's a "hierarchy of respect" here. Contributors with academic or professional credentials (i.e., they've actually created games or published useful papers about gaming) are assigned high directiveness (they can initiate threads, for example), while the wannabes, hangers-on, and occasional l33t interlopers are assigned low directiveness. (As you point out, however, these assignments might be altered or even reversed in other groupings.)

The fact that I'm allowed to post here at all tells me that TN's membership/leadership doesn't consider the group to be actively in "survival mode" -- if it were, there'd be even more hierarchicalism than there is. Instead, TN seems to have just enough hierarchy to survive as designed and achieve its mission without having so much hierarchy as to become unresponsive to its environment. Outsiders are permitted to participate, but they don't get to dictate the group's activity.

That seems like a pretty good survival strategy for a virtual community. Virtual worlds are probably similar enough to also benefit from this kind of design evaluation: there should be just enough hierarchy to ensure the capability of members to adapt productively to changes in the world environment, but no more.

--Flatfingers

Posted Sep 30, 2004 12:45:09 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

As an explorer/discovery-oriented MMOG player who often gets bored at a certain point, I'd say the issue is about the inflexibility and static structures in these worlds... I'm playing City of Heroes at the moment and was gung-ho for many weeks. But now, at level 24, I can suddenly see a long and rather boring road in front of me as I continue leveling, especially as each level takes progressively longer... And what's the pay-off? It was great when I was working towards my ability to fly or teleport... that significantly changed my experience of the gameplay. Or when I was working towards powers that made me a better team-mate... again changing my experience of play via the quality of my interactions with others.

But now after having seen much of the world and having experienced many of the missions, the game seems like it will suffer from a perennial sort of sameness... I want something different... I want more opportunities to explore, discover, experiment, create, experience... I don't want to sit down to play and be able to imagine exactly what I'll do, with whom and how... where's the fun in that? I'd begun to have that problem with a lot of games I sat down to play... they just seemed utterly predictable and not worth the time and effort I'd need to invest. For a while, MMOGs were the answer -- all those people introduced a kind of chaos that kept things interesting. But now they suffer from the same kind of predictability... I get on, look for a group, fight some missions, leave my group, find another group, fight some more missions... it's all very much the same after a while. That's what's making us feel like cogs doing a job, rather than delighted and thrilled by new and ever-evolving experiences...

I'd like to see massively multiplayer games with elements from old skool adventure games... where we can group together for collaborative monster hunting/puzzle solving/exploration instead of just grinding and fighting bad guys... I love those games when you're awake half the night trying to solve some puzzle or figure out what to do next... those are the games that really grab me and keep me coming back for more...

It all boils down to what types of game play players find appealing, and what kind of social interaction they crave... I suspect the market for virtual worlds will splinter into various types governed by what motivates various types of players... We're seeing it a bit already, but a lot of MMOGs are rooted in old video game paradigms. Still, this is typical of any new media type. It'll take a little bit of time for virtual worlds to find their own language...

Posted Oct 3, 2004 11:19:18 PM | link

Lee Altman says:

How can we create virtual worlds that free players from mindless repetition and excessive reliance on rule-based systems? We will see a true revolution in the MMO genre, when a developer finally creates a world where player-made content can evolve far beyond the building blocks offered by the developers.

Picture a virtual world where one source of status would be (gasp) creativity. The closest equivalent in today's MMO games is the "crafter," who creates items. Yet these people are not actually creative -- instead they are simply tolerant of an alternative crafting treadmill, which offers tradeskill for material investment, instead of levels for time spent killing.

Imagine a world where a "questgiver" could advance through the successful creation of content. As they prove their abilities, they would be offered more GM-style tools for creating stories and content. In such a system, the paid game staff would act as arbiters for the player-proposed content. If the system were designed well, the most creative players could rise to become "Oracles" or some such exalted title, capable of shaping the storyline in significant ways.

If such outlets for creativity were integrated with player-made political systems, the results could be amazing... The "Duchy of Narnia" might be known for having a creative questgiver, along with great crafters who offer superb rewards. Guilds/governments would compete for the allegiances of the most creative players in the game, who would give great prestige to their sponsors.

The revolution will happen, when a game emerges with a dual system of natural and player laws... If player creativity can be fostered and integrated with a robust political system, we will see the MMO genre turned on its head.

Posted Oct 4, 2004 11:39:07 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Lisa Galarneau> "As an explorer/discovery-oriented MMOG player who often gets bored at a certain point, I'd say the issue is about the inflexibility and static structures in these worlds ... I want something different... I want more opportunities to explore, discover, experiment, create, experience... I don't want to sit down to play and be able to imagine exactly what I'll do, with whom and how... where's the fun in that?"

Lee Altman> "Picture a virtual world where one source of status would be (gasp) creativity. The closest equivalent in today's MMO games is the 'crafter,' who creates items. Yet these people are not actually creative -- instead they are simply tolerant of an alternative crafting treadmill, which offers tradeskill for material investment, instead of levels for time spent killing."

As someone who regularly tests out at 100% Explorer, these concerns are at the top of my "annoy the developers" list, too.

OK -- manifesto time. *grin*

The most useful way I've found to think about the problem is to observe that it's a question of goal orientation. Specifically, crafting is too often implemented as result-oriented rather than as process-oriented.

Most developers (somewhat paradoxically, given their profession) apparently think of in-game abilities for creating objects as mere support features for other playstyles (particularly combat). If your goal as a designer is for crafters to support combat gameplay by producing weapons and ammo, then you'll tend to constrain your crafting model to make sure that enough weapons and ammo can be crafted to meet the expected demand. The process is just whatever supports predictability of result.

A crafting system produced from this perspective is one in which crafters are mere factory drones, valued only for how much product they can crank out. But that's exactly the kind of gameplay that creative players are trying to avoid!

The alternative is to think of crafting not in a result-oriented way but in a process-oriented way. The fun of making things is in the act of creation, not in the number of things that can be created. So the system of crafting designed for a game ought to be focused on making the process of crafting as interesting as possible.

If the results become slightly less predictable, that's a Good Thing! It means the crafter can be surprised... and that thrill of discovery is what Explorer players live for.

Here's a quick example from SWG. (I use SWG not to knock it -- its crafting system is actually quite good relative to other games -- but because it's the system I know best right now.)

The crafting system in SWG has an assembly phase and an experimentation phase. In assembly, you supply various natural resources and pre-crafted complex components to create the initial item. In the experimentation phase, you're able to improve some of the qualities of the assembled item.

This system is interesting for a while, but it soon palls because it's all about the result: the same resources always create exactly the same product; the same number of experimentation points successfully expended nearly always produce the same final qualities. (Weapon powerups are a notable but minor exception as crafters have no control over variation in powerup properties.) To insure the supply of undifferentiated items for other players, any chance of surprise is eliminated from crafting, and the process is reduced to being a mere clickathon.

A focus on process over result would change the assembly and experimentation phases to give players more options in how materials and their relationships affect the final product. For example, if using different types of natural resources resulted in products with different colors, sizes, shapes and other properties, crafters could be much more creative; their products could be made to be distinctive.

Even more interesting would be allowing players to specify how components in complex products could be connected, and letting those connection choices determine the positive and negative properties of the items experimented on. For example, if you hook A to B, you get a weapon with a higher rate of fire but which makes more noise (attracting more hostile NPCs); if you hook A to C, you get a weapon with a secondary fire mode that dramatically reduces the weapon's condition when used; and if you hook B to C, you get a silenced weapon with a very low rate of fire. The more components that are used to construct an object, and the more object properties that can be affected by resources used and component configurations, the more opportunities for creative gameplay a crafter would have.

Are there technical and economic ramifications to a game that features process-oriented crafting? Yes. Object distinctiveness chews up more database space, and more product differentiation would make finding certain objects more difficult. But these problems are not insurmountable -- the database impact of object distinctiveness can be mitigated by efficient class structures, and full-featured object searching tools allow players to find what they're looking for. IMO, such an exciting crafting process would draw enough players to offset the costs of supporting that process.

Ultimately, allowing controlled variation in results by offering more options in the actual process of crafting is worth having, not just in SWG but in most MMOGs. Designers need to stop thinking of crafter players merely as factory hands whose only function is to supply other players with necessary objects, and start thinking of them as inventors. It's not the result-driven satisfaction of acquiring crafted objects that motivates crafter-type players, but the creative, process-driven nature of invention.

Games that understand this motivation and appeal to it with appropriate features will attract and retain the most creative players.

--Flatfingers

Posted Oct 4, 2004 3:07:51 PM | link

mike darga says:

So true.

I also dream of a day that I can learn or improve real world "crafting" skills such as drawing, painting, sculpting, composing music, etc in a virtual world. It would require a human appraiser to judge the quality of items and set prices etc, but that sort of twofold payoff on time investment (realworld progression and ingame progression) would be extremely enticing.

Posted Oct 4, 2004 6:00:53 PM | link

Mike Rozak says:

Since the last few posts have been about making crafting fun (related to constraints in a VW), I'll throw in my two cents...

What I find enjoyable about crafting (on a computer, or RL painting, etc.) is a) the ability to build what I want, b) the ability to learn a skill as opposed to one's characters learning a skill, and c) enjoying the result (usually with other people).

As stated previously, current VW crafting systems don't really solve these issues since VW crafting is more like manufacturing, which is fairly boring.

Second Life crafting does making the activity fun, letting the player do modelling, texturing, and script writing. (I haven't played SL, but I do the same activities in RL.)

However, SL crafting results in so much freedom that a standard MMORPG world cannot be built on top of it; players will use their custom modelling, texturing, and scripting for exploits and griefing. It seems that, a world with free-form crafting turns into SL (or a moo where all users have builder priveledges), while eliminating free-form crafting produces a typical MMORPG/MUD.

Is there any way to produce something in-between?

For example: Letting players hand-texture their clothes and character's face won't affect gameplay. (It will cause customer support problems with all the swear-words written on clothes.)

For example: Could players be able to customize an object's model? How many polygons do you limit it to? How much do you allow a character's axe to differ from a standard-looking axe? (Otherwise an axe will be designed to look like a flower.)

For example: Is there anywhere that characters can write script and have fun with that? Certainly not in a weapon's ability, since it's very easy to break game-balance and introduce exploits. What about with a henchman's or pet's AI? That might work. In the 1980's there was a fun game called Robot Wars which allowed AIs to compete.

Posted Oct 4, 2004 7:09:13 PM | link

Lee Altman says:

I remember "Robot Wars" too, played it on my Mac IIci. If you enjoyed it, you should check out "Droid Wars" over at Skotos: http://www.skotos.net/games/droid/. You can design robots and program them using a script language.

As for integrating AI into MMO games, the complaints would be server-side. If players could be running thousands of simultaneous AI scripts for pets/NPCs, theoretically this could cause a huge load on the servers. Unless it were possible to offload that processing, simply by passing off the AI script to the client...

Droid Wars allows players to buy AI scripts, pre-programmed. An interesting system might allow players to design scripts and submit them for approval by devs. If a script is approved, it would become available for sale in-game, and the player could gain fame/experience for the successful design.

Unfortunately in our current crop of MMO games, "customer service" is limited to true support tasks (i.e. get me out of this tree! or help this guy is griefing me!), rather than enabling and progressing player creativity.

Finally to Mike Rozak, would "A Tale in the Desert" qualify as "something in-between"? ATID features pseudo-free-form crafting and some forms of competition. It's more structured than Second Life, but allows far more creativity than your hack/slash MMO games. While I have only played a small amount of ATID, it may be the most innovative virtual gaming world I have seen.

Posted Oct 5, 2004 8:13:11 AM | link

Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz says:

Timothy Burke> “Why can’t players be more free in virtual worlds” ?

Bruce Boston> "Today’s MMO Players want more rules."

This discussion reminded me of a quote that I'd read recently by former Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff in a lecture titled "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law" and delivered at Duke University in 1979.

" I want to believe --and so do you-- in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe --and so do you-- in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it."

Though delivered with no thought for online communities, the quote seemed to me to be appropriate to this discussion.

--Phin

Posted Oct 12, 2004 5:37:45 PM | link

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Posted Mar 27, 2006 7:18:57 PM | link