What Makes Virtual Worlds Successful


Enacharys in Second Life - Puzzle Game

Many game fans are considering whether they can build a game better than the one they are playing. They are looking ahead and trying to work out what will make their game viable and entertaining enough to survive. James Portnow has written a blog post titled Designing a Single Sever MMORPG at GameSetWatch.com discussing what is need to make MMORPG’s successful. JWPlatt founder of OpenUru.org posted about it in a post in that forum. I’ve been looking at RPG’s and MMO’s to find the differences between successful and not so successful RPG’s.

One of the things important to MMO’s that is so basic to Mr. Portnow that it is not even directly mentioned as a requirement in his lists is player population… concurrent participation. He goes directly to population density, game area per player.

There is some minimum number of players needed for a game to be self sustaining. I doubt it is a hard dividing line number or is even the same for all games. For Mr. Portnow’s example he uses 80,000 for the world he is envisioning. World of Warcraft (WoW) is said to be designed for about 4,000 concurrent players. Second Life regularly supports over 80,000. Having enough land that cities and interesting places are not over populated is a key. I would say the balance of over verses under populated is the real key.

Another key element is having interesting things for all the players to do. We see a variety of attempts by game companies to create player activities. But it is variety that appeals to people. Some do not like to grind. Others like to explore, solve puzzles, earn prizes, engage in combat (skill), plan strategies, socially interact and other various things. I don’t like to do the same thing every day… some days I like to explore, others shop.

Another feature he points out is game ‘cohesiveness’. Or a storyline that is consistent through the game. For instance, while Second Life is extremely varied and chaotic, games with in SL have storylines and they hold to their story frame. So, one can see this idea in action in Second Life and which ways work best and the problems with keeping stories on thyme.

He points out what needs to be in virtual worlds. He uses terms for MMO’s that relate best to WoW and related games. Still the same archetypical elements exist in all games. They are;

  • Cities & Settlements – places for player homes or team bases. Gathering places.
  • Monsters – think of this as something to contend with… it does not have to be dragons or other critters. It can be political groups, other races, environmental problems (in Uru lighting the lake) or anything to create tension in the game.
  • Natural Resources – for many games these are the things one needs to build other things within the game. In other games these might be puzzles, news, social gatherings… ‘Resources’ are the archetype of all things that players need for some reason, i.e, land to build on, a rope to climb, a light to see or keys to open things.
  • Dungeons – He seems to be using this term to represent ‘Instances’ in the technical sense meaning how the computer system handles game play areas. In Myst-Uru everyone had their own copy of some of the game areas. I could open a door in mine and you could close it in yours. Mine would be open when I come back and yours closed when you went back. There is nothing like that in Second Life, afaik. Some games have it and others don’t. It’s a technical aspect I’ll skip.

It is the building of these parts of the game that needs to be included within the foundation of the game. If players can add to the world using these basic features, a huge content creation load is removed from the developers.

In Second Life we see a building system as a basic part of SL. In EVE and SL building can take place withn the game. In Myst Online building is a separate function handled by the developer and not a part of the game. All building takes place outside the game. Portnow points out that building the ‘building system’ is cheaper than building ALL the content. Said another way, it is more efficient to let fans build content.

The Myst-Uru model and several other games is different from the models that are succeeding. To explain this distinction from what Portnow is saying I’ll say in the case of Uru fans they have become developers. The distinction gets confusing because now players/fans are also game developers. Because a player must go out side the game and develop content (build) it is not in game building. This leaves building to those that choose to become part of a development team.

This shatters the immersive quality and cohesiveness of a game that would endeavor to allow players to affect game play. You have split rather than unified the players.

Portnow also moves into the areas of costs and rewards, income if you will. For a players time spent building content there should be reward. Developers are trying various cost/reward systems. Second Life’s has been wildly popular and many are modeling along those ‘reward’ lines.

There are also control facets of the game. To keep things cohesive if one wants a quaint 17th century village then they want it to stay 17th century. Adding Sci-Fi buildings from the 24th century is not going to be considered ‘cohesive’. So, from control spins off politics or combat as ways to decide who controls. Democracy or ‘might is right’ choices tint the tone of the game.

In Myst-Uru the guilds are somewhat the political path. But just as Second Life allows team builds (democracies or oligarchies) and fiefdoms (dictator owns sim) so too the open source or original creation will provide the freedom of choice for those running game servers. So, many of these decisions are being made outside the game. Portnow’s point is about designing to have most of these things happen within the game.

But all of this boils down to what many game players have learned. A player being able to affect the game is an incredible part of enjoying the game. All of the above points are leading to this single idea and how to implement it.

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