This essay introduces the World-Centric design perspective for massively multiplayer online games. It offers several concrete ideas for its implementation and looks at several existing examples to understand how these ideas shape the player experience.
Players of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) generate emergent social structures. How does game design influence these in-game societies and how do they compare to the real world? World-centric mechanics aim to create a coherent world rather than a coherent player experience. In contrast, MMOGs are normally designed to be player-centric—the world rules designed to serve the (designer’s idea of) the player’s experience. Game design, the prescribed diegetic narrative, and the emergent narrative experience are often at odds with each other. Yet through the many player agents, a functional, cohesive, and ultimately fun game experience still emerges. Each virtual society develops their own interesting and unique properties outside of the designer’s control. Taking this as inspiration, What happens when we build a virtual world that is world-centric rather than player-centric? To explore these ideas, this essays proposes a hypothetical MMOG called CBG to illustrate some of the possibilities.
CBG provides the building blocks of a virtual civilization in an environment that is indifferent towards the player experience. In this sense, CBG is modeled after the real world. Its goal is to create a geopolitical and economic world simulation where players will collectively tell stories that span large swathes of time and space.
First we must distinguish between two types of in-game objects: those with prescribed value (e.g. gold in World of Warcraft) and those with ascribed values (e.g. Partyhats in Runescape). There are two types of exchanges, cultural and economic. These two aspects works in tandem. Culture gives value to objects and objects of value can generate culture. It is important to understand that the players ultimately decide what is of any actual value. For example objects of prescribed value may have no value ascribed by the players. For example, Diablo II’s in-game currency (gold) has practically no value in the virtual economy as it is easy to obtain and quite difficult to manage. Instead, the Stone of Jordan item (or SoJ) became the de facto currency being small in inventory size, valuable as an in-game item, and relatively scarce. From an economic lens, uncontrolled inflation made gold useless as a currency and in response, the players created a new one (Castronova, 156).
Wherever possible, CBG avoids prescribing value. For example, there is no defined currency such as “gold” although players may choose to turn the “gold” object into the de-facto standard currency should they collectively agree to do so. The game prescribes no goals either. Instead, players are invited to define their own goals based on their own narrative interests and the emergent values of the virtual society. CBG includes a creative building element (similar to Minecraft or Sim City) as a medium for players to develop a cultural mythos with. Finally, CBG’s in-game technology is modeled after real world infrastructure (which may entail anything from horses to railroads, billboards to democratic governments).
Since any game mechanic will necessarily be appropriated by the player base it makes little sense in the context of this high level discussion to talk about the details of CBG. Instead, we list its defining characteristics:
Space and resources are finite and communal: These are variables that are frequently discarded in most MMOGs as they are seen as limiting to the players freedom. In CBG, these limitations are crucial to forming the necessary tensions for a diverse and dynamic economic world narrative.
A large game world with physical barriers and significant geographic differences: Going from A to B may take significant amounts of time and resources. This is closely related to the above point. In this case, spatial tensions are necessary for interesting economic infrastructure such as trade routes and communication channels to emerge.
Dynamic ecosystem: An environment that changes both by itself and in response to player interaction. Specifically here, we hope to model the elements of real world environmental issues.
In-game actions mapped as a resource rather than player time: The number of actions a player can take is a function of real world time. This mitigates the linear exchange of player time and in-game actions promoting equal opportunity at an interface level. Note that, as a world-centric game, CBG does not aim to eliminate inequality and oppression from the game (e.g. a player group monopolizing a sector of the world map) which is an interesting and player driven form of narrative tension.
These characteristics will form the values that shape cultural and economic exchanges. Specifically, CBG hopes to reenact the history of civilization (CBG = Civilization Building Game). As players create more wealth, develop new technologies, and form more organized communities, the mechanics and language of trade will necessarily change. Within this playground, we can answer questions such as, “how does the development of continental trade infrastructure influence cultural exchange?”
This section analyzes existing games that make use of the ideas above.
Most MMOGs use a player-centric non-competitive game loop where real world time can be exchanged for in-game progress. One’s success is not antagonized by other players. For example, many MMOGs have respawning enemies (which can be defeated for resources) or create multiple instances of areas so that there is little competition for resources. A computer controlled entity is the only source of conflict. Some MMOGs reintroduce dynamic player conflict in an ad-hoc way through a controlled player vs player (PVP) combat system. While it seems such a solution is acceptable as most major games in the MMOG market essentially follow this model, there is much more potential when PVP conflict is more gracefully integrated.
EVE Online (EVE) is a science fiction virtual galaxy that puts several typically computer controlled functionalities into the hands of players. Trade, manufacturing, business, mining, and exploration are all predominantly run by human controlled agents in the game. With these changes, EVE offers a dynamic economy that resembles the real world. A notable difference in EVE from other MMOGs, is the formation of corporations and how this shapes the player experience. Corporations are supported as an in-game feature. Their utility emerges from the need to reduce the high transaction cost of productive play (e.g. resource gathering) in the resource-dense unrestricted PVP areas (Coase). These corporations participate in galaxy-wide player driven conflicts as a part of an emergent and persistent world narrative. In early 2014, The Battle of B-R5RB erupted between two major coalitions (a collection of corporations) as a result of ongoing tensions. The battle waged on for 22 hours costing over $300,000 USD in virtual assets. Other MMOs feature player-centric variants of corporations, often called “guilds”, which are intended to support PVP or collaborative play and are not designed around the games economy. EVE exemplifies how dynamic emergent narratives develop from economic factors such as limiting resources, space, and allowing unrestricted player conflict. CCP Games, the current developers of EVE, employ full-time economists to oversee the in-game economy underscoring the importance of EVE’s economy as part of the player experience.
Active player participation is a great way to progress narratives. Many games proudly market their “hours of gameplay” on their packaging. In MMOs, the story and world persist when players sign off. This may create seams in the game’s diegetic narrative. Some MMOGs fix this with periodic resets or by manifesting a different world state for each individual player (such that progress can proceed at different rates for each player). Still, as part of the player’s experience, the non-diegetic narrative will still progress during these periods inactivity. For example, the in-game culture will develop mythologies around actions of other players, guilds, or even outside of game events. This phenomenon happens continuously, even when the servers go down!
Many so called “casual” games use real world time as the central source of conflict. Zynga’s Farmville exemplifies the foundation of this genre: a sequence of objectives where the primary obstacle is time. In Farmville, player’s develop their own farms by adding various objects to their plot of land. Most objects also produce resources that require the player to come back every day to “harvest” them. The main purpose of resources is to build more objects. The reward comes from the creative agency the player has in laying out their farm plot with increasingly difficult to obtain objects. Many such games also offer options to skip waiting periods or purchase goods directly using real world money. As of 2018, this model is also widely used in mobile games and is seeing increasing adoption in PC and console as well.
Other designers have focused on player down-time for its narrative (as oppose to financial) potential. One recent indie title to do this is Lazy 8 Studio’s extrasolar, an ARG game where the main interaction is plotting the route of a Mars rover to take a single picture once every (real world) 8 hours. Waiting is a form of conflict–for the story to progress, the player must wait in the real world. The narrative becomes necessarily drawn out over the course of a month without needing to consume that much of the player’s time. All MMOs have persistent emergent narratives with arches spanning months or even years such as the battle of B-R5RB. Thus we challenge the necessity of “grinding” to create grand narratives as in-game actions can be limited by mechanics rather than by player time.
To further expand upon the world-centric design perspective, we can look towards other means of not designing around the player experience. Conflict is often the catalyst for fun and all parts of the player experience can be sources of conflict. Recent indie titles have done considerable experimentation in this regard. David Brough’s Vesper.5 takes the waiting based conflict of “extrasolar” a step further. The player is only allowed to make one move every 24 hours as a sort of meditative daily act of play and discovery. That Game Company’s Journey removes direct forms of player communication like voice chat and instant messaging. Instead, communication is only possible through a limited number of player avatar motions. The roguelike genre features permanent death instead of handling player continuity in an extra-diegetic or ad-hoc way (e.g. save/reloading). In this genre, the narrative is told through mastering a system of rules rather than accomplishing a linear sequence of static challenges. This idea was extended by MMOG survival games like DayZ and Rust. In this genre, the world and player interactions tend to be incredibly antagonistic. All progress is lost once the player’s avatar dies. Antagonism inspires a wide variety of emergent narratives and permanent death adds weight to their meaning.
As a form of escapism, games offer worlds without the frustrating barriers of real life. These same barriers presented in a “safe” virtual space present opportunities for players to play out their own narratives that aren’t possible in the real world. Perhaps something beyond satisfaction can also be learned here. Edward Castronova draws strong parallels between real and virtual worlds in his book Exodus to the Virtual World. His central claim is that game design of virtual worlds and real life policy making are one and the same. Virtual worlds offer a space for designers, now virtual world policy makers, to tinker and experiment with little repercussion or bureaucratic overhead. Similarly, we can draw from history to create virtual worlds with deep narrative potential and without the repercussions of the real world. We hope players will take important lessons from responsibly designed games and apply them to the real world.