Series Info...Biting The Hand #33:

Much Water Under the Bridge, Much Beer Over the Dam...

by Jessica Mulligan
September 3, 2002

It has been a heck of a year. We all know what happened on September 11, 2001; no need to rehash those events here.

When I look at all that has – and has not – happened in the world of online and persistent world gaming in the last year, I feel the overriding need to say something. That something is:

Read Raph Koster’s The Case For Art, Dammit!

One of the consequences of 9/11 was that Raph Koster’s guest column, The Case For Art, which was published on that date, may not have been as widely read as it should have been. Or maybe I’m blaming the events of 9/11 unjustly, because I believe anyone involved in the design, development or post-launch management of a persistent world in any capacity, be it subscription-based or free, should read Raph’s piece. As it is impossible to convince 100% of any population to do what they oughta, it seems unlikely that everyone who should read it actually has read it. It stands alone as the tract on both the need for art and its exploration in these unique vehicles; it is the perfect counterpoint to my rant on entertainment in games and shows how both entertainment and art can – and should – live together in the same space.

If you read nothing else of Biting the Hand this time around, click on the link and go read that piece. Even if you read it last year and several times hence, read it again. If you haven’t read it, do so or face strange and terrible punishments, the likes of which are even now forming in the mired cesspool that is my tortured brain. Don’t make me come over there, pal; I’m 6’4” tall, weigh 200 pounds and can scare the crap out of bear-wrasslin’ lumberjacks with a glance. And that’s before I put on the 3” stiletto heels. You have been warned.

Get Over Yourself, Already

Since that piece was first published, Raph, Rich Lawrence of Sony Online, Jack Song of NCsoft and I served on Gordon Walton’s panel concerning the development of next-generation persistent worlds at the March 2002 Game Designer’s Conference. We had an interesting mini-debate on whether persistent worlds have too many moving parts to encourage more players to partake of them. Some interesting thoughts came out of that one and I’ve been meaning to dedicate a column to the subject; it keeps scratching at my psyche, demanding attention, so I’ll probably get around to it pretty quickly.

At the risk of transforming this column into a meeting of the Raph Koster Fan Club (which my fragile ego would never allow): The highlight of that hour were the responses of Gordon and Raph to someone who described himself as a Hollywood story writer wanting to break into gaming and, specifically, online gaming. He was concerned about the unwashed masses diluting the pure, precious bodily fluids of his masterly crafted storyline and wanted to know how to make it all work out correctly, i.e. how to make sure the players played his storyline in such a way as to insure his brilliance was not polluted. OK, he wasn’t quite that arrogant, but he was close.

I’ve been listening to the tape of that panel again recently and want to share this transcription of the answer:

Question from the audience: How do you make it so that if other people want to start playing in that (story), either it works out or it’s a good story (for everyone), what do you do?

Gordon: I want to paraphrase this, let me paraphrase this: What are we going to do when these ‘unwashed’ people actually start putting stuff in front of us and, you know, spoil our beautifully crafted world to hell? So that’s one paraphrase. The other is: How are we going to get over the 99% of everything that’s crap. Right? So it’s a real problem, if 99% of everything is crap and most people have the desire to be creative, but most of them don't have the actual skill to be creative. I think it is a real challenge. Why don’t we see more of it today? That's probably a big part of it.

Raph is dying to say something. This is probably the last question, so start filling out your little forms and, you know, mark them ‘1’ for Jessica (Note: ‘1’ was the low end of the scale on the forms the GDC asked attendees to fill out for each of the sessions . Gordon isn’t called ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Tormentor’ for nothing, <grin>). (Laughter)

Jessica: Uh, gee, how do you say it? Oh, yeah: [deleted] you. (Laughter)

Raph: Shame on you, now that’s on the tape.

Jessica: Yeah, like they’ve never heard that word here.

Raph: Let me say, sir, that I really sympathize. I'm an artsy type, as Jessica is fond of reminding me and, you know, I have an MFA (note: Master of Fine Arts degree). I’ve spent much of my life training to write crafted experiences. There's an intense amount of learning, craft and skill that goes there, and I hate to say this to say this to all the film directors, writers, poets, painters and everyone else out there in the world:

Get over yourselves; the rest of the world is coming.

Okay? People value self-expression. Is ‘story’ going to go away? No. Is careful crafting going to go away? No. Are the professionals engaged in that going to go away? No. Well, except that IP – the concept of intellectual property – may, but that’s a whole other side discussion. The thing is that people want to express themselves and they don't really care that 99% of everything is crap, because they are positive that the 1% they made isn't. Okay? And fundamentally, they get ecstatic as soon as five people see it, right?

So we can move to a meta-level of the crafting experience. We can try to take a step up and say, “We can do what Lego did,” which is give them the building blocks, so that they fundamentally can't make something so screwed up that everyone ends up leaving. And that's a different level of authorship than what we are used to, but it's a really exciting area of authorship.

It's all them, guys, and, fundamentally, ‘authorship’ is about us. And it's the wrong medium for it. It's not what the medium is for.

Gordon and Raph put into cogent phrasing something many of us in the industry know and have been trying to tell Hollywood since 1994, when studios such as Time-Warner, Turner, MCA-Universal, MGM, Dreamworks SKG and the rest of their ilk decided it was time for them thar PRO-fessional story-tellers to come in and show us poor benighted geeks how to do this computer game stuff the right way. They were out in force at the CGDC that year, hiring anyone who would stand still in the corridors long enough to be offered a salary 25% to 50% above the then-prevailing standards. That’s not an exaggeration; after participating in a roundtable, I was offered a 30% raise above my then-current salary at Interplay while riding down an escalator. Several of my friends were offered even more. It was a feeding frenzy.

Naturally, since we game developers didn’t really know how to make a real game, studio empire-builders with no experience in the PC/video game industry were in charge. Oops. After several years and several tens of millions of dollars thrown to the winds, most studio game development shops closed down altogether, sold their development studios to existing computer and video publishers or fired their inhouse teams and started contracting with experienced development houses. The reason for that failure was, ultimately, that Hollywood understands television and movies quite well, but hasn’t the first clue about what makes a good game – and the reverse is true, too; you have only to watch the movies Street Fighter and Wing Commander to understand that. What Hollywood thought were games were, for the most part, actually interactive movies with a linear, set storyline, which to game players have the same entertainment value as repeatedly dunking one’s head in a bucket of warm spit.

The take-away here should be A) games aren’t TV or movies, B) what makes you a success in one market doesn’t automatically guarantee success in another, and C) games are shared participatory and creative experiences, not shared observational entertainment. Until Hollywood truly understands point C), they’ll never understand how to capitalize on interactive entertainment and will continue to be merely companies from which game professionals occasionally license properties.

That’s why I’m not particularly interested in having the average Hollywood scriptwriter or director involved in any persistent world I’m working on; the great majority of them just don’t get it. They think it’s all about their precious story. They are, of course, wrong.

“You talkin’ to me?”

Another consequence of 9/11 has been for many of us to stop and reexamine what our lives are all about; there is nothing like having war declared on your country by extremists willing to kill themselves to get at you, to make you rethink things a bit. For me, personally, this has resulted in a decision to take some extended time off to relax and de-stress before digging into what looks to be a very busy winter.

In between relaxing in the sun and stuffing my face with great Florida Keys seafood these last two weeks, I’ve been spending more time in the Skotos forums, reading what people have been saying about the column and making some long overdue responses to some of the comments. As a columnist, I’m very lucky; many of the people who write in the forums are smart as hell, industry insiders or both. I encourage you to check them out and, if the urge bites you, to participate. I promise to feather my own bed by remaining active there.

And I’ll have more time to do so, for all that there will still be much to do: Besides writing Biting the Hand every two weeks, there is the post-production work to be completed on Developing Online Games: An Insider’s Guide, the book I’m co-authoring with Bridgette Patrovsky for Prentice Hall and scheduled for publication this winter. It looks like the publisher is going to pick up the option for a second book, so that work will need to be completed before the spring thaw. Things also continue to be busy at The Themis Group, where I remain on the Board of Directors. And Intelligent Games, for whom I serve on the Board of Advisors, is running internal Alpha tests on their intriguing turn-based online game Imperial Wars and preparing for late Alpha and early public Beta tests; I’m having a ripping good time with it, so far. On top of all that, I’m determined to spend more time with my family, whom I have neglected quite badly the past ten years in the pursuit of my passion of online games. Since they live all over the country, that means repeatedly subjecting myself to the black comedy that our airport security measures have become. I must be sure that my carry-on baggage doesn’t contain the weapon of choice for terrorists around the world, those deadly Mark IV Clippers, Nail (Issue: one each) or that bioweapon-grade breast milk I’ve been hearing about. Yes, it is going to be quite a busy winter of writing, playing, consulting and traveling.

I can hardly wait.

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