Series Info...Finite Games

by Sam Witt
April 4, 2001

During my time as an online gamer, I've noticed that most games are loathe to end. They'll change and mutate over time, they'll layer system after system over the top of the core game until the whole thing staggers under the weight, but they plod on. Like some sort of mutant zombie, the game shambles on, heedless of the damage it has done to itself, and the many victims it has left in its wake.

Yeah, that last bit there was probably a little melodramatic. But the rest of it is true - online games tend to live long past the point at which they're much fun or even interesting, kept alive by regular cash transfusions from the playerbase.

I've never been able to get my head around this, to be perfectly honest. In my opinion, all games should have a very clear beginning, and an equally clear ending. There should be a time at which the designers say, "This game is ready to be put to bed, so we can start something new."

I know, I know. Players want to keep the same characters they've had for the past decade, the ones they've spent all that time building up and roleplaying. This is a legitimate thing to want, but there needs to be a little understanding here about the dangers of long-lived worlds.

The most obvious danger is that these words become exclusionary. The best stuff falls into the hands of those who have played the longest, and new players are just going to have to accept that. Items that were discovered to be slightly too powerful often remain in the game - but only in the inventory packs of those who were around when those items were first introduced. Because players scream like children with their heads on fire when something is taken from them, the longer a game stays around, the more broken toys the old-timers will have.

On the surface, that doesn't seem too bad, but there's another layer that really screws the new guy. The designers have to take into account all these broken toys the old folks have when they design new content. Which means that the encounters that are difficult for someone with a Sword of the Uber may be virtually impossible for the new guys to deal with.

But it isn't just about not screwing the new kids. It's also about letting the old-timers get revitalized and renew their interest in the game. Poor choices made early in a character's career are often hard to undo, and once you're at the top of the heap you don't really want to start over. So players that have been around a long time often actually have characters that they're not terribly happy with, just because they don't want to lose what they have by starting a new character. This often leads to the birth of 'twinks,' those dreadful alternate characters that start their life outfitted with the spoils from the player's other, more experienced characters.

But the real problem is that, over time, the game just gets old. Once things are known, they start to become mundane and uninteresting. The players know that there is an Illifi Mindthrall station orbiting their home, because it's been there for the past four years. They have a firm understanding of how the game works, and all the quirks of the system that have allowed them to survive for so long. In short, the game becomes boring.

From a designer's perspective, killing a game is a scary thing. There's a lot of work in putting one of these things together - for a Skotos game, for instance, it's not unusual to spend five hours fully detailing a single room. Multiply that effort by the dozens, or even hundreds, of rooms that it takes to create a truly engaging environment, and it's easy to see why the designer would shudder at seeing it all go away.

Which is why I don't really want to see games be killed, never to see the light of day again. But what I do want to see is an evolution in the way games are played, and in the way that they are viewed by the gaming public.

Ideally, online games would see some separation in system and content - Skotos is doing this right now, creating a backstage engine that Storybuilders are allowed to muck around with and create their own games. While the core architecture of all the games is similar, the games themselves are quite different - compare Galactic Emperor: Succession to Castle Marrach.

But Storybuilders are going to have to take the next steps themselves. They'll have to start thinking of their games as episodic pieces, with each episode lasting months or years. The idea that I'd like to see is a series of interlinked games that allow a player to move a character through each episode, to explore different aspects of that character in games that are similar, but not the same.

As an example, let's say we build a game called Enterprise Alpha. It's all about a small corporation in a cyberpunk world, and how that corporation has to compete with other, larger corporations to survive and grow. Now, it wouldn't make sense to run that game indefinitely, with the starter company pretty much always remaining a starter company. It only makes sense that it should grow, slowly but surely, to become a larger corporation, with more assets and a different set of needs.

So the idea is that you run this game for a couple of years, starting from ground zero and letting the players build the corporation up for a while. And then you introduce Overcorp: Beta, which continues the story of the characters, but now in their new role as managers and experts, rather than grunts and neophytes. The characters are the same, but their focus has shifted to a new sort of activity that is necessary to keep the bigger company running.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a year after the Enterprise Alpha has gone live, you fire up a mirror of that game, letting new players get in on the ground floor of the game world, so they too can graduate to Overcorp:Beta after a couple of years.

By staging evolutionary episodes of the game, experienced players are given new challenges and systems to master, and new players can get into the game without being overshadowed by those who have been around a lot longer.

Just as importantly, the designers aren't growing stale. They work on one game for a couple of years, and then they're on to a related, but still new, challenge that gives them different avenues of expression. Everyone benefits and you don't see the annoying feature bloat and balance wars that take place when a game is constantly expanded for too many years.

Certainly, this isn't an easy solution for many to swallow. But by refusing to be a slave to the original design of a game, and freeing the players to periodically 'reset' their characters, everyone benefits.

As always, feel free to click that little link down there and speak your piece.

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