So you buy a computer game from some random store for $54.99 and give it a good breaking in. You play it, finish it, and stick it up on a shelf somewhere. The whole process probably takes under two weeks.
Then, you buy another computer game from the same random store for $19.99 and go online to break it in. You meet some cool people, start growing your character, and before you know it you’re playing the game every day and spending $14.99 a month for the privilege.
What’s the difference? In the first case, you finished the game and there was nothing more to do. Consider Grim Fandango, released in 1998 by Lucas Arts. It’s an excellent puzzle game, one of my favourites, and right now it’s collecting dust on my shelf while I wait to forget the solutions so I can play the game as it was intended again. It’s a great game, but there’s just nothing else to do yet.
The second game costs significantly more in the long run, but the thing that sets it apart is the ability to create my own content. Consider Diablo 2, which we all know and love. Not only can I now craft items in it, but I can customize my character in almost any way I choose. I can be part of a clan, and I have a full list of friends who haven’t seen me online for almost five months.
Nowadays, it’s exceedingly rare to find a computer game that doesn’t have some way for players to at least interact with each other in a multiplayer mode. Modern game developers know that for a game to be successful, there must be more to it than simply “playing the plot”. Players like being able to create things, and to interact dynamically with the world around them.
In an online environment, it’s especially important for the players to be able to customize everything. After hours of consideration and breaking things down, there are four basic ways I can think of in which players want to make their own content:
1) Changing the physical world. Players want to be able to change how things look. Within certain rules, you should be able to build and destroy things all over the game. In Diablo, there’s crafting. In most MMORPGs, you can build houses, stores, cities, space stations, interplanetary devices, etc (or at least you should be able to).
There’s a certain sense of accomplishment that comes when you finish building something like a deck for your back yard, because you can point to it and say “that’s mine, I built that.” It’s exactly the same in an online computer game. If you can continue giving your players a distinct sense of having accomplished something, they will keep coming back.
2) Changing the political world. Players always enjoy intrigue. There are always power struggles, conflicts, guilds, even wars, in any online computer game. Therefore, there need to be tools which the players can use to create these political aspects.
As a player, if you want to run for mayor, the first thing you’re going to do is seek out a way to do it within the confines of the game. If no such tools exist, you’ll probably be quite unimpressed. Incidentally, if you thought it felt good to build your own in-game house, you can’t imagine the ego-boost from being elected mayor.
3) Changing the economic world. Sometimes, a person just want to run a store. A friend and co-worker of mine plays Ragnarok sometimes, and his role is to take these potions he bought at n gold, and sell them in a different location for n+1 gold. That’s what he does, and what he enjoys doing within the game. He takes a product, marks it up, and sells it for a profit.
He directly affects the local economy, and sometimes players just wanna sell stuff. Remember that little-known ring Stone of Jordan, and how it became Diablo 2’s online currency? And all those people spamming their hacked and duped items in the trade channels? …yeah.
4) Changing the social world. Building alliances, raising guilds, taking on an apprentice, claiming land for the empire… basically, those things that make a community hum. If you’re friends with someone on Battle.net, then you’re part of the game’s social landscape. For as long as there has been chat in computer games, there has been a social aspect to them, and online games are based on the theory that the game itself is a community. In fact, if you don’t allow for a community to grow up in your game then you’ll be surprised at just how quickly it doesn’t happen.
What do you notice about all four of these gameplay areas? They are, in fact, the four basic aspects of our own every-day world. I am hard pressed to think of anything that happens here in the real world that doesn’t fit in to one of those four categories. Games are meant to be an escape from reality, but it always helps to base the game in some form of it, to create an instant connection with the players.
Basically, this all leads in to a single conclusion: you do not control your game. However you design your game’s plot, and however you expect it to be played, players will always find new things to do, and new ways to use what’s around, and as a developer you must let them do just that. Here are a couple examples of games being played in unintended ways:
On a number of occasions, some friends of mine have gotten together in Diablo 2 with our fresh, new, level 1 hardcore characters, partied up, and wandered out to the Blood Moor. We kill things, race to collect equipment, an wander around until we reach level 9. As soon as we hit level 9 we return to town and go hostile with each other, and using only those items we collected on the way, we then brawl until only one remains. This, my friends, is low level dueling at its best. There are even clans of people who fight with their level 9 duelers; it’s like an entire subculture, and it’s great.
By now, everyone reading this column has heard of Ultima Online. On one of the servers, a group of players got together, formed a theatre company, and started putting on plays (sorry, I couldn’t find a link to a page about them). The Wizard of Oz required a large number of costume changes, spells to create special effects, and a transformation spell to turn one cast member in to Toto, the lovable but basically inconsequential dog. They were so fun, and so good, that the UO support staff actually created characters for them on the other server clusters so they could tour.
At the 2002 Game Developer’s Conference, Raph Koster, the creative director on Star Wars Galaxies and the former lead designer of UO, said this about the storyline of an MMORPG: “People value self-expression. Is ‘story’ going to go away? No. Is careful crafting going to go away? No. …people want to express themselves and they don’t really care that 99% of everything is crap, because they are positive that the 1% they made isn’t. Okay? And fundamentally, they get ecstatic as soon as five people see it, right?”
My interpretation of this is a fundamental difference between online games and standalone games, namely the need for a linear story. If you grab any of Sierra’s so-called Quest games, you have a singular plot to follow in order to reach the game’s conclusion… except King’s Quest 6, where there are two paths you can take and 17 different endings.
In an online game, not only is it a very bad idea to try to force the players in to following a specific plot, but it’s actually detrimental. The players will create their own plots, quests, and storylines, so there’s no point in trying to stop it.
Trying to force a plot point, or a specific outcome to a conflict, will only enrage your players. Just ask people who played through the Trinsic city siege in UO, where the only possible outcome was to fail the siege, and if that didn’t happen then it had to fall anyway, because that’s the only outcome that was prepared for.
Actually, the Trinsic siege is a great example of broken-down communication within the teams taking care of the game. The team designing the siege had a question misinterpreted by a programmer on the live team, suggesting that the players could not possibly win the siege, and so planning for the alternate outcome would be fruitless. We’ll look at interactions between Concept and Coding next time.
Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.