Series Info...#6: The Castle Marrach Wish List

by Shannon Appelcline

October 26, 2000 - Last Friday we had an important meeting at Skotos. We gathered the whole team together and discussed an issue that we'd all been facing; we were all becoming reactive, solving immediate problems rather than looking at long-term strategies.

It was true across the whole company: customer experience, game development, and engineering were all facing it to varying degrees. We were all more likely to be working toward the next day's plots or fixing the bugs most recently reported than to be looking at the long-term issues.

This reactive mind set wasn't entirely a bad thing. To a certain extent, it was very necessary following the release of Castle Marrach. We needed to tread water to come up to speed on things that we'd wanted to finish up before the release. We needed to fix lots of problems that became apparent only when the game went live. We needed to learn how to effectively advance plots in our interactive fiction environment. But it was only viable as a short-term strategy.

The lesson here for game designers is obvious: Don't let short-term gratification overcome the need to invest time in long-term strategies.

Now that we're all aware of the problem, we're 50% of the way to solving it. We've also cut back a little on our hosted and assist hours. We figure that short term this might cost us a little bit of player happiness, but we know that long term it will increase the enjoyment of residents in the Castle – because we'll be able to do lots of neat things that we couldn't have done if we were just responding to the Crisis of the Day.

That was our biggest decision over the last week and possibly our biggest decision since the Marrach launch.

When You Wish...

Thinking about the conflicting needs of short-term desires and long-term strategies put me off on a side track that I'd like to investigate a little bit this week. In my third article I talked about objects. I gave lots of reasons why objects were important. One of them was: they entertain players. That's relevant to the topic at hand.

We don't have many exciting objects in Castle Marrach right now. There's the swords, which allow you to duel, the various foods which you can get from the kitchen, and that's about it. Beyond the bare recreation offered by those sets of items, there's only one way to entertain characters: plots.

Plots are a very work-intensive thing. Though they'll always be central to Castle Marrach, because we are here to tell stories, it'd be really nice if those plots could be supplemented by interesting objects which could help people do things even when we're not around. And to connect this up to my main point, let me say that plots tend to fall more toward the reactive side of things while interesting objects tend to fall more toward the strategy side of things... by putting work into some interesting objects now, we'll be able to entertain a lot more people in the future, supplementing the plots we're running then. It's all a balance.

So what follows is my Castle Marrach Wish List. It's not necessarily a list of things we're going to implement... indeed a lot can't be done by our system quite yet... and some are way out there. It's just a list of things I, personally, would love to see. I invite players to consider it one possible future and StoryBuilders to take it as food for thought; it's the type of thing future StoryBuilders will need to think about for their own games.

The Shannon Appelcline Castle Marrach Wish List:

A Working Bowling Alley. Want to engage in sports at Castle Marrach? You've seen the playing field up on the second floor. It's that long room that is notably missing bowling balls. I imagine a bowling system where you could have a bowling skill and there might be maybe a half-dozen or so different ways that you could throw the ball. Each lane would come with a CNPC who'd keep score for you. Long term, you could threaten, bribe, or seduce that CNPC into cheating on the scoring. And you might even be able to cheat with special balls, by waxing the lane, or with magic. Not that any Castle residents would engage in such treachery!

A Dueling Dummy. No one to practice dueling with? No problem. Just stop by the practice room and you can duel with the dummy. However, unlike the straw dummies some residents may have foggy memories of, this dummy has been animated by the Lady Serista. He figures out the skill level of his opponents and does his best to give an even fight, perhaps even pointing out deficiencies in his opponent's style.

The Completely AI Launfal. Don't know your way around the Castle? Just go talk to Launfal and he'll be able to offer you suggestions to a hundred or so common questions. No human intervention required.

Occupation Quests. Want to become a guard or a watchman or an apprentice? Repetitive tasks like this should require less human intervention than they currently do. Sure, you'd always need to talk to NPCs (or PCs) at some point, so that they could find out if you have the right stuff... but why not automate a lot of the "proving tasks" via quests? Perhaps Serista requires her apprentices to learn certain things about the castle or to collect certain items. Perhaps the watchmen require applicants to learn dueling and to prove themselves to certain castle members.

A Craft System. Don't like the color of your garments? Dye them a different color. Wants to make a name as a brewmaster at Marrach? Find some ingredients to add to the beers coming out of the kitchen to make them tastier. Want to make magic potions for the alchemist or the sorceress? With a craft system you could mix and match ingredients. Paint your own portraits, make your own sculptures, and decorate your room. Fun for you and your friends!

So, there's my top five fun things wish list. A lot of this is very pie in the sky. Much of it is the kind of thing that we clearly need to eventually have in the system, but it could be quite some time away. As much as anything, this is all a reflection of the type of thing that we can be planning for if we're thinking strategically rather than reactively... things to supplement the roleplaying.(1)

Got your own Castle Marrach wish list? I'd love to hear it.

Castle Marrach and Jet Li I never intended to spend a bit of this column every week talking about amusing bugs... but the bugs we've seen have been so amusing that I can't really help myself, so here we are again.

In our games, rooms are full of details. Anything in a room that isn't mobile is a detail: a fireplace, a big table, the ceiling, the floor, the doors, etc. You get the idea.

In addition, we have a system of proxes (proximities). You can move to be close to any of these details. For example, you can approach the fireplace or sit at a table or stand by a door.

Since the Alpha tests of our system, well before the release of Marrach, we've tried to figure out the best way to deal with details that are unapproachable... like a tall ceiling. We originally came up with the idea of "abstract" details... things that couldn't be interacted with at all. This works great for a whirring sound or a chill breeze, or something else of that ilk – which is very abstract – but it turned out to be inappropriate for unapproachable details. You should be able to point at an unapproachable detail, even if you can't get near it ("point at sky"). Truly abstract details don't work the same way. (Point at a chill in the air? I don't think so.)

So we thought over it all. We pushed it back and forth many times in the months leading up to the Marrach release... And somehow we went straight into the beta test without ever resolving the issue.

Last week a few of our intrepid beta testers discovered the bug. One minute the refectory was quiet... the next it was full of characters flying up to the ceiling and back.

I can just imagine the carnage.

   > approach ceiling
   You move from the fireplace to the ceiling.

   > scream "Aiiiiiii!"
   You scream "Aiiiiiii!"

   > kick Retribution's nose
   You move from the ceiling to the space between the pillars.
   You kick Retribution's nose.

Castle Marrach: medieval fantasy game or Jet Li Hong Kong action flick?

You decide.

  1. 12/6/01. A year later, it's interesting to look at this just-for-fun list and see what happened. There's no bowling alley, but Marrach does have chess. No one's been interested in a dueling dummy. A completely AI Launfal is one of those things that will probably never happen. Occupation quests likewise haven't sparked any one's interest, though I continue to think they're one of the things that could do the most good for newlie player experience. Finally, though there isn't a crafting system per se, there is a terrific alteration system — and our lead engineer is working hard on a robust crafting system for our games in general, which may make it into Marrach some day.

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