December 2004 | Main Page | February 2005

A Theory of Fun (The Art of War)

There are many online discussions regarding Raph Koster's Theory of Fun ("ToF", e.g. 1., 2., 3., 4.,5.) .   It is an insightful read from a thoughtful industry insider, and equally notable, it is  provocative  for the questions it raises. 

As this is not  a review proper,  consider  Nick's review at Grand Text Auto as a good starting point. 

My first reaction to ToF harkens to this exchange from Nick's review: "fun itself is “the act of mastering a problem mentally,” (p. 90) and " distinct from aesthetic appreciation, physical effort and mastery, and social actions."  In a way this reaches to an earlier TN musing (Nouns and Verbs...) of a process-centric bias in game design nomenclature.   On page 166 of ToF states:

"The best test of a game's fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing.   If that is fun, then everything else will serve to focus, refine, empower, and magnify.  But all the dressing in the world can't change iceberg lettuce into roast turkey." 

To me, however, this proposition feels like a cookie-cutter with acute corners.  Perhaps, it is due to what I perceive to be a process view of fun that discounts the aesthetic weight of the "game world nouns" themselves.  Is exploration in virtual worlds fun because of the process of search or because of the delight of discoveries?    In Raph's words on page 95 "people often take DELIGHT in things that are not challenges."   Yet if "(d)elight, unfortunately, doesn't last (94)" does that necessarily mean, that its only process that can hold it all together?   Just questions.

One  quibble I  have with ToF revolves around subsumption of what should be (IMO) a "first-class" discussion onto itself within a larger "ethics" grab-bag in chapter 10.  On page 112, we read:   "Cheating is a long-standing tradition in warfare (steal a march, attack by night...)...  'If you cannot choose the battle, at least choose the battlefield'...  When a player cheats in a game, they are choosing a battlefield that is broader in context than the game itself... Cheating is a sign that the player is in fact grokking the game."

The battlefield metaphor is an interesting one... and if I may indulge a drifting thought on this fine Sunday, Koster's discussion vaguely implicates (though if you believe this analogy, derives the wrong lessons from) the "Least Effort Warfare" model employed by the Italian condotteieri in the fifteenth century (e.g. see: Archer Jones' "The Art of War in the Western World").  There we found employed by the Italian micro states highly professional mercenary armies who perfected a method of warfare by which they sought to minimize casualties (on either side): e.g. if one side clearly has "won" on the field through better maneuver etc., why fight it out - just conceed, try it again another year.  Another game of a sort.

However, for the "scientific method" of warfare to work requires agreed-upon rules of conduct by all parties: "cheating", e.g. the sort resulting in mass casualties, had to be minimized.  There was incentive by all parties not to reach beyond those rules (mercenaries didn't like to die in the course of their work, the Italian states didn't want disruptions to trade).  And so, we're back to Koster's point about esculation:  if play must culminate in cheating once grokked... it sounds to me that play as defined is not sufficient.   I wonder, and would like to know more.

The other matter about the battlefield metaphor goes back to the question about process fixation:   should all virtual worlds, or games more broadly for that matter, look war-like, dog-like and all?   Are we, all players, mercenaries, and don't the dandelions along the way count for something?

[also, Gamasutra (12/03/2004)  book excerpt (free registration req'd)]

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Virtual Magic Kingdom: It’s a Virtual World After All

Many Terra Nova readers have no doubt already heard about the impending launch of Disney’s “Virtual Magic Kingdom,” which will (re)construct several popular theme park attractions like the Haunted House and Space Mountain in a virtual MMOG environment.  This is a promotional project with the specific goal of motivating increased visits to Disney theme parks.

Naturally Ian Bogost at Watercooler Games was all over the Virtual Magic Kingdom announcement weeks ago, noting its indisputable status as high order simulation. Simulacra of simulacra.  Paging Dr. Baudrillard!  So far, less academic reactions to the Virtual Magic Kingdom have focused exclusively on the advergaming angle with the predictable controversy that accompanies any project involving games as marketing tools, especially when targeted to children.  It is unclear whether Virtual Magic Kingdom will contain blatant pitches for Disney-branded products, but from the information currently available it seems like the focus is exclusively on promoting the parks themselves, with some interesting online/offline tie-ins.  For example, kids can earn online points within Virtual Magic Kingdom that can be redeemed for head-of-the-line passes and t-shirts at a Real Magic Kingdom.  According to Ad Week, kids at the park sites can also win virtual items for their avatars. 

A few years ago I presented a paper about themes of tourism and photography in virtual worlds at a conference for Sheffield, UK-based Centre for Tourism and Culture Change.  The other conference participants hadn’t had much exposure to virtual worlds, and were intrigued by the slides I showed them of various avatars posing for “tourist photos” (screenshots) in front of virtual replicas of Egyptian pyramids and the Statue of Liberty, but some expressed concern that virtual tourist attractions might somehow replace the real sites upon which they were based.  I told them that in fact I believed precisely the opposite was true – virtual tourist experiences would be more likely to encourage RL visits to these places.  If nothing else, Virtual Magic Kingdom will be a large-scale test of this claim.

So say it works like a charm. Say kids are so inspired by their Virtual Magic Kingdom experience that they manage to convince mom and dad to book that flight to Orlando or Anaheim for this year’s family vacation.  Once they get there, how will their online experiences shape their offline experiences and vice-versa?  This is where it really gets interesting, IMO.

One thing I like about the concept of a Virtual Magic Kingdom is that it has the potential to offer kids a more active/interactive experience.  My memories of visiting Disney theme parks as a child include waiting on long lines, sitting in various moving trolleys and boats, being told to keep my hands and feet inside the vehicle, and passively consuming various theatrical, animatronic shows.  Sure it was fun, but it didn’t necessarily require my active engagement with any of the performances.  My childhood memories of Disney theme park visits are a sharp contrast to Mizuko Ito’s descriptions of the “media mixes” children experience today in their engagement with anime franchises like Yu-gi-oh! and Pokemon: 

These media mixes challenge our ideas of childhood agency and the passivity of media consumption, highlighting the active, entrepreneurial, and technologized aspects of children’s engagement with popular culture.

While the Virtual Magic Kingdom will offer a somewhat more individualized, interactive approach to the same thematic material covered in their theme parks, I wonder just how far they’ll be willing to take it.  Will kids be able to make any sort of creative contributions to Virtual Magic Kingdom or will it just be a more accessible, game-themed translation of theme park material?  Will this do anything to help change the Disney theme park experience itself from passive to active?  If Virtual Magic Kingdom is a smash hit precisely because of the new interactive element, could it ironically backfire as a longer-term promotional effort when the corresponding RL experience doesn’t allow the same level of interactivity?   

In a USA Today article about Virtual Magic Kingdom, Jay Rasulo, the president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts is quoted as saying, “We hope it becomes a real hangout for preteens and teens.” (emphasis mine).   Interesting usage of the word real.  It reminds me of Coca-Cola’s use of “make it real” as a tagline for its own promotional teen virtual world.  This is surely more proof that the line between virtual and real is becoming extremely fuzzy nowadays, particularly for the under-18 crowd.  Changing realities indeed. 

One more thought. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Rasulo.  Kids and teens visiting a theme park for a day or two with parental supervision is one thing, but kids and teens “hanging out” regularly in a virtual world, presumably without constant parental accompaniment is quite another.  Something tells me they may not always keep their hand and feet inside their virtual vehicles.

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Sex 101

Finally (in this flurry of post-age), GGA has a bit on Sociolotron, the visual alternative to cybering.  Coincidentally, Wired has a bit on them too.  Games like this have been around for a while, and there's not much new to report.  But it's been a while since we talked about sex and VWs.  Thoughts?

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Advertising 101

Second up, the announcement of the inaugural Advertising in Games Forum is attracting some attention. Game Girl Advance is not crazy about what this means for the future of games.

Like I said in the previous post, I haven't thought enough about this question yet to have a good response to GGA, but I do have some underformed impressions. First, if nothing else the existence of this conference has got to be a indication that games (and especially MMOGs) have passed a certain inflection point. Advertisers and marketers are starting to take notice, and this leads to a particular type of capital influx, and therefore certain value propositions in the long term. Which means that games will start to resemble the real world more and more: there is already a strong marketing overtone to most modern-era games, and no doubt soon we will see billboards the size of skyscrapers gracing MMOGs. I wonder if I can get a patent on a means of putting "Your Advertisement Here" on my chainmail breastplate? Ah, I smell lawsuits...

I guess it doesn't have to be like this. You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist to lament the passing of a simpler, less commodified age within these worlds. But another blog entry made me feel positive about this trend: the street art of Banksy and Blek le Rat have found their way into Counterstrike. I don't know what this presages, but I suspect that we can anticipate vandalism and civil disobediance within worlds that get the balance wrong.

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Critiquing Crawford

Chris Crawford was kind enough to send over a review copy of "Chris Crawford On Interactive Storytelling." Between State of Play 2, Accelerating Change, my own writing tasks, and Second Life, reading his book kept getting pushed down the stack, but I've finally had a chance to read it. I disagree with Chris on several points, but I still quite enjoyed it. I also appreciate his zeal in blazing his own path.

Read on for the ups and downs of "On Interactive Storytelling."

First and foremost, I am very much from the school of "Story? Who gives a rat's ass about the story??" school of game design. If it isn't fun when hacked up with blue squares, grafting buzzword-enabled graphics and having Claudia Christian doing the voice acting isn't going to make it fun. Neither Magic: the Gathering -- Armageddon, Road Rash 64, nor Second Life have any story to speak of. So, at first blush, I seem like the wrong market for his book. As such, I was pleasantly reminded that Chris is way too good of a game designer to avoid teaching you something every time he writes.

His book opens with a discussions of interactivity, verb thinking, and the interrelation of storytelling and culture. Small quibbles aside, these opening chapters are full of useful information, especially about the storytelling focus ("It's about people, stupid!"), place (stories occur on stages, not maps), time, choices, spectacle and a nice rant against the "tyranny of the visual." He moves on to discuss interactivity ("A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks.") and how it factors into human cognition. This section in particular should be read and understood by all game designers.

At this point, the book finally introduces interactive storytelling as a distant cousin of games, books and movies. He goes to great lengths to explain why interactive storytelling won't (can't) evolve from any of these other art forms, focusing in on the tensions between plot and interactivity. In particular, he correctly points out that many apparently interactive forms don't actually allow the player any choices and that true interactive storytelling needs to allow the player many closely balanced decisions.

His next sections attempt to explain why interactive storytelling attempts have failed, focusing first on the fact that programmers are lousy storytellers and most storytellers are lousy programmers. I think that he spends too much time here -- and that there are simpler explanations related to content creation and the inability to handle realistic grammars -- and we all know exceptions to his rule. Fortunately, he follows with a wonderful section on simple strategies that fail. I found this section especially interesting since many of these approaches are also responsible for skyrocketing game development costs.

He then discussed several strategies that might work, including data and language driven models. Again, these discussions apply equally well to any game design and are quite informative. Like the rest of his book, he does an excellent job of providing citations and resources so that the reader is able to explore these concepts more fully. His focus on visual languages, and the inverse parsing he uses to make an effective user interface, are extremely thought provoking. Finally, his personality model section is an excellent introduction to building a personality UI. Great breakdown and discussions.

The last third of the book details his experiences and techniques in building the Erasmatron, his interactive storytelling engine. While technically interesting, I found these portions to be less useful.

Where I disagree with Chris is the overall approach to building interactive storytelling. Given experiences with simulation and user creation, it seems to me that you might be more able to create "interactive storytelling" by expanding something like Grand Theft Auto to allow a wider array of choices. Alternately, users could be recruited (a la The Diamond Age) to create a truly interactive experience without having to build believable AIs. I also think that place and display is an important component and that a truly interactive story would be better in a 3D environment that as text.

However, I hope that Chris continues to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling. Much like the relationship between MUDs and modern online games, text-based interactive stories can explore design spaces and conduct experiments that aren't happening in mainstream games, which is very good for all games!

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Economics 101

There is so much VW/MMOG discussion in the blogosphere today that I can't begin to make sense of it all. So I figured I'd spew out some placeholders for others to follow up on. First up:

The Economist has a short piece on game economics (subscription required), with the obligatory quotes from Ted. Best discussion on this is probably happening over at Crooked Timber, lead by the genuinely marvellous John Quiggin (whom I admire not just because he's Australian (like me) but who, alas, mispells Ted's surname).

We've done a lot on this before, so I won't make any comments here. They have some active comments running at the moment.

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Will The Real Explorer Please Stand Up?

There is an ongoing discussion at another thread about how Thottbot impacts Explorers. While several people identify as being an Explorer, and others talk about what an Explorer is, it's not clear whether everyone is talking about the same thing

Bartle's original definition in his paper was:

[Explorers] try to find out as much as they can about the virtual world. Although initially this means mapping its topology (ie. exploring the MUD's breadth), later it advances to experimentation with its physics (ie. exploring the MUD's depth).

[Aside: Bartle's Test (not made by Bartle) creates the illusion of identifiable types because of the dichotomous forced-choice format and isn't relevant to our discussion here of what an Explorer is. If I ask you whether you like poison or spinach over and over again, just because you keep picking spinach doesn't actually mean you like spinach at all.]

A few people commented on the "cartographer"/"loremaster" aspect of the Explorer:

Some "explorers" come to a game, map it out, put the map on the web, then quit.

- Ola Forsheim

Being able to find rare creatures, or to quickly get from one location to another in short time, is the type of thing that has hitherto been the Explorer player's small prize for his unusual playstyle.

- Grax

But most seemed to agree more with Dave Rickey's "Analyst" portrayal of the Explorer, and that this was the more pure Explorer type:

Most "explorers" are more interested in the underlying rules of the system from what I have seen.

- Dave Rickey

Flatfingers elaborated on the "analyst" motivation, and implied that "cartographers"/"loremasters" weren't the real Explorers:

My personal belief is that Explorers are less interested in cataloging raw data (which anyone can do) than in revealing hidden patterns in data. The developer who interprets "exploring" as some literal walking around physical space to visit a new location has misunderstood what it means to be an Explorer …  Explorers feel satisfaction when they can move from the specific to the general.

- Flatfingers

This got more complicated when others suggested that Explorers do what they do to gain a competitive edge:

When information is a rare commodity, investing time and energy into gathering valuable information (which might give a competitive advantage) would seem to be another player metric of achievement ... It would seem to be harmful to explorers only to the extent that obscure knowledge might give a competitive advantage over those who lack it.

- Barry Kearns

The problem with this portrayal, as Michael Hartman pointed out, is that:

Such a person is *NOT* an explorer then. That is an achiever.

- Michael Hartman

Everyone seems to know what an explorer is. The problem is that they don't agree with each other. Here's what I know from data from online surveys of MMORPG players.

1) "Cartographers" are not correlated with "Analysts". Responses to the following two statements are not strongly correlated. In other words, they are different kinds of people altogether.

- How much do you enjoy knowing as much about the game mechanics and rules as possible?
- How much do you enjoy exploring every map or zone in the world?

2) The "Analyst" type however is highly correlated with the Achievement motivation. So the "game mechanics" question above correlates highly (r = .46) with the aggregate of these statements:

- Leveling up your character as fast as possible.
- Acquiring rare items that most players will never have.
- Becoming powerful.
- Accumulating resources, items or money.

In other words, people who enjoy learning about the game mechanics are largely also your typical Achievers. So the real question seems to be whether Explorers are really a sort of Achievers.

Then the question is whether current MMORPGs have driven away all the real Explorers, or whether game designs always embed exploration within the context of achievement and make it difficult to tease these two motivations apart. Or is it the case that all Achievers are inherently Explorers. After all, no one else is as interested in whether dual-wielding outperforms two-handed weapons. And isn't that what it means to understand the underlying rules, and moving from the specifics to the general?

But if Achievers are usually "Analyst"-style Explorers (the min-maxers), then ... who are the real Explorers? Does it make sense to have a separate Explorer type if it overlaps so much with Achievers? Or maybe the Cartographers are the real Explorers?

If you feel that a pure Explorer type does exist - What are statements I could include in future surveys that would identify Explorers? What are statements that Explorers would agree with that Achievers would never agree with? What sets Explorers apart?

[Another Aside: Bartle doesn't advocate strict "Types" as others pointed out in the other thread, but the Type model assumes a primary motivation. I prefer a Scores model where every player has a score for every motivation and where having a high score in one motivation doesn't mean you also can't score high in another motivation (which Bartle's Test [not created  by Bartle] assumes). This would allow more interesting combinational outcomes - so a guild leader is someone who scores high on Socializing and Achieving, a min-maxer is someone who scores high on Achieving and Exploring. I feel that using the Types framework prevents us from discussing how motivations combine and interact to create the range of roles that people choose in MMORPGs.]

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In da hood

TN readers will no doubt be aware that 404 games are working on a ‘hip-hop’ MMO. The list of collaborators is starting to read like a who’s who of rap and now includes DJ Pooh a.k.a Mark Jordan “writer” of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

I started to imagine role playing a character like the one that I play GTA:SA, this immediately started to make me wonder about the idea of what one might call “race-bending”.

That is, while I’ve been known to gender-bend in SWG and the like, and it’s common to species-bend in EQ etc., race is so highly politicised that very idea of a middle class, middle age, British, white guy like me role playing a young American black person (especially in an ‘urban’ gang context where race is often foregrounded in media coverage) bristles with problematic issues.

One is language.

Is it OK for me to use common street US vernacular in this context or is that hate speech? What if you actually are a young black American does a developer have the right to restrict your language?

As we recently saw in the The Trader Malaki incident - virtual sexism, even in the service of plot progression, can be construed as indistinguishable from actual sexism – so does the same apply in the virtual hood?

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Do You Trust Me?

Power, information, and trust frequently trade-off in interesting ways in virtual (as well as real) spaces. 

For example, consider an MMOG universe, say Eve-Online, where I have a battleship and my buddies are arrayed, lurking.  Say, we are dripping with drones and missles... and lo, a lone Industrial ("Indy") drops out of warp onto our lap, plump with minerals from "0.0."    Suppose I  open  a line to that Indy and say "dude! (what is safe passage worth to you... ref: Piracy in Eve-Online)."  Odds are that I would care far less than the Indy pilot whether he was paying attention, was able to speak my dialect of dude, or was out of the bathroom.  He would, in contrast, want to find out "darn quick" what the terms of my offer were.  In other words, the transmitted information would be worth more to him than to me.  But what about the trust side of the ledger?  Should we come to terms, I would need to trust him far less to uphold his end of a deal than he would need to trust me.   I have power, he doesn't, trust in the medium is less important to me than to him.

That the weaker agent has less control, and hence must rely on trust to a greater extent is no surprise.   In fact, from a communication concept of trust, Ed Gerck (Trust as Qualified Reliance on Information) makes the point that absolute power can mitigate the need for trust, absolutely.  An  important property of trust from this perspective is that while it is essential to the information channel, it cannot be transferred via that same channel.   So for example, while I can communicate to the victim in the above example my demands, I cannot also communicate to him to "trust me",  for I could be lying.  That has to happen somewhere else, somehow else.

This analogy is less forgiving of the possibility of "the persuasion of strangers" - it happens all the time.  But let's discount this as  a definitional distinction:  gullibility is not a synonym for trust as it is used here.  Interestingly, again from a communications bent,  Ed frames the trust question in terms of:

  • "information is what you do not expect"
  • "trust is what you know"

In  the earlier Eve-Online ambush example,  *information* applies to the trap as well as the terms of passage.   Whereas *trust*  is with respect  to a deeper estimate of the ambusher's commitment to the bargain.    In the end the victim will arrive at a judgement by either recalling me explicitly, or my corporation by reputation, or infer a belief from past experience or imagined fears.  The important point is that this knowledge  (loosely used)  is developed outside  of the  encounter.

One implication for virtual worlds may go  to the heart of avatar swagger: all things being equal, more powerful characters can be less trusting of the world around them than the weaker.   This introduces an  interesting set of trust asymmetries that are not driven by individual concerns, reputation or history, etc.,  but by world rules itself.  For examplel, noobs are designed to be paranoid.

Another implication is that it suggests that more casual game worlds based on short play cycles with highly transient social experiences are inherently less trustworthy than, say more world-y ones with deeper social network systems.

Wouldn't it be nice to go somewhere and have everyone know your name  and to trust someone.

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Rules & Borders

Santa Clara University School of Law is hosting Rules & Borders: Regulating Digital Environments on February 11th.    It looks like a good mix of industry folks, law professors, and legal practitioners.  The panel topics look very interesting--of special note is the "Ownership in Online Worlds" panel, which will be moderated by Professor Tyler Ochoa.   

The description of the panel reads:

Online worlds are becoming more immersive and individuals are being invited to participate more fully in these worlds. They are being given more and more individual choices, the ability to interact more fully, and creating lasting social interactions. Should intangible objects acquired in these worlds be treated as personal property? Should individuals maintain their personal rights while present in online worlds?

Other panels will cover Digital Actors and Locations, Future of Technology: Licensing and Usability, and Regulating Content.  The last will touch on virtual world speech regulation. 

Wendy Seltzer of the EFF, previously mentioned in relation to the Marvel/NCSoft suit, will be giving a lunchtime presentation.

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Automated Expertise Management

If you play WoW and have never used, you should stop whatever you're doing and check out Thottbot. But regardless of whether you play WoW, anyone interested in online communities should be fascinated with what Thottbot is doing.

At first glance, Thottbot looks like a normal third-party MMORPG information site. Try searching for "Fiery Enchantments" - a lvl 42 quest in the game. Thottbot has the details of the quest stored. But imagine I just picked up this quest and I don't know where these "dragon whelps" are that drop the "black drake's heart". If I follow the "black drake heart" link, Thottbot shows me all the mobs that drop it, their level ranges, and most importantly where to find them. Click on the "map" link next to the lvl 41 Scalding Whelp. Thottbot dynamically generates a map of the zone where these mobs are found and their spawn range. All items, quests, mobs and maps are cross-referenced in Thottbot.

Now, you might think that Thottbot has this information because of constant submissions from good-hearted players (which is how other sites do it), but that's not what's happening. There is a free custom GUI called Cosmos which allows customized toolbars as well as mods that add functionality. Of interest to us here is that Cosmos also sends information (optional) to the Thottbot database from every player who uses it. Every mob, item, quest and player character that is encountered has their stats and location tracked and sent to Thottbot automatically.

In other words, the expertise of individual players is automatically tracked, stored and shared by the system. More importantly, the aggregation of their expertise allows the discovery of what would otherwise be hard to know - the spawning ranges of mobs, the drop rates of rare and uncommon items, and so on.

You may argue that this is the same thing as Google, but Google requires deliberate, articulated knowledge (webpages) whereas Thottbot automatically tracks behaviors. Also, while Google can pagerank according to links, it can't aggregate knowledge to produce meta-knowledge (drop rates, spawn ranges, etc.) that require the correct aggregation of incoming data.

Contemporary work is becoming more and more about information manipulation, but information management is still an incredibly difficult thing to do in large corporations or academic institutions. Thottbot gives us a glimpse of a world where expertise can be seamlessly transferred - without needing to articulate our knowledge, without needing to track down experts, and being able to find the bigger picture even if we only have a small piece of information.

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State of Play 1

The New York Law School Review has published a bunch of papers from State of Play 1 in its latest issue. These are the formal, edited versions of the discussion papers, although there is some new stuff there.


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Buy the Farm

GoldfarmRich Thurman, at one time possibly the biggest gold farmer in Ultima Online, ICQ’d me the other day to let me know it’s all over. He’s moving on and – in the hallowed tradition of MMORPG liquidators everywhere – putting his famous automated gold farm (pictured left) up for auction on eBay. No, the machines don’t come bundled with the gold-harvesting uber-macros he wrote for them, so don’t go getting ideas. But if you want a piece of virtual-world history, make your bid. And if you want a rare first-person glimpse into the world of the hardcore farmer, check out Rich’s farewell confessional to the UO community, in which we learn of high-tech hacks for dodging GMs, mob wars between competing bot-runners, and the curiously ludic motivations of at least one unrepentant exploiter. It can now be revealed, as well, that virtual crime pays: Rich claims to have produced and sold over 9 billion gold pieces in two years, for a total rake of about $106,000, all while holding down a respectable day job as a software consultant and putting in quality time with his wife and three kids.

What then to say? As Brian Sutton-Smith and others have pointed out, the hard distinction drawn between work and play is a peculiarly Western and modern one. I would further argue that computer networks in particular and the drift of modern capitalism in general are working hard to collapse that distinction throughout our culture, and I’ve been trying for months to find the right words to make that case (for my latest effort, see this essaylet I just submitted for publication in the German art magazine Kunstforum). But for now, I think Rich’s story says it all a lot better than I’ve managed to.

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Meet Mr January


Yes, There have a 2005 staff calendar available via café press.

Mr January is friend-of-the-show Bruce Boston.

For once, I think I’m lost of words.

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Toward A Cheater Predictor

[Ed: Posted on behalf of David Reim,]

I imagine that most mmog, VW, and online game companies would agree that cheaters aren’t welcome. The definition of what constitutes a “cheater” is an essay in itself, but for this thread let’s focus on the cheaters who can be characterized as premeditative, chronic, and self-aware (i.e., “I’m going to do this; I’ll do it again if I get a chance; I know that it is cheating.”). The effect of this type of cheating ranges from disruption in game play issues to the infrastructure exploitation (and potential damage) that can be characterized as hacking. Since this is an industry-wide problem, it seems to me that there might be an industry-wide interest it advancing our understanding of these issues. And, I believe that our academic brethren might be in the best position to get the ball rolling on addressing these challenges.

As in all issues of security, it seems like the problem can roughly be divided into two parts: preventing it and responding to it. In my humble opinion, it would be a fascinating exercise to define the online cheater, construct a taxonomy of known methods, and develop a comprehensive approach to minimizing this element of the gaming world (even if it’s theoretical at this point). Perhaps some graduate student wasting away her days playing a mmog while she tries to think up a dissertation topic will step up to the challenge. ;-)

Without making this post to long, I would like to mention one interesting area of this problem. With no academic research or theory to back up this statement, my guess is that the online game cheater probably has personality “markers” that can be screened for. If so, a good study would produce 4 to 6 questions that have a certain percentage chance of predicting a cheater personality. There are proof points in a wide variety of similar non-gaming issues ranging from loan applications to medication compliance. Now what is done with such a screener is a whole other topic but again, perhaps constructing this model is a challenge for our academic colleagues.

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Mobile MMOs

There is a good read over on the Guardian site about Era of Eidolon - a new development in MMO(RPG) and mobile gaming:

Danish developer Watagame has managed to produce a massively multiplayer RPG with a persistent online world and over 10,000 subscribers throughout Europe. What’s more, Era of Eidolon can be downloaded to an array of current Java phones and takes up less than 100k of space. And it has a soundtrack composed by C64 legend Rob Hubbard ...Currently, Eidolon revolves entirely around a simple but compelling turn-based combat system. You fight, you upgrade your character, you fight again.

A while back, I mused (albeit glibly) whether wireless will be an empowering opportunity in MMO design.  No doubts yet.   It is just when I look at this cutting edge through the prism of 100k memory and a small cell screen - as impressive a technical feat it is, it is, to my view,  a virtual worlds disappointment. 

Perhaps we just need more patience, time to get used to a new MMO genre on platforms with different strengths and weaknesses and time for new innovations in game design to emerge.    Anyway, *if* world-y worlds are waning on desktops, why should there not then be terse game-y places on these highly resource-constrained platforms?

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You deleted my what!

In a digital twist on the idea of a ex-lover cutting up one’s clothes before leaving, a story is doing the rounds that suggests that a woman “deleted” her ex-lover’s Lineage items, weapons and clothes. According to the stories she has been arrested for unauthorised access to the account and has admitted the crime.

I don’t know what the connection is but the last story about virtual crime that I remember also involved the Toyama prefectural police dept.

Quick though: It makes ATITDs Test of Marriage seem all the more interesting.

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Into the woods

Into the woods,
Without delay,
But careful not
To lose the way

Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on
the journey?

“Into the woods” Stephen Sondheim

If you do venture into the deep dark woods what duty of care to you have for others in your party – especially those that are AFK but soaking upthe XP?

This tale sent to us by Mike Cox might be a salutary lesson for all.

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So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

I only made 1 prediction last year: that going to the Austin Games Conference might prove to be the most worthwhile thing I've done all year, but I turned out to be 100% correct. After the amazing TN dinner, Cory and I spent the next few months firing e-mails back and forth and the upshot is that I have left Climax, founded Digital World Developments and I'm now working on Second Life.

I'm really thrilled to have the chance to work on SL as it's exactly what I was imagining when I was working on collaborative virtual environments in CRG. The first time I visited a sandbox in SL I was immediately reminded of the collaborative creation experiments I ran in 2000. I've finally got round to uploading some video of the experiments so you can see what I mean (you can tell it's turn of the century footage by my original IDM soundtrack!).

The only cloud around this silver lining is that if Cory and I were both writing on TN the blog might give the impression of commercial capture and to be honest I have found it really hard not to gush about SL over the past few months. So, in the interests of impartiality, I'm going to step down. I've had a really great time writing on TN, but I'm quite happy to rejoin the honourable ranks of the TN commentators. If I get a really strong urge to brain fart I'll start a shiny new SL blog while I'm in exile and might even talk about tech, game design and gush about SL.

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One Careful Owner

Unlike most of the eBay auctions we talk about, this one is for some very real, very big iron. Following the cancellation of Wish, the hardware that was going to support 10,000 players in a single world is now up for auction. So, if you want to, for example, build a virtual world which supports 10,000 players, this could be just what you need.

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Dangerous Code?

If Law is Code, then too is it a critical point of intersection between our virtual and real lives.  Yet, these software and hardware edges are combat zones.  Hackers, scripters, on the one side, on the other, developers and their supporting cohorts.  It is an important struggle that goes to the heart of the integrity of our worlds.   On the one hand exploits unchecked can topple our virtual cathederals.   On the other hand, sometimes the solutions ask compromises from us.  When is the cure worse than the disease? 

We thank Sean Meadows for bringing to our attention  an interesting turn in this struggle involving NCSoft and some of  their games...

It would seem that we, as  players, as  elves, as superheros, or rogues - or whatever your vocation - are in the midst of a vast co-evolutionary struggle. 

The use by game developers of specialized software products to monitor and protect game clients on the surface seems a natural development.  NCSoft's purported  use of such a system  (see BUGTRAQ citation below)  appears as one example.  The product  manufacturer in this case claims the following benefits:

"Malicious code diagnosis and blocking... Blocks Auto-mouse and Macro program... Blocks access and manipulation atempts to the game client... Self protection of security module... Detects Speed hack... Optimized CPU occupancy rate"

Because of the nature of the attacks this product guards against and the design of how it is to be integrated with client software,  its solution necessitates a substantial and intrusive reach into the host computer system.  Ryu Conner asserts that this reach may be dangerous (via this BUGTRAQ report).  What of the larger implications?

That there are barbarians pounding the virtual gates is no suprise.  Consider, for example, a forum post (below) with its claimed  instruction on how to (partially) circumvent the cited product.  The depth of detail deployed on both sides implies the sophistication:

Tweaked gunbot !!
Hey'a, i was bored this afternoon, so i decied to do some testing stuff. Ive added some professional encryption and protection tools to the newest (and cracked) gunbot, since im to lazy for search the original one, and im just wanna know if it works normally. If works, if the releasers want to, they can give me the original proggy and il add encryption to the proggy making much more harder to gis team patch it. Since im on win me, i dont know if works.

ohhh, i was almost forgetting it, i was looking the nprotect files, and ive just found out that gunbound.gme has a software protection called "ACProtector", i guess that is this that make gunbound.gme "hide" itself after a while and other stuff, and "gameguard.des" has an packer named "UPX", "gamemon.des" has also the upx protection, file "npggNT.des" has upx.., file "npgmup.des" also have the upx protection, file "" has upx protection, file "npsc.des" also have upx..., and FINALLY "NPSCAN.DES" has a protection called "PE Compact". so, if u wanna make a bypass, first u gotta kill ALL those protections.

If the moorings of the virtual to the physical world becomes messy and expensive, this could sour the economics of deploying these worlds in configurations and platforms that are multi-purpose and familiar to us today.  That would be a shame. 

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Terra Nova Welcomes Dmitri Williams

We'd like to welcome Dmitri Williams to the merry Terra Nova hivemind.  Dmitri is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He studies online behavior from a communication theory point of view.  While this means he's done some aggression work, his primary interests are the social impacts of online games and virtual communities (check out his two current courses here).   His publication list is impressive and extensive (available here) and Ren even blogged about his dissertation here a while back.   But his real credential is his level 48 gnome rogue on the WoW Illidan server that stalks n00bie g4nk3rs...

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Changing Realities

Given that all the cool kids have whitepapers published by The Themis Group, I was excited by the opportunity to do one of my own. "Changing Realities" (released under a Creative Commons license) expands upon the topics I spoke on at my Accelerating Change keynote, exploring the interaction of digital worlds with ownership and innovation. It was a difficult project, but the process has really clarified my own thinking on these topics.


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Marvel & NCSoft Update

CohAs we have noted here before, Marvel has filed a lawsuit against NCSoft and Cryptic Studios based upon claims that City of Heroes infringes Marvel's intellectual property.   NCSoft has now retained Cooley Godward LLP and last Monday filed a Motion to Dismiss in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

The motion is made pursuant to the federal rule that allows a defendant to terminate a case where the plaintiff fails to allege facts that would support legal claims justifying further proceedings.  Generally, the short memoranda that accompany these sorts of motions do their best to persuade the reader (the judge) that the suit should be thrown out.  So they can have some punchy rhetoric thrown in.  This one kicks off with the following:

Kids with wandering imaginations have long decorated school notebooks with pictures of fantastic and supernatural beings of their own design.  The ingenuity of individuals, as expressed through the creation of characters incorporating timeless themes of mythology, patriotism, 'good,' and 'evil,' has been a source of entertainment in the form of role-playing games for ages.  In the face of technology that enables individuals to engage in such activities in a virtual, on-line context, Marvel Enterprises, Inc. and Marvel Characters, Inc. (collectively, 'Marvel') have taken the unprecedented step of attempting to appropriate for themselves the world of fantasy-based characters...

The meat of the memo is the legal analysis, which I won't comment on, except to say that you'll find a lot of the citations and themes in the copyright section familiar if you followed the Napster litigation.  After the legal analysis, the memo concludes:

City of Heroes is a tool that encourages originality, not slavish copying.  It allows young and old to exercise their imaginations to create super-powered beings and send them off to interact with the creations of other individuals in a virtual world called Paragon City.  If it should be banned, then so should the #2 pencil, the Lego block, modeling clay, and anything else that allows one to give form to ideas...

As I mentioned before, the EFF is paying close attention to how this unfolds and is looking for fans outraged by the lawsuit.  Wendy Seltzer, staff attorney for the EFF, has posted over on Warcry:

If you've tried to play a character that looks like a Marvel character, we'd like to hear from you. You can post to this thread, or better yet, email me at

Looks like the hearing on the motion is scheduled for February 7th. 

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Plagued by Popularity

WoW had a rough weekend. The lack of stability has been so bad that Penny Arcade has decided to revoke their 2004 Game of the Year award. This, of course, comes on the heels of their concurrency announcement and amidst rumors that WoW is being pulled from shelves in order to limit growth.

With some shards having long queues and no method yet in place to transfer characters between them, I wonder how long it will be before WoW offers a "pay money to switch shards" option. Expect guild migration to quieter shards if that option appears before their scaling problems are solved.

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Defining Everquestness

What are the defining qualities of virtual worlds? What defines their worldliness: the there of There, the everquestness of Everquest?

These questions are central to Lisbeth Klastrup’s recently published phd thesis: Towards a Poetics of Virtual Worlds: Multi-User Textuality and the Emergence of Story.

Diving straight to page 322 ‘Defining Everquestness’ Klastrup suggests that the experience of a virtual world can be split into three levels:

- The lived experience of individual characters “those which turn into stories"

- The experience of the game ”of mastering it and discussing it as “a tool”"

- The total experience of the world incorporating “the knowledge of the world “gathered” by all my characters on their travels”

She goes on to say that the experience of the world also includes becoming part of a social network, the malfunctioning of EQ as a capricious technological artefact, the “playful oscillation” of acts that have one meaning within the world and another to those outside it etc. Finally she concludes that the worldliness of EQ is made up of the sum of all these experiences.

Having not read the preceding 321 pages yet I’m unsure of the detail. But thinking about what makes the experience of VW distinct from others I tend to think in terms of Bartle’s take on the Hero’s Journey. Yes it’s our experiences of the worlds what they are - but specifically for me it is the breadth of the arc of those experiences, the actuality of being one of the heroes of a saga, the intensity of relationships that are forged and lost, this to me is the particular if not peculiar worldliness of VWs.

Thanks to Mirjam Eladhari’s Blog for pointing out that Lisbeth’s thesis is now out.

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Those crazy Aussies

The Melbourne Age has a piece on VWs (regn required: bugmenot suggests "obfuscator"/"whome"). For the life of me I can't really understand what the author is trying to say, and the whole thing is mostly incoherent; but these slight negatives aside, it does reference/cite Jools, Betsy, and this blog.

But what's niftiest for me is that this the main paper of my home town, and I grew up reading it. I've lost count of the number of pieces I've sent to them, only to receive a terse, editorially-precise, "Thank you very much for your proposed editorial. Unfortunately, you suck. We look forward to your next piece, which no doubt will suck also. We remain, yours etc etc"

On the plus side, they reference Betsy.

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I like to watch

The Boston Globe reports that Electronic Arts is mulling over a proposal to have "Sims TV". In the words of Jan Bolz, vice president of marketing and sales for EA Europe: "One idea could be that you're controlling a family, telling them when to go to the kitchen and when to go to the bedroom, and with this mechanism you have gamers all over the world 'playing the show'."

Now the first response to this must be: Genius.

I mean, this is surely a break-through. Game devs have taken a long time to wake up to the fact that eBayers are prepared to pay for someone else to play the game for them through to a certain point (ie up to the point where the Sword of Ultimate Vanquishing is available), and then they'll take it from there. Now EA are working on a way for people to pay to watch others to play the whole game for them. It takes a peculiar kind of intelligence to take an interactive medium and turn it into a passive and/or pseudo-interactive medium: "If you want your Sim to go to the bathroom, press 'ok' on your remote control, now."

But perhaps they're on to something. No really. I often find the experience of MMOGs to be a bit like Wilde's (apocryphal?) observation about the problem with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings. The greatest virtue of the telly is that it doesn't ask you to do anything. Eyes and ears mandatory. Brain optional.

Of course, if FPSes are boring to watch (see your local cable listings for schedules of extraordinarily tedious deathmatches between people who seem to be famous for no good reason) then I can't imagine what Sims TV would be like. Presumably it would have to come with one of those warnings about not operating heavy machinery while watching.

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Dungeons and Parody

Pat Kane cites Boing Boing for posting on 'The Cubes', "a corporate drudgery playset for grown-ups".   This, he offers, as a wry contrast to Lego Serious Play ("LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is an innovative, experiential process designed to enhance business performance").

Dan mused "it seems to me that there are a helluva lot of MMORPGs that could use a sense of humor."  I don't know if Kingdom of Loathing qualifies as a parody, as funny as it is.  Some might  argue that the entire MMO genre exists in  a humorless  self-parody...


...A subset of parody is self-parody in which an artist or genre repeats elements of earlier works to the point that originality is lost.

How would your parody start?  I  think I would begin with a  love story involving Emily Dickinson, and a bear and an exit...   

In any case,  I predict that it won't be until we see the first full-blown MMO parody that we can we say that the genre has matured and joined the mainstream. 

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Nouns and Verbs (Oh My)

How people interact with games is often conceptualized in terms of "nouns" and "verbs". Chris Crawford is the often attributed source of this meme:  "games are about verbs."   Indeed, in these days when game and virtual world discourse bleeds so freely into so many mainstreams, the real world, as well as our virtual ones,  are beginning to look like hotbeds of  verbs.  Yet I wonder, if this view is too simplistic, take the case of MMOGs as illustrative...

As with games in general, "noun" and "verb" descriptions pervade discussions of MMOGs and their legacy, MUDs.   Damion Schubert described the MMOG noun / verb relationship in this way: the players content is giving them nouns, whereas giving them systems is giving them verbs - new actions they can perform on the game world. Giving players more verbs gives them different tools to attack problems, and also alternate activities. When you’re talking about games that players play for thousands of hours, that variety of gameplay is crucial. Players crave different experiences - they want to be pushed in new directions, and given new tactics...

Describing MMOGs by "nouns" and "verbs" is useful for their set of handy and ancient metaphors that extend from our palpable sense of language as well as from the text heritage of MUDs and command-line user interfaces.   However, does this choice in metaphor, as useful as it is, obfuscate a central detail about MMOGs by way of ignoring a dirty little secret?  Namely, that while our lingustic nouns and verbs are cross-dressers, their use in describing MMOGs seem to conveniently ignore this...

...In our native tongue, we are easily promiscuous with our nouns and verbs - morphing them one way or the other to suit language needs.   This is especially true when we converse about new things, things not well rooted in our collective minds.  Technology, for example, always seems to catch us by surprise.  When surprised, we conjure up words quickly like "bookmark" (noun->verb) and "download" (verb->noun) to fill the gaps.

Raph Koster in  Theory of Fun suggests that we, as players, seek to streamline play in MMOGs by downstepping all our high energy interactive juices into lumpy things to shunt to  a corner of our mind.  Cognitive macros of sorts.  Thus, in our attempt to regularize and optimize our treadmills - creating new articles from processes - it sounds like, in a way, we are turning verbs into nouns.   Do virtual worlds contain subtle  dynamics that can grind away at the very syntax of our relationship to  them?

What of  the other direction?  Are there activities in virtual worlds which we devise to frankenstein weary nouns with new life?  How many of you have doodled your virtual treasures into patterns on texturized soil to spell names, poetry, draw pictures, create illusions, express your wicked selves:  "DOODZ!!!!!!"  Does this count?  What about all the posing and emoting spent in group idleness?  Are all these actions bonfires burning nouns into verbs, I wonder.

Perhaps meta activities are better examples of how verbs can reinvigorate nouns...  Joe is tired of questing (a noun), so he *ebays* (a new shiny verb) his "phat loot"!  Or, Helen has a slow day and does grief! 

...Relatedly, recently, I encountered a new word.   It is an interesting word, but also perplexing.  Jamie Fristrom writes about "Toyetic" in this way:

The thing I noticed most about Half-Life 2 is that it's incredibly toyetic.  "Toyetic" was a word given to me by a friend who used to work at Mattel who doesn't like being mentioned in my blog.  It means, "like a toy."  An amusing sidenote is that the guys at Mattel are trying to make their toys more like computer games, while we're trying to make our computer games more like toys.  Or toy chests, anyway.  The collection of guns in your typical FPS are already toyetic;  a set of toy guns, each with their own kind of play.  Half-Life 2 gives us a bunch of new toys above and beyond the usual collection of weapons:  the air raft, the gravity gun, the dune buggy, the ant lions, portable gun turrets, squads of soldiers.  Each toy comes complete with a context to make it interesting, and makes Half-life 2 feel like a brand new game, not a rehash.

What I find fascinating about the "Toyetic" concept, at least as I imagine it, is that it embodies succinctly the confusion between nouns and verbs in MMOGs:

Toyeticized items bind context (nouns) with some highly contextualize activity (verbs), creating a Toyetic thing - which I guess would have to be a sort of virtual world *verbal phrase* - another noun...  and so it goes.

Jamie's irony is also interesting, which I spin as while RL toys are seeking to become more verb-y, computer games are sneaking a march and becoming more noun-y.  Cross-dressing by convergence.

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MMOGs and Mulligans

MMOG design is nothing if not path-dependent in the extreme: it piles the path-dependence intrinsic to coding large, complex applications with the path-dependence that comes from the accumulated activities and expectations of a virtual society.

It is interesting in this regard to see Mythic's recent announcement that among the future changes they hope to make to Dark Age of Camelot is the addition of a new server type designed for "casual players".

It isn't hard to puzzle out at least one of the major reasons for this announcement: it's spelled W o W. The success of World of Warcraft in an otherwise stagnant marketplace has served notice to current and future MMOG development teams: designing around the needs and sensibilities of hardcore powergamers is not market-rational. WoW's success is a complex thing and needs to be analyzed carefully but the extent to which it welcomes casual gamers on multiple levels clearly is a crucial part of its achievement.

What puzzles me a bit as I read over Mythic's announcement of plans for a "casual" server is why it took WoW to make a long-term criticism of DAOC (and other MMOGs) stick in a meaningful way. Even Mark Jacobs acknowledges that they've fielded requests from their players for a game that is more friendly to casual play almost from the first day the game went live. But this is the exact opposite direction that the game's development has taken. Each progressive expansion of DAOC has made the game require vastly more time for grinding. Even attempts to help accelerate character development and entry into the PvP "endgame" have been countered by other design decisions that undercut any such accleration.

DAOC is not the only MMOG with that problem: in fact, virtually all MMOGs tend to grow more and more prohibitively frustrating in their long-term development. It's a kind of design arteriosclerosis. Of course, some start with their arteries preclogged: SWG's Jedi system, for example (in either incarnation). One step down that path and forever will it haunt your destiny, or so it seems. A MMOG which adds more and more grindiness or which makes the later development of a character more and more prohibitively time-consuming will find it impossible to retreat from that.

Which makes the idea of a separate casual server both an understandable solution to path-dependent development and an ultimately futile one, in my view. It's rather like the promises that some food manufacturers make about "light" or "fat-free" versions of their products. If those versions actually do taste exactly the same (or better) than the heavy or fattening versions, then it becomes something of a puzzle about why the company would want to continue to sell the fattening version as its "mainstream" product. Presumably there are people addicted to the original who want to buy it, but most consumers would prefer the light version if it is equal in taste. Of course, if it is not--if it tastes "light" and is unattractive because of it, then the only people who want it are the strongly weight-conscious.

If you can make a casual server that is just as much fun as the original game, then why not drop the original game altogether? If you can't, because the original is so dependent upon punitively time-consuming mechanics, why imagine that you can make a server which is the antithesis of the game as it has come to be? I can well see why Mythic (and maybe other designers) might hope that a separate server rule-set would allow them to do over design decisions whose underlying rationale appears in retrospect to be dubious, but some choices can't be undone.

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A New Issue of "The Daedalus Project"

The Daedalus Project is 2 years old! In this issue:

MMORPG Hours vs. TV Hours - Does one influence the other?
The Transfer of Stereotypes and Prejudice - A brief exploration of sexism, homophobia and nationalism through player narratives.
Engineering Altruism - What does to mean to engineer how and when people can help each other?
Faces of Grief - How are Griefers and Achievers related? An exploration of overt and subtle forms of griefing.
Police State - Imagine a world where every conversation you have is automatically recorded, and where every word you say can be altered without you knowing.

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I thought we could pick up that mailbox

KatamariDaniel Terdiman (who seems to be the alpha games beat reporter for Wired these days) has a little article about how the real world doesn't use a joystick.  The intro bit talks about a person who had been playing a little (too much?) Katamari Damacy (see Tim's review) and, for a split second, tried to pick up a real mailbox with a real car.   

Over at Broken Toys, Scott is understandably a bit skeptical regarding whether this behavior can be generalized (assuming the term "complete crack monkeys" denotes skepticism).  But there is a shred of truth to the existence of a post-video game cognitive haze, is there not?  Other anecdotal evidence provided in the story:

What are your experiences?  Any ideas about whether these effects are amplified or muted in MMOGs?  Any good paper references from the cog psych folks?  

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World of Warcraft: 200,000 Concurrent Users

WoW has sold 600,000 units in the the US and ANZAC countries and broken the region's concurrent user number records, with more than 200K during the holidays.

More here.

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Snap Judgements

The MMORPG  "WISH" was announced cancelled.   As this occurs within a week into what seemed like a well-heeded beta, there is reason for a pause...

  From (Stratics, Jan, 3):

...the Wish 2.0 Beta client is now #1 on Fileplanet's "What's Hot?" list for more than two weeks with over 45,000 downloads! Meanwhile, Beta 2.0 is in full progress, with a total of 68,000 players signed up, and 30,000 player accounts activated within the first three days.

This event would seem to underline  how frontloaded the MMO business/PR/marketing process is - judgements are made early and are decisive, launch is almost too late.

Unfavorable early publicity (or the prospect of it) can unhinge even the best of plans.  Perhaps this is inevitable to a hyper-competitive service industry whose customers are largely cannibalized and where so much of the future business is decided by small cadres of guild leaders and other highly networked players.

On the one hand, swift judgements in the business cycle are resource efficient.  Often IT project management is much less about picking winners than about managing risk.  The strategy is that as so many projects are likely to fail and their failure is unpredictable at the start (external/ unknown factors), good management is about best guesses and then identifying and tracking risk and pulling the plug on the losers and reallocating to the winners.

On the other hand, how can there be innovation and growth in world design without experimentation and a bit more forbearance up front?

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Korean Consumer Protection

A small datapoint about the regulation of MMOGs:

Korean consumer protection authorities are expanding their investigation of MMOG companies poor consumer satisfaction levels and complaints of abusive terms of service, poor quality, etc. Ten companies are now involved. This comes on the back of complaints filed last year by consumer rights groups.

Extract from the Korean Herald below the fold.

Korea's antitrust regulator said it is expanding its investigation of online game developers to include 10 companies, examining claims that their services are failing to deliver the quality promised in customer contracts. The investigation will include industry leaders such as NCsoft Corp. and Nexon Inc.

"We are looking into the consumer contract terms from the companies and judging the legitimacy of consumer complaints. We expect the investigation to conclude in March, deciding whether to impose penalties on the companies," the Korea Fair Trade Commission said in a statement.

The commission has been reviewing the issue since July last year, after consumer-rights groups filed a compliant against NCsoft, the world's largest online game software company, with the Seoul Central District Court. The complaint alleged unfair terms in contracts and poor service quality.

The groups, including the Online Consumer Coalition, said NCsoft has not provided adequate protection of users' personal information and has made transaction errors on several games including Lineage II. They also claim that the company is refusing to compensate customers for technical problems such as server malfunctions, which often lead to errors in the cash points and payment systems.

NCsoft said the contracts are designed with consumer benefits in mind and the company must gather personal information and have full control over item purchases to counter illegal offline cash transactions and fraud. The company also said its services are of above-average quality.

NCsoft saw its third-quarter 2004 net income grow to 22.5 billion won ($20 million), up 220 percent year-on-year, on sales of 63.7 billion won.

The company, which targeted 250 billion won in sales for 2004, has benefited from the popularity of Lineage II that made successful debuts in the United States, Japan and Taiwan after topping the market in Korea.


By Kim Tong-hyung

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Changing Worlds

My local supermarket recently removed some of the seasonal goods they had in stock, and took the opportunity to move a bunch of other stuff around. The dips are where the milk was, the milk is where the cheese was, the cheese is where the eggs were, the eggs are where the cereal was and the cereal is where the seasonal good were.

There are reasons why supermarkets do this. If you're looking for stuff you want, you may see stuff you didn't want (but do now) or stuff you didn't even know they sold. People hate it, but the supermarkets all do it because it works.

Virtual worlds have chunks of content that people don't want or don't know about. Could the above psychological technique be usefully employed to breathe life into such content? I know players would complain about it, but does that matter? Shoppers complain about what supermarkets do, but that doesn't stop them from doing it...


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Predictions for 2005

Well, after further review, I hit 0.500 for 2004, so it's time to throw down for 2005. Read on for 10 fearless predictions for 2005:

1) A digital world property case will make it the courts in the United States.

2) Legislation will be proposed that is intended to "stop" "piracy" and/or to "protect" children but that actually threatens online games.

3) Guild War's experiment with a non-subscription model will be successful.

4) No US MMO will exceed 1,000,000 customers.

5) A major online game will embrace a secondary market for digital items.

6) A non-licensed, non-fantasy MMO will be successful [edit: and have over 100k users].

7) A non-game company will integrate a digital world into their CAD/CAM process.

8) A reality TV show based in a digital world will launch.

9) More of my predictions will come true than Uri's.

10) 7 or more Terra Nova authors will be at the same conference at least once.

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Stranger In A Strange Land

A recent, eloquent essay by Sue Thomas  ("Walter Ong and the problem of writing about LambdaMOO") provokes earlier questions about the meaning of the MMO experience in an online world (e.g. TN's "The MMO Divide", "Socially (Charged) Software") and on how to talk about them (e.g. "Ye Olde Disciplinary Punch-and-Judy Show").  It strikes me that a basic challenge for the virtual universe lies in how hard  it is to communicate about their insides to the outside.  MMOs would seem to be a particularily difficult instance because of how they entwine "performance" (and fiction) with function.  Relatedly, Sue wrote:

it is impossible to convey exactly how it is for each of us as we venture into that very idiosyncratic negotiation between the real and virtual. As Erik Davis wrote about the text-based virtual world LambdaMOO as early as 1994  "In a space where everyone is at once person and persona, identity itself becomes a performance art."

In particular, these spaces  seem difficult to explain because their dynamics are based on "intensely personal and intellectually complex" experiences.  The bane is too much context, too many forces, each of which vulnerable to the slightest difference in details.  As a simplest example, just try succinctly explaining to the uninitiated how even a slight rule change (say, a weapon nerf) might lead to profound differences in what players do in an MMORPG.

Thus, it seems we end up necessarily trying to impart a great deal about the details of these places to the unfamiliar.   However, while details are the easiest to communicate and grasp in context, their curse is, well, their long heavy tail, often:

...(D)etail is necessary, especially in the absence of real experience, if one is to understand how it feels to occupy a space which has no physicality and an uncertain sense of identity. And then there is the very acute sense of being offline, and how to cope with it when you spend almost all of your waking life wired. And what happens when you encounter the physicality of someone you only ever knew online. And the technicalities of how it all works. And the histories, the geographies, the politics … so much of my understanding of the world has been changed by living online and yet as a writer I was trapped inside the very foreignness of my experiences.

The problem with the accessibility of these worlds is that the detail that would seem to make them special, isolates them.  It seems, as Sue wrote, they lead to a "secret cultural discourse which is unintelligible to the uninitiated."    What seems to be needed is a language for conversation -  a means of discussion that transcends detail but is not ignorant of it, a vocabulary capable of spanning worlds, including the real one...

...I often speak with people who live and work online about their perceptions of how the net has changed them and the worlds in which they move. In every conversation the transient nature of connectedness is taken so much as a given that there is hardly any need to define or describe it. Everybody knows what it is, how it feels, the energy of it, the occasional despair at its tricks and limitations. We talk about it using the common shorthand of the net - emoticons, acronyms, program code - because the language itself is the key to the concepts and experiences we are discussing.

Looking forward a bit... if details not only differentiate but *define* the online MMO experience - then do we not all reside on islands around specific worlds, soon to develop our own private languages from which we translate to those on the outside?  Is this the direction we're headed? 

If you believe this, perhaps it is a good outcome in one way, for it would then suggest that our virtual worlds are maturing and are evolving away from their simple ancestries, and there is richness in that.  But perhaps too something will have been lost, and we may then left to wonder a different sort of Tower of Babel...

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Wave of giving reaches UO

At times it almost seems like there is a bidding war over which country can given the most to support relief work in Asia following the recent tsunami. Well, now Britannia has joined the race. That is, the good people of Ultima Online can now make donations of UO gold to vendors set up by ‘Crazy Joe’.  According to his site the gold will be eBay’ed and the cash donated to the Red Cross.

05/01/04 Update: Thanks to Cory for pointing out a news item which states that eBay have pulled the UO Gold auctions on the basis that they do not allow individuals to hold auctions on behalf of charities. Hmm – so will the Red Cross get a UO account, will EA exchange the Gold and pony up the cash,,,

So far the story has been picked up by Slashdot and while I have not seen any independent verification of the veracity of this scheme I also have no reason to doubt it.

Certainly charitable giving using virtual currency already has a track record. Vertu has been going since the early days of Second Life and even IGE, often seen as the nemesis of online gaming has a charity donations page.

Do you know of other virtual world related tsunami relief efforts?

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So, about those predictions . . .

What's the point in making predictions unless they are graded? Clearly it's time to shine the harsh light of history on my fearless 2004 predictions that were posted on January 2nd of last year. Read on for the predictions and the grades:

1) At least one MMORPG will be anointed "the MMORPG for the mainstream" but fail to deliver

So this is an interesting one. Certainly The Matrix Online was the product I was thinking about, but it hasn't launched yet, so that doesn't work. Certainly CoH, WoW or FF XI might fit the bill, but none of these have really crossed over. I'll take this close one.

Score: 1-0

2) A handheld device will allow portable connection to a major MMORPG

Ragnarok Online Mobile launched this year and allows Asian players limited access. Correct!

Score: 2-0

3) There will be a successful online-world game on the Macintosh

While a bunch of online games are available for the Mac, including SL, ATiTD, and Planeshift, it hadn't been a good year for large MMORPGs. Sony announced that they were doing a code freeze on the Mac EQ and things looked glum. Then, lo and behold, WoW on Mac! Give me another one.

Score: 3-0

4) An online-world will come under unflattering media attention on par with the current GTA3/Vice City coverage

MMORPG addiction has been the topic of the year, building on the original "EverCrack" stories to reach a pretty high level. I has expected that the attention would come from other directions, but I'll take it.

Score: 4-0

5) Richard Bartle will flame somebody for bringing up a topic discussed on MUD-Dev in 1997

While Richard actually was preemptively flamed several times, he showed admirable patience throughout 2004 didn't draw from MUD-Dev very often. Either TN's discussions are moving forward or he just got tired of providing links. Wrong.

Score: 4-1

6) A successful MMORPG will be released by a small, independent developer

Of course, "successful" is a poorly defined term here. However, 2004 saw no significant MMORPG launches by small or independent developers -- or at least none that show up Sir Bruce's chart. Wrong again.

Score: 4-2

7) A game designer will reference psychological, behavioral, economic, and game theory inaccurately in the same talk

This was, of course, tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think that 2004 saw some of the best game related talks that I've heard, especially Ted's keynote at AGC. Happily wrong.

Score: 4-3

8) Real-time voice masking technology will become good enough to mask the gender of the speaker

This one really bugs me as the tech seemed to be moving along quite well last fall but hasn't gotten over the hump. Damn. Wrong and back to .500.

Score: 4-4

9) The 2nd Austin Game Conference and State of Play 2 will be both more contentious and more interesting than their first outings

OK, this was a pretty easy one, although it would have been possible for either or both conferences to jump the shark. Fortunately, neither did. A return to correct answers!

Score: 5-4

10) At least one of these predictions will be laughably incorrect!

Phew, my CYA prediction keeps me over .500! Clearly my predictions need to be more aggressive for next year.

Score: 6-4

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In this Instance

Many players of today's virtual worlds may not realise it, but there are actually two strategies for resetting "used" content. The more familiar one is respawning, whereby an object or mobile or puzzle is restored to some variation on its original state after a period of time. Sophisticated versions of this can involve spawning different things depending on the current world state (for example sheep instead of wolves).

The other strategy for resetting is the sudden reset, also known as the groundhog day approach. In this, it's not individual content items (or linked collections of them) that are respawned, but the entire virtual world. The advantage is that quests, puzzles and game-like content can be far more complex and intertwined, because they don't have to be unpicked a thread at a time. World-altering events can occur - cave systems flooding, mines collapsing, volcanoes erupting - which have so many causal effects that it would be impossible to follow every one through to undo it. The disadvantage, of course, is that everyone has to be dumped out of the virtual world while it resets, which inevitably occurs just at the precise moment you really rather wish it wouldn't.

How about a hybrid approach?

One of the "new ideas" of (graphical) virtual worlds is instancing. In this, a group of players get together, press the magic button, and a pocket universe appears just for them. Their characters can go in, explore it, plunder it, whatever, and then when they leave it simply disappears. In other words, it resets when it's played out - classic groundhog day territory. This leads to the possibility that such pocket universes could have much richer and more fulfilling content than the greater virtual world that hosts them. Indeed, if they become large enough they could be considered as bona fide virtual worlds themselves, with the host world a kind of theme park that gives a context to the individual rides that are its sub-worlds.

OK, so this is something which may interest virtual world designers, but it's not really Terra Nova material. Don't worry, it becomes so shortly.

Note that although worlds that reset through respawning can have sub-worlds, groundhog day worlds can't (or rather they can, but the sub-worlds will all reset when the host world resets, so they can never be truly independent). This means we have a hierarchy of worlds:

1) The real world.
2) A non-game, host world (such as SL).
3) A game-like world that resets through respawning (such as DAoC).
4) A game-like world that resets in groundhog day fashion (such as, ahem, MUD2).

Only 1) is mandatory: it's possible to have any of 2), 3) and 4) without the others. The hierarchy is strict, though: you can't have a 2) dangle off a 3), because that makes the 3) itself a 2). You can, though, have a 2) host a 2) or a 3) host a 3).

So we have a tree. We can envisage several non-game worlds, some of which host non-game sub-worlds or game-like worlds that reset via respawn. Not all game-like worlds will necessarily be embedded in a host virtual world, yet some of them will themselves have game-like sub-worlds or groundhog day worlds embedded within them. Not all groundhog day worlds will be necessarily associated with a respawning world: some may be embedded within a non-game world, and others may be stand-alone.

And now, finally, to the point of this post.

Suppose you're heading up a guild that's entered a pocket universe which has been "spawned" from a game-like virtual world. This game-like world has been coded by a bunch of people, open-source fashion, to run in a generic environment operated by a hosting company based in the USA. Code permitting, who gets to say what one of your guild members can and cannot do within that pocket universe?


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Virtualizable Tax Credits

There has been a fair amount of press in the last week or so about Louisiana's attempt to lure video game development via tax credits.  Broadly speaking, tax credits to capitalize and drive development of industries in new areas is an old idea: biotech, automobile manufacturing, and a raft of other places and spaces.  In fact, Louisiana has already tried it with the film industry - with enough success, apparently, for it to proceed with this experiment.

This offers us the opportunity to parse the video game industry...

Is the game industry better or worse to respond to these types of incentives over other industries?  True, their talent base is arguably more mobile and  compact than many - hence, perhaps, better able to exploit marginal cost advantages whereever they are found.   But on the other hand, perhaps the cues to which this industry responds are significantly different.

Might it also be true that lower cost barriers -- tax-relief subsidized or otherwise -- could translate into more experimentation and better quality games in the long run?

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