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October 25, 2003
stick a lightsaber in it

Professor Timothy Burke is a pop culture historian and eager gamer. An early player of the highly-touted Star Wars Galaxies, he wrote several pieces exploring the contours of the game in its fetal stages. I played with him, and I linked to his pieces from GGA.

Months later, the game seems to have grown up, and grown ugly. Burke has written a sort of player's postmortem, explaining why he cancelled his account, and trying to reason out what went wrong:

The major research question posed to me by Star Wars: Galaxies is no longer about virtual economies, emergent systems, or anything similar. The question is how a massively-multiplayer game that has the rights to the single most popular licensed property of the late 20th Century, the backing of a company with deep pockets, and a dream team of developers can end up being in the absolute best estimation no better than any other game of its kind, and by many accounts, including my own, among the worst.
The Mystery of SWG is good reading for anyone who follows this type of game. Burke writes, "I still believe that MMOGs have enormous potential to be fun and engaging, and I believe they remain the best place to realize the more profound artistic, cultural and social possibilities of computer games as a whole." I agree, though I'm increasingly saddened that those MMOGs touted as reaching into the mainstream fail in this regard (The Sims Online, and now Star Wars). None of my borderline gamer friends picked them up, and I soon stopped playing both of them. I have fonder memories of more hard-core games like Dark Age of Camelot, where the goals and systems for reaching them are more clear. MMOG game designers have not yet understood how to make participating in a persistent world a pleasant and playful way to spend a few months. I don't think it involves hours of repetative of clicking to make gun barrels.

A sizeable number of people will probably continue playing this prematurely-released game. But not breakthrough numbers, not too many people who have never played a multiplayer online game before. The real innovation in multiplayer seems ever-more likely to emerge from unlauded corners, unburdened by big licenses, fast schedules and huge teams. Note: that doesn't mean I won't try Grand Theft Tolkien online, during opening week.

Posted by justin at October 25, 2003 02:29 AM | TrackBack

I'm willing to bet an obscure indie developer will get it right before the big boys.

Posted by: Draigon on October 25, 2003 08:24 AM


"The entire hallmark of the MMOG genre is its persistence: to shunt people into non-persistent activities when they want to have fun, and to insist on making them grind when they want to make a mark on the gameworld, when they want to matter within it, is to indulge in an ultimately self-destructive sense of the genre’s possibilities."


Strangely, this is kind of like life: when you want to have fun, you go off and do inconsequential activities, and if you want to change the world in a meaningful way, you grind away at something for a long time. Some players really love being in a world that's like life, but with kewl powerz. Others hate the idea of doing "work" for fun.

Also, I think the "grind is a state of mind" quote by the game designer is a common outlook for people in the game industry. Remember, these are the people who work insane hours for (comparitively) little money just because it means they get to "work in games." Is it any wonder that the videogame industry has the burnout/turnover rate that it has? Most people in the industry are only too happy to point out that nobody stays in games for more than a few years unless they _really_ love games. Perhaps the reason why there hasn't been a MMO world that has appealed to "the masses" is that, without exception, all of these worlds have a pantheon of game developers as Creator Spirits.

Posted by: ClockworkGrue on October 25, 2003 08:33 AM

Good thoughts, Clockwork. I've thought something similar about game design--but I think it's even messier than that. I think you get people who would like to be "auteurs", Creator Spirits who can really enact a complete vision--but that the actual labor of making computer games so thoroughly diffuses and disperses a creative idea among the many people required to make the thing itself that a good creative vision will often be converted into generic mush. This is especially true with MMOGs. If you contrast it with filmmaking, where everything ultimately comes back to the director (when it goes right) and where all technical labor is subordinated to the director's control *and* is comprehensible to the director, it's striking.

On the other hand, I don't quite agree with your thought about the grindiness of achievement in real life, or at least it leads me to two further thoughts. The first is, of course, the more a game has the same temporal framing as real life, the less satisfying it is, just like any other cultural form. An absolutely "realistic" novel that portrayed a day in the life of a protagonist without any ellipses or omissions would be boring--though it might pose the interesting question, "Why am I reading this when I could be living it"? (Which is how some people react to The Sims, and in that case, it's kind of an interesting, generative reaction).

More importantly, sometimes in real life, achievement is NOT a result of the grind. I think more than anything else that's what occasions a lot of negative reactions to the way conventional MMOGs track achievement through the linear expenditure of time, and why so many players so obsessively work to maximize routines for gaining experience or money or resources in MMOGs. Lum the Mad once observed this on his late, lamented site, that MMOG economies often seemed governed by a quasi-Marxist labor theory of value, that all "wealth" derives from a linear input of time. In real life, sometimes we achieve extraordinary results through a flash of insight, a sudden burst of creativity, a fabulous idea that no one else has had, a quick-tongued response to a changing situation. In real life, achievement or success sometimes is less based on gradualism and more based on punctuated equilibria, on sudden leaps. There's no way in a conventional MMOG to have a sudden flash of insight; no way to have a good idea that no one else has had which then has a concretized effect on a persistent gameworld. You can have a good, creative idea--but only "off the books", with roleplayed tinyplots or by discovering an exploit that no one has found yet, or something similar. That's so *unlike* real life, especially the kind of entrepreneurial mentality that capitalist societies celebrate, that a lot of gamers go away frustrated.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 25, 2003 09:42 AM

As somebody who works as and with "creatives," I am all too familiar with how little having a flash of insight or a sudden windfall really accomplishes. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, and all that. Even if you get lucky, and you just have that one amazing idea that you know will revolutionize the world, you've still gotta produce it, whether that be writing it down in a way that others can understand, carving it out of marble, or nailing every last bit of code. Then, once you've got it produced, you've gotta make people care about it. There's that old saying about how if you want to become famous overnight, just spend 10 years working for it.

Cool ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are maybe ten dollars a dozen. Even if sudden flashes of insight were implemented in a shared game world (aside from being a pain to balance), there'd still be the grind to make it something everybody actually cared about.

Posted by: ClockworkGrue on October 25, 2003 12:15 PM

In one sense you're right. If you want to pick the way to become comfortably wealthy, then long-odds things like treasure hunting, trying to beat the average returns on the stock market, or gambling are not good strategies. Steady investment of effort in a particular direction is much wiser.

On the other hand, sticking with real life here, the thing which distinguishes people even within the real marketplace is not just plodding along but also the slightly better insight, the clever idea, the new invention, the edge.

This transports (or fails to transport) to MMOGs in two ways. First, the way to get the edge in the conventional MMOG design (including SWG) is to plod *longer* and *more* than the other guy. The thing that distinguishes you from another player has very little to do with your cleverness, your invention, your ideas, your individualism: it's who played longest and most. I think that's not necessarily the case in the real world: that does not explain the differentiation you see in the capitalist marketplace or any other competitive arena. You can practice twice as much as Venus Williams but you're not going to be two times better than her at tennis. (Now of course such differentiation is also not always due to better ideas, better talent, etc.: it's sometimes due, especially in the marketplace, to cheating or to getting the rules altered in your favor--a whole different issue).

I think MMOGs are frustrating because they allow no real opportunity to have inventiveness or creativity translate into *persistent* effects in the gameworld. Yes, sure, you can beat another guy in PvP because you're a smarter player. You can come up with an amazing decorative arrangement of your house. (I was really impressed when players figured out how to get things mounted on their walls or sit on tables in SWG even though you could walk right through a table and there was no way to hang things on walls: what you did was drop stuff on the stairs in your house at variable heights and then move it around through the air bit by bit using the radial menu until voila! it looked like it was hanging on your wall). But cleverness in role-playing, in tactics, etc.: none of it manifests as a persistent effect on the gameworld. The only thing that does is playing longer and more than the other guy. That's not like real life, really it isn't.

More importantly, even if it were, that's not an especially good aesthetic vision for how you make a game fun and imaginative unless the point of the game is to produce a sort of Brechtian "breach" in a player's sense of himself and the world, to radically call attention to the alienated condition of everyday life. I remember Greg Costikyan advocating that at least some games should try to do this, and certainly Will Wright has from time to time sounded like this was one of his aspirations for The Sims. So it's not necessarily a bad idea, but I do think it's a bad idea for MMOGs. Going back time and again to spend hours in a cultural experience whose main goal is to make me feel a self-loathing disregard for the plodding experience of labor in the real world seems...a perverse artistic ambition, as well as a bad way to sell games.

Most people come to a MMOG, most particularly Star Wars, with the goal of living within a fiction, of experiencing from them from the inside. Now one of the basic problems is that most speculative, fantastic fictions are built around individual protagonists, and that simply doesn't scale to a MMOG. But even if you find a way to get people to be Rebel soldiers and everyday bounty hunters rather than Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett, you'll find that they are not terribly satisfied if "living the fiction" amounts to "doing a lot of plodding scut work". Doesn't matter if that's how achievement happens in real life: it's not what draws us to the possibility of living within a fiction.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 25, 2003 02:40 PM

Good essay, I've forwarded it around to the team leads.

There's endless amounts of discussion I could have on each of the points you cite--and I started to write the replies, but erased 'em all. :)

Posted by: Raph on October 25, 2003 06:36 PM

I've let my account expire (or at least it will expire at the end of this month, anyway) for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is the clincher:

It isn't any fun.

You know what's boring? Running. That's all you freaking do in that game, is run. And let me add *pointless* running. The majority of my time in the game is spent running between my house and the town because there's some insane rule that your house must be at least 1500 feet (i.e. one mile) away from town. So just to do *anything* in the game, you usually had to run multiple laps between the house and the town. It's designed to be a time sink, so you spend extra amounts of time in the game so that you can't level up as quickly as you'd like (thereby spending more time and money on the game).

Want to take on a mission to kill some rabbits? Time to run! Hey, I know, let's go check out that swamp. Running time! Hey, need some supplies for that house you want to craft? Get those jogging shoes on!

Screw grinding. The real problem with that game is the fact that it's tedious and boring. Who the hell wants to sit there and monkey-punch 210 wild rabbits just to reach an elite level skill? Don't forget that entails a crap-ton of running!

Also, there's just too much broken with the game right now. Things just don't make any sense. Smugglers need to raise their pistol skill in order to raise their underground *communication* skill (which doesn't involve pistols, btw).

There aren't any fun missions. No matter how you slice a mission in Galaxies, it's either

A). Deliver something, or
B). Kill something.

There are no puzzles to solve. There are no unique riddles or story-laden plots to follow (although they'd like to think that they've recently added some, which are currently *broken*).

Recently, they've added crafting missions and other unique mission types, but they mainly still involve delivering something, only you have to go pick up the parts, create the item, and deliver it.

There are no complex team-based missions where a Smuggler needs to slice the lock on the door, and then maybe the artist needs to craft a special item right there on the spot in order to fool an item-recognition scanner, or have an entertainer dance to distract a guard while your image designer disguises your fighters so they can sneak past and subdue the remaining guard and make off with the prize. You'll never see anything that elaborate in SWG, because it is a game of the mundane.

Posted by: Bowler on October 25, 2003 07:29 PM

Bowler, to your point about running - I guess it was Star Trek that had teleporters. But even in Star Wars - it's funny to spend so much time on foot. I remember hearing that vehicles were a part of the game plan. Maybe for an expansion pack. But heck it's a world with deep tech, and they don't have public transportation or small vehicles? Or Segways?

I have some sense that while this incarnation of the game is lagging behind expectations, it's possible that SWG could be tweaked into something better. But then again, I had that same sense about the Sims Online and I haven't had a reason to restart my account there. Which leads me back to wondering if there isn't something entirely broken about the way we design and play MMOGs. The game form just doesn't seem to be compatible with my life. That's why I want to see a MMOG that I can play from a multitude of platforms - mobile phone, GBA, XBox, PC, email, web browser, dedicated client - same world, same game. Probably a few years off, but seems foreheadsmackingly obvious to me - if people are too busy to sit in front of their computer and rebuild gun muzzles, distribute the game to them, wherever they are. That might at least allow more people to participate in most MMOGs as they're architected now, with levels and experience requiring hours of investment.

This week I just returned from two weeks in Seoul, interviewing game companies. I found that they are having some problems with MMOGs there - the style of play surrounding levels and experience and skills just doesn't suit anyone who isn't willing to put in hours of sucker-punching rabbits and snakes to achieve power status. There's a pile of notes and photos from those meetings sitting on my desk - hoping to have it posted online within the next two or three weeks.

Posted by: justin on October 25, 2003 08:37 PM

It sounds to me like Star Wars Galaxies just suffers from the two main problems of most other MMORPGs, but just suffers from them to a greater degree than most. And as usual, it's not really a problem with the very basics of the genre (being massive, multiplayer, online, and an RPG), the way MMORPGs fit into people's lives, or some way in which the game needs to be more or less analogous to real life. They're simply not enough like actual games.

The first problem is scale. When you start most games, regardless of whether they're action games, RPGs, platformers, or whatever else, you're sort of a superhero. You can fight with some degree of skill and use powers that are beyond that of the average human being. In MMORPGs, you spend months as a worthless little plebe that can barely kill a small fury animal, serving as a pathetic backdrop for the thirteen year olds that power-levelled to level 65 during summer/christmas/easter vacation. And the thirteen year old doesn't have it any better. Thanks to his dozens of hours of power-levelling, he's now at roughly half the strength of Dante, Hotsuma, Maximo, or Cloud at the beginning of their respective games. In other words, he's pathetic. You're starting off as a pathetic little weakling so you can serve as a contrast for the high level players whose characters are just slightly less pathetic. Star Wars Galaxies is just the best example of this because its license points out the sort of power that you SHOULD have as a high level player: you should be a jedi, plain and simple. But you aren't. And there's no reason for it.

The second problem is the lack of variety. For as long as there have been console RPGs, they have had minigames. When you feel like messing around instead of advancing the plot, you can play card games, board games, dice games, video boxing, horse racing, blitzball... all kinds of things. MMORPGs use the fact that they can double as a big visual chat room for you and your friends as a crutch. They feel that they don't have to put anything in there for you to mess around with because the genre already gives you something to mess around with, but they are very, very wrong on this point. Minigames like blitzball, racing, or some original card games like the ones in Suikoden III would probably be a lot of fun online, even if they're really simple. If you could gamble on them, they could even serve as a reasonable way to continue improving your character while you goof off. With more money, you can get better equipment, and with better equipment, you can make that tedious levelling a little easier.

But when you can get 300,000 subscriptions right off the bat without even trying just because you bought a content license, why bother? The genre's not going to improve a lot until there's a reason for it to do so.

Posted by: DarkZero on October 26, 2003 08:34 PM

First off, I've never played a MMOG, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about at all.

It seems almost a paradox: here you have what some makers of single player games would kill for: a world full of intelligent, unpredictable agents. Surely within this pool of interesting characters there will emerge a dramatic gameplay narrative. In reality, what do you get? A bunch of wanna-be rabbit punchers just trying to get to the next skill level. The problem here is that the rules of the game world overshadow any possibility for dramatic situations.

In reponse to DarkZero's point: being a "superhero" is a relative thing. In a single player game, the distinction is that you are stronger/faster/smarter than the computer opponents. In a MMOG, your opponents are other players, so it won't work to elevate the player's abilities. If everyone on Earth had the powers of Superman, Clark Kent's life wouldn't be worth telling. The dramatic tension is in the differences between characters.

Somehow, someone needs to make a character building system which is not so overtly mathematical and deterministic. It should be based largely on the players' own skills and minimally on the amount of time played.

Imagine: Two seperate players of a hypothetical game decide to become gunslinging outlaws, so they go out and start target practice to raise their skills. Player A is good at the target practice minigame, so his character's skills go up. Player B isn't, so his character remains a poor shot. He gives up on outlaw, and becomes a merchant.
Time passes.
Player A now has a dangerous avatar, and terrorizes the town, robbing and killing the inhabitants at will. Finally the other players are fed up and decide to attack player A on sight. Maybe player A is too powerful for anyone to defeat, but maybe, just maybe, mild-mannered merchant player B takes his pistol out of mothballs and is the one who gets that lucky shot.

The story above is just a simple example of how something interesting can happen when you release the player from the slavery of "the grind". Maybe a system like I've described is unworkable in practice, but I think it might be worth a try.

Posted by: C. Foust on October 26, 2003 10:31 PM

I'm another one that left SWG. I did that yesterday. I gave away 500k credits, a medium sized house, and a lot of resources to a friend. He said he'll probably go another month and quit too.

It's not for lack of interest in MMORPGs... I've played Everquest since near the beginning.

I have to say, I'm quite disappointed in how SWG turned out. I can tell that the SWG team must not have had anything to do with the EQ team, or they wouldn't have made the mistakes they did.

I could write a long list of things about why I think the game failed, but I think it'll just fall onto deaf ears. It's time to move on to something that's more fun.

If another company decides to look at the MMORPG area, take a cue from Everquest. A system that rewards players little by little, adding to the characters power over a long period of time works well.

Add a ton of content, and I mean a ton. Don't rely on your players for this, because that's not what players will pay to play. It's like going to the movies, only to find that once you get there, you're responsible for entertaining everyone else.

Rewards should be items, not just money. Money should be hard to get. Too much money will ruin the economy.

Posted by: Dean on October 27, 2003 08:04 AM

There's no denying that EQ is the key model, Dean. But at the same time, several of the things you specifically cite are also the things that people identify as the biggest problems. Adding to character's power over a long period of time increases the sense of grind, precludes any forms of PvP, and reduces access for more casual play. Rewards being items damages the entire crafting role.

Now, I am certainly not saying that SWG has the right answers to these dilemmas, but I do think that only doing what EQ did on these fronts will very much limit experimentation in other areas.

A very interesting and fruitful discussion would be "what can we do on those fronts without falling into those traps?"

Completely agreed on the content, though. :)

C. Foust, history has shown that such a game will not have the ex-gunslinger become a baker--he'll just quit.

DarkZero, on the mini-games thing, I'd suggest that SWG has the broadest diversity of activities in any MMO yet. What it is probably lacking is depth within all those activities.

Posted by: Raph on October 27, 2003 08:56 AM

Timothy Burke: There's no way in a conventional MMOG to have a sudden flash of insight; no way to have a good idea that no one else has had which then has a concretized effect on a persistent gameworld. You can have a good, creative idea--but only "off the books", with roleplayed tinyplots or by discovering an exploit that no one has found yet, or something similar.

That's not true. There is all kinds of room for sudden flashes of insight that get you all kinds of great things. It's just that we call these "server exploits" and "cheats". Of course, these get locked down in due time and maybe the player who discovered them gets banned.


Do you know what I want to see in a MMOG? I want to see an expiry date. I want to know that the game is going to have a beginning and a middle and an end. Every great game and every great work of fiction ends at some point. There should be a story arc that changes the world over time so that I have a reason to log in every day and see what's changed. I should be able to get involved in these changing events. There should be high-level, DM-run NPCs on both sides that give meaning and order to the lives of ttheir respective players. An Emperor DM telling the Imperials to attack X. A Mothma DM ushering the Rebels to secret base Y.

There should be epic battles that are announced in advance. Players log in and fight for their side. The results of those battles should affect which side controls which world. Eventually, there is a final month-long epic campaign to take over Base X and at the end victory parties for all and then the server gets reset. It would be like a television series.

There should be no RPG-like persistent experience-points and levelling system. This creates a barrier of entry to the wide casual market, which is your ultimate goal, financially. A linear advancement system that does not reset just means that late entrants will always be behind and people who only have a few hours a week will always be behind. (I've never understood this. It seems to me that your ideal customer in MMOG plays a few hours a week but pays the full monthly subscription. They don't put a heavy load on your servers but you get tha same income. MMOGs should be encouraging these people to play.)

Instead of experience points and levels, players should acrue items and bonuses more like they do in action or adventure games (mind you the game doesn't have to be an action game, I'm just saying that the special advantages should be easycome, easy go). Players who are dedicated will still do better in general casual players bue to skill but the casual people won't be so far behind. As Faust said, even the lowly merchant can get a lucky shot with the gun.

In other words, you either need a linear advancement system that resets easily (like Quake) or you need a non-linear system. Ie, every plus has a minus in another direction so you're always hovering around zero.

Right now, persistent seems to mostly mean "unending". It feels like 1984 "We are at war with the East because we have always been at war with the East." Constant unending conflict with no real ability to make a mark on the world.

I wonder if URU will fulfil at least some of these dreams...

Posted by: Snowmit on October 27, 2003 08:58 AM

Snowmit - take a look at A tale in the Desert. A bunch of us play this and it has most of what you mention, complete with what is needed for the players to end the game.

If you must have a combat game, this is not it. It is a pure crafting game done right. Lower level characters are wanted and searched for. The stuff a low level character makes is wanted by other character.

Posted by: Heather on October 27, 2003 09:55 AM

A Tale in the Desert gets mad props for some nice new ideas; I ultimately feel it still relies too much on a treadmill, but at least it's a different one. And yeah, the best idea might be that it ends at some defined point. What I'd really like to see is a MMOG that has contingent outcomes, one of which is the end of the gameworld because of something the players in aggregate did or didn't do. (And then the game starts over again). I keep thinking about what Asheron's Call 1 would have been like if the devs had been really radical with their monthly story arcs, if it had been possible for a nasty demon like Bael'Zharon to actually *win*.

I agree with Raph that SWG has tons of mini-games. I think the problem is that first, the incentive structure for playing them is poorly developed and that they often aren't sufficiently fun in and of themselves, and that second, they don't always work right. (Or in the case of some professions, work at all). But the minigame infrastructure is there, for sure.

I also agree with Raph that EQ's design is a trap, at least if one wants to take MMOGs beyond their limitations. To be honest, I think EQ's success is partially anomalous and results from good timing and inertia. It came out in a marketplace where it was the alternative to UO, where MMOGs were shiny and new, and people invested a lot of time in it before they realized what they were in for. I don't think a "new EQ" would succeed any better in this marketplace.

I think what we've learned in the last three years about MMOGs is:

1. Design small, in as modular a fashion as you can, so that you can go live with a tight, mostly functional design.

2. Consider trying something really different, because your hardcore audience is getting pretty restless with business as usual.

3. Don't design with a theme or subject matter that you're unprepared to service with appropriate game mechanics. I think City of Heroes is going to get hit in the solar plexus with this problem: from what I can see, their game mechanics have almost nothing to do with the conventions of the genre (superhero comics) that they're designing to.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 27, 2003 11:32 AM

I feel that the biggest problem with most MMORPG's (or rather, ALL OF THEM) is that they consider free time a skill. The person with the most free time to kill wins. It doesn't matter what the actual skill level of the player is.

The first MMORPG that requires that players actually HAVE SKILL will be a sure fire winner in my book. Then you'll get people who will play to get better. Sure there are chracter upgrades because of time spent, but I like when the time is spent by actually doing that particular skill.

SWG started out like this in my mind because of the skill based system (rather than levels). Its a great start but as soon as you come to combat its point, click, and wait. Sure you've got some special moves, but its just a queue system. I want to win a battle because my own personal REAL LIFE skill comes into play.

After a while all mmorpg's turn into "killing yellows"

I don't have the answer for how this can be accomplished though.

Posted by: Falhawk on October 27, 2003 11:48 AM

Falhawk, I'll reiterate what i said above, only more bluntly:

No skill-based persistent game has ever achieved a large market proportional to the time-based games, in over 20 years of designers trying.

The main reason that people leave is because persistence means that there's a positive feedback loop for winners, so newbies and more casual or poorer players get frozen out.

Posted by: Raph on October 27, 2003 01:43 PM

That would be one advantage of a persistent-world game that had a finite point of conclusion: behind the curve on this game, don't worry, the next train is coming.

I also think this is one of the places where measuring persistence largely or solely through the progressive alteration of each player's *character* is one of two or three serious core problems with time-based MMOGs. What if we had a paradigm shift, and thought about persistence *entirely* as a cumulative measure of what players in aggregate did within and to the gameworld? Where everyone was having fractional effects on the course of events? Then you could enter a game mid-stream, or be "behind", and still feel you were having a meaningful impact on what happened next.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 27, 2003 01:51 PM

There are just certain things that seem impossible to work around in a MMORPG; killing womprats ad nauseam, running from point a to b, grinding blaster barrels, etc. I'm not sure there will ever be a way to generate enough content to keep players happy. The 'virtual world chatroom' seems to still be the only current way for people to endure.

Those who ask for true skill-based MMORPG's do not know what they're asking for, or have never had their talented asses kicked to the curb in games like Starcraft or Counterstrike. No matter how good you are, someone out there will be so much better than everyone else that the demoralizing effect is crushing. While this is tolerable in the aforementioned games, I think it would be rather destructive for an MMORPG.

SWG has done well to offer in-game tools to ease some of the difficulties in these types of worlds: friend-finding, a decent macro system, apprenticeship, etc., though each has its limits in duration and usefulness.

I'm not sure what counts as minigames in SWG, but I'm sure I've tried most of them and the only one that has remained mildly interesting is 'making better armour than the next guy.' Fishing and hotel gambling have been far less engaging than just playing dice with a friend.

I think the player economy is more resilient than it's given credit for, especially with the usual endless supply of cash. None of it is being spent anyway, as there is nothing for crafters to buy. SWG could use dropped loot; cosmetic variety could probably substitute for actual diversity in objects.

Without perceived progress, the infrequent-socializers have no motive to continue playing. Explorers like myself - having seen the world, baked the cookies, slain the dragons, and with badges to show for it - need more ways to progress.

While I feel it's unfortunate how SWG's 'Jedi!-the final carrot' system has worked out, I'm just obsessive enough to try my hand at the job my oh-so-rare clue-giving device suggested (Image Designing... a personal stylist, more or less). Although I'm hesitant to give up my hard-earned mastered professions, there's nothing else to do.

Posted by: Vierzehn on October 27, 2003 02:25 PM

I don't have an answer for how to manage advancement but I do have an idea for a model to consider. This is going to get kind of long. I'm sure most people are familiar with the basics of Magic the Gathering. You have a deck of at least 60 cards with rules for what you can put in it. You shuffle the deck and play a game. The end.

It is in the way that tournament play is organized that things begin to get interesting. See how it works is that every four months Wizards releases a new set. The order is one big set and then two expansions. Together, these three sets form a block, so one block gets released every year. There is also a 'core' set of more simple and basic cards that serve to teach new players the game and to fill in the basic requirements of a deck.

In a standard constructed tournament you are allowed to play with this year's block, last year's block and the current core set (core sets rotate less often). All told, this means that you'll have between five and seven sets of cards (each is more or less 200 cards) to work with.

Of course, you personally won't have that many cards. You'll have however many you can pay for and they may not all be very useful to you. Part of the skill of magic is figuring out which cards work well together and how to best use them. This means that there are some weak cards and some powerful cards.

There are also different rarities. However (and this is important) it's not always true that that most rare cards are more powerful than the most common ones. There are plenty of powerful common and uncommon cards, so you don't need to buy hugely expensive rare cards to make a decent deck. It won't be the best, but it's decent.

Winning in Magic is a combination of three factors. One is skill. It takes skill and knowledge to put together a decent deck and to play the cards intelligently. One is possessions. If you don't have the cards you need, it doesn't matter how good at the game you are. The last is luck. Because the deck is shuffled and you can have at most 4 copies of a card in a deck and the deck must have at least 60 cards, you will not always have the card you need at the time you need it. It is possible that a random newbie with a pre-constructed deck will take out the world champion, but not terribly likely.

As I said before, the blocks rotate every year, so no matter how skilled you are, you need to keep renewing your collection to stay current. This is a great money-maker but it's also a great way to protect late adopters from being torn to shreds. They only have to worry about getting the last two years' worth of stuff to be competitive. That, and learning how to play the game.

What does this have to do with MMOGs?

I think that as a model for reward it offers some good possibilities. Long-term players are rewarded because they have a built up set of knowledge and understanding that helps them quickly understand new sets and play with them. People who invest heavily in the medium term aren't too far behind them because they can pick up the skills relatively fast and they can get the cards as fast as they can afford them. Newbies aren't too far behind them because there is still luck and there are plenty of good cards available to casual players (ie, commons).

In a MMOG this would translate into player-skill focused (be that twitch skill or strategic/tactical skill or some combination thereof) interactions involving collectable, ownable but limited-lifespan resources with a healthy dose of luck to keep things interesting. Plus, reasonably powerful versions of these resources would be quite easy to obtain (ie, there are plenty of masterwork swords and they aren't that hard to find and they get the job done just fine).

This could look like all kinds of things. Imagine a fantasy world where the movement of the heavens would drain powerful artefacts of their power from time to time. If you built this kind of thing into the game, then it would be a feature instead of a source of frustration! It would also make the constant play balancing that MMOGs do part of the fiction of the world instead of just annoying. People might actually look forward to the changes with excitement instead of being angry that they got "nerfed".

Maybe in the science fiction world, companies are constantly tuning their energy shields to be immune to equipment, making the old stuff obsolete. The new stuff isn't more powerful than the old stuff, it just works, where the old stuff has stopped working. A constant cycle of upgrades, in other words.

Maybe the rare items aren't so much powerful as pretty. Ie "This enchanted sword isn't that much better than your enchanted sword, but there are only three like it, in the realm". In Magic, people pay extra for foil versions of regular cards. They have no additional play value but they are shiny! And hard to find. Maybe the rare items are only useful in a limited situation. They don't have to be more powerful, just differently powerful.

Thanks to the people who suggested A Tale in the Desert. I'm going to check it out and see what it has to offer.

Posted by: Snowmit on October 27, 2003 02:38 PM

"The main reason that people leave is because persistence means that there's a positive feedback loop for winners, so newbies and more casual or poorer players get frozen out." - Raph

"Those who ask for true skill-based MMORPG's do not know what they're asking for, or have never had their talented asses kicked to the curb in games like Starcraft or Counterstrike." - Vierzehn

You are both using a player-vs-player model for your analysis of a skill-based game, which makes me think you have blinders on. It doesn't have to be that way.

What Falhawk is saying is completely true: there is no way to win a battle with skill, merely time, planning, and resources. Should it be possible for a newbie to kill a monster by merely clicking it over and over again? Sure. But a hardcore gamer should be able to learn advanced button tricks and combos that can be used to not only end the battle quickly, but demonstrate a definite visual and artistic style to his combat.

My wife, who is not a hardcore gamer, loves fighting games because randomly pushing the buttons gets the same result (victory) as a "serious" player, but with the added joy of cool animations and a sense of style.

Aw heck, I could waste more time writing about this, but I won't. The fact is, the game design of SWG sucks. It's oppressive and boring. And any argument to the contrary is easily countered.

Apologies for the acidic text. It's hard to remain unemotional about something I had high hopes for.

Posted by: TEd on October 27, 2003 02:55 PM

I can sympathize some, Ted, regarding hopes for SWG. I think it might already be too late to fix.

But I was not talking about PvP at all, though I think my comment applies to it as well. A round of Dead or Alive gives the button mashers a fresh chance for (victory) with each successive match or opponent. Farming Krayts on Tatooine would be -monopolized- by the lone CH/rifleman or whatever who could click the combos best. I think killing gurrcats with a flourish would wear out its welcome pretty fast, too.

Apply skill-based play to crafting, and it gets even uglier.

There's already a type of skill that has arisen with MMOG's, that I can't see a way around, short of adding the functionality of them within the game itself. Those who are able to find and synthesize up-to-date information gleaned from boards, forums, hint sites, and networks of friends have extreme advantages in games like SWG. The official SWG forums are some of the busiest I've ever seen for a game, and they're not half as robust or interesting as the Dark Age of Camelot site was, with it's real-time fort possession maps, PvP leaderboards and .xml capability.

Again, this is another type of 'skill' that favours those with the most time to play, an 'edge' that is probably impossible to neutralize in any multiplayer game.

Posted by: Vierzehn on October 27, 2003 03:32 PM

I can understand the frustration, but to say it sucks is overstating the point, IMHO. But of course, I am biased. :) I do think that one of the places where SWG is letting folks down is where they expect more than other games have supplied. (This isn't an excuse--we should have provided it). SWG is too incremental in a lot of ways, I guess is what I am sayng. It doesn't solve enough problems. And oddly, it seems to have gotten the answers to some of the tough questions right while failing to deliver some of the basics.

In regards to your specific comment--it's true that I did assume PvP; in part because SWG has a PvP element, of course. I think there'd be a valid question as to what degree people would back away from a skill-based game where the only competitive aspect was keeping up the Joneses. So far, there have only been a handful of persistent games that require high degrees of skill, and focus on PvE. EQ is one, though it's worth noting that there's a "break" where the skill levels in guild-building get to be so extreme that people stop playing. There's also Neocron, which not too many folks are playing. :(

Tim, how large an audience do you think would go for an RPG with no character advancement? One of the top reasons cited by SWG detractors is the fact that the advancement isn't DEEP enough; they want their stats to go up, to become godlike. While I understand that, I don't know whether the "but I want my character to grow uber" crowd would at all go for a system where characters didn't change significantly. Apparently SWG's compromise position sits uneasily in the middle, satisfying neither group.

Posted by: Raph on October 27, 2003 04:58 PM

You know, Raph, I really don't know. I think it's worth a shot, though. I may actually mess around with a sort of crude prototype design in alliance with a computer scientist, sort of an outgrowth of work I'm planning to do next year on emergent systems. What I think I'd like to try is a design where players were spending their effort to "nudge" a large number of prebuilt narratives in particular ways; if any group succeeded, you'd be on a new branch from which another large number of possible narratives could unfold. On each branch, the objective conditions of the gameworld would change.

So imagine a SWG where you login and go listen to rumors in a cantina, read the HoloNews, talk to other players, and get a general feel for what's been happening. Maybe you decide, from what you're seeing, that players allied with Jabba the Hutt are actively working to "nudge" a narrative where Jabba kills Valarian and absorbs her organization into his own. You think about it. You've been working with players who are trying to "nudge" the Empire into leaving a minimal presence on Tatooine. You have to decide: will a much stronger Jabba help or hinder that goal?

You find out from your investigations and a chat with other Rebels and anti-Imperials that player allies of Jabba are probably going to ambush Valerian in Mos Eisley that evening. You and your friends decide to help out, juding that a stronger Jabba will be good.

With your unplanned intervention, the anti-Valarians succeed (a few hapless players try to defend Valerian). She's dead. Unfortunately, so are you: this type of game would have to have permadeath. But since you're not spending endless hours building up a character, nothing wasted. The next morning, the server boots up the "Valerian dead, Jabba in ascendancy" branch of the narrative.

Jabba's thugs are now much more in evidence in every city; Valerian's thugs are gone. Valerian's property now belongs to Jabba. And word goes out in Tatooine's cantinas: Jabba is willing to do a deal with the Empire, if they're willing to give him certain guarantees. The scrambling to determine the next branch begins, and you join in, with your new character.

I also think that when you're offline, you could "invest" your character in certain kinds of repetitious activity that would have a much, much smaller fractional effect than active gameplay "nudging"--say, in this case, something like "Distribute anti-Imperial propaganda".

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 27, 2003 05:20 PM

Timothy, speaking about "flashes of insight"...I have always played as a roleplayer, so I have always been able to have flashes of insight in mmogs...I will agree they are "off the books" though.
But what about a game like "A tale in the desert"? Isn't having "flashes of insight" in interpersonal exchanges the whole point of that game? You can even lobby to change the actual gameplay rules, even if the vote would harm the game...
Raph, I am a big fan of SWG, despite its problems. I think it does try to break the mold in various aspects. When I ponder about why I like it, I realise it is because I use SWG as a graphical front for my Roleplaying. So technically I am easy to please. My SWG friends and I don't need *any* content beyond in game skills, world, and immersiveness. We create our own.
Isn't the solution for the problem of content in an MMO truly to leave content on the hands of the players? Create a system where players create the content, somehow. Acknowledge in a more concrete form what the PLAYERS can bring to the game. I can't even imagine how such a system would work, but a game like "A tale in the desert" is a (baby) first step towards something like that...but this would mean that a "flash of insight" that I had in an MMORPG would actually mean something. Of course I am not the superhero, like in single player games, but at least then I *can* (officially, not "off the books") make a difference....

Posted by: ricky on October 27, 2003 06:47 PM

This dialogue has to be the most useful, engaging conversation about the pro's, cons, problems and answers inherent in any gamer conversation about MMOG's. I consider myself a hardcore gamer in almost every genre except maybe racing games. I like those too, I just don't play them that often. I love videogames, of many genre's and play many hours a week.

Why is then is there no MMOG that appeals to me?

I played EQ, Dark Ages of Camelot, planetside, and even UO, all briefly with my little brother at different times. I ran around a bit got a character started then thought hey this other game I just got seems a lot more fun. Even my brother claims that the MMOG's he plays aren't really that "fun". Or not fun in a way I could understand. Lord knows he tried to explain it to me. I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that there really exists no structure for instant gratification and have a game still be fun.

In most other games there is an inherent structure for Instant Gratification. FPS games are obvious in the action. Sport games too. Adventure games are really about puzzles and advancing the story. Even RPG's, even epic length RPG's have a mucher shorter time-line between start and that first hit of loot and story advancing.

Maybe its not about the grind so much as it is about satisfaction. The social aspect of my little brothers gaming explains some of it. I look at MMOG's and I feel overwhelmed by the amount of time it requires to feel satisfaction about doing anything of value in the game itself. And this is coming from someone who spends enough time playing games to consider it a part time job.

There is the possibility that I am an abnormal gamer. Anyone with my amount of time to play and invest in games should be able to enjoy a MMOG. Hell its what I thought for a long time. Hence the flirtation with different games. Somehow though, I think there is a lot more people like me. You can't please everyone all the time still applies in this case. However I think it is possible to please most of the people some of the time.

In the end I don't really have any answers, but I implore anyone with the power to change things to listen. If you can make a MMOG that is fun for the hardcore gamer (not the hardcore MMOG'er) you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams.

Posted by: rob wallace on October 27, 2003 06:54 PM

There was a thread last week in which Raph responded that it looked like there needed to be across-the-board character nerfs. The reason given was that the krayt dragons were getting defeated to easily and that krayt dragons were designed to be the "big nasty" of the SWG universe.

There were a LOT of shocked resposes to that admission by Raph. This showed a severe lack of creative skills present in the development team. If krayt dragons were to be "the big nasty", why would one design them into the initial release and potentially defeatable by any combination of players in the first place?

Why would krayt dragons even be the big nasty in the first place. Someone mentioned the asteroid monster Han Solo flew the Millenium Falcon into and parked inside for repairs?

Raph basically admitted in that post that it was never the development staff's intention to create bigger and bigger challenges during the lifespan of SWG. Huh? This seems at best incredibly short-sigted, and worst makes the development team look like amateurs to game development. As players gain experience, they get more powerful and need additional challenges to keep them interested. This is one of THE most basic concepts in RPGs design. It was the innovation the Gygax and Arneson added to their little set of fantasy miniature rules that created the whole RPG phenomenon. Yet, Raph seemed truely shock by the concept. Quite often, Raph and the development team seem like complete novices.

It also seems in many occasions as though the development team hasn't really watched the SW movies, or any SF very much. The asteriod monster is but one example. They seem more than happy to allow creature handlers to dominate SWG. They don't care that an abundance of the lighting done in game is from torchlight. Their next big addition will be animal mounts, leaving land speeders and speeder bikes for later development. Space is way way out on the horizon. There are a lot of people who call SWG "Everquest with guns" and those comments are very justified. SWG does seem to share more in common with the Everquest setting than the SW universe.

The SWG development team has made some serious errors. To make matters worse, the development staff seems incredibly thin-skinned regarding criticism. Threads are deleted right and left on their message boards. Everyone understands that they may have to delete posts that contain inappropriate content. However, being critical in a polite manner is not "inappropiate content." People are paying more for SWG than any other MMORPG on the market. Those people have paid for the right to post their comments on the message board. However, the development team seems to treat the players in SWG as being guests present in the homes of the designers, and subject to the arbitrary whims of the developmet team. If posts aren't happy, upbeat and full of blind praise for the staff, the board moderators claim they have the right to deleting anything they wish. Wrong. SWG players have paid for the right to post their grievances. SWG players are customers. They should be treated with the respect that customers are treated with in other businesses.

There is nothing "new" in the way SWG goes about it's business. This is simply a dead center case study in how to make a business fail. The developers treat the players rudely. The developers are bound and determined to force SWG players into their own pre-concieved notions of what SWG should be, rather than trying to service the customers wants and needs. They seem to see the players as "the enemy." They talk openly on the message board about how much of a chore it is to spend any time or resources interacting with the player pool.

For SWG to survive this very ugly start-up, there's going to have to be some big changes. SWG needs a "continuity" staff of a few big SW fan-boys to approve all content before it goes forward to bring the missing "Star Wars-iness" to SWG. It needs creative staff that simply focus on creating new content, and it needs to pull the creative decisions away from the coders. The coders should code and the creative writers should write creative content. It needs to treat the players/customers with the respect their purchases demand. They need to get over being hurt by criticism from players. The deletion of so many posts on the SWG message board is having a far greater negative effect on the morale of the players then the developers understand and needs to be stopped. If all the above is done, the SWG has a chance. If it's not, it probably in deep trouble. With games like WoW, Middle Earth, Warhammer, and Dark and Light being released very soon, time is running out on the SWG staff to save it.

Posted by: leftie on October 28, 2003 04:22 AM

I apologize for the "sucks" comment; sometimes my verbosity fails me and I go for the throat.

At this point in the evolution of things, though, two things should be asked:

1) How did SWG get to this point? Were there ego problems in the design team? Was the original scope too limited or too grandiose? Problems between Sony and LucasFilm? Business considerations? It would never happen, but just imagine the dough that would roll in if somebody wrote an insider's view of everything that went on... and it would educate the next generation of game developers to boot.

2) Can SWG be fixed, and what kind of fixes are needed? Randy Pitchford once said that SWG has as many subscribers as it does because it delivered on its promise: putting a player in the Star Wars universe. But now that the novelty has worn off, people are looking for the rest of the things that they -expect- to be in the game, the other promises they had forgotten about.

Personally, I think two things need to happen. One, open the message boards to the public. Or at least make them -viewable- by the public. This adds pressure to the parent companies to give needed resources to the dev team.

Two, begin weekly polls as to what needs to change or be added. Have one set of results for current subscribers, and one for non-subscribers... I bet there will be interesting discrepancies every once in a while.

By the way, Tim, thank you for taking the time to voice your thoughts so eloquently and sparking this debate. Your "narrative nudges" sound like a step in the right direction. And Raph, we all respect your willingness to step in and take the discussion further.

Posted by: TEd on October 28, 2003 09:16 AM

I played UO from the first day it was released, I played EQ the first day it was release, for years and years.

I'm pretty sure I won't play SWG for that amount of time.

I can't quite place my finger on why, but the game is just lacking. Its hollow. Its like a sportcar that looks flashy and snazzy but when you get inside to drive it doesn't deliver.

The game has potential but its like window shopping every minute your logged in. You see something and you think, "Wow that would be neat" then you quickly realize that you can't have whats in the window.

I also have to give SWG a definate F- for content. Its very poor. Missions have only 1 reward, credits. How about a little variety? How about some items for rewards, items that require crafter intervention to produce a great product.

Then there are the little things that just add to daily unhappyness. Things like not being able to put a light bulb in your house, the fact that the game seems to be based on running and spending ENDLESS amounts of time running running running, things like making milk the rarest commodity in the universe. Seriously, milk of all things?

To compound this feeling of sitting in a unsporty but sports looking car, is a team that seems to go out of their way to make things UNFUN.

Take mounts for example. Here was a great opportunity to add content to the game in a way that everyone could enjoy and use them to make their online time a little happier.

The *ONLY* thing players really wanted was a speedier way to get up hills and around planets. Thats all they wanted, some variety and some fun and a way to ease the burden of RUNNING RUNNING RUNNING.

But what is being delivered are mounts that don't go up hills any faster, that are above the limit most people will be able to control (only 1 creature in 6 that are being implemented meets the proposed new non-ch creature limit)

And I have to ask WHY? Why was the fun sapped out of this?

Balance reasons? No one wanted a fighting pet, they just wanted more efficient travel because they are tired of RUNNING RUNNING RUNNING.

EQ gave us great horses, why can't SWG do the same?

I could go on and on...

But now that I think of it more, SWG is exactly like I said earlier, its window shopping, you see all these neat things in the window and go, "Gee that sure would be fun!" but that sence of fun quickly turns to, "But it'll never happen." :(

- Pahbi

Posted by: Pahbi on October 28, 2003 09:22 AM

My entire life has been spent training actors. I've played video games since Ultima I on an Apple ][+. I have found both in acting and in online gaming the most compelling content comes from the most mundane places. Stanislovsky said, "a minute-long piss-on-the-carpet bit means nothing without context". I remember early in my career one of the most famous acting professors alive in New York said this to me. " Forget the details, the details don't matter. Keep you mind on the specific. Details don't create an emotional state". It took me years to figure out what that meant. It took me even longer to use it and translate it into other actors’ performances. Let me see if I can distill this in a cogent manner.

Say you come home after losing your job and see someone sleeping with your wife. Now 90% of actors start asking about DETAILS. (Well how did I feel about my job? How long have I been there? Am I too tired to deal with the situation? How have my wife and I been getting along? Who is the man she is with? Do I know him? etc etc etc..) All details. Now details may be extremely relevant to you to conjure up some bullshit back story but the audience doesn't understand nor care about those details. What they care about is conflict. How does the sight of seeing your wife getting stupped by another man make you feel? Well some may say indifferent, because of this detail and that detail and that detail.

This is where art deviates from real life. Art is about conflict and resolution. In Art if there is no specific conflict the entire piece is lost on the viewer and there is no emotional connection. In Art there is no indifference. Without that connection you drift off and the piece is forgotten. The specific has to be a STRONG choice. You have to want to KILL the man or you have to want to FLEE the house or you have to want to BREAKDOWN on the spot or you have to jump in the bed and hug your wife and profess your LOVE for her. They are specific reactions to what's going on in the scene and an audience can connect viscerally to them.

Like it or not games are Art.

Watch a movie sometime with the sound turned all the way down. You will be very surprised at what points in the film you connect to the material. It won’t be during the big explosion or the big fight scene. Those moments are forgotten quickly. You remember the point where the character is making a decision. It’s usually when nothing rather exciting is going on. That decision always connects you and specifically makes you feel a connection to the character. Remember Rocky when Stallone is staring at the mirror pondering whether he can go through with it? Or when Luke is told that Vader is his father? In that scene what pulled you in? Was it the information that Vader was Luke’s father or watching Luke’s turmoil over the SPECIFIC fact that he wanted to kill this man? It tore your guts out. It was Hamlet all over.

I think the thing that is missing in MMORGS and the transition that is not filling the gap between MMORPGS and other forms of entertainment are these specifics. Make a character choose a side. Don’t make it some incoherent unimportant decision. If he chooses the Empire, he better be damn sure there was a reason for that decision. That decision has to affect the player day in and day out. The stakes have to be upped. WAY up. No one day I’m a rebel and the next day I’m hanging with my bud Rodger the Imp from Fresno. If he is a rebel with a home in Corellia.. Make the Empire come in and make them move their homes to Yavin. “ Well that’s too complicated and it can’t be done”

That leads me to the next thing I believe is missing in these games. Actors. That’s right.. Real live interactive people that can affect your game play on a day-to-day basis.
Think about it. You are standing in Anchorhead with your shiny new Stormtropper Armor and your At-St. There is no conflict.. There is no repercussion to your actions other than losing gear at worst. There is no responsibility. In comes General Garvan (played by Timothy Somebody from the Neighborhood playhouse) He looks at the rabble and tells them to form up. They are going to take Anchorhead. It’s war. If they don’t listen, Bam dead.. Stormtrooper armor gone and in the stockade for an hour. Think that won’t work? It will. I did it on the Largest European Ultima Player server and players ATE it up. Yeah they where pissed at first. The rewards for listening where just as great as well.

So to sum it up. There has to be specifics. The Universe and all your friends are being overtaken by an evil force and it is up to YOU Bobby Gameplayer to save the universe. You are important. Are you going to help destroy the Universe or save it ? Which side are you going to choose ? Then this decision has to be reinforced daily by a real live human being. You do that, and MMOs will start to make you the star of your own movie.

The lines are being drawn in entertainment. Ask yourself why people play chess. I’m sure a lot of people would say it’s to match wits with another human- to beat them. I don’t think that’s why we play chess. If that were the case why wouldn’t I play big blue everyday? It’s smarter than all my friends. I think we need that human interaction along with a specific goal. The goal with out the human is just playing against a computer. But the human without the goal is just “go Fish” and I don’t see anyone paying 15 bucks a month to “go Fish” I think MMORPGS have fallen into the trap of playing “go Fish”.. there are no goals. Goals are something that are reassessed frequently. Add another human in that process and you have something that will hold people’s interest.

Posted by: Shadow on October 28, 2003 09:25 AM

SWG has incredible potential. I've always said that. I think what Ralph and crew needed to focus on was STAR WARS. The look is kinda there, the feel is certainly not.

The story and philosophy of living under an
Empire, and the freedom fighters that want to escape the yolk of opression. In case you need any help with trying to get this right, just look at the evening news.. or use your search engine to look up 'Iraq' or 'Afghanistan'
Lets go over some basics.

Ralph you have to take control of the game and provide some obsticles. Do you think the Empire would allow Rancor's in a city? Nope.. Some AT-ST's would be called in to take care of that health-risk. All losses to the owner are considered unimportant to the health and safety of the Empire.
And how did you think those AT-ST's and huge military machine were paid for? By exploiting and taxing the general populus.. HEAVILY.

Any gamer worth his salt entering the SW universe knows the Empire is in the business of P1SSing people off to build its power and military glory.

The Empire uses overpowering military might to maintain order. Why are player charecters allowed to walk around cities HEAVILY ARMED? If you were to look at Theed in EP2 you see people with children walking around. Ok, you see a few stromech/protocol droids there, but I don't see every citizen armed to the teeth! If a Stormtrooper sees a player with a gun in hand you can bet they are going to want to see a permit or attempt to arrest them.

Rebel's should be considered annoyances at best or at worst terrorists. Where is the Imperial propaganda? Where are the recruiting posters? Where are the secret Rebel bases you can only access after getting security clearance? C'mon, I can't think of a better way to spend and afternoon than making Imperial propaganda posters! That's just fun!

Imperial faction perks should include the ability to walk around in a city armed, access to imperial bases and instalations and being able to use military grade weapons, at higher levels a personal body guard woudl certaily be feasable.

Rebel's should be the hit and run masters of the game! They should have access to secret rebel bases, access to rebel-elite weponsmiths (Who might just be able to make alien weaponry) . They should be using unconventional tactics to fight back at an overpowering foe.

Neutral factions should also be here, I would NEVER want a bounty on my head in RL. Player bounties would add so much to this game. Minimum 50 K costy or something outrageous like that so if someone put a bounty on you, its gotta be worth it.

Star Wars in this time period can offer so much.

Yes players can make LARGE parts of the game interesting, but we need the underlying Star Wars feel to be there. That requires the developers to intervene and create atmosphere.

Posted by: oortog on October 28, 2003 11:46 AM

Congratulations on this thread, folks. I've been looking for someplace outside of the official boards to discuss some of these issues concerning SWG. Yesterday was my last day in SWG. My son quit about six weeks ago, but I stayed on to the end of our fourth month initial investment to see how the second installment of the story arc would go.

I'm going to introduce myself, something I don't do on boards of games I'm playing for a variety of reasons, but I think it may be pertinent to understand where I'm coming from. I'm a writer/game designer (after a long career in Hollywood) with ten years of experience in the industry, and have worked on several MMORPG projects. I'm not going to list specific professional credits here. You can look at my website at You'll also find two articles there written about quests and storytelling in SWG. A third on the "story arc" will be published soon.

Raph knows me (Hello, Raph!), and I briefly exhanged posts on the second part of Cries of Alderaan with Timothy (Hello, Khaldun!) in the SWG Discussion forum under the character name I use in all the online games I've played: Skyrain. As Skyrain I did write an extensive critique of EQ's high end game (still available on several websites) when I left, but there have been a number of excellent critiques of SWG on the official boards, and I felt another would be redundant.

I'm sorry I came to this discussion late, and hope there is still some life left in it. I have read Timothy's article linked above, as well as many of his posts on SWG Discussion, and all of the previous posts in this thread.

I'm not going to address several of the issues Timothy raises like organizational communication glitches, bugs, databases or game mechanical systems. Not because I'm not interested in them, but I want to focus on my primary area of expertise: content. People have been paying me to generate it for three decades now. And as has been pointed out this game, unique of all MMORPGs to date, is based on a rich content-heavy license.

First, I honestly don't think you can blame Raph and his team for approaching this project the way they did. Their collective background, true of -all- MMORPG developers to date (with the single exception of Will Wright, if you consider SO one) is MUDs/MUSHs etc. They have on their resumes the first popular MMORPG in Ultima Online.

And while I know Raph has an abiding interest in storytelling he, like many others with this background, including Richard Bartle, has great difficulty reconciling storytelling with MMORPGs. I'm not going to get into storytelling in this post, but I wanted to make it clear there are very real and understandable philosophical prejudices in all of their minds in favor of player-generated content, even -with- some storytelling sensibilities. So that when faced with a project with so much traditional storytelling weight, they may be understood (if not forgiven) if their approach remains resolutely game/sandbox oriented.

SWG is a classic example of system-based design, and many of the systems (crafting, player-interaction, skill trees, missions) are beautifully designed as functioning systems (pretending there are no bugs for a second). However, what these systems cannot contrive by themselves is something other media has produced successfully for millennia: simple, uncomplicated entertainment.

Unless the systems are fleshed out with some sort of player/audience recognizable entertainment they sit there, stripped bare of artifice, with only their own skeletons (numbers, menus, trees) to be perceived by players.

Therefore the players cannot be blamed if they focus on the skeleton and complain about what those numbers, menus and trees represent. The heart of the game, that which makes it "Star Warsy" or "content rich" or "deep" has no flesh within which it can beat. And the player's note its absence.

I was struck by a question asked by one of the community managers in SWG Discussion after complaints began to emerge regarding the second installment of the story arc. He asked players whether it was too easy or too hard? The question Timothy mentions in regards to the overall game. It is simply the wrong question, and it permeates the thinking of the systemic skeleton that is SWG. Something easy can be just as much fun as something hard. The trick is to strive mightily to make both entertaining.

I cut my teeth in game design on adventure games, and had a lot of fun interacting with players online as they played them. Whenever a player complained that a puzzle was too easy or too hard, I asked if she had enjoyed it. As often as not the player would respond with a rueful yes. Then I felt I'd done my job. There is fun to be mined in the intellectual challenge, IF the process is entertaining. Some said no, of course. If many cited a particular obstacle as unfun (like the maze in "Riddle of Master Lu") I knew I'd failed with that design choice.

You know, we civilized humans share a common history of film language. We the audience may not understand its terms or implementation, and we rarely notice it at work when it goes right. The magician's trick has succeeded and we are entertained. But we sense when it goes awry. When an axis is crossed in a movie, or a giant continuity glitch occurs, we are distracted, knowing -something- is wrong. So it is with SWG. Players may struggle with how to describe it, but they feel something is wrong.

The bottom line to this issue (and thankfully this post!) is understanding that systems aren't enough. One needs to understand that heart: entertainment. All the deconstructions and analysis and graphs cannot guarantee this. All the smoothly oiled systems in the world cannot transplant it. All the player-generated content in the world cannot start it beating.


Posted by: Lee Sheldon on October 28, 2003 01:10 PM

What I think really killed this game (for me) is the way too early release date. This game needed more work before it went live, not after. Four months with broken professions/low content/serious bugs is too long and should have been addressed in beta.

Hi Khaldun!

Posted by: stuzzy on October 28, 2003 02:56 PM

Lee's post is wonderfully eloquent, and has a lot of great stuff to chew on. I think he's really hit the heart of what's missing not just from SWG but from MMOGs in general. And like him, I don't underestimate just how hard it will be to make that heart beat the way it should.

Lotta great thoughts in this thread, in fact. Some of them come too late for SWG, but I think some of them contain implementable wisdom, though it might take months to do them properly.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 28, 2003 03:06 PM

I agree with many, many comments here.

It's interesting that Raph early on in SWGs development passed on that balance was nowhere near as important as fun....

My question is in this simulated, virtual, balanced world where's the fun?

This is an entertainment medium. It is not a 'simulation'. People play to be immersed, but also for a feeling of importance and fun. Nobody can argue the immersion, but where's the fun factor?

There is little to explore early on. There are few obstacles. The NPC system of things to do is repetitive and tedious. Raising skills for most professions is horribly repetitive. The PVP is not implemented well at all, and does not aid in providing end game 'fun'.

SWG has the foundations for becoming a great game, but to get there Raph needs to go back to his roots, and put 'fun' at the top of his list of ingame importance.

Its funny, but I can think back to the games I've played in the 80s, and they all were focused around 'fun'. From Werdna, to Yserbius, they didn't take themselves too seriously, and they had passion. I wonder if developers with ego's akin to rockstars haven't somewhat lost touch with their 'people'?

Posted by: Richard on October 28, 2003 03:38 PM

Hey, I'm new to Game Girl Advance.

Tim’s idea of the ability to “nudge” the narrative will beat life to MMOGs. Moreover, it should increase the sense of involvement and immersion.

This has work in LARPs and should have a high probability of working in MMOGs given sufficient tools to manage narrative developments.

Over the past decades LARP games have experienced and solved many current issues of MMOGs. Let me rattle of a few solutions as background and then return to address why I think Tim’s idea is great.

1. One way to keep casual players in a character advancement game: give players base xp each month for just being a subscriber. This base should be around 75% of a median gamer and 50% of a power gamer. This really involves a greater design perspective, but this lone application works wonders in keeping casual players involve with their higher level friends.

2. One way to keep veteran players: allow veteran players to start new characters at post-grind levels. I use a character transfer system where you can turn-in an old character for a new character of a different class at 1/2 the xp of the old character. The character can pre-learn basic skills, but needs to learn high-level skills in-game. Thus, they can quickly enjoy trying out a new character class.

3. Additional gameplay/reward dimension: in-game information. Increase the value of in-game information equal to the value of items. It doesn’t matter what the players knows out-of-game, but the earning of in-game information (via information tokens) is the key to this dimension. Distribute in-game information evenly among the players, then even the lower level players will have a sense of advantage over higher-level players and the sense of “I do matter in the gameworld.”

OK, not much explanation or examples on how or why they work (but happy to explain as requested). Now, on to my main point…

Why Tim’s idea will work:

In Tim’s world, players are now immersed in the narrative and it’s the narrative that keeps people playing beyond the level-grind end-game. It solves many of the issues in SWG that Lee Sheldon identified in his articles.

The big question is how to implement this. It’s easy in LARP because the scale is smaller and the human staff can whip up a side quest dynamically and integrate the results of the quest into the main plot easily.

For this to work in MMOGs, better management tools are needed in addition to Lee Sheldon’s conclusions. I think of the tools as Civilization/Dungeon Keeper/Warcraft III for game masters. They are essentially are metagames to manage narrative developments. With a few keystrokes GMs can reduce the number of Varlerian’s thugs, increase the number of Jabba’s thugs, and plot the return of Varlerin by creating Varlerian’s “dungeon” and manage the key counterattack via RTS gameplay.

It solves the fun issue by sheer level of interactivity with the narrative.

My fantasy LARP is going 10+ years with players paying $35 per monthly event. It's the collective interaction with game narrative that keep all of us playing.

With the exception of scale, LARP have solve many of the current issues of MMOGs. There should be more careful look into applying LARP solutions.

Frank H. Lin

Posted by: magicback on October 28, 2003 10:14 PM

Here's a half-baked notion: would it be out of the question to create separate servers for people with different time commitments to the game? When you create your character, you estimate the hours per week you think you'll play and get seeded accordingly. If you increase or decrease a significant amount above or below that, you'll get shuttled to another server, with all your possessions in tact.

To borrow a term from another activity, why make everyone ski the black diamond course (same world, same challenges, uneven playing field) rather than customizing the experience to the needs and desires of the customer? Many solo games have various difficulty settings. Why not create persistent-world sized versions of those?

Posted by: shred on October 28, 2003 11:12 PM

@shred - that won't work because so many people play specifically so they can play WITH their friends. Automatically shuttling folks to another server simply serves to separate communities.

I played MMOGs with my wife. When we were on the same servers, we both had lots of fun. When we accidentally wound up on different servers or when her other IG friends moved servers, she always got burned out way faster.

Instead of different servers hosting an entire shard, I think different parts of the world could be hosted on different servers - not to separate the players, but to give each area more CPU horsepower for deeper, more meaningful AI and changeable landscapes(both literal landscapes and socio-political in-game landscapes).

This would also be a nice mechanism for enforcing the time-sink that is currently implemented by constant running from place to place or taking ships. The price for deeper, more flexible worlds is the requirement that travel take place, at least in part, out-of-game, transferring the character data from location-server to location-server.

You could have very large worlds where travel is a real timesink, but not just an auto-run while-you-chat timesink.

It's a half-baked idea, but I think it's worth debate.

Forcefully separating players based on time played already happens with the limits placed on powerlevelling, but at least in it's current incarnation, segregated players can still talk to each other. In a shard-based forced separation, they don't even get to chat or see each other any more.

Posted by: DuckiLama on October 29, 2003 09:08 AM

On the idea of 'Nudging' the plot, I see a couple of issues. First is content generation. What is the manpower cost for generating all those alternative plotlines, many of which will never be used? Second, what happens when the player's Nudge the content to an extreme. Jabba and the Empire 'win'. Now what, do you stack the deck against all the Imperial/Jabba players, who are probably now the majority of your playerbase? This is the issue that cut Shadowbane the deepest, IMO. If you make it possible for some of the players to 'win', what do you do when it happens?

Posted by: Evangolis on October 29, 2003 09:58 AM

i was in the SWG beta, i did not buy retail because of the beta.
one of the things I hated the MOST in SWG was not the lack of content - which i disliked,
it was the immersion breaking (to me atleast) way you MOVED in the game.

no jumping
no climbing over things
no falling damage

i don't know if in the live game this has changed, but i absolutely hated this decision
by the devs.

if i see a hole/crack in the wall large enough for me to fit thru standing up, and the lip
is only knee high, well damn it i want to be able to go THRU that hole.

if there is a 1' high "lip" to a stage i want to be able to "jump" right onto the stage,
not have to walk around to the stairs to get onto it.

btw Great posts everyone.


Posted by: Lenardo on October 29, 2003 12:39 PM

Evangolis raises some good points. I think on the labor issue, I would just argue that the major design efforts of someone making a narrative-nudge MMOG would be invested in narrative creation and storytelling mechanics as opposed to the efforts vested now in character advancement systems, classes, and the like: I think (I hope) it would come out in the wash.

I agree that Shadowbane didn't plan very much for what happens when one guild "wins". I think that's a profound design problem. On one hand, you could imagine a "for every action, a reaction" model for the narrative branches: the more that Jabba's faction wins, the more that factions opposed to that gain access to new powers and resources. That does happen sometimes in dramatic conflicts (and even in real life): as things accelerate from mild, distributed conflicts, they become increasingly binary and apocalyptic.

The other option would be to allow the story to end at a certain point and then start it all over again, maybe "scrambling" some of the narrative branches to allow for surprise. I think that's a possible idea as well. Shadowbane has almost had to accidentally do this with server wipes: why not build it into the design? At a certain measurement of total and irreversible domination, just blow the whistle and say, "Game over!" If character advancement is rapid and relatively unimportant, that's not a bad thing. If on the other hand you've had to invest weeks or months of your life building the most maximized, uberest character you can, you'd naturally and appropriately quit in disgust if that's what the design entailed. You can only allow an endpoint if you don't make character advancement the major objective.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on October 29, 2003 03:54 PM

Why not build server wipes into the story as well as the design? In other words, instead of simply blowing a whistle and saying, "Game over!" nudge the narrative toward the apocalyptic or cataclysmic, declare an end to the "Age" and challenge the players to rebuild. But present this as story instead of as a game mechanic. Try to bring it off as history so that the players still feel a sense of being involved in a continuing story instead of merely enduring a server reset.


Posted by: Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz on October 30, 2003 09:06 AM

I think that we should watch URU closely for this kind of thing. There is no character advancement at all as far as I can see, so the resources will hopefully go into all kinds of great plots.

I hope they get te movement things right. There are so few games these days that get that right, single or multiplayer. How hard is it to let my character scramble over things? It always feels weird to me that my PC can commit these incredible feats of strength powr but can't make it over short walls.

Posted by: Snowmit on October 30, 2003 10:07 AM

I'm a veteran of MUDs dating back to mid-1980'S and I had my first experience with Graphical MMORPGs in Asheron's Call. It literally blew me away, and absorbed me for a LONG time...I had over 3 months played time on just ONE of my 10 characters spread over 2 accounts.

The one, and only, thing that drove me away from the game was that I was not Macroing or XP chained, and the content bar kept getting raised over my head by the people who were doing so, and eventually I just got sick of not being able to keep up with the Joneses unless I wanted to cheat.

However, what kept me in Asheron's Call for so long despite the Macroing and XP chains is tougher to explain. I derived entertainment from a number of factors, nearly all of which were hunting-related.

For example, I would hunt on the "Obsidian plains" with my non-specialized War mage character, and my Girlfriend's Unarmed melee character, quite often. We would simply choose a start point, and battle our way in as straight a line as possible, killing anything in our path...or die trying. AC made it possible to set these types of challenges for yourself. Adding spice to the challenge was the possiblity of running across cool, rare spawns, and the possibility of getting uber special drops from them (Diamond golems etc). And there was always the lure of loot...sweet that surpasses the norm...otherwise known as 'uber loot'

I've been playing SWG since the End of July, and now that my character is pretty near maxed, I'm beginning to feel a lack in SWG very keenly.

For lack of a better word, let's call it "endgame". What I mean by "endgame" is "a reason to keep playing when the only thing to do is grind faction points". Apparently, the answer is to re-spec, since that's what all of my friends are doing, however, I LIKE my character as it is. I just wish there was something to do. I don't want to change professions. I want a reason to play.

And quite frankly, aside from helping RL friends out with XP or resource hunts, I rarely log in to SWG anymore.

To me, while it feels like the answer is: THIS GAME NEEDS FREAKING LOOT DARN IT! Intellectually, I realize this answer is much more complex, and differs for every individual...But to get me interested, I need a reason to kill things that is better than "I can make X credits for selling resource Y to crafter Z" or "I can get X faction points and use them to buy faction perk Y and use the perk for purpose Z", and no, I'm not interested in playing a medic, or a crafter. That's too much like work. In fact, now that my character is maxed, that's pretty much what it boils down to...I don't 'play' any more because I've completed the rewarding part of the game... Now I log in to work.

Am I missing something here? Krayt hunting maybe? Already heavily grief-play filled and highly competitive, it can only become more so as the paucity of loot becomes more obvious to the entire player base. Ultimately, improvements to a character and equipment...or at least the CHANCE of them, are an important part of the reward cycle that keeps people playing.

And SWG really doesn't have that. I'd rather open 100,000 corpses with useless / subpar / common loot and only get something good on the 100,001st corpse, than open 900,000 corpses with absolutely nothing whatsoever on them on them at all, and 99,999 that do have do have items which are utterly useless to anyone with an advanced character BY DESIGN because they can't compete with items made by artisans. Oh yeah, and the 100,000th corpse has a weapon on it that would be freaking sweet because it has poison, disease, dizzy, knockdown blind and 90% wound chance built in...if the stats weren't 20-49 damage, ham cost 240/170/187

Posted by: Bunyip on October 30, 2003 11:08 AM

I'm not sure I understand the problem with finding really good loot on corpses, as long as it is implemented so that artisans are still required to do some assembly in order to make the loot usable. So you find an extremely rare ruby that can be assembled with an equally rare power source and a special metal tube to create a laser sight that may then be mounted to a bowcaster for greatly improved accuracy. It takes a very high degree of artisanship to assemble the pieces and the one doing the assembling gets a really nice XP bonus.

Who loses?


Posted by: Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz on October 30, 2003 02:13 PM

Timothy, my apologies. I started responding directly to your ideas, but veered off on to some more general ideas. Anyway here are some random thoughts on storytelling in SWG and beyond, and the beginnings of a rule set...

Narrative, that is developer-created narrative in an MMORPG, is a very different beast from traditional narrative (even single-player narrative) in a number of ways. That isn't to say it shouldn't share the same roots, only that there are some additional rules that must be applied.

The first important rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the -effort- necessary to create more sophisticated narrative must be no more time-consuming or resource consuming than if developers had taken the easy way out and ignored it. Problem: most developers are convinced it -must- take enormous increases in resources and time to accomplish, so the common response is: "It can't be done." Translation: "I can't do it." It may be impolite to say, but they are right. Most of the designers working on MMORPGs these days cannot do it. They hire "writers" who cannot do it. And then, lo and behold, it is not done.

Rule #1: The addition of narrative must not substantially affect any of the big three: time, money, resources, or it will never occur.

(Right now of course the perception is that it will bloat at all three all out of proportion. In actual fact, properly implemented, after an additional upfront expenditure and budgetary adjustment, it will -save- developer's money.)

For practical reasons of time, money and resource management the narrative must be shared by as many players as possible without variation in its composition.

We want to write it once and let its -apparent- variations play themselves out in response to any player's actions. These variations can address the nature of the PCs; the order players experience the incidents of a story; number of players involved; carefully controlled choices they are allowed to make; and many more.

Rule #2: Write the -least- amount you need to for your MMORPG narrative.

There are right ways and wrong ways to accomplish this.

To date most MMORPG quest/storytelling has been simply single-player quest/storytelling copied verbatim. No attempt is made in SWG for example to explain why, once a mission scenario is played out, it simply respawns in a mission terminal like a mob on the grassy plains of Naboo. See my first article on newbie quests in SWG for DAoC's elegantly simple alternative.

Despite the fact that it is EASY to create multiplayer versions on simple missions like these doesn't stop developers from following in the dusty footprints of the virtual worlds that have gone before. Whether the developers know no better (ignorance), or whether they simply don't care (arrogance), NO effort is made to create multi-player versions of quests that fit into the fiction of the world or life in general as we perceive it. Therefore, "It can't be done."

Again, see my first article for examples.

So let's call this Rule #3: Repetition -can- be done, -must- be done, but must be disguised.

(SWG made no attempt to disguise it.)

Next comes staffing. I guarantee if SWG had hired Lawrence Kasdan AND hired him AT THE BEGINNING of the design process (instead of two years into it when they apparently acquired their four writers), there would be no complaints about the lack of Star Warsy feel to the game. The man wrote and directed the -best- Star Wars movie we've seen. Notice I didn't say hire George Lucas... Want world-class stories? Hire a world-class storyteller.

Rule #4: Hire a storyteller to tell your stories.

(And get him to teach the writing staff how to emulate his artistry.)

Next is the linear nature of all SWG quests, even though there are games out there, EQ and AC among them, who are not locked into such linearity. Linearity is the bane of storytelling in MMORPGs, yet even Richard Bartle in his book Designing Virtual Worlds insists, "Narrative is linear." He bases his argument that narrative (other than player-generated) has no place in virtual worlds on this fallacy. Actually he also gets confused when he notes virtual worlds are "places, not stories" failing to see that they are dramatic stages, not cities like New York that he uses in an example.

Rule #5: Narratives in MMORPGs need -not- be, and for the most part -should- not be linear.

(Some can be of course, but it is not a limitation. How non-linear stories are constructed is a huge topic on its own.)

All of this is not to say that players should not be able to create their own stories. Take a look at Raph's comments at GDC a couple of years ago quoted by Jessica Mulligan at Where he and I differ wildly is in his insistence that this medium is for players telling story, and there is no place in it for "authorship."

In fact it is necessary - it is our -duty- as developers - to use authorship to seed and to guide player-created storytelling so that less than "99% of everything [players create] is crap."

Rule #6: Enable player-created storytelling through developer-created storytelling.

As much as going all the way to ten rules appeals, I'm going to stop with one more. Players need to feel they can affect the virtual world. We can hand them that ability through our storytelling. They will NEVER gain it through their own. And we must make sure their contributions -feel- significant.

Rule #7: Allow the players to change the world.

I'm doing an upcoming article on this topic, so I'm not going to steal my own thunder. But I will say that one way is to look at the changes developers are ALREADY PLANNING TO MAKE, then consciously creating appropriate fiction to embrace them. (Bartle discusses this a bit in his book.)

All of these rules come from the perspective of a storyteller as well as a gamer. If only more developers were storytellers as well as gamers, my battle would be half won.


Posted by: Lee Sheldon on October 30, 2003 04:58 PM


The economic system in SWG, arguably the richest and most complex system in the game. is based on theories involving self-sustaining player-driven economies. In order to support it a number of game-play decisions were made, one being the presumed need to protect crafters. The implementation however protects crafters at the expense of one of the primary award systems for the achiever group in an MMORPG.

I can understand the ideal they were going for: much cleaner and easier to implement an all or nothing system rather than one dependent on shades of grey. E.g. let's have -some- cool loot, but not enough to hurt crafters. Now we can see the back pedaling as more cool loot is being added to the game, and ideas such as letting mobs drop components for higher level items that still require crafters to create.

I have to think that all the broken and useless junk that drops is actually the remants of such a system abandoned due to overall complexity, the ongoing database issues, or time before the game went live.

Economic systems are - for me anyway - the most difficult to model in an MMORPG. I'd be curious to learn why this one though took such a radical turn that penalized achievers to protect crafters.


Posted by: Lee Sheldon on October 30, 2003 05:07 PM

Regarding narrative-nudge MMOG:

SWG already have a form of narrative-nudge mechanism, except that it’s at too high of a level and the monthly story cycle is too long. Getting this mechanism to a more personal level do entail higher labor cost, but can be streamlined like any other process.

Personally, I mentally go through the story branches in my mind as if I was playing chess and thinking 10 to 20 steps ahead. I always think of case where players will grief the GM’s plan and of dead/end-game branches. Luckily, I have a lot of resources at my disposal to prevent extreme outcomes. The solution is similar to having good customer service, good GMing.

Remember the destruction of the first Deathstar? There’s a second more powerful one!

Linear escalation of conflict is a natural narrative device, but I generally use additional participants to slow the path to a binary and apocalyptic outcome. In other words, I try to start a world war, but work to diffuse the conflict from ending up as an Axis vs Allied conflict.

Game reset works in MMOG, but does not work in MMORPG given the character investment unless you allow the players to carry over their invested character to the new game. As Tim stated “You can only allow an endpoint if you don't make character advancement the major objective.” However, I do opine that honorable character retirement is a good endgame to MMORPGs; the other endgame is to sell the character for real money ($0 or $100).

Will come back with additional thoughts later


Posted by: magicback on October 30, 2003 05:12 PM


URU is one of the games I've worked on. While I'm under an NDA and unable to discuss details, I can say that the approach is radically different to the Diku-style MMORPGs we've seen to date. My main concern lies in the fact that while URU must evoke the MYST games to gain an audience, it cannot hope to directly translate the gameplay of single-player adventures. That is about as far from multi-player as you can get.


Posted by: Lee Sheldon on October 30, 2003 05:13 PM


Spoke to soon and missed Lee Sheldon's post.

Posted by: magicback on October 30, 2003 05:19 PM


I am very much looking forward to Uru. Perhaps once it's out you can go into more detail on this subject.

Posted by: Snowmit on October 30, 2003 07:57 PM

I am very pleased to see the openness of the discussion and I would like to thank you for the opportunity to gain some insight on designers decisions.

I'm a long lasting player of the MMOG Everquest and would like to contribute some of my worries with the recent trends in MMOGs:

I'm very sceptical about the stance of drastically limiting character advancement and dropped items to protect casual play and crafting, which in turn is meant to be healthy for the virtual economy.

It seems as much of a trap than the Everquest choices.
Why pick a better systemic solution if it violates the prime purpose of an entertainment?

There is little to no emotional attachment with crafting, nor with acquiring crafting parts, nor with an advancement lacking character, nor with instanced content with no impact at a personnal, community or game level with no depth.
The list goes on. But the bottom line is:
If these choices preclude immersiveness, advancement in any form, different types of emotions, different levels of reactions to players actions on different scales (factions, drops, dynamic content, whatnot) and a large measure of randomness in many game aspects, then the solutions are a lot worse than the problems.

Another pitfall I have seen even more is the precept to remove most timesinks to favor content to casual gamers.
As masochistic as it may seem, maybe even unhealthy, it seems to me even worse a choice than lack of immersiveness.
Timesinks don't mean automatically dull activities. It means some form of achievement for a large part of the achievers' playerbase that will rapidly quit if no headroom is provided.
How are those going to be retained if there are no meaningfull timesinks to speak of?

Last but not least, I see a trend for item decay:
I've yet to see someone liking it on the customers' end of the deal.
As much as direct item acquisitions is emotionnally gratifying, item decay is the exact opposite.
It has a very negative emotionnal impact and has one of those realist features that detract to gameplay.

Immersiveness is not item decay. The virtual world needs some sense of coherence without what people dislike to be reminded about the real world: that things break down. I find it a very poor psychological choice to turn risks inside a virtual world into something people allready hate in the real one.

EQ being the reference, why aren't more games built around first and foremost storytelling, then communities, then individuals, then individual actions impacts scaling from small to large scale through action advancement.
The character may not be inherently more powerfull but the accretion of its actions do.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Posted by: Redcloud on October 31, 2003 02:42 AM

"There is little to no emotional attachment with crafting,"
Every MMORPG player that wanted to play a crafter instead of a goblin-bonker would emit an ear-piercing scream if they heard/read that. There is a certain type of player that has just as much emotional investment/attachment in/to the creation of useful things for other players and the building of a character that makes said items. It's Achiever+Socializer without any of the goblin-bonking.
Your statement _seems_ as though you don't really understand the crafter mentality, the idea that someone actually is emotionally invested in something other than Killing/Acheiving/Exploring. I might be wrong, that's just how I read it.

"EQ being the reference, why aren't more games built around first and foremost storytelling"
EQ? Built around storytelling? Please tell me I've read that wrong, but I don't see anywhere that EQ == first(storytelling) + foremost(storytelling)
Then again, maybe you meant "EQ being the negative reference"?

Posted by: DuckiLama on October 31, 2003 08:10 AM

Ducki while you are true in once sense in that there are a reasonable number of people that play MMoG's that want to be crafters and not do combat.

for every crafter wannabe, there are atleast 5 people who despise any and all crafting and want to go out and kill things....

i know i am not quite that bad but on a scale of 1-10, 10 being what i want to do most

have fun - 10
kill things 9
crafting 2

Posted by: lenardo on November 1, 2003 09:06 PM

Couple of comments...

In reading various reviews of the game, there's always discussion regarding how developers interact with the gaming community. While it can impact a game's success, it strikes me as a fundamentally different issue than that presented by a game's design. In the SWG sense, out of the 300k subscribers, how many ever bother to visit the developer site? For those folks, would the game be any better if the developers were spot-on perfect with their customer relations? It would interesting to read some critiques on just the developer feedback strategies being pursued by the industry. Then, of course, do the same just looking at design issues.

With respect to "making a difference" in a gaming world, there are some tough issues to tackle. The best example is in DAoC. Realms want to "control" territory and have that make a difference in the game world. The game includes the mechanics for doing just that. The rub comes in that while the game world is persistent, the players are not. U.S. players put on a show of force, conquer a frontier, and then go to bed. When they awake, they'd like to pick up where they left off. Unfortunately, you find that the Asian and/or European markets undid all your deeds while you were sleeping or at work.

I would think that in the -nudge- system being explored you could run into the same dynamic. The imps -nudge- jabba out and then the rebs nudge them back during their downtime. Is the thought in the nudge environment to have the players nudge the story across break points, where the game is now prevented from progressing backwards? If so, how do you prevent the "losing" side from abandoning their character and playing on another server till the next reset? Its been demonstrated in DAoC that once a server reaches a -tipping point- with respect to who has the majority control, large portions of the losing side become disenchanted (server balance discussions are legion in the DAoC forums). In DAoC, the abandonment of characters is somewhat modulated by the time it takes to grow a character. In a nudge game, it would be difficult to maintain even this incentive if character attributes are wiped at periodic times.

It's still a very seductive idea, Professor. If done well, I'd certainly sign up for a few months!

Posted by: MoxNix on November 3, 2003 04:06 PM

MoxNix reminds me of a subversive thought I had when I read the official SWG boards. Can developers listen -too- much? Can they be -too- open with their customers?

For all the complaints about the developers not listening that cropped up, it seemed the developers were way too ready to reply. Can you imagine Dick Wolf taking the time senior creatives did to answer fan problems with Law & Order or one of its clones?

And every time they enthused about a great idea from the boards that made the design better I cringed. What it said to me was they hadn't considered some very fundamental design issues. It ranked of amateur night, and I was embarrassed for them.

Posted by: Lee Sheldon on November 3, 2003 05:09 PM

And I agree with MoxNix with his take on the "nudge" idea. In the first place it seems to rely on a lack of persistence, something persistent worlds really can't afford. Secondly, the changes in DAoC are all affects the game world can easily handle (basically the code just watches and records). There is only the illusion (albeit a pretty transparent one) that players are really affecting anything.

Posted by: Lee Sheldon on November 3, 2003 05:14 PM

I'm thinking with the nudge idea that it really would be a branching narrative, linear, moving one way--you push one narrative to the "tipping point", that's it, it's done, we're in a whole new ball game, with a whole new set of nudge-able narratives out in front of all the players. No bringing Valerian back if she's dead.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on November 3, 2003 06:33 PM

Prof. Burke,

Your most recent description of nudge-able narratives reminds me of the old adventure novels that at key points, you choose a path and flip to a page in the book.

I would classified the idea more as collective storytelling and less as a persistent world games. It's my understanding that Finnish LARPs are quite advanced in this area.

Here's a link to Juhana Pettersson's latest article on on his musing regarding this area.

Quite interesting to run sessions of this online and use the developments in the gamespace to write a serial story.

It could also be the next reality TV show on people playing virtual people.....

Posted by: magicback on November 3, 2003 07:21 PM

MoxNix and Mr. Sheldon,

The nudge-able narrative game structure would require something more than a sandbox design used in DAoC and Shadowbane (to a lesser extent). It requires a more open system like A Tale in the Desert (ATITD).

The game objective and narrative direction for ATITD is in advancing in the different technologies to reach the Telling (end-of-the-game). It's like playing a more personalized game of multiplayer Civilization where you control an individual instead of a nation.

Nevertheless, good oversight of shard dynamics and stead incremental nudges in sandbox designs would keep shard balance from tipping toward a dead state. I like to think of it as "the Federal Reserve nudging the US interest rate and the US Economy."

Posted by: magicback on November 3, 2003 07:58 PM


One of the draws of an ongoing narrative-driven TV series is that the audience becomes invested in the continuing characters. This is the same experience, only much more intense, that MMOs give us. I simply don't think your "nudge" concept replaces that investment with anything stronger. You might have continuing NPCs, but it is as if you kept the guest stars from a TV show, and fired the lead actors every week.

Just attempting to manipulate a story (yes, obviously it doesn't have to be stated that blatantly), but that's what you're suggesting, isn't nearly as strong a draw.

Permadeath is an interesting idea, especially if coupled with a bloodlines approach - what I called a "generational" structure a few years ago - where players can play the progeny of their original characters. Ever see John Sayles' film "Lonestar?" There are wonderful resonances in structures like this.

Also, the nudge approach feels like it would become something like a popularity contest, or that awful audience-participation movie from a few years ago. The more people who fall into line on one side determines who will win. What MMOs give us is the ability to be a main part of the action, not just a bystander or one of the crowd.

Allowing offline participation is a viable idea, but in your example it doesn't feel like it adds to entertainment value or involvement in the story. Many people talk about unloading social aspects of the game like managing guilds, buying and selling, making crafting choices etc. offline, but obviously none of these would apply in your non-persistent world. And it IS non-persistent if your character cannot persist, even if the world goes on.

Finally, what about the players who for whatever reason don't or can't participate in the story on the level you're suggesting? They get their characters wiped, too. If you only want people to play this game who want to be fully involved I don't think you'll have the numbers to justify the expense.

Don't get me wrong. I am all about narrative in MMOs. But I think there are much easier ways to layer narrative into the experience; allow players to change the world; and get the most out of your resources than this particular approach.

Posted by: Lee Sheldon on November 4, 2003 11:37 AM


>> The nudge-able narrative game structure would require something more than a sandbox design used in DAoC and Shadowbane (to a lesser extent). It requires a more open system like A Tale in the Desert (ATITD).

Any attempt at storytelling in MMOs needs more help than it's getting at present. I think SWG is a perfect example of business-as-usual-we'll-slap-it-on-later storytelling. It is a step backward and harms the efforts of those of us trying to create storytelling in MMOs as involving as any other play mechanic. There needs to be thought given -by storytellers- to the engine design, maps, social systems, everything, and it needs to happen from Day One of preproduction.

Posted by: Lee Sheldon on November 4, 2003 11:45 AM

"And I agree with MoxNix with his take on the "nudge" idea. In the first place it seems to rely on a lack of persistence, something persistent worlds really can't afford."

Persistence and static are not and should not be the same thing.
Persistence merely means that the world doesn't go away when Player X logs off, that it keeps on, that it is... well, persistent.

Static, on the other hand, means nothing changes. This is bad. You can have dynamic and persistent or you can have static and persistent.

I'd rather have some branches where things actually change in the game world. Not things like Midgard takes over all of Albion, but maybe things like players kill X number of predators and they predators spawn less and their prey begins to overpopulate and that causes other imbalances that _can_ have a _persistent_ effect on the world.

That's not a great example, but DAoC doesn't really lend itself to persistent effects.

In ImaginaryMMOG(tm), say a very powerful guild decides they want to kill a certain King Mindless. King Mindless should stay dead. Be replaced by his nephew King Ruthless maybe. Ruthless does things different that his absentminded predecessor. Raises taxes. Kills opponents and detractors. Chops down the forest around the castle and starts breeding supersoldiers.

The point is persistent is NOT a synonym for static. For some lame reason, gamers seem to think that if their game experience isn't identical to their buddy's game experience, they've been cheated, so the worlds remain static in order to pander to this misguided idea of identical experience. If I want something that's exactly the same as someone else, that's what offline games are for. MMOGs _should_ be alive, dyanmic, and persistent.
But never static.

Posted by: DuckiLama on November 5, 2003 01:13 PM

>> MMOGs _should_ be alive, dyanmic, and persistent. But never static.

I wholeheartedly agree. I certainly didn't mean to suggest I thought persistence = static, or that static was in any way of interest to me. Static phfft! Dynamic yay!

The problem arises on multiple servers when one or more servers take off on tangents of their own, and you're suddenly creating content the others may never see. That's a waste of resources. I should add I know of one creative director on a MMORPG (not a particpant in this thread incidentally) who wanted to do just that. Now that his game has been out for awhile, I wonder if he still feels that way?

Posted by: Lee Sheldon on November 5, 2003 01:56 PM

A very interesting discusion, I may say that some of the critique is answerd by an element of SWG that is yet to be played - Jedi will be quite uber enough for the 'uber' players to be entertained for a long time. Not clear how that will pan out and certainly mistakes have been made there too.

With respect to the idea of narative I'm another LARP (Live Action Role Play) gamer. There are very strong paralels, the club I play with has several hundred members and has been going for three decades.

One idea they have found sucessfull is an optional PBM sub game. Thoes who play can secure (very minor) in game benefits for themselves, some dedicate their LARP time to furthering their PBM machinations. The game discorages PvP in the actual LARP (but the penalties are not insurmoutable) with the ocasional free for all or set piece, the PBM revolves arround PvP.

Secondly I definatly think that allowing a restart after the newbie grind is a good idea. In the LARP I play there is a mechanism which allows players to contribute to someone elses 'rebirth', and the system manages will often link the rebirth to the narative.

Finaly, the LARP I play rewards contribution to the community with charachter points (and beer for the truely selfless). The club found this got better community development than paying people to do the work (helping new players, resolving disputes, playing NPCs, managing props, administration), though it does have paid staff.

An SWG PBM could focus on the various NPC factions, players could pick from 'starter' factions like 'valarian' or 'jabba', then as they gain sucess at various PBM tasks you'd gain influence over more factions. Could tie this to the fate of player cities (nothing cripling but a plague of thugs or increased maintainance or grafiti on the buildings). Then have SWG activity influence the state of the PBM. Players realy would be creating thier own content but the PBM should be moderated and line up with the story arcs.

Posted by: Jim Noble on November 6, 2003 07:42 AM

"The problem arises on multiple servers when one or more servers take off on tangents of their own, and you're suddenly creating content the others may never see. That's a waste of resources."

I disagree.
non-MMO RPGs come in 2 flavors - Japanese/console RPGs and CPRGs or Western(as in hemisphere, not setting) RPGs.
One is very linear, tightly controlled, and ensures that all content is consumed.
The other is often very open, allowing players to see or NOT see content as they see fit.

In CRPGs there is very often content that any given player may not see. Lots of it. Is it wasted? No, because many other players WILL see it. The more freedom you give the player, the less control you, as a designer, have over their experience.

I can't stand JRPGs. Hate them with a passion. Maybe because my first 2 RPGs were Wizardry and Bard's Tale. Granted, neither of those are really open-ended and non-linear, but there's gobs and gobs of content that you may or may not ever see.

Hell, the simple fact of having various Character Classes means there is content that any given player may not ever see. Is it wasted? No, because _some_ players _will_ see it.

Anything resembling a Choose-your-own-Adventure is going to have content that _may_ not be consumed by any given player.
That doesn't mean it's wasted.
And having separate servers/shards is _good_, IMO. That means that not all your players are tied to the same storyline. You have MORE players influencing MORE plots, exercising MORE semi-direct control, having MORE freedom that if you have a single server with a single, unalterable storyline, or even worse, a static server where nothing changes without the purchase of an expansion pack.

But my main point is, just because Player1 doesn't consume ContentItemA, that doesn't mean time spent developing that content is wasted, because you've got Players 2 - 100,000 that just might consume it.

Posted by: DuckiLama on November 6, 2003 08:53 AM

"The problem arises on multiple servers when one or more servers take off on tangents of their own, and you're suddenly creating content the others may never see. That's a waste of resources."

This statement is relative to one’s design perspective. While I would prefer a single narrative direction in a single server, I have also adapted to the reality of multiple parallel servers. Given the choice of creating content that others may never see or not creating content at all, I would choose the former.

Creating server-specific content can be economically done by actively managing the developments over different servers as part of the content creation process. You can place integrative branches that only have two possible outcomes (e.g. survival or destruction of the Death Star) and squeeze the narrative. You can, within reason, put more weight on a content direction to nudge the narrative.

Moreover, the narrative can be linear such that the content gets consumed at different sequences. This is a modular perspective that can be quite efficient. And this insures that content is consumed by everyone via a “treadmill” process. You get 100% efficiency!


Posted by: Frank H. Lin (Magicback) on November 6, 2003 06:34 PM

"The problem arises on multiple servers when one or more servers take off on tangents of their own, and you're suddenly creating content the others may never see. That's a waste of resources."

This statement is relative to one’s design perspective. While I would prefer a single narrative direction in a single server, I have also adapted to the reality of multiple parallel servers. Given the choice of creating content that others may never see or not creating content at all, I would choose the former.

Creating server-specific content can be economically done by actively managing the developments over different servers as part of the content creation process. You can place integrative branches that only have two possible outcomes (e.g. survival or destruction of the Death Star) and squeeze the narrative. You can, within reason, put more weight on a content direction to nudge the narrative.

Moreover, the narrative can be linear such that the content gets consumed at different sequences. This is a modular perspective that can be quite efficient. And this insures that content is consumed by everyone via a “treadmill” process. You get 100% efficiency!


Posted by: Frank H. Lin (Magicback) on November 6, 2003 06:36 PM

Jim Noble - “One idea they have found successful is an optional PBM sub game”

This type of gameplay is also relative to the design perspective. However, this type of gameplay would be a good addition to most current games. It adds one more dimension to the game and is very cost effective relative to the art requirements of online content.

In my LARP, this offline game has two main aspects: (1) land management game for the nobles and (2) economic and production game for the gentry.

Additionally, everything else that is considered a waste of time in a once-a-month event is off-loaded into offline game. For example: It takes five days to craft a master-crafted sword. The crafter allocates 5 days offline to prep the sword and spends 15 online to finish the sword.


Posted by: Frank H. Lin (Magicback) on November 6, 2003 07:04 PM

Lee Sheldon – “Any attempt at storytelling in MMOs needs more help than it's getting at present. I think SWG is a perfect example of business-as-usual-we'll-slap-it-on-later storytelling.”

I have resigned to the thought that “business-as-usual” is the order of the day for large corporations. They will just scout out and adapt proven processes from others willing to risk innovation. The power of “proven” appears to be stronger each day. So the wait is for someone, you or me to prove the concept (the next Rockstar)

What’s puzzling me is that there is very little adoption of wisdom from other mediums.


Posted by: Frank H. Lin (Magicback) on November 6, 2003 07:19 PM

i don't think i'm jaded but i was disappointed with the supposed changes and innovation to either star wars galaxies or sims online before they were even out.

now, i have never played swg, so the following is simply my personal opinion on two issues raised in terms of all mmogs:
1. a near-total lack of immersive engagement or rich content resonant with the Star Wars universe
- this problem is so far-reached imo that it'll take a lot to explain. but i'll try to summarize what i think the problem is: this has to do with the aristotelian idea of final cause (what others refered to as a plot, but a plot is not a good way of describing it because there are more implications in the concept of final cause than in plot, something which mmogs have to deal with where written stories don't)- players demand it because they look at the mmog world from the outside. when the players occupied the universe, of all possible universes that can result, the chance is that it will not resemble anything as the orthodox star wars universe. i mean if we were to believe a flap of the butterfly's wing can cause a storm half a globe away, surely we would also believe the only way to save the star wars universe is to constantly evoke deus ex machina. but i'm not sure people consider that even as a solution.

"to shunt people into non-persistent activities when they want to have fun, and to insist on making them grind when they want to make a mark on the gameworld, when they want to matter within it, is to indulge in an ultimately self-destructive sense of the genre's possibilities."
- and this is where the whole thing breaks down: the developers don't want to evoke deus ex machina, and cannot accept just any possible universes. the only solution they have is to make it static - hence all players' action on it must be non-persistent.

2. a weakly developed or contradictory incentive structure for gameplay
- it is a mistake of course to think that the sense of achievement is achieved only though time and repetition. just think for a moment of what "a eureka moment" means and it'd be all clear. however, time and repetition serves to force people into specialization - something vitial to the player based economy model. this inevitably creates grind, and the problem with grind goes much deeper than remaking the system. the real problem rather is that the player base population is inadequate in representing the whole of what is needed in an economy. the inadequacy is the real problem, and the neglect of it is the cause of countless small tweaks and adjustments of all the existing mmogs with no real solution in sight. this inadequacy can't be taken away though, however, or the static world model, mentioned above, would not only be a nuisance but something that breaks the game like in the sims online.

my bet is placed on a paradigm shift. i really doubt the current paradigm can produce any solution to the current problems. what swg and sims online did was just shifting the focus within the same paradigm which was what caused my disappointment in the first place.

Posted by: Tani on November 10, 2003 01:34 AM

You know, I really thing A Tale in the Desert(ATITD) has the mechanics to fit with that paradigm Tim was suggesting, the "nudgable" narratives in which there are multiple conclusions to a MMORPG game. I just think the designer of ATITD has chosen to have only one "end game" but within the construct of the story of ATITD there is no reason there couldn't be multiple endings. For those who are familiar with ATITD, there is no reason that after a set point if certain requirements are not met, The Stranger wins and Egypt is fundamentally changed and altered. There is also no reason players couldn't interact with The Stranger and/or his agents to nudge the world in a certain way. I'll grant Tim that there is a treadmill aspect of the game but thats the way any crafting game works, the fact is, time often is achievement with crafts even in real life(i.e. the necessity for apprenticeships). There is no reason you couldn't introduce certain concepts that could help mediate the treadmill aspects of the game.

Finally, there is no reason that all the "tests" in ATITD require treadmill aspects and in fact, already in ATITD some of the tests don't require treadmill aspects. Things such as the election of the Demi-Pharaoh require the community to elect one person to act as the "player" ruler and in many ways, that player has the ability to directly affect the story and progress of the game as a whole. Yes, there is treadmilling to get become the Demi-Pharoah but I think you can replace the treadmilling with something else that would allow someone to run for the Demi-Pharaoh position. Heck, the whole comunity law aspect alone is a step towards the nudgable narrative that Tim speaks.

Anyway, this is all food for thought. I personally just started playing ATITD about a week ago and find it remarkably like what Tim was seeking and of course, what I was seeking. It wouldn't surprise me a lick if some large gaming company tried to buyout egenesis and try to market a larger scale game with some/all of the mechanics of ATITD.

Posted by: Lenster on November 13, 2003 03:51 PM


I understand your perspective.

For me, the rich world of Star Wars set high expectations.

However, SWG does fulfill the gaming needs of many. That by itself is a good goal to reach.


Posted by: Magicback on November 14, 2003 03:18 AM
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