Unsharding Virtual Worlds

Unsharding Virtual Worlds

Now there is an odd phrase.

I read an article that is talking about MMO’s and player participation in the story… players having a real effect on the game story. Sound familiar? Their thought is that this is currently the last real unsolved challenge in MMO game design. I read the review with Myst Online in mind thinking about the MMO features we may need and some of the challenges. So, here are some of the concepts and how I see them in Myst Online.

Borg Capalini, another D’ni2 refugee, pointed me to this site for a story dealing with SL lag on Massively and I found this one much more interesting than lag. The article is a summary of a GDC 2009 topic meeting titled”User Generated Story: The Promise of Unsharded Worlds” by James Portnow, CEO and Creative Director of Divide by Zero. They have the idea that MMO’s are not tapping the potential of player created stories. They also think that players being able to affect the game are a very important aspect of the RP and game’s success, if not the single most important aspect. Letting every player participate in some way toward making world changing events and affecting the story is what they are exploring.

I think lighting the lake in Ae’gura1 was an attempt at that type of game play. As Portnow describes it, “You should allow universal participation. Everyone should be involved in your massive choice event. If you allow your lowliest player to feel like they’re touching a living world, feel like they’re making the tiniest difference in a grander story[…] it gives them that exciting campfire story. That moment later on where they encounter something that changed and they can relate ‘I was there. Here’s what I did then…”

Portnow thinks it takes more than just groups and factions. It seems there needs to be large overriding issues that people can support or oppose. Is that what Cyan (Myst Online author) was trying to create with the DRC verses Yeesha3 ideas or the Bahro4 conflict? If one side or the other won, would it have made a difference how we could explore the cavern and ages? Could we do that now?

There is also the issue of building communities. Being able to build towns and control them. Select homes where friends can be nearby. It seems to greatly affect player participation. It certainly does in SL. In LoN serious players rent or buy land within the game and build fortresses, homes, shops, party places… Portnow points out the need to be able to do this easily and avoid making it a chore. Something that I definitely see as a problem for the open source version of Myst Online.

He points out an interesting premise that… “If you’re developing a procedurally-generated MMORPG… the players are smarter than any system you could possibly build,” Portnow says. “But if you can limit the amount of time players can break your system it’s actually *not* a disadvantage. Players will be excited about the fact that rather than exploiting, they found something creative to do in this landscape.”

While I am unsure exactly what he means, I guess he means the two premises I come up with and find interesting. The players in any MMO have far more brain power to bring to bear than any development team. Think of SL with 85,000 players logged in. This means if they want to break the game they can. It is literally 10’s of thousands against a few hundred. In SL griefers regularly do bring down sims. Think about how hard we in Myst Online worked to find ways past the DRC barriers5. And who was it that spent the time to learn to do the first balcony jump6? I always wondered if the jump came from figuring out where they thought they could get to or just boredom while waiting for a new area to open?

The amount of time payers can break your system… now that is a novel concept… I mean I know digital systems can be broken. We have years of attempted copy protection for games and I think everyone of them has been broken in less than 90 days if not 90 hours. But to design for that and make it integral to the game’s development… to expect it… that is very Deming* like. Some of the more interesting activities in Myst Online were game bugs and flaws. The Gahreseen Skydive, for one. (a camera glitch would toss the AV and camera a couple thousand meters straight up giving one a spectacular view of the game world on the way down – it didn’t hurt… much).

The slides from the panel meeting are here: Slides – there are fascinating points to be found.

A new concept to me is the idea of Massive Choice Events, things that fundamentally change the world. This is change in how the game can be played from that point on. These are things that are tied to the game mechanics and have a universal effect on the game and players. In the case of Myst Online that could have been the Great Zero7. If the calibration runs had actually changed something, this could have been such an event, lighting the lake another. Some changes might mean patching the game. Stealing a linking machine… getting a boat working… fixing parts of Teledahn8

The ideas that drive player RP are based on players having real choices that have real consequences and removing restrictions that control those choices. Plus having those choices affect other players. Having universals effect is key to player involvement. It makes players more invested as it is something that affects them. Plus the effect that players can have is not equal and trying to make equal creates more complication in design. So, while everyone gets to participate not all players participation is equal. Think about tossing pills in the lake. Those that participate more have more effect. So, the game may gear more toward player participation than fairness, which for game survival and popularity is likely to be more important.

Making choices in a Massive Choice Event too easy detracts from the play. Massive Choice events are thought to be best if they are a near thing… it could go either way. Plus the effort to effect the change should not be trivial. The more players are invested, the more they will participate. Think of the idea as one or two pills can’t change the lake. The result being universally popular is also not always a good idea. If the result is controversial players may decide to unit and undo the change. It can create more drama and game play. The outcome of event should be easy to anticipate (think brighter cavern) allowing players to know what they are supporting or opposing. Letting them know when the vent is happening is also key for their participation.

In RP games providing the ability for players to cheat creates more turmoil and political involvement. This can go too far but it adds a tension to the game that is often otherwise boring. Game developers actually need to stir up trouble and create issues. Think of the DRC closing the Library9 because… whatever. Creating common enemies is another thing to allow players to choose sides. Were the Bahro to be turned into a common enemy? May be a sympathetic enemy to divide players and let them take sides?

The panel was taking and recommending that writers learn from ARG’s. Learning what people do in ARG and how they react can guide the game development.

I find much of this information fascinating. I see many of these ideas in Myst Online. At the time Myst Online was being designed Cyan was likely ahead of their time. Now the gaming community is catching up with these ideas and extending and refining them. Technology is allowing the ideas to be implemented in new ways. I see pieces of all these ideas in Myst Online but I don’t see the game technology in the current engine to support it. Building homes and communities in Myst Online is a chore and tediously time consuming. Many of these ideas would move too fast for the production tube we seem to have, which again is why I would like to see the Myst Online content be available for newer platforms. I do think it is possible to create a Myst like virtual world with the things need to unshard the story. I think this is possible to do without losing the nature of the game.

I look forward to seeing the meeting transcript.

* W. E. Deming 1900-1993.

Ae’gura – a central area in Myst Online where players could gather. It was also known as the City. It is in an underground cavern and has a lake that dimly glows. It was possible to bake algae food pills and toss them in the lake to brighten it. There was considerable controversy and disappoint when players found out they were not really affecting the lake but arbitrary changes were being made by game managers.

2 D’ni Restoration Council – game characters in Myst Online that restricted access to areas of the game. These were the people restoring the underground city and worlds it leads to. They were charged with protecting explorers and were considered overly protective by many.

3 Yeesha – daughter of a long time Myst character. She learned the skill of writing links to other worlds and was more accomplished at than any other in her life time. She opposed the slavery of the Bahro. A central figure in player politics and sides.

4 Bahro are magical creatures with powers over time and nature. They were kept in slavery by the D’ni people. It is not clear exactly how that worked or how the Bahro were treated. These creatures where just becoming key players when the game closed.

5 DRC barriers – The DRC restricted areas of the game until they decided is was ‘safe’ for players to be there. This was part of the political turmoil for RP in the game and possibly a tool to slow down demand for new content.

6 Balcony Jump – a well know exploit that allowed players access to restricted areas of the game. It involved a complex balancing act on a tiny ledge, a quick turn and jump over a balcony railing. It took some practice and time to learn to accomplish it.

7 Great Zero – a contraption that controlled an in game type of GPS system. Players ahd to calibrate by finding special markers in game and collecting them. Once calibrated it could be turned on and … well we were never sure what it was to do.

8 Teledahn – one of the worlds that could be found from the cavern.

9 Library – this was a gateway to several worlds. Closing it would have blocked access to them.

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