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Jul 30, 2004



"To be virtual worlds, they have to make the gameworld itself the major unit of persistence."



Well, that was unsatisfying. Reading those links led me to numerous: "And virtual economies are evil because of SWG" type statements, but the key paper which actually says WHY SWG's economy led to this conclusion is missing. Most of my SWG play lived inside of the SWG economy, and I played considerably during the same 4 months he came to his conclusion. Thus, I cannot help but wonder what the issue was? The lesson I took from SWG was that player economies were effective.

The new Narrative Nudges paper is interesting. However, I cannot help think that the final conclusion: "This is only good for boutique shops" should have been fed back into the start. One should not design all of the paths a priori. Instead, one should only implement (at most) the outcomes for the current set of branch points. This solves the hyper-fiction problem by turning it into a more table-top-GM model.

(I'd also like to point out that a narrative nudge approach isn't very friendly to a casual gamer. If one misses a week, one might miss an important plot shift. If missing a week can't cause such problems, the hardcore gamer will feel the world is unresponsive. In MMORPGs, each player's sees the world advance at a different speed)

- Brask Mumei


I liked the article, but I don't think his proposed system goes nearly far enough. For example, this:

2) The gameworld is constructed around a massively branching tree of preset “narratives” which are associated with present implementations of gameworld conditions.

probably isn't going to work. I think it is necesary to look at the world as a giant simulation and give players an interface into the simulation, but viewing this as a "branching story" where storylines begin and end means that is is necessary to figure out and explicitly enumerate all of the possibilities, and which means essentially handcrafting everything (recording/playback) instead of letting the computation take care of things. Making branching narratives is an additive procedure where creators don't get any leverage with each new branch created. In fact, less than full value is created because viewing this as a "branching" problem means that not all possibilities can happen and much effort will be wasted. To attempt a dynamic, persistent world where players can make a difference, tt's much better to just give up on the idea of a story and attempt a simulationist approach where the factions are autonomous agents and then let the players can influence their interactions.

Why stories?

We experience events, read about events, hear about events, see events, and create events in our minds. These events or patterns are interpreted and given meaning by us. Stories use this ability to give meaning to events by letting people create events in their minds. They can then record those events so that others can play back the events and give meaning to them. The important issue here is that the goal is to have other people create some kind of meaning in their minds, not to explicitly record events. The reason that recording events is the only way people have done things is that there hasn't been a way to create events other than by using a recording/playback model.

The problem with stories is that they are explicitly enumerating one possibility out of a vast world. If the goal is to create a long-term persistent game where thousands of people can influence the world, then it's not going to work starting from the premise of a story: of a single enumeration of possibility. That's why "branching narratives" or whatever people want to call them will fail. It won't be possible to enumerate a vast enough number of possibilities that players will feel like they're really interacting with a living world. People are not stupid and they can tell when they're severely limited and "riding on rails" rather than having freedom.

With a simulationist approach, creators build objects that fit into a system and the interactions won't be predictable. This is very difficult to do, and I am not saying that I have the answer, but I think starting from the wrong approach will doom many efforts to failure because they won't scale.

The creators of such dynamic worlds won't be able to explicitly record events for other people to experience. That means that the creators won't be able to explicitly influence others, which is a big part of why storytelling is such a strong drive in us. However, giving up the explicit influence may lead to other kinds of influence, so it might not be a total loss.

As a final note, I think the world not only has to be peristent, but it has to be heavily dynamic. It's not going to be enough to have a world that just sits there waiting for players to take actions before it changes. The world should be doing huge numbers of interesting things independent of whether any players are ever in it or not. The players should only be able to alter a small portion of the world each day no matter how hard they try, or it will be too easy to make the world swing back and forth wildly which takes away any meaning or feeling of accomplishment.



This is forcing me to wonder what a society without an economy would look like. Not sure it's even possible.

Well, two more papers on the must-read pile {sigh}.


I'm finishing up my essay about SWG now, but one of the major points about its economy is that Raph Koster concludes that the distributional curve the game shows (vast majority of money in the hands of a very small minority of players) is good, because that resembles real-world economic distributions.

Quite aside from all the other criticisms I might make of the models of currency flows, labor time, economic innovation, the invisibility of the "state" and so on in SWG's economy, that statement just says to me that we've come to a really bad impasse in MMOG economic design. We're building fantastically complex engines in order to create a virtual world where the economics are a kind of ghastly parody of hypercapitalist accumulation? Why? As a game, that's not in the least bit fun for anyone but the few people who have the real-world labor time available to become the hyperrich, or the people with the real-world capital available to acquire the real-world labor time of the hyperrich? So it's a lousy game. Suppose you say, "It's not meant to be a game, it's a virtual world." But then surely we can try to make worlds where we do something other than have a cheap mimicry of the economies we already know. What's the point of making a virtual world with lightsabers and alien worlds that has an economy that is foredestined to create permanent and structural inequality? If that's all something like SWG can offer us as a simulation, then let's get back to the conventional modelling of economics--we don't need virtual worlds, we're there already.


John's points are really interesting, though, and bear some consideration. I agree notionally with his suggestions, but I don't think we're at the point yet where a dynamic game engine can somehow generate "emergent narratives" out of gameplay and have them be more than the same generic narrative segments recycled again and again (rather like what Daggerfall did--thousands of dungeons, all generated randomly, but they all ended up being the same). For the time being, I think the work of narrative, of experiencing a dynamic gameworld, still has to involve "handcrafting" to deliver the satisfactions that are missing from MMOGs


I think the Narrative-Nudge design is well-intended but ultimately infeasible. Enough content just can not be made to support it if these narrative nudges are going to alter the world in more than trivial ways.

I also think his general vitriol toward the state of the genre (something I share) is perhaps being overcompensated for. A lack of world persistence is undesirable, but that isn't the fault of character persistence. It needn't be either/or with persistence.

For one who is quick to point out the lack of foresight in other's designs, he seems to be wilfully ignorant of the implications of his own suggestions. A bit of thought on a game with no character advancement, accumulation or persistence to speak of, should show fairly quickly the importance of even flawed economies in allowing players to distinguish and differentiate themselves.


Are economies necessary for distinction and differentation?

I'm clear that economies of some kind may be needed in a virtual world. I'm less clear that they're needed in a game.

Maybe I'm overtalking the vitriol, but I do think that MMOGs are falling far short of where I think they can be, either as games *or* worlds. I'm just wondering if it isn't time to think about some conceptually radical shift, and I'm feeling that part of the problem really is the character-centered vesting of persistence. Certainly there's no question in my mind that as such, the narrative-nudge model I describe is no more than a fragmentary sketch--it has enormous practical drawbacks, chief among them that you couldn't probably create enough content in that model to keep an industrious group of gamers busy for more than a few weeks at best--and in the narrative-nudge model, once the content is gone, the game is done. In a character-centered persistent game, you can keep playing while there's still levelling and accumulation to be done even if you've seen everything, and you can even keep playing past that point if you like--but that is exactly the wellspring of a great deal of player dissatisfaction with MMOGs, that there is nothing ultimately to do, that there are no consequences, that the "endgame" is sterile.


Jeez, Tim, everywhere I go and see you post these days, you bring up me and the economic stats article and the power law distribution of wealth. You're leaving out the simple observation that the vast majority of that high-end cash is effectively tied up and inactive--the actual FLUID economy within the game is not anywhere near so whacked out. A power law distribution of wealth is to be expected, but it's not what I would use as the metric of whether the economic game is working except insofar as its absence would make me at the least deeply puzzled.

The real tests of whether the player-driven economy in SWG or any other game is working would be number of transactions, expressions of contentment or discontentment with how it's playing, cash flow, number of people joining or abandoning the economic professions, etc. Those indicators all look pretty darn good right now, to be honest. If anything, the general sentiment among those players who take the time to write down their thoughts is that the player economy game achieves the sort of depth and intricacy and ongoing fun that they wish other aspects of the game had.

To be honest, beyond your specific disappointments with the game, I am unsure what it is that you are looking for. You suggest minimizing the economy down to a barely present one, but all that does is reduce the scope of gameplay and minimize the potential of any interesting emergence on that entire axis. How is that a step forward for virtual worlds in general?


Timothy Burke > I agree notionally with his suggestions, but I don't think we're at the point yet where a dynamic game engine can somehow generate "emergent narratives" out of gameplay and have them be more than the same generic narrative segments recycled again and again

I agree that there aren't actual programs that can do this yet. But, I think to get to the point of making such engines, what was written in a later post must happen:

Timothy Burke > I do think that MMOGs are falling far short of where I think they can be, either as games *or* worlds. I'm just wondering if it isn't time to think about some conceptually radical shift,

I will try to describe what I think this radical shift should be. I must first define the problem as I see it: The goal is to create events players can experience that allow them to interact meaningfully with the world. Looking at it from the perspective of what players experience instead of what is being created means that we can try to create the inputs for those experiences as we wish.

I am going to ignore player-created events for the rest of this post, and focus on creator-created events. There's a continuum from "handcrafted explicit" events on one end to "algorithmically generated" events on the other end.

In order to make progress on the "algorithm" end of the spectrum, I think that it's necessary to work using the following mindset: "I will use handcrafted content only for those things that I cannot automate yet." Working from this mindset means that you are willing to handcraft whatever you need, but as you do it, you attempt to analyze it and see if there's a way to automate it in a reasonable way.

I am a mathematician who discovered computers rather late, but, fortunately for me, software is math, so I can apply my math skills to problems like this. One of the things you learn in math is that the first proof of a mathematical theorem is long and ugly. This is because nobody understands how to solve the problem snd the first person to do it usually has to come up with some contorted calculations, and at least one radical observation to make things work. I solve math problems by repeatedly working out examples and then generalizing. When you see a nice proof, you never see all of the failures and ugliness that came before the nice proof was created.

That's why I think the mindset of "handcrafting only what you can't automate" is useful to me. It allows me to work on this problem in the way I work on other math problems: using the "generalize from examples" method of proving things.

And that's why I think techniques that try to start with the concept of stories and extend them will probably not crack the dynamic world problem. They appear to be trying to go from the story end of the continuum to the other by making baby steps. All the while, they're still clinging to the concept of a story as the only "real" method for creating events. I think to get to this other side, it's necessary to grind out the details and try to build up the dynamic world element by element assuming that all handcrafted content can be automated eventually. And who knows, someday it might be really easy to do this once people understand everything. I'll be happy to see it when it's finally like that.


I think for this discussion we should critique Wish's current implementation of a story-driven MMORPG and how they implement their strategy for nudging narratives.

First, they have eliminated shards. This has the benefit that they only need to manage the narrative of one world-state. Nudging the narratives of multiple server is, IMO, possible but not efficient.

Second, they have built tools for their Live Content team to metagame the persistent world state, acting as the invisible hands that put thing in action as responses to player actions. They can see what the players are doing and then queue an assortment of responses or quests to be executed over the next day.

Thus, if players, motivated by a quest hook or the general state of the world, devastates an Orc outpost overnight, the Live Content team, roleplaying the Orc Chief, can queue a series of retaliatory strikes or other appropriate action from their database of handcrafted and program-created "actions".

In this way, the state of the world change day-to-day, achieving a very visble progression of the world.


John Arras>Why stories?

This pretty well sums up my response to the paper, too.

This nudge system is basically a multi-player hypertext story. It doesn't have multiple narratives, it has just one narrative with multiple threads through it. It's still a narrative, though. Everything the players do is ultimately pointless, because the story is working inevitably towards its end. All that anyone can do is change the odds for the final showdown so their own faction gets to have a better chance of "winning" than the other factions.

Narrative removes meaning from action. Offering three, four, five different endings still removes meaning. Your gameplay experience is running on rails all going in the same direction, and switching tracks doesn't change that.

Virtual worlds should be richly-featured enough that they don't need this imposed narrative. All the examples in the paper about necromancers and merchants and thieves could work perfectly naturally without this narrative nudge system; events can unfold as a result of player action and interaction, taking individual players' personal experiences into uncharted waters. Players don't just get the chance to redirect the narrative, they get the chance to define it.

The parts of the paper describing the build-up to the narrative nudge concept I thought were good. I just didn't think that narrative nudging was their solution.



It's not that people are unaware; some people are. The problem is that, in a capitalist economy, innovation is generally not looked for until it's needed. So what you need, really, is a vigilante coder like John Arras to make a working world, and then to have his codebase used to create a MMORPG by an independently wealthy producer at which point the New Idea gets tested out via popularity. If it catches, the industry will slowly shift. If it doesn't, it will flame out and all involved parties feel cheated.

I'm working on something vaguely resembling Arras' work, but from a different direction. I have the same goal as he does. I lack motivation and time, though, so the going is painfully slow. My primary criterion for a world is and remains that you must be able to derive the laws of motion by the scientific method in a completely IC manner.

I haven't read the papers, though I intend to. What I should really do, though, is clam up until I've got something with which I can back my words. =)


I suppose the clumsiness of my actual narrative-nudge model is driven by my sense that persistence needs to be in the gameworld, not in the characters, and it needs to be there now. There's a bit of desperation in my thinking about the genre: I see what I think it needs to be, and the only way I can think of to get there right now is a relatively clumsy "ride-the-rails" pathway. The (uncomplimentary) parallel I draw to hyperfiction is entirely intentional.

There's been so much emphasis in both the implementation and study of MMOGs on the psychological and imaginative mapping of players onto avatars that I think we've come to accept that characters and their temporal development must be the center of these games, and I think that's literally the root of almost everything that doesn't work or isn't satisfying about the genre.

I think there's some reason to hope that we will eventually have gameworlds which have a dynamic response to the actions of players leading to unplanned and unwritten events that also have a satisfying narrative coherence, but I don't think we're there yet technically. So I'm not sure why Richard Bartle thinks we are, or how we could be, if I understand him correctly.

Raph: you're seeing just a bit of the larger critique I'm working on, and so I'm probably coming off like mad Ahab on his lunatic quest. But I will say that I *was* kind of astonished that you simply seemed to take a power law distribution of wealth as "working as intended" save for the fact that it showed duping had been taking place on a large scale--because that seems to me to shove off to the side the real questions: is that fun? is that an imaginative example of the ways we can use virtual environments to do things we can't do or have in the real world? is that a particularly good or evocative way to create a sensation of being in the universe of Star Wars?

It isn't really even a test of how intrinsic a utility-maximizing drive is to human beings, which is what I was thinking about in 2001 when I gave that paper at Bristol. That's part of what SWG helped me to decide, that I wasn't sure of in 2001: is it the rules that are making players into accumulative machines or is it the cultural, social and maybe even essential human predicates that players bring to the games? Now I'm sure: it's the rules.

In that respect, cash flow, people joining economic professions, and so on, are hardly tests of whether SWG's economy is "good" or "interesting": the game's deep structure dictates that players should, so they do. (Especially with combat being utterly borked, which even the live team admits.) This is more or less the response that filmmakers or novelists give when challenged by critics, that if they sell tickets or move product, there isn't really anything wrong. That's sometimes a fair point, but it doesn't magically dispense with valid critiques. It does seem to me that the measure of whether SWG's economy is "good" or not has to be more than "people do economic things in the game", just as the measure of whether chess is an enduring, interesting game would have to be more than "people who play chess move their pawns forward and sometimes use the castling move".


Timothy> I'm feeling that part of the problem really is the character-centered vesting of persistence.

I’d embrace and extend that. The whole notion of NPC and MOB persistence works against a sense of narrative in the world. Lives, like stories, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Where I would vest persistence is in the Player Avatar. A return to the more original meaning of an Avatar as an incarnation of a god in the world. Players are like gods in the online world, they persist outside of normal space and time, essentially unaffected by the doings of mortals.

When an Avatar wants to act in the world, they would “possess” an NPC, imbuing them with super natural powers for the period. In a narrative centered world, the thing that every Avatar would accumulate would be a History. For me, that is much closer to how I play in VWs. I’m far more interesting in creating an interesting story for my character, than following some developer design treadmill of experience points. For such a system to work though, the underlying world needs to be complex enough that NPCs can follow their own lives and create their own history. Without an underlying “living” world to act in, there is not much fun in being a God. I’m looking for a sense that the world would have been different without my avatar’s presence. ATITD seems closest to providing that of the current VWs. And its notable it’s a world with a beginning, a middle and an end.


That's a good vision, too, Hellinar. In fact, I think there may be at least one MMOG on the drawing boards that employs a design concept rather like that.


Tim, what do you think of A tale in the desert? I've not played it, but it strikes me as the only MMOG around that is anywhere near what you describe in the article.


I've been thinking about game economics for a while, after my experience with SWG (I both enjoyed and despised it at various times), and playing EVE a tiny bit. The key feature that's jumped out at me is a classification system based on "reactivity" and "scale". (And by "scale" I mean the size of the economy--how many agents are involved, how many goods are traded, etc.)

In the below, note that when I say "vendor" I mean specifically an NPC who buys and sells items for cash.

In EQ, the first big virtual economy I was exposed to, both reactivity and scale were fairly small. (This may have changed a bit, it's been some time. What I mean by small scale will be more clear when I talk about larger economies.) The main bind on reactivity is that the game seems to have a certain internal value for goods--payouts vary based on how much a vendor has bought recently, but there's a lower bound. And if I recall right, buy prices from vendors were absolutely pegged--no reaction to either high supply or high demand. An additional issue with reactivity is that killed NPCs drop cash along with loot, and the system does not react to the effects of an increasing money supply (by, for example, increasing prices until supply meets demand.) The scale was limited in that for certain low-value items, vendors were really the only place to trade. This applies to items for which the demand is low enough that it's difficult to find a buyer, as well as items for which the vendor price cap is lower than the value people might otherwise be willing to play, and also items which a high level might pay a low level player to collect, if only they were not available from the vendors for a low enough price to make it wasteful to spend time searching. Other items of very high value are generally only traded among players, since vendor prices do not represent the true in-game value of that item in cash. Finally, the fact that many items do not decay in usefulness limits scale, because as time progresses the supply of that type of item in the universe generally increases monotonically. (Not counting players leaving the game with the item.)

In short, at the high end of the EQ game the economy is purely player driven. Vendors do not sell high level items. Vendors severely undervalue high level items when buying. A small number of player-made goods are in demand, but in general the only source of supply in the economy is killing creatures. End result: low scale (player trades only), low reactivity (the world's valuation of items does not respond to player valuation.)

In Dark Age of Camelot, reactivity did not exist at all. Creatures drop items and cash, vendors buy items for a fixed price. Vendors sell a restricted set of items for a fixed price. Some of the aspects of scale I discussed above were addressed: all items decay, therefore there is the potential for continuous demand. Unfortunately, the lack of reaction from the vendors really hurts here. In the end, scale increases might slightly over EQ (because the supply does decay over time, albeit slowly), but the net result is pretty similar. In a way, DAoC probably has less scale than EQ, however, because the number of items in the world is smaller.

In A Tale in the Desert, the economy was purely player driven, with a barter economy (and the potential for the players to introduce currency through developing a later technology.) In addition, supply of a number of resources is limited, and on top of that, there are other physics-based consequences of certain economic actions. Mining near another player's mine can cause mines to collapse, mining certain minerals produces pollution which hinders the production of other resources, and so on. In addition, the discovery of new technologies impacts the web of supply and demand in unexpected ways. In many ways, the ATITD economy is the most successful game economy I've seen--but that's not surprising, given that the day to day play of the game is really all about that economy. Scale here is low to moderate: it's only possible to trade with other players, but since it's a key part of the game, a *lot* of it goes on. On the other side of the picture, finding a trading partner can be a chore to itself, leading certain individuals and communities to prefer to produce their own rather than trade. (Travel and transportation are difficult enough even for a nearby player that you might choose only to trade for specialized items that you do not have the skill to create, or items of high enough value that you do not need to make multiple trips.) Reactivity is moderate to high: since player valuation is involved in all trade, relative values of goods generally respond in a reasonable manner. I'd say high reactivity, except that I believe certain resources were made less reactive and more over-supplied in order to give casual players a niche (which is by no means bad!)

In Star Wars Galaxies, they decided to go for a "player-based economy", but there's one constraint that made things work out much less well than ATITD's economy: a ready-made system of currency. Items do decay, players can create items, but players cannot sell items to NPC vendors, since NPC vendors only buy setting-flavor "junk". The problem with the built-in currency system is this: first, there are certain fixed sinks of money in the world. Shuttle trips and training are the costs every player is likely to see, but there are also fixed periodic costs for maintenance of certain objects, and fees for listing items on the public trade bazaar. The only one of these costs that varies is the transportation cost: as demand increases (more trips on a given route), the price goes DOWN. In addition, there are certain fixed sources of cash: killing NPC enemies causes them to drop money (and occasionally useful items), and performing missions provides a nice hefty cash payout. The mission payout is the main source of money for most players. The issue here is that these costs do not react as the money supply fluctuates--the most obvious effect of which being that players harvest raw resources in enormous quantities, because the cost of harvesting the resources is trivial compared to the fixed cost of extracting those resources. *This* is the mechanism by which the very few in SWG end up with all of the money: sale price of high-demand low-supply items is high, because the merchants raise the prices until they sell out at a rate they can keep up with. On the other side, they acquire resources dirt-cheap compared to their selling prices. (As an example, and one with a fairly low profit margin, I spent a long time selling power resources. It cost me around 0.3 credits per unit of resource to harvest. I sold at around 2.0 credits per unit of power. The normal going price for most of this time was around 3.0 credits per power. That's a 10:1 markup! And people were still fairly happy to buy at that price. Smart crafters had friends provide power instead, which leads to a reduced price for other raw resources.) Anyway, the thing here with SWG is that while the prices for manufactured goods were very reactive, prices for low-end goods were quite unresponsive (spikes in resource prices happen when a particularly attractive resource, statistics-wise becomes available), and costs to produce resources are entirely unresponsive. In addition, prices for other world-provided services do not change in any significant way, and *payouts* for missions do not change when many people are doing similar missions. The end result is high to moderate scale: players trading with players all the time, leading to a lot of volume moved. It is, however, low reactivity for those who wish to play economic games: the costs of operation are static. So: moderate to high volume, low reactivity.

I didn't play EVE nearly as much as the other games, so I'm less certain of my information here. I'll talk about what I know. In EVE, the scale was quite large--taking a sort of opposite tack to the SWG, EVE has NPC traders on pretty much every station in the galaxy. (And with multiple stations in each system etc., that's a lot.) In the short time I played, I was able to enjoy an economic game of mining ore, processing it, and looking for the best place in the area to ship my processed materials to. There were also NPC freighters which would travel from place to place, and which PC pirates could hit to lift their cargo. I'm not sure how things have changed (I'm pretty sure they tweaked station price management at some point), but I *believe* that the pricing system was artificial: not truly based on supply and demand, but rather station AIs simply ticking up demand and price until they buy some, then ticking down demand and price. In general, the difference between supply price and demand price for trading in the systems I could see was several orders of magnitude, which really limited pure trading possibilities (and indicates a lack of a real trade model in favor of something simpler.) I also don't think that the NPC freighters were moving "real" goods. Finally, there's a bit of environmental reactivity: asteroid belts get chewed up as you mine. Some re-grow, some do not (from what I heard.) I'm not going to try to categorize it, because of what I don't know. But it was food for though.

My experience with SWG implied to me that reactivity is a very important part of a vibrant economy. As an example, if planetary governments raised the "rent" (that is, the maintenance fee) in places with high demand for land (which you *would* expect a planetary government to do), costs and profits for resources could have risen high enough to match the money supply of the system. The thing that you have to be careful about here is that rewards (and initial cash) for new players have to also be balanced in a reactive way. A new player at the start might come in with 100 credits, before the scale of the economy is established. Once the credit has devalued by 100x or so, a new player might start out with 10000 based on the going price for a given resource or piece of equipment. Low-level money sources would also have to scale in this way, with the scaling decreasing as you approach higher levels (to avoid a feedback loop with the money input increasing as the output increases to balance it.)

The thing that I learned from EVE is that an economic system with a very large scale has a certain degree of verisimilitude that you can't get from a system in which almost all interaction is with other players. In addition, it made me think about the idea that *there aren't enough players to support a money economy alone* in most games! I don't know if this is correct, but it could mean a lot. If only players engage in trade, it decreases the number of opportunities for trade to happen, and the number of trades in which a price might be set. This means that players will often undervalue or overvalue certain items significantly without really understanding what they're doing.

So my current model is this:

0,0) low scale, low reactivity:

The world has fixed economic inputs and outputs. Most items of real value are not acquired through trade. Trade is not really an option, except for the most dedicated individuals--and even for them, it's more a hobby than an in-game role.

0,1) low scale, high reactivity:

The world has no fixed valuations--every price or every end of a trade is based on either a self-adjusting NPC valuation, or on a human PC valuation. The potential for enjoyable trade is more apparent, but the game is still troublesome. While two player who meet (or a player interacting with an NPC) can expect both sides will have a value for the trade that is in some way realistic, there are few opportunities for trade. This leads to players choosing to produce goods themselves rather than spend the time to find a trade partner.

1,0) high scale, low reactivity:

A player who wants to play an economic game will be very attracted to this kind of system at the outside, but over time it will begin to pall. There are numerous opportunities for trade, and a lot of trade takes place. But it's essentially a system in which you can't lose (or one in which you can't win, but that would pretty much kill the game, if high scale is required to play.) A game that isn't challenging in any way isn't really fun. In addition, there are certain social pressures that take shape, because money will always end up moving towards the people with the hard to make specialty goods which are in highest demand.

1,1) high scale, high reactivity

This is sort of my holy grail: a system in which the economy is modeled (at least within a small delta) with loving realism. A pure player economy with enough players could possibly support this. More likely, NPC agents (more than just vendors) are needed to provide the volume that players can't. In this kind of system, a player looking for an economic game would find a world working on principles similar to what she expects. It should be possible to advance economically purely through producing, processing, or transporting goods. It should also be challenging: providing a real possibility of taking risky high profit high risk jobs, or choosing to take low profit low risk jobs. And it should be possible for a player to break into the game at the low end by taking set contracts for very small (in end-game terms) profits.

The simplest model I've considered for this using NPCs is having various resource sources and sinks in the world, which convert resources to money or money to resources based on some sort of reactive model, preferably one that approximates a system of supply and demand. In addition, NPC agents would exist which could move from place to place to provide the supply and demand needed by the sources and sinks. These two need to go together, because it's not really possible to simulate pricing for a given location without some means for that location to receive and provide goods.

Those agents provide a means to check rampant inflation of prices at a given location: if demand gets intolerably high (for example, the station absolutely *needs* those biologicals to deal with a medical emergency, or *needs* those minerals to keep on functioning as a shipyard), the station should always be able to find an agent willing to make the trade. No need to model the agent actually travelling, though it adds a certain flare. (PC pirates halt mining operations on station X by blockading the food supply--killing all incoming ships.) The NPCs don't have to act perfectly rationally--just enough to keep the prices going.

And of course, GMs can always add perturbations into the system: story events that cause economic ripples.

For economy, it's all about that seeming of truth: even if the NPCs aren't rational actors, they need to act like they're rational. Not (to take an example from SWG) decrease their prices for shuttle trips because the short term demand for the service just *increased*.

My thoughts, anyway. God, I write long posts.


Timothy Burke: "because that seems to me to shove off to the side the real questions: is that fun? is that an imaginative example of the ways we can use virtual environments to do things we can't do or have in the real world?"

I'm looking forward to reading your synopsis of how this isn't fun.

My SWG playing was a lot of fun. The most shocking moment had to be when, after a few months of making money under arbitrage, a side business with a vendor started to earn me "Merchant" experience. I was quite proud when I could place "Businessman" as my profession title. (I still think you should get merchant exp for bazar trading: I made a lot more cash there then I did on the vendor. Mostly because I only got a 10% commission on the vendor, however)

Timothy Burke: "It isn't really even a test of how intrinsic a utility-maximizing drive is to human beings, which is what I was thinking about in 2001 when I gave that paper at Bristol. That's part of what SWG helped me to decide, that I wasn't sure of in 2001: is it the rules that are making players into accumulative machines or is it the cultural, social and maybe even essential human predicates that players bring to the games? Now I'm sure: it's the rules."

Could you please elaborate a bit on this? The hyper-accumulation of the high-end players isn't utility maximization. Beyond a certain points, credits are meaningless. One of the ways SWGs economy doesn't go far enough is ways for the ultra-rich to exploit the poor. It's ungainly to set up contracts. For example, you may want to rent someone else's building quota at X credits/week. Running a vendor and doing sales on commission took a fair bit of paper work. I'd really like to be able to set up bank accounts for seperate corporations, etc. But, as Raph Koster wisely pointed last time I brought this up, there are more important issues than working on what they got right :>

Anyways, back to the point. The rules of SWG make it clear that large piles of cash are useless. You can't invest it. You can't burn it fast enough. So why do people keep accumulating it? I'd say it's cause the desire for the bigger number is built into human nature.

- Brask Mumei


BrasK: My feeling is that the problem with SWG's rules that leads to the insane acquisition of wealth is that there's no way to avoid it in certain professions. If you spend most of your time out doing combat missions, you *will* acquire money, and after a certain point, the speed at which you're bringing it in easily overbalances the amount of money you're spending on equipment.

Likewise, if you're a high-end crafter (say a master weaponsmith or a master armorsmith) who works for those hunters, there's even less possibility of avoiding it--no matter how much you pump into acquiring raw materials, you can't dent your money supply. On top of that, you can't drop your prices: if you try, you'll sell out incredibly quickly, which decreases your reputation instead of increasing it. (Vendor X has great guns for cheap... but only once a week or so.) It's only if you're a casual player that you end up really spending much on maintenance and such. When I was playing regularly, I made more money than many of my friends doing the energy and resource game. Because I priced my resources reasonably, I was unable to keep up with demand for one-off requests, so I did most of my selling on the bazaar. Even with that, I was an order of magnitude more solvent than most of my friends were. But we were all social players, mainly just trying to hang around. We didn't do mega cash missions to make lots of money. Another friend who does has equipment worth more than all the money that's passed through my hands in the entire game, and replaces it regularly. Other friends who got into the high end crafter game had one or two orders of magnitude more money than I did, and were still underpricing (based on the amount of irritation they had with not having time to do anything other than craft.)

So, yes, I think there's a problem with the SWG universe that causes this. I think people have fun having a huge amount of money, and overvalue the money itself. Part of that is social background (money is good!), but a lot of it is just that it's hard to get rid of.

(And the only reason I'm nearly broke now is that I haven't been playing much lately, but I've still been paying to maintain my housing. The fact that I as a lower middle-class player can go months with barely any income in game with a continuous money leak without having trouble should indicate something. And I could easily pump back up by playing hard for a week or two.)


Timothy Burke>but I don't think we're there yet technically. So I'm not sure why Richard Bartle thinks we are, or how we could be, if I understand him correctly.

We can get there with medium-sized textual worlds, so I don't see that we can't get there with large-scale graphical ones.

I think the general point about the persistence of the world is good, but narrative implies an ending; indeed, you say in your paper that a NN world must end. That doesn't seem to me to be compatible with their being persistent.

An alternative would be to have multiple overlapping NN narratives, soap opera style, so that before one storyline finishes up a new one starts. It's not something I personally would like to play, but soaps do have proven appeal...



> Raph: The real tests of whether the player-driven economy in SWG or any other game is working would be number of transactions, expressions of contentment or discontentment with how it's playing, cash flow, number of people joining or abandoning the economic professions, etc. Those indicators all look pretty darn good right now, to be honest. If anything, the general sentiment among those players who take the time to write down their thoughts is that the player economy game achieves the sort of depth and intricacy and ongoing fun that they wish other aspects of the game had.

Raph, maybe you are mixing up the different parts of the SWG economy here. I played SWG as a crafter (master armorsmith), and SWG definitely has the best crafting system around. Resources have stats, and require real effort to hunt down, and making a high quality item is fullfilling and fun. But that is just the crafting part of the economy. The money and trading part of the economy is not very good at all. There simply is no market for any goods that are NOT made by a master crafter. Crafters have to make too many items to advance their crafting skills, flooding the market with cheap, low-quality stuff that nobody buys. So they end up financing themselves with missions and destroying their goods. Buyers make enough money from missions so that everybody can afford the high-quality stuff, there is no incentive to buy the cheap substitute. The large amounts of inactive money are people like me, once I reached master armorsmith rank I was swimming in cash. I literally was a multi-millionaire, and there was nothing I could sensibly have spent that money for. So I quit the game.

I do not think that MMORPG should be fully dynamic. With 3000 players or so on each server, if everybody can have a real influence on the world, the world would be very chaotic. And if you limit the influence, you are back to where the static world started. But a little dynamic would not be a bad thing, especially in how monsters spawn. Right now, players in most games find out quickly which monsters are relatively easy to kill, and give a relatively rich reward, compared with their level. Then in a static world this leads to certain monsters being hunted a lot, and others not at all, because their risk/reward ratio is not so good. But if everybody was hunting orcs all day, ignoring the goblins, shouldn't the orcs grow stronger (and maybe poorer), while the goblins grow weaker from lack of fighting? At some point the risk/reward would be better for goblins than for orcs, and player behavior would change accordingly. The players would have changed the world visibly, but not permanently, as it could always swing back, and there are certain boundaries out of which the world can not move. You don't change the story line, but changing the hunting spot flavor of the month is already something.


Should it be surprising to us that it’s difficult to design as successful economy under these circumstances?

In the real world when combat occurs resources get used on a huge scale. In VWs swords don't break, armor does not fall apart, players use their stuff but they do not use it up.

Would the game economies be more fun if they did?

"Crafters have to make too many items to advance their crafting skills, flooding the market with cheap, low-quality stuff that nobody buys" - Richard

Would they game be better if players needed to consume lots of cheap low-quality stuff to succeed?

Is it possible to design a successful economy when output is high but consumption is low? Is it fun to play in that kind of economy?

It seems to me that adding consumption would partially address Timothy Burke's concerns about the character centric game since he has tightly linked the character and the economy. Has anyone tried this? I have not seen it in any of the games I have played.



John's comments are very stimulating, and I too think that one of the major problems with the SWG economy has to do with currency, with the fact that it comes from nowhere. Had SWG either implemented a virtual state or other institutional entity (the Empire, local planetary governments, even corporations) whose mission payouts were related to some kind of incoming revenues (taxation, rents, etc.) OR had it made all sources of revenue derive from other players while also making it easy to contract the labor of other players through some kind of automated marketplace, then I think things might have worked out more interestingly.

To Richard's point, it seems to me that good narrative experiences in a gameworld-centered design would be in the most profound sense consequentialist, e.g., when players act, things have to happen and they have to happen with a linear rather than looping or recursive temporality. Things have to change in a way that is unique, has a directionality to it. And I think that a consequentialist game has to have in it the possibility of an end, just as I think characters have to permadie (which no one is willing to allow in a game that is character-centric.) If there is something in the gameworld that allows for the final triumph of a particular faction, NPC, or what have you--a good source of dramatic tension--then there has to be some way of recognizing that the game is in an end state. I don't think anyone wants to continue playing or living in a virtual world after Sauron triumphs, etc.


Thinking about this I wonder how much the DEPTH of the enconomy has to do with the simulation.

If the VW were the real world, adventurers would be at the top of the economic pyramid. Much like the knights of old, we are supported by the efforts of the "serf"'s.

Just like them, we don't really pay attention to them either. Adeventurers are the leisure class, in the sense they don't spend 95% of their time trying to meet basic needs. What metal virual miners draw out of the ground does not go for farm tools, nails for bridges, or a host of other mundane items.

A more "realistic" model would require a hundred or more players as "serfs" doing the drudge work for every player out there slaying the dragon. Does'nt sound fun to me.

Our swords, armor and whatnot are the equivelent of Escaldes, $1000 graphite golf drivers and 100" plasma displays. So what we are really trying to simulate is a "luxury economy", and trying to make that work. Attempts to dig "deeper" into the economy are really still looking at the luxury level.
Not my speciality, but here is a crack at it.

Our function in the economy is to go out and hunt the "baddies". So what exactly do the baddies do? They must disrupt trade, disrupt the food supply, and other basic services.

So a working model that takes into account the "serf" classes would have farms, mines, bridges, and other "infrastructure" items to support.

If they failed to do so, items would disappear from the market, prices would go up etc.

Perhaps in this model craftsmen would run a shop or camp instead of actually doing the work.

So a "Miner" would show up at a mining site, doing *something* that attracts more "Serf" miners to do work, increasing the flow of metals to market, and to himself of course.

Failing to protect this mine from mobs, as well as getting it needed supplies like wood or food, would decrease output. Tending it would increase it.

Do that with all sorts of infrastructure, like bridges, road, keeps, farms, fish boats, lumber camps... you name it.

The "Hero's" would go off and clean out a dungeon or a huanted woods, making the surrounding area "safe" for a while. No more would noob mobs be ignored, as they would cause havoc with resources. All it takes is a few orcs, a torch and a ignored bridge to wreck havoc on the trade routes.

Hrm... sounding like a fusion of MMORPG with RTS.


And that's also a nice idea, but again, note that it requires the implementation of persistence in the gameworld, not the characters--and to be meaningful, there would have to be dire consequences if the players neglected their heroic labors for too long, up to and including the destruction of the entire economic infrastructure required to be an adventurer. (Lords whose vassals are all killed, whose property is ravaged and whose castle crumbles from neglect aren't really lords any longer, not to mention they lack food, clothing, and everything else). If there are no serious consequences, players will do very little to respond to the changing condition of the gameworld.


I suspect you are right, it would have to be on the order of "XP has stopped" or the equiv.

I guess part of that system will require materials to do anything of significance. Item decay, repair, crafting, even magecraft would require a material componate that is provided by the infrastructure.

Food will be required as well, degrading skills and or experence gains while hungry.

Now, tying into the other threads about narritive, it seems like a system like this would be conducive to bringing automated narritive to the system, as NPC's could help direct players to tasks to stabilize the economic system. A stronger economic system leads to more interesting items and areas being available etc.

Now the gotcha is tuning the requirements so that the difficulty is not so great that people quit, or so easy that it is a background noise.


I understand your frustration with the economies of leveling, Tim, though I think the fact that Brask and others find SWG virtual capitalism to be "fun" means that there's a clearly normative dimension to your critique of the economic axis of world design.

To a certain extent, I think your narrative nudge is just an continued expression of your unhappiness with the game play of maximizers that you talk about in the Bristol article--and a continued expression of sympathy with the complaints of role-players and moral economy players that you identify as in tension with the play of the maximizers. Instead of calling this a social friction between groups, you're saying it's a design problem -- and you'd like the designers to transform the maximizers into more upstanding, socially conscious citizens immersed in the fiction.

It was pretty clear you were skeptical of character maximization as a method of game play in the first paper:

While role-players complain that maximizers spoil the immersiveness of the game, maximizers complain that role-players are pretentious, psychologically unbalanced and unable to appreciate that the game is merely a game, a game in which the goal is to out-compete all the other players.

But then you ask -- maybe out-competing isn't a good game to play?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that maximizers in market economies are doomed to perpetual dissatisfaction compared to people who accept suboptimal results as sufficient. For Schwartz, such a choice can only be explained as addiction, habituation to routine, or subordination to a dominant social system.

And to boot, you said, re the marginalization of the non-maximizers:

This is often the dilemma that advocates of a moral economy find themselves in within any society which is experiencing a rapid transition to market relations: their views quickly slide into obscurity and powerlessness unless they themselves participate in that transition, which of course makes their ethical views of political economy a moot issue.

So what to do about the economic corruption of Utopia for non-maximizers? You said:

Imagine if anti-globalization activists and multinational corporations could both pray to deities, asking them to spontaneously alter the laws of physics and the basic determinants of social relations in their favor and actually have a reasonable expectation that their prayers might be heard and answered. The ether between Heaven and Earth would buzz incessantly if so. This is exactly the situation as it stands in persistent-world MMPGs.

But I'm not sure the designer deities can fix the problem of the maximizers without destroying the game. The character-fixation is the selling point of MMORPGs because leveling and out-playing has always been the whole point of computer gaming (even ADVENT was, for many, about winning points). It seems you're trying to shift gaming into hypertext -- and what's worse, into a kind of hypertext where the players are essentially casting votes for the next hypercard. Maybe that's a good garnish for MMORPGs, but it can't be the main course.

But I agree with the goal you seem to be driving at, which I take to be making the games richer with meaning by making them about something other than acquisition. I think John may be right that the best path toward achieving that may be by making the worlds themselves more active/simulative/permanent at a more granular level.


greglas > leveling and out-playing has always been the whole point of computer gaming <

But are they the whole point of MMORPGs? Humans come equipped with many natural impulses. But we do have choices as to which ones we satisfy. I see civilizations as somewhat marked by the ones they choose to indulge. For a member of the Mongol Horde, it might be rape and pillage. For a Wall St trader, accumulation of the largest stash of cash. Online Worlds are even more marked by the impulses they cater to. Myself, I think the story making impulse is at least as deep in our nature as the accumulation impulse, and better suited as a driver for the RPG world I would like to inhabit.

To my taste the accumulation impulse already plays too large a part in the familiar world. Moving that treadmill wholesale into an RPG world is certainly easy, it’s the “default” option, like human avatars. But using such linear scorekeeping seems a missed opportunity to me. I’d certainly expect a VW to have an economy. But I would look for a less linear currency than simple experience points or dollars. More multi-dimensional units of exchange are more appealing to me. Reputation comes to mind, or History, or in the case of my own world endeavor, “moments of beauty”.


Richard >I think the general point about the persistence of the world is good, but narrative implies an ending; indeed, you say in your paper that a NN world must end. That doesn't seem to me to be compatible with their being persistent.<

It is compatible if the unit of persistence is vested in the player Avatar. ATITD has already demonstrated that, and is about to do so again. My own character there is just about to enter his fourth incarnation. Hellinar was the first player character to have a part of Egypt named after him. And his reputation for trustworthiness, earned in previous Ages, allowed him a big hand in the creation of a player made currency in the current Age. I have a very satifying sense of persistence from that, even though the world has been remade several times.

Most well known players are going to continue under their familiar names, even though their new Egyptian bodies will have none of the skills or wealth earned in the previous Age. But reputation, knowledge, trust and friendship do persist from Age to Age, even past the end of the world. Which is why the current players are still encouraging new immigrants, even in the last days of the world. The social ties they make in this Age will carry handily to the next. To tie back to my previous post, its only if you use such linear currencies as experience points or dollars that the end of the world is a problem. More complex social currencies, like reputation, History, or trust, survive quite handily.


These threads give me such interesting ideas.

Combining the "avatar" idea with the "lord of the manor" idea above, here's the latest one:

Each player when they log in is offered a choice of 3-6 characters to take over and play for their gaming period. The choice will be goverened by what is available and the success or failure they had in their previous gaming session(s).

Their job is to keep their character's heroic reputation up and home area free of danger, or their character's manor farms producing and safe for serfs, or their character's merchant and retail concerns lucrative.

If they'd done well in the past, they would be offered a larger range of options, given extra powers in the character, or offered characters who were already more successful.

If they'd driven a character into ruin before, they'd be offered character near ruin or new characters starting off in the ruins of an earlier character's (village, manor, business, etc). This would have to do with the Avatar's continuing score.

The game world would maintain the persistence of the various areas.

The RTS-like nature of the world lets it continue on in the lack of any players, while you never know when a neighbor will be taken over by a player. So it would be something of a pvp game.

It would not really *feel* persistent, I don't think. Because as a player you'd never be able to ensure getting to continue the same storyline you'd begun; someone else might have started playing your carefully built up merchant and completely ruined his business so that the next time you logged on, your only choices would be your erstwhile competitors.

That's probably the biggest problem with such designs: putting persistence in the world rather than the characters loses a personal touch that many people find drew them to the gaming world in the first place.


Timothy Burke>Are economies necessary for distinction and differentation?

Not technically as CoH has shown. However, character persistence is. Economies simply provide a means to lubricate the exchange of desirable distinction and differentiation. They can do many harmful things, particularly when paired with meta-gaming-oriented systems (powergaming). But economies themselves are not bad. Character persistence is not bad in and of itself.

Mostly, it's just that character persistence is easy. Character differentiation rarely (if ever in a properly designed system) provides unwanted conflict between parties. If I want to wear black, that does not impinge on your ability to wear blue.

World persistence is much more difficult. What if I you want to break what I want to keep? What if you build something and now I cannot? What if you go out of your way purposefully to bother me?

With world persistence the incidence of player conflict rises exponentially. My building a house/town malevolently in a game like SWG or UO can inconvenience many, many people than malevolent actions with character-persistence. Not only that, but purely benign behavior between parties creates friction as well. I build a house on a lot you wanted, or I destroyed a town you worked to protect. I didn't do it to be a prick - but suddenly we're at each others' throats.

It's not impossible to solve these problems, it's just a much more tricky set of trade-offs and perception-management that no-one's attempted at the massive commercial scale.

Timothy Burke>There's been so much emphasis in both the implementation and study of MMOGs on the psychological and imaginative mapping of players onto avatars that I think we've come to accept that characters and their temporal development must be the center of these games, and I think that's literally the root of almost everything that doesn't work or isn't satisfying about the genre.

But removing the persistence of the character removes attachment and accomplishment. Consider voter disenchantment for one. Your suggestion is effectively just a group of players 'voting' for an outcome, with no vested interest in their vote. Not only that, but you'd have the inequity of powergamers ultimately deciding every vote -- and broken down further, a handful of guilds deciding the future.

And when I'm done playing the game, what have I done? Nothing. I haven't completed a Heroic Journey. I didn't rescue anyone or build anything. My name isn't etched in stone, or heard on the lips and tongues of the people I've saved. Sure, I chipped in. I contributed some minute fraction -- but that's hardly Heroic. Homer didn't write about the third Spartan from the left in the 23rd boat to reach shore.

I think we are all in agreement that world persistence is definitely a desirable thing. I just don't think there's going to be any sort of consensus on removing anything we currently have to get there.


Hellinar> But are they the whole point of MMORPGs?

Well, yes, if you mean, by MMORPG, the dominant group that plays the major EQ/UO-type games. I totally appreciate why you wouldn't want those things. You can certainly have worlds with story arcs and group role-play and even group narrative. I'm not saying ATITD (and all the MUSHes) don't exist, but I get the feeling Tim is saying that he would really like to see EA or Microsoft market a 100K+ game with a narrative arc model -- and I'm guessing that it won't happen because they're pretty sure that the majority of people who would be in the market to subscribe see these as games of a certain genre, which is not the participatory narrative genre.

Btw -- Lum just pointed to this, which is interesting to compare with Tim's complaints about the state of the genre.


greglas> I get the feeling Tim is saying that he would really like to see EA or Microsoft market a 100K+ game with a narrative arc model -- and I'm guessing that it won't happen <

I’d guess it wouldn’t happen too. But mostly because I don’t see narrative driven worlds as potential 100K worlds. I would see the max practical size of ATITD as 10K subscribers, beyond that it would lose much of what makes it attractive to me. Accumulation, treadmill based worlds do demonstrably lend themselves to mass market operations. Chains of thirty or more servers all offering the same menu, and a guaranteed if not very surprising experience. Much like chain restaurants. Narrative based worlds I’d see more as like the sole owner gourmet restaurant model, often driven as much by artistry as profit. The big money is likely to be in producing tools to enable people to open such establishments. I believe at least one person has already licensed the ATITD toolkit in hopes of opening their own world, and there may be others.

Whether there is much of a market for such alternatives I don’t know. I know of much anecdotal support for alternatives, but whether they will send money is the big unknown. I don’t see that market being tested by the likes of SOE or EA though. More likely through the efforts of small developers like eGenesis.


Weasel> I think we are all in agreement that world persistence is definitely a desirable thing. I just don't think there's going to be any sort of consensus on removing anything we currently have to get there.

I think we just need to expand and build depth to current systems. The exception is where the MMORPG is meant to be one-dimension game (CoH).

If one develops the depth of the gameworld further by adding strategic elements found in empire building games or RTS, the game world will have a stronger sense of persistence and change. ATITD does this well and can be a model for other games. I think players will appreciate the depth of a stready and progressing gameworld.



Hellinar>I’d guess it wouldn’t happen too. But mostly because I don’t see narrative driven worlds as potential 100K worlds.

I think that narrative driven worlds with sufficient depth and breadth can sustain 100K+ players on a single "shard".

One possibility is linking many ATITD regions together where the higher level gameplay is interaction with other regions.

My model is to build a Civilization/Warlord-gameworld down to the individual avatar level of granularity. GMs will play the kings and queens, players will fill the roles of the gentry, and NPCs filling the rest of the population.



Timothy Burke>it seems to me that good narrative experiences in a gameworld-centered design would be in the most profound sense consequentialist

What makes a narrative experience "good"? What makes it so good that you'll spend 2-4 hours a night every night for a year to experience it?

The problem with narrative is that there is no fun in it. There can be fun in it when it's your story, but then it isn't a narrative any more, it's (at least up to the climax) a game.

>And I think that a consequentialist game has to have in it the possibility of an end, just as I think characters have to permadie (which no one is willing to allow in a game that is character-centric.)

If people have invested themselves in the world, rather than in their characters, why would they be any happier when the world came to an end than they are when their characters do at present?



Hellinar>It is compatible if the unit of persistence is vested in the player Avatar.

Well yes, of course. I'd go beyond that, and say that even more is possible if the unit of persistence is recognised to be the player. However, most players don't look all that far ahead, which is ultimately why the permanent death of characters is now taboo.



If you're invested in the flow of events in the world, in a story, then seeing the world come to a conclusion isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. Even when I really enjoy a novel that is an act of world-creation (Tolkien, for example) and enjoy the setting and the characters, I also want to experience forward motion in the story and the release of a conclusion to events. There are forms of narrative which resist the linearity of beginning, middle, end--the picaresque among them. And perhaps ergodic narratives inherently resist the linearity of conclusion. So you don't necessarily have to have branching fiction in a NN-MMOG that rushes to a final terminus--there could be branches where the world just goes on and on.

But I think if players enjoyed the forward motion of the world's story, they wouldn't object at all to the world coming to an end. Especially if the game itself starts over. This is where A Tale in the Desert is especially interesting at the moment--i haven't seen that people are turning away in disgust with the game because it ended. Quite the contrary.

The reason players resist permadeath now, and would resist the end to a world, is because gameplay is character-centric and accumulative. You get more and more and more, and gameplay becomes an expression of labor time invested. Death penalties sting not because of any threat of real loss, but because they destroy labor time and slow accumulation. If you were freed from that accumulative drive, then you might find a different set of pleasures in a virtual world.

In an NN-MMOG, players would essentially be apprentice storytellers, demiurges. The pleasure would not be in an accumulative attachment to character or world, but in finding out how things come out. That proposition that there is "no fun" in narrative, that a narrative has to be wholly your own story to be pleasurable (or a game), strikes me as very odd indeed. The game here is about seeing whether you can pull or push the story of the world in a direction you find interesting, exciting, odd. Isn't that something of what happens in The Sims (NOT the Sims Online)? You don't directly control the Sims; they are not YOU. You push them this way and that way, manipulate them, try to make things come out the way you want them to come out. You decide to see what happens if you starve one to death, or allow the trash to accumulate. It's the basic impulse behind most sandbox games: you push the world this way and that, you find out what happens when you do this or that. So massify that, bring the wills and desires and story-telling instincts of a thousand other people into the picture.

I think there's actually been one very unsuccessful NN-MMOG already, but its lack of success doesn't discourage me, because I think its designers didn't realize it was a MMOG and didn't think about making it a game. I'm thinking of Majestic. The problem with Majestic was that there were no branches. Nothing the "players" did mattered: they just got served with the preloaded material and consumed it (very rapidly). So imagine Majestic, but with ten possible branches leading out of each month's consumption of the story, where what the players did and read and said to each other and created mattered. Maybe even imagine that the game's managers responsively created new storylines, new material, new branches, based on what the players did, where the story wasn't all preloaded or preset in advance, but was dynamically generated on the fly. I think that's what Richard Bartle wants, and I agree it's desirable, but I think even a dynamically generated, non-predestined sense of events and consequences and narrative in a virtual world can't be done without the handcrafted labor of human storytellers--at least, not yet.


Tim> In an NN-MMOG, players would essentially be apprentice storytellers, demiurges.

But your massive social narrative sounds so much like politics, Tim. And the individual experience of playing politics is boring for those who aren't politicians or wonks--in any event, politics aren't narrative. Aren't you shifting individual maximization behavior to group maximization behavior? That can't be more fun, except to the extent you think fun results from community decisionmaking. For some people, maybe that's true, but not for all.

Each player who experiences an MMOG, as a matter of convention, sees the world through an avatar's perspective--that unique perspective is where the narrative occurs and can be re-told as a narrative (if you can even call it a narrative and not "ergodic literature" e.g.). To the extent you're requiring them to say "I had a hand in stopping the necromancers" -- first, that realization doesn't seem much like narrative, and second, you've already got something quite like that happening with guild dynamics and, e.g., RvR combat in DAoC ("I had a hand in driving back the raiding party from Albion").

Some link-fodder to back up my points:

Clive Thompson on the feasibility of collaborative art:

Liz Klastrup on MMORPGs as narratives:


Richard >If people have invested themselves in the world, rather than in their characters, why would they be any happier when the world came to an end than they are when their characters do at present?<

My experience in ATITD is that the end of the world is a very liberating experience. My character, Hellinar, has become strongly associated with the running of a Central Bank in Egypt. A role my character is committed to, but I, as a player, am getting a little bored with. The end of the world provides an elegant exit from this situation. Much better than just canceling the account, or reneging in character on some given commitments. The new incarnation of my Avatar can start a new life, in a new field. But carry forward the reputation and social connections of previous Ages.

I’d say the major complaint in the current player base is not that the world is ending, but that the current tale has taken too long. The next Telling is planned to take a third of the time. I’d agree with Timothy though that this model isn’t doable if character worth is based mainly on accumulation of goods and skills. But such linear scorekeeping is familiar, especially amongst gamers. I don’t see alternative approaches being successful on any scale until VWs penetrate communities that use less linear measures of worth.


Where is Dave Ricky?

He should comment about the design for Wish as one of the main design feature is that:

"An online world, rather than simply a game environment, where the actions of players will be the most important things happening."

Wish was designed with many of Timothy's concepts: NN-MMORPG with forward motion of a world narrative and GM tools to queue up the next narrative paths on a day-to-day basis.

Any comments on Wish?


Great links, Greglas, thanks.

I think "I had a hand in stopping the necromancers" is a gameplay pleasure in and of itself. In fact, it seems to me that this is the kind of statement that players make when composing what have been called "emergent narratives": not so much a roleplayer's stories about their character or tinyplots, but stories about past deeds and great play sessions. Even powerlevellers and what I call utility-maximizers, when they're asked about their favorite MMOG experiences, often tell a story of participating in some major event, or about the time they had a unique, non-repeated experience of some kind.

But to that, I'd add another pleasure that I think players would get in the NN-MMOG: "I found the levers that move the world's story", This is a Bartle-type explorer's pleasure: you find not just a place or a character or a secret, but you find out what's happening in the story, what the goals of the NPCs are, and perhaps what other players are up to. You wouldn't necessarily know what kinds of player actions are unfolding unless you take in lots of information inside and outside of the game. I suppose that *is* like politics in some respect--it certainly recognizes that narrative action in MMOGs is of necessity a collective or group thing, even in an ordinary MMOG design. That's another problem with character-centricity: players want to be individual heroes and protagonists in environments where the virtual world doesn't have that kind of granularity.

Another possible gameplay pleasure: "I was there when the big event went down". Rather like the kind of ergodic dinner theater where you go from room to room viewing scenes that are unfolding simultaneously. You never see the whole play, but you may be present for an important scene through pure serendipity (or by sussing out where the likely nodalities of key conflict in the overall play might be.)


Timothy Burke>"I found the levers that move the world's story"...."I was there when the big event went down"

But are either of those gameplay pleasures mutually exclusive of character persistence?

Rather, aren't they enhanced by character persistence, when -- as Hellinar mentions upthread -- my character is known by other players for his contributions? When the Heroic Journey of my character directly maps back onto me?

A lack of world-state persistence certainly leaves the focus on the only possible measure left: character accumulation. But in a VW with both character and world-state persistence, is there anything to suggest character-accumulation must >i>remain the sole focus? Wouldn't it be diminished simply because the mindless collection of loot or stats is readily forgotten by the gameworld?


I'm coming late to a very long thread, so I have several comments which are more chronological than logical.

Tim: My problem with games as narration is I don't care about your narration, I play multiplayer games to interact with other players. I love ideas of fun and reactive worlds, but following someone elses script is a no go. Great stories are for single player games and for side quests, aka what I do to distract myself while waiting for friends so I can actually play. Instead, enable players (warning, recurring theme) to create their own conflict, and to resolve it. Yes I'm PvP+ for this reason, but that's just because it's the only way I've seen implemented so far. (I suppose it's no surprise that violence is the easiest way to deal with conflict and thus the most prevalent, at least in today's "primative" stages.)

John Prevost: In DAoC NPC vendors always bought and sold at the same price, or as you put it, they were unreactive. But the actual economy of the game was extremely reactive, because other humans were involved. There were pricing wars, trends, oversupplies, shortages, even heists and embargos, basically everything a (re)active economy could have. NPCs just played a very small role, which is as it should be, imho - the role of the designer is not to figure out what pricing AI to give her NPCs, it's what tools to give players to enable communication and trade. If one wants to be critical of DAoC's primitive economy it should be to the extent it failed in this aspect. Then again, at least there was something else to do in the game *cough* SWG *cough*.

Russell Conner: Back when I was a Shadowbane vaporware fanboi (oh how the mighty have fallen) I liked their idea of hiring NPC laborers much like you describe. But no one l33t enough to play that game would care about the economy OLOLOLOL. I hate when reality crashes in on my idealism, especially when that reality is maladjusted and unable to legally drive. But I digress.


Okay, I've just gotten back into EVE a bit, so I thought I'd report what's going on there. In EVE, it's possible to place buy and sell orders that are left in place--essentially providing a sort of commodities exchange. Any order is tied to a specific station, and when people browse the market they can see prices and volumes available to buy and sell for their entire region, even get a map of where prices are lowest, or where the most of something is available.

Before I started playing (the first time) there was apparently a fairly solid number of people who were trading as their primary occupation in the game. They would find a source for goods, buy them, and when they had enough to make a trip to pick them up, transport them, and sell them to be worthwhile, they would do so. This stopped before I joined, primarily (from the sound of it) because many players who wanted to be traders didn't understand the mechanics of the buy order/sell order system. They looked at it as a shopping market, not a commodities exchange. So they didn't realize "Oh, I can place a buy order for 0.01 credit per unit less than the person who is currently here, and get the materials when they show up." As a result, the very simplistic system that existed changed. Before the change, each station would sell up to a given number of a certain good each day, at a fixed price. The goods were always reloaded at the same time each day. Those who figured out buy orders left buy orders for them. Those who didn't complained that there was never anything to buy. So they changed it to the halfway-adaptive system I described above, which works in odd ways. As a result, that type of trade dried up.

The new controversy that's just come up is that people are allowed to place buy orders beyond their ability to pay. If anyone ever tries to sell something that the buyer can't afford, the trade does not go through, and the buyer is assessed a fine. This is a wonderful feature, as it increases the liquidity in the market considerably. The current practice of serious traders is to place buy orders in outlying areas, in significant excess of their actual liquid assets. Those buy orders (for minerals, as an example) are slowly filled up by small time miners, who are happy to be paid a good price for their goods at such a remote location. After a while, enough resources have accumulated in one location for the trader to take a large freight hauler down, pick up the goods, and transport them back to the central systems, where they place a sell order that the major manufacturers will buy from.

This is interesting, because it adds both to the volume and to the reactivity of the system: because traders can afford to place buy orders in out of the way places, speculating that the order will be filled over time, there are enough buyers in the market in even out of the way places that even small time miners like myself can find a good match. In addition, because they can afford to do this, it's rare that only one trader will be involved in a given area. This results in competition, which brings the prices available in line with the actual player value for goods. If supply decreases for some reason, the prices will rise. If demand drops, they'll fall. The system actually performs in a reasonable manner. The NPCs still have silly prices, but since people can always find a relatively nearby order, that's not a problem.

Anyway, now they're talking about shutting this down--making it impossible to set buy orders in excess of your ready cash--in effect, placing into escrow any money involved in these speculations. There's a lot of uproar about it among traders, and among those miners and manufacturers who understand how the system works. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

As for DAoC, replying to Staarkhand: Yes, this is true. But it's not the kind of robust economy I'm talking about. I guess the thing I'm seeing in EVE (and which I saw a little, but not enough, in SWG) is that the economy is complex enough to contain multiple roles for people. You have not only the raw material suppliers and the artisans, you also have the people who make a living by making their life simpler. In EVE, traders do that by allowing miners to concentrate on mining and not worry about shipping, and allowing manufacturers to concentrate on manufacturing and not worry about shipping. With a less robust economy, you end up with players doing all of the work themselves, or building a small organization to do it all in-house.

In SWG, because trade was not at all dependable, many crafters produced their own raw materials. One of the few places where outside trade went on on that end was power, which I was involved in: this was *such* a commodity, since everyone mining needed lots of it, that there was a brisk trade. For other resources, the main thing keeping specialized harvesters alive was the massive amount of cheap materials needed by beginning crafters to level up. (Made worse by the "holocron-mastering" boom.)

Anyway, a last thing I'll comment on again is this bit from the first paper:

"What is needed, in fact, is for these virtual economies to mature by design into political economies, where social life and economic activity are not optionally related but instead are understood as intertwined."

I actually think this is a pretty important and interesting thought. And not just from the point of view of economies. In my mind, the thing most necessary for a game world to feel alive is for the actions of players to impact other players. This leads to conflict at times, but it also leads to contact, and negotiation, and mutual understandings.

In ATITD, my first exposure to this idea was the problem of sheep. In ATITD, sheep live in pens. You can separate the males and females to keep them from breeding. You can slaughter the animals for valuable resources. You can put new sheep (which you find in the wild) into the pen. And you can put onions into the pen.

But there's a fly in the ointment--you see, if the sheep begin to starve, they get sick. They get an illness known as "sheep pox". This illness is communicable to other sheep in a very large area. So (before I joined) a law was passed, allowing anyone to place onions into any sheep pen. My exposure to this was a rundown camp left by people who had stopped playing the game. Their sheep weren't infecting my guild's sheep, but they were infecting other peoples'. We worked with others in the local region to keep the sheep fed for a while, while I drafted a petition to have that specific sheep pen torn down. The petition eventually passed into law, although it turns out it was slightly after another law which allowed abandoned buildings to be torn down, so it was rather obsolete. :) Another example is a vein of silver that was discovered near our guild hall--and it turns out that silver mines are *very polluting*. So we negotiated to buy out those people who had mines near enough to disrupt our growing.

And so on. This kind of interaction is really neat. And it doesn't really need very complicated programming--what it needs is a concept that the actions of an avatar can impact other avatars in unexpected ways--which later leads to a higher level of social consciousness when the player understands that his social actions have larger impacts as well, and that you have to be conscious of everything you do--whether it's "part of the game" or not, it's all part of the social fabric.

That's why I like the social and economic aspects of these games more than the combative aspects--and why I think it's very important to place good social and economic features in these games. It makes the world a living place, where there is conflict and resolution outside of "I hit you with sword, you die."

It is not necessary to force the power-gaming swordmonger to embrace my floofy (and yet aggressive) economic paths, or other peoples' more social paths, but it adds to the entire experience when all of these things are *there*.


Hellinar>My experience in ATITD is that the end of the world is a very liberating experience.

Are you sure it's the world that's liberating and not the end of the "game"?



Richard >Are you sure it's the world that's liberating and not the end of the "game"?<

My main interest is in VWs as worlds, rather than in the game they are built to support. Though Hellinar is now one of the oldest Egyptians about, he has only passed 2 of the 49 “Tests” that form the game in ATITD. Even some quite recent characters have passed a dozen or more. As a child, I often wondered “What would the world be like if X were different?”. “What would it be like to be the biggest kid in the class rather than the smallest?”. Its this meta game of “What if?” that I think attracts me to VWs. But I think I have explored enough of the possibilities of this Telling of ATITD. So the prospect a new world, with new paths and new features excites me.

I’m very eager to see how the efforts to change population density, from the current “one big suburb” to “city and country” affect the economy and social relations. Its just the sort of “what if” exploration that hasn’t previously been possible, except perhaps in the most draconian of dictatorships. The games these worlds are built to support seem rather too linear for my taste. They do form a good backdrop to the action though, and are certainly needed for commercial viability. But I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from “its just a game”. Mind you, my own VW effort does support a “game”. Growing flowers, planting gardens, and creating “moments of beauty”. This is inherently non linear enough to hold my interest. And “scorekeeping” is a mostly subjective and internal affair.


Hellinar>My main interest is in VWs as worlds, rather than in the game they are built to support.

And yet it's the end of the game that led to the end of the world that you found so liberating. Would it have been so liberating if they'd just said "the world will end at midnight on the last day of the month"?



Pardon my lateness. Too busy.

First, the Rubicite paper is absolutely brilliant. Tim's characterizations of the three (four) player groups is incredibly helpful. And he's put down on paper something I've thought about for a long time, and not just in the context of MMOGs: the fact that accumulation yields power which then influences culture. The maximizers have the juice to broadcast their way of doing things, and soon it seems that that is the ONLY way to do things. In the context of MMOGs, this is design problem and perhaps a design opportunity. If you can somehow make a kind of behavior attractive to the maximizers, it will become a treasured, core behavior of the entire population. That's the force of darwinism as applied to the cultural sphere, a tool that might be very useful.

I also found the narrative-nudge idea extremely valuable. In this discussion it seemed to suffer as a comparison to hyperfiction and also as a comparison to real history, as it implied an ending to things. I think both comparisons are improper. When I read Tim's suggestions, they struck me as similar to my own ideas about how to change the persistence character of MMOGs, which derive from the successes of athletic sports leagues. In sports, we have history AND persistence, together. Take soccer (football to those in the outremer). The history is that Brazil, Germany, France, and other countries win the World Cup at different times, with different players. The persistence is that Germany beats England in every major tourney. Just kidding! No, the real persistence is in the frame of the story, the way competition unfolds. You know there will be qualifying rounds, and then a round-robin, and then a single-elmination tournament, and then a final game watched by the whole world. And during each game, there is a persistence in the nature of play, the dramatic moments, and the ritualized interactions. Professional sports leagues have figured out how to take an entertaining core dynamic - 22 people chasing a ball around - and embed it in a gigantic narrative that is both always the same and always different.

I guess we could work out what the main features of the sports narrative are, among them a gradual increase in the effect of ongoing play on the narrative, structured dramatic events, rules requiring presence in fixed numbers at fixed times, and a thoroughly admirable resistance to patching the game to suit the current whims of players and audiences.

But the point is, there is something that can be done to get us going in that direction, and Burke's ideas really deserve some attention.

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