Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #56:

Future Memes, Part Two: Gameplay and Mechanics

by Shannon Appelcline

January 10, 2002 - Last week I ranted discussed how staid and traditional a lot of game design is. We're looking to the past, and thus not having much opportunity to build for the future. By getting stuck in the rut of doing things the way they've always been done, we're losing our chance for innovation. Genre was my primary straw man that time around, and I talked about how common the fantasy and science-fiction genres are in our medium, and how not a lot has been done to think of really stunningly different possibilities.

Really stunningly different possibilities is, you see, my main point in this mini-series. I want to encourage game designers to, for just a moment, throw out their preconceptions about what online games should be, and really go out there and see what can be done. And that's what I'm going to be suggesting again this week, by talking about the traditional ideas that get built into gameplay and game mechanics.

If you haven't already read Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #55, Future Memes, Part One: Introductions and Genres, I suggest it. It's a bit frenetic, but offers the longer explanation of what I'm digging into here.

Gameplay Today

In deciding upon a genre you determine the basic story of your game and select a big-picture background. In deciding upon gameplay you determine the basic mechanics of your game and select the big-picture what-the-players-do.

The actual definition of gameplay is a bit complex. My OED doesn't define it all, skipping straight from "game plan" to "gamer". So let me offer my own definition instead. Gameplay is essentially the core mechanics of your game. It answers a number of different questions:

  • Character. What types of characters do players play within a game?
  • Goals. What are the goals of the characters?
  • System. How do characters interact with the system?
  • Interaction. How do characters interact with each other?
  • Duration. How long do the characters have to accomplish their goals and interactions?

Putting all those elements together, mixing them up, and seeing what results is gameplay-in-nutshell.

With five different elements, each of which can have infinite numbers of possibilities, you'd think that there would be tons of different gameplay available in online roleplaying games. Yet, once again it's largely been confined to just a few very traditional styles. Just two, in fact: MUD-play and MUSH-play.

MUD-play is the oldest, most dominant, and most successful style of gameplay for online roleplaying games. It's named after Richard Bartle's Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), which debuted back in 1978. There have been thousands of imitators since. And in turn it's very similar to the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons which had existed in the offline world since 1974.

MUD-play tends to answer my five questions like this:

  • Character. Players play unique, individual characters representing people.
  • Goals. Characters are trying to achieve higher levels of experience or accumulate wealth or items.
  • System. The system generates obstacles which hinder the accumulation of wealth and allow for the achievement of skills. It also arbitrates almost all interactions.
  • Interaction. Other players exist as either (1) sources of skill or wealth or (2) partners to jointly achieve skill or wealth.
  • Duration. Effectively unlimited, though maximum achievement can be reached in a fairly constrained timeframe.

Examples of MUD-play include, not surprisingly, most of the MUDs out there, as well as our own The Eternal City. The gameplay tends to be enjoyed by Richard Bartle's "Achiever" players.

MUSH-play, on the other hand, dates back to 1989, with the release of TinyMUD. That in return was based on any number of amateur storytelling games which you might have played as a child or adult. Think of things like "Cowboys and Indians" or "Cops and Robbers" where you joined together with your fellows to create dramas — except MUSHes run on a constant, ongoing basis. MUSH-play has never been quite as successful as MUD-play, because it requires a lot more work on the part of the players, but it is fairly prevalent on the Internet.

MUSH-play tends to answer my five questions like this:

  • Character. Players play unique, individual characters representing people.
  • Goals. Characters are jointly telling stories with other members of the community.
  • System. The system exists to aid in the telling of stories.
  • Interaction. Other players exist to act as allies, foils, or enemies — all aiding in the telling of stories.
  • Duration. Effectively unlimited.

Examples of MUSH-play include most MUSHes out there — which include a confusing mass of abbreviations from MUX to MOO to MUD. Our own Castle Marrach is built on MUSH-play, and, like most MUSHes, is a subset of what Richard Bartle calls "Socializer" play.

With all that said, I should note that there is one more type of gameplay on the Internet, besides just MUD-play and MUSH-play. In fact, it's the most common style of gameplay in online roleplaying games. It's the mixture of those two styles of play I've already described. Castle Marrach, for example, does have MUD-like achievement elements: increasing your skills and trying to gain rank in the Castle, for example. The Eternal City, on the other hand, has MUSH-like storytelling elements, built around their regular events and their guilds.

However, that fact doesn't really change my core point, which is this: gameplay is very limited in online roleplaying games. You have a continuum between two points, and that's mostly it.

In the Richard Bartle theory of player types, which I've alluded to a few times this week and described slightly more coherently in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #25, Telling Stories, Classifying Worlds, there are four types of players. The two I haven't yet discussed are Explorers and Killers — but the thing is, people don't build game around those styles of play. And, there are lots of other styles of play that are being ignored too, and that's what I want to talk about today when I suggest considering those stunningly different possibilities.

The Future of Gameplay

In looking at the future of gameplay — how to expand into untapped possibilities — you can consider each of my five gameplay elements in turn. Even changing the base assumptions of just one of these elements can result in very different styles of gameplay — and as a game designer you could choose to mix changes to many different elements together.

I've brainstormed a whole set of these changes, all classified by gameplay element.


  • Non-Individual Characters. All the roleplaying games out there pretty much require you to take on the role of a discrete, specific individual. Consider the possibilities if you had games where instead you could take on the roles of nations, countries, states, religions, even worlds. There might even be multiple levels of characterization, allowing you to play your country and also on occasion incarnate into individual people within your land. Analogues in Other Mediums: Boardgames such as Risk; most war games, be they electronic or tabletop; most simulation games.
  • Shared Characters. Who says that a character should belong to one person? A single character might be shared by multiple people, either at different times, or, more curiously, at the same time (possibly related to "Team Play" Interaction, as discussed below). Analogues: Understudies in plays offer the best analogy I can think of, but shared characters could include more equality than this model tends to offer.
  • Variable Characters. What if you had a different character every time you logged in? Or, what if you died and came back as something else depending on how well you'd done in life? The idea of characters as static is another assumption that can be overthrown. Analogues: The reincarnation spell in D&D; playing a board game over again, but taking on a different role.


  • Non-individualistic Goals. Most games are ultimately self-centered in their gameplay, even social games that encourage joining with your fellows in plots. Why not instead create games where players are all moving toward common goals and will either succeed or fail at those goals (and thus the game) as a unified group? Analogues in Other Mediums: Rare boardgames like Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings.
  • Variable Goals. A lot of goal-based games tend to have fairly similar goals for all characters. If all the players' goals aren't exactly identical, at the least they're comparable. A wizard understands that discovering a new spell scroll is the same type of success as a warrior finding a new sword. Rather than retaining this careful balance it's possible to make games that offer dramatically different goals from one player to the next. And, based on this, it's possible to create situations where many, multiple players can all succeed in their goals without requiring competition. Say one player's goal was to sell an object, and anothers was to buy it. That's simple synergy, but a different way of looking at games. Analogues: LARPs, hidden-victory-condition games.
  • Creative Goals. Players really like to build things — to be a part of the creative process. So why not design a game where the joy and fun comes out of players constantly building and creating new things in organic, original ways? They could construct unique items, build towns, or design entire worlds ...the sky's the limit. Analogues: many simulation computer games allow for some creativity, starting with SimCity; your word processor or art program.
  • Purely Experiential. Most games out there have their gameplay centering around a specific purpose. You're trying to improve a character or complete a plot or succeed at a goal, or whatever. What if, instead, the gameplay was about the enjoyment of an experience, be it socializing, rockclimbing, or learning more about a specific topic? Analogues: to some extent flight simulators and hunting or fishing computer games, though they still tend to have some goals, such as catching the big bass or not crashing the plane; Richard Bartle's "Explorer" players.


  • Simulation System. Closely related to purely creative games are simulation-based games, where players are taking parts in some model of ...something. You could try and create a genuine feudal system, and see what happens. Or, you could do something wackier, like letting players play organs in the human body or individual elements in an ecosystem. Analogues in Other Mediums: some of the more purely simulation games, that allow for less in-game creativity, like The Sims and SimEarth; Conway's computer simulation of Life.
  • Agreeable Systems. Traditionally systems are there to get in the way of players, and stop the from achieving their goals. This is bucked a bit by MUSH-like gameplay, where systems exist to help tell stories, but the concept could be expanded further. What type of game could you create where the systems existed to help the players in their goals, always pointing the way to new and enjoyable discoveries? Analogues:; existing MUSH-like gameplay.


  • Team Play. This closely relates to the idea of non-individualistic goals, discussed above, but has room for variety. The core concept here is not necessarily to require players to succeed together, but rather to work together. They might still have their individual goals, and in some cases might actually trick each other into accomplishing their own goals. They just have to do so together. Imagine a very silly game where each player played a cow's body part: the stomach's goal might be to eat and the feet's goal to find some softer ground, but they're clearly going to have to work together to do so. Analogues in Other Mediums: group projects in school.
  • Opposed Play. In most "competitive" games, the main competitive mechanism is comparative — players measure their own experience levels against their fellows. Instead you could create games where the competitive mechanism is much more direct. It could be a zero-sum game: in order to succeed for themselves, players have to foil other players. Or, even if that's not the goal, you could set up a game where such opposition is either allowed or favored by the game. Analogues: most board games and most multiplayer first-person shooter computer games; Richard Bartle's conception of the "Killer" player.


  • Limited Duration. We've just tipped this iceberg with Galactic Emperor: Succession. The idea is that the game has a set time limit, then it's over. By limiting the total length of a game you could have games that concentrate more squarely on strategy or politics or other elements that grow exhausting in the long term. This type of gameplay could also allow for sports game, as I discussed last week. If you want to play a ball game, just as a one-off, a limited duration game is the way to go. Analogues in Other Mediums: Any boardgame or single-user computer game; LARPs.
  • Limited Immersion. Rather than limiting the total length of the game, you could instead limit the amount of time players could play each day. Perhaps resources run out and they have to replenish them, or perhaps you just cruelly impose a limit. Either way, the gameplay will create a very different experience, with more casual gamers playing, and less overlap in-game between players, because they tend not to be on at the same time. Analogues: most traditional board games have either time limits, or approximate amounts of time after which the game tends to end.

And by no means is this listing exhaustive — simply a peek at the possibilities implicit in gameplay. The way you design your gameplay can be really traditional, if you just look at the way things have been done, but instead, just pretend ...that it's all up for grabs, and you don't have to do things the way they should be done just because they have been.

Next week I'll be discussing realities and physics, then it's on to the post-launch world of communities and reputations, finishing off this forward-looking mini-series inspired by the New Year.

See you in 7.

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