Series Info...#4: The Thing in Itself, Part 2

by Travis S. Casey
March 23, 2001

Last time, I talked about the pitfalls of applying concepts from one type of game to another without careful consideration of the differences between the two types. After that, I went on to talk about specific differences between paper role-playing games and online multiuser roleplaying games.

This time, I'm continuing with a discussion of differences, but with respect to single-player text adventures instead of paper RPGs. This topic is especially important for games like Skotos, which have essentially the same interface as a single-player text adventure. It's easy to get caught up in the fact that they have similar interfaces and forget the differences between the two types of games.

The first major difference should be obvious: single-player text adventures are played by one person at a time, while multi-player online RPGs are played by multiple people who can interact with each other through the medium of the game. While this fact may be obvious, however, not all of its ramifications are.

First off, players can – and will – help each other. This happens both in the game and outside of it. Because of this, you can't rely on any aspect of the game remaining secret once even one player knows of it. (In truth, the same applies to any game, but in a mud-style setup, players are brought into regular contact with each other, which encourages and speeds the process.) You can find web pages in which people lay out the mechanics of EverQuest and Ultima Online that they have reverse-engineered in startling detail. Even when passwords and formulas are made to vary from one player to another, dedicated players will create multiple accounts and/or band together to figure out the pattern.

Correspondingly, players can and will compete with each other. This competition is good in many ways – it's another form of player interaction and it can be entertaining both for participants and for other players, for example – but it can also become a problem. Some players may get too caught up in the competition and seek ways to damage other competitors instead of simply trying to improve their own position. Others may place themselves in competition with people who have no desire to compete with other players. These sorts of things can easily result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings. This in turn can result in increased frustration for some users, and even cause some to simply abandon the game.

Another aspect of competition is that it drives players to do what no other players have done before, so they can be first. This means that new areas, classes, races, etc. will tend to quickly be seized on and explored by players. Further, many competitors will seek any advantage that can be gained, without regard for whether it seems to be fair or intended by the designers – thus, competition drives players even harder to exploit bugs for their own gain.

Please note that I'm not saying these are inherently bad things – I'm saying they can become problems. In order to keep them from becoming problems, designers have to think about these things beforehand and consider how to build systems that can stand up to them, or even make use of them in positive ways.

A second major difference is that single-player text adventures are not generally role-playing games. In an RPG (and by this, I mean both paper and computer RPGs, unless I say otherwise), a player creates a character and is usually encouraged to identify strongly with that character. Characters in RPGs are generally given a set of statistics that define what that character is capable of, independent of the player's abilities. A character in a text adventure, however, is usually little more than a game piece for the player.

If something bad happens to a character in a text adventure, the player at worst simply has to start the game over (even that may not be true, since most such games have some form of game saving). Players don't become emotionally attached to their characters in text adventures, so a character's death is nothing more than a setback. In an RPG, however, character identification is encouraged, and players may have very strong reactions to the deaths of characters. (Of course, this varies for different players and for different games – some focus more on the role-playing aspects of the game than others.)

Another place this difference shows up is in the types of challenges faced. Text adventures generally focus on puzzle-solving and exploration of the environment. This, in turn, makes text adventures largely dependent on player skill, since it is the player who has to solve the puzzles. RPGs, on the other hand, often have the skills and abilities of the character being played make a major difference. A skilled player given a new character will have an advantage over another player with the same character, but may still be very weak relative to players with stronger characters.

A third difference between text adventures and online multiplayer games is scope. Now here, I'm going to have to generalize even more than in other places, so please bear with me – I realize that there are big text adventures, and small online games, but those are not typical of their types.

Text adventures tend to have much, much smaller "worlds" than online multiplayer RPGs. A small text adventure may be limited in scope to a single building and its immediate surroundings (e.g., the classic "Miser's Mansion"). An online multiplayer RPG, however, will usually cover a much broader area, such as a good chunk of a continent. Because of this, text adventures almost always contain only a single adventure. There may be replay value, but it comes not from doing something truly different, but from exploring the effects of different choices on the adventure.

An online multiplayer RPG, on the other hand, will generally have many different possible adventures, several of which can be proceeding simultaneously. Any single adventure in an online multiplayer RPG may not have much replay value, but the game as a whole has a great deal of replay value.

A smaller scope also means that channeling of the player becomes almost a requirement for text adventures. Players in a text adventure will blithely accept that they cannot wander away from the area where the adventure takes place, or that they can't go down to the hardware store and buy a crowbar to open the locked door. In an online multiplayer game, however, the broader world means that players will wander in and out of areas set up for specific adventures, will expect to be able to use equipment they get elsewhere in a reasonable fashion within the adventure, and otherwise chafe at any perceived artificial limits on their character's behavior.

Differences and Skotos

Here at Skotos, it's obvious that the designers who are laying the groundwork have thought about some of the differences presented in this column and the previous one. For example, the StoryPlayer - StoryTeller - StoryBuilder split shows a recognition of the fact that in a game with dozens or hundreds of players, there's no way for a single gamemaster to develop adventures for all the players and guide them through them. By distributing the ability to do these things to the players, however, it's possible to take advantage of what could otherwise be a problem.

Skotos also intends to have different "sizes" of games – Stages, Theatres, and Worlds. A Stage is about the same size as a traditional small text adventure, and, also like a text adventure, is intended to only be used for a limited amount of time. Designing a Stage, then, will be much more like designing a single-player text adventure than designing any of the larger games will be. In column #25 of Trials, Triumphs, and Trivialities, Shannon Appelcline notes that Worlds will probably be based more on competition than on socialization. I'd add that a Stage might often be based on puzzle solving (e.g., a murder mystery), where a World might have some puzzles to be solved, but can't really be based on puzzles – in a World, once the puzzles had been solved a few times, people would start trading information on them quickly.

The technical articles show an awareness of the fact that a computer-based multiplayer game can't rely as much on a human GM, but can have automated mechanics of a much higher level of complexity than most players would tolerate in a paper RPG – see, for example, the articles on the proximity system and on how objects fit into each other. The article Would a Dining Room By Any Other Name Still Be a Bedroom shows an awareness of how players in a multiplayer online game are less likely to accept artificial restrictions on what their characters can and can't do than players in a text adventure.

Don't think, though, that because the folks at Skotos have thought about these problems, that StoryBuilders and StoryTellers don't need to; Skotos is setting up the tools to use, but it will be up to us to use them wisely, in a way that will build good games.