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World-Centric Massively Multiplayer Online Game Design


In this paper, 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 and existing examples to understand how these ideas may impact the player experience.

World-Centric Massively Multiplayer Online Game Design

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 (after all, they are meant for entertainment). 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. But through the stable equilibrium that is society as an emergent property of many individual agents, a functional, cohesive (and fun) game experience necessarily emerges. All virtual societies certainly their own interesting and unique properties. Here we want to 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 and populate it with player controlled agents. 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 our understanding of 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 ascribed value (e.g. gold in World of Warcraft) and those with prescribed values (e.g. an item with no functional use and that can not be sold). 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 player or player community 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 defacto currency being small in inventory size, valuable as an in-game item, and relatively scarce. From an economic lense, 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 defacto currency should they collectively agree to do so. Avoiding prescribed values as much as possible, we do not intend to implement any goals in the game instead allowing players 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:

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 with 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 static 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 all 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 but this is usually only a marginal part of the game.

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. Following the seminal economics paper “Nature of the Firm” by Ronald Coase, the high transaction cost due to unrestricted PVP in resource dense areas necessitates the creation of corporations. These corporations participate in galaxy-wide conflicts as a part of an emergent and persistant world narrative. In early 2014, a major battle erupted between two major coalitions (a collection of corporations) that 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). This battle was noteworthy enough for WIRED magazine to publish an article documenting this momentous moment. It is impossible to look at such a conflict without considering the rest of the game as it is an emergent product of it. Other MMOs have attempted to recreate this by allowing players to create organizations, often called “guilds”, and engage in various forms combat with one another. I hope it is clear here that the narrative of such an ad-hoc solution pales in comparison to that which is achieved in EVE Online. 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. After buying out “EVE Online”, CCP Games hired 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.

Another assumption that has only recently been questioned 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 persistant in-game progress which I will touch upon later. Here we mainly want to focus on the meaning of player time invested as it more directly relates to our game. It is understandable that designers assume that active player participation is necessary to drive narrative. But already, the seams of this assumption show in all MMOs where the story and world persist while the players sign off. Designers go so far as to patch up these seams with world states periodically resetting or manifesting 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 story (usually not diegetic) does in fact 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!

Recently, a couple of savvy businessmen realized time based conflict could not only be “fun” but also a major source of profit. With the advent of casual games, a whole new genre of “freemium” or “pay2win” games emerged. The most notorious of these is Zynga’s “Farmville” which presents this conflict in its most rudimentary form: a set of non-challenges where the only obstacle is time. In Farmville, player’s develop their own farm adding various elements to their plot. Most elements also produce currency (but require the player to come back every day to “harvest” it) and currency has no other purpose to expanding one’s plot. The reward comes from the creative agency the player has in laying out his or her farm plot and this is apparently motivation enough for millions of players to invest huge amounts of time and money into a game that is widely panned by critics. It is clear here that introducing player down time as an obstacle has HUGE potential so much so that upon its discovery, it was immediately exploited for financial gain. Games like Farmville and the like all offer options to skip waiting periods or purchase goods directly using real world money.

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. Certainly all MMOs have persistent emergent narratives with arches spanning months or even years. For games like EVE Online, these narratives are made a significant part of the player experience. Thus we question the necessity of tedious repetitive actions to create these 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” is actually rather misleading. It is simply to suggest an awareness that designing around the player’s needs runs a large risk. Games are about emergent narratives and player experience is only a part of this. Perhaps a better term than would be “narrative centric”. An interesting narrative necessarily involves conflict and these are modelled as challenges in the player experience. Game designers understand this instinctively as games are essentially always built around some sort of conflict (e.g. Mario needs to save the princess but Bowser, his minions and his castles are in the way). What is less evident is that one can challenge all parts of the player experience to be used as sources of conflict. Recent indie games 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 that is now endlessly mimicked by indie and commercial game developers alike. In this genre, the world and player interactions tend to be incredibly antagonistic. There is little or no continuity with one’s avatar once he or she dies. The antagonism serves as a catalyst for a wide variety of narratives and permanent death adds weight to their meaning.

While we are on the subject, lets look at what “world centric” really means, or more specifically, what it means to design a game that is truly indifferent to the player’s needs. Conway’s Game of Life (CGoL) is a minimal set of rules that produces a wide variety of binary patterns in a 2d grid. While CGoL is not actually a game, users have tinkered with this system to examine what this set of rules can produce. In this sense, they have produced their own set of challenges and goals within this set of rules to accomplish tasks that have player ascribed meaning. Such accomplishments include image generators (i.e. a configuration that can generate any image), prime number generators, and even methods for designing computational algorithms that is turing complete! Perhaps it is worth noting that one could claim that any single player digital game is “indifferent” to the player as software is ultimately just a sequence of computations that are unaware of the source of its inputs. But I think it is clear that on some anthropological level there is actually a difference between CGoL and something like, say, Call of Duty.

Looking at games as a form of escapism, it is understandable that game designers would try to create worlds lacking some of the 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 defacto 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.