"Die Spieler machen das Spiel."
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I can be contacted as hobold at this domain name.
#25. Advanced: Involuntary Government & Voluntary
Calling this an advanced topic is a bit pretentious. I'm only
philosophizing about a vague idea here. But there is one funny thing in
virtual worlds that is a complete reversal of the real world. I
mentioned earlier that virtual worlds consist of story, games, and, well, a world. Then there are the players as another vital ingredient. But
there is yet another group of people who are very influential, even
though they hardly ever appear personally in the virtual world: the folks who
design and run the virtual world.
In the old days of text based MUDs, these people's characters did frequently appear in virtual worlds. They had special powers to test and debug the game, even create content while the server was running. They were called (virtual) gods. It was only fitting, given that their concerns and actions were so far above and beyond what the mere mortal players did. As an amusing anecdote: bug reports could properly be made in character with the pray emote. Those were the ancient days when gods still walked across the land.
Today's commercial MMORPGs avoid confronting players with the nuts and bolts of the virtual world. If some game developer would be seen turning knobs and pulling levers, suspension of disbelief and immersion would suffer. Instead, all the maintenance and design work is done behind the curtains. Consequently, the metaphor of deities no longer fits the crew as well as it used to.
These days, a company that runs a virtual world is more like a shadow government. They make decisions with far reaching consequences for everybody, but only a small percentage of the players even know who their rulers are in person. The process of making laws and enforcing them is mostly hidden from the public. In fact, that process is not publicly documented at all, and might not even follow a consistent protocol.
I tried to find a catchy label that is less loaded with moral implications, but nothing else seemed to fit quite as well. The term shadow government is not intended as an offense, but as a description of the phenomenon. In fact, there is a very powerful force at work to balance any hypothetical deviousness of the shadow government: all players are voluntarily there, and voluntarily pay their "taxes". When the shadow government acts against the will of their subjects, the citizens can and will simply leave.
This is the funny reversal of the real world: citizens are volunteers, and government duties are forced on people who only really wanted to design games. I believe that this backwards view can help explain a few things that happened in/with the World of Warcraft community over the years. For example the ever growing pressure for political correctness in phrasing, which unfortunately only puts even more distance between the shadow government and the citizens.
Or that strange contrast between love for the game and distrust in the game's makers, that some players very vocally exhibit (a sign of conspiracy theories fitting for a shadow government :-). I don't fully understand all the consequences, but I think the metaphor of shadow government is useful in getting a grasp on the inevitable rift between players and designers.
I wonder if the game companies are really free to choose a particular form of leadership. When I look back at the development of World of Warcraft's community, it seems to me that Blizzard certainly tried to be more open and direct at times, occasionally a bit more dictatorial, too. But in the long run the overall system just kept converging on a shadow government; as if neither players nor game makers were really free to steer another course.
#24. Detour: Portal, the Perfect Dungeon
There is an example of a perfect dungeon, or at least a perfect example
of the possible synergy between dungeon design aspects, and some of the
inherent weaknesses of the dungeon concept. It is not part of a virtual world,
but actually an older single player game: Portal. As I am writing
this (July 2011), Portal 2 has recently hit the market, but that sequel
is actually a less impressive implementation of the dungeon concept.
There will be mild spoilers in the rest of this blog post, but I will focus on the art and craft that went into making Portal. I will avoid telling anything about the actual content.
Portal is a relatively small game; originally it was marketed as just one of several goodies that were sold together as a package. In fact, all of Portal is a single, contiguous dungeon, and revolves around just a few core mechanics. Portal's game physics and world are slightly exotic, but very consistent. For the most part, players can move around just like in the real world, and see everything from a first person perspective. They can pick up and move objects, jump over obstacles, look (but not move) through glass, open and close doors, flip switches, and so on.
Portal differs from the real world in one important detail: players are able to change the topology of the game world by placing a kind of wormhole that effectively creates a shortcut between distant locations. The two ends of the wormhole are portals that the player can open on certain surfaces. Now this is a rather unrealistic concept, an example for an exotic game world. The game is very careful to introduce the players to portals step by step, and explain the general idea as well as specific uses. In fact, most of the progression is centered on teaching the player everything there is to know about portals and what can be done with them.
Portal is almost totally linear. The levels are architected as floors of some building, connected by elevators. The elevators' destinations cannot be influenced by the player; the only direction is onwards. The levels build on each other to teach lessons, to offer opportunity for practice, and to challenge the player and ask them to apply their earned knowledge. It's an exemplary implementation of fun through learning.
The atmosphere and feel of the building develop as players progress, providing storytelling through architecture. The story itself is never explicitly told, but the player is given guidance at first, then a reason to move on, and finally an intrinsic motivation to venture further and further. The world of Portal is not vast enough for a complete monomyth, but the game does put the player through quite a few stations of a Hero's Journey: there are moments when power is gained, or when guidance is lost; moments when responsibilities have to be accepted, moments when enemies are made, and moments when enemies are defeated.
Throughout all this, the difficulty of the game keeps rising steadily. New game mechanics and new complications are being added gradually. The player is given the freedom to experiment with and explore new things as they are added. The pacing is almost completely in the hands of the player, which means that the game designers prioritized learning over storytelling. Nevertheless, there are always subtle cues and incentives to pull the player forward.
I don't want to go into more detail, so that you can play Portal yourself and enjoy the surprises. No matter if you view it as player or as designer, it will be worth your while. There is even an audio commentary. :-)
Transplanting Portal into a virtual world as a dungeon would be very problematic, to say the least. There would have to be more replay value, which rules out learning as the primary factor for progression. In a multiplayer setting, pacing would generally have to be more blunt. Nevertheless, Portal does show very well how story, style, architecture, and mechanics can reinforce each other in a small, self-contained piece of game world.
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