Series Info...#25: Telling Stories, Classifying Worlds

by Shannon Appelcline

March 15, 2001 – We're standing at a crux here at Skotos Tech... between Castle Marrach and our next game. If you haven't already, you should go read The Future of Castle Marrach, a forum topic which describes where we're going with Castle Marrach in the future. We're closing off some (though not all) of the future development on Marrach, but every ending is also a beginning...

The Galactic Emperor Lives!

It's been a long time since we first announced Galactic Emperor: Succession, originally planned for launch back in November of 2000. Due to the spectre of unbounded growth, it's gotten delayed a few times – put off so that we could make it a bigger, better game.

But, as I write these words, the first Alpha test of Galactic Emperor: Succession has begun. You've probably noticed a name change. It's called Galactic Emperor: Succession now, and that's because we expect it to be the first in a series of loosely related science-fiction games, the second of which should be Galactic Emperor: Diaspora, for release two months after Succession goes beta.

We're hoping to release Galactic Emperor to at least some of the public on April 2. As you'll see then – indeed as you'll get a hint of now if you take a detour to the Galactic Emperor page – Galactic Emperor: Succession is a very different game from our familiar Castle Marrach. And, that's been giving me headaches for the last weeks, as I've tried to revise the "Our Games" page – because I need to explain how our games differ so that the right players get to the right places.

When trying to decide what to write about this week, I realized the question of game classification was actually a general issue for all StoryBuilders. The classifications that I'm trying to determine (in retrospect) reflect the decisions that StoryBuilders have to make (in advance) when they're designing their games. So, this week I'd like to discuss the different types of gameplay that exist, touching on some ground that I've covered before and also heading off onto some trails blazed by other people who have written about online games.

Size Concerns

The first way to measure a game is by how big it is. You've seen our three classifications all over our web site: Stages, Theatres, and Worlds.

Stage () – A small game setting, perhaps 10-100 rooms in size, where a limited group of people play for a limited time. A Stage might last for a day, a week, or until some set event occurs, but there's always some definite ending in mind.

Theatre () – A moderately small setting, perhaps 100-500 rooms in size, intended to be played for an unlimited amount of time. Theatres tend to have more limited game systems, and thus are usually social. However, it's really the constraint in size which defines them.

World () – A setting that is totally unbounded in size and in time. It tends to have larger, more complex game systems, and thus is less often based on straight socialization and more often on competition.

So the first question you need to ask as a StoryBuilder is: how big will your game be?

Social Questions

Back in "It's the End of the World as We Know It" I described two social criteria which detail how we look at Skotos games. They were the questions of Cooperation versus Competition and Social versus Solitary play. I remain convinced that these are excellent ways to differentiate different types of gameplay.

Cooperation v. Competition – Are players primarily working together or against each other? When they congregate is it to create solutions to problems that the system has defined or is to create brand new problems of their own?

Social v. Solitary – Are players forced to come together in order to play the game, or could each player hide out on his own if he wanted to, playing against the computer?


These two categories, cooperation and socialization, along with the question of size, pretty much laid out my theory of games back in late December. However, they're not all the potential types of games. They're not even all the potential types of games that you can create with the Skotos StoryBuilder server.

Player Types

Richard Bartle, the father of multiplayer text games, wrote the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) over twenty years ago. He's been thinking about this stuff for a long time. In his 1996 article, "Players Who Suit MUDs", Bartle laid out a theory of game design that's strikingly similar to the one I outlined above. It's a two-axis system, and his two axes are very good matches for the two I describe above.

Here's how they match up:

Cooperation – Bartle asks the question: how do players interact with each other? On one extreme, he says, people truly interact, or act with each other. In other words, they cooperate. On the other extreme, people act upon each other. In other words, they compete. Same ideas; different words.

Socialization – On the other axis, Bartle asks the question: what interests people in the game? Some people, he says, are interested in interacting with other people. This matches my category of being social. Other people, he says, are interested in interacting with the world. This matches my category of solitary players.

To more clearly outline Bartle's ideas of gameplay, we can lay out a new chart, with the words changed." (1)


The interesting thing about Bartle's theory of online games isn't really in the axes, which rehash what I laid out three months ago. What is interesting are the conclusions that Bartle draws. He states that the two axes divide the types of gameplay into four different quadrants; by seeing which of the four quadrants a game falls into, you can determine what type of players the game will attract (and also what systems you should expand to make the game a success). He lists four types of players: achievers, explorers, killers, and socializers.

I don't like all of the names, particularly not the highly loaded word "Killers". But, the general classifications of gameplay are very valid:

Achievers – Players who are interest in the raw success of their characters. They want to gain the most important roles, the highest levels, and the greatest skills. They want to be the best at what they do.

Explorers – Players who want to figure out everything they can about a game world. They figure out every command, talk to every NPC, and explore every nook and cranny. They want to know everything there is to know.

Killers – Players who want to kill (or otherwise defeat) other players. They want to be the victors in the competitive aspects of the game. They want to defeat other human beings.

Socializers – Players who want to interact with other players in equal, fun, social ways. They want to learn the secrets, strengths, foibles, and follies of their fellow players. They want to learn about other characters, and believe they are the most compelling part of games.

I'm not convinced that these four types of players are perfect matches for the four quadrants of the grid – though they did match exactly with my own expectations for the Skotos games. However the theory does come up slightly short because there are many games which mix up these various styles of gameplay.

So, don't get stuck with where your game fits in the grid I've outlined above. But do ask yourself: what type of player are you appealing to?

Genres & Styles

Finally, there are some very broad questions. They ask for the big outline of your game. These questions can be divided into two queries: genre and style.

Genre – In what genre is the game set? Science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, mystery, or romance? Also, it's important to determine if the gameplay elements that you've already determined fit well into your genre. A horror game for "killers" is probably OK, but a romance game which highlights... solitary play... is likely to be a failure.

Style – By this I broadly mean: what type of game are you writing? Most games built at Skotos will probably be roleplaying games, but there also could be games with important strategic elements (more closely matching the typical board game). If you really wanted, you could create a trivia game, a puzzle game, or a word game with the Skotos engine... or even try and mix these styles of gameplay with the more common roleplaying elements. (I actually called this a third axis in my previous article, concentrating on the roleplaying/strategy division, but the possibilities are really much wider.)

Game Physics

When I sit down and work through a new "Our Games" page, trying to offer players classifications of our games, I expect to use what I've described above. However, I've seen a few people offer other classifications of online games. The most interesting categorizations are based on the "physics" of the virtual world. I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss these before closing the book on styles of gameplay.

In "A Classification of MUDs" Martin Keegan offers two classifications for online games: resetting and building. In section 6 of an aborted book on MUDs, Raph offers these same categories, but in a more general way, calling them persistence and user modifiability.

Persistence – This addresses the question of whether characters have permanent effects on a game – or whether, instead, a game world gets reset every once in a while, with all player effects being discarded. If a monster gets reborn under the oak tree every 1-6 hours no matter what, that's a non-persistent game. If there is only one Sword of the Wind God in the whole world, and it stays in a player's hands once he retrieves it, unless taken away, that's a very persistent game.

User Modifiability – How much can the users change the basic gameworld that they find themselves thrust into? Do they get their own rooms/houses/castles that they can decorate as they see fit? Can they create new items that become a part of the wider world? Can they create entirely new areas with a game?


A List of Questions

So, you're getting ready to design your own game and are trying to figure out just what type of game it is. The following questions outline the various classifications that I've described in this article and can be very useful to help channel your ideas.

  1. How big is the game? Stage, Theatre, or World?
  2. Is the game competitive or cooperative?
  3. Is the game social or solitary?
  4. What type of players will the game appeal to? Achievers, explorers, killers, or socializers?
  5. What genre is the game set in?
  6. What style of play does the game support? Roleplaying, strategy, or something else?
  7. Is the game persistent?
  8. Can players modify the world?

A Few Examples

Let me close off by offering a classification of the first three Skotos games.

Castle Marrach – Our first game is about socialization in a constrained environment.
(Grand Theatre)
(Entirely Cooperative)
(Entirely Social)
Prime Player Type: Socializers
Genre: Fantasy
Style: Roleplaying
(No Resets)
User Modifiability:
(Personal Rooms & Object Creation)

Galactic Emperor: Succession – Our second game is a hybrid graphics/text game which encourages both personal manipulations and strategic decisions. Some of the following classifications are guesses, as the game is still being alpha tested.
(Entirely Competitive)
(Very Social)
Prime Player Type: Killers
Genre: Science Fiction
Style: Roleplaying/Strategy Hybrid
(Weekly Reset)
User Modifiability:
(Little Modification)

The Bane – Our third game, scheduled for publication in late 2001, promises to be a highly competitive game with a fair amount of independent gameplay. A lot of the below categorization is guesswork, since the game is in a very early stage.
(Very Competitive)
(Some Independent Play)
(Mostly Roleplaying)
Prime Player Type: Achievers
Genre: Fantasy
Style: Roleplaying
(Limited Resets)
User Modifiability:
(Object & Room Creation)

  1. 8/15/01. In actuality, Richard Bartle more correctly was layout of a taxonomy of players, not games, but see TT&T #42, Apples & Orangeclines, for additional discussion of that.