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:
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.
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.
(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:
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.
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.