Mücke's Musings on MMORPG Making

"Die Spieler machen das Spiel."

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I can be contacted as hobold at this domain name.


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#15. Advanced: Randomness in Games

Beware, this blog entry will be a bit of a rant, for two reasons. One: randomness is a phenomenon that fills volumes and volumes of intricate math. Even if I fully understood it, I couldn't explain it in passing here. And two: very few game designers bother with studying randomness. Which is perfectly fine so long as they do not employ a lot of uncontrolled randomness in their games.

But first, I will acknowledge some positive sides of randomness in games. It can add unpredictability, an element of surprise. That alone can be a new challenge, or at least prompt players to make quick decisions. Randomness may bring extremes of good luck or bad luck, and the intense emotions that go with that (both positive and negative). Randomness can bring change, shake things up and delay the feeling of boring routine. Randomness tends to tickle people's intelligence, and makes them look for patterns in the chaos (which may or may not be there).

So randomness does have its place in games. But it leads to problems, too. For one, there is psychology. The intense emotions mentioned above, combined with the perception of imagined patterns in the chaos, might turn susceptible persons from gamers into gamblers. This doesn't directly apply to MMORPGs (at least not until I eventually dare to write an entry on addiction) but it is worth mentioning. The other psychological extreme is players turning away disgustedly from a purely luck based game. There is no challenge, no skill, no strategy involved, no game for them to play, and they realize they were cheated.

The other problem field with random game mechanics is statistics. True randomness is just much more random than humans intuitively expect. A classical experiment to show this is for a math teacher to ask the pupils to each do a sequence of a few dozen coin tosses and write the results down as homework. A day later in class, the pupils are to analyze their results for runs of consecutive heads/tails. Those who bothered to toss an actual coin will find runs of length five or more a fairly common occurrence. Those who only wrote down a "random" sequence, that they made up, will find hardly any long runs. Humans have a subconscious tendency to smooth out raw chaos.

Another effect of randomness being random is this: there is no guarantee that extremes cancel each other out, that undesirable events are lost in the noise, that over time things will smooth out. There is no such guarantee! The so-called Weak Law of Large Numbers is weak for a reason. Additionally, large numbers can actually work against you. If an extreme streak of bad luck can happen to one in thousand players, and if you enjoy an active customer base of ten million, then you will make approximately ten thousand players very unhappy.

However, randomness is too valuable in games to do without. The solution is to control it, to tame the raw chaos. Board and card games have done that long before there were computers. Card games usually draw from a fixed deck. The sequence is random, but the set of possible cards is not random. Board games may use a die roll, a truly random event, but then the players may make decisions after they know the result of the roll. In other words, players are allowed some amount of control. Intelligent decisions (either by game designers or by players) are what keeps raw chaos in check.

I believe designers of computer games are being spoiled by the computer's ability to quickly produce lots and lots of pseudo-random numbers on request. The designers of board and card games do not have that luxury, and so they have to make much better use of the comparably little amount of randomness that they can get over the course of a game. Consequently, they have always put a lot more design effort into controlling randomness.

Maybe this is a lesson that computer game design can still learn from classical game design? Don't do random design, instead design randomness.


#14. Basics: Progress

Commercial MMORPGs try to avoid giving players a feeling of stagnation. I guess the monomyth is at work here, and the audience wants to experience a purposeful journey rather than just strange and beautiful sceneries. The story aspect also needs a chronological order to build larger arcs from smaller pieces of narrative. Last but not least, the learning curve imposes a natural order from a few simple game mechanics towards more and more complex mechanics.

In a perfect world, the game makers could provide ever more new stories, adventures, and places. In practice, the resources of even the largest design team are finite, and players can consume game content faster than it can be created. Consequently, the designers have some incentive to put explicit slowdown mechanisms into the game. But game content behind obstacles has a nasty tendency to be unavailable to some fraction of the player base. So in trying to make their game last longer, the designers have instead reduced the amount of available content further. This only puts more pressure on them to create yet more content. A vicious circle.

An alternative is to let players accumulate partial rewards, i.e. they save up points of some sort until they have enough to unlock something new for their characters. The prototypical example of this are experience points, which a character earns for a variety of activities. When the amount of experience points crosses some threshold, the character is allowed to unlock new game content. The standard reward for experience points is a level up, i.e. one step ahead on a generic scale of character power. The levels again can be accumulated to unlock new "high level" areas of the game world, or they can be a prerequisite for powerful character abilities.

There is still a very real danger that players perceive collecting such points as boring and repetitive. But the fact that every player can see their score increase makes accumulation much more palatable than "all or nothing" stairstep obstacles. In effect, players only get the "same old, same old" content, but they are consoled with tangible evidence that they are coming closer to the next big thing.

This model of gradual progress has been extremely successful in existing MMORPGs, but there are two pitfalls. Firstly, when there is only a single kind of generic reward, players will tend to focus on the most efficient way of racking up their points, and ignore other game content. Surprisingly, maximal freedom of choice tends to lead to almost no freedom. Secondly, when there are too many alternative point scores, that each need individual attention through specific ingame activities, players tend to lose their sense of progress. Simply speaking, when there are too many different directions to choose from, then none of them is "forward".


#13. Connection: Motivations and Reality

The earlier blog posts on the reality of time, memories, and players are the first time I have spelled out those ideas that were looming in the back of my mind. Now that I see them in writing, I notice a striking resemblance between these three viewpoints and the four player motivations. There seems to be a direct correspondence between how a player views a virtual world and what he does there: all of the players pursue what they perceive as real.

Explorers collect memories.
Achievers invest their time as best they can.
Socializers focus on other players (I am tempted to say they invest in them).
Killers, too, focus on other players (I am tempted to say they collect them).

I like this connection! The four motivations are originally based on observation. They tell us "what" but don't tell us "why". The question for reality in virtual worlds might be a first step towards the missing "why".


#12. Consequence: Players, the Only Real Thing

Don't worry, this is the last time I will claim that there is only One Real Thing in virtual worlds. :-) In this case, the distinction is:

Real means: outside the game, and
Virtual means: inside the game.

This is the least scientific criterion, but probably the most natural one. It's just common sense that the players are more real than anything else about the game. The players themselves aren't even in the game. Only some substitutes, their characters, can act on and be seen in the game world.

Few people ever think about that, though, so the distinction between player and character isn't always clear in people's minds. Every now and then, game designers try to punish characters for the misdeeds of players. Or they try/encourage/tolerate players policing each other within the game world, but purely through their characters.

Such approaches must fail, because all players are voluntarily in the game world. Neither game designers nor guild masters can force other players to log on. Sure, you can hold a character hostage, deprive the player of the virtual rewards they got for their time investment. But ultimately, that power is purely virtual. In a virtual world I can only have as much power over you as you let me have. (Writers are much more aware of this. When they set stories in virtual worlds, the first thing they always do is contrive a plot device that prevents the protagonists from logging off at will.)

I am aware of only a single virtual world that is being designed with that in mind. The makers of Guild Wars 2 (ArenaNet) continuously evaluate all their game content and game mechanics for grief play (i.e. unpreventable acts of one malicious player spoiling the fun for many others). They intend not to rely on policing for that, but treat loopholes for grief play as game bugs that need fixing.

I have no idea if that is a good idea, but I am curious to see how it will turn out. Will players feel imprisoned by an almighty computer limiting their freedom? Will they see themselves as patronized kids in a harmless and meaningless kindergarten? Or will it indeed feel like a utopia of live and let live with lots of optional cooperation?


#11. Consequence: Memories, the Only Real Thing

There is another equally valid way of resolving the virtual vs. real dichotomy, based on existence.

Real means: exists even if the game server is down, and
Virtual means: exists only as long as the game server is running.

Seen from that perspective, there is only one real thing that players can take away from a virtual world: memories. This doesn't sound like a particularly deep insight. After all, people can take away memories from everything they do or encounter. And game design is about creating a particular experience during play, not about lasting memories, right?

I believe this question leads to a small miracle hidden in plain sight. What is it that makes an event memorable? I don't know an objective answer, but I can say what was memorable to me. On the one hand, there were shared moments, when my guild or group of long time friends figured out how to overcome a significant challenge. Or when that close-knit group faced a new such challenge for the very first time together. On the other hand there were moments when a piece of ingame narrative seemed to have much more substance than most other game content.

I want to briefly recount one such quest chain from WoW, as an example of what I am trying to grasp. As I played through the Wrath of the Lich King content, I encountered a non-player character far out in the frozen wastelands. He was dying, infected by a devious plague that would eventually turn him into a mindless soldier of the evil Lich King's army of undead. Knowing that he was beyond cure, the moribund crusader had placed himself as far as possible from his former friends and comrades.

Crusader Bridenbrad, that was his name, is not a major lore character in the WoW universe. He was but a humble trooper who did his duty, more than his duty, all the way to his last breath. His commanding officer could not bear to let this soldier die out there alone in the cold, though, because Bridenbrad had often risked sacrificing himself to save his comrades.

So I was sent to look for help, and visited many of the most powerful entities of the game world. My voyages led me all across the virtual world and back. I consulted with beings that had power over life itself, over the flow of time, even angelic beings beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But none of them could avert death. Nevertheless, the story concluded well. The angelic beings took in the crusader's soul, and prevented the body from being of use to the Lich King.

(I need a minute here. The memory is still strong.)

Right when I encountered these quests for the first time, I immediately sensed that they had a substance which most other quests in the game did not contain. I couldn't say what it was. I only knew it wasn't the long journeys, not the nostalgia of visiting older parts of the world, and not the sensation of conversing with immortals and demigods. There was a truth to this story.

I later found out that indeed there was something real underneath. One of Blizzard's employees had lost a brother to cancer, after years of battling the disease. Crusader Bridenbrad's story is a memorial to that brother. Whoever designed those quests took the helplessness of the bereaved, the serenity of the dying, the sadness of the situation and formed something new out of it. Where there was only emptiness and despair, there is now hope. Only art can do that.

And now please forgive me for going all cold and rational again after this emotionally involving example. Recall the other memorable moments I mentioned earlier, about discovery and teamwork. To me, the kind of teamwork required in WoW's raid dungeons is akin to an orchestra performing sheet music. Somebody else wrote the notes, but the orchestra brings them to life, keeps reinterpreting them. There is creativity to this, like a performance art.

Even discovery has a bit of this same creativity, in the response of the surprised audience. This is not as easy to see, because you can discover something only once. But when you are in a group of friends you know well, you get to see all their reactions at once. This provides a bit of magnification, and makes this kind of spontaneous performance art more visible.

You see where this is going: I think that memorable moments in virtual worlds are linked to art somehow. That hypothesis would be a lot more useful if I could explain art (or if anybody could explain art, really). In my opinion it is still a valuable insight, because it is fairly strong evidence that virtual worlds are not just about entertainment. They can be more. And to be memorable, they have to be more.


#10. Opinion: Friends are not a Premium Service

(This is an opinion piece on Blizzard's World of Warcraft. I hope I managed to keep the jargon to a minimum. But then again, it might not be all too interesting if you don't play in that particular virtual world.)

A few days ago, Blizzard announced a major extension of their RealID social networking feature. Until now RealID provided optional functionality to stay in touch with real life friends across Blizzard's games and across different WoW realms (i.e. different independent copies of the WoW game world). The extension will take this beyond a mere text chat, and allow RealID friends to form ingame groups in order to share the adventure of a WoW dungeon run. What's new here is that this will be possible even for characters that exist on different realms, and who could never meet otherwise.

That kind of functionality makes a lot of sense. Not only do people like to play with good friends. The game vendor, too, profits, because friendships are pretty much the strongest customer retention mechanism that a virtual world can have. It is in the game makers' best interests to tear down all ingame barriers that stand between real life friends.

There are some barriers, though, that cannot be removed without destroying the traditional concept of a virtual world. For example, people who are following different player motivations, no matter how wonderful their friendship, will be drawn to different corners of the game world, where their preferred type of game content is available. Friendships inside the game are much more likely to be formed between players of the same motivation, because their characters will cross paths while they play their preferred game content. Friendships formed outside the game are not subject to this constraint.

Thus, players are likely to feel loyalty towards their fellow ingame guildies, with whom they have been through many ups and downs. They would have a hard time leaving their guild behind if they transferred characters to the realm of their real life friends. With the newly announced RealID dungeon groups, players can have their cake and eat it, too.

Unfortunately, Blizzard intends to put a significant barrier up in front of an otherwise purely advantageous functionality. They want players to pay up, again and again, month after month. Currently, the player community is quite upset about that (as evidenced in Blizzard's official forums). As far as I can tell, the players are not merely greedy. To me they look hurt. Somewhere deep down they are feeling pain. Instinctively, they know this is somehow fundamentally wrong.

I am more the overanalyzer type of guy. I believe the objective reason what's wrong about payment in this case can be articulated easily:

Friends are not a Premium Service. Friends are a Rare Gift.


#9. Consequence: Time, the Only Real Thing

What exactly is the dichotomy virtual vs. real, as far as virtual worlds are concerned? I am not a native English speaker, so my take here probably does not do justice to everyday uses of the word. With that said, here is my explanation of the decisive difference:

Real means: obeys the laws of nature, and
Virtual means: follows man-made rules.

Virtual worlds have a lot of leeway with respect to their game physics and environment. The fact that most commercial MMORPGs try to resemble reality is by choice, for the convenience of the players (a completely alien world might scare off potential customers)

However, there is one notable exception, one real phenomenon that virtual worlds cannot change: the passage of time. Any time a player spends in a virtual world is real time (no pun intended). Sure, the virtual world can have a different length of day, or a different sequence of seasons, and so on. But as MMORPGs are shared between many players, they cannot consistently let individual players manipulate the flow of time. The storytelling may make jumps and cuts, and there might even be game mechanics like bullet time or time stop. But these things will always affect the whole group of players who are sharing their experience of playing through a particular piece of game content.

Virtual Worlds are played in real time (pun intended, this time). I can't resist repeating this for emphasis.

Most players are intuitively aware of the fact that their time investment is very real. Players do not like game content that is all too obviously a time sink. They feel robbed when a formerly earned reward, that used to require a substantial dedication of time, is made available via an alternative quicker route. When they have to spend time with a repetitive and boring activity as a preparation for a good time in more fun and more interesting parts of the game world, the players feel cheated into working a side job.

Simply speaking, the players expect the game to be worth their while. But unlike movies or books, MMORPGs do not end. And unlike movies or books, there is some evolutionary pressure in MMORPGs to develop addictive game mechanics. I will have to revisit the loaded topic of addiction later in more depth. For now, let me conclude by saying that MMORPGs have the potential to goad players into wasting a lot more time than any other form of entertainment. In my humble opinion, this is something that game designers and players should be much more aware of.


#8. Basics: Games in Virtual Worlds

Games and game mechanics differ widely in virtual worlds. I won't try to categorize them here; pretty much anything is possible. What I find noteworthy is that the game aspect of virtual worlds tends to clash with the story aspect and the world aspect.

For example, one school of game design is centered around challenge. The idea is that players are getting a kick out of beating challenges, i.e. that they are of the achiever motivation. In time, players will learn how to master the game, so the sequence of challenges must follow a slope of increasing difficulty. Within a virtual world, this approach at first looks attractive, because it is a perfect match for the monomyth. But in practice, there are three significant problems:

1. The player population varies widely in its skill, dedication, and taste. There is no single slope of difficulty that will suit everybody, or even only a major fraction of the community. The number of people finding the game too easy, or too hard, will always be larger than the number of people who find it just right.

2. The progression of difficulty is tied to learning how to play. I will dedicate another entry to learning in games, but for now let me just say that the pace of learning differs from the dramatic pace of storytelling. In the extreme case, the end of the story remains untold, because the players got stuck and couldn't beat the game. In that sense, the game aspect can clash with the story aspect.

3. When difficulty grows beyond bounds in order to climb to ever new heights, sooner or later the computer has to "cheat". For instance, the opposing monsters begin to do things that used to be impossible under the virtual laws of nature. Explaining this with magic only goes so far, especially when player characters can work the same kind of magic but don't get anywhere near the same results. In that sense, the game aspect can clash with the world aspect.

(Games don't have to be based on challenge. The opposing forces are just more obvious in this example case.)


#7. Basics: Story in Virtual Worlds

Three to four different types of story are usually part of a typical MMORPG. The first of these is the lore, the background story of the world. It encompasses all of the events that have happened or are happening without influence from the players. This includes a timeline of historical events, traditions and folklore of the inhabitants (such as legends, myths, religious belief systems and generally their culture). Possibly current and future events, too, if they happen far beyond the reach of the characters' influence, or are unavoidable prophecies. This is the immutable frame for all other stories (heavy retconning notwithstanding).

The second type of story is the active storytelling that happens as players play through game content. These are the events that characters witness, or influence, or even make happen. Usually all of those stories are prepared by the world's designers just like the lore above. But they are told "live" during play, in chronological order, so they tend to follow dramatic arcs, and have a defined pace and structure. The lore, in contrast, is rarely told actively, but discovered piece by piece as the players explore the world.

The third type of story is the personal monomyth of a character. Most commercial MMORPGs let their players be heroes in training, if not outright heroes. Consequently, the Hero's Journey is often the mainstay of story design. This can be reflected in levels of power that the characters keep gaining, or in a sequence of rites of passage (WoW players may think of the attunements during the Burning Crusade era), or acquisition of ever more powerful magical artifacts for the character to use.

Or, more subtly, it can be reflected in the way the characters are treated by the computer controlled common folk. For example, World of Warcraft treated characters as adventurers and soldiers of fortune during the era of the base game. In the first expansion (Burning Crusade), characters would join the ranks of battle hardened veterans and worked their way up from rookie to respected fighters. In the second expansion (Lich King), characters were treated as upcoming new heroes right away, and relied heavily upon to gain foothold in a harsh and hostile new continent. At the ending of this expansion, characters were asked to face an ultimate challenge, and were treated as true heroes afterwards.

The fourth and optional story type is the personal monomyth of a player. This is less about storytelling and more about development, about building (non-virtual) character and getting to know oneself. These stories are as varied as humans themselves are. The abstract transition from explorer to achiever to socializer, as mentioned in the entry about players' motivations, is pretty much the most specific general description possible.

Not too many commercial MMORPGs offer this, and some even contain design elements that work against it. I believe this is due to economics and idealism. The game companies want to retain customers as long as possible, so they have incentive to delay player development. And game designers have an ideal of a game that offers neverending childlike amazement to the players. Both these forces can make for a lot of friction along the stations of a Player's Journey.

In my not so humble opinion, holding players against their will is a bad idea in the long term. For they will break free eventually, and then they will be disgruntled and unlikely to ever come back. It is probably better to let players go when they have had their fill, because then they are more likely to come back and bring friends. In the words of Sting: "If you love somebody, set them free!" :-)


#6. Basics: the World in Virtual Worlds

In addition to stories and game mechanics, the usual MMORPGs have something so ubiquitous and obvious that you probably never actively noticed it: a world environment. There are places that are separated by distance, there is some sort of horizon that limits each character's range of perception, there is movement which takes time. In short, virtual worlds usually have a notion of here and there.

In this regard, most virtual worlds strive to be very similar to the physical world that the players already know. Being compatible with the real world has pragmatical advantages, most importantly that players know how to find their way intuitively and easily. This can be further supported by careful placement of highly visible landmarks, and with enough unique detail to help distinguish between otherwise very similar places (unless the designers actually want the players to get lost in some kind of maze). Music and ambient soundscape can feed additional cues to the players' unconscious.

Complementing the surrounding landscape, most virtual worlds tend to have consistent game physics. As far as movement is concerned, reality again provides the template which most virtual worlds are following. This is a consequence of the natural spatiality described above. Realism is not really the primary goal here, in my opinion, but this is still about making the players instantly feel at home in a strange new world.

Travel, notably, must strike a balance between conflicting goals. On the one hand, players want to spend their time playing, not waiting to be transported from A to B (and keeping them busy during travel in some artificial way only adds insult to injury, as they cannot even tab out of the game to browse community web sites). On the other hand, when travel to any desired destination takes just a mouse click, then the game world loses its topology. Players will not be able to construct a mental map of what is where, because locations are simply irrelevant. Paradoxically, too convenient means of travel thus leads to players losing their way more often.

The subtler and more obscure aspects of game physics can deviate much more from reality without clashing with players' expectations. There is no real need to comply with, say, thermodynamics, or even only the conservation of energy. Too much realism often leads to inconvenience, and tends to constrain other aspects of virtual world design too much.

However, in my opinion game physics should strive to be as consistent as possible across all of the game world to support the suspension of disbelief. If some behaviour of the game world wildly differs from reality, then players will be confused once. If that behaviour in one virtual place is different from that in another virtual place, players will be confused over and over again. The virtual world then loses its integrity as a whole world.

Virtual worlds with very alien laws of nature are pretty much nonexistent in the commercial MMO market. I suspect that most such projects simply failed to attract enough customers. I could imagine that in the long run, though, more exotic virtual worlds could be successful. But those would have to spend explicit design effort on a mechanism that allows the players to gradually adapt at their own individual pace.


#5. Detour: Forums are unusual Virtual Worlds

To show you how far the aforementioned ideas can be taken, I will apply them to something that is not generally regarded as a virtual world: a text based forum on the internet. The concepts from virtual worlds are applicable as long as the forum meets these criteria:

a) Persistence. All postings are stored for an indefinite time.
b) Persistent Avatars. Most posters consistently use their same (few) forum identity(ies).
c) Focused Topics. Most posters share some (possibly vague and varied) common interests.
d) Threads. Debates are sorted such that longer dialogs keep track of their recurrent themes.

There are forum like places on the internet that do not meet all the above criteria, for example 4chan. I find myself unable to model these other places as virtual worlds, and cannot recognize relevant analogies. Those other forum like places might be following their own set of rules, but I don't know what exactly these would be.

When the above criteria are met, though, a forum corresponds to classical MMORPGs in a fairly straight forward manner:

a) Forum avatars correspond to characters.
b) The posting history of an avatar corresponds to the history of a character's actions.
c) Posters correspond to players.
d) The focused topics correspond to the game environment.

There are other, subtler connections, such as forum threads corresponding to a piece of continuous narrative; or karma points (or some other form of community moderation) corresponding to (player versus player) combat mechanics. But in my opinion the most important connection is that the four player motivations can be recognized in forums as clearly as in gamelike virtual worlds:

a) Explorers are interested mainly in the topic matter of the forum. They are there to learn, to clarify the subtler details, possibly even to experiment with new ideas and theories. They are not afraid of looking stupid, because they know that they don't know everything.
b) Achievers look similar to explorers and usually display quite some expertise. But they do not want to look stupid in public. Consequently, they are much less likely to experiment, and more likely to back up their suggestions with references to literature or other sources.
c) Socializers are in it for the community. They do not tire of handing out the same good advice to every newbie who dares to ask. They recognize other regulars and have more than just a vague memory of the other's posting history. When they write postings, they are aware of all the silent lurkers who never post, but read their postings, too.
d) Killers are interested in being right, not in finding truth. They can sometimes look similar to achievers, because winning arguments is so important to them. But achievers fall silent when they realize they were wrong, and learn from their mistake. Killers, in contrast, tend to try and win such lost points back with rhetorics and possibly other dirty tricks.

However, due to the nature of a forum as a means of focused mass communication, all forum posters are to some degree socializers as well as explorers. If they were no socializers at all, they would never write replies; if they were no explorers at all, they would never write questions or suggestions.

Thinking of forums as virtual worlds leads to a few new and useful insights. For example, we can now explain why three broad categories of forums are fundamentally different, despite being superficially similar. These three types are:

a) A Customer Support forum. Posters go there to report a problem, which may or may not get solved. Then they leave.
b) An Expert forum. All posters here bring their real world expertise/education/experience, which is pretty much a barrier of entry.
c) A vivid Forum Community. No barriers of entry. Only light moderation of tone and atmosphere. Mostly free choice of topics (i.e. within a rather large frame that is not very constricting).

Customer support forums are different because the topic focus is on getting problems solved. While that interest is a shared one, each individual poster mostly cares for his individual problem to be solved. When that has happened, posters have little motivation for staying around.

Expert forums pretty much reduce all posters to their expertise. There is hardly any room for smalltalk, let alone for the exploration of identity.

Forum communities are not usually built, but emerge. Posters found their peers here, and shaped the community as it grew. Once a critical mass threshold is reached, the forum community can create and sustain its own language and its own memes. The traffic in off-topic sections of the forum community can often serve as an indicator for this final state of full bloom: the community is talking about the rest of the world in their very own language.

In reality, forums can be a mix of the above three abstract categories. For example Blizzard's official World of Warcraft forums have qualities of all three:

a) Some blue posters are company representatives, tasked with solving customers' problems. And some posters have no other motivation to post, beyond the wish of having their problem solved (i.e. they might not have enough of explorer and socializer in themselves to feel at home on a forum).

b) Some blue posters are experts. Their role makes it impossible to speak as anything but expert, as all their words are carefully weighed by the mere mortal posters.

c) Despite points a) and b), a community emerged on Blizzard's official forums and flourished for a while. But that community was fragile (perhaps due to strain caused by the presence of the other two forum types?). When Blizzard revamped their official web presence, and announced plans to force forum posters to reveal their real names, the forum community was in turmoil. Blizzard then retracted those plans, but the new forum no longer had an off-topic section when it went online. Currently, Blizzard is experimenting with some sort of tamed off-topic forums. We'll see if these help the forum community to eventually recover from the recent blows.

Thanks for following me all the way through this weird line of thought! I feel a whole book could be written about the phenomenon that is a forum. So if you, Dear Reader, ever happen to write that book, please contact me immediately. Remember, any sufficiently advanced theory is indistinguishable from insane drivel. :-)


#4 Basics: The Monomyth ("Hero's Journey")

The aforementioned personal development of a player in a virtual world happens to correspond to a storytelling archetype that is known in all human cultures on earth, and that dates back farther than anybody can remember. Some very detailed analysis exists in the literature (and on the internet, of course). But for my purposes here, a fairly simple version of the journey will suffice. These are the essential stations that the protagonist moves through as she or he grows to be a hero:

1. Home. A protected life in a friendly community.
2. Expelled from Home. The community is threatened or even destroyed; our protagonist is forced to go out into the world.
3. Overcoming Anxiety. The protagonist learns to get along on his/her own.
4a. Rise to a Challenge. The protagonist chooses to do a little more than she/he has to.
4b. Mastering the Challenge. The protagonist takes one little step towards becoming a hero. Or
4c. Failure. The protagonist is defeated, but takes one little step towards wisdom.
In either case, the protagonist grows through this experience. A number of different challenges will now be posed to the protagonist, who keeps growing more confident and powerful. As time goes by, insurmountable obstacles turn out to be mere challenges, and former challenges turn into routine exercises.
5. Hero at last. The protagonist eventually recognizes that he/she has become an outstanding individual, a hero, and revels in joy and pride over this accomplishment. The hero is truly happy for the first time since he/she was expelled from home.
6. Reluctant Hero. The evil that once shook up our hero's home is still running rampant throughout the world. While they are in no immediate danger, the common folk begin to look up towards the hero as their only hope to stop that evil once and for all. Our hero, however, is in no hurry to jeopardize her/his newfound happiness.
7. Divine Intervention. Some higher power (be it chance, fate, or the gods) nudges the hero towards doing the right thing. This can be a blessing or an artifact that empowers our hero, or an outright command from a higher authority, or simply a call to the hero's conscience. The hero then accepts that "with great power comes great responsibility". :-)
8. Final Challenge. Our hero meets and defeats the original evil that shook up his life. No big deal really, being a true hero and all ...
9. Homecoming. With the evil gone, the hero realizes that he/she has just saved/rebuilt/avenged his/her old home. So he/she decides to retire from heroism, and finally continue the small and happy life of yore.
10. The Hero Within. Our protagonist has come full circle, but was irrevocably transformed. If there should ever be the need, the protagonist knows now that a hero can be summoned from within.

If you have ever played a fantasy role playing game, if you have ever read an antique epic tale, or if you have ever read a superhero comic book, then you have seen examples of the monomyth. If you played a MMORPG, though, you might have been cheated out of steps 9 and 10. I'll explain this ominous remark when we return to the monomyth in more depth.


#3 Basics: Identity in a Virtual World

It is often lamented that anonymity would bring out the worst in people. But stop for a moment and think what anonymity in a virtual world really means: virtual worlds detach people from their bodies. No physical qualities have any influence on who you are in a virtual world: no ethnics, no accent, no gender, no age, neither muscles nor scars nor afflictions nor beauty, neither wealth nor poverty. In a virtual world, people are free from their physical identities. Those who consciously realize this are free to be who they want to be.

However, all players are still part of a larger community. They have relations to other players. Their individual views associate them with some faction or another. And they probably have some vaguely defined rank within the social order. Society provides individuals with some form of organization, with roles to be filled, and with the concept of reputation among others. This, too, defines identity in a virtual world.

Within the confines of a persistent virtual world with persistent characters, identity can be tied to characters rather than to players. This allows players to experiment with more than one identity simply by creating more than one character. This is an advantage of virtual worlds over the real world: the freedom to explore who you can be, and the opportunity to make a conscious decision of who you want to be.

In contrast, game rules that forcibly make the players visible behind their characters do not offer such opportunity. The characters themselves are devalued, with no identity of their own. Choosing a character to play as is more like choosing a car to drive with. The cars can still convey status and style, but they are mere accessories of the driver.

However, even cars can be subsumed by the human mind as a surrogate for a body. Drivers in traffic accidents, for instance, are much more likely to say "He hit me!" than "His car hit my car!" (this insight courtesy of "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud). Consequently, even virtual worlds that tie identity to players rather than to characters still work nicely. But they cannot, in my humble opinion, realize the full potential of a world where identity, too, is being virtualized.

The idea "Hey, nobody knows who I am; I can get away with anything!" is only the first step. The journey picks up speed with step two: "If Nobody knows who I am, do I know it?".


#2 Basics: Living in a Virtual World

If you think about it, virtual worlds are very odd places for humans to be in. Evolution (or an intelligent designer, if you prefer) has prepared us to fight for our survival, to bend the environment to our needs. But in a virtual world, the players' lives are certainly not at stake, and most virtual worlds do not allow players to freely manipulate the game environment. So what is it that makes virtual worlds still attractive for us?

It turns out that when the bare necessities of life are taken care of, humans still have interest in their environment and in their fellow humans. This is driven by both curiosity and the will to control, to dominate. I will use the original names for the four archetypical motivations that have been observed, as pioneered in the paper "Players who suit MUDs" (and later refined in "Designing Virtual Worlds" by the same author):

a) the Explorers interact with the game world (curiosity for the environment),
b) the Achievers act on the game world (control over the environment),
c) the Socializers interact with others (curiosity for the players), and
d) the Killers act on the others (control over other players).

Please do not take these four names too literally. For example, killer is not a purely negative category. A charismatic leader of an online community, who exercises his or her influence for the benefit of all members, is still in the same abstract category of dominating others. The four player motivations are really independent of any moral judgement. In part, the old names simply reflect the limited game mechanics of the early text based MUDs (Multi User Dungeons, the ancestors of modern graphical MMORPGs).

Individual players should generally not be pigeon-holed into one of the four motivations. For one, every person will exhibit an individual mix of the motivations. Secondly, one and the same player may pursue different motivations in different virtual worlds more or less in parallel. And finally, all players tend to follow some personal development over time. Most start out as fascinated newbies, content to just explore the newly found world. Then they become achievers as they master their character's abilities, and carve out a niche for themselves. Finally they decide that they have beat the game and become socializers.


#1 Basics: Virtual World

I will refer to MMORPGs as "virtual worlds". These are self contained environments that are not made of tangible matter, but that resemble reality in two important ways. Firstly, there are consistent, predictable rules that the virtual world adheres to. And secondly, players can share their experience of being there and doing things (i.e. there is such a thing as an observable objective truth in all events on the virtual world).

In addition to the somewhat vague definition above (which is inspired by Richard A. Bartle's book "Designing Virtual Worlds"), I will further restrict my definition to only include virtual worlds that are persistent (i.e. they exist independently of the players) and where the players visit through an identifiable persistent entity (commonly known as a character, or an avatar).

Note that the above definition does not include a story, or any game mechanic, or any means for the players to interact with each other. Any specific game set in a virtual world will probably have all of these, but they are not really fundamental to the idea of a virtual world. Ultimately, what is or isn't a virtual world is decided by the players: if they have an experience of being in another world, then the designers of that world were successful.

The most important ingredient of any virtual world, though, is not added by the designers. It is the inhabitants, the players, who make virtual worlds such a unique experience unlike any other kind of computer game. Nature created these persons, but they, too, have been observed to be following rules that are pretty much universal for all virtual worlds and all players.


#0 Introduction

Hello! I am Mücke, long time player of World of Warcraft and other virtual worlds. WoW specifically deserves mention, because its makers, Blizzard, were very open about their creation, and very open to criticism, feedback, and suggestions from the player community.

This openness has enabled me to look behind the curtain, to see the scaffolding and props, to notice the green glyphs raining down the dungeon walls of the game world. I was allowed to "level up" from player to armchair game designer, and I am grateful for that opportunity.

So now I am sitting atop my 10000ft tall ivory tower, from where I can see Ghostcrawler and company on deck of his yacht. They are toiling away tirelessly to hold Azeroth together, re-shape and extend it. All to provide more stories, adventures and treasures to us insatiable players.

This blog is intended to not only collect my observations and hypotheses, but also provide other players with material to help them "level up" towards an entirely new view on the games they have known for years.

Welcome to my ivory tower and thank you for your attention!


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