Series Info...#37: Pondering on The Eternal City

by Shannon Appelcline

June 7, 2001 – As you've no doubt seen by now, Skotos now has a new game in its community: The Eternal City. If you haven't already taken a look, go do so.

"Why the new game?" you might well ask. The Eternal City has been one of the top multiplayer prose games out there for a long time. And, they're a really good match for our community. Great roleplaying in a text environment. When we started talking with TEC's publishers, it became an obvious partnership.

And now we get to offer you three games rather than two.

This week I want to kind of meander around a bit while considering The Eternal City. The Eternal City offers a totally new game design, one that is uninfluenced by our own game design paradigms here at Skotos. So, it's very informative to look at what they've clearly done right and also what they've done different, and see what that means in the overall design of their game.

Before I get going, I should say that all of my thoughts and assessments here come as someone playing TEC. I don't have insight into the actual thoughts of the TEC designers.

Now, on to a stream of consciousness consideration of TEC.

Game Types

When you're thinking about any type of multiplayer game, you have to start off with one central question:

What type of game is it?

I'd classify The Eternal City as an "achiever" game – a game that is competitive and allows for solitary game play. Though, to be honest, TEC is one of the least competitive and most social achiever games I've seen. You can wander off and practice your skills or kill monsters – in fact, as I'll get to in a bit, some of these systems are terrific – but it's roleplaying that's really encouraged.

Out-of-character talk is totally banned – not just discussing who got voted off the island on the last survivor, but also actually mentioning the mechanics of the game. And, there are players guilds, regular events, and numerous other things which encourage socialization.

As for the question of competition: yeah, you might want to get better than other characters at skills, and you might even duel with them in gladiatorial combat. But, player killing without reason is a very definite no-no, punishable by the laws of The Eternal City, and in general players don't have to defeat other players in order to excel themselves.

So, I'd say The Eternal City is an achiever game but tending toward the middle of the chart.


Skills & Keeping Players Interested

Once you've figured out the core of an online game, you have to figure out what the actual gameplay is. A few more questions are useful here:

  • What will players be doing on a day-to-day basis?
  • How will they keep doing that for an extended amount of time?

In other words, you need to know what's going to get players interested and what's going to keep them interested.

In The Eternal City, I think it's the skill system that does this. Sure, long term, you'll probably get involved in the events and join some fun guilds and generally become a part of the community. But, as we know from Castle Marrach, getting people to take that first step can be quite tricky. TEC's skill system, on the other hand, will get people doing things in a way that's immediately obvious to new players.

Each brand new character starts with one or two skills. I have one character who's skilled in Pickpocketing and Archery, another who is knowledgeable with Club and Sword, and a third who is an experienced Outdoorsman. Each skill comes with a set of actions, which are sort of subskills. Starting actions in Pickpocketing include Coin Sharpening, Palm, and Quick Grab. Archery only comes with one starting action: Basic Shot.

Players will stay interested on a daily basis because these skills all offer continuous room for improvement. By picking pockets, palming coins, or shooting arrows, my character can gain expertise. The longer he practices, the more "skill points" he gains, and thus the more he can learn about the topic. (And, there are money costs for training too, giving yet another thing for players to do.)

And, there's lots of room for improvement too. There are a hundred levels of advancement for each skill; there tend to be about ten or so actions related to each skill as well, and those can also be improved. Though I only know Basic Shot for my archer, other possible actions include: Steady Aim, Range Assessment, Wind Shot, Rapid Fire, Quick Load, and about a half-dozen more.

And besides all that, each character has a total of five skill slots available.

Multiplying that all together... players could work forever without maxing out their TEC character's skill. In fact on the forums recently players have spent some time talking about how good their characters have gotten after two or three years of work.

So, TEC answers my two questions well:

  • What do characters do on a day-to-day basis? Improve skills. (Though some players will instead say, roleplay).
  • How will they keep doing it on a long-term basis? Through a skill system that is both wide and deep and thus allows for an extremely long period of advancement.

If you're designing an online game, you need to figure out how to answer these questions just as well. Unlike in a single-player computer game, you can't plan on designing enough wonderful new plots and puzzles to keep ahead of your players ...

Monsters, Skills & Keeping Players Together

It's useful to keep looking at TEC's skills for a few minutes more because they're part of the answer to another tricky game design question:

  • How do you get players to work together?

Sam Witt offered an answer for this in "MetaStatic #8: The Myth of Balance". He suggested that you making different character types reliant on each others' skills. And that's exact what TEC does with its skill system. You have warriors who are pretty good at fighting and healers who are pretty good at stitching up those bleeding wounds and outdoorsmen who can help you survive in the wilderness and locksmiths who can help open up chests and other locks and a couple of other options.

To be honest, the interrelations aren't all totally built up right now. An outdoorsman, for example, doesn't necessarily have a lot to offer a group of warriors who might wander through the wilderness. But, the ground work is clearly in place and some of the synergies, like the dependence of warriors upon healers are clear.

How'd TEC do it? By making new skills slightly difficult to get and by offering sufficient room for advancement in existing skills that characters are more likely to specialize. After that, the next step is an easy one – you just make those differing skill sets really useful for other characters and poof! instant socialization and intermingling occur.

What a Difference a Skill System Makes

In talking about TEC's skills, it's interesting to note how different it is from Marrach's system, and what those differences mean to each of the games.

As I've already described, the TEC system centers around constant practice in order to excel at your skills. If they want, players can literally practice for hours or days, breaking only to go receive training or make money. Conversely, in Marrach, training is limited to only an hour a day, and rather than having to constantly practice, you just type one command and then hang out.

The results?

In TEC there's more concentration on skill gain itself – on getting constantly better – because it something you can do and something that brings clear gains to your character in the game. In Marrach, on the other hand, the skills become subsumed by the socialization that occurs during the training sessions; skill gain in Marrach an interesting aside, but the limits clearly prevent it from becoming the center of the game. And, I'm sure that's exactly how the game designers intended it. The TEC system clearly is more conducive to "Achievement" and the Marrach system is clearly more conducive to "Socialization".

When you're designing systems for your own games, you have to consider examples like this and figure out what messages you're sending to your players with the systems that you create (more about this thread in a future column; it deserves an entire week to itself).

Consensual Issues & Other Oddities

Taking a brief run through TEC, it's fun to look at the some of the other game design decisions and see how they've influenced game play. I mainly have questions here, not answers, but as game designers these are the types of things you need to think about.

In Marrach there's a system of absolute consent, supported by the lack of an emote system. In TEC there's no consent and folks can emote whatever they want; only swords maintain the peace. Is Marrach more polite or is TEC? I'm honestly not certain of the answer here, having played both. (Though I do think that these factors contribute to giving Marrach more the feel of a faerie tale and TEC a sort of rough and realistic feel.)

Both Marrach and TEC are relatively "safe". In Marrach you're never in any danger unless you choose to be. As for TEC, in the good parts of the city you're really only in danger from other players, and even then the constables keep pretty good watch; the actual dangerous stuff is fairly well contained in certain locations, such as the Bandit Woods, the Portal Lands, and the Watchtower Island. What does the maintenance of safety throughout most of a game do for the player community? Does it bind players closer together because they don't have to worry about danger or does it keep them further apart because there are no emergencies? Does it give players an enjoyable home base or a does it create a boring portion of the game? Again, no answers.

Finally, Marrach and TEC are a huge contrast in size. Marrach is tiny for an ongoing online game: less than a thousand rooms. TEC is almost a hundred times that big. What does game size do for an online game?

As I promised, my thoughts were meandering this week, without many of the conclusions I often come to. I find the differences between these different games, evolved with different philosophies, fascinating, however, and think that by turning some of them around in your head, as a potential StoryBuilder or as a StoryPlayer, you can start to see some of the thought processes that lead to good game design.

I'll see you in 7.

your opinion...