Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #4:

On the Online Line

by Scott Holliday
February 24, 2003

After reading my last article, you were probably wondering if I was wearing rose-colored glasses that week. How can I hope to build a game about everything? How can I hope to please all the different audiences at once? As the saying goes, you can't please everyone all the time. So how does one aim at pleasing most of your players most of the time?

A few years ago, I got involved in a brand new online game. Since this is going to be a rant, I'm not saying who. Initially, it was fun, and I was having a blast. It had a well-crafted theme and background storyline. The graphics were beautiful. I had downloaded the music and I was listening to it at work. The game was mostly error-free, and constantly getting better. Game mechanics were so-so, but I could live with them. There was plenty of stuff to do and lots of places to explore. I was even bragging about my exploits to friends who weren't really interested. Yes... I was THAT guy. I guess the bottom rung was when I downloaded demo movies, output them to VHS, and took them with me to a party. I feel shame. But, a month or two later, I had deleted it from my hard-drive.

What was wrong? What had changed? Doesn't it sound like a great game? Sure it does! For single player. Interaction... there wasn't any. Sure, there were other players online. You'd give salutations as you passed. You could even attack each other. Or trade stuff if anyone cared. Problem was, nobody did. Why should I pay a monthly fee for what is really a single-player game with a few quirks? This wasn't the first time. This was just the worst case I had seen.

So, here's a simple list of no-no's with possible solutions:

Problem one: players have no reason to interact. Example: a smith goes and mines his own ore, smelts it, works it into metal, makes the blade, then carves the hilt out of a tree that he chops down himself. Solution: self-sufficiency should be impossible or very, very inefficient. If one player can ever do everything better by himself, his main goal is getting rid of the competition. Note: this applies to more than crafting! The solo warrior who doesn't like to share should be at a disadvantage because he can't pick locks or solve magical puzzles or charm the princess by himself. This goes back to the previous column about multiple goals. If fighting is all there is, everyone will be a fighter. A second, more arbitrary solution is to give 'grouping' incentives. Never liked the idea, but it makes sense if that's all you have.

Problem two: players are discouraged from interaction. Example: "There is only one pot of gold at the end of the dungeon, so we want to take as few people as possible." Solution: make a pot based on the size of the party OR no pot at all, rewarding every player that gets there. Yes, this encourages forming up armies to invade the dungeon, but that can be a lot of fun for players! And frankly, keeping an army moving in the right direction takes a lot more work than clicking 'attack'. Note: this applies to more than adventuring! If the only way for two bowyers interact is to steal each other's business, they'd be happier without each other. Allow bowyers to combine their skills and now they want more bowyers!

Problem three: new players and old players don't mix. Example: "Sorry son, you're only 45th level, we're going to fight Zog-the-Eater-of-Worlds, you'd just be in the way." This is especially bad. Your population has been split into small groups based on how much they've played. You might as well put each experience group on a different server. Solution: Personally, I dislike level systems in general, but many players need character advancement in order to feel like they are accomplishing something. If you are going to have advancement, make sure there is room for the newbies. I see three solutions: 1) Levels don't mean super-powers. I like a limit system where as you go up levels you approach twice the power of a new player. 2) Lower level people can perform important functions just as easily as an experienced character. Maybe you can take a few newbies with you so they can flank Zog, or interrupt him whenever he starts casting? 3) Experienced players gain bonuses from bringing along younger players and showing them the ropes.

Problem four: players have no reason to speak to each other. Example: " ...silence... orc dies ...silence... dragon dies ...silence... Zog dies." This is an online game. If the only player-player interaction occurs while you are recovering from battles, why not just play a single player game while talking on the phone? Solution: I dunno. I've been there when this happens, and it's awful. Anyone have any ideas? Perhaps if secret information is passed to individuals players that the group could benefit from? Example: "I just noticed Zog's missing his cod-piece! Aim for the groin!" Note once again, having no reason to communicate can be a problem even in a total RP socialization game.

Problem five: players behave like baboons. In my experience, nine out of ten players are friendly and sociable. This figure is even higher here on Skotos, but I think this is one of the best online communities I've had the honor to be playing on. Regardless, the remainder can still ruin your day. Solution: I've seen several decent solutions, but the best was from back in my MUDing days. One MUD that I really enjoyed had a continuous voting system. At any time, you could cast a vote for or against one other person. This would nullify your earlier vote, so you generally kept it on whoever was the best/worst. The incentive to get votes was a small bonus in the mechanics, but also the folks who hosted the MUD would usually aim special events at whoever had the most votes. Why not? It showed that they knew lots of people. As a result, even the most annoying types stayed generally civil. Additionally, the most flamboyant, funny, or exciting players were rewarded for entertaining the rest of us.

Hum... that seems like a good start. I'm sure there are many other important issues, but I'm always surprised by each new game that doesn't even try to address half of these. Admittedly, some are hard to address, but in some cases, the solution has been found (at least to my satisfaction).

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