For the last two years I've been designing an experiment in play: PMOG, the Passively Multiplayer Online Game (said P-Mog). Justin Hall, Duncan Gough, and I founded a company called GameLayers with investment from O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures, Joi Ito, and Richard Wolpert. We quit our day jobs last summer and got serious about bringing play to the world wide web.
The impetus of my design is my lifelong desire to play with the layers of information that, unseen but forceful, impact our real and online lives. I want to see the invisible world, or at least become more aware of it. Perhaps ironically, PMOG is not a visually intense game. I don’t know that we rank 2D, much less 3D. This is the game HUD that persists from page to page in the Firefox 2 and 3 browsers:
We're now in the beta of our second public version. Both versions were implemented as Firefox extensions that follow players as they surf the web. The players provide the game with access to their browsers; the game provides the players with weapons, writing instruments, a gifting system, and a self-generating RPG character.
We started out to make a casual, massively multiplayer online game that took place alongside the rest of a player's online life. To do that, we had to answer two questions. One: what kind of interaction that occurs alongside the Everyday can we provide to players that they'll accept? And two: how can the game provide players with a set of behavioral summations that they could reasonably attribute to their decision-making process?
In the first public version of PMOG we ran the game through a sidebar on Firefox. People forgot (or never knew! ha) that the game was happening. And while the sidebar had a lot of space, it was problematic precisely because the game could be so easily ignored once the sidebar was closed.
The current version of PMOG injects HTML overlays onto any html document with a http://. These events, as we call them, stack up in the bottom right corner of the Firefox 2 and Firefox 3 browsers and are easily dismissed. A lot of game data is delivered to the player via image and text, in those HTML overlays.
Game-to-player messages (You leveled up! You unlocked the Torch badge!) and player-to-player messages (hey dahling, will you be a dear and trade me 10 crates for a mine? kthxbai!) are delivered as HMTL overlays as well.
Fitting Into the Browser
Currently, there are three stages of intensity to the appearance and persistence of the HUD. I'll begin at the least involved level and move on to the most involved.
At its most invisible, players can completely pause the game. The
player ceases to earn datapoints from each new top level domain they
visit and they do not receive any in-game events. They can also hide
the heads up display, leaving a small "P" favicon in the bottom right
edge of their browser as the only reminder.
The second level of integration is that the player can choose to hide the heads-up display but continue playing, in which case events still occur and the player still earns currency but their tool inventory, level progress bar, and other game statistics are not present in their browser. In-game events occasionally appear in the bottom-right corner of their browser.
At the most involved stage of PMOG, the player has a styled tool bar at the bottom of their Firefox 2 or Firefox 3 browser that displays all their game statistics. Dismiss-able game events (tripped traps, invitations to mission, player-to-player instant messaging) stack up in the lower-right corner of the browser. Additionally our extension tracks their movements over URLs that begin with http://, but it only attach that location to the player if they engage with game content. This is the default setting.
Passive-ists aren't asked to roll for initiative and then take part in a full-on turn-based combat. Rather, moments of combat and gifting invite the player briefly into the gameworld. This is not the same as the strategic blow-by-blow that makes Dungeons and Dragons style combat so engrossing. PMOG's fun is often the fun of discovery and misdirection.
Making the RPG Casual
Role-playing game metrics are already inherent in a lot of social networks, as Amy Jo Kim has pointed out. In both role-playing games and social networks, players posture within the space of the avatar and explore their identities online. Players balance social relationships with their own goals and values, and use these relationships to promote the exchange of virtual goods.
However, distinctly RPG metrics of dexterity, strength, charisma, et cetera, don't serve the browser-based internet in the same way they've served the kitchen table. Attributes such as these exist in RPGs largely to determine if an event has occurred and how the player can or does respond to it: Have you been spotted by the lacedon hiding in the reef? Do you attack first or are you attacked? Are you prone? In a gameworld largely driven by the collection and reinterpretation of the players' data streams, these metrics are unnecessary.
The landscape of the internet is no place to stall a player's momentum. Rather than spending the first hour of game time rolling a character, the play simply begins. Over the course of hours the player will accumulate characteristics. Though we don't want players to belabor the choice of race and class, I do rather like "types" in games and wanted to use them.
There are currently six associations in PMOG, and at any time each player is described by three of them.
Pmogeon associations reflect what game tools the players use and
determine what array of game tools can be purchased by the player.
Because the flexibility of the player within the game is determined by
their associations, I wanted player identity to be flexible as well.
Now associations are determined by the tools that the players have used
in the game, and by the associations of the players whose missions they
take. In this way players can both determine their designation and have
it be determined by the content they choose.
This may be a case of adding additional elements when I should have subtracted (why not remove a designation like class?), but I wanted to both have associations and allow them to be flexible.
Initially, character associations were determined by attributing characteristics to websites themselves. The player’s type was generated from the number of times they’d visited those hundred URLs. Players accumulated the sites’ characteristics. Reading the Wall Street Journal made you more of a Destroyer; visiting Flickr made you more a Hoarder.
But the players themselves resisted the approach. The landscape of the internet has already been established by destination logic: websites are places. Players expect to affect the environment rather than have it affect them. The game is watching, sure, but the player decides when and if to engage.
This is the point in the design process at which the internet really became physical for me, and the aesthetic decisions stem from that. Mines, the first tool I'd designed, were initially meant to be crafted by players from flotsam they'd collected on websites like so much primordial goo. Now they're prefabricated tools you can buy, trade, set, or detonate. The imaginary world of the internet in my mind became a city that had been built over and over again, a sprawling maze of secrets.
Now that people are playing the game again I have another set of fascinating problems and questions. Scaling PMOG successfully is paramount among them. PMOG would be less interesting if it lived on shards; much of the gameplay relies on displaying the internet as an uninterrupted field of play. We've also been warned against asking our servers to calculate long strings of relationships like "friends of friends"; this is supposedly one of the reasons that MySpace ate Friendster's lunch. But if we become as massive as we aim to be, it would be foolhardy to attempt to show players everything that happens in the game. So we can limit visibility to approved relationships, in the model of Facebook and MySpace.
Rather than using "friends" to describe online relationships we use one meta-designation (acquaintances) and two sub-designations (rivals or allies). Below is a screenshot of one of my allies, Pixielo. The top of each player's profile looks like this, with buttons for you to attack, gift, or message them, and three buttons that display the tier of relationship.
These relationships will be a lot of fun to add features to. Maybe you can hunt your rivals in real-time games of tag; maybe your weapons deal less damage when your allies trigger them. There are tons of ways to continue to layer play within the existing structure.
Tomorrow afternoon at 2 during Emerging Technology, Justin Hall and I will be presenting some existing and imaginary surveillance-based game designs. If you're around, please stop by to argue with us.