Series Info...#47: A Brief History of Game, Part Six: Gamist Evolution

by Shannon Appelcline

Second Prelude to Building Blocks

October 25, 2001 - Last week I offered up the first prelude to a new series of articles that I call Building Blocks. I want to explore a number of the core concepts in online storytelling games, starting off with "rooms" and taking them one at a time from there.

Before I get started on the actual series, however, I want to set some ground work — to make sure I have a solid foundation to put my building blocks upon. Last week I offered up my resume, and told you where I was coming from. This week I'm going to do the same for Skotos Tech, by essentially offering a status report for the last year.

Not quite a year ago, in late November, I wrote two articles in a series that I called "A Brief History of Game". These articles chronicled the evolution of Skotos Tech by first concentrating on the company, then on Castle Marrach, our first game. It's been almost a year since those columns, and so I've decided to pen an update, a sort of "Where are they now?"

If you haven't already read the earlier articles, you might want to. They're good foundation for this piece.

A Thousand Points of Light

On September 21, 2000 we released our first game, Castle Marrach. It was the end result of over a year and a half of steady work, of a few months of frantic designing, and a few days (and nights) of sheer hell. We opened up the doors of the Castle that Thursday morning afternoon and we were quite surprised to find that we had players — players who might one day become customers as we slowly evolved our site and our games.

It was quite a shock as was the question that followed: what did we do now?

A brief lesson for StoryBuilders:

  • Make sure you know what you're going to do when your game is released before your game is released.

Up until the release of Castle Marrach we'd been working with a single focus at Skotos. Everything that every one of us did was centered on that single goal: getting that darned Castle done.

TVAnd now it was done, or at least released. We had players and we had to support them. We had to continue building systems to keep those players happy. And, at the same time, we had to think about the next game down the road. So, we fractured a bit as a company. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Different members of our team needed to have different priorities, and so we began to move in a number of different ways.

And because the company fractured a little bit, this narrative is going to fracture too. I hope you'll stay with me as I jump back and forth over the last year, tracing the various threads that now make up our history.

The Evolution of Marrach

Our first focus in the last year was clearly centered on the game we'd created, that we'd brought to life with lightning bolts coaxed down from the sky on September 21, 2000. Castle Marrach.

In the early days of Marrach we found that we had to totally change our priorities as a company. We staffed Marrach with maybe a dozen employees and contractors at first, straining as hard as we could to keep the Castle populated and alive. Sufferers of multiple personality would have been proud of me (of all the Skotos staffers) in those waning months of the twentieth century. I played Dolfin the Mute and Averon the Arrogant, and even fought with myself on occasion; I played the apprentice Severin and on a few scant occasions the duelist Edouard. I cannot tell a lie; it was I who played the jester Dagonet at the first Winter Ball, going on about star-shaped Marzipans and deadly bundt cakes. There were other characters too, one I even use to visit the Castle on occasion now, but for the most part the most extensive Skotos presence in Castle Marrach ended the night of that first Winter Ball.

December 8, 2000. It wasn't our first big event in Castle Marrach — that had been the Poet's Convocation on October 13. But, the Winter Ball was definitely the biggest event to that date. We got to haul out the Inner Bailey for the first time and introduce many of its denizens. It was great fun to staff and I'm sure great fun for the players as well. It was also a good milestone for us — a reminder that while our Customer Experience team would continue to staff Castle Marrach as the players filled it out, the rest of us needed to think about the future.

Castle Marrach has continued to evolve since that Winter Ball. We've released both the skill and alteration systems — each one giving more cool stuff to players to do, but that all pales between the biggest Marrach event of 2001.

On February 22, 2001, our Customer Experience team mailed around the names of our first two proposed StoryPlotters — Carroll and Keegan. When we'd released Castle Marrach, we'd make it yours — the player's — to a certain extent. We knew exactly what had happened in the Castle before September 21, 2000, but could scarcely predict what would come next. On February 22 we continued that process by beginning to turn over the reins of plot to the players.

The process has continued to this day. We now have nearly half-a-dozen StoryPlotters and a handful of StoryCoders as well. The most recent was named just last week. Although we continue to support the StoryTellers in their tasks, at this point the evolution of Castle Marrach is truly in the hands of the members of its community.

If we'd carefully planned things out, we would have wanted things to work exactly like this.

Another valuable lesson for StoryBuilders:

  • Players will be your best allies as you continue to build and administer your game.

The Skotos Seven

At the same time as we were launching Castle Marrach we were contemplating the game proposals that we'd started to receive at GenCon.

We've always had a vision that Skotos would be much bigger than the games we created. We wanted our players to be able to create games too, to be able to envision their own worlds, and then present them for their fellows. To meet this goal we tried to make the tools we use to create our games very user friendly — the type of thing that non-programmers could use. And, we'd already seen this was the case, based on the fact that a group of non-programmers had done the development work on Castle Marrach.

So, at GenCon, we'd put out a call for "The Skotos Seven", a group of game designers who would create the next generation of games at Skotos Tech. Immediately following GenCon we had 47 proposals. By the time we stopped accepting proposals, toward the end of September, we had 70.

The problem wasn't so much finding 7 good proposals from the pack, but rather deciding which good proposals would be among the 63 we rejected. We knew that working with the Skotos Seven would take time, and we only had so much to go around. Finally, on October 30, 2000, we made a much-delayed announcement of our first five external developers. The sixth developer — Sanguine Productions — was announced a month later. And the seventh... never materialized due to contractual issues.

We flew five members of the Skotos Seven out to Berkeley for a party on Halloween 2000, followed by an all-day training session the next day on our developer tools. I was the trainer, and I remember that by the end of the day my throat felt like it had been worked over by sand paper. Still, it was worth it, because we were able to send the Skotos Seven — a damned fine group of people I should note — home with knowledge of how to use our tools to build a game.

At that point any of the Skotos Several, as they came to be known when the absence of number seven became obvious, could have headed home and begun work on a game similar in style to Castle Marrach. It would have taken some real work — and some support from us that was always hard to work into our schedules — but it could have been done. However, the Skotos Several had much bigger plans. They wanted to create games that exceeded Castle Marrach. Sometimes, by a lot.

In general, our attitude has been good for you!, but also the tools you need will be ready... soon. We've tried to encourage some smaller releases to start off with, but for the most part the Skotos Several have been pushing for bigger dreams, and so you haven't quite seen any releases to date.

Now it's almost a year since our original selection of the Skotos Several. We've done quite a bit of system development in that time, and now we're really starting to look to how we can make our developer systems better. A number of the Skotos Several teams are really starting to take off, having gathered together great-looking groups of people to build their games. So, though delayed, you may well see some Skotos Several games yet, quite possibly starting with some Chat Theatres... which we'll get to down the road.

Galactic Emperor: Succession

Just in case you think we were being lax, we weren't lazing about while we were doing the early, intensive administration of Castle Marrach and training the initial members of the Skotos Several. No, we were figuring out our next game too.

It all started back on June, 19 2000 when we stumbled across a little game called The Galactic Emperor is Dead. It was a fun Live-Action Roleplaying Game (LARP) that you played over the course of a day. The Galactic Emperor had just been assassinated, and you were one of many aliens vying for the position. It seemed like a great game to fit into the category of Stage — a place to hold one-off events, just like Marrach was originally supposed to be.

Just like Marrach, The Galactic Emperor is Dead grew wildly out of control. And, like Marrach, it mutated too. Pretty early on we changed the name to first Galactic Emperor and then Galactic Emperor: Succession, the latter name to support a whole series of colon-deliminated science-fiction games, no others of which have appeared to date.

At the same time, the game kept getting larger. It was still a Stage when originally planned for release in November 2000. As it got pushed back to December it had become a card game, and then when it got pushed back to January it had once more became a Stage, but lasting a week-long and with much more complex mechanics.

The game finally saw its release on April 3, 2001. But, as Spring became Summer, it became obvious that we'd made the game too complex, and that it was pretty difficult to figure out. We sent the game back to the shop in June, 2001, and on July 10, 2001, we offered up the simplified, streamlined version 2.0.

To be honest, Galactic Emperor: Succession still hasn't become the success that we want. It's got a set of players, true, but a very small one. It's a very different game from a typical MUD, with its heavy basis in strategy. We're still trying to figure out if there is a way we can make in successful, but in the meantime we figure that it's another place that players can hang out if they want to.

And having a second game isn't a bad thing.

A few lessons for StoryBuilders here, some of which I've offered before.

  • Your game will grow.
  • Your game will mutate.
  • You might have to drastically prune your game to make it work.

The Subscription Interlude

Although substantially less interesting, it's worthwhile to take a moment to highlight one of our most important moments in 2001. On April 2, 2001, Skotos Tech went pay-for-play. Before that date we'd offered Castle Marrach as a free Beta. We'd wanted to start accepting subscriptions in January, but Castle Marrach hadn't evolved enough then, and a second game was still long away.

Finally, on April 2, the release of Galactic Emperor: Succession was just a day away. And our lead engineer had spent a horrific few months working on billing software. And I'd managed to get us a merchant account just in the nick of time. We were ready. And so we turned the switch and started accepting credit cards.

It was a month before we saw the full effects, as everyone got one more month of free play, just like new subscribers would. By the time we were done we'd lost about two-thirds of our player base. But, we were finally, actually, really, in business. People were paying to use our service.

It was our first inkling that there might truly be success down the road.

Other Paths

As we were moving on from Castle Marrach — and Galactic Emperor: Succession and going pay-for-play — we started doing work on a few more projects that haven't paid off to date.

One of those was The Bane, which was going to be a combat-oriented text game in the style of MUDs. It was also a game that was going to expand our StoryBuilder Server in ways that the Skotos Seven would find highly useful, incorporating better mobiles, more general combat, light and darkness systems, and a lot more. Some of that work got done, and some of it is even making its way into other games, including Castle Marrach, but The Bane project eventually got back-burnered.

Part of the reason was that we'd once more planned to do too much too quickly, and indeed if we do release a Bane-type game in the future it will be somewhat smaller than our original plans. We've discussed something called "Bane Walk" on occasion — which might be a fun introduction to a more combative game.

But, another important reason for the cessation of work on our Bane project was that we managed to acquire another MUD-like game — The Eternal City — which I'll return too shortly.

In those halycon months, we also did some work on another game, Lovecraft Country. We'd been holding the Lovecraft Country license since some time in 2000, and we'd put out calls for external designers, but never got any proposals that quite worked for us. So we decided to do it ourself and got as far as laying out maps for the Miskatonic University campus.

Unfortunately the dot-com crash has caused our Lovecraft Country designer to move on, though we're still planning to open up part of his Miskatonic environment at some time to run small games in.

The work on The Bane and Lovecraft Country, between April and September, 2001, wasn't entirely wasted because we did make some nice advancements to our base engine.

And, at the same time, we were concentrating on another big project.

The Eternal City

In March, 2001, we'd attended the Game Developers conference down in San Jose, California. And Christopher, our CEO, had briefly talked with Scott Martins of a company called Worlds Apart Productions. Worlds Apart produced one of the few truly good MUDs out there, a game called The Eternal City. Christopher had idly mentioned the possibility of The Eternal City becoming a Skotos game, but none of us expected much to come of it.

It was thus a pretty big surprise for me when, in May, 2001, I found myself in contract negotiations to license The Eternal City for use at Skotos. Things happened really quickly and, again to my surprise, The Eternal City became a Skotos game on June 1, 2001.

I really enjoy having a game in a somewhat different style available at the Skotos site. It creates exactly the sort of cross-pollination we've always wanted at Skotos. Different games in different styles gives customers lots of choices, and that's our precise goal.

As both The Eternal City and the rest of the Skotos games continue to evolve, I'm sure we'll continue to see sharing of ideas between the developers and communities alike.

Chat Theatres

And that brings us to the final meme for Skotos in the last year: Chat Theatres.

We'd always had the idea here at Skotos that we could create very small virtual environments very quickly, and that players could use these environments to just hang out and chat (in costume) or to play one-time games.

At first we called these environments Stages. We tried to create a simple Castle environment without any game mechanics, that we could use to run whatever events we wanted... and that became Castle Marrach. And then we tried to create an even smaller tavern environment, and that became Skoot On Inn, which was promptly shelved. And then we tried to create a an environment with a one-time game built in, and that became Galactic Emperor: Succession, which grew and grew and grew.

0 for 3.

In the early summer of 2001, while we were developing The Bane, contracting The Eternal City, and finishing the transfer of power to StoryPlotters in Castle Marrach, we were also considering another idea that we'd touched upon before. We called it "Enhanced Chat".

The idea was that we could create very small environments and release them to people who only chatted — not actually playing games. They'd talk at first, but then realize that they could wander around, pet cats, and poke each other in the eyes. Clearly, they would see the power of a text-based virtual environment and begin using their imaginations — and the world would be a better place.

We started talking with our partners over at RPGnet — a relationship that we'd been working on since pretty much the start of 2001 — and decided that we'd give them our first Chat Theatres for release, trying the whole idea out at a friendly site. We began work on an old 1920s mansion which we called The Gables.

No sooner had we started work, however, than we realized that we could use the same technology at Skotos, creating an out-of-character (OOC) chat area — something that we'd long desired, especially after seeing the benefits of The Eternal City's own OOC chat room. Thus, we put off work on the Chat Theatres for a while and began creating our own Welcome Room, which we called The Link Zone.

The idea behind The Link Zone was fairly simple. A central auditorium was created for big gatherings, and individual "Courts" were created for each of our games. We released the Welcome Room to the Skotos public in August, 2001.

At the same time we've continued work on other Chat Theatres. The Gables went up for Alpha testing to a limited number of RPGnet participants on October 15, 2001. We're preparing for the full beta release now, which should occur at on October 31, 2001. A haunted house for Halloween; go check it out.

We've also done extensive work on a few other Chat Theatres, including an Arabic Oasis and a Medieval inn called The Hearth — the modern reincarnation of our old Skoot On Inn. Just last week I had some fun drawing up maps for The White House, another potential Chat Theatre.

The Future

Will Chat Theatres succeed or not? Will the community of our Skotos games continue to grow? As with all future questions, it's hard to say.

Looking back, though, I can say that we have a much stronger code base than we did just a year ago. We've created extensive systems for Castle Marrach and Galactic Emperor: Succession alike in that time... as well as stuff that we built for our sidetracked games The Bane and Lovecraft Country.

Even better, work on the Chat Theatres has done a lot to improve both our user experience and the experience of our builders. As we move forward from here that work should pay off in spades.

Where will we be a year from now? I can't say for sure, but I hope I'll be here to chronicle it in a seventh part of this very same series.

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