If you can't say anything nice...
by Dave Rickey
I've just finished reading Richard Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds". Dr. Bartle's credentials are impeccable (dating back 25 years to the original MUD1), his attention to detail impressive, his citing of sources as near complete as possible in an era of web-rot. He covers the full scope of online game design, all of the multivariate elements that get tied together to create them, with all the i's dotted and t's crossed. Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed.
Don't get me wrong, this is a must-read book for anyone who wants to design, or understand the design of, an MMO game of any kind. Read it, read the web-references provided in the footnotes, think on the points that it raises. No one has ever tied all of this together in one package before, and Dr. Bartle has done a very workmanlike job of providing a theoretical framework for many attributes of the design process. But based on my own experience I found much that was questionable, incomplete, or just erroneous. On the plus side, this is going to give me the material for quite a few columns.
For this particular column, I'm going to revisit a debate that started here on Skotos, in Jessica Mulligan's Biting the Hand column. To give a little background, Jessica's column was the most visible manifestation of a debate that had been going on for several weeks at the time: The nature of the games, the role of Art in online game design, and the responsibilities of designers to to the players and communities inside their games. Involved in the debate at the time were three basic positions:
Well, with all due respect, I disagree. That social order emerges in these games is undeniable, that it becomes critical to the success and longevity of the games is rarely argued with anymore. What is subject to debate is whether the design has any direct or indirect influence on the community, if those communities can be prescribed or altered during design. It's clear that community can shape design, and this is recognized by Dr. Bartle. But the reverse also occurs, the social organizations of EverQuest, especially of high level guilds, are a direct reaction to the nature of high level play in that game, where each player is in a race with every other to access high level content, both cooperating and competing in order to do so. Contrarily, in UO much less cooperation is required to maintain a competitive state, each player can stand along and generally does. EQ's guilds maintain a minimum of communication with each other beyond the negotiation of the "Calendar" (who gets to kill what major monsters, and when), Camelot guilds are individually very similar, but normally have a far more complex set of relationships between the guilds due to the cooperation required for effective Realm vs. Realm play. Different demands of high-level advancement create different social networks.
In EQ, the tying of major quests to crafting caused most to see bringing up their own character's crafting skills as part of doing the quest. In UO, most players have their own crafting mules they use for most of their needs yet "Grandmaster" equipment remains the center of a cottage industry, while in Camelot most guilds have "Bespoken" crafters, not quite mules but not quite independent characters either. Each of these situations has its own unique social consequences, and each is inescapably the result of the design of the crafting systems.
So game design can influence social order, although not always in predictable ways. Social dynamics seem to be inherently emergent, with effects many stages removed from their causes, and the line of causality is rarely clear. Nonetheless, influence is being exerted, and sometimes in quite dramatic ways. The question becomes how much our control of this influence can be refined?
For example, in Camelot one attempt to create interdependance between tradesmen (the requirement to get Tailored linings for armors) was treated as pure annoyance and widely bypassed, yet the value-added services of a Spellcrafter (who can create no products himself, but only augment those of others) are the center of a great deal of economic activity with very little "muling". Why did this happen? If we assume that it is because of the differing perceptions of the inputs (high-quality armors/weapons as inherently valuable items in their own right, vs. tailored components as generic inputs that might as well be so many bundles of cloth or leather), then we get one set of conclusions, if we alternatively assume the distinction lies in the unfeasibility of a single player "vertically integrating" the supply chain by achieving Legendary Grand Master status in 4 other trades with mule characters, we get a different set of conclusions. Both theories have the virtue of being potentially testable (one of the possible outcomes is that we disprove *both* theories). Assuming that we find (or create) examples that constitute a test of these theories, we can begin to make reliable predictions on how players will react to different, as yet unimplemented systems, and the associated social consequences.
And in the end, I believe this is my greatest area of disagreement with most of those that concern themselves with the theory of online games: I believe that if it isn't testable and disprovable, it's not a theory, it's simply an argument. This is a "hard science" approach, like that of physics, biology, or other experimental sciences. It's a far cry from the approach traditionally used for the sciences that normally concern themselves with human behaviour (sociology, anthropology, and most fields of psychology), where the standard is one of "scholarly advocacy". In theorizing in the "soft sciences", the most important factors are internal consistency and proper homage to a recognized body of theoretical work. It is taken as a given that testability is impossible where it is not unethical, and generally accepted that truth (even scientific truth) is the product of social consensus.
Frankly, I believe that post-modernism, the ideology that there is no such thing as objective truth, that the quest for meaning is meaningless, is an intellectual poison that has no place even in academia, and certainly not in the practical craft of game design. It is possible to create meaningful social theories and test them, through online games. Just as a brief example, I once laid out a theory to account for the comparatively sparse populations of EQ's "Zek" servers (with a hardcore PvP ruleset that allowed attack at any time). The theory stated that the decision to depart a game or server could be made in part based on population pressures, and that these could operate differently if the rules of the servers were significantly different. In the case of EQ, the primary cause of population pressure on standard servers was competition for content, a crowded server would mean fewer opportunities for interesting encounters and longer lines for "must have" items. On the "Zek's", the primary instrument of population pressure was the "gankage" factor, how often the players were likely to lose battles. This was very different from the prevailing sentiment that only a small percentage of players were interested playing long-term on a PvP server.
It's fairly trivial to show that the number of violent encounters between players will go up as roughly the square of the increase in population. And it's not hard to accept the assumption that being killed in PvP is a more frustrating experience than having to wait in line to kill a popular item-dropping mob. But one difference in this theory compared to most is that it allowed for predictive failure: It would predict that if the amount of territory available on a "Zek" server was increased, then so would the population. As I was proposing this theory at almost the same time as the addition of the Scars of Velious expansion pack, an opportunity to disprove the theory was available. If SoV came out and the population of the Zek servers did not rise, then the theory was disproven, or at least seriously challenged. This would have boded ill for Dark Age of Camelot's chances for success, given that PvP was an integral part of the game's design, and since I was working on it at the time I would have been very disappointed to see that.
Well, SoV came out, and the populations of the Zek servers rose significantly, then stabilized at a higher level. The theory that all of the players in EQ who wanted to play PvP, already were, was disproven, and the theory that the lower populations of "hardcore" servers were lower due to different parameters of population pressure was strengthened. The theory was considered improbable at the time I originally proposed it (common wisdom was that the US/European market didn't like PvP, and it couldn't be "done right" because of this inherent dislike, except as a small, niche game). Although this particular example is fairly simple, this is the kind of theory that online game design needs; Testable theories that can provide useful answers. Handwaving in the direction of "game experience as Hero's Journey" (as Dr. Bartle does extensively) may be an intellectually satisfying exercise, but how can it be tested? How will we know if the theory is correct and the implementation is just inadequate? How do we judge a "better" approach to implementation? That such answers can't be provided is not a barrier to post-modernistic approaches, but it certainly is a barrier to craftsmanship.
So to close this column, I need to make clear that I am *not* offering disrespect to Dr. Bartle or to his book, but rather voicing strong disagreement with his methods and conclusions. In the end, he's also trying to advance the theory and craft of online game design and even if it provokes me to disagree so strongly, his book certainly does that, impressively. Go buy it, read it, just be sure to think about it, rather than just accepting it.