|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #126:
Foiling the Information Age, Part Three
July 10, 2003 - Two weeks ago, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #124, Foiling the Information Age, Part One I posed a question: How do you prevent players from using both in-band and out-of-band communication to reveal the secrets of your online game? Last week, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #125, Foiling the Information Age, Part Two, I offered some brute force answers to the problem: randomizing secrets and manipulating communication channels.
If you'd like to go review the material to date, feel free; I'll wait.
This week I'd like to conclude this mini-series by offering up some solutions that I consider more elegant. In many ways it goes back to one of my core philosophies, discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #38, The Game is What the Game Is. The idea in that article was quite simple: you design game systems to elicit certain types of behavior, rather than trying to artificially bend, spindle, mutilate and otherwise limit "undesirable" behaviors.
I think the use here will be obvious. Last week I bent, spindled and mutilated and some of those answers might be what are required. This week I'm going to elicit instead.
So, how do you encourage players not to spread information? The real simple answer is that you make it personally undesirable for them to do so.
Say, for example, that you have a secret door in your ancient, ancestral castle. In a traditional adventure-game-based design this secret would have a one-time value. Perhaps the value would be as simple as your getting to explore a new section of the castle, or perhaps it would be a very important ingredient in your completion of a long-running quest. In any case, however, once you've discovered the secret, shortly thereafter its value is decreased.
Now imagine instead a secret that has a continuing value. Say that your character earns a certain amount of prestige from knowing The Secret of the Door. Or, perhaps there's a cool monster or a decent treasure that regularly respawns behind the secret door.
You're just a step away from making it undesirable to spread information. You only need one more ingredient: that continuing value needs to decrease if more people know the secret. Integrating this with my idea of spawning monsters or treasures is fairly obvious. If I alone know the secret then I alone get to kill the critter and take the loot when it respawns. Integrating with my idea of prestige is perhaps more subtle. The Secret of the Door may be worth, say, 1000 prestige in your game, but that's divided by the number of people who know the secret. If I, the first discoverer share my secret, I half my prestige, and if I do so again I'm down to a third of what my original discovery earned me.
Ouch. And a really simple way to discourage people from spreading secrets.
Quigg and mikedsc both got a bit ahead of me in discussing this particular idea in the forums. (And hoorah to them for doing so.) Quigg offers an interesting variant where if a secret starts being overused it could even become dangerous. His full example is just too good to not quote: "Another idea would be to include a curve of diminishing returns during each cycle between resets. For instance, a goose that lays a golden egg when given a magic command might soon begin laying some worthless stones, or even something dangerous like exploding eggs as the same command is used again and again. Finally the goose is cooked, and a new hatchling is born, who has, of course a new magic command that must be discovered." As you can see, this also incorporates the idea I laid out last week of randomizing secrets over time.
To a certain extent my previous solution involves making information more valuable. Rather than a secret just providing the solution to a problem it becomes a continuing resource, and thus players are encouraged to hold it closer to the chest as a result.
There is an opposite answer, which is to devalue the value of knowledge-based information.
To explain what I mean here, let's take another look at Quigg's exemplar golden goose. Scouring the passages of Castle Mullet I come upon the great and fabled golden goose, but despite typing through the dictionary, I'm unable to get it to lay its nominal eggs. Thus, frustrated and annoyed, I finally decide to retreat to www.spoil-castle-mullet.com. Here I discover that the magic word is "plugh". Unimpressed by the originality of the Mullet designers I log back in and key in the words, "tell goose 'plugh'". Nothing happens.
What we've done here is separated out in-character knowledge from out-of-character knowledge (or as AdamDray put it in the forums because folks got ahead of me on this topic too we've separated player knowledge and character knowledge). The game ignores my saying "plugh" because it knows that I have not yet gotten that secret information from in-character knowledge. Later in the game, when I'm scouring the slopes of the volcano under Captain Mullet I'll see the word "plugh" written in mile-high fierty letters, and only then will my saying "plugh" to the goose having any result.
A few points here on this topic:
First, what we've done here is we've made the acquisition of knowledge valuable rather than the knowledge itself. Thus, no matter how many postings of secrets there are on the net, players will only see results if they do the right things in game to discover the secret.
Second, this doesn't necessarily solve the core problem because spoiler sites will soon start offering walk-throughs that will earn you the secret, rather than just stating the secret itself. Me, I still think this is still a win because it makes the gameworld more self-consistent.
Third, you need to deal with what happens when characters transmit the information in-game, which should theoretically be an acceptable way to learn a secret. AdamDray, again over in the forums, suggests specific commands that you could use to transmit the information ("e.g. 'teach Hergin goose secret'"). Alternatively, a really smart parser might take care of this for you (if a player says the word 'plugh', everyone in the room now knows the current goose secret), but this would likely become unmanageable for a large number of secrets. Finally, you could just decide that it's impossible to transmit secrets in-game. You could make up any number of explanations for this in-game, or just tell your players to accept this as part of how the game works.
The End of Information
I hope you won't think I'm just punting the problem when I offer my last solution to the revelation of information problem: don't build secret information into your game. The method to do this is very simple. Publish maps of your game, show where the secret doors are, don't base your gameplay upon clues or other puzzles.
The reasoning might be a little more specious.
As I've said in the past of this column, I believe it's very important to always build upon the strengths of the particular creative medium that you're interacting with. Television shows should be visual, books should provide depth, and movies should be spectacular on a big screen. The same is true for online computer games.
I think the first article in this little mini-series made it pretty clear that keeping secrets is very much a weakness of the online medium. So, why are you trying to do that anyway? The Internet has many more strengths that you can take advantage of. I've written about some of them in the past, including individualized output (TT&T #34), people (TT&T #43), and continuity (TT&T #69).
So really, my best answer is, go take advantage of those things rather than fighting a losing battle.
Yes, there's a line here. We've managed to keep some secrets in Castle Marrach; and you do get generally ostracized if you start asking about the secret thief trainer in The Eternal City. Some secrets you might manage to keep if you dramatically curtail who knows them and/or really build a culture around keeping those secrets. And, this can add a lot to the game. But, you need to be aware that in this Age of Information you're walking a tightrope. Make your decision carefully.
I know, I know, sometimes having secrets is just cool, and you really want to do it. I think that some of the methods I described in this week's article are the best ideas for keeping that sort of information truly secret giving the information a real value that's decreased when it's distributed and tokenizing character information so that it can be kept separate from player information. If you're going to have secrets in your game, I highly suggest thinking about some of these possibilities.
And that's it for me today. I'll see you in 7.