Dr. Bartle started off the discussion by defining what is needed at a minimum for a virtual world. The nouns of a virtual world are the world and the players, and the verbs are that they have to be able to change the world in some way and interact with the other players. Without the world, then you just have a fancy chat room. Without the players having the ability to change the world, then you just have a novel, is how I saw it. From there other people raised things they considered to be “sacred cows” such as the ability to move through the world. It was suggested that teleportation as the only means of getting around the world leads to players feeling like they are in a series of disconnected spaces. That as much as players complain about having to run across the game world (or somehow traverse the distance), doing so gives them a feeling of having a contiguous world. Not that they are necessarily in a contiguous world, mind you, as the different “zones” of the world might very well be on different servers. But the impression of being a part of a large world is there. It is up to the designers of the game to give the space of their virtual world some sort of meaning, while at the same time leaving it open enough for the players to feel that they are causing change in the world. A rather delicate balance if you ask me.
The discussion then turned to what exactly what persistence in the game world. Was persistence just in short bursts that last until the next time the server restarts? Should it be even shorter than that, with creatures respawning almost immediately after being killed (assuming there are creatures to kill in the world of course)? And why should a game have persistence at all? The simple answer to that last question is so that there is some memory in the game world for the player of what they have done, the experience of their time in the world. Players want to see something that says “I was here. I did this.” The cow that was slaughtered in the discussion, however, was that that something doesn't always have to equate to a certain number of experience points for the time they were there. Sometimes a new piece of gear, clothing, or equipment can become that memory. A new story to tell can as well. In the earliest MUD's, Dr. Bartle described persistence as being very temporary, where the games were like the movie “Groundhog Day”. Every day when the server reset, the only thing that remained would be the character, everything else would be wiped and you'd repeat the same experiences over again. Now players are usually looking for something more than that. They want a lasting world, with characters that will be their for them when they come back to the world. It is one of the reasons why most developers are so afraid of permadeath in their game. Having characters only experience temporary death is one of the biggest sacred cows in virtual worlds that no one seems to willing to slaughter. Dr. Bartle described the marketing issue of a game with permadeath as being like trying to market a game with pedophilia, in fact. For most players of MMO's, death is like a temporary slap on the wrist, the last thing they want is for death of a character to be a persistent part of the game. Don Teal of Duck's Den Productions, is planning for his game Valhyre to have permadeath, and explained well his reasons for doing so. One of the goals of Valhyre is to have a world where each character truly does have an effect on the world, and makes a difference. Everyone has a reputation in the game, and their own moment of infamy. To have a “life”, though, the character has to have a death that is significant as well. Now the plan to have permadeath for some races has caused Don to go back and rethink other areas of his game's design, such as the combat system overall. Death isn't going to come lightly or happen easily in Valhyre, and it shouldn't. He's had to kill the combat cow first, basically, the cow that says that winning in combat equals someone else dying. Permadeath in a game system means that a player isn't going to knowingly go running off into an extremely dangerous situation and push the limits beyond what makes sense “just to see what happens”. For most virtual worlds, having only temporary death in a world with combat is such a sacred cow, though, that few of the developers in the room felt that a game with permadeath would sell.
What was interesting about the discussion is that there are some things that Dr. Bartle raised as sacred cows that I wouldn't even have thought of. His feeling is that these are so hard wired into the human mind that if you change or modify them, or take them out completely, then your game really will be doomed from the start. Gravity, for example, is a must have in any game. Your player needs to be attached to the game world to move around, even if they are in a spaceship or flying somehow, there still is an upper limit to how far off the world they can move. “We live in a 2D world with steps”, as Dr. Bartle put it. The expectation for players is that their head is up, feet are down, and the developer who changes that paradigm is going to have players who are really confused as they move around in the game space. Even in Celia Pearce's Mermaids game, the mermaids move up and down, back and forth, in relation to a top and bottom of the ocean world, with the bottom being at the bottom of the screen. Communication is the other sacred cow I wouldn't have thought of for a virtual world. No one wants to have a game where they have to learn a whole new language just to communicate with other players. Granted, there are many games that have been localized for different languages. But that's not what he meant. This would be a game where no one could communicate with one another until you learned a language specific to the game world. Contrast this to sacred cows of experienced MMO players, and you'll see that many player expectations are things that only make sense to MMO gamers. The primary example of this is being able to “pull” one mob out of a bunch. Experienced MMO players simple seem to expect that there is some way to control a crowd of creatures. That if you see a dozen orcs hanging around a tent, you can pull one or two orcs without the rest thinking “Wow, there's only one dude there, and 12 of us, let's get him.” In fact, in a game where 12 orc hanging around as “linked” mobs that can't be single pulled, you'd probably end up with players complaining that the encounters are too hard. Which leads to the second expectation, that of having success be more common than failure. In the real world, people usually learn more from their failures than their successes, but in a virtual world it is just the opposite. You gain experience points when you succeed, and often have some sort of debt or loss when you fail. The expectation of players is that you'll trade your time in game for success, which leads to character advancement and gaining experience points. Dr. Bartle challenged this belief, but no one really seemed to have an answer as to why it was this way, or how to begin to redesign games to work differently.
At the end of the discussion, the challenge was to consider why each element of the game being made was in it. His statement “everything you put in your virtual world beyond the world and the players can be thrown out” I think really shocked some of the people around the room. Rather than starting with a long list of game design elements, his challenge was to start with a blank slate and add the elements one at a time, figuring out why each was there as they are added. And if you can't figure out why it is there, then should it really be there? It is through this sort of design challenge that we as players will start to see innovation in gameplay. We'll see games that really are something more than just the next fantasy MMO on the market.
The day wrapped up with thanks to each of the speakers at the conference, and the presentation of an Xbox360 (that I didn't win, just for the record), but for me it hasn't ended there. For me this conference has only been the start of really looking hard at where MMO's, or virtual worlds as they were called, are headed in the future. I know I'll never look at an indie game the same way after having attended this conference. And I won't look at the next AAA title to come out the same way either. I'll be looking for developers who can take up the challenges presented at the conference and make not the next Everquest or Ultima Online, but the next game that is as new and exciting as Everquest was in it's day. And, of course, I can't wait until next year to see what the developers who attended the conference this year can do with a year's worth of development time.
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.