First Prelude to Building Blocks
October 11, 2001 - With a year of Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities now under my belt I've decided that the time has come to reassess what I'm writing about in this column, and how I'm doing it. My purpose in this column has always been to offer StoryBuilders advice on creating online games, while at the same time offering just a bit of an insider's view of Skotos Tech.
I think I've done a pretty decent job of offering advice to date, especially in some of my favorite pieces, like "Movies: A Structure for Plot", "How Marrach Isn't the Movies", and "The Dynamic Dilemma". But, at the same time, I've become aware that there are numerous very basic online game topics that I've never broached. Hence this new mini-series within TT&T: Building Blocks.
Under the Building Blocks title I plan to cover many of the foundation concepts in online games. Currently my list includes: quests, mobiles, portables, rooms, and zones. I'm sure I'll come up with more as I move forward, and probably drop a few as well. I'm going to be devoting at least one column to each of these topics.
I'm sure these Building Blocks will be my main focus for at least the rest of this year, though I might break off on occasion to talk about important Skotos news and more relevant topics on occasion as I go. Before I really get going, however, I want to lay some groundwork for my groundwork by (this week) talking about who I am and (next time) discussing how our medium of online games came to be. So let's get started...
Almost two months ago Scott Roberts, the author of our Mummer's Dance column, did something that I'd never thought of. In a column titled "Question Reality" he wrote about himself and offered insight into why he was qualified to talk about online games.
Following in his footsteps, I'd like to do the same, talking a little about who I am, and the unique perspectives that I've inherited regarding the online games that I'm now offering advice on.
Me & Writing
If you want to know what my core perspective on online games is, it's this simple: I'm a writer. I regularly put words to paper or computer. Last week I drafted about 10,000 words including an article for Tradetalk magazine, an article for The Unspoken Word, the newest installment of my Thinking Virtually column, and a private piece for an APA my wife belongs to. That was a good week, but tonight I'm going to hit about 5,000 words between this article and yet another column for RPGnet.
I've taken all matter of classes, including multiple sessions on writing short stories, a single class on movies, and way back in the mists of time a session on cartooning. (In retrospective, I actually can't draw, but it was fun.) In short, I'm a writing slut.
And, that's the perspective that I most clearly bring to the table when I write about online games. I think about background, plot, detail, backstory, character, and all of those other good things that Kimberly wrote about in "The Elements of Good StoryTelling". I'm not just thinking about online games, but rather about online games telling online stories.
Me & MUDs
Fortunately at least fortunately for my ability to write about online games and make sense I've also had experience with MUDs. MUDs, for those of you who's first experience with online games was here at Skotos, are Multi User Dungeons. They've been around since 1978 when fellow columnist Richard Bartle created what's now known as MUD1. I'll talk more about their exact history when I finish my series on "A Brief History of Game".
MUDs in their early days tended to be entirely combative and goal-oriented. You wandered around, stole treasures, grabbed loot, and moved on. And, that's pretty much how they were when I came to MUDs in September of 1989. I was 17 at the time and had just moved up to Berkeley for my first year of University. Upon arriving here I discovered a place called the Open Computer Facility (OCF) which had computers connected to a global Internet.
It was neat and cool, being able to communicate with people from all over the globe, but I soon learned the true purpose of the Internet: playing games. I discovered a game called AberMUD, a sort of descendent of Richard Bartle's MUD which was at the time being run at a half-dozen or so computers around the world. I discovered one hosted on chalmers.se, in Sweden, and soon began playing across a terribly slow and laggy trans-Atlantic connection.
It was glorious. I soon discovered those other half-dozen versions of the game, including one at batman.hut.fi, and a few in the United States as well. I became dangerously obsessive for a while, staying up till all hours playing the games, often playing two or three at the same time.
Within a year, the idea of playing AberMUD had become a little less interesting, because everything was soooo repetitive. You can only steal the claymore and use it to kill a troll so many times before it gets mindnumbing. But, fortunately, I'd by that time decided I wanted to be a computer scientist, and actually had begun to pick up some inklings of an ability to write code.
Thus, when I was given the opportunity to staff at an AberMUD somewhere north of me in Alaska, I think, though it could have been Washington I jumped at it. I began acting as a "wizard", helping out new players, and at the same time began designing a new zone for the game. I humbly called it Dinthiar's Elven Forest, after my own character, and invented plots, monsters, and puzzles galore. It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoy the fact that one of my first attempts at storytelling and one of my first attempts at programming can still be found on the dozen or so surviving AberMUDs scattered about the world.
TinyMUDs were already in existence when I started playing AberMUD, but since they were about telling stories rather than killing stuff my 17-year-old self scoffed. Likewise, when LPMUDs and DikuMUDs started appearing in the next two years I scoffed at those two; they offered better environments for buildings and made killing stuff even more exciting, but they were too different for my conservative self.
Toward the end of my MUDding career I worked with a few friends to try and design our own game. It's pretty much the end of any MUD wizard's life cycle. We called our new game Project X, and I've written about it elsewhere, in "The Dynamic Dilemma, Part One". That was 1991, and I had no idea that the time so avidly spent trying to flunk out of UC Berkeley would be of use to me in a job eight years later.
But during the interim I left MUDs, and in fact online games of almost any sort, totally behind me.
Me & RPGs
There's a third thing I bring to the table with me, along with my identity as a writer and my history as a MUDder and that's my experience as a player and gamemaster of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). I try not to talk about RPGs too much in this column, saving that discussion for my articles at RPGnet, but in truth RPGs are very close in tenor to the games we produce here at Skotos. In a tabletop RPG you take on the role of an alternate person in an alternate place. Rather than a computer arbitrating actions you have a gamemaster and games tend to be between a small group of people instead of an entire Internet community.
You can find the same themes in both types of games. People tell and participate in stories. They improve their characters, getting better at skills. They live and sometimes they die.
I've been playing RPGs since I was... maybe 10. Almost 20 years now. I played Dungeons & Dragons first, then a science-fiction game called Traveller, then any number of other games in any number of genres. To date I still roleplay with a group of friends almost every week.
I also run games or gamemaster them, as the vernacular goes. My favorites tend to be a game of Arthurian knights called Pendragon and a game of Medieval wizards called Ars Magica. As you might guess from those two data points, I'm a history buff.
And, I write RPGs. I'm still the most proud of my first work, a description of medieval Italy for Ars Magica called Tribunals of Hermes: Rome, even if it did get a bit butchered by the editor. I recently edited and contributed to a pair of supplements for Pendragon called Tales of Romance & Chivalry and Tales of Magic & Miracles. I've contributed to a few rule books including Ars Magica, Hero Wars, and Call of Cthulhu. I've done lots of other RPG writing and editing, including numerous articles for magazines and fanzines alike.
Finally, I also worked in the RPG industry for a couple of years, as a graphic artist and editor for a company called Chaosium. My work there was all for the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu, a game which I've strangely almost never played, though I've done very extensive reading in the Lovecraft Mythos that surrounds it, and have a shelf of a few hundred Lovecraftian books just a few feet from my desk in my office at home.
I've designed a single board game too, with a good friend of mine. It's called The Doom of the Old Ones (or DoTOO as we always abbreviated it), and with any luck it may be published some day.
Me & Skotos
And that finally brings me to Skotos. I was actually working with our CEO, Christopher Allen, for another one of his companies when Skotos was getting started. Like Scott Roberts, I had some doubts about the business model at the start.
As months proceeded, and Skotos grew, and I continued doing other work for Christopher, I slowly got sucked in. I think the Skotos business plan might have been the place I first wet my feet. Within six months or so, I was officially a Skotos employee.
I'm the "Director of Operations" here at Skotos, which technically means I manage all of the administrative stuff. For the most part nowadays, I oversee that, or more precisely pass it on to someone else, just holding on the big picture myself.
And the reason is that I'm a bit of a "Jack-of-all-trades" here, helping out wherever help is needed. I do almost all of our writing business plan, press releases, help files, and web site content alike. And I offer game design advice when I can, and help manage projects, and do business development with other companies. Despite my Computer Science work at Berkeley I don't program. I haven't in many, many years.
You & MeAnd that's who I am. With that said, I have a question for everyone reading this, namely:
Who Are You?
And, perhaps even more importantly:
What Do You Want?I'm curious to know who's reading this column and why and what they'd like to hear about. Entering year two, I have plans for what I'll be talking about, but I'd love to get more feedback from you folks too, so I can really think about what else I should be discussing.
So hop down to those forums below, and tell me what you think.