Series Info...#17: Why Yes I Am God!

by Shannon Appelcline

January 18, 2001 – "Why Yes I Am God." At GenCon '00 that was our catch phrase. But, it was more than just an irreverent, slightly blasphemous, definitely eye-catching slogan. It was a statement of purpose for Skotos Tech, a promise for the future.

Thus far you've just seen Castle Marrach. It's a wonderful game and the community that's begun to gel around it continues to amaze us. We haven't yet reached the 1000 regular players that we've tentatively set as the success level for any of our games, but the enthusiasm, excitement, and enjoyment centered around Castle Marrach make it clear that the game is a success. That's terrific, but...

Baby, you haven't seen nothin' yet...

More Games

Skotos isn't about creating one game, no matter how terrifically wonderful that one game may be. Skotos is about creating a whole community of games, tons and tons of them, more games than you can shake a slightly suggestive jester's stick at. In 2000 you saw the birth of our first game and our Skotos game system. In 2001 you're going to see the second and the third and more... and you're going to see the birth of the actual Skotos community.

We've got plans for two games of our own this year: Galactic Emperor, which is edging toward reality even as I write; and our third as-of-yet-unnamed game, which should see electronic distribution late this year. Castle Marrach presented the next-generation gameplay elements of traditional MUSHes. This year we're going to be expanding upon LARPs and MUDs and by the time we're done we'll have broadly outlined the huge spectrum of possibilities in the Skotos StoryBuilder Story. But that's still not the whole story...

More Builders

As I said, Skotos is about creating a whole community of games, and even if we hired a gazillion designers and set them to work, we wouldn't be able to see our vision made reality. That's because we don't just want to offer the games that we can envision. We also want to offer the games that can only be envisioned by the unique imaginations of our players.

And that's where StoryBuilders come in.

Theoretically, I'm writing this column for StoryBuilders. I'm trying to share some of the wisdom that we've learned along the way so that future StoryBuilders don't have to make the same mistakes that we have. But, right now, we don't really have StoryBuilders. What became of them, of the neat ideas discussed over on the StoryBuilder home page? Quite simply: we're getting there.

It continues to be our intention to make StoryBuilding tools available to all Skotos members who want them. Last year we choose the Skotos... er... Several, a group of designers who will be writing the first external Skotos games. I hope you're already reading the articles on Arcana, Horizon Station, and Qigung, detailing the evolution of those games.

It had originally been our intention to start accepting more proposals on January 1, for the next external game designers. As with a few other things, we've decided to delay a little bit.

Our current plan is to start accepting new proposals for external Skotos games on April 1, the same day we go pay-for-play. We'll be accepting them continuously from that point on, hopefully choosing a new game every month or two.

We won't be offering more advances at this point, like we did for the Skotos Several, but we will be providing early access to the game developer tools as well as documentation and help getting things working. And there will be royalties down the line for successful games.

More Bywords

We are expecting, and hoping, that some people who submitted proposals for the Skotos Seven will return... either with new proposals or with old proposals revamped, so much of what I'd like to do in this column this week is talk about the things that we're looking for in proposals. I hope even our existing game designers will take note, because I think these things are important to all game designers.

And it all starts with two bywords: containability and sustainability, which aren't paired together just because they sound catchy, but rather because they're two of the most important things to think about in online game design.

Containability addresses the question of how you limit the size of your game. Quite simply, you can't build forever. You have to constrain your game, to set boundaries, so that you can map out a clearly defined place to create.

  • Castle Marrach is a clearly constrained environment. Players are inside a castle, and the drawbridge has been up forever, so no one can get out. For launch day we constrained things even more, by locking a door to prevent access to the Inner Bailey. The Outer Bailey provided a nice, discrete unit that was contained... without artificially doing so. People simply can't get out.

  • Galactic Emperor is set entirely on a space station. Players could leave, but the whole reason for their coming to the space station is to interact with the other players. Outside of the station, there's no player interaction, and thus no need to portray it in our text environment.

  • Lovecraft Country, as we currently envision it, is set in Arkham. Like the space station of Galactic Emperor, it's a discrete, small unit. Again, people will be able to leave, and we envision that there may be some webcentric things they can do outside of Arkham, like buy supplies or do research, but the game isn't out there, and so we don't bother portraying it textually (and I should note we're a long way away from an actual game design for Lovecraft Country, but this is my vision today).

  • Qigung had some problems with constraint, and Jeff Crook realized it pretty quickly. In "A Chill Wind Blows" Jeff described how he'd decided to constrain Qigung to a single city. (And gave a good reason for doing so.)

  • Horizon Station was already nicely constrained... to a space station and the asteroid belt beyond, but Sam Witt decided even that was too big, so in "Break Somethin'", he described how he was further constraining the game, limiting it to a smaller station than he'd originally planned.

That's containment. You can expand your game from its base after it's gone live, but when submitting a proposal, you need to think about how your first release will be limited.

Sustainability is sort of the flip side of containability. With containability you're trying to figure out how in the world you're possibly going to find the time to build a game to the point where people can play in it. With sustainability you're trying to figure out how in the world you're possibly going to find the time to keep running a game.

The first time around we received a few proposals that talked about how StoryBuilders were planning to create the background for a world then occasionally would introduce plots and run adventures in it. To a certain extent that is what we're doing with Castle Marrach, but we also know that it takes a high level of commitment. For the first couple of weeks after Marrach's release we were supporting the castle with maybe 5 FTE's. That number's slowly come down as the community of the Castle has developed... to perhaps 3 in December and 2 in January. We're expecting to continue to support the castle with 1 staff member after the StoryTeller program is online and players are really empowered to tell their own stories.

We can't imagine independent developers will have that type of time, so we're looking for well-thought out sustainability. What will players do every day in the game? How will they have fun without constant StoryTelling? What continuing tasks will they be able to undertake that don't take direct StoryBuilder or StoryTeller intervention? Will they research information, kill monsters, explore labyrinths, trade goods, craft items, or search for treasures? (I should note, that though we punted on this a little on Castle Marrach, we're designing Galactic Emperor to be very sustainable. Players intrigue and politick and fight and war... and almost no sustained StoryTeller input is needed.)

And, in conjunction with that, we're also looking for how StoryBuilders plan to support their games, how much of an idea they have of what they're getting into for the long term.

More Lessons Learned

If I was going to phrase my notes about containability and sustainability into my normal lessons learned I'd suggest the following: Know how to contain your games and Know how to sustain your games. If you've solved these problems, and that's obvious in your proposal, you'll be a long ways toward having your game accepted for early StoryBuilding status.

I can also offer a few other lessons learned, important for all Skotos StoryBuilders:

Make your game unique. Clearly every game, and every idea, is unique, but some are more unique than others. We picked some things that really popped out at us for the Skotos Seven including: an oriental fantasy centering around the end of the world (Qigung), a historical game which brushes upon the greats of the Renaissance (Florence), and a game of secret agents, gangsters, and lost worlds (Pulp).

The old tropes might be fun, but the most successful games will really stand out. Design something new and interesting, something that really stands out from the pack, and you'll get our attention.

Make your game a story. In my opinion, at least, the best games tell stories. I'm pretty sure this is one of the aspects that made Castle Marrach a success. I can already clearly see the story in Horizon Station (of people trying to rebuild a station crumbling before them) and in Qigung (of people trying to rebuild a world lost).

Think about the people and plots that will form the background of your story; see if there's a way for character actions to influence the story as it goes on. See if there might be mini-climaxes precipitated by player action.

A game is a fine thing, but if it can be a story too, and players can really influence it... that's where the promise of this medium can truly be seen (but there's a clash with sustainability; how do you let players influence things going forward without having to constantly do new work? It's a tricky question, and one that we were just discussing for our third game this week. We do have part of an answer – semi-automated creative processes – and I'd love to address that in a future column.)

Make sure you know how text games work. Text games, be they MUDs, MUSHes, MUCKs, interactive fiction, or Skotos' own games have their own unique styles. They're not the same thing as RPGs (though Castle Marrach definitely shares elements) and they're not the same thing as LARPs (though Galactic Emperor will definitely share elements).

So, the last piece of advice that I can offer you is: know your stuff. Once you've played a few text games – both social games like Castle Marrach and competitive games like the many MUDs available out there – you'll begin to better understand how they work and what's possible with them. If you're submitting proposals, definitely make sure you've spent at least a few days getting to know the field.

More Information

Some of you may have come in a little late, and perhaps not seen our full StoryBuilder pitch, as we offered it back in August 2000, when we were just getting off the ground.

One of our goals at Skotos is to make world design available to everyone... not just programmers. And so we've created an interface that allows just that. By plugging text into forms on web pages, people can make rooms, people, and items. We're still improving it, making it more complex, and simplifying it (which is part of the reason for the delay in the next StoryBuilders), but by the time it's done, we hope to have met our goal.

So, if you've got worlds living in your imagination, hop over to the StoryBuilder page sometime soon, download the proposal form there, and consider sending it our way when April 1 rolls around.

Below our "Why Yes I am God" logo in 2000 we featured a second catchphrase: "Build Worlds. Tell Stories." We're offering games at Skotos Tech, yes, but we're also offering opportunities, and we hope many of you will join us in them, in building worlds and telling stories all your own.