The Rules of the Game: The Masquerade Ball in the Lobby Area

The gaming lobby is the perfect place to suspend your everyday persona and become a cocky and vengeful online personality known as "The Cap'n" or "Houdini." Ben gives tips and tricks on making the most of the lobby area from both a user and developer perspective.

When we last left our intrepid player, he was trying to get in a group to go do some gamin', dammit. But who to choose for erstwhile companions? Who are these people and why will they be fun to play with or against?

The process of getting to know people in the lobby area has a few different aspects. Let's think of it from the point of view of what you see first. And then talk about how you interact.

Screen Names

Most systems have the capacity to let the users create their on-screen names. This is an opportunity to set the tone of all the interactions to follow. If you prompt them for their real names, or a variation of their real names, they will act different than if you ask them for some sort of handle. I'm a pretty reasonable guy when I'm "BenC." I'm a cocky butt-kicker when I'm "The Cap'n." And I'm a complete psychotic bastard when I bring out "Rasputian." The examples that you give people when asking them for their handles usually set the tone.

One mechanical note: The process of selecting a handle on-line can be immensely frustrating. Being assigned "BenC455327 " on AOL is just plain lame. Don't just shoot back an "I'm sorry, that name is used. Try again" message when the user hits a taken name. After the 6th or 7th variation, it gets really, really old. Much more useful is bringing up a section of the existing name list that surrounds the search target, so the user knows what variations have already been taken pick better next time.

The Safety Mask

The next issue in onscreen persona is physical appearance. Setting aside, for a moment, how the image was created, is there some sort of graphic appearance to go with your handle? What does your mask look like, however simple it may be? There is a lot of power in masks. When I studied theater in school, one of my great fascinations was masks, and how different cultures used masks to unleash different personalities.

Throughout the world, tribes have rituals in which dancers don masks of gods or spirits, and believe that these spirits embody them. The Japanese Kabuki players will put on their makeup and stare at their face for an hour or more until they melt away and the mask takes over.

My belief is that the mask allows a person to throw away his self awareness and critical judgment for a while, and lets the ordinarily more repressed side emerge. The buffer of the computer screen itself facilitates this to some extent, but add in an actual character face, and it is much more effective.

A Little Background, Please.

Say you have a bunch of people standing around trying to figure out if they should talk to each other. What, beyond a pretty face and a studly name can get these people to feel comfortable talking together? A bit of background is the key. A great example of establishing player backgrounds was used on an old-time gaming site, the Imagination Network.  As you created your character, the site prompted you with a bunch of questions about yourself regarding game skill as well as general life. Knowing this information about other players on the network served two purposes, first to let you know if this was somebody that you wanted to talk to, and second to give you common ground to start a conversation. "Oh, you're into Comics too. Have you ever seen X-man 142?"

The big mistake in this area is to make filling out the profile an optional, post-processing function. AOL did this, and the number of people who filled it out was minimal. The other mistake is to just give people a blank page to fill out. Most people freeze at the sight of a tabla rasa. A nice balance is a few pages of multiple choice (what are your favorite things to do and such…) and a few short, directed essay questions. (What is your favorite movie? -The Princess Bride. What is your favorite quote?-"Never try and teach a pig to sing… it wastes your time and annoys the pig.") It's remarkable how much you can dope out about someone from a few, simple questions.

Do You Come Here Often?

Longevity is another important concept in how you will act in a lobby situation. If you just created a character who exists only for this night, pretty much any rules of social order are out the window. This is true of the style of your game play as well. If I can have a new face tomorrow, why am I accountable for my actions today? This is incredibly freeing on one hand and if that is the tone of the behavior you want from your players, than take advantage of that emotional sense. But, on the other hand, that can often lead to game spoiling behavior, and you may benefit more from giving your players a sense of history along with the benefits of having a reputation.

Having a sense of history makes it easier to create friendships in the lobbies, as someone you've played with before now seems like an old buddy. More importantly, a sense of history gives people something to strive for. This is where you can let the veterans show their scars.

Imagination Network's adults-only flirting environment had a wonderful feature where you could use some of the money you'd won playing poker to buy someone else a rose. These roses stayed with people profiles, so as they acquired more and more, it was visible. A guy with a bunch of roses stuck to him became something of a stud on-line. All the other girls wanted to find out what it was about him that made the other girls smack him with flowers. The converse was obviously also true. Now, you've found someone to talk to, what do you say?

Next week… the Big Truth and the Big Lie -- an online chat primer.

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