#5: Reality Check
by Shannon Appelcline
October 19, 2000 It's now M-day +28. A lunar month since the Marrach release. Looking back at that month, I'd have to say that Marrach has been a larger success than we could have possibly hoped for. We're still picking up new players. The rate has slowed since our initial release, but we did have another surge when we moved Marrach into an open Beta and cast press releases out to the virtual winds, to be scattered across the net. We're creeping up toward thirty active players at the game's peak times and we're finding that those peak times are spreading out more and more... including days that we're not there doing any hosting.
That's all terrific, but it's not the only measure that we've seen for the success of Castle Marrach. The thing that excites us most about the future of both Castle Marrach and Skotos as a whole is the sheer vitality of the user community. I talked about it last week, but I continue to be astounded by the number of player plots appearing. I'm also surprised by how quickly players react to plots or ideas put out there by StoryHost characters. On Sunday Launfal asked Petris to arrest a player named Thanos. On Tuesday, one of our unstaffed days, the whole thing blew up. Thanos apologized for his various actions. Then Philo arrested him. And the next thing you knew the whole Castle was embroiled in a debate over what should be done with him. Launfal's office was jammed on 3pm Wednesday, when we opened back up for business. Very cool.
Even cooler are the web pages that have started to appear There are four of them now; I need to talk to our web designer about linking them in to our main Castle Marrach. (And, I should admit, one of the web pages belongs to my wife. I've been helping her out by making graphics for it in the hours that I'm not here at Skotos. I'm amazed how excited she is about Castle Marrach, especially given the fact that she's never played any online games like this before. Again, very cool. I'm going to abuse my soapbox for a second and tell you that you can find Kimberly's Marrach website at www.erzo.org).
I've decided to save continuing discussion of plots for another week. This week I want to talk a little bit about another topic that's been interesting me: the nature of reality in Castle Marrach (and our interactive fictions games in general).
Reality: A Collective Hunch?
Part of our goal in writing Castle Marrach, or any interactive fiction game, is to create a virtual reality. We're not trying to exactly model our reality after all, then we wouldn't have magic or endless bounties of food or any of the other things that make Marrach an enchanted place. However, except in those places where we're explicitly playing fast and loose with those laws set down by Einstein and Newton and others... we'd kind of like our game's reality to be a reflection of physical reality.
It doesn't always work that way.
In particular, a very important rule for any game designer to know is: Characters in any online game will not act in the same way as their players would in real life.
I talked about this briefly in my third article, on objects. When people are confronted with objects in an interactive fiction game, they tend to pick them up no matter who they might belong to or what other reason there might be for just leaving the object alone. We actually encountered this anew this week. The sorceress discovered that a pillar of scrolls was missing from her amphitheatre The sorceress, one of the most feared personas in the game, was ripped off. What kind of reality is that?
We've seen a number of other examples of how virtual behavior and physical behavior differ and I'd like to touch upon a few of them this week.
Characters don't pay attention to closed doors in interactive fiction games. Several of us have hosted closed-door meetings in Castle Marrach, only to find them constantly interrupted by people who wander in. Granted, you can't knock on a door right now, but I would bet two onions and a wedge of white cheese that even when we implement knocking, closed doors will still not be a barrier.
Characters in interactive fiction games are less prone to embarrassment than most of us are in real life. This is probably just a product of having a screen and a few thousand miles of pulsing electrons between yourself and the rest of the players. But, when you're playing Castle Marrach, do you think twice before going to chat with Launfal, the Lord High Chamberlain of the entire Castle? Or before introducing yourself to a group of entirely new people? Or before reciting one of your poems to them? Probably not, or at the least, not as much as you might think about going to talk to the CEO of your company or about reciting your own poetry to some of your nearest friends.
(And I should note that there's an interesting corollary here as the reality of Marrach becomes increasingly real, that potential for embarrassment seems to increase as well. One of my wife's characters read at the Poet's Convocation this last Friday, to a crowd of about twenty-five. Afterward, she told me she'd been terribly nervous.)
Characters in interactive fiction games get a lot friendlier a lot faster than they would in real life. This spans the whole spectrum. In interactive fiction games, people are likely to become friends a lot faster than in real life. But it's more than that. Characters are likely to get touchy-feely affectionate, even passionate with each other, in extremely short times. Word of the first marriage at Castle Marrach started circulating within the first couple of weeks of the castle going live.
Those are some of the most obvious behavioral differences that I've seen thus far. I don't want to delve too much into reasons this week nor do I want to offer solutions (after all, there's not a right or wrong in most of this, just a different). Instead I'll simply reiterate my core point: Characters in virtual realities behave in very different ways from people in physical realities.
A Final Word on Hercules
Earlier in this article I mentioned that someone had ripped the sorceress off by stealing a pillar from her amphitheatre You might have paused a bit and thought, "A pillar? That sounds kind of ... BIG." Indeed, it was.
See, we've learned our lessons well in the last couple of weeks and we've come to the conclusion that if we want objects to stick around we either need to put them in locked rooms (which is why Launfal's office is locked most of the time nowadays) or we need to make them really, really heavy.
That pillar was really, really heavy. At least ten times as heavy as anything a character could pick up. Nonetheless, it disappeared. And, this wasn't the first time that an exceedingly heavy item disappeared. We had a shield out in the eastern courtyard a few weeks ago, which was supposed to be a massive, decorative shield. It walked off too.
It was like magic. And when you're the game designer and things in the game seem like magic... you're in trouble.
We eventually tracked down the problem. Somehow a multiplier of 1000 had gotten put on the strengths of many of the early Castle Marrach characters. As a result, instead of carrying 100kg each, they could carry 100,000kg. That's the mass of an elephant.
It's been fixed now, but for almost a month the gods walked among us at Castle Marrach.