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Thinking Virtually

#55: Five Things I Love About You: Fixing Engineering Problems

by Shannon Appelcline
May 13, 2002

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Well, it's now been over half-a-year since I started in on what I consider to be five of the top engineering problems for Multiplayer Computer Roleplaying Games (MCRPGs). For those of you who have been here the whole time, kudos and congratulations for hanging in. For those of you more recently arrived, now that the whole mini-series is done, you might want to head back to Thinking Virtually #31 and read the whole thing through.

This time around I just want to take a quick skim through all five problems and summarize what I believe are the best solutions to each. None of them are really complete solutions, because these are hard problems, but if you're a MCRPG engineer, they should at least get you started.

Problem #1: The Fun Factor
Thinking Virtually #33-37

My first engineering problem asked the question: how do you create a game people will enjoy? Much of the answer is, "produce a good game," and "resolve all these engineering problems I've been discussing." Some of the more specific solutions offered both by myself and by other authors include:

  • Set Your Players' Expectations Correctly - People going into a game expecting something other than what you deliver can be a huge problem to a gamemaster or administrator.
  • Offer Rewards Well - This one, not surprisingly, turned out to be controversial, but if you offer rewards on specific, repeatable schedules your players will end up enjoying themselves more.
  • Make Sure You Have Fun Players - Grief players can be the sole largest problem in any online game; don't be afraid to dump them.
  • Balance Art and Entertainment - A game that is solely "artistic" might be no fun, but a game that's solely "entertaining" might have no longevity or pull.

Problem #2: The Realism Rathole
Thinking Virtually #38-40

In January I talked about realism, and how it centered around the question: how do you balance a game that's realistic with one that's enjoyable? In my opinion the whole question of realism is really a dodge, not truly understood by a lot of folks who are, at heart, playing in fantasy games. However, I and others did offer suggestions on how to make a game more realistic--by some definitions:

  • Maintain a Moderate Level of Realism. Making a game either too realistic or too unrealistic can ruin your hard-won Fun Factor.
  • Make Your Game Consistent. This is what most people actually mean by realism; don't change your rules halfway through.
  • Engineer for the Realism of Your Genre. Different genres will have different "rules" about what actually is realistic; figure out those for the genre of your game and try and stick to them.
  • Don't Appear Realistic Unless You Are. You're just borrowing trouble if you stick realistic looking objects, physics, or whatever into your game if you haven't done a good job of researching them and figuring out how they really work.
  • Be Aware of Different Levels of Reality. At a minimum your game has two levels of reality--the physical one of your players and the virtual one of their characters. Be aware of these different levels, and only cross between them purposefully.

Problem #3: The Competition Conundrum
Thinking Virtually #41-45

By the very nature of their multiplayer existence, MCRPGs innately have problems with competition, and how players relate to each other. Succinctly: how do you support competition without angering players? A lot of this question has to do with PvP or PK play, but a number of suggestions can bring new light to the whole issue:

  • Don't Make Competition Required. Many, perhaps most, people will not want to be forced into competition, so move it slightly off screen and make it optional.
  • Competition Can Be a Darned Good Thing. However, both conflict and villains can add a lot to a game, so don't write them off entirely.
  • Figure Out Ways to Offer Some Balance to Unequal Competition. This mainly drops down to the basic rule: have real consequences in your virtual world.
  • Be Aware That There Are Many Types of Competition. It's not just players hitting players, but also economic, statistical or mental competition, for a variety of stakes.
  • Keep Grief Players Out. A lot of the competition problems are actually due to grief players; again: get rid of them.

Problem #4: The Balance Bother
Thinking Virtually #46-49

Balance is an even bigger problem in MCRPGs than traditional tabletop RPGs because they're much more solidly about making your characters better. In short: how do you balance different players in a fair way? There are a number of answers: