Series Info...#14: It's the End of the World as we Know It

by Shannon Appelcline

December 21, 2000 – Well, it's the end of the year at least – and the end of the century and the end of the millennium, if you count it as such. The scant vestiges of next week, jammed between Christmas and New Year's, are going to be busy enough that I've declared it column free. All will return to normal as 2001 dawns.

As you may have already seen, scattered about the site, we have lots of exciting plans for the new year. Here's the start:

  • March 1, 2001: Beta Release of "Galactic Emperor: Succession". The second Skotos game marks the beginning of our gaming community. It's a pretty wide departure from Castle Marrach. Galactic Emperor uses the same basic system, but is geared toward competition rather than cooperation. Each week, players vie to become the new Galactic Emperor.
  • April 1, 2001: Official Release of "Castle Marrach". We're working on the last few systems that we consider critical for release and are finishing up the geography of the initial Castle, and that should all be ready at the start of the second quarter, next year.
  • April 1, 2001: Skotos goes pay-for-play. We pulled our pay-for-play date back three months because we weren't ready to either beta "Galactic Emperor" or officially release "Marrach", but by next April (no fooling), we'll be set. When you officially sign up, you'll get a month's free play.
  • Late 2001: As we approach the end of 2001, there will be more cool stuff, including our third game and the release of Skotos Seven games. More dates as they become concrete, but in the meantime make sure you're looking at the rest of the articles to get insight into Arcana, Horizon Station, and Qi-gung, three of the next-generation Skotos games.
So that's where Skotos Tech is, at the cusp of the new year.

Heated Arguments

In the last weeks, the Skotos forums have seen something fairly new: heated arguments. The discourse has (uniquely) been of a very high quality, analytical and thoughtful. Nonetheless, it's been clear that there are some real emotions behind the words.

I'm speaking of two different topics: the selection of mages and the selection of honored guests. Let me offer a quick review for those of you who haven't been following the controversies.

  • The Honored Guests: At the Winter Ball less than a dozen newly awakened guests were named Honored Guests and given access to the Inner Bailey. The controversy here regarded who was selected and who wasn't. Why were some guests who were totally unknown to the most recently awakened picked? Why were guests who have worked hard to better the Castle ignored?
  • The Mages: And at about the same time, the Castle's mage hopefuls, now six weeks into their studies with Serista, faced their first test – and half of them failed. Players who'd put six weeks into this course were ... disgruntled.
I don't have any desire to dissect the actual specifics of these situations: what should and shouldn't have been done. The topic of mages has already been played out in the forums. Questions regarding honored guests tended to appear more in-game and in email, but there is a forum topic related to that question as well.

What I *do* want to do is examine the metaissues. What could we have done as StoryBuilders and as StoryTellers to ensure that players responded more positively to the situation, even if their characters failed to meet the goals they desired? What can future StoryBuilders do?

I think much of the problem has to do with the tone that we set for Castle Marrach in the first few weeks: what type of game we made Castle Marrach out to be. Let me explain that in a bit more length...

Types of Skotos Games

Right now we envision our games as existing in a two-dimensional space with two axes. Along the horizontal axis games range from cooperative to competitive. Along the vertical axis they range from social to solitary.

I've mapped out a few traditional prose games via these criteria.

  • Infocom games. Zork, and its brethren, was solely single-player, and thus all the way down on the solitary side of things. You didn't interact with other players, so the cooperative/competitive axis was fairly moot, though you could cooperate minorly by sharing answers to puzzles.
  • AberMUD: This was one of the earliest widely released MUDs. It mainly involved running around, killing monsters, and collecting treasures. There wasn't any built-in ability to join together in groups of people. Mostly solitary, other than the occasional chatting or socialization. Slightly competitive, but only in the battle for scarce resources.
  • DikuMUD: This later MUD expanded upon the design of AberMUD, LPMUD, and other early games. It let you join together into groups when searching for treasure or killing monsters. Also, many DikuMUDs gave you the ability to fight with other characters, rather than just monsters. Mostly solitary, but more social than AberMUD. Much more competitive than AberMUD, as other players could be real adversaries.
  • TinyMUD: Another early MUD, TinyMUD tended to be built around the idea of people telling stories and socializing together. There was some ability for independent play, as you could make puzzles for other people, but it wasn't the core of the game. Almost entirely cooperative. Mostly social, with mild solitary ability.
So here's what my chart looks like:

Game Chart...

(There's actually a third axis which I don't include, which is the roleplaying axis. Do you take on another role? For every game included, the answer is yes. If we were to include simulations or wargames in the Skotos community, then we might have games with a less developed roleplaying segment, and I'd have to figure out how to represent a three-dimensional chart in ASCII or simple graphics.)

You've probably noted on my chart that I included not just traditional prose games, but ours as well. Here's how they lay out:

  • Castle Marrach: Our first game, predominantly about participating jointly in the plots and arcs of the Castle, as players and StoryTellers both. Almost entirely social, though there will be minor ways to have solitary play as crafting systems come on line. Almost entirely cooperative, though there is some competition for positions in the Castle and related intrigue.
  • Galactic Emperor: Succession: Our second game is going to center around a weekly battle to be the emperor of the galaxy, put against the backdrop of invading aliens. Almost entirely social, as you must trade or battle with other players to win scarce resources and gain votes. Almost entirely competitive for the same reason, though there's space for cooperation among allied players.
  • Game #3: Our mysterious game #3 is going to fall closer to the traditional MUD space than anything we've done before. There will be significant space for solitary play, especially at the lower levels, but you'll need to eventually interact in a social way. There will be competition for scarce resources and the possibility of facing off against other players, but that won't be the core of the game, unlike Galactic Emperor.
And with all of that in hand I can get back to the issue of mages and honored guests ...

Expectation versus Reality

There's a simple rule that I learned years ago when I was doing network support for Sun Microsystems: Manage expectations. In short, keep your customers / clients / players / friends / family / whatever in the loop. Let them know how you think things are going to go. Even if it's something less than perfect – even if you're not going to fix their bug for a year or you're increasing your subscription price – people will be considerably happier for knowing that information.

Here's the corollary that more specifically relates to games: Make sure that players know what type of game they're getting involved with. I don't mean just the little grid I drew out above, though that's important, but I also mean other relevant facts about how the game will run. What genre is in set in? How powerful will the characters be? How much of an effect can they have on the world? How much will a player have to play to be successful? Is there any planned ending point for the game?

Not thinking about this rule led us to some of the current upset in Castle Marrach.

When we began the Castle Marrach beta test on September 21, 2000, we'd created a pretty good background: people, places, things. The plots were purely socially driven and players got a pretty big opportunity to have any parts in plots that they wanted. It looked like Castle Marrach was right at the top left of my chart. Totally social, totally cooperative.

But, that wasn't the design that we intended for the Castle. It required huge levels of support which were ultimately unsustainable. We were willing to go with this more social and more cooperative design initially for two reasons: it helped us to create the initial community; and it was required, to an extent, by the lack of systems in-game to arbitrate conflicts.

In the early weeks, the intended design for Castle Marrach peeked out at least once, when Martel dueled against Victor and lost. He didn't get to choose to take the place in the plot he might of wanted (as winner of the duel) and instead it was chosen by a system one part random (based on random numbers) and one part arbitrary (based on the skills of the participants) but not based on a cooperative storytelling model. But really, in the first 2+ months of the game, this type of thing was the exception, not the rule.

Not so in recent weeks. Lately we've been bringing other systems on line which push toward the side of competition. Castle Marrach will always be at heart about cooperative storytelling, but at the same time it's a game where random and/or arbitrary systems determine some of the game play. Based on my chart, it's not all the way in the top left cooperative-social corner, but rather is pushed in just a little bit.

Magery was based on a random test: a single determination. Honored Guest status is based on an arbitrary influence system: how good of a job a player has done in getting noticed by the right people.

If we'd been better able to point toward the type of game Marrach was back on day one (which might have been impossible due to the lack of in-game systems), then I believe there would have been less uproar now.

Other Issues

At core here is the difficult issue of how to create a game where it's OK to disappoint characters (as opposed to players). I think that's pretty easy to do in a highly competitive game, because there you've already set the expectation that a character might not get everything he wants. It gets trickier in a cooperative game, like Castle Marrach, where the actual existence of gameplay might be less obvious.

I think the rule I noted above is a very important one – that you need to make sure players know what type of game they're getting involved in. A few other suggestions:

Always give alternatives. This is a good rule whenever players in a game might fail. If they can be defeated by monsters, there must be more monsters to fight. If they can fail to get a magical relic, there must be more relics to discover. In our case, we need to make sure players have more opportunities to become honored guests (done; it's an ongoing process) and we need to make sure that players interested in magery can find other paths that will allow them to continue advancing their characters in a way that interests them (pending; we need other schools of magic).

Make it clear why things are done. If you've got set rules for how things are done in cases where players might be disappointed, make sure they understand those rules ... at least to the extent that it's appropriate. If I fight a monster, I want to know what criteria might cause me to win or lose. Ditto, players wanted to know more about the magery and honored guest tests. Sariel posted a bit about Honored Guests, explaining how it was based on influence. The magery is harder to explain because there were game design reasons for the random test that was used ... magic needed to be a rarity and we needed to have a timelag so that people wouldn't just bounce through all the magic schools in a day.

If you don't explain your criteria, players will come up with their own criteria. And, they might get mad at you because your decision didn't meet the criteria that they've internally proposed. Even if you did the totally correct thing by your criteria, they don't know it.

Information = Correct Expectations = Increased Happiness.


That's about it for me this day / week / month / year / century / millenium. The best to you all over the holidays. I'll be back just after the new year with something ... retrospective. I always get a kick out of those newspaper articles on New Year's Day talking about the events of the last year/decade. I'll see what ferments in my brain between now and then.