The trouble with explorers
4 May 2004
Revised 7-29 May
by Mike Rozak
Recently, Ubisoft announced the cancellation or "Uru Live", an online adventure game. I was saddened to hear the news because I enjoy adventure games, and the online concept intrigued me; particularly what kind of people would be attracted to such a service.
I didn't even get a chance to try Uru Live out since Ubisoft cancelled Uru Live while it was in beta; I was waiting for a released version before trying it. While most of the discussion is about online adventure games in general, any reference to Uru Live details comes from other people's experiences with the beta; Uru Live may have developed into a different beast if it had gotten past beta. Therefore, don't read this essay as post-mortem of Uru Live.
I was interested in Uru Live because I have played a couple MMORPGs, found them to be poorly implemented on-line versions of off-line CRPGs (such as Elder Scrolls: Morrowind or Dungeon Siege), and was underwhelmed. Not only did I get bored of killing orcs after the tenth one (let alone the 10,000th), but MMORPGs tend to attract people whose personalities don't match my own. Off-line CRPGs are only populated by me and a few thousand NPCs; they are devoid of bloodthirsty teenagers.
I have also been considering writing my own online adventure game platform (aka: interactive fiction, or IF) targeted at hobbyist authors. I was hoping to see what problems Uru Live encountered and how they dealt with them. Obviously, they encountered insurmountable problems. From what I've heard, they didn't have enough on-line users to make the venture worthwhile. Since then I've wondered why they didn't get enough players.
Rather than investing a few million dollars to produce my own adventure-oriented online world only to have it fail, I decided to undertake some thought experiments and try to understand the reason for Uru Live's failure. This document is the result. It is not "the definitive work" for online adventure games, but merely intended to propose some ideas and start a discussion.
I have taken too many years of physics. Consequently, I am a strong believer in particle/wave duality. For people that have forgotten their physics, particle/wave duality an odd tendency for light to act as a particle when physicists do experiments that try to prove that light is a particle, and to act like a wave when the experiments try to prove that light is a wave.
I apply this understanding to the modelling the universe in general: I don't believe in a grand-unification theory of anything, since no model can completely describe the universe. I prefer to approach a problem that requires modelling by creating several different models and seeing what each has to say.
For my thought experiments I have used or created several different models. The models are:
(Documentation note: From now on I will use the term "virtual world" or "VW" in place of MUD or MMORPG, unless I specifically mean a MUD or a MMORPG.)
Model 1: Not enough content
The original MUD was created by Roy Trubshaw because he "enjoyed single-player adventure games (Crowther and Wood's ADVENT, Aderson, Blank, Daniels, and Lebling's ZORK, and Laird's HAUNT)." (Designing Virtual Worlds, Richard Bartle)
MUDs, as they exist today, are nothing like Adventure or Zork. (I haven't tried Haunt.) While some still retain the text interface, they have almost completely discarded the adventure components in favour of CRPG and socialisation elements.
Why did this happen?
Roy Trubshaw's original MUD was eventually inherited and maintained by Richard Bartle. When asked why adventuring took a sideline to socialisation, Richard Bartle stated that he intended to use MUD more as a social tool than just an adventure game, and suspected that people who wrote MUDs after him just followed his example, perhaps blindly.
Thousands of virtual worlds are now run by hobbyists (as MUDs), and a few dozen by corporations (as MMORPGs). The vast majority of virtual worlds are still more closely related to CRPGs than adventure games.
Could a successful virtual world model exist that emphasises adventure-game aspects but which no-one has yet discovered? The Uru team obviously thought so; but they cancelled Uru Live due to poor attendance.
So why did no adventure virtual worlds exist?
I did a thought experiment... (Just to emphasise, this whole article is one long thought experiment.)
I imagined that I wrote on adventure game (like Zork), and put it online. What would users think of the experience? What features would they request? Here's what happens (in my thought experiment):
At this point I have a problem. It takes approximately one man year to produce a text adventure game that keeps someone occupied for 20-40 hours. In a week's time I'd be able to produce 30-45 minutes of content. The average VW player is on 20-40 hours a week. For me to keep them all entertained with adventuring content I'd need to hire a staff of dozens. (By the way, graphical content, such as what Uru Live was producing, is at least 10x more expensive to create; my guesstimate is 1 man year of development for 1 hour of entertainment. Raph Koster presents similar numbers at http://www.legendmud.org/raph/gaming/contentcreation.html.)
So what are the solutions?
In "Designing Virtual Worlds," Richard Bartle points out that there are four stable configurations for virtual worlds. Interestingly, these correspond to my four solutions for the "not-enough content" problem:
Richard Bartle has some other relevant observations...
Model 2: Explorers, achievers, socialisers, and killers
In 1996, Richard Bartle published a paper, "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs", (http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm). If you haven't read it, I suggest you do so before continuing on.
The gist of the paper is that players of virtual worlds (online adventure or CRPG games) fall into four general categories that can be arranged into a 2x2 matrix. These categories are:
One minor point about explorers from Bartle's book, "Designing Virtual Worlds", is particularly important to me: "Explorers are a rare occurrence in virtual worlds."
Why? I'll get to this in a minute.
Note: Throughout the document I use a different definition for "explorers" and "achievers" than Richard Bartle provides. In "HCDS: Players who suit MUDs", explorers are defined as players who try to find out as much as possible about the virtual world, while achievers are people who give themselves game-related goals and set out to achieve them. Instead, I equate explorers to the online equivalent to people that like adventure games, and achievers to the online equivalent to CRPG players. This does twist the model around, in the same way that using a piano to play music written for harpsichord affects the music of Bach. You might even argue that it invalidates the model, although I would disagree. I found such a transposition of the original to be useful to the problem I'm addressing: why online adventure games seem to fail. If my adjustments offend you then pretend there's no connection between what I'm describing and Bartle's model.
My take on player types
Richard Bartle's paper goes on to explain how a virtual world can modify its design to attract different player types, and how each player type affects the other player types. For example: If hordes of killers move into a virtual world, all the achievers and socialisers will leave, shortly followed by the killers (because they have no-one left to kill but themselves.)
Although Bartle lists the reasons why one player type affects another, I thought I'd examine the subject from a different angle and see if the results were the same.
The first question I asked is, "If I'm player type X what do I think of player type Y? Do I want more of them in the game, fewer of them, or don't really care?" This could be tested by identifying players as explorers, achievers, socialisers, and killers, and then asking them if they'd like to see more or fewer (or don't care), explorers, achievers, socialisers, and killers in the world.
Here is my guess at how it would turn out:
Sometimes, what people think they want is not what they really want:
How many explorers are there?
My comparison of "explorers" to "adventure tourists" brings up another interesting issue: How many explorers are there in the real world? How many achievers are there? Socialisers? Killers?
You can answer the explorers vs. achievers ratio by visiting your local game store and seeing how many adventure games are on the shelf compared to the number of CRPGs. In my favourite computer-game store, there are usually one or two adventure game boxes per ten CRPG boxes, implying that there are 5-10x as many CRPG players as adventure game players. Or, in other words, there are 5-10x as many achievers as explorers. (Note: This is only a guesstimate. As a reviewer noted, explorers may take longer to finish a game than achievers, or may not play as many games. Or vice versa. My game store may be atypical. Etc.)
Another way to answer the question is to see where people holiday (assuming they have the money). Do they go to Florida, Spain, or other safe destination, or to search for gorillas in Africa or trek around Nepal?
How many killers are there? This is more difficult because killers only show their true colours when they have power or anonymity. In real life, that means people in management positions and prank phone callers. My guess is that 5%-10% of the real-world population are killers (not literally, but in the player-types sense).
5%-10% of the population are explorers. The rest are evenly divided among achievers and socialisers, 40%-45% each.
Anecdotally, I've observed that some populations are skewed towards explorers, socialisers, achievers, or killers:
Why does the number of explorers in the real world matter? It affects the potential market size for products targeted at explorers. This, in turn, affects what type of companies will target them, and how.
The cost of content
Virtual worlds are in competition with the real world, television, and other virtual worlds. If the content (what draws the player to the virtual world) is not compelling enough, the player will leave. All player types need content. All content costs money.
Targeted virtual worlds
Using the new observations, let me re-explore the fate of virtual worlds targeted at specific player types:
The problem with targeting
Even if targeting a virtual world at a specific category of player works (such as for achievers), targeting a virtual world at a mix of player-types works better for a few reasons:
Model 3: Keeping players interested
After having a stress dream that the achievers and socialisers of the world got together and kicked out all the explorers because they were useless (similar to how the Golgofrinchians kicked out the telephone sanitisers in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), I decided that I wasn't entirely happy with these bleak conclusions.
A few months ago I wrote up a short article about an "Evolutionary explanation for entertainment". See http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/NaturalEntertain.htm. In the article I produced a list of stimuli and drives that hold a primate's (aka: human's) attention.
Below (in the first column) is a list of those stimuli and drives. The other columns show how well these stimuli and drives are satisfied by a number of different entertainments, including TV/movies, adventure games, CRPG, and virtual worlds. The more stars, the better the entertainment fulfils the stimulus/drive. Red stars indicates that the entertainment is the best at this type of stimuli/drive. (You may disagree with some of the stimuli/drives or scores. If so, trying making up your own graph to see if the results change.)
Not surprisingly, CRPGs and virtual worlds are very similar. Virtual worlds equal or outscore CRPGs on every category except two:
Looking at how a CRPG's scores change when on-line functionality is added (turning them into a MMORPG or MUD), one can guess how an adventure game's scores will change. Below is a table listing how on-line functionality can be used to improve an adventure game:
For an adventure game, the bulk of the stimuli/drives cannot be improved by going online. Many of the categories are marked as "CCD", which is short for "Cheaper content delivery". It's the only thing that online content has to offer for the given stimulus/drive.
Basically, if putting an adventure game online can make it cheaper (or better for the same cost) then players will go online. If going online does not reduce cost then online adventure games have little to offer, and explorers would prefer to play off-line adventure games.
The perils of online distribution
The Internet promises to be a frictionless (ie: cheap) distribution system. While a game may be sold for $50.00 at a store, the game company only gets (approximately) $15.00 of that due to COGs, distribution, and the supply chain. Theoretically, a game company could just distribute its game on the Internet, bypass all the expenses, and pocket the $50.00.
As seen in the stimuli/drives list, potentially cheaper distribution is the main way an on-line adventure game can improve upon an off-line adventure game.
Distributing on-line comes with a heap of problems though:
What happens when all these issues are added up? An on-line adventure game requires 2x as much development time (because of hint giving and on-line development costs, but lower eye-candy costs), for one quarter the revenue ($7-$10/copy, and no revenue from bad purchases). A subscription service will bring in more revenue, but will also incur on-line service costs and continual need for new content. The number of paying players might increase because of much lower piracy rates and browsers that unexpectedly liked the game.
Model 4: Achiever vs. Explorer content
Throughout this document I've been claiming that achievers are people that like playing CRPGs, and explorers like playing adventure games. Although everyone reading this has played CRPGs and adventure games, I haven't given a detailed description of a CRPG or adventure game. Doing so provides some interesting results...
CRPGs are games involving repetitive tasks with a variations on a theme that result in the character's skills improving, such as killing monsters using various weapons and spells. In other words, "Practice makes perfect." In a CRPG players learn a skill (killing things with a dagger), apply it (kill 100 rats), improve upon the skill (learn how to use a longer dagger), and repeat. The process of applying the skill results in a reward of experience points or money for the player. Both rewards allow the player's character to use new-and-improved weapons and armour, or enter new regions of the world, allowing the character to attack new-and-improved monsters. The reward also acts as a metric to tell the player how well they're doing. (For a detailed description of this process, see "Swords and Circuitry: A designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games", Prima Tech.)
CRPG authors control development costs by having the player kill the same monster 10-1000 times, as many times as possible before the player gets bored with the activity. To prevent boredom, and keep costs low, variations are added to the monsters, world, and player-character's abilities. Instead of attacking rats with a dagger in a house, the PC now attacks "giant rats" with a "short sword" in a "basement". This cycle of "kill monsters", "get bored", and "add new variation" are repeated until the player wins (at which point he/she can start playing over again), or the player gets completely bored and quits the game. Typical CRPGs last 50-200 hours.
The repetition-with-variation model can be applied to more than just CRPGs. MMORPGs use a similar approach for crafting, or in the case of "A Tale in the Desert" for building a virtual Egypt.
Adventure games, on the other hand, involve a world with puzzles that must be solved. Each puzzle is unique; in adventure games, once a puzzle is solved (such as killing Zork's troll with the nasty knife) it is frowned upon to have another puzzle involving a similar solution. (In Zork, the thief can be killed, but the cyclops and bat cannot.) There is no possibility for "practice makes perfect" because every challenge requires a different solution. Adventure-game players are rewarded for their puzzle-solving ability by learning new information or being allowed into new areas of the game, where they encounter bigger and better puzzles.
Adventure games reduce their costs by making their puzzles more difficult, since difficult puzzles require players to (figuratively) bang their head against the wall longer until the solution is discovered. (A typical 40 hour adventure game only takes one hour if the player follows a walkthrough that gives the solutions to every puzzle.) The cycle in adventure games is: "present player with puzzle", "player character wanders around the world looking for clues", "player solves puzzle", and repeat. Adventure games repeat until the player wins or gets bored. (Interestingly, as the player wanders through the same environment time after time, he/she notices new aspects about the world that he/she had missed before and which certainly would be missed in the walkthrough. It's a bit like reading a good book for the second or third time. The only difference is that adventure games force you to re-read.)
Achievers (who play CRPGs) do not like explorer content (adventure games), considering adventure games tedious and unexciting. Explorers do not like achiever content, considering CRPGs to be mindless and boring. This isn't completely true: Some CRPGs include some relatively-easy puzzles (adventure game content), and some adventure games include simplistic combat (CRPG content). The middle-ground, an even mix of CRPG and adventure games, is fairly rare on the PC. (One reviewer, M. D. Dollahite, pointed out that the Final Fantasy series contains a mix of both adventure and RPG, but it's console only.) I'm not sure exactly why the two genres don't mix, but I have a theory:
Induction and deduction
So how are puzzles different than killing monsters?
I was going to write that achievers liked the danger element, but I don't think this is true. A CRPG has just as much danger as an adventure game; namely none. Achievers can pace themselves so they're only every fighting monsters that are clearly weaker, so they have no chance of losing. (The only time they cannot do this is in a PvP game, which is exciting.) Besides, adventure games can kill PCs just as easily as CRPGs, if not easier; Zork killed your PC if his lantern went out.
Some other differences also exist:
I don't think any of these are the defining issue though.
The real difference between a CRPG and an adventure game is the type of reasoning used to solve problems. CRPGs use "inductive" reasoning, while adventure games use "deductive" reasoning. Just in case these terms are a bit fuzzy, or you never took a logic/math course using them, here are some definitions from Dictionary.com:
Basically, induction identifies a pattern, and from the pattern more general conclusions can be drawn. The "mathematics" definition is strikingly similar to my description of a CRPG. "First the theorem is verified for the smallest admissible value of the integer." corresponds to "Start the player character with a dagger and have him kill a rat." "Then it is proven that if the theorem is true for any value of the integer, it is true for the next greater value." corresponds to "Once the PC kills the rat, teach him how to kill a giant rat with a short sword." "The final proof contains the two parts." means "Repeat."
Deduction is what Sherlock Holmes does, aka: an adventure game. "The process of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises" corresponds to "The process of solving a puzzle by combining the hints in the game.". "Inference by reasoning from the general to the specific." means "Using the generalised hints to solve a specific puzzle."
Note: This is a completely different dimension that Richard Bartle uses to differential achievers (CRPG) from explorers (adventure), which is "action vs. interaction". The "world vs. players" axis doesn't even exist in this model, except for the alpha-(fe)male discussion, below.
(Anyone with a mathematics degree is probably cringing at my distortion of the mathematical terms, induction and deduction, into game-play.)
Biologically, induction is often thought of as left-brained while deduction (intuition) is right-brained. Could there be a biological reason explaining the difference between player types? (Women are supposed to be more right-brained than men. I wonder if women are more likely to play adventure games than CRPGs?)
What does induction and deduction have to do with explorers not liking online virtual worlds? I'm not really sure.
Here's a half-baked hypothesis though: Content that's mid-way between pure adventure game and pure CRPG requires both inductive and deductive reasoning. The human brain might find it difficult for both modes of thinking to be active at once. I know that if I'm playing a CRPG and run across adventure game puzzles the "flow" is broken, just as if I'm in an adventure game and run across combat the flow is broken. I couldn't tell you what the "flow" is though, except that maybe it's related to which side of my brain is dominant.
Perhaps a mid-point between a CRPG and adventure game is not advisable. If this is true then content cannot be a mix of CRPG and adventure game, and therefore achiever content must be completely separate from explorer content.
Watering down content
Having explained that CRPGs rely on induction while adventure games use deduction, let me return to my discussion of achiever vs. explorer content.
If an achiever comes across explorer content while playing, they won't find it interesting (or will find it too difficult) and are likely to "cheat" by downloading and following a walkthrough for the game until they get back to the CRPG part. If an explorer encounters achiever content they too may "cheat" and find a way of avoiding the combat, such as getting a gang of friends to safely defeat a monster that an achiever would have taken on by themselves. (This only works in online worlds. In offline worlds an explorer will get bored with the combat and shelve the game.)
If both sides cheat when they get to the content that they don't like then what's the big deal? The problem is that achievers not only like to use induction, they like to "win", which means being the best at the game and beating out all their competitors. Achievers that encounter puzzles and use walkthoughs to save time (and boredom) will level-up faster, obtaining an advantage over other achievers. As a result, all achievers will cheat and use walkthroughs. Explorers that are intent on "winning at all costs" can just as easily use the walkthoughs, but it becomes a very hollow victory. Consequently, there are no explorers that play to "win".
This isn't exactly true, but before explaining why, I must digress.
Let me return to the issue of costs: A CRPG's cost-per-hour-played is controlled by how often a player is forced to fight the same monster. If a player must fight a monster 1000 times instead of 100 times, the CRPG costs 1/10th as much to develop. An adventure game's cost-per-hour-played is controlled by how difficult the puzzles are. The more difficult, the longer it will take players to figure them out, and the cheaper the content. Harkening back to pubs in the wild west, let me call this process "watering down the content".
For both achievers and explorers, the more watered-down the content, the less interesting the game. If an achiever's content is watered down too much they will quit. If an explorer's content is watered down too much they will use a walkthrough to get through the difficult bits, and then quit.
Making the content too easy (killing only 10 rats instead of 100 levels one up, or making puzzles trivial) isn't good either. It makes game development more expensive and reduces the satisfaction players feel upon completion.
Virtual worlds water down content. When I play a CRPG I usually get half way through it before I get bored, playing for about 20 hours. When I played Asheron's Call 2, I played about 40 hours and only got 1/8 way through the content. There was more content (I've heard about 2-3x as much as a typical CRPG), but I also noticed I had to kill more monsters of the same type before moving onto a new class of monster. I'm not the only one; many people complain that virtual worlds require too much work to advance.
Virtual worlds do this on purpose. While a typical CRPG needs to last 50-200 hours, a virtual world must last 400-800 hours (20 months x 20-40 hours/month). After all, in a virtual world, players are paying by the month. Additionally, those virtual worlds that make levelling too easy find that some players quickly max out and then either whinge about the lack of content or leave, neither of which are good.
What happens to players like me when we conclude that the virtual world has watered down its content? We leave the virtual world and go back to playing offline CRPGs. The people that remain in the virtual world are playing for one or more of the following reasons:
What about online adventure games? If they were cheap enough to be feasible, what kind of explorers would stick around for watered down content?
As a result, people that play the online CRPG portion of virtual worlds are mostly achievers (levelling treadmill and power-games), killers (PvP and alpha-(fe)male wannabes), or socialisers.
So what does this say about the feasibility of explorer content?
This model indicates that I can create explorer content as long as I don't expect players to stick around. Watering down the explorer content does retain some player personalities (power gamers), but most will revert to a walkthrough for content that is too difficult.
Can I mix achiever and explorer content? The induction vs. deduction thought-experiment implies that I cannot have explorer and achiever content in the same "quest", but that's a half-baked idea. I could always have two separate quests, one targeted at explorers and the other at achievers. Most players would play only those quests that interested them, However, alpha-(fe)male wannabes would use walkthroughs to cheat on the adventure game content if it provided them an advantage (such as experience points or special items).
Model 5: The nightclub
Online worlds are a lot like nightclubs.
People visit nightclubs to drink, dance, listen to music, partake in velcro suits (or other trendy activity), and to meet other people. People visit virtual worlds to kill things, explore, get a sense of accomplishment, and to meet other people.
Nightclubs are often "themed", being western, pop, punk, under-18, classical, etc. People pick their nightclub based on the theme. Each theme, of course, is associated with a style of music. More importantly, each theme is associated with a style of patron.
One of the reasons I don't like MMORPGs is because they're filled with teenagers (or teenage-minded people). I don't care to talk to most teenagers. I didn't care to talk to teenagers when I was a teenager. The entire MMORPG environment, especially the achiever/killer features, is targeted at teenagers. If I were producing a MMORPG I'd make this decision too, since teenagers are a very large percentage of gamers and their personality works well with MMORPGs.
One of the reasons I was interested in Uru Live was because teenagers would stay away from it, leaving adults (or adult-minded teenagers). It didn't provide the action or reptilian-brained activities that so attract teenagers.
I suspect that if explorer-oriented worlds are ever commercially viable they will be targeted at adults, and achiever-oriented worlds will be targeted at teenagers. Uru Live was clearly targeted at a different demographic than MMORPGs, and many customers liked it specifically because it didn't include teenage-minded MMORPG players. (See Uru Forums) (If this is so, my earlier question about whether it's possible to mix explorer and achiever content is moot; they won't be mixed because each one will be targeted at a different demographic.)
Some nightclubs include another useful "feature" that many virtual worlds already copy; they have a person who stands at the doorway and only lets desirable people in.
Model 6: A God-game made real
In a "God-game", such as Black & White or Sim City, the player pretends to be God. His subjects are thousands of electronic AI's that he must keep happy and healthy. If he doesn't they either leave or die.
Oddly, virtual worlds are God-games for the authors. The virtual world author must act through his virtual world tools to keep his virtual world's inhabitants happy, or they'll leave. Unlike a God-game, the inhabitants of virtual worlds are real people. The God-game nature of running a virtual worlds is a well known to MUD wizards, although not necessarily stated in such a blunt manner.
Of course, real-life players are infinitely more complex than the AIs used for God-games, and it takes more than a few well-placed roads and skyrises to keep real people happy. However, the God-game analogy raises some interesting issues:
First, some players really enjoy playing God, in God-games, and as virtual world authors. A virtual world could include sub-worlds where players act as Gods and invite other players in to enjoy what they have created. This, of course, is player created content. It has a few problems:
I don't have any novel answers to these solutions except for the exploit problem... CRPGs encourage exploits because experience, gold, and items translate from one sub-world to another. (If they don't transfer then many CRPG players won't bother investing time in the other world.) In an adventure game, exploits are much less likely since there is no experience or gold (usually), and items can logically be kept in the world where they were created.
The second observation is this: The real God (or deities of your choosing) uses people to accomplish his (or her) goals, often by "working in mysterious ways" through luck, voices, dreams, and visions. How can a virtual world author (aka: "God") manipulate players to improve the world experience?
When I say paying, I don't mean with real money, but with game money or goods. Here's an example:
Current virtual worlds "pay" players to go on quests, such as killing all the rats in the farmer's basement or rescuing the a lost villager. Payment includes experience, in-game money, and equipment. Many players like quests because they give the players goals, and some additional pocket money.
Virtual world authors should be yelled at by their accountants for such quests. It costs 100 g.p. (of virtual money) to hire a player to kill the rats. This is a waste of money, since the virtual rats don't really need killing. After all, they were generated for the sole purpose of being killed by the questing character in the first place. It's like creating make-work for employees, and doesn't make economic sense.
Why not "pay" players to entertain each other? It's easy; just twist the quests a little. Have one NPC, someone in organized crime, hire players to steal chickens from all the farmers in town, for a cash reward of 100 g.p. The farmers, in turn, hire different players to protect their chickens, for 100 g.p. Only one of the player characters gets the reward. Both get entertained.
The plot can be extended: A third PC, the local mayor, may pay someone 1000 g.p. to knock off the organized-crime PC. When that happens, the market for chicken stealing and protecting dries up until a new NPC fills the old one's place. Maybe a NPC that was previously a pick-pocket is promoted to being the new chicken-stealer. (One reviewer mentioned that http://www.skotos.net/articles contains articles with similar concepts, although I haven't spent the time looking for them.)
Repeat ad infinitum.
Of course, this is very manipulative. Players are being objectified by the NPCs. (Which is probably just, because NPCs are objectified by the players.) Will players like the scheme? Who knows. Some may object, but I suspect many of them will find it more interesting to be part of the larger story that to pout that they're being used by the authors to enhance the virtual world.
The author, playing god, is responsible for programming in the major NPCs' goals. The NPCs, in turn, manipulate the players and drive the world story. When an NPC reaches its goals, or is killed by a PC, the author jumps in and adjusts the story.
What does this second observation have to do with explorers? The web of NPCs hiring PCs to do odd jobs might actually add up to an important story. Maybe a wizard keeps hiring PCs to acquire various magical ingredients. If someone is smart enough to observe, they may realise that the wizard is building a special magical item, or is casting a powerful spell that allows the wizard to take control of the city. Or maybe the wizard is being controlled by the Boy Sprouts, who are in turn controlled by the UFOs. (If you don't get this joke you've never played the "Illuminati" card game.) If the wizard is stopped, do the future events of the world change? This is all explorer material.
The system also requires relationships between individual NPCs and individual players. A NPC will learn how reliable a player is, and give the more difficult tasks to the more reliable players. Achievers will like this, at least until their patron is killed by a griefer or another achiever.
The revised quest system has at least two problems:
Model 7: A virtual world is a platform, not a place
This title isn't exactly correct... To the players a virtual world is a place. To the developer it's a platform. I'll explain why, and how this affects virtual worlds targeted at explorers.
If you think that a virtual world is solely a game, then what I'm about to say won't make much sense. I view a virtual world as a place that allows players to partake in activities, some of which may be games, some socialisation, and other forms of entertainment. The game is just a portion of the virtual world's experience. It's not even one game, but many games, such as CRPG, economics, and flight simulators all rolled into one. If you haven't heard this concept before then do some searching on the web or read "Designing Virtual Worlds." If you don't agree with my assumption that a virtual world is a place, this model won't bear any weight.
Back to talking about "place"... Assume that a virtual world were just a place, such as the Earth stripped of all people, animals, and potentially plants. What could an individual do in it?
This would quickly get boring. (Anyone who doesn't think so has a much longer attention span than I do. For those who don't believe me, try one of the many 3D chat virtual worlds during off-peek hours and see how entertaining vacant worlds are.)
A developer could make the world more interesting by adding sentient creatures, like other players. This would allow for another activity:
When people run out of stuff to talk about, chatting too gets boring. In the real world, bringing people together to chat is called a party. It is accompanied by food, alcohol, and games (such as cards and twister) in order to liven things up. Since food and alcohol aren't viable on-line services, a developer can only use games to make the virtual world more interesting.
Existing virtual worlds have added games that go well beyond card games in scale and complexity. These new games are:
Virtual worlds could also incorporate other computer genres:
Notice the trend: Because a virtual world by itself is fairly dull, developers add various sub-games (and activities) to the world. As players get bored with those sub-games, developers either expand the existing sub-games (such as adding more levels to a CRPG), or incorporate new sub-games (such as Star Wars Galaxies' recent addition of space combat). This becomes an infinite cycle.
Most game genres that have been incorporated into a virtual world originally existed off-line, and are still sold as such: CRPG, adventure, FPS, cards, etc. When an off-line game is incorporated into a virtual world, the user's on-line experience is often inferior to the off-line counterparts:
Virtual worlds offer only a few games that are better on-line than off. Such sub-games rely on large numbers of online users, such as kill-fests, crafting, and the economy.
Despite the inferiority of many virtual world sub-games, people are still willing to pay a lot of money to play. Why?
It's because of synergy. The combination of several off-line games (or free on-line games) into one virtual world produces a better experience. The whole becomes more valuable than the sum of its parts. Here are some examples:
Interestingly, if you apply the synergy concept to an adventure game (such as Myst) you'll see that an adventure game is a virtual world containing sub-games of puzzles. The two elements have a positive impact on each other. The virtual world element gives a purpose to the puzzles. The puzzles make the player spend more time wandering around the virtual world and discovering the scenery. Myst, if broken down into scenery and a set of puzzles, is much less interesting than the whole. (Myst also includes a story component, which I'll discuss later.)
So, let me rephrase the question a bit: How does a virtual world provide value-added to the player?
A virtual world indirectly provides value-added to the player by being a good platform for the developer:
Virtual worlds are "platforms" because the virtual world, which is mostly worthless stand-alone, provides the structure upon which other games are built and marketed.
I can imagine a future where the top three virtual world developers morph into something like cable providers... Consumers pay a monthly fee. For that fee they get to play any of 50-500 games (as opposed to cable providers, which provide 50-500 TV channels). The game company's marketing model would change from a per-unit model to an annuity... If you were a large corporation, would you rather have a risky hit-based model, or a stable and profitable annuity? I know Bill Gates' answer to that question.
In "Playgrounds, Disneyland, and the Holodeck" I discuss a variation on the cable-TV model.
Here is a thought: How many people have more than one cable provider? How many people have both cable and satellite TV? Approximately none. Apply this same thinking to virtual worlds: How many people will pay to be members of two virtual worlds at once?
My Microsoft-trained mind does the math and comes to the following conclusions: In the future there will be three (maybe five) virtual world companies that own 80%-90% of the market. They won't own just the virtual worlds market, either. They will also own most of the retail games market. The Big Three will dominate any customer segment they're interested in; this means mass market. They will dominate any market where throwing money at the problem improves the user experience; such as modelling and animation. (Just think: large virtual world providers = mass market = Hollywood.)
The remaining 10%-20% of the market will eke out an existence by targeting consumers that don't like the mass-market content provided by the Big Three. They won't have enough money to provide the dazzling visuals and animations that the Big Three will. Nor will their worlds be as large. They probably won't even get shelf space on retail stores, so they'll have to provide internet distribution.
Am I right about this? (I hope not.) Would anyone believe me if I were right? (Probably not. People don't like considering dire predictions, especially if they're the ones whose doom is predicted. If they did listen, though, they might be able to protect themselves.)
If you agree with me and follow my line of thought then you'll notice many ramifications for virtual worlds. However, I'm discussing virtual worlds targeted at explorers here. How does all of this affect them?
Model 8: Playgrounds, Disneyland, and the Holodeck
After posting a draft of this document on rec.arts.int-fiction, several reviewers pointed out that I didn't mention author-created stories, and that I didn't discuss some of the future possibilities of virtual worlds. Originally, I hadn't touched on author-created stories because they're not currently possible in virtual worlds.
However, I forgot one very important thing: Stories and adventure games are linked. Except for the first few adventure games, the puzzles have not only been linked into the world, they've been linked with the story surrounding the world and immediate happenings. Some adventure games rely on a story that happens before the game starts (such as Myst or Deadline), while others use the puzzles as a means to advance the story (Syberia).
One reason that off-line adventure game players may not want to go online is that virtual worlds find it much more difficult to include a personalised story; 100K players running around makes plotting a personal storyline very difficult.
Traditionally, virtual worlds are devoid of author-created stories and instead rely on players to create their own "stories" through their activities. While such "stories" are compelling because the player is part of them and influences the stories, they do not compare with a story created by a professional author.
In a large virtual world, personalised (author-created) stories are not possible. Backstories are certainly possible. Stories that affect the world as a whole can also be done. (From what I've heard about the beta of Uru Live, the team was incorporating a running story into the world, much like Asheron's Call does. Neither Uru Live's nor Asheron Call's author-created story can be personalised for every individual though.)
Maybe adventure game players want a more personal story?
If this is so, then online adventure games are still-born. Here's why:
Analysing the above results produces a few rules:
A large virtual world is problematical because of the number of players and the number of choices each player has. To provide author created stories at an individual level (as opposed to world-based plotting), the virtual world must either hire an army of storytellers and hope their stories don't collide with one another, or produce a really good AI that can create non-colliding stories for 100K players, many of which will be trying to break the AI for fun and profit.
An army of storytellers is possible, although very expensive; undoubtedly some virtual worlds will cater to this market, but they'll charge more for it. The other approach, AI, requires technology that doesn't exist.
Personalised stories for large virtual worlds seem doomed...
However, approaching the problem from a different direction provides an answer that isn't quite so bleak:
A playground is a piece of land (place) with numerous mechanical contrivances (world physics) that lets kids (players) interact with one another. A contemporary virtual world is a virtual playground. Instead of merry-go-rounds and see-saws, virtual worlds have combat and trading. Playground PvP involves pushing kids off the merry-go-round, throwing sand, calling kids names, and occasional fights. Virtual world PvP is based on virtual combat, virtual economics, and social abuse.
Adults build playgrounds for kids so that the kids will be entertained and physically worn out after the experience, providing the adults with some rest. Playgrounds also serve a socialisation purpose, teaching children how to interact with one another. Richard Bartle presents socialisation experience as an important aspect of virtual worlds.
A playground has no author-created story, even though stories are created by the kids in the playground. Playgrounds are not usually themed, other than an occasional colour scheme or painted smiley face.
Disneyland is a playground, kind of. Actually, it's a "theme park". However, it has many elements of a playground: lots of mechanical contrivances that are either designed to entertain or make one feel sick. The contrivances, such as Space Mountain, are more complex than a playground, but Space Mountain is essentially a really big and really fast slide.
Disneyland is not designed so that kids interact with kids though. It's designed so parents and kids enjoy quality time together. The quality is so compelling that some people travel half way around the world to enjoy it.
Unlike a playground, Disneyland has an author-created story, or rather, stories. When people wander around Disneyland they are also wandering around many of Disney's movies and television shows, such as the tree-house in the "Swiss Family Robinson" or the castle from "Sword in the Stone". Not only are many of the rides based on Disney stories, but NPCs (such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy) are right out of the stories. Because visitors to Disneyland have been previously exposed to Disney stories, the act of climbing up the "Swiss Family Robinson tree-house" somehow includes the visitors in the story of the "Swiss Family Robinson".
Star Wars Galaxies and Middle-Earth Online are both using the Disneyland model to enhance their virtual playgrounds. They may not do so successfully, but both virtual worlds are only the first generation. Give them time. (Uru Live was also heading in this direction, building upon the stories established in previous Myst adventure games and books. Uru Live also had actors.)
A quick comment about actors: Uru Live hired human actors to wander around their world and give speeches that advanced the world's plot. While this has advantages of realism, it is problematical. Players that were not around when the actor was online felt like they missed out. Such feelings will either cause all players to be online and in the same area where actors will appear (which is a technology issue), or leave players feeling like they're on the outside looking in (for those people living in non-US time-zones). Things can get even worse: As the infamous assassination of Lord British in Ultima Online shows, someone will try to derail the actor's actions just for the fun of it.
In "A virtual world is a platform, not a place" I discussed the possibility of each of the Big Three producing a fantasy, science fiction, etc. virtual world. They could go a step further than this, producing several science-fiction worlds (or one science-fiction virtual world with several sub-worlds), each one based on a different author's works. One science-fiction world could be based on Star Wars, while another on Larry Niven's works, and another from Farscape. The virtual world could either license the IP from the author, or the author could license the space from the virtual world.
Of course, the themed virtual world would be tied into the appropriate books or movies. Players could wander through the themed world, enjoy the themed activities, and even interact with actors playing important characters from the books/movies. The virtual world might even include linear narratives that further the story, presented as cut-scenes or conversations with NPCs. Maybe the Han Solo NPC would relate a short anecdote (a 10 minute cut-scene) to any visiting player about how he acquired the Millennium Falcon.
Is a themed world with cut-scenes enough story to make everyone happy? Probably not, but it's a start.
At first glance, Star Trek's Holodeck is the "holy grail" in virtual worlds, not only because of the stupendous graphics, but because the Holodeck is smart enough to tailor an experience to a user. (It's even smart enough to take over the Enterprise a few times.) Oddly enough, Star Trek's Holodeck doesn't include avatars of users from all over the galaxy, like a MMORPG does; such additional "features" can easily be imagined though.
The Holodeck may seem like the final word in virtual worlds, but such appearances may be deceiving. Even if the Holodeck were possible today, it might not "work". Here's why I have my doubts:
Over the course of the 1980's I wrote a number of amateur games, including text-adventure games, a Wizardry clone, an Ultima I clone, and an adventure BBS. I also did some thinking about where these games were going. What I imagined then was similar to what we have in contemporary MMORPGs. (Actually, current MMORPGs have much better graphics and many more users than I ever dreamed of.)
However, I am dissatisfied with current MMORPGs; they feel soul-less to me. This is not something I anticipated, but is a consequence of having 100K players in a world being run by a corporation bent on maximising sales. While my predictions were right on one level (graphics), they completely missed the mark on another (user-experience).
Twenty years later, I can imagine a Holodeck-generated virtual world, but I don't think a Holodeck will turn out as I expect. Obviously, some technologies won't exist in 20 years: Transporter-fabricated matter is a bit undo-able, so I'll have to settle for a 3D virtual reality headset with a data suit, or a VR room. The AI is also near-impossible, requiring some human intervention in a Holodeck experience. The fundamentals are there though.
I suspect that the Holodeck experience won't be the ultimate virtual world experiene, for the same reason that kids rebel against their parent's dreams of having them become a lawyer or doctor. Simply put, people don't like being told what to do. They like being manipulated even less. Any attempt by an AI or real person to impose a story on a virtual world is an act of manipulation, even though players may wish for some form of story.
Game masters in face-to-face RPGs know they walk a fine line between creating a good story and forcing players' hands. Players that feel like they've been wronged will make a fuss and/or leave the game. Part of the reason that face-to-face RPGs work, and holodecks may not, is that the player and GM know and trust one another; If the player feels they're being forced to do something they don't want to, they will be more forgiving because they know the GM has their best interest at heart, and making a stink could hurt a friendship. Similarly, the GM knows enough about the player to know what buttons not to push. Getting an AI or paid professional to fill the role of friendly GM is very difficult, although not necessarily impossible.
I can imagine myself going along with the Holodeck story some days, while spending other days seeing how far I can go before I break the AI or make it go crazy. What happens if I replay the murder mystery and hide the murderer's weapon? If I jump off a cliff, what does the AI do to realign the story, have Superman catch me? Basically, I'll turn the original virtual reality game into a new game, push-the-AI.
Does this mean that holodecks won't "work"? Maybe they will and maybe they won't. Unexpected effects are bound to appear though. The potential problem of players resisting story-manipulation is only one example. More issues are undoubtedly lurking.
Mix and match
A virtual world doesn't need to pigeonhole itself into just being a playground, or just a Disneyland, or just a Holodeck. It can be a combination of all three, using elements where appropriate.
The "playground" aspect of a virtual world is the world's physics and mechanics, determining how players (and NPCs) can interact with one another. Playground "stories" are all player generated using the world's physics. Contemporary MMORPGs are virtually all playground. Uru Live had relatively little playground, other than chat and cone soccer.
The "Disneyland" dimension is the amount of author created stories. Being created by a person, the stories are expensive, so must be reused by players. As a result, either the story must be outside the player's control (such as story that happened before the game began, as in Myst), or the player must be willing to follow an essentially linear story path (Syberia).
Unlike a traditional adventure game, the "story" doesn't have to limit itself to one subject. Hundreds of stories can populate a world, creating a world of stories, much like Tolkien's Silmarillion or Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. (Most Dreamtime stories are associated with places, so as Aborigines move through their countryside they are also moving from one Dreamtime story to another.)
Finally, the "Holodeck" dimension of storytelling is the amount of intelligence (human or AI) used to provide a more personalised story. For a long time to come, this will be a person, not AI. Although, a simple AI or well-built tools could aid the human storyteller. Traditional pen-and-paper RPGs use this form of storytelling.
Each form of story has its own advantages and disadvantages: Playground stories are compelling because the player is part of them and creates them, although the stories are not refined. Disneyland stories are refined and polished, but immutable. Holodeck stories are a compromise, allowing users to affect the story, but at the expense of story quality and human intervention, which introduces an element of conflict between the player and the storyteller.
Different players prefer different story types. Providing only one form in a virtual world will alienate some players.
For example: Many off-line CRPG players accept a world with only playground stories (Diablo or Dungeon Siege - both of which are very weak in the author-created story department). Such players have no problem adapting to a MMORPG (which lacks Disneyland and Holodeck style stories). Since most adventure games include a strong author-created story component, I suspect adventure game players prefer author-created stories (Disneyland or Holodeck-style). Consequently, they're alienated by the playground-style stories in MMORPGs.
Not modelled: Poor launch for Uru Live?
Uru Live was officially cancelled because not enough users signed up. However, part of the reason they may not have had enough users is because of a poor launch strategy: Uru, the retail package, was available on store shelves in November 2003, just in time for Christmas. Uru Live, the online portion, wasn't scheduled to go public until February 2004.
Uru Live (online) shipped after Uru (offline). In the user's mind, Uru was synonymous with Uru Live. Users probably expected that when they installed Uru, they'd have access to Uru Live; I know I did. This wasn't the case, since the team (or at least marketing) considered them two separate beasts. Therefore, Uru had shipped, but Uru Live was in beta until February, and perhaps later. This is a bit confusing for users, even me, and I work in the computer industry.
I suspect that management decided to ship Uru "separately" from Uru Live so that Uru would be out in time for the Christmas market, even though Uru Live wouldn't be ready in time.
This decision had several ramifications:
Combined wisdom/folly of the models
Now that I have examined explorers from every possible angle, does this thought experiment give me any useful information?
Here are some possible ways to get explorers using on-line virtual worlds:
Some less-obvious solutions might also work:
Would enough explorers be attracted to a virtual world even with the above changes? I'm not sure.
From my perspective there isn't much of an alternative. Achievers, killers, and socialisers are having their needs catered to by 100+ MMORPGs and 1500+ MUDs. The explorers are left out in the cold.
Thanks to the following people for reviewing and commenting on this awfully long document. (Said following people do not necessarily agree with all or any of my conclusions. You can read their responses in rec.arts.int-fiction, under the "Thought-experiments about the failure of Uru Live" thread begun 5-May-2004, and "Design: Online adventure games" in https://www.kanga.nu/lists/listinfo/mud-dev.)
Copyright 2004 by Mike Rozak. All rights