In this essay, I propose a new “World-Centric” design paradigm for massively multiplayer online games. I offer several concrete ideas for implementing this new paradigm and look at existing examples to understand how these ideas may impact the player experience.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) necessarily generate emergent social structures. The question we ask here is how does game design influence these in-game societies and how do they compare to the real world? MMOGs are designed to be player-centric with the world rules catered to serve the (designer’s idea of) the player’s experience. Game design, the prescribed diegetic narrative, and the actual narrative experience from the emergent structure of the virtual world are all at odds with each other. Yet through the many individual agents, a functional, cohesive (and fun) game experience still emerges. Each virtual societies develop their own interesting and unique properties outside of the designer’s control. Here we ask, what might happen if we try and build a virtual world that is world-centric rather than player-centric. That is, design mechanics that dictate how the world works independently of any desired player experience. To explore these ideas, we propose a MMOG titled CBG for the purpose of this article.
CBG is a simulation of society as a system of interactions in an environment that is indifferent towards the players needs. In this sense, we model much of the game after the real world. Our goal is to create a geopolitical and economic world simulation where players will collectively tell stories that span large swathes of time and space.
Before going on, let us fix our semantic. There are two types of objects: those with prescribed value (e.g. gold in World of Warcraft) and those with ascribed values (e.g. Partyhats). There are two types of exchanges, cultural and economic. These two aspects are necessarily tied together as culture gives value to objects and objects of value can generate culture. Here we are mainly interested in looking at these exchanges from an economic perspective. It is important to understand that the players ultimately decides what is of any actual value. For example objects of prescribed value may have no value ascribed by the community. Diablo II’s in-game currency (gold) had only comedic value in the virtual economy as it was so 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 mandated a new one (Castronova, 156).
In CBG, we offer a limited set of tools and resources for players to ascribe values to. For example there is no defined currency such as “gold” although players may choose to turn the “gold” resource into a de-facto currency should they collectively agree to do so. The game provides no prescribed goals either. Instead, players are invited to define their own goals either based on their own narrative interests or based on the emergent values in the virtual society. To stimulate this, we choose to add a creative element of construction (taking Minecraft and Sim City as a source of inspiration) as a medium for players to develop a cultural mythos around. Finally, we intend to include a hard coded system of technology modeled after real world infrastructure (which may entail anything from horses to railroads, billboards to democratic governments). We believe this is necessary as it would be extremely difficult to create a system where it is technically possible for all the things we are interested in to manifest as emergent properties.
Since any game design decision will necessarily be appropriated (frequently to an ends that is entirely disconnected from its intent) by the player base it makes little sense in the context of this high level discussion to talk about the minute details of CBG. Instead, we list these defining characteristics of our game:
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 our case, we believe these limitations are in fact critical to forming the necessary tensions for a non-trivial economic narrative.
Large game world with physical barriers and significant geographic differences, i.e. 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 a necessary component for interesting economic infrastructure such as trade routes and communication channels.
Dynamic ecosystem, i.e. 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 and ecological issues.
In-game actions mapped as a resource rather than player time. This is to create a greater degree of fairness among in-game avatars as one can not gain an advantage by investing one’s own time. Curiously enough, from an economic standpoint, a fixed exchange between real world and virtual economies taints the “equal” space of the virtual world as real world financial inequality now can be converted to inequality in the virtual world. Here we also eliminate the fixed exchange of player time and in-game actions promoting equal opportunity at an interface level. It’s worth mentioning that we are not aiming 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. Here specifically, we hope to recreate the history of global trade. As players create more wealth, develop new technologies, and form more organized communities, the mechanics and language of trade will necessarily change. We can now make observations such as how does the development of new trade routes or trade infrastructure influence cultural exchange.
Suffice to say, there is a dense history of games and many of these ideas listed above have been tried in one way or another. Let us reexamine these ideas as they manifest in games of the past.
For at typical MMOG, the most notable departure from the real world is the creation of a non-competitive environment where real world time can be exchanged for in-game success. One’s success is not antagonized by other players. For example, many MMOG will offer respawning enemies (a type of resource) and even create multiple instances of areas so that there is no competition for these resources. Here, a computer controlled entity acts as the 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 player player conflict is more gracefully integrated. For example, things can get more interesting when critical resources are placed in PVP enabled areas.
Outstanding examples do exist. In 2003, Simon & Schuster Interactive entered the MMOG market with EVE Online, a science fiction virtual galaxy that put several typically computer controlled functionalities into the hands of the player. Trade, manufacturing, business, mining, and exploration are all predominantly run by human controlled agents in the game. With these changes, EVE online offers a dynamic economy that resembles the real world. The most notable difference in EVE, as oppose to other MMOGs, is the formation of corporations and how this shapes the player experience. Corporations are supported as an in-game feature and their utility is emergent from the high transaction cost due to unrestricted PVP in resource dense areas (Coase). These corporations participate in galaxy-wide 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 between major coalitions. This battle waged on for 22 hours. This battle cost over $300,000 USD if computed using EVE’s service for purchasing ISK, EVE’s in-game currency (note, it is forbidden to exchange ISK for any real world currency). Other MMOs have attempted to recreate this by allowing players to create organizations, often called “guilds”, and engage in various forms of combat with one another. These systems too develop their own emergent meaning but not as a consequence of the game’s economy. Perhaps the moral of the story is not so much about epic space battles but about how these emergent narratives develop out of economic factors that are created by limiting resources, space, and allowing unrestricted player conflict. CCP Games, the current developers of EVE online, employ a full-time economist to oversee the in-game economy underscoring the importance of the EVE’s dynamic economy as part of the narrative experience.
The next assumption we want to examine is the linear mapping of player time invested to in-game progress. Actually both ends of the mapping can be challenged. Permanent death has seen a revival recently challenging the need of persistent in-game progress which we will touch upon later. For now, we focus on the meaning of player time invested as it more directly relates to our game. Active player participation is a great way to drive narrative and many games proudly market their “hours of gameplay”. In MMOs, the story and world persist when players sign off. Designers may try to patch up these seams with world states that periodically reset or manifest differently 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, sometimes even when the servers go down!
With the advent of casual games, a whole new genre of “freemium” or “pay2win” games have emerged. The central conflict in many of these games is time-based. The most notorious of these is Zynga’s Farmville which presents this conflict in a rudimentary form that is now iconic to the genre: a set of non-challenges where the only obstacle is time. In Farmville, player’s develop their own farm adding various objects to their plot. Most objects also produce currency (and require the player to come back every day to “harvest” it) and the main purpose of currency is purchase more objects. The reward comes from the creative agency the player has in laying out their farm plot. Many of these 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.
Game designers have been much slower to look at downtime 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. Here, 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 question the necessity of the “grind” to create grand narratives as in-game actions may be limited by mechanics rather than by player time.
I must point out here that our usage of the term “world centric” maybe a little misleading. It is simply to suggest an alternative to designing around the player experience. An interesting narrative necessarily involves conflict and these are modeled as challenges in the player experience. Game designers understand this instinctively as games are essentially always built around some sort of conflict (e.g. the hero needs to save the world from the villain). All parts of the player experience can sources of conflict. Recent indie titles have done considerable experimentation in this regard. Taking the waiting based conflict of “extrasolar” a step further is David Brough’s Vesper.5 where one 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 stripped away more direct forms of player communication like voice chat and instant messaging. Instead, communication is only possible through limited number of player avatar motions. With the revival of the roguelike genre, a whole generation of players and developers began questioning the need of handling death in an extra-diegetic or ad-hoc way that was the accepted standard for the preceding decade (e.g. save/reloading). With this genre, the narrative is primarily told through mastering a system of rules rather than accomplishing a linear sequence of static challenges. This philosophy was extended into MMOGs by games like DayZ and Rust which ushered in the “survival” genre. In this genre, the world and player interactions tend to be incredibly antagonistic. There is little or no continuity with one’s avatar once they die. The antagonism serves as a catalyst for a wide variety of narratives and permanent death adds weight to their meaning.
Looking at games as a form of escapism, games offer worlds lacking the frustrating barriers in the real world. But these same barriers presented in a “safe” virtual space present opportunities for a community of players to play out narratives that could but did not occur in the real world. I wonder if this taps into the same fantasies that have driven murder as the de facto core mechanic of most triple A titles, that is, the fantasy of playing out real world scenarios that are for one reason or another forbidden in real life. But I propose that something beyond satisfaction can 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 draw from the history of the world to create a virtual world with deep narrative potential and without the repercussions of the real world. We hope that with responsible game design, players will take away important lessons and be able to apply them to the real world.