Series Info... #3: Objectionable Economies

by Shannon Appelcline

October 5, 2000 - It's M-day +14. Our stability problems seems to have been resolved. Our lead engineer is back. We're still working our tails off, doing game development and programming work to make sure Marrach can continue to expand, but things are overall looking pretty good.

A lot of the work this week, both gamedev and programming, has gone into objects – those cute like chatchkas that you can pick up and carry around in Marrach. Tunics, gowns, rosettes, pins, uniforms, beers, bread rolls, swords, that kind of thing. While creating objects this week, we've learned some valuable lessons, and so that's my topic for today.

We knew from the start that objects weren't going to be very important in Marrach, that the heart of the game would really be about intrigue and discovery, about prestige and favor. We thought that objects were going to be just cute little add-ons that people might use to customize their characters – and little more.

We were, of course, wrong.

Shannon's First Rule of Objects: Players in online games tend to create economies of objects.

Let me explain that a little more clearly. In an online game when people see objects they tend to pick them up. Period. Irrespective of if their character would want it. Irrespective of whether it's appropriate roleplaying to pick up that object. (And let me say, clearly, this isn't true of everyone... there are a lot of great roleplayers who don't follow my first rule of objects – who consider their character before grapping things, who consider the implications of their actions in a virtual world... who even give their wrappings to Dolfin – but this rule applies to enough people, perhaps just 10%, that you have to really think about its effects on a game.)

I'm not entirely sure why this is true, but it is. One answer is that movable objects are rare. Personally, I blame the Infocom adventure games and all their brethren, in which you had to pick up the cheese sandwich in room two in order to beat the Vogon Space Fleet in room seventy-one. I loved those games, but to a certain extent they created a disrespect for ownership and a weird overemphasis on everday objects.

In Castle Marrach I've seen people snatch things off the altar on the south side of the Castle and I've heard of people taking scrolls from Launfal's desk. I doubt these players are all playing kleptomaniacs... it's just that's how online games tend to work. The problem can be multiplied a hundred times – look at the people on EBay selling objects for EverQuest, Ultima, and Asheron's Call. But even on Castle Marrach, it's an issue.

So, that's economies of objects. Collecting objects. Hoarding objects. Selling objects. It's definitely an aspect of online games that needs to be considered when you're building them.

I've come up with a few solutions that I'm going to briefly enumerate, for future thought.

1. Make everday objects truly ubiquitous. No one would ever think of carrying around numerous food objects in real life because they can always be easily gotten. We're moving toward this in Castle Marrach, with cooks and seamstresses and tailors providing for character needs.

2. Flag ownership of items. This one was suggested to me by Seidl for slightly different reasons. If we flag a scroll as belonging to "Launfal" (or even to the "Altar") and someone carries it off, we can institute consequences for that theft (just as there would be consequences in real life).

3. Build a different culture. And finally we get down to the social answer, which in many ways is the most powerful one. Going around and collecting objects and creating this economy of objects that I've described is a really a part of the culture of these online only games. So the best way to "fix" this is to create a new, different culture. If players join together and say which things are acceptable and which aren't, those things will de facto become acceptable (or not) as the castle grows. Seeding that culture is the tricky bit.

So that's my main thought, on objects, this week, but I had a few more lessons learned that I wanted to share with a bit more brevity.

Shannon's Second Rule of Objects: Scarce objects will be seen as tokens of favor.

Shortly after Castle Marrach came out, one of our staff members was giving out flowers to the ladies. He'd been working on them in conjunction with a gardener CNPC and thought it might be nice to give them out in advance. Not a big deal.

But we hadn't learned the second rule of objects yet. At least one player was upset by this flower distribution, because of the innate unfairness of randomly giving some players scarce objects. When objects are scarce they'll be treated as such, even if they have no intrinsic value.

Shannon's Third Rule of Objects: Objects in games provide entertainment.

And that leads us to the last thing that we learned about objects in the last couple of weeks – the third rule – that objects provide entertainment. Players love having food (and beer!) in Castle Marrach. It allows them greater immersion in the reality and also supports better characterization ("my character gets drunk", "my character never eats", "my character enjoys eating socially").

The core lesson here really being: even if objects are unimportant for your core gameplay, it's important to have them around, nonetheless.

Shannon's First Corollary of Objects: Objects are needed to drive plots.

And before I finish up here, I want to discuss this brief corollary to the third rule. A lot of our gamedev work in the last week has involved trying to keep up with our customer experience team, providing the objects they need for plots.

There are numerous objects that are required for the general goings on of Castle Marrach: huge varieties of (working) food for feasts; swords and scabbards for dueling; pins, medallions, scarfs, etc. for societies. We knew about most of these – they weren't surprises. Still, they required work.

We were slightly more surprised by the unique objects required for each and every plot. We did a ceremony for the Winter Watch last night and had to prep, among other things, a goblet of wine that changed its description when drunken from (to represent the fact that it wasn't full any more). We have a list of required objects for the rest of the plots throughout the week and are working hard on them.

Closing Thoughts... On Food

I'm sure I've run way over my intended length this week, but there's one more topic that I can't let lie: food. I said at the start that a lot of gamedev and programming work this week has gone into objects. The gamedev work has been about creating all the objects needed for plots in the game. Someday we're going to have a large library of objects, and it's going to be easier for developers to make their games, but today we're still forming the basis of that library – so there's a lot of work to be done.

The programming work has gone into – food. If you ate food in the castle in the first few weeks, you probably noticed that you typed "eat croissant" (substitute your favorite Marrach delicacy), a pleasing message appeared ("You eat the croissant.") and then the food was gone. Nice and simple, but a bit hard on the cooks trying to keep up with the players.

So wconnell, one of our engineers, started working on an advanced food system, so that when you took a bite, you just ate part of the food. The first draft of the system involved the mass of a piece of food decreasing by about 10% when a bite was taken.

Or at least that was the theory...

There was a minor mistake in the coding somewhere and as a result whenever someone took a bite of food, their food got bigger... by about 10x. We had one character trapped in the dining hall after she'd eaten a bit too much of her roll. We had a slice of white cheese that grew to be larger than the entire castle. It was chaos.

We giggled about it for hours.

Sometimes this job is kind of weird.

your opinion...