Series Info...Introductions All Around

by Sam Witt
November 8, 2000

A few weeks ago, I found out that I was going to be one of the Skotos Seven. It was both extremely exciting and intimidating. An idea I've had for years was finally going to see the light of day and - an idea I've had for years was finally going to see the light of day. It wasn't going to be mine anymore, it was going to grow up and be exposed to the harsh criticism of The Players.

After a few feverish readings of my original design notes, some of which are hopelessly out of date at this point, I realized that a lot of what I'd written down were my personal feelings on what an online game should be. Interspersed amongst pages of equipment were my thoughts on the in-game economy, and shotgunned throughout a section on combat I found marginalia concerning the inevitable appearance of grief players.

There were questions I didn't have all the answers to in there, as well as a wheelbarrow filled with answers that I felt were pretty damn good. I kicked the questions and answers around my apartment for a while, tossed them at my unsuspecting friends, and I still wasn't satisfied with what I had. Don't get me wrong, I have strong opinions on the myriad issues surrounding game design, but I can't get enough of hearing other sides to the arguments.

That said, the only sensible way to get at the information I really wanted was to bring it out into the public eye and start sparking some conversations about the whole business of online gaming. So that's what you're reading, the opening salvo in what I hope will become a fast and furious exchange of ideas, opinions, anecdotes, and miscellaneous gamer spew. Welcome to the party.

So what the hell am I doing?

I'm building Horizon Station, a far-future game of survival and exploration. Think Mad Max + Aliens + Indiana Jones + Other Stuff and you're getting a pretty good idea of what I'm shooting for, but in the end, I don't have final say over what the players will do with what I give them.

And that's what this series is about - talking to the Skotos Community about what these games are, what they should be, and where to go from here. Here is where you get to see what I have to say on the subject, but more importantly, it's where I'll start conversations that I want all of you to continue. I'm here to build interactive fiction, and to me that means I want to be up-close-and-personal with you folks.

I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea about these articles, though. This is not a series about the building of Horizon Station, it's a series about the metagame, about the world we online gamers are building for ourselves out here in the nowhere that is the internet. Yes, I'll be talking about bits and pieces of Horizon Station, but only as they relate to the greater whole.

The Enemy

One of the true geniuses of online game design once referred to the players of these games as 'The Enemy.' That sounds harsh, but in many ways, it's true. Game designers are not your friends, we're out to build worlds that will suck you in and hold you tight. We want to challenge you, and we'll keep raising the bar higher the better you get at clambering over it.

Because if we're not upping the ante, if we're not driving you half-mad with new problems to solve and mysteries to explore, then what are we here for? On the other hand, we can't play too rough with you or the game won't be fun anymore. So where's the middle line? Just how challenging should we make these worlds?

My initial answer to this was: "Hard. Hard enough to make their eyes bleed." Based on years of online gaming, I've seen players do the near-impossible, conquering everything thrown in their path through a combination of persistence, logic, and bloody-minded willfulness. Other designers have told me tales of horror, how the players discovered a way to accomplish an epic quest meant to take days in a matter of minutes. There are a lot more of you than there are of me, and you like to pool your resources – once a secret is out in the general knowledge arena, any stories or areas built around that secret become stale.

So what's a designer to do?

I'm going to make players work for the brass ring, but I'm not going to set the ring myself. I'll give you the tools and environment to decide what you're personal measure of success will be, and you'll have to figure out how to get to it yourself. I'm going to put my baby into the hands of The Enemy, and we'll see how you treat each other. Best of luck to both of you.

Where do we go from here?

To keep the ball rolling, I'm going to ask each of you to post your hot-button topics related to gaming. Character death and its impact, risk versus reward, roleplaying and out-of-character actions, the game economy, skills or levels – whatever it is that you feel is important to consider when a game is being designed, I want to hear about it. Whenever I see something that looks interesting, we'll go spelunking in it.

The design process is, almost by its very nature, an isolated experience. The ideas come from the middle of my brain, and until I get them out there for everyone to pick at, they're mine, all mine. But online gaming is a communal experience, it's about everyone coming together to tell the story of this great, complicated, piece of a virtual world. And that's what this series is about, at its core, I suppose: the community coming together to tell the metastory of online gaming.

See ya in a week when we'll talk about – well, stuff we want to talk about.

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