Series Info...#43: The Power of the Medium: People

by Shannon Appelcline

August 30, 2001 - Way back in May – which seems like about a million years ago now – I started discussing the power of our medium. I talked about why it was really cool to be producing games in the online text-dominant multiplayer genre of roleplaying.

I wrote two articles in this "Power of the Medium" series, covering two important advantages that we have: individualized output and text. But, those two examples were just barely a start, because I think our medium of multiplayer online text roleplaying games is very, very rich, and that there are a lot of great reasons to use it. So, this week I'm going to offer one more data point for why our type of game is so cool.

This week I'm going to talk about people.

A History Lesson

If you look back at the history of MUDs – which were the earliest games in our medium – the attitudes of the staff toward players is a pretty amusing one. A lot of the earliest MUDs were either written or administered by computer programmers who liked to hack. They enjoyed the act of creation, of starting with nothing and filling that void with 1s and 0s until those numbers coalesced into a game.

They wrote MUDs, or found existing ones and added to them, because this ability to make cool, working games was fun. But at some point each of those programmers or administrators began to realize that it was silly to have a game sitting around that only they enjoyed and so they opened them up to players.

And these damned players would stream into the programmers' house, break all the crockery, kick the dog, jump up and down on the bed, tear down all the curtains, and make demands for a better class of chairs in the dining room.

The poor programmers (or administrators), more used to pushing around 1s and 0s than actually dealing with people, really didn't know what to do. So, from the dawn of the age of multiplayer games, many programmers and administrators have seen players as nuisances... particularly out in the world of free MUDs.

And, that's pretty silly, because it ignores the fact that players are one of the most valuable resources in a multiplayer computer game – one of the powers of the medium.

And, as a StoryBuilder, you should realize how cool having people is.

Building Interest

The best reason to have people in a game is because they're interesting. You could spend years building NPCs that react to players' speech, actions, and demeanor in interesting ways, but even after all of that, they'll never be as interesting as real, live human beings.

In many ways, we built Castle Marrach around the thesis that "people are interesting". We had actual humans play all of the major NPC roles. Those same NPCs led our major plots. And we gave our players the option to create their own plots.

And thus we managed to found a dynamic and interesting environment that depended on the quirks of hundreds of different people to create a cohesive whole. In contrast a multiplayer computer game that was entirely computer-automated and run would have been cold and stale (though at some point I'll talk about why automation is a real power of this medium as well).

So, how do you as a StoryBuilder take advantage of the fact that people are interesting?

  • Give players lots of reasons to interact. You can do this by making interaction important for players to succeed in other portions of the game. We do this with our skill system in Castle Marrach or our voting system in Succession.
  • Give players real power to affect the direction of a game. This could mean that all players have the ability to create a plot or do something internal to the game that will be noticeable and important to other players. It could also mean that you choose trusted players or good roleplayers and give them the most pivotal roles in a game.
  • Make sure that players have the ability to be expressive. In a Skotos game this is mostly taken care of already because any StoryBuilder will have access to the entire library of social verbs and systems that we created for Castle Marrach. But, if you're not careful you could accidently inhibit a players' ability to be expressive. Say, if you gave them only 17 words to speak with (which, as it happens, it what we're doing with Og... which is why we're considering expansions to other social systems to make sure everything still works).

Easing Load

The fact that players are interesting should make other players very happy to have them about. As a StoryBuilder, though, you should be desperately enthusiastic about players for another reason: they'll make your job easier.

The fact is, when you create a multiplayer online game you're not just creating a game. You're founding a community of people. Odds are that you'll be able to create a community that works pretty well and could function on its own without additional help. But, if you're willing to let things sit around at that OK state then you're not taking considering how you could make your community great. You have to remember that, just like in real life, you'll have volunteers who want to make their community better.

Our StoryGuides in Castle Marrach make this point very obvious. They're folks who are interested in making the (virtual) world better for everyone. Our StoryPlotters are trying to better their online community too, and they get to express their creativity as well.

The StoryPlotters and StoryGuides both make things work in a sort of meta way. They help provide the structures that a game runs upon. But you can also have players better the online community – and make a StoryBuilder's job easier – by giving them extra powers or privileges in game. This is what our Veteran Players do.
But, the VPs are a very specific case, because they're mostly playing title roles that we've created. Players can also better a game via in-game methods if you give them certain archetypical roles: the guy who collects the taxes, the constable who patrols the streets, that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago Jessica Mulligan derided player justice systems as StoryBuilders' attempts to introduce art into games. Perhaps... but they're also a great way to have players take on important tasks within a game and also give those players a real sense of owning that game.

Whenever a player buys an item from a player crafter in Ultima Online or gets training from a player trainer in The Eternal City or gets clothing from a player seamstress in Castle Marrach that's a win, because there's less work for the StoryBuilders and there's more interesting interactions going on than would be provided by a computer NPC.

To summarize, when building your own games, consider the following possibilities for letting players ease your own load:

  • Let players take on OOC roles. Be willing to let go of your game a little bit, allowing the people who actually play your game to help determine its directions, perhaps as the StoryPlotters or StoryGuides that we have, perhaps in some other manner.
  • Let players take on traditional NPC roles. By this I really mean what we call Computer NPCs (CNPCs). Many people will want to be cobblers or seamstresses or armor makers, so let players do that and make your whole world more interesting.
  • Reward players for helping out. And I don't necessarily mean throw hordes of money at them – though that'd surely be appreciated. I mean, make their gameplay more enjoyable because of the fact that they're helping out. I already noted that StoryPlotters get to express their creativity, and I'm sure that's a prime reason they're helping out. Many other people will take on additional responsibilities if they get additional (and fair) privileges too.

Breaking Crockery

And that brings us almost to the end of things here. But, there's one last reason that people are really cool: they can be bad.

In a traditional computer game you, as the StoryBuilder, have to do all the hard work of creating antagonists for your players: figuring out their motivations, playing them, and (perhaps) programming them. On the other hand, in a multiplayer computer game, players can antagonize each other – and they will.

Sure, as a StoryBuilder you'll still introduce lots of obstacles for players to overcome, but you also have the very powerful ability to let players come into conflict with each other... and may the best man way.

There are a number of ways to do this in an online game:

  • Allow players to have dramatically different motivations. This type of thing can come out through character creation choices. If you allow some people to be knights and others to be serfs – or if you allow people to come from two countries in conflict – there will naturally be strife.
  • Create organizations in conflict. You can supplement things by purposefully creating different organizations within a game – say the Winter Watch and the Duelists – that are already in conflict. Thus, as players advance through your game they'll find more reasons to antagonize each other.
  • Support player villains. When a player comes along with a genuine villainous streak in him – and that streak seems to be directed toward bettering the entire game and not just screwing other people over – work with him. The players will love it and he'll probably love it to. Build him toys, support his plots, or give him power – whatever is appropriate for your game.

Bad people, helpful people, and interesting people. That's three reasons that people are cool and a real power of our medium.

And with those brief thoughts I'll leave you for the week. I'll see you in 14.

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