August 16, 2001 Five months ago I wrote an article titled "Telling Stories, Classifying Worlds". It was an attempt to label the types of games that we'd be producing here at Skotos. It turned out to be a very valuable article, as I've referenced it since many a time.
In that article I talked about Richard Bartle, the father of MUDs, and discussed his own taxonomy of online games... and it's that topic that I'd like to start on today.
Players and Games
I was primarily talking about how to classify games when I wrote my own piece, and thus I confused things a little bit when I brought up Bartle's article, because he instead talks about classifying players.
Bartle, you see, offered a classification of four types of players in online games: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers (just one of many possible classifications, he notes). But, whereas I believe that very similar classifications can be used to differentiate games, Bartle instead says that a good "MUD" actually produces an equilibrium of those four player types.
By equilibrium, I don't mean that the four player types exist in equal amounts, but rather that there are certain balances between the four player types that work well: you either have all four types in equilibrium; or only achievers and killers; or only socializers; or no one.
As for me, I was 9 years old or so when Bartle was writing MUD1, the ultimate ancestor of the online games you are now playing. He was figuring out inheritance for goblins, and I was working on my multiplication tables.
But, despite all of that, I have to disagree with some of his basic hypothesis, at least in practice. And, in retrospect, that disagreement is probably why I confused Bartle's ideas a little bit when I wrote my original piece.
Bananas and Pears
You see, I totally agree with Bartle's classification of online game players. But, that's where my agreement ends at least where it ends as far as we can practically build games at the current time. Rather than trying to reach an equilibrium, I believe that a game designer needs to get started by appealing to just one type of players. In other words, I think the Bartle classifications are very apt for not just player-types, but also game-types in general.
This goes back to my argument of a few weeks ago, in "Ah, Sweet Simplicity of Life!". As I said there, I believe that you need to concentrate on one game system, and build that to such a level of excellence that it can carry the game all before you move on to anything else.
I think this same idea applies to player types.
When we built Marrach, for example, we built it with Socializers in mind. We created a great place to roleplay; implemented systems like proximity, consent, and an expansive adverb-verb system that we thought would aid socializing; and then we started to create a culture. And, with no arrogance intended, I think we created a great environment for Socialization that would only be lessened if we introduced systems that Explorers or Achievers or Killers might clamor for.
(And, I should note, this is one of the equilibrium points that Bartle predicts: an all-Socializer game. Nonetheless, I think the idea of building for just one player type can be extended to all four player types, as I'll talk more about later...)
TEC and Marrach
It's this philosophy, of initially building a game for just one player type, that needs to be kept in mind when comparing TEC and Marrach or when comparing any two online games for that matter.
TEC has an absolutely great combat system, no question about it. Even before it was a member of the Skotos community, I would have happily admitted that TEC had one of the best combat systems to be found in any MUD on the net. And I've heard the occasional player comment that they wish Marrach had a combat system like TEC's.
You know what? I don't wish that at all.
When we were creating Marrach's dueling system we very specifically tried to create a system that was simple and yet created nice-looking output. We wanted duels to be fun to watch and almost poetic in their verse. To some extent, I think we succeeded, mainly because I still remember that first duel, between Martel and Victor, almost a year later.
There were over a half-dozen of us still in the office that evening, and for the space of that duel, our eyes were absolutely glued to our screens. There were a few gasps, such as when Victor kicked Martel, and a few shouts when the final blow was finally applied.
And from those reactions, I knew we'd created a good system for Marrach. That duel was exciting and interesting enough that its story has since been heard by hundreds of people who hadn't even joined the Marrach community at the time. Punzel wrote a poem about it. I re-enacted it in my movie scripts. It had weight and presence.
That tells me that the Marrach combat system encourages storytelling and thus Socialization. Which is exactly what we wanted.
Any "improvements" would probably be detrimental.
In case the title of this week's column wasn't obvious, let me offer one final clarification by saying I believe that different types of games, appealing to different player types, are really apples and oranges. TEC has great systems, and Marrach has great systems, and GE:S has great systems... but those systems are great because they fit each of those individual games and by extension those games' players. GE:S's voting system would likely have very little purpose in Marrach, because Marrach isn't a primarily competitive game. And, by the same coin, Marrach's dueling system would be totally out of place in TEC, though I believe it's the best system for Marrach.
The Advice for StoryBuilders
Thus, as a StoryBuilder, I can suggest the following advice to you: Decide what type of players you're going to appeal to. These can be the four player types that Bartle named and I list above. You could also use broader (or narrower) classifications, such as the ones that my co-conspirator, Scott Roberts, discusses in "Typecasting".
There's a corollary to this all, which I should try and present with some delicacy: Don't blindly listen to your players. To offer an example: even if you build a game centered around Exploration, you're still going to get Socializers clamoring for better emotes, more verbs, and other systems to improve communication.
Listen to these requests always listen to your players but don't follow them blindly. Ultimately, they might be suggesting that your game turn away from its core strengths. If you listen you could end up with a watered-down game that appeals to no group strongly enough to actually attract players.
And Thoughts for the Future
With all of that said, maybe my thoughts about player/game design don't differ that much from Richard Bartle's. He thinks a game can be built around Socializers, and I do too. My definition of TEC as an Achievement game might not be too different from his definition of an Achievement/Killer game. There are a lot of parallels there.
But, that doesn't change my basic theory that you should just try and appeal to one type of player when first building your game. If other types of players happen to enter the game because the equilibrium suits them, great, but they're not necessarily the player base that you're catering to.
As for the possibility of a game that suits all player types...
In the best of all possible worlds, I think Bartle makes very good points for that particular balance point. If you actually had sufficiently unlimited resources that you could build a game that appealed to all four player types, then I think you would have a game that was stronger than one that appealed to just one player type. it would just take a lot of work and a ton of care.
And, to be honest, we're slowly moving in that direction. Marrach was our Socializer game. GE:S was a first stab at a Killer game. The Bane will be an Achiever game. Eventually we're going to have all of these individual systems, all built well, and we'll have the ability to meld them into one cohesive and wonderful whole.
That's the far-future game that you've seen occasionally mentioned called "Alvatia". We'll get there eventually.
But, as potential StoryBuilders for the Skotos community, I don't suggest that for your first try.
Start small. Start simple. Choose one player type for your base.
And now for something completely different...
The more I write, the more I find creativity to be a very weird thing.
"Where do you get your ideas?" That's such a common question that most writers have a stock response. "They just come to me." "Nowhere." "Everywhere." "A little factory in Ferguson, Missouri; you just send them a check and they send ideas your way." Whatever.
Often I'm struck with an idea, perhaps because of a conversation, a forum posting, a problem, or an engineering concern... and that issue forms the core of an article which grows as weeks go by, until I finally decide to write on the subject.
So, why the hell am I babbling about this today? Because I find the genesis of this particular article an amusing demonstration of the eerie synchronicity that underlies our lives. At the same time that a discussion was going on in the forums about the differences between TEC and Castle Marrach, Sandy Antunes over at RPGnet sent me a piece of email containing the phrase "Appels and Orangeclines".
And then, just a few days later, Richard Bartle sent email correctly challenging some of the things I'd said back in TT&T #25... things which just happened to relate to how you define types of games.
And then there was article, thanks to one forum thread and two email messages, all skirting similar concerns.
Kind of weird.
And thus, having clearly defended my claim to "triviality", let me wish you all the best; I'll see you in 14 days.