#50: If I Ran the Zoo: An Interludeby Shannon Appelcline
April 1, 2002
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For five months now I've been looking at engineering issues. The Fun Factor, The Realism Rathole, The Competition Conundrum, The Balance Bother, and the Dynamic Dilemma. Alliterative names seem to come naturally to the genre. I've spent 19 columns in total and touched upon four of the five issues, and after all that I have to wonder ...
Am I overanalyzing the topic?
I think I might be, that there might be simple answers to all these so-called "issues". And so, today, I plan to hit a grand slam, to answer all of these problems in a single week's writing, and so save you the chore of reading the nineteen weeks that have come before.
The Fun Factor is the easiest of the problems. How do you engineer for fun in an online game? The answer is simple but elegant: you give players what they want.
To start off with, cater to your players more. If a couple of them want a new zone centered around wall-climbing bards battling with toad-gods and their canine followers, you should give that to them. After all, the player's always right.
And, for that matter, don't make the players do the boring stuff, like fighting cows, sheeps, and angry insects at the lower levels of your game. Just boost newbies right up, so that they can go straight to the dragons. It's a well-known fact that players of MCRPGs find clicking on a dragon until it's dead much, much more satisfying than clicking a cow to death.
If you're going to go that far you might as well just share all your administrative functions with all your players. Let them create and destroy things as they see fit. If finding a rusty +1 blade in the town dung heaps is enjoyable then being able to mass produce +72 Holy Vorpal Dancing Blades of Flame will be that much more terrific. Sure, some of those players will start nuking each other with their great and mighty power, but, hey, that's fun too. And if it becomes too much of a bother, I have some suggestions about the Competition Conundrum, below.
Onward to The Realism Rathole, or the problem of engineering games that aren't "realistic". I think the best answer is to just bop all the folks who claim they want their games to be realistic right in the nose. A sharp jab of pain ... that's realistic. And, if that doesn't do the job, stick them in the totally realistic version of your game.
You can call the game Efil. Each player can take on the role of a used shoe salesman in a small suburb of the United States. Let him angst about whether he can make his mortgage payment or not, about whether his wife is having an affair or his kids are joining gangs, about whether he should eat at McDonald's or Burger King. Make sure your servers lag a lot from overcrowding, and if any players suggest zero-population growth, hound them off the game and then replace them with four new players.
But, some players will claim, they just want consistency, not realism. They want magic to work like magic should work, and for things to make sense in relation to each other. To be honest, these players have a point: many of us game designers bounce from idea to idea and forget what has come before, creating inconstant worlds.
So, stop doing that. Make all of your items clones of each other; don't innovate. If you ensure your entire game is the product of a single brain, refusing ideas from outside--no matter how good they are--you'll be able to achieve a good degree of consistency in your game, and players worrying about realism will be much relieved.
Congratulations; well done.
The Competition Conundrum is only actually a problem because virtual games don't have real consequences. This returns to the whole bop-them-in-the-nose hypothesis, an answer to many problems that arise in online communities. If, every time someone was anti-social--PKing someone when they didn't want to be PKed--if every time this happened you bopped them in the nose ... the anti-socialness would stop.
It's a well known fact: people don't like being bopped in the nose.
Unfortunately in the virtual medium, bopping people in the nose really isn't possible. Sure, if you're in a text game, you could type, "bop pete in nose", but somehow the response "Joe bops you in the nose" just doesn't convey the pain of nose bopping.
So, you need to offer equivalent virtual responses. If someone is engaging in anti-social behavior in your game, kick them out, no questions asked. If that doesn't do the job, and they keep coming back, e-mail bomb them. And if that doesn't do the trick, track down their beloved, but elderly, grandmother and send Grams an anonymous email explaining how little Junior runs around virtual worlds in drag, hitting on the guys and engaging in virtual pseudo-lesbian sex.
Sure, you don't know for sure Junior's doing that, but given the ratio of female players to female characters in online games ... there's a better than 50% chance that you're telling the turth.
Ah, The Balance Bother. How do you make sure that all types of characters have similar levels of power in your online game? Easy: stop differentiating between characters.
It's only the fact that online game designers insist on different character classes, or even worse, allow players to build their own characters from scratch, that causes problems. If everyone had the exact same skills and abilities, there just wouldn't be a problem with balance.
You should give all players the same names too, because a guy named Joe is probably going to get talked to more often than a guy named Verdanoofchevermonkeyhidinginyourshirtortofski. Especially in any game where you have to type someone's name to directly communicate with them. And it's not fair that Joe has an advantage over Verdy, is it?
You need to have a race of Joes in your game. It's the only way.
Unfortunately that won't totally balance things because some of your players will be smart and some of them will be dumb. So, if you're really trying to create balance in your game, take all that time that you've saved by not creating 50 dozen character classes that can each kill monsters in very slightly different ways, and instead spend the time balancing peoples' natural inadequacies.
If people are smart, they should always have a little more lag in their game. If people are dumb, their monsters should be wimpier. If people are bad tacticians, their opponents should be too. If people are bad at socializing ... well, no need to worry about that in most online RPGs.
And then you will have truly achieved Balance, young Jedi.
And finally, that leads us to The Dynamic Dilemma, a topic I haven't even gotten around to talking about yet. The question related to the problem of dynamism goes something like this: how in the world do you make your game continually new and exciting, so that people don't have to kill the same monsters, retrieve the same treasures, and offer the same insults to the same NPCs every day?
The answer, quite simply, is monkeys.
Everyone knows--in fact, it's obvious--that if you get enough monkeys poking at typewriters, you'll eventually get Shakespeare.
And everyone also knows--it's, in fact, obvious--that online games are not even close to Shakespeare. How good are they? 10% as good? 1% as good? I'd wager that, or less. After all, do you really think that Anarchy Online will appear on remainder tables in faux-leatherbound tomes with sewn-in bookmarks four hundred years from now? I THINK NOT and challenge any who would say otherwise.
So, now that we've proven that online games aren't even 1% as good as Shakespeare, it should be obvious once more than we only need to get a few hundred monkeys poking at typewriters to produce constantly new material.
Sure, a lot of it will be meaningless garble, but how different will that be from the "carefully plotted zones and cunningly constructed backstories" filling most MMORPGs today? Not a lot, I'd wager.
So, with our friends the simians, we'll have conquered the last problem facing online game designers. Angels will sing Hallelujah. There will be peace on Earth. The United States will realize the terrible effect its self-centeredness has on the globe.
And this game design columnist will be out of a column.
Hmmm ... that might not be the best idea after all. Those monkeys ... I don't think they'll actually work because. Because. Because. Because. (Because of the wonderful things he does.) Because. Because we could never find enough bananas.
That's it. There aren't enough bananas to support monkey-based dynamism.
And clearly the rest of that stuff I wrote must be malarky too.
So, just forget everything I typed up here. And next week I'll return to talk about ideas that'll actually work for the Dynamic Dilemma. Not this simian foolishness.
See you then.
[RPGnet staff reports that this week's column was found sitting in a typewriter at RPGnet headquarters. A banana was found nearby, but Sandy Antunes is quoted to have said, "No, I'm certain Shannon likes bananas. Really."]