Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #57:

Future Memes, Three: Settings and Physics

by Shannon Appelcline

January 17, 2002 - It's been two weeks since I started my look at the future of online roleplaying games, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #55, Future Memes, Part One: Overviews and Genres. If you haven't read that piece yet, I suggest it, because it gives a good overview of the topic I'm still discussing today.

My basic thesis through these first three weeks of discussion remains the same: historical tradition has constrained how we look at the design of new games, and because of that we're not looking at radically different design possibilities that could really open up the field of online game design. I've already considered how this affects both genre and gameplay. This week I want to look into one final broad category: setting. In other words, how does tradition limit our options when creating gaming environments and when designing the physics that underlie them?

Setting Today

The whole question of environment really starts with genre. But, it goes beyond that. Once you've figured out what type of game you're going to have, the next question needs to be: where is that game set?

Though setting has been slightly limited, as I'm going to discuss shortly, there's also been a lot of variety in setting design to date. I've seen fantasy games involving cities, wilderness, sewers, the traditional dungeons, enchanted realms, alternative realities, and just about every thing else. Our own Castle Marrach is, of course, set entirely in a castle. On the other extreme, Ultima Online does a fairly decent job of modelling an entire world.

The science-fiction side of things is pretty good too. I'm aware of a few games that are set on space stations, including Galactic Emperor: Succession and Sam Witt's upcoming Horizon Station. That happens to allow for a nice, constrained environment. However other games, including the upcoming Star Wars graphical MMORPG allow you to hop from planet to planet, modeling bits and pieces of a whole galaxy.

As new games start to appear in some of the stranger genres I discussed two weeks ago, that will doubtless lead to new settings as well. Detective or mystery genre? Police stations, speak easies, and black markets will appear as settings. Romance? You'll see cruise ships, sunlit beaches, and boudoirs. You get the idea.

So, with all that variety, how can I call the traditional use of setting slightly limited? Well, it's because there are some assumptions here — the same assumptions built into my own articles describing how to design rooms, notably Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #48, Building Blocks: Rooms and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #53, Building Blocks: Maps. You see, all of these possibilities — and my own articles — assume that locales are going to be physical units, roughly room sized, all connected together as they'd be connected together in the real world. And, those assumptions are all tradition. But, we can step beyond these assumptions, and create new settings that don't just mirror this minor subset of the real world. To be more specific, we can create different types of setting by mucking around with scale, connectivity, and virtuality.

The Future of Scale

The traditional scale in prose online RPGs has always been "room-sized". That's the base unit that you build with. You create settings where a player leaves the dining room, walks into the corridor room, and then passes into the courtyard room. (Some games have instituted a second scale, the wilderness area, but those tend to be rarer and not as well thought out.)

In considering different possibilities for your game, you could choose to crank the standard room scale up or down.

  • Micro Scale. Rather than have scale units be rooms, why not have them be parts of rooms? This is sort of what the Skotos system does with its prox system. (A different system might implement our "proxes" as totally distinct areas which bleed noise and activity into each other.) You get the benefit of lots more detail for your players, and a feeling that lots more is going on, but the deficit of driving your StoryBuilders slightly insane, trying to describe everything.
  • Macro Scale. Instead of having your unit be a room, you could make your base building unit be any coherent location. An entire house might all be one unit within your game, if the house wasn't important enough to describe room by room. For that matter, an entire block of houses or an entire neighborhood could each be an individual "room" with your game. Going with a macro scale allows you to adhere to one of the most important principals of game development: describe what's important.
  • Super Scale. Last week, when describing gameplay, I mentioned a few possibilities for games where players didn't play individual characters, but rather larger entities like religions or races of people. This might require much, much larger scale units, say having each "room" actually represent a country.

Your choice of scale isn't necessarily going to be set for a whole game. You might mix average and macro scale rooms, to place emphasis on just the important places, or have the occasional option to drop down to a macro scale in a game that's mostly run at the "super" level.

The Future of Connectivity

In traditional game design, the assumption is that if room A is connected to room B by corridor X then to go from room A to room B a player must walk through corridor X. That seems pretty logical, but in actuality that's requiring your game world to subject itself to the same restrictions as the real world, when that isn't necessary. In Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #36, Why Marrach Isn't the Movies, Part Two, I mentioned that movies are a discontinuous medium. You can hop straight from room A to room B if it's required by dramatic necessity. You can give yourself similar power in your game by carefully considering how you design your connections.

  • Abstracted Connections. In many online games the enjoyment comes out of arriving at locations, not travelling between them. So why not acknowledge that fact by taking out all the corridors, empty rooms, and other dead space? When a player leaves room A he can see the message, "You walk down a long corridor", then arrive in room B at once..
  • Thematic Connections. For that matter, why do connections have to be based on physical realities? Instead, when visiting a weapon store, a player might be given the option to visit the five other weapon stores in the area. Or, while in the jail he might be given the option to visit the courthouse across town. Sure, these locations probably aren't really near each other, but the thematic similarities offer good reason to connect them ... as long as you believe my theory that the travel isn't important.

As with scale, you can mix and match types of connectivity within a game as long as you do so consistently, and it makes sense.

The Future of Virtuality

And that brings me to my final topic regarding settings — virtuality. It's wackier than my discussions of scale and connectivity, so I wanted to save it for last ... till that point where you're saying, "Well of course that all makes sense; why is he belaboring these points?" So, onward to the discussion that might not make sense at all ...

Most games to date model totally concrete, physical places. A castle on a tall mountain. A city by a river. A space station above a planet. You could touch, feel, and smell these locales if they existed in the real world. You can intellectually understand them.

But, in the world of online games, where your character can be anything, as I discussed last week when talking about gameplay, your setting can be anything too. It doesn't have to be something that's easy to understand ... or even something that's physical at all.

  • Non-intuitive Physicalities. You could build games around physical things that are far enough outside the common human experience that you'd think them quite weird. You could create a game set inside the human brain where players are neurons, or inside the blood stream where players are viruses and blood cells. Go back to the question of scale, and think really small or really big and you'll often find that the resulting setting, though usually physical, is non-intuitive and bizarre.
  • Chronological Settings. Most game settings are geographically based. Why not have a setting built around chronology instead? You could play out the process of a bill becoming a law, with different "rooms" representing different chronological stages in the process. Or you could create a game that models a real-world concern on the time axis — like the spread of a trend, or a disease.
  • Mental Settings. Finally, why not dig all the way into the world of the mind? What if a game represented how ideas germinate, either in the individual or the group conscious? What if a game was all about dreams, and followed the weird logic of dream locales? What if game locations represented the shared consciousness of a world?

With all this said, once more you can mix-and-match levels of virtuality. For example, you could create a science-fiction game with standard settings, but you could also create a virtual "telepathic" plane. Telepaths can appear in this room by concentrating, and thus interact — communicating, perhaps even fighting — in ways totally invisible to "mundanes".

There are endless possibilities.

Physics and World Laws

I started off this series of articles with a discussion of Tad William's Otherworld and how part of its foresight was disappointing in its simplicity. I'd like to finish off this first part of this series by describing how part of Otherworld was insightful in its complexity. Late in Otheworld, Part One some of the protagonists invade a computer hacker hideaway called the Treehouse. The place is truly interesting because it doesn't follow physical laws of nature.

In the Treehouse you can have one room above another room without gravity bringing the first crashing down on the second. You can have funny rules of perspective that let you see forever, or not at all. It's a virtual world and you only need have the laws of nature that you like take effect.

Consider this last possibility when you're designing your game. Do you want to model our real world? If so, think no further, and charge ahead. But, if not, you can throw out whatever rules of physics you don't want to be in your game. Gravity? Perspective? Death? Birth? Entropy? Friction? Heat? Cold? Intelligence? It's all up to you. You're creating a world, and it can follow whatever rules you want!

An Overview of the World Inside

For the last three weeks I've been discussing what I call the "world inside" — those design decisions that you make without input from the rest of the universe (i.e., without really having to think about those pesky players that appear after you release the game). In many ways, it's all been an expansion of the design rules I offered up in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #49, Postcard from Kaua'i: Live Widely; Think Differently; Look Closer; and Consider Possibilities.

However, I hope I've offered some useful specifics up too, and I think they bear repeating:

  • Genres. Consider other fictional genres, like romance or mystery; consider even wider possibilities like history and sports.
  • Gameplay. Think about modifying how gameplay works, paying attention to: character, goals, system interaction, player interaction, and duration.
  • Setting. Consider changes to the scale, connectivity, and virtuality of your setting; figure out what your physical laws should be.

Next week I have one last thought on the future of game design in the 21st century. It'll be about the "world outside": community and reputation.

Yeah, those pesky players.

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