Series Info...#9: The Puzzle of Purloined Players

by Shannon Appelcline

November 16, 2000 - Welcome back all, to M-day +56. (Wow!) Castle Marrach is still big here at Skotos, and we're still putting lots of effort into it, but at the same time we're looking at the next step: creating our second game, then our third, then our fourth, so that we can eventually create that community of games that we've promised.

We've long known that our second game was going to be "Galactic Emperor: Succession", a LARP written by Mike Young which we planned to convert to a Stage. However, in recent weeks we've been wondering whether the mechanics of our server are really up to the task of running Galactic Emperor right now. There's been much discussion, and we ultimately had to come to a decision.

As you may have seen over on the Galactic Emperor page, we've decided to delay the release of Galactic Emperor. You may recall back in my first column that this was something I in generally suggested against... but sometimes you have to delay a release, in order to ensure that you produce a quality game.

Despite this delay, the Galactic Emperor news is really quite good. We've just slipped it a month. Even better, we're working on an exciting new design for the game which we believe will allow it to run 24x7 rather than just as an occasional Stage. It should be a fun environment for conflict, competition, and trading that is very different from Castle Marrach, yet uses the same core engine.

So watch for that in December. We'll make an announcement on the StoryPlayers page when it starts really coming together.

And that's the Skotos news this week.

A Question of Continuity

A dilemma that's been bugging me of late is the physical continuity of characters in Castle Marrach. It's one of those places where our virtual reality fails to provide a good map for physical reality. In Castle Marrach, people just pop in and out. They can be gone for weeks at a time and then just reappear. That isn't how physical reality works at all.

In real life, my friends can generally figure out how to get ahold of me: by calling me at home (good), by calling me at work (better), or by emailing me (best). If I'm not around, because I've headed off to the Napa Valley or to Honolulu or to Redmond, it's a rarity and possibly a reason for concern (particularly if it is Redmond that I've fled to).

In real life, if there's something that interests me, like a national election or a local rally or a reading by my favorite author, I'll participate in it. Or, if I don't, it's because some other event in my real life interfered.

In a virtual reality we just don't have these guarantees. The characters in the game don't have a continuity of existence. You can't always find them; they can't always hear about events that they should participate in.

Monkey and others hashed out one of the consequences of this problem in the forums a few weeks ago – how the absence of players can affect current plots.

However, the absence of players also affect those players too. When absentee players return, they'll find that plots and events have occurred that their character should have participated in and they won't have any explanation for why they didn't.

Kimberly (my wife and Punzel's player) ran into this problem in the first few weeks of Castle Marrach. Her first plot involved Martel and his duel with Ser Victor. Punzel found Martel's defense of the Queen to be quite heroic. She planned to write a poem to commemorate the whole event.

But then real life got in the way. On the date of the duel Kimberly had a late class and she was forced to miss it. Afterward, her interest in Punzel waned. She felt like missing out on this pivotal event ruined a lot of her initial plot arc.

I've heard similar stories from other people. After going on vacation or out of town for the weekend, or whatever, they return to find that the Castle hasn't waited around for their return. New plots have moved forward; the players are left trying to figure out how their character, in the virtual world of the Castle, can possibly explain missing out.

As a result, interest in a character sometimes wanes. It's a good way to lose players through no fault of the game itself.

So what solutions can we offer for this problem? There aren't any quick and easy answers, but I can offer future StoryBuilders a few suggestions:

Make your background reflect a lack of physical continuity. Since the whole problem is that lack of physical continuity in virtual worlds, you can overcome the issue, totally, by making it an actual part of your game. We could have done this in Marrach, though we haven't. We could have explained it away due to the magic of the Castle. We could have said: time works differently for different people – if you miss a few days, it's because you stepped into your room and when you stepped back out days had passed; or the magic of the Castle causes people to sleep, sometimes for extended periods of time; or sometimes people aren't able to leave their rooms for days at a time, finding instead that the magical portal in their room leads nowhere/somewhere-scary/a-dungeon-cell/whatever.

In our next games, hopefully we'll be able to offer explanations. In some places, like Alvatia, it'll be easy. The game will be so big that not seeing someone or not hearing about a plot won't be a big surprise. For our more constrained games, we'll have to think carefully.

Always give your characters ways to explain absences. As StoryTellers in Castle Marrach, we try to help our players by offering their characters "outs" to explain their absences. If someone is going away for a week their character might be wounded, thrown into jail, called to the Inner Bailey, or otherwise made unavailable. It's been great when we've specifically arranged something like this with a player. When they return and find a number of plots en media res they just have to jump in, because their character genuinely has been gone. This doesn't help out the average player, however, who doesn't come to the Skotos StoryTellers. We need to make "outs" easily available for these folks: perhaps by offering standard excuses, perhaps by letting them choose why they've been gone via a form on their personal Marrach portal, perhaps by letting CNPCs suggest options to them, based on what's going on. You have to make it easy for players to declare why their characters have been missing.

Build plots to accommodate absences. This weekend, the Skotos Customer Experience department is trying out a new idea: running special "weekender" plots that start on Saturday and are fairly self-contained. They're a great way for characters who have been gone all week to jump right back in. Offering up places for absent characters to easily involve themselves in existing plots could also be done. Say, with the murder of Armsman Roland, there might have been calls to search for evidence or calls for neutral parties to interview witnesses – both excellent methods to draw in players who weren't involved from the day of the ill-fated dueling.

Like I said, not total solutions, but possibilities to resolve an interesting problem.

Truth & Consequences

As will probably always happen in a game of this complexity, especially one that's undergoing constant revision, we had a small set of bugs erupt this week.

There were reports of scroll delivery being delayed at various times. We still don't know what caused that problem, nor why it seems to have started working again. The "open" verb was broken from about midnight to 10am one day, probably due to some work on the lock system.

It amuses me, sometimes, to consider the virtual reality which, of necessity, must exist due to the occasional bugs in our game system.

I see couriers standing around the corridors of Castle Marrach, smoking cigarettes, and looking haughty. When asked for a scroll they say "Scram, kid. We ain't delivering no scrolls today."

I see players jammed into cupboards, crowding in with Launfal, or pacing outside of their rooms. Occasionally one tries the knob of a door and finds it stuck. "Do you think it's frozen?" one player asks. "Either that – or magic," another says. He scowls and glances in the direction of the Wizard's tower, still sealed.

They huddle together, seeking shelter from the cold breezes, the secret magics, the surly couriers, and they wait for the gods to intervene, to make the world right again.

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