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Where We Should be Going with Online Games

Merciless masters, frustrated newbies, and the increase in "flex and twitch" gaming in RPGs creates a problem. A game designer offers some ideas for maturing the genre.

Sean Patrick Fannon, Blogger

September 12, 1997

16 Min Read

Since the advent of online technology, users around the world have been intrigued, enchanted, and enthralled with the possibilities of creating and living in "virtual communities" that they can access from their homes. They have used these "communities" to create personas, stories, and even entire "second lives" for themselves, sharing these elements with literally millions of other Internet users.

We now see the phenomenon expanded into MUDS, MUSHES, MOOS, directed and theme chat rooms, graphically enhanced chat and conference areas, and countless other variants. "Graphic MUDS," such as 3DO's MERIDIAN 59, are on the rise, and an RPG-style "monster-hack" game like Blizzard's DIABLO™ is currently very much the rage. Soon, Origin will launch the long-awaited ULTIMA ONLINE™, and it is certain that there will be many other character-driven, multi-player environments. These environments are the keys to the door of success for next generation electronic entertainment.

Certainly, many networks and providers are counting on the standard "action" and "simulation" games to fill the market need for multi-player gaming. However, two realities are setting in. First, the infrastructure of the very Internet that they are relying on cannot easily or effectively handle the burden of intensive, real-time interaction, especially when using "bleeding edge" 3D graphic engines. Second, there is only a fraction of the totality of Internet users that are actually interested in "flex-and-twitch" gaming. Once the "masters" of a given game have accessed a dedicated site, all other comers are mere fodder waiting to happen, and this doesn't fill the recreational needs or desires of a large part of the potential audience out there.

These two realities are why many interested parties (developers, publishers, and providers among them) are looking to the "classic" model of the Role-Playing Game for possible answers in tapping the perceived potential of the online mediums. Unfortunately, most of them are looking too far "back," concentrating on the mechanical aspects of the classic "dungeon-hack" gaming environments and their "controlled world" appeal and easily-quantified task and conflict resolution systems.

The results, thus far, have been what can be termed "pop-up target" realms where the players are encouraged to wander around together, slaying various "random beasties" (and, all too often, each other) and collecting whatever treasures or other goal-oriented objects the game might provide. The acquisition of "experience" is a goal unto itself - through this process, the players can make their "game pieces" more powerful (essentially less killable and more able to kill). In the end, much of the same syndrome as described above for "flex-and-twitch" games can arise - the "masters" gather and run off those "less worthy." Worse, even the "masters" can become bored and leave (having "beaten the game"), ultimately draining the game environment of any continuity and leaving it a mere shade of what it once was. Thus, all of the effort to create the environment (including the unbelievable hours dealing with the creation of a viable AI) are ultimately lost on a dead or dying game world.

It is this concentration on the "fire-and-forget, self-run" role-playing environments that is the problem. True role-playing and storytelling (and, thus, total character and environment immersion) are lost to the endless "game-speak" that permeates such realms. These games produce other horrors as well, such as abusive users who only sign onto such a game to attack and harass unsuspecting new players. Endless turnover (caused by "master players" being able to "beat" a game while an endless succession of "newbies" come and go, usually in disgust) creates an inconsistent environment that only serves to exacerbate the lack of immersion. The problems of this type of game feed on themselves like the proverbial self-eating snake.

The "MUD" model is still favored in the latest designs, which means that the basic philosophy of such games goes unchanged. So even though the graphic and sound quality might be greatly improved, the quality of the game world vastly enhanced, and the level of administrative effort demonstrably greater, the inherent problems of this type of game are yet omnipresent, and the player's experience remains uneven and disappointing in many cases. Even more distressing is the effort in determining just how to actually make money off of such a game in the ever changing, ever more accessible online world without exploiting potential players unfairly.

The Need for Change

Which brings to mind the idea that the basic philosophy of such games needs to be changed. The initial theory - that role-playing offers the best avenue for accessing the potential legions of online devotees - is a sound one. Any given night wandering on America Online will reveal this. Millions of people are interested in the social connectivity, and the realms of fantasy and science fiction enchant the public like they never have before.

What is required is a means to allow these potential users to truly experience their ideal settings and games - to allow them to completely immerse themselves into a given "world" and enjoy the aspects of "role-playing" that are lost in more "traditional" Computer RPGs. After all, what came out of the classic "dungeon-hack" games in the dice-and-paper hobby were RPGs that focused on character development, storytelling, and the thrill of actually "being there," something that has never really been translated to the electronic counterparts of the traditional "dice-and-paper" games.

More importantly, these users need to be empowered to create and develop their own experiences. One of the most important discoveries in the RPG hobby was that players wanted to be given the right tools to create their own games and their own adventures. They wanted to indulge their imaginations and their creative drives. This is a proven assumption in the face of the rise in popularity of "customizable, creation-oriented" game systems over the more traditional "class-and-level" games.

To meet these needs, a potential RPG developer needs to strive to accomplish three objectives:

  • To give the wide array of current and potential Online Game and Story creators (who are traditionally called "Game Masters," or GMs) the ability to easily create compelling RPG environments

  • To enable the even wider array of current and potential Online Game participants (easily referred to as Players) to interact intuitively with other players and objects within the RPG environments

  • And, most importantly, capture the essence of Community and Immersion of the classic role-playing session, while taking advantage of the Multi-Media Theater that the computer provides.

A well-designed and intuitive interface, combined with an easy to use world builder and editor for the GM, will enable us to meet the first two objectives. However, the third objective is somewhat intangible, and is the most difficult objective to reach.

The first question we must ask is simply, "What is the game play?" This is a tough question - gameplay is everything from what makes a game fun, to what the player does (when and how) at a given time or in a particular situation. The question, "What is the game play?", should be posed as two questions with different qualities or perspectives:

  • What are the mechanical aspects that define this product?

  • What creative aspects make this product fun and interesting?

The "mechanical aspects" refer to actions, reactions, implementation of character abilities, task and conflict resolution, and the actual rules of interaction. The "creative aspects" refer more to the story behind and the presentation of mechanical aspects. For example, it is much more "fun" to -

"Pick an old rusty lock on a wooden strongbox, inlaid with intricate carvings, that is supposed to contain the magic Dagger of Slicing that will enable the wielder to penetrate the Armor of Karrg Storn."

than to -

"Pick a lock on a box that contains a magic dagger."

A game has poor gameplay if it is difficult to play, and/or written blandly. Good gameplay keeps the players coming back for more, and facilitates immersion of the players into the story.

A Note on Terminology

At this stage, it is important to create "consistent language" to more efficiently communicate our ideas. For ease of reference and comparison, we are using the following terms:

Classic RPG - Role-Playing Games of the "dice-and-paper" variety, where numerous participants play "live" with each other around a table, one as the Game Master and others as Players. Games like the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ and VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE™ fit this qualification.

Standard CRPG or Standard RPG - Computer Role-Playing Games in the model known and easily identified today. These are, in essence, either "variant" Adventure Game models (in the Single-Player mode) or multi-player "dungeon hacks" (in the online Multi-player mode). Such games as the original ULTIMA™ series and DAGGERFALL™ fall into this category, as do such online "RPGs" as ULTIMA ONLINE™, MERIDIAN 59™, and DIABLO™

The intent is to reproduce, as best as possible, the gaming experience found in the pencil and paper role-playing games (Classic RPGs). As described in the above sections, the "Standard" RPG model has focused on other directions that do not address these elements; thus, we feel that we are forging ahead into new and exciting territory that will change the face of "Standard" CRPGs and the online community as a whole.

In all RPGs, the gaming experience is centered on the Player "role-playing" the actions and reactions of a unique character in a (usually "medieval fantasy") imaginary environment. A system of rules is established to govern conflict and combat resolution, and an additional system (normally "skill-based") is developed to deal with "task resolution" - the efforts of a given character to accomplish almost any given task in the environment.

What distinguishes a Classic RPG from the current Standard models is that a Player's range of activities are vastly expanded - they can try almost anything, go almost anywhere, and have every expectation that their story will continue regardless.

The reason for this is the extraordinarily important role of the Game Master.

To best understand that role, we must look at what a Game Master (also referred to as a GM) is responsible for in an RPG -

  • Story Creation (plot and sub-plot creation, threaded environments).

  • Narration (the portrayal of rich and compelling environments, using whatever resources are available and even creating those resources as needed).

  • Referee (Answering the questions of: Who did what? How did they do it? To who or what did they do it? Was it done successfully, and to what degree?).

  • Improvisational Acting (portraying the personalities and roles of every non-player character [NPC] in the story environment).

  • Improvisational Thinking (able to think quickly and respond to unexpected actions by the players, "ad-libbing" almost everything at some point or another).

  • Communication (Informing Players en masse or individually of all relevant information pertaining to their game experience and the ongoing story of their character).

The Game Master must be able to do each of these things successfully, quickly, and (most importantly) with ease for a group of players over a LAN or Online.

It is also important to grasp what it is that the Players are going to expect to do in a fully realized role-playing environment. This includes (but is by no means limited to) -

  • Creating an individualized and customized character.

  • Having the artist of the group draw a stylized representation of the character or painting representative miniatures to use in game play (in the case of our system, they will be able to customize icons that represent them, as well as attach art files to their "electronic character sheet").

  • Manipulating objects in creative ways (using a sword to cut rope, or using a rubber hose to siphon liquids or fashion a makeshift slingshot).

  • Having their characters: Climb, crawl, jump, squat, roll, dance, whirl, tumble, dodge, slide, crouch, swing, leap, scale, sit, lie down, stab, lift, drop, throw, hurl, ride, love, hate, gain power, seek revenge, buy a hat, sell a horse, conquer a kingdom, etc…

  • Showing their character's emotional state by: Frowning, smiling, hugging, kissing, waving hello, kneeling in prayer, yelling angrily, whispering sweet nothings, pontificating elaborately, pouting sullenly, etc…

In a Classic RPG, the Players typically attempt to complete an objective. In a Campaign (an ongoing "story" featuring the same characters over multiple sessions of play), the players normally attempt to complete a much greater objective, with a variety of sub-tasks (or, if you will, story arcs) to be accomplished during the course of the campaign. These sub-tasks serve to develop the characters - not just in terms of their power and ability (as is typical in Standard CRPGs), but also in terms of who they are, what they think, what they care about, and what their place in the "virtual universe" is.

Typically, a gaming session is part combat and part role-playing; although a Player is expected to be "in character" even during conflict resolution, the combat portion of a typical Classic RPG session tends to be a very distinctly different experience than the rest of the session. More often than not, combat becomes too focused on the rolling of the dice, statistics and rules, whose turn it is, etc., and less of the role-playing.

This is the part that has thus far been most effectively carried to the Online World - the "combat portion" of the game. The computer can do it all faster, more efficiently, and with greater audio and visual results, but the real "magic" of being immersed in a story is completely lost in the transition because this is often focused on, instead of used to enhance the experience.

Through utilizing the Game Master in the intended role, the conflicts become less about "mindless damage-dealing hordes" and more about "real, living and breathing" opponents with an intelligent mind both controlling their actions and giving them that elusive quality that makes all the difference - LIFE. This removes the focus from the number crunching, and redirects it to the immersive experience and story.

Which brings up another important point - the ability to portray emotion is CRITICAL. This is one thing that has been done fairly well in the textual environments (through the use of "communication protocols" and emoticons), but not so well in the visual environments - very ironic.

Through the use of demeanor selections that activate font changes in the Player character's spoken text, a whole world of emotional range and expanded communication opens up. Combine this with the ability to keep "in character" speech in the "game environment" while moving "out of character" messages to an external message board and immersion is enhanced to a level not yet seen in any CRPG.

Now to address the issue of effectively relying on the Game Master model rather than create an elaborate artificial intelligence system and a "fire-and-forget," self-sustaining environment.

Years of study and observation have revealed that people want to create their own stories and their own worlds - even their own rules of play. For example, there are literally thousands of customized levels (and weapons and monsters) that players have created for DOOM™, QUAKE™, DUKE NUKEM™, and dozens of other action/adventure games. Similarly, there are just as many customized maps and scenarios created for such strategic and tactical games as WARCRAFT II™, CIVILIZATION II™, and HEROES OF MIGHT AND MAGIC II, to name a few.

More to the point, look at the communities that "create themselves" in the current online games. The "guild" system, lost to antiquity in the "real world," is alive and thriving on the Internet. The MUDS and MUSHES of old and new alike promote a system of achievement, where the rewards are gaining fuller access to the game system and the ability to create world-shaping game elements and adventures. In the more structured realms of the "pay-for-play" games (where such "tampering" is less possible), large numbers of players strive to create story and society where there is none (or where it is too artificial to relate to).

Our philosophy is to give the Players what they clearly want - the power to create and run their own games - their own stories and experiences, in whatever way they choose. Granted, we also plan to sponsor a permanent online environment. But we also know that, by giving them the tools to do so and the necessary initial assistance to get started, our Players will create the worlds, environments, stories, and games for themselves.

Our Players will run the hundreds of games possible because they want to - because they have been waiting for someone to give them the tools to make their own realities.

Sean Patrick Fannon, the Lead Game Designer for 8th Wonder Games, has worked extensively in the Role-Playing Game and Computer Game industries, writing and designing for such entities as Infogrames Multimedia, Hero Games, West End Games, Interplay Productions, Vortex Media Arts, and others. An accomplished game master and storyteller, Sean is a strong proponent for interactive entertainment and multiplayer non zero-sum gaming. In fact, he has written the definitive work on Role-Playing Games, The Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer's Bible (Prima Entertainment, 1996). Sean has been a speaker at numerous other events, including this year's Computer Game Developer's Conference and DragonCon in Atlanta.

8th Wonder Games is a developer of CD-ROM games and entertainment titles, with a focus on Internet and multi-player capacity. Beginning in 1993 as Interactive Education Inc., 8th Wonder Games is now focused on developing and producing computer and online games featuring unique designs and proprietary technologies (including their industry-challenging V-Engine™). One of the "Top 100 Multimedia Producers of 1996" (Multimedia Producer Magazine), they are set to launch their PC game title, Drachen Zor™ (published by SouthPeak Interactive), in the Fall of this year. They are also working on the Infinity Game System™, which promises to revolutionize online role-play gaming.

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About the Author(s)

Sean Patrick Fannon


Sean Patrick Fannon, the Lead Game Designer for 8th Wonder Games, has worked extensively in the Role-Playing Game and Computer Game industries, writing and designing for such entities as Infogrames Multimedia, Hero Games, West End Games, Interplay Productions, Vortex Media Arts, and others. An accomplished game master and storyteller, Sean is a strong proponent for interactive entertainment and multiplayer non zero-sum gaming. In fact, he has written the definitive work on Role-Playing Games, "The Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer's Bible" (Prima Entertainment, 1996). Sean has been a speaker at numerous other events, including the Computer Game Developer's Conference and DragonCon in Atlanta.

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