After the keynote address, the day started for me with a panel on Designing Non-standard MMO's with Standard Tools by Celia Pearce. Celia is an academic researcher who had spent time looking at emergent social behavior in MMO's. One of the games she mentioned most often was Uru, the online version of Myst. In her study, she'd watched how the players would work together to make sense of the world they were playing in. Much of the “backstory” of the game was written by players, and even events put in the game by the developers would be explained by the players, not the developers themselves. There's no combat system in Uru Online, yet the community is very involved in the virtual world anyway. Currently she is working with students at Georgia Tech on a game called Mermaids. This game is somewhat of a grand experiment in game development. It is being funded and developed completely at the university level, but goes beyond just that. In this game there is no combat, there are no orcs to kill, or even a real win/lose situation for the players. The goal of the project is to use emergent social behavior as the design material for the game. They want to make the players do as much of the work as possible in creating the virtual world. Her team questions conventions and wants to break the mold as a goal of their design. There is no leveling in Mermaids, there's no skills for the characters to have to advance, and no “phat loot” to collect. Everything comes from the player. Some of the reasons for this come from what she admitted to be pet peeves.
The first is, obviously, the leveling system that most MMO's have. Leveling systems make a character graded by a number, they create a hierarchy within the game that prohibits experienced players from being in the same social circle as new players. Rather than learning from experienced players, new players are often looked down upon, or are made to feel they have to catch up. Even groups of players who start together are forced to “keep up” in a linear value system that most MMO's have. The other problem she expressed about most MMO's today is that different play styles are rewarded on a vastly different scale. This again is due to the leveling system, but it goes beyond that. Players are rewarded most for killing, not for exploring. Socializing is rarely, if ever, rewarded at all. False systems of trying to reward players for socializing have become popular in many MMO's now days by adding group only content. In general, however, this doesn't reward players for socializing, it requires them to in order to experience the content of the game. They're still off killing, trading time for character experience, in other words. They're just doing it with other people doing the same thing around them. Truly socializing, building to the virtual world and making it the world of the player, is often actually penalized not rewarded. A gamer who socializes too much finds themselves falling behind in MMO's today because of that leveling system. And, of course, most MMO's are all about the numbers your character has. Their stats become more important of an accomplishment, if not the only way of actually accomplishing anything, in a game. There is no leaving your mark on the game world, for the most part. With Mermaids, she hopes to change that, to create a world where building and growing the game world are what makes the player be a part of the virtual world. My hope is that other developers there can use her research and insight in their own games, to begin to really reward players when they work together to cause change in the game world. I think it's something that many who have been playing the standard MMO's, the “EQ clones” as they are often called, are more than ready for.
After lunch on Saturday I attended a roundtable discussion entitled “The Real Life of an Indie Executive Producer” moderated by Eric “Malevolent” Rhea. I was curious about what life was like for a game producer, so decided to sit in on this discussion. The discussion started out talking about what type of person makes a good game producer, what do game producers do?
The primary role of a producer is to keep the “big picture” of the design goals in mind. This often would seem to be in conflict with another role of the producer, that of project manager. There was a rather long debate about whether a producer could be both producer and project manager, in fact. The conclusion from experienced developers who had worked both with and without a project manager is that if the company making the game can afford one, a project manager is an invaluable addition to the team. The project manager keeps tabs on the details, the day to day development of the game. They work as the “go between”, if you will, between the team and the producer. When a project manager isn't in the budget, then the producer fills this roll. They ensure that what is being implemented is consistent with the design goals. They keep the team focused and working, and provide opportunities for the members of the team to learn and grow. I was excited to hear that some of the best game producers are educators, because I've come from an education background myself.
The point was raised that a good producer knows that rather than giving a team member “busy work” while waiting for their next job to start, they give that team member the freedom to learn, to research their own particular field of expertise. For example, if a world builder has to wait for art assets to be completed before they can continue to create the next area of the world, rather than have them work on programming some other aspect of the game, or do some other work they aren't really suited for, a good producer will put their team member to researching and learning more about world building tools available. Right now in the industry it seems to me that most of the developers are self-taught, which means they are the sort of person who is internally motivated to learn, and able to challenge themselves. This sort of person will do well if they are allowed to continue to learn even while working, and a good producer (or project manager) will see that.
Next it was on to talk about the extremely popular topic, sex!! As I'd already interviewed Kelly Rued, the moderator of the Sex in MMO's roundtable, I had an idea of where the she would start to direct the talk. You can also take a look at Ophelea's blog to see more about what was talked about in that discussion, and I'm actually going to ask that you pause and go read her blog before continuing further if you haven't already to give my next thoughts some context. Having sat in on the same roundtable as Ophelea, I find I can't resist commenting. I do want to correct one thing before we go on.. there was a roundtable at GDC about this very same topic, run by Brenda Braithwaite. I sat in on that one too. What can I say, sex in games is a particular "fetish" of mine. ;)
One thing I found in common between both roundtables is that the developers universally agreed that emergent sex would happen in their MMO. In the GDC roundtable it was pointed out that people were "cybering" in most every MMO in existance, which leads to my point at both roundtables. I don't think developers need to do anything to "add" sex to their games. Players are going to do it whether you have the right emotes or not, whether you have sexy clothing or not.
So what's the point in having a roundtable at GDC and IMGDC on sex in MMO's? For me I was glad to see it because I don't feel that anyone has really made an adult MMO to date. The games out there all look at sex as the "end game", as Ophelea suggested it should be. And here's where we disagree, as did a few other brave souls at the roundtable who spoke up. In my opinion, in an adult MMO sex is not the end, the way of winning in the game, but the means to the end. The end in an adult MMO, I feel, is to have developed a character over time that expresses the individual player's “fantasy personality”. The end game, the winning condition, is to have a world where you can become that which for whatever reason you don't allow yourself to be in reality.
Now what this means for game developers is all the things that Ophelea pointed out. Your challenge would be to try to conceive of all the possibilities of what your players would want to become and design a game around that. My best advice to how to do that with even moderate success is to research. But not many people, even game developers, want to admit that they have spent time in every adult virtual world out there (and the others too), researching what people want in a sexual fantasy. One of the biggest hurdles mentioned at both conferences is the perceived stigma attached to even thinking about making an erotic MMO. As Brian Green put it, he already tells his parents that he's a "crack dealer" rather than game developer, and he makes normal games. The developers felt that to admit to making an erotic game would be both social and professional suicide. For some reason our society is just fine with allowing horrific acts of violence in video games, or if they aren't fine with it, it is still something that game developers are making on a daily basis without any huge stigma attached to the studio, but to make a sex game is incredibly taboo. Even look at Disney, what has to be one of the most “family friendly” studios out there. They are making multiple games based on the Pirates of the Carribean movies. And while these movies aren't filled with scene after scene of machine guns blasting people's heads off, it has been historically proven that one can kill someone else with a sword and pistol almost as readily as they can with a machine gun. Somehow, though, that's ok. It can be done in a “bloodless”, or “PG” rated, manner, and be acceptable for even the youngest gamers. But don't even consider putting anything about sex in your game, even if it is sex education, because you're studio will be labeled for life as “the makers of that sex game”. Basically it is going to take a very special and brave development team, be it indie or not, to take on trying to make the first real erotic MMORPG. But I keep hoping someone does. :) Oh, and if someone does, let me know because you could hire me as a consultant. ;)
From sex it was on to debating Class Systems versus Skill Systems in MMO's. Quite the jump mentally, I admit, but still an interesting discussion. Class based systems were defined basically as ones where at some point early on in character creation, the player picks the role their character is going to be and then sticks with it through the advancement of that character. Skill based systems allow you to develop the role of the character as you go along. Some of the more obvious observations from the discussion were that class based systems are better able to be controlled by the developers, allowing for easier balancing of encounters and the classes themselves. You can also control what roles you want the players to be able to have in your game with a class based system. For the player, there's an advantage in that they have from the start expectations of what their character can and should be able to do. With a class based system there is also a very obvious end-game, that time in which a character has reached the point where they can learn no more in their chosen class (well, until the developers make more content, I suppose). In a skill based system, the end-game is much “fuzzier”, with a single character being able to take on new skills indefinitely, within whatever constraints the developers put on the system of course. The advantage to this from a developers point of view is that it brings longevity to their game without having to continue to add content that only a limited number of characters can experience. Of course, the disadvantage is that the players can also pick combinations of skills that build their character out of being useful, and sometimes even survivable, in the game. This point led to a discussion on who was responsible, the developer or the player, for creating an underpowered character in a skill based system. (Just so you know, there was no consensus.) That discussion led back to the class based system and the question of why does “balanced” have to equal “all classes have the same capabilities in the game”.
A better way to say that might be to explain by example. In most class based games you have a fighter, a mage, a rogue, and a healer. For some reason, players seem to feel that a all four classes should be able to accomplish the same tasks, just in different ways. If fighter A can “solo” mob B, then healer A should be able to as well, forget the fact that the healer's role is to heal and the fighters is to fight. Vocal fans of a game tend to cry foul if all classes in the game cannot make their way through the content of the game with equal success and timing. One of the “sacred cows” that should be slaughtered is this myth that balanced equals “the same but with different abilities”. In either type of system, class or skill based, there can be some characters that have an easier time than others at making their way through content. Some players really will decide to take the path of greater resistance through the game and pick those classes, or skill sets, which aren't the easiest. And game developers need to know that's ok.
Another point raised is that most skill based systems in existence today are still just class based systems, but with more permutations. True skill based games are open at the start and your character develops based on what you do with it as you go. The problem with this goes back to Celia Pearce's talk where most MMO's are still a numbers game. Encounter resolution still comes down to comparing numbers between player and encounter, with the only “skill” involved being was the player knowledgeable enough to take the right skills and use them at the right time to win the encounter. A true skill based system is made more difficult to design by the very players of the game. Dr. Bartle pointed out that when a player joins a game, they have faith in the designer that the designer is giving them what they want, be it in a class based or skill based system. His comment “I wanted to be a fighter, but damn it, I'm a fish,” summed it up well. If you'd created your character to be a fish, then becoming a fish is just fine. But if you started your character and wanted to be a fighter, even if you did fish like things, ending up a fish is going to cause the player to blame the designer, not their own choices. Dr. Bartle went on to say that there are basically three types of players in virtual worlds, the Alice's, the Dorothy's and the Wendy's. An Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) comes in to the virtual world to explore, to learn about the world she's entered. The Dorothy's (from Wizard of Oz) are very goal oriented, and are in the world with something to do. And then there are the Wendy's (from Peter Pan), who reject the game and the fantasy, and I have to confess I didn't write down why the Wendy's join the virtual world at all. So looking at the Alice or Dorothy type of player, both have one thing in common. They are in the world trusting that whether the system is class based or skill based, they will be put into a virtual world where they can succeed. What hopefully developers can come to understand from discussions like the ones we had on Saturday at IMGDC is that either system, be it class or skill based, can work without having to have perfect balance between each and every character. Neither system is “better” than the other, and it depends on the design of your game which to use, was ultimately the conclusion that the group came to. It might seem like a lack of answer to some, but really, I heard it as a good one.
So what did I learn overall on Saturday? Well, I learned that indie game developers are most likely going to be the ones to break the molds. Whether the mold is that leveling and combat must be central to character advancement, or that a good adult virtual world where sex is a part of the game but not the whole of the game, or that the daily life of a game producer is long and never ending, the message was the same. Indie is where it's at when it comes to innovation!!
The “glory days” of computer gaming for me were when games like Spectre Supreme, Pirate’s Gold, the Might and Magic series, the original Prince of Persia… those sorts of games were coming out on a regular basis. Back then I owned a Macintosh and was a die hard Mac fan. I was one of the first in my area to buy an iMac and on it learned the joy of playing games on the internet like daily crossword puzzle and “mind bender” type puzzles. My first online RPG was given to me for Christmas the year EQ was released, and I was hooked from day one. I played EQ for about a year. I started playing DaoC during late alpha testing, and was hooked on it.. well, to be honest I still am. I’ve tried pretty much every MMORPG I can get my hands on, from big names like EQ, to more obscure ones such as Underlight. I’ve been writing for IMGS since the first DaoC guide, and find I love the challenge of learning a game and presenting what I’ve learned (and sometimes my opinions), to other players.
I’m not a very strong player as far as learning PvE or quick reaction times, so I tend to stay away from games where I’m pitted against someone else in a way that requires physical (rather than mental) response. I still enjoy story and puzzle games, and in a way that’s how I still approach online games. I would much rather spend hours working through a quest than 5 minutes in combat against another player. I still get lost in simulation type games, obsessing over them until I’ve gotten them beaten. And I like being able to sit down at the computer when I’ve got less than half an hour and playing through a few levels of a puzzle game. I tend not to like first-person shooter type games, or anything with person to person violence, so I steer away from them unless they are fantasy based settings. All in all, I enjoy computer gaming so much that my life feels incomplete somehow when my computer is down.