What I know about game design #1

This is the first entry in a series called “What I know about game design”. It is an attempt of writing a collection of articles where I summarize some of the game design experience I have gathered during a decade in the games industry. If you haven’t already, read the introduction.

Before you start reading, know that depending on who you are you might find some of it rather basic, and that is as it should – I want the series to become a solid foundation to stand on for aspiring designers.

#1: Always communicate

The importance of communication

It might not seem like it when putting that latest AAA blockbuster disc into your console, but games really are chaotic collections of systems, sounds, 3d models, animations, text, stories and ideas. What people see as a game is a million moving pieces orchestrated by a team of game development professionals. They are webs of countless artificial rules. An unbeliavable amount of work has gone into making it seem like a life like experience rather than the incredibly complicated piece of software that it actually is.

It is your job, as a game designer, to make sense out of that complexity. Without you carefully chiseling out the contact surface between game and player, the experience will be one of confusion and frustration. You need to make sure that the player understands what’s going on, what he’s meant to do and how it can be done. And here’s the catch – you need to do so without encumbering the player with information and without ever breaking her suspension of disbelief.

It’s not a simple task. In fact, one of the most common questions I ask of my coworkers is “how do you communicate that?”. So often when we designers have an idea, or sometimes even when we have already implemented it, we’ve not thought of how to communicate the idea to the player. And our failure to communicate the new cool idea will mean that it will either go past the player unnoticed, or it will blow up in her face and frustrate her. And then it is either a waste of production time or actively hurting the game experience.

“How do you communicate that?” Ask yourself that question often.

Even worse is the notion that certain things doesn’t need to be communicated. That the players should find those concepts out on their own, as if complex rules that aren’t expressed in an understandable way somehow enter the player’s conciousness through osmosis. No. Trying to create a gameplay challenge by being obscure is not entertainment nor gameplay. You’ll only confuse the player.

“Challenge through obscurity is not gameplay.”. Make that your mantra.

The fidelity of the information that must be conveyed to players is staggering. Just to show to what level of detail you must consider it, let’s look at something as simple, mundane and obvious as doors in a typical first person shooter. What must an FPS communicate to the player about its doors?

DoorsCan doors be opened? How do I open a door? Can all doors be opened? If not, how do I determine which doors that can be opened and which are not? Are some doors locked and can be unlocked? If so, how do I differentiate between doors that are locked and doors that cannot be opened? How do I unlock locked doors? If I have unlocked a door, will it remain unlocked? What is the difference between a locked door that can be unlocked and a door that can never be opened? When I open a door, will it close automatically? Can I close doors manually? If so, how do I close a door? Can the NPCs of the game open doors? Can the NPCs of the game unlock doors? Can the NPCs of the game close doors?

All these questions represent aspects of your game that the player must understand. And this is simply identifying potential questions. The next step is to find out how to give the answers.

How to communicate information

During the 80´s and early 90´s games often came with thick manuals explaining the intricate details of the games. With sufficiently complicated titles you started off by doing research; you got home and sat down in front of the computer, but instead of turning it on you opened the manual at page one. And you studied it to understand how the game worked and how you controlled it. If you played a game and didn’t get it, that was your own fault.

Boy have things changed.

But we didn’t go directly from there to where we are today. There was a long transition process where studios relied less and less on manuals and more on tutorials. More and more games had entire training levels that would teach the player the fundamental mechanics. These were often outside the game’s campaign, not worrying too much about trying to integrate them into the story, not caring about breaking the fourth wall or making much sense from a narrative perspective. But step by step they reduced the need for manuals, and each step also reduced the players’ tolerance for having to study before enjoying their newly purchased game.

Suddenly the cardboard boxed game disappeared alltogether from store shelves, replaced by today’s thin plastic boxes, and there were no longer room for thick, information crammed manuals. Tutorials became a necessity.

Tutorial doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did then. A slow process of increasingly sophisticated design work has integrated it into the normal gameplay creating a singular game experience. A modern tutorial is not a training level separate from the main campaign. If done right, it is unnoticable. Learning how to play comes naturally, effortlessly, by simply playing the game.

Players today expect to get the game while playing it – they just want to hit “new game” and get going without ever worrying about how to play. They don’t care for long or suspension-of-belief-breaking tutorials anymore; the game world and all it’s functionality should ideally explain itself without ever drawing attention to the fact that it is being explained. The designer’s hand should remain invisible. Occasionally informing players that there are hints on how to do certain things whenever a new concept is introduced is still considered acceptable, as long as the hints are not forced on the players.

The modern way of teaching an audience how to play a game is usually a two step approach.

  1. Start out with very low complexity, and then slowly introduce new concepts in a deliberate and careful pace. The goal is to increase the complexity at a pace the player can follow without being overwhelmed or confused – but make sure that the game’s complexity does not stay low for too long or the audience will grow bored.
  2. When a new concept is introduced, give the player the chance to test it out. Do not linger – allow the player to use the new concept before he have forgotten the little he has already learned about it, before he has forgotten about the concept alltogether and before additional concepts have been introduced making the player overwhelmed. Make the scenario in which he can test out the newfound concept simple enough – the goal is not to challenge him here but to teach him and make him appreciate the feature. If the testing ground is difficult well before he has even learned the basics of the concept, he is likely to become frustrated and might actually fail to absorb the lesson you are trying to give him.

What kind of information needs to be conveyed? To better understand how to communicate different aspects of a game we need to unravel its web of complexity.

Communicating verbs

Understanding the verbs, or the things the player can do – her abilities – is the foundation of a playable game, because they are the interface into the gameworld. Teaching the player the verbs starts the second the game begins. The most basic ones – looking around, moving around, jumping and crouching in the case of an FPS – needs to be taught immediately so that the player can begin to interact with the game space.

Here are the things you need to consider when communicating the verbs.

How do I use each verb? In very concrete terms, how is a specific verb activated? How do I jump? How do I equip a specific weapon? How will I repair the broken machine? How do I get my plane in the air?

Takeoff

It is not simply about informing the player how these things are accomplished (which is tutorial territory). If you think systematically about player interaction you can create mental models in the player’s mind about how interaction works. If verbs A, B, C and D are accessed according to a system, and the player knows how to access A, B and C, he should be able to figure out how to use D as well.

If I know that a specific weapon can be equipped by pressing  1 and another one by pressing 2, it is intuitive to try pressing 3 when I get a third weapon. After having fixed several broken down generators that all emitted specific smoke and spark effects, I’ll probably try the same button when I encounter a broken down car that emits the very same effects.

What are the functions of the available verbs, and what are the possible consequences of using them? Make sure that you give the player clear feedback when using a verb, both to communicate that the game recognized the action and to inform the player of the action’s consequences. Even if the real results of a verb is long term, ensure that there is some immediate feedback so that it’s understood that the input was registered.

Sound, effects, text, animation, AI and other systematic responses are all good methods for displaying the effects of a used verb.

Sometimes there are verbs that are quite similar but have some important differences. In these cases, make sure that the feedback differs enough to make the verbs feel unique – and see to it that the feedback is designed in ways helping the player understand where the difference lies.

When is a verb available and when it is not? Certain verbs are only available in certain contexts or locations, and you need to make sure that the player understands when they’re available or unavailable, and preferably the contextual difference enabling or disabling them.

Your best tool is again a systematic approach to create mental models. If If I have learned that all doors with a yellow frame can be opened, the first time I encounter a window framed by a yellow list I am likely to try to open it. I am also likely to ignore windows lacking that yellow list.

Communicating challenges

So the player knows the verbs, but to realize when there is good use for a specific verb you need to be clear about the gameplay challenge ahead. If the challenge is especially responsive to certain verbs, make sure it communicates that in an effective way. Discovering or figuring out how to solve a gameplay challenge with the available verbs is a common and often entertaining challenge, but there are some guidelines how you should communicate the challenge.

Firstly, make sure there’s a “hook” or a “tell”, something that informs the player that there is something here to connect a verb to. Think of the blinking weak points of the classic shoot-em-up boss battles or the empty space that breaks the horizontal lines in Tetris. Something that stands out from the noise, shouting “hey, I’m interesting somehow”.

Secondly, make sure it’s consistent with the title’s internal logic (the one the verbs should already follow) and that its logical nature is signposted, so that the challenge is something the player can grasp through reason based on the information he has learned from the game.

Thirdly, think “systems” when creating gameplay challenges. A game is a player mastering a number of systems over time, and if you base your challenge on a system the player has been exposed to numerous times, she has a better chance of understanding it because she has created a mental model in which to place the challenge.

Whatever you do, don’t make it arbitrary or random. Challenge through obscurity is not gameplay.

Communication player choice

The truth is that most games do not have a lot of player choice beyond the basic, immediate and physical gameplay (with simple, short term choices like what weapon you use, if you use cover, if you try to strafe away from rockets, etc.). If you work on one of those games, and you have a mere handful of instances where the player have deeper, meaningful choices – make sure the player is fully aware of the choice whenever it appears. Don’t let it go to waste by drowning in an inferno of information. Make them realize that the choice is there, and that it has serious consequences.

Communicating objectives

How to best tell a story in a game is well beyond this text. What I do want to say is that when it comes to story resulting in player objectives, clarity is key. Don’t be vague. Do what you can to get the player to understand the following:

  • What his current objectives are. Whenever a new objective is recieved or an old one is resolved, pull no stops to be certain that the player got it, that he knows that a change occured and what it means.
  • What is necessary to solve them. Is it necessary to do or acquire X and Y before attempting to solve Z, then the player should be informed of these requirements and what they consist of.
  • How to reach them. Help the player navigate to the solution of the objective.

Communicating navigation

Tokyo subway

Helping the player reach her objectives in a 3D environment is one of our biggest challenges.  This is because each area is unique, and because balancing between the two terrible worlds of confusion and linearity is a continous walk on a razor’s edge. You don’t want the player to be frustrated because he is lost, and you don’t want the player to be frustrated because he’s being hand held.

You need to guide the player towards her current goal effectively, preferably with an invisible hand. If you’re leading with waypoints, voice messages, lighting, hint coloring or content breadcrumbs is up to your taste, the target audience and the tone of the game – but whatever you do, do not underestimate how difficult and important this is. It is easy to believe that your level is easy to navigate, but you’re wrong. You’re just wrong. Players will get lost and frustrated, and you will only realize this when you see players testing your content for the first time.

Even very experienced designers are continuosly surprised over how players manage to get lost in their “perfectly” tuned levels. Don’t mistake the players’ confusion for exploration. Challenge through obscurity is not gameplay indeed.

Final words

A common notion is that if you provide too much information to the player she will end up feeling like you’re holding her hand. We’ve all played games where we have felt this and grown frustrated by it – it is a serious problem and a matter to be handled delicately. But the truth is that it’s not the the amount of information communicated but how it is communicated. You can be clear but subtle. A steady hand that cannot be felt.

You must become the player’s invisible guide.

What I know about game design: Introduction

Depending on who you are, most of the knowledge and experience you gather through the years lies silent. Silent knowledge guides your decisions; it is your intuition, your instincts. But it remains outside your grasp to be used as intellectual tools, locked away from reason and thought. Structured thinking about your craft is impossible if you have no grammar for what you know.

Instincts won’t convince opponents or the people you are set to lead. They might be enough when working alone, but relying on silent knowledge when you’re a part of a team is like bringing a dull blade to a fight.

The goal, then, must be to sharpen it – to transform the silence to a vocabulary. A vocabulary to communicate what you know. And the transformation might be surprisingly easy, as long as you do the necessary work. You identify what you believe, and then examine exactly why it is you believe those things. Examine what governs your gut feelings.

Back in Norway I taught a class of game design students for a while, a gig that required me to be able to communicate what I knew about game design with some precision. So for each topic I taught I had to do the work – I had to pinpoint exactly the principles of design my experience had given me. That was incredibly useful. Not only did it give me the ability to talk about it in a better way, but it allowed me to examine some of my ideas about design and test them to see if they held water, and if not improve on them.

The reason I’m telling you all this is to motivate why I’m starting a series of blog posts called “What I know about game design”. Teaching was one way to do the job, and writing is another one. So I’ll be writing a series of ten blog posts about the principles guiding my design work, as a way to share my experience and ideas with you, but just as importantly to continue examining what I think about design.

The truth is that I don’t know the topic of each and every instance of those ten blog posts. This is an exploration. Hopefully it’ll be worthwhile for both of us.

The Designer’s Dictionary: Cool

The Designer’s Dictionary is a new series of blog posts looking into different aspects of game design, each time focusing on one word. 

One of my many favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. It’s got good story, great characters, fearless structure and a pitch perfect Tarantino cool. Unfortunately none of his other movies seem to fuse that specific brand of coolness with interesting characters quite as well as Pulp Fiction, however entertaining they might be. His latest movies appear too self aware, like their style is padding rather than an inherent quality.

The Tarantino cool is found somewhere between characters, dialog and the violence, and cinema as a whole would be less without it. It’s amoral, but its just so good that we forgive it. We only get a slice of it once or twice every decade, so whenever it comes our way we’re just happy to get a taste.

But imagine if most of Hollywood was defined by it. What if the majority of movies were – more than anything – striving to be cool? The whiff of excitement and freshness would quickly turn into a stale and putrid stench. Tarantino, a huge film nerd, really makes movies about movies, celebrations of film genres. His movies are morally empty, defined by style over substance. A movie industry plagued by Tarantino wannabes would be a terrible thing.

Unfortunately the games industry is to a large degree just that. One of the most common words in game design discussions, brainstorming sessions, PR events and perhaps even games journalism is “cool”. 

Good writers and movie directors understand that the experiences they craft require some level of substance and cannot simply be a series of cool events. They know that their works require careful pacing between the fast and the slow, between the highs and the lows, between tension and release. That the audience must be able to not only believe in the characters but also identify with them and their struggles. They get how important it is that the plot grabs hold of the audience, allowing them to invest emotionally in the outcome.

It needs to be about something. Something people care about.

Here’s what I think. I believe “cool” is a crutch for the untalented, the lazy and the immature.

If you happen to not have what it takes to do something good, making it cool is still accepted as a substitute. The bar is still set that low, if only because there are too few trying to push it higher.

For those that do have the chops but not the will, going down that route is always an easy way out. Proper design, proper writing is very difficult indeed, so why not make it easy for yourself? Well, you should have some pride in your work and respect for the art.

For kids, cool could be enough. I guess it’s often more than enough, looking back at my own childhood. But the majority of our audience are grownups now, so we better grow up too. Sure, adults like spectacle as well – but only momentarily. To hold their attention for a longer period of time, something deeper is necessary.

Let’s stop confirming the public’s poor perception of our craft. Let’s make better games.

Backlog of games

Currently not having my own place or even most of my things, I got no hardware to play games on. Well, I got my trusty netbook (which I use to type these words), but it even struggles making video calls over Skype.

I did get it to run Half-Life 1 with a decent framerate, though. But it ended up just being a nice experiment. I’m not going to spend my evenings replaying games I have already spent too many hours with. Perhaps someone reading this could give some suggestions on good, modern games that works well on a netbook? I’d appreciate it.

As I don’t have my desktop, or my Xbox 360, my games backlog grows and grows. I did get to play a bit of Deus Ex: Human Revolution during a weekend in Oslo, and I can’t wait to get back to it. I love deep, open game worlds, and that game seems to scratch that itch. Of course, not being able to play it just makes the itch worse.

Here’s my current backlog:
– Deus Ex: Human Revolution
– Risen
– The Witcher 2
– Bulletstorm
– Dead Island

Just those games could easily swallow a couple hundred hours (especially the RPGs). And that list only contains games I really do want to play – my Steam list of games I own but have yet to play is far longer. Games I don’t necessarily want to play, but need to play.

That is the plight of the game designer.

Adventures in Asunderland

I was at a crossroads. The path ahead split into three, two leading into unexplored terrain and one returning to where I came from. Without an idea where to go, all I knew was that I desired change. None of the unwalked paths seemed worthy traversing, but my lust for something new pushed me ahead nonetheless.

After almost 8 years, it was time to leave Norway.

There were more reasons than just an urge for new horizons. I had considered moving on from Norway for years, and suddenly there were several factors in life suggesting that now was the time to make the big leap.

The options?

France, in a small but beautiful city with a international studio. A good project, but not the role or the place for me.

Bulgaria, in the capital (Sofia) with another international studio. An interesting project, but this time the role was also appealing. But the city proved, after an onsite interview, to be terrible.

Neither option was the life I wanted. Far from it. Still, they were opportunities, and a change was necessary. Or so I thought.

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, my intuition screamed “no”. But I would have none of that. I tried to analyze the different offers, engaging my intellect to find the optimal decision, in a constant dialog with myself. But I was still at a loss.

Alice, lost in adventures much more wonderous than the ones I ultimately had, sought guidance from the grinning Cheshire Cat.

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

And so I simply chose one of the paths, ending up in Sofia.

Sofia. The forgotten capital of Europe. Poor, ugly, broken and corrupt – and here I intended to live.

The city is Eastern Europe at its worst. The communist era apartment complexes litter the city as tombs of crumbling concrete, polluting even otherwise nice areas with their towering desperation. The retired begs for your “leva”, much to poor to survive on their tiny pensions. Packs of wild dogs, with or without rabies, scavenges the dirty streets for food and shelter.

I stayed just short of a month. It would have been difficult for me to be happy there, despite the kind nature of the Bulgarian people and the good food. The wealth a western salary provides in Bulgaria doesn’t matter – in Sofia everyone is poor, because whenever you step outside your luxurius home you’re still in Sofia. Returning to Oslo became the only sane option, and this time my choice felt right.

Steve Jobs, in an inspiring speech given to graduate students at Standford University, delivered the following memorable quote:

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

A simple idea, yet so difficult to internalize. But it’s true, it’s powerful and it’s important to understand. Sheath your intellect, if only for a moment, and listen to your instinct. Then you will know what path is yours, even if the destination still eludes you.

Perhaps my little adventure in Sofia will become meaningful when observed in the mirror years from now. By then I have hopefully learned to trust my intuition.

Koster on “gamification”

A great annoyance to many game designers, the idea of “gamification” of websites is getting increasingly popular. It’s the idea of borrowing a foundation of game mechanics to motivate consumers to interact with content, to stick around and become loyal to the site – by giving the consumer (I almost wrote “player”) points or other rewards for doing so. It’s not only cynical, it’s a misunderstanding of what games are.

Raph Koster said it much better than I can hope to do, so I’m quoting him:

“When we train game designers, when we critique projects, and when we discuss what makes games compelling, we certainly do discuss feedback. But what we dwell on is the game systems, the core loop.”

Click your way to his blog – and if you haven’t done so yet, read his excellent book A Theory of Fun.

A great autumn

I guess this is autumn. More and more leaves are fading, it’s getting colder and the nights are no longer bright (Scandinavian summer nights are fantastic). Normally I hate autumn, but I cant help liking this one. It’s not because of the summer’s death (yes, dramatic language – that’s how much I normally hate autumns), but because of the work I’m doing.

To begin with I’m writing system design for an exciting new (undisclosed) game at a cool new startup studio. In addition to this I’m lecturing about game design at a university, to students on their third year towards a bachelor of “experience production and interactive media”. Both jobs are a lot of fun. They’re intellectually stimulating, and both focusing on a topic I’m passionate about – game design.

I love doing design work in general, but it’s even better when it’s for a game I’d love to play myself. The title I’m working on now excites me both as a designer and as a player.

Now, I must admit I really had no idea how creative the job of a teacher was. Not only do I define the topics, but each topic has to be researched and then expressed in an engaging manner. Great fun!

The Untapped Potential of the MMO

This is the script from my lecture at GDC Europe 2010, on the 17th of August. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll use the summary from GDC to describe it.

“MMOs relying on the player to weave her own story becomes an increasingly distant idea as developers borrow narrative traditions from singleplayer games. The gains of the designers’ sophistication in storytelling are easy to see, but what are the drawbacks of this path? Are there alternatives to handcrafted content, and what would the benefits of such alternatives be?

We look at the losing battle of creating the never-ending game, the limitations of static content in multiplayer environments, and the dynamic systems that could be the core of our worlds.”

I’ve added a few of the slides to the script when I felt that it was necessary to convey something. For bigger versions, just click on the images. If you want the slideshow itself, it can be downloaded from my website as a Powerpoint document or a PDF document.

Take a deep breath. It’s a long read.

The Untapped Potential of the MMO

(Or Why Han Solo Returned to Finish the Fight)

Introduction

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for attending this session after a long day. It is a pleasure and a privilege to speak to you here at the GDC tonight.

About the speaker

A few quick words about me to begin with. My name is Andreas Öjerfors. I’ve worked with the design and production of MMORPGs since 2004, having worked on Age of Conan and Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer. I was hired to do content design and to write story, but have since moved on as a senior designer and as a lead of design- and production teams.

Before becoming a designer, I was a games journalist and editor-in-chief of the Scandinavian gaming magazine PC Gaming World.

I am currently working with a start-up studio doing design work, while also lecturing about game design at the University of Hedmark, in Norway.

I have the perspective of a storyteller. While this is not really a talk about what you normally would call storytelling – it’s not about plot, dialog or characters – it is about the thousand little things that build up the player’s experience. Those things, everything from combat animations to the balance in a tradeskill system, is to me, among other things, storytelling. But then I am talking about the so called “player’s story”.

The session’s title

I also want to say a few words about the session itself. The session is called “The untapped potential of the MMO”. With MMO I largely mean MMORPG, but I believe quite a bit of what I have to say applies to other massive genres as well. The examples I will use are all MMORPGs, but the lessons are more general in nature. The important part is the two first letters of the acronym, MM – Massive Multiplayer.

One important point to note is that it’s mainly about western games and the western market.

After this session you will hopefully have the answer to two important questions; how do we reach the inherent potential of the MMO, and why did Han Solo return to finish the fight, in the end of Star Wars IV: A New hope?

Ok, let’s begin.

As rats in a lab

Do you ever feel like rats?

I’m not suggesting you’re all disease carriers covered in hair. Neither am I making an analogy to rats in a maze, hunting for the ever so allusive cheese – even though it might have been fitting here at the GDC. But I am making an analogy.

No, everyone in this room is human. More or less. But we share more traits with rats than perhaps most of us are willing to admit or even consider. One such trait is the neurological mechanics for reward and punishment.

This is a Skinner box. I’m sure quite a few of you are aware of it even if you aren’t interested in behaviorism, having been discussed before in regards to MMORPGs.

So what is the Skinner box? It’s a classic experiment. A rat is put into a box with two levers. Pushing one of the levers will generate a food pellet, while the other will give the rat an electrical shock.

The researchers teach the rat to push the levers by introducing rewards for each step to actually pushing the correct lever. Eventually, the rat will learn to push the food pellet lever.

The test showed Doctor Skinner that the frequency of performing a certain behavior depends on if the behavior is rewarded or punished. The action of pushing the lever has in itself no intrinsic value to the rat, but because of the associated reward he will continue to push and push again.

Different methods of rewarding the rat gives different results. A fixed interval schedule, simply giving a reward over a time period, say every 5 minutes, regardless of lever-pushing, is not a very effective method of making the rat push the lever.

A fixed ratio schedule, giving out a pellet after a fixed number of lever pushes, is much more effective. Give the rat a pellet every fourth push, and he will become a fairly dedicated lever pusher.

The most effective method, though, is giving out a pellet after a random number of pushes. Depending on a set value of how probable the delivery of a reward is, let’s call it droprate, each push has the potential to give the rat a food pellet. The rat will never know how far away or how close the reward is, and will keep pushing even if the chance of a reward is low.

That should sound familiar.

It’s true that games in general have and should have built-in reward systems – it’s a central tenet of game design – but MMORPGs have taken it to another level. Carefully constructed, multi-layered reward systems that makes sure that there is always experience or a quest update, an item, level, skill or some gold within reach, makes sure to keep you playing and to keep you paying.

We have built the virtual skinnerbox.

What was originally only a meta-game of the RPG has come to define the game experience. It fulfills something within us, but it is really fun? Or is it only there to keep us playing, and to cover for the somewhat poor gameplay and content of most traditional MMO’s?

It seems to me we really haven’t figured out what to do with these types of games yet. Many of us sense a tremendous potential in the massively multiplayer, but then we mostly just try to shoehorn previously proven singleplayer ideas into the MMO environment, stretching them over the Skinner box. It gets dressed in a thin layer of uninteresting, static content.

It works, although not very well. Yet we trust in the Skinner box, and we keep improving it. We got it down to a fine art now. I don’t dismiss the importance of good reward systems, but that we have come to be so reliant on them to give meaning to our games is in my opinion a problem.

So what we end up with is an ever-increasing reliance on the Skinner box, dressed in static content based on singleplayer traditions. This, I argue, is missing the point of the MMO. The untapped potential that the session’s title refers to is the possibilities of the massively multiplayer for players to express themselves in a shared world, if we provide them with the necessary tools. Tools powered by dynamic systems that could allow the players to co-author the narrative of their gaming sessions, together with the designers, their friends and their enemies.

To realize how we can make sure our players return time after time, is to realize why Han Solo returned to finish the fight! But one step at a time.

History of narrative

To better understand just what we are missing out on in the massively multiplayer, we first need to look at the history, the evolution, of narrative in MMO’s. We must investigate how we played when the graphical MMORPG was young, and how we play today. What has been gained and what has been lost. How we got from the “player’s story” to the “designer’s story”. I will use some defining games as examples to describe this change.

Let me first define “player story” to make sure we mean the same thing. It is the resulting story from emergent situations and player choices, as experienced by the player. The idea that what the player experiences is a story in its own right. Put this dynamic storytelling in contrast to authorative, static storytelling that we see in movies, literature and, in my perspective, far too many games.

I will not include MUD’s in this overview. A good starting point is what is generally known as the first generation of MMORPGs.

Generation one

Ultima Online, launched 1997, represents a school of design that differs from what has become the standard MMORPG model. It did a lot of things differently, partially because it was largely based on Richard Garriot’s RPG games of the Ultima series, rather than trying to make a graphical MUD.

The game was not quest-driven. It had dynamic systems allowing the players to affect the economy, and to change and expand on the contents of the gameworld. These were tools for expressing “player stories”. The player was expected to take responsibility for his own play experience, for good and bad.

So many new, unproven ideas ultimately lead to some problems. One of them was that the designers didn’t anticipate griefers – players destroying the game experience of others.

Both belonging to the Everquest-school of design, Asheron’s Call and Everquest of 1999 focused on static PvE content where the necessity of group play and a scarcity of quests forced players to create their own adventure, to tell their own story. The lack of an ever-present narrative made the players feel in control, as if they owned the play experience.

Without the expressive tools of Ultima Online, it was a bit like children not having any toys, yet playing around in the forest making their own with just cones and sticks, having a blast.

These three games defined the first generation of MMORPGs.

Generation two

There were plenty of interesting titles and features in the second generation of MMORPGs.

Dark Age of Camelot of 2001 had Realm versus Realm, RvR, where a 3-way PvP conflict between factions allowed players to battle for castles and land through combat mechanics and siege weaponry. Each faction’s victory or defeat affected a dynamic front line, rewarding the conquerors. It used other players as content in a meaningful context.

Dark Age of Camelot had a big PvE world with quests, but RvR was a real evolutionary leap in player-driven dynamics and in empowering the player.

Two years later the second generation generated two other influential games – Star Wars: Galaxies and EVE Online. Both relied on player-driven economies and conflict, evolving player-driven dynamics even further. You could say that they inherited quite a few genes from the school of Ultima Online.

While Galaxies has more or less collapsed, EVE goes from strength to strength to this day. Even though it is something of a niche title, it’s very interesting and I use it as an example later when I talk about dynamic systems.

Generation three

Things changed with the third generation of MMORPGs. Enter the period of the “designer’s story”.

In 2004 we saw two influential games. One would become much more popular than the other – World of Warcraft. The other one was Everquest 2. Both games were heavily quest-driven. The quests provided an abundance of objectives, and a constant designer-written narrative. Mostly everything of gameplay value was the target of one or several quests, and if you just followed the quest-chains you would be taken to each point of interest at the right time.

The room for, and the necessity of, the “player’s story”, shrunk dramatically.

This trend continues to this day, a foundation of most, if not all, of the AAA MMORPGs released the last few years. While this has provided us with accessible games with pretty good content, we seem to have left the road of player dynamics that we were exploring. But the road is still there, and wouldn’t be exciting to see where it leads?

I think it can breathe new life into our games – and judging from the lack of success of recent MMORPG’s, I think they need it. This is a post-Warcraft world, after all. Many player’s simply aren’t that keen on another 60 levels of limited content and then the formulaic “endgame” anymore. Warcraft did it really well – why leave your friends and community for another, very similar game?

This idea of how to present a game-world and its content has been cemented into the mindsets of large studios and publishers. I hope to see a change, because not only does it continue away from the potential this session is about – it is also filled with design- and production problems.

We’ll look at those now.

Singleplayer traditions

Ever since Everquest we have seen a steady improvement of quests and content. The problem is that the improvements have largely been achieved by borrowing old tried and proven ideas from singleplayer games. There are a few fundamental flaws in this line of thinking. The first major issue is the idea of “the lone hero”.

The lone hero

Most narrative-driven games, and literature and movies, circles around one character – the protagonist. He has to go through the hero’s journey, with its revelations and trials. The protagonist’s actions change not only himself but the world, and the people in it.

Frodo finally reaches Mount Doom and destroys the ring, freeing the world of Sauron’s evil eye, in Return of the King. Blade-for-hire samurais defends a village, and saves it from succumbing to the brutality of bandits, in Seven Samurai. Luke Skywalker blows up the death star, forcing the Empire to retreat in Star Wars IV: A New Hope.

They cause change. Without the change, these stories would not be nearly as meaningful, interesting or entertaining.

This works very well in singleplayer games. Here we can change the world based on the player’s actions. Support the lowlifes and see the city fall into decay, in Fable 2. Detonate a bomb and see a city vanish forever, in Fallout 3. But add a thousand other players into the same environment, and you’ll quickly notice it is impossible to have meaningful change in the same way.

MMORPGs treat the player as a single agent of change, despite the inability to provide lasting change in a world where thousands of players are on the same narrative path.

So we either just pretend there’s been a lasting change even though a new Death Star will arrive in 5 minutes, or we accept that the motivation for our quests are mundane and meaningless, and resign to ask the player to kill another 30 TIE-fighters and please bring their pelts back.

This also leads us to a rather bizarre paradox. Inside the gameworld, the players are all on the same point on its timeline. But the world is filled with quests, and the players are on different points on those quest timelines. This while still existing on the same point on that world timeline.

Imagine a chat between two players whom both are playing the Attack on the Deathstar quest.

Luke Skywalker: I was asked to attack the Deathstar. That is so cool! I need to buy an X-Wing.
Luk3 Skyw4lk3r: What are you talking about? I destroyed it last month. Haven’t you noticed? WE’RE FREE! HOORAY!
Luke Skywalker:  You are seriously confused. Perhaps you should speak with Yoda.
Luk3 Skyw4lk3r: Yoda’s dead, man. Yoda’s dead.
Luke Skywalker: That’s it! I’m logging off.

This obviously hasn’t stopped MMORPG developers to try to improve their content by adapting singleplayer traditions. The issue of lasting change is handled in a number of different ways.

One is to reset consequence targets. If you kill the antagonist, he will reappear as if nothing ever happened within a few minutes. If you burned down his house, the burned down state will reset into its original state. This gives a very fragile illusion of accomplishment. Even a complete MMORPG beginner will figure it out in a few hours. This is not only jarring for the person who’s burning the house down, but for those around him that will see this house burn down, reset, and burn down and reset again.

We have all come to accept this as the way things are. This, in a sense, is the natural state of the MMO. But I think that we have just become blind to how poor it really is.

Another strategy is instancing. Create a copy of a limited amount of the gameworld, and allow a group of players to have what seems as lasting change as long as they are inside that unique instance. This, of course, is only a different way of hiding that you have no lasting effect on the world.

World of Warcraft’s phasing technology is better, but yields similar results and problems.

The big problem with using instances as a solution to using singleplayer traditions in the massively multiplayer environment is that by doing so we abandon the massively multiplayer, trading it for something closing in on singleplayer itself.

This is not a solution. This is defeat, clad in the alluring colors of success.

Without lasting change, our actions are meaningless beyond the numbers game – the Skinner box. The answer is to abandon the idea of the “lone hero”. In a game where your actions are observed and experienced by real living people, you don’t need to singlehandedly save the kingdom every other hour. Trust in the meaningfulness of being part of something bigger than the individual. Community. A faction. A guild.

Make content where you’re not Luke Skywalker, the great hero, but you do fight together with the Rebels and you do make a difference. Han Solo was not the protagonist of A New Hope, but his return in the end of the movie helped in changing a defeat into a victory. Without him, Luke would have been killed by Darth Vader. Han Solo and the many other rebel pilots that sacrificed themselves that day were necessary to destroy the Death Star – it wasn’t just Luke.

In Realm vs Realm you can have change, because it’s not about a lone hero. That tells us something we’ll explore later on.

I hope I haven’t spoiled the ending of Star Wars for anyone.

The never-ending game

MMO´s are considered games without end. Developers are unable to keep up the pace with how quickly players are consuming content, unfailingly leading to a shortage of content.  Trust me, your customers will breeze through your content in much less time than you have estimated, and if you trust static content too much it’s probably not going to be a very fun experience when they’re leveling their third character.

The common solution to this is to produce enormous amounts of content. Not only is this very expensive, it is also risky. The more you plan to produce, the greater the risk becomes when content production takes a little longer than anticipated.

This leads to ridiculously expensive, over-budget and unfinished titles. Few studios have the time or the money to make something like World of Warcraft, yet so many of us try. It’s a disastrous pattern we’ve seen for years now.

It’s just not a good idea.

Content through systems

So it’s clear there are serious issues with the current mainstream design philosophy of MMORPGs. But what’s the alternative? And what of that potential of the MMO?

One answer, as hinted at in the beginning of the session, is dynamic systems – or player dynamics. It’s possible to build systems that generate content as feedback to player interaction, based not on “the lone hero”, but on the power of communities. Such systems provide a never-ending supply of content. In addition, they allow “choice and consequence”, as choices result from the consensus of a community while the consequences are generated content.

Quality requirements

There are a number of exciting and theoretical approaches to these kinds of systems, but before we start looking into some of those, I want to define a set of quality requirements that each viable system should meet. Requirements that I believe will direct us towards systems that lead to lasting, entertaining content.

The first of three requirements is challenge. The resulting content must be challenging, in two ways. Will the difficulty level be appropriate to the situation and the players involved? And will the challenge be an interesting one, from a gameplay perspective?

The second is consistency. Does the generated content both fit in and contribute to the story and the setting of the gameworld?

The third is repeatability. The system generated content must remain both challenging and entertaining as the player interacts with it repeatedly, time after time.

Direct conflict

Player conflict, like player versus player, is a powerful tool for player dynamics. Other players are unpredictable, and engaging them in combat (or other kinds of gameplay) creates new layers of meaningfulness. There is a number of existing successful PvP systems fulfilling the quality requirements, like DAoC’s Realm vs. Realm. It provided good content lasting years and years, while building community. The meaningfulness players felt added an additional reason to return to the game.

EVE Online does a fantastic job at using their PvP conflict to create meaning for their players. Not only do you belong to the tight community of your corporation, but both the rewards and the risks are so great – and truly persistent. What you do actually matters in the long run.

Beyond the fact that both examples are PvP and dynamic to some degree, they share one important trait – they are based on opposing factions, or guild or corporations. Instead of basing the conflicts on one man versus another, they put communities against each other. The result tells us that faction-based conflicts are very powerful.

There are numerous reasons why they are so powerful. They expertly exploit the motivational factor of communities, the social aspect which is the core appeal of MMOs. These are some of the methods:

By increasing the number of people working towards a larger shared goal, they make the stakes higher for all of them. They allow players to belong to something greater than themselves, charging the player’s actions with meaning. They strengthen communities, by increasing the amount of player interaction in a structured way. They build on communities instead of the “lone hero”, allowing for real change in the gameworld.

Beyond PvP

So PvP is a good way to tap into the great potential of MMO’s. Research, however,  shows what many of us already know – mainstream communities generally have a bias against PvP, preferring PvE.

Here’s the result of research done by research scientist Nick Yee of the Daedalus Project.

First some statistics showing choices of server type, sorted by gender. There is a very large preference towards PvE compared to PvP, for both genders. Now, PvE servers often contain some PvP gameplay like PvP minigames nowadays, so this only gives us a rough picture of preference.

“Appeal of content types by gender”. This shows us gameplay preference in more detail. The scale goes from 1-5, where 1 means “not appealing at all”, and 5 means “extremely appealing”. Here we can see that the distinction is less extreme, but the preference towards PvE is still obvious. We can also see that female players are generally more hostile towards PvP than male players.

So what alternatives to PvP do we have, what do we do?

PvP support roles

Looking at titles heavily dependent on PvP, like EVE online, we find interesting PvP support roles. These are the roles based on PvE gameplay, supporting the PvP conflict. The interconnected systems of EVE allow a simple miner, trader or crafter to affect the outcome of the many different wars between corporations or guilds, providing their side with necessary resources and services. The conflict between humans makes the PvE experience more relevant.

However, similar features often fail to meet several quality requirements, making them less than ideal candidates to stand on their own as a good alternative to PvP. You could question the repeatability aspect of mining in EVE, as an example.

An even more problematic aspect is that these PvP support systems usually also leave out important gameplay like combat, which in almost all cases is the central (and most enjoyable) gameplay system of the game. Nevertheless, these kinds of game systems are important if you wish to build a game-world that feels rich and alive.

Let’s take a step back to see what we’re looking for.  The system needs to:

  • Generate content dynamically through interaction with players.
  • Fulfill the quality requirements of challenge, consistency and repeatability.
  • Utilize combat or the main gameplay system of the game.
  • Be based on opposing factions.

Player conflict through proxy

Although difficult and largely unexplored, it is possible to create PvE gameplay that exploit the aspects of unpredictability and meaningfulness of PvP, through what I call player conflict by proxy. Here a conflict between factions remain, with all its power and meaningfulness, but is expressed indirectly through PvE.

The proxy is a feature or a system that acts as a target for the conflict, feeding the effort and choices of each side back to the enemy faction.

Whatever the proxy is, it should have a number of different variables that takes player actions of one faction as input, and use those actions as data that determines the shape of the produced result for the opposite faction. This is how the players affect the outcome for the enemy, providing the necessary unpredictability.

Let’s use an example. We can draw inspiration from Dark Age of Camelot’s Realm versus Realm, which has been a common example in this session.

Imagine a fantasy MMORPG, action-heavy, 3rd person 3D. Imagine two opposing factions, fighting for power in the world. The player has chosen to belong to one of the factions.

Now imagine that the game world is littered with castles. Whomever the castles belong to, have access to unique resources, bonuses and perhaps other content. Perhaps, to take down Dragon X, you might need some resource from Castle X, and to take down Dragon Y, you might need some resource from Castle Y.

Both factions can lay claim to any of the castles, but while the players of the faction that owns the castle must defend it, the attackers from the enemy faction is the faction’s NPC army. The army is the proxy of the player conflict. The players have a different role in the faction and are not part of the army, but they can shape it.

Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that each castle is attacked by its enemies once an hour. Normally, the attacking army is very weak and can be fended off by fewer than a handful of players.

This is where the players of the opposing faction come in. During the hour before the attack, they have the opportunity to affect the strength and shape and behavior of the army. They can attack fortified weapon caches, and bring back the weapons to equip and strengthen the army. They can take boss mobs prisoners, train them as pets with skills of their choosing, and have them join the army for the attack.

When the army attacks, the defending players must adapt to its unique configuration. Perhaps they spotted their enemies activity, and called in guild mates to defend the castle because they badly need the resources from this castle to defeat Dragon X tonight.

The army attacks. The number of waves, the kind of mobs and their equipment and behavior are ruled by the choices done and the effort put in by the enemy players in the previous hour.

So the defenders win, and keep the castle, or they lose and the castle ends up in the hands of the enemy faction. If the attackers lose, they have a war torn army to deal with.

Here you have a meaningful and unpredictable system, fulfilling the three quality requirements. It’s a challenge alright, and a self-balancing one because fewer players means a weaker army – but also a weaker defense. It’s consistent with story, as each battle ties into the over-arching narrative about the war. It’s repeatable, because the configuration changes each time.

The most important point is that the actions of the players of each side will affect the situation of the players on the other side. Player conflict through proxy.

It’s useful to make the target of the conflict something that can move between 2 or more states, so that it can be reverted and repeated. The movement between states can be binary or use a scale. In this case, a castle belongs to faction 1 or faction 2 –completely binary states.

In a different example using a scale, the castle could be anywhere from in good shape to completely burned down, with many intermediate states in between. Then you give different factions different agendas of what shape it should be, create a proxy that changes the state, and leave it to the players.

The proxy army is just an example, and there are endless ways of doing this. What I hope to have shown is that these kinds of systems can be very potent.

The fear of change

Contrary to anything dynamic, a static game world is a world of control, balance and predictability. With this in mind, the appeal of static content to designers and producers is clear. Static worlds give a sense of financial security to those in charge. Producers know how to predict the development, and designers know how to balance the systems and structure the content. We have built these static worlds for a while now.

So what are the risks of dynamic content systems – or player dynamics – and how can those risks be anticipated and isolated?

This could be the topic of an entire session itself, and should probably be, so I will keep this short.

Ultima Online was, like I mentioned earlier, a very interesting title dabbling in the dynamic possibilities of the massively multiplayer. It also stands as a warning against implementation without enough testing or fail-safes.

I have one funny anecdote to illustrate this. Origin built a system with the aim of creating a realistic balance between predator and prey. The predators hunted the prey for food. If there would not be enough prey in an area, the predators would move into the next one to hunt there, until they would finally reach the city and attack the humans (the players) there. They tested this with a low population, and it seemed to work fine.

A neat little system making the world feel more alive.

Of course, as soon as the game went live, the massive amount of players meant that both prey and predators were wiped out immediately by people looking for experience, and the system imploded without the playerbase even realizing it ever existed.

Always account for player unpredictability, through rigorous testing and design with fail-safes. Isolating risk must always be an integral part of designing dynamic systems.

Conclusion

So why did Han Solo return to finish the fight? Why did he come back to help destroy the Death Star?

He changed his mind because had become a friend of Luke. He did so because of what was at stake. He came back because he knew he could truly make a difference. He returned because he realized that he had become part of something larger than himself – the Rebellion.

He came back because all of the above reasons had made the conflict between the Empire and the Rebels meaningful to him. If we can capture this sense of meaningfulness, through his and others’ sense of agency instead of relying on static exposition, our players will come back for more even if we dare move the Skinner Box back to the background – to the meta-game it used to be.

Done right, it could be the beginning of the next generation of massively multiplayer RPGs.

If I was to make some sort of conclusion from all I’ve talked about during the session, it would be this:

The nature of the massive game is at odds with traditional, static content, but carries a largely untapped and unique potential for dynamic worlds that empower player communities to craft their own, epic tales.

That was my session. Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them.

Content flow

One of the many sources of frustration in the current (quest driven) generation of MMORPG’s comes from being lead back and forth through a zone in an erratic manner. It is probably in my top five of reasons why I drop certain MMO’s like a hot potato before I’ve even gotten to the meat. Yet, all it takes to rid your game of this is a structured approach to your design work. Let’s look at two complaints born out of poorly thought out content flow:

I spend more time running from a to b than actually fighting anything!
Having some travel time when going to new areas is no problem, but if you’re always having to run a marathon to get to a quest objective, it won’t take long until you’re both bored and frustrated. It’s quite common that designers wish to extend their quests through long journeys filled with mobs, but more often than not the mobs on the way can be bypassed. Traveling is not content.

I feel like I’m going through the same areas all the time!
Sometimes zones have just one main quest hub. This forces players to repeatedly pass the same areas to get and deliver quests in the same old quest hub. This continues even as the player has moved on to higher level areas in the zone, having to fight mobs outlevelled to a degree where they no longer pose any kind of challenge.

Quest pockets

“Quest pockets” is a framework for structured content flow within zones. The purpose is to avoid the problems described earlier, minimizing the need to travel back and forth time and again, using the space effectively and allowing the player to discover the zone organically. There are three important components to this:

  • Keep the content close to the quest hub.
  • Use all 360 degrees of the quest hub for content.
  • Spread the content evenly around the quest hub.

The area around a quest hub should be divided into 4 quest pockets.  The player get quests for one pocket, heads out to the corresponding pocket space to finish the quest objectives, and finally returns to deliver the quests in the quest hub. Then he progresses to the next pocket. If possible, the quest levels should be different between the quest pockets, allowing for a natural progress between them.

Each quest hub should have a budget for the number of available quests. In a best case scenario, the number of quests should be evenly divided for the four pockets. Let’s have a look at a possible formula for quest budgets.

There are 3 factors to regard. How many hours of gameplay do we expect the area to provide? How long should quests last in average on the level range of the area? How much of the gameplay time should be covered by quests?

Hours per area * quests per hour * play time ratio

Quests per hour
1-20: 6 (10 minutes)
20-40: 4 (15 minutes)
40-60: 3 (20 minutes)

If we have a quest area with a planned 4 hours of gameplay at level 50, and we say that the amount of quests per hour in that level range is 4 (15 minute quests, according to the table), and we want 30% more quests than the necessary minimum for always having your play time covered by a quest, then the numbers would be:

4 * 4 * 1,3 = 21 quests for that area. Those 21 quests would then be divided between the 4 quest pockets, giving us about 5 quests per pocket.

Picking pockets and zoning out

We control content flow throughout the game on 3 levels; between quest pockets, between quest hubs and between zones. Let’s look at quest pocket progression first.

Using the previous example, we have 5 quests per pocket. We’re trying to not overwhelm players with alternatives, but are at the same time after a sense of non-linearity. The two ways of controlling access are levels and quest chains. In an ideal situation the quest hub would involve more than one level, which guides the player in deciding what content to access first. The quests of one pocket could also unlock quests of the next pocket.

Looking at the figure above, the player would enter the zone close to quest hub 1. In our example, pocket 1.1 and 1.2 would have 5 quests each at level 48-49, and 1.3 and 1.4 5 quests each at level 50-51. Some of the quests in 1.3 and 1.4 would be followup quests from 1.1 and 1.2 This way we get a natural progression through the zones.

Players progress between the quest hubs through transition quests, leading the players between quest hubs, and zones. Returning to the example, a transition quest would become available when the player has finished some of the content in 1.4 – taking them to quest hub 2 where new quests are available starting in 2.1.

This second quest hub could have a few followup quests from the first, allowing for a continous narrative. Just be careful not to block players from finding content in later quest hubs (if they arrive in the zone with a high level character) through too many and too long quest chains.

When the player has finished the second quest hub, another transition quest takes the player from 2.4 to 3.1. This is the final hub of the zone, where 3.4 carries a new transition quest taking them to the next zone’s first quest hub.

As always, guidelines like these have to be broken to create interesting and unique experiences. Have quests go through the entire zone, or between several zone. It’s vital to make sure the experience does not feel formulaic, especially considering how formulaic MMORPG’s are by default.

PvP Tetris

TetrisWhile bored one day, I came to think of Tetris. Tetris is a singleplayer game – I’m sure there are multiplayer versions of it, but I’ve never played one. I was considering how one could make a PvP (competitive) version of the game for Xbox Live. The first thing was to identify what makes Tetris singleplayer, and eventual problems in changing that.

  • There is only one player in a Tetris game.
  • You compete not against an enemy, but yourself.
  • You do so by handling a complex task during increasing time pressure.
  • Performance is measured through points, based on how long the player “survived” (measured in the amount of rows removed).

It would be simple to have some form of splitscreen gameplay where each player would play his own Tetris board and just compete about the score, but that wouldn’t be very different from playing on your own and then comparing points. What we want is to engage the other player somehow. These are the ideas I came up with.

  • Keep the splitscreen idea so that both player’s could see each others boards, but turn the view of the enemy’s board upside down to increase the difficulty of analyzing his progress and state.
  • Keep it as a game of survival, but instead of trying to reach the next difficulty level the goal would be to outlive the enemy.
  • Let the players engage with each other through sabotage. Each player could replace the enemy’s Tetris piece with his own (while recieving a random new one himself), triggering a cooldown hindering him from repeating this for another 30 seconds. Different strategies could emerge from this.
    • Whenever the enemy gets a piece he needs, replace it.
    • Wait until the enemy is just about to place his piece before you replace it, giving him no choice to place your piece there instead.
    • Get a new piece when you are not happy with your own.
  • Count not points from the number of rows removed (which would make this into a game of speed, even allowing for the possibility to win the game through points even though you reached the top and failed). Instead, count points in the number of free unblocked rows, at the end of the game.

I think this could be a fairly fun game of Tetris. I’d try it out.