Thursday, February 21, 2008

More quick links

Kit O'Connell writes about playing Morrowind:

I want to suggest that there is also an 'Uncanny Valley' of sorts in world-building, that when creating imaginary worlds which feel real to us there is a point where something is uncomfortably almost-but-not-quite real.

(from The uncanny valley of world building, Kit O'Connell)

Much debate follows in the comments, including whether Kit was even understanding his exemplar Morrowind anecdote correctly. Nonethless, a useful idea to apply.

I know, it's on BoingBoing, which means you've already seen it. Nonetheless:

The distributed fiction of I Love Bees was designed as a kind of investigative playground, in which players could collect, assemble and interpret thousands of different story pieces related to the Halo universe. By reconstructing and making sense of the fragmented fiction, the fans would collaboratively author a narrative bridge between the first Halo videogame and its sequel. As the project’s lead writer Sean Stewart explains: "Instead of telling a story, we would present the evidence of that story, and let the players tell it to themselves."

(from Why I Love Bees, Jane McGonigal)

The kind of game design that the creators were exploring will be instantly familiar to fans of the MIT Mystery Hunt:

I would argue that the primary puzzle of I Love Bees embodied a meaningful ambiguity. That is, the data set lacked the clarity of formal interactive instructions, yet maintained a distinctively sensical nature. That is, the choice and ordering of the coordinates did not seem nonsensical. Instead, its arrangement was structured and seemingly intentional enough that it promised to mean something, if only approached in the right way. This meaning was implied through the specificity, volume and overtly designed presentation of the data.

But a Mystery Hunt is largely fixed in form at launch time; it has to be, to allow many teams to compete on a fair basis. The designers may have to fix puzzles on the fly, and perhaps delete some, but they won't usually invent new ones. Certainly not based on a particular team's theory.

I Love Bees, in contrast, was gleefully extended as the (single, universal) team of players made progress. The article goes on to describe how the collective intelligence went way beyond what the creators expected. By the end, the creators were flinging together puzzles that required tremendous feats of player cooperation and networking. The players wound up making dictionaries of game information that were more complete and consistent than what the creators had built. And then the creators started relying on these dictionaries to design later puzzles, and mining ideas from incorrect solving theories...

Legos, Cliques, and the Invisible Hand

Legos are not a game, but you can play games with Legos. Two teachers at a child-care center in Seattle talk about Why We Banned Legos, and how they brought them back in. (Link via coffeeandink.)

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew -- and space and raw materials became more precious -- the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn't play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. [...] As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how "cool pieces" would be distributed and protected.

(from Why We Banned Legos, Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin)

This is a microcosm of the player-created content economy, to which so many modern MMO games and social web sites aspire. The MMO games rely directly on "cool pieces" -- resources of limited availability. Content-sharing sites like Youtube don't have explicit limitations, but the experience crystallizes out around scarcity anyway; eyeballs, attention, popularity. Social capital, in short.

I am a devotee of the gift economy. I have been ever since I got to college and fell into the decadent stews of free software and free (Usenet) conversation. (Before that, there was pirated software. Which was shared by us junior-high-school reprobates in the same way, once we'd pried it loose from the DRM-encrusted, clearly-unworthy hands of the software industry. I'm not making excuses, I'm just explaining my roots.)

I use the gift economy as a model wherever I can. It's built into Volity, our nascent board-game site; it's my plan for Boodler, my half-finished sound-effects project; it underlay my suggestions for player-created Ages in the now-cancelled Myst Online. But equal opportunity does not mean "fairness". Do we have an explicit notion of how to offer equal fun, in the face of social power laws? (That is, the inevitability that a few people will wind up famous/important/influential.)

Legotown was not, please note, the result of simplistic selfishness. These kids had strong attachments to fair play, concensus decision-making, and generosity:

Carl: "We didn't 'give' the pieces, we found and shared them."

Lukas: "It's like giving to charity."

Carl: "I don't agree with using words like 'gave.' Because when someone wants to move in, we find them a platform and bricks and we build them a house and find them windows and a door."

These children seemed to squirm at the implications of privilege, wealth, and power that "giving" holds. The children denied their power, framing it as benign and neutral, not something actively sought out and maintained.

(names of children have been changed by the authors)

The kids negotiated rules; they planned to spread the fun around. Their response to resource shortages was to propose community standards, such as building-plot size limits. Nonetheless, they wound up in a situation where a few children -- including Carl and Lukas above -- effectively excluded the rest.

Being eight and nine years old, they didn't have a clear grasp of the differences between intent, self-image, and outcome:

During the boom days of Legotown, we'd suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like "Somebody's got to be in charge or there would be chaos," and "The little kids ask me because I'm good at Legos." They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

Oh ye with social capital on the Internet, raise your hand if that's never been you. Mm-hmm. It sure sounds like me, in many contexts.

The Legotown story continues through discussions between the teachers and the children; a demonstrative trading game as a microcosm of the microcosm (yay!); a supervised Lego building project; discussion of the kids' principles (shared power, collectivity, creative expression); and finally the rebuilding of Legotown, under a new set of rules -- developed by the children -- which dealt directly with access rights, community standards, and resource management.

And I'm using polysyllabic words, but all of these things are right in the forefront of kids' minds. All of them are linchpins of every Internet community and game world, from the first design document to launch day to popular peak. Go finish the article, and you will recognize them on sight.

So what do we do with this perspective? I have no answer beyond "Remember it, and be mindful of what you do." So I will tack.

I have a theory -- not tested at all -- that whenever you build a social structure, you should plan for schism. What happens when this falls apart? What happens when you have a screaming argument with your partner and he walks out? What happens when someone starts a competing group? What happens when someone wants to join, but he doesn't like you so he never bothers? (That's the hidden "schism", more damaging than the overt screaming argument, because you never see it -- that person's potential contribution just evaporates.)

In a command model, the answers are simple and merciless: somebody wins, somebody is cut out. You try to make sure you stay on top.

The gift economy wants to avoid this struggle. It doesn't always succeed. I propose that one major cause of failure is the fear of schism. A group (or person) gets the notion that they are necessary. That means that any rival, whether from within the group or outside, is an enemy -- they're not bad people, of course, but they'll bring down the whole community with their challenge. And then begin the rules, the definitions of who's a member, and all the other cruft of command.

More subtly: the group's goals change from "empower people" to "empower our people". I mean, it's not subtle when I say it like that. But when the Uru Guild of Writers was setting itself up, there was tension between two notions: "Our goal is to help people create Ages" vs "Our goal is to create Ages". And it's not a semantic triviality. In the former case, if a rival Guild arises, that's great -- they're helping more players create more Ages. Our goal is being accomplished. In the latter case, a rival Guild is creating Ages... hey, that's our job! We're failing at our goal! What gives?

Even if there's no notion of controlling Age creation -- and that notion certainly arose in the Uru community -- the Guild still has to worry about being made obsolete. New creators might create Ages for them, thus leaving our Guild to wither and stagnate. Which is a legitimate fear, but it drives people to defend their turf.

I'm sorry; I burble on about the nonexistent future of Uru. The generalization: love your schisms. Cheer your rivals. Define your membership as everyone who hangs out with you, not as everyone you accept. Make sure your social structure is not threatened by outsiders; provide paths by which they can organize without you; choose aims which are strengthened by their work "against" you.

That way, when something goes nasty in the state of Denmark -- or Legotown -- you won't have any motivation to either block or co-opt them. Which will do wonders for keeping the drama-gnomes away.

One more quote, which is somewhat about power, but entirely about why we're here. In the toy game I mentioned, the winners in the first round got to change the rules for the second round.

Kyla added this rule to the game: "If you have more than one green [high-value piece], you have to trade one of them." [...]

Kyla: "I wasn't trying to make other people feel bad. I felt bad when people felt bad, so I tried to make a rule that would make them feel better. It was fun to make up the rule -- like a treat, to be one of only three people out of the whole group."

Yeah, kid, that's it -- not the "only three" -- but the "make up a rule". Work with that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I Lose

Writer Peg Kerr, who does not know me, has lost the game. But she dragged me down with her, as her daughter dragged her down:

"See, the point of the Game is to get as many people playing it as possible."

"How do you win it?"

"You don't. There is no way to win the Game. You can only lose the Game. Whenever you think of it, you say aloud, 'I've lost the Game.' And that reminds everyone around you of the Game, and then they've lost the Game, too. And then everyone has a half hour in which they try to forget all about. And that's it -- until the next time you remember it." She smiled at me.

Now I'm writing this post, so I lose the Game again.

I'll never win, but I can console myself by getting more people to lose. Many losing players react that way, it seems. One vengeful soul sets up a wiki; some are running it as a social networking site.

The Game is of course a meme, a tidy and efficient one. It contains nothing but its own imperative to reproduce. But how does that work? Religions, the archetypical examples of memes, have all sorts of baggage surrounding the notion of "Teach me to others." Ethics, stories, rituals, art... You can't just walk up to someone and say "Repeat this sentence to everyone you meet!" and expect that to spread around the world. (I mean, are you as tempted to blog about that sentence as you are about the Game? Be honest. This is for posterity.)

The Game is a minimal meme, but it spreads. (The sites I link to above show tens of thousands of players.) Why? Well, it's a game, and games are fun. But it's a minimal game, too. It contains nothing but losing! What's going on here?

The Game clearly plays off two elements of human psychology: "don't think of a pink hippopotamus", and "ha ha gotcha". But I'll argue for a third, less obvious factor: "I am not powerless."

The Pink Hippo factor is what makes the Game fun. It's hard; it's a challenge, of a slippery sort. You can't not think about a pink hippo now (unless you're the mutant offspring of Kimball Kinnison and Granny Weatherwax), but you might be able to not think about a pink hippo tomorrow. (Good luck with that. Hey, maybe the pink hippo will distract you from losing the Game again.) Perhaps we should classify the Game as a sport instead? Like hopscotch, the point is not to fall...

In the winter, after the snowballs and the snow forts, after the sleds and the toboggans, there was the crusty snow, and there was the (what to call it? Not a game, not a sport, not even a contest) -- there was the thing of seeing if you could walk on the crust without breaking through. There was ice-skating, and a kind of primitive hockey, and we made slides on the sidewalk and damn near broke our necks, and then some grownup came out and spread ashes on it, and we grumbled. But there was also just the thing of standing on a frozen place on land and breaking the ice delicately by teetering, or even better than that, just rocking there and watching the air bubble slide back and forth under the ice.

(from "Where did you go?" "Out" "What did you do?" "Nothing" by Robert Paul Smith)

A thing is a self-generated rationale in your head: you do it in order to do it. A game is a competitive thing. Two people walking on the ice are not playing a game, until one of them says -- or thinks -- "First one to break through is the loser!"

The first person to invent the Game was not playing a game until he told someone else, who then lost.

(I've just failed to account for solitaire, D&D, and Zork. Sorry! The Grand Unified Theory of Gaming is not yet completely unified. I guess I see those games as you competing with yourself, or -- for D&D and Knizia's "Lord of the Rings" -- the group competing with the limitations of setting, story, and resource. There is still an element of challenge and a notion of failure. Walking on thin ice can be a solo sport -- if you care whether you succeed.)

You can't succeed at the Game, but you can do better than the next guy. And teaching someone the Game forces them to lose. Gotcha! It's a joke, because it subverts the notion of learning to be a weakness instead of an advantage. And it's a prank, which is fun for the trickster. (Trust me -- I just did it to you!)

And that brings us to the third factor, which is that it's still fun if you lose. The fun of losing is a slithery but essential notion in games. If you get into a bad situation, is there something enjoyable you can do next?

Note that I don't say "something you can do to get out of it." In some games, you can invent a brilliant strategy to recover your loss. In others, you can learn from your mistakes and invent a brilliant strategy for next time. In some games, you can mess with the winners. Some games let you go out for a sandwich while the survivors fight over the throne. And in some games, you can enjoy the sublime cleverness -- or gonzo absurdity -- of your downfall.

(Different players rate these pleasures differently, which is why Fluxx provokes such wild disbelief at how Those Idiots can love/hate such an idiotic/charming little game.)

In the Game, when you lose, you say "I just lost the Game" -- out loud. Which leads directly to the fun parts. It doesn't leave you wallowing in failure; you've immediately got a positive action to take, namely, making other people lose. That's sharp design.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Myst Online: Beyond the Cancellation

Speaking as Uru's premier blogger...

(...he said, lying blatantly...)

The truth is, I've been writing notes about Uru Live for more than four years. So I have a notion I oughtta say something about its end. But it's a silly notion.

I haven't even been here for the whole run. I only logged into Untìl Uru a few times. The community was playing UU; history piled up; things happened. But new worlds were what I was interested in, so I didn't hang out.

You want to hear something funny? Untìl Uru -- the fan-run, fan-hacked servers -- lasted longer than any other phase of Uru. Nearly two years. Some players had more attachment to UU than to the "real" run of the game. It was buggy, inconsistent, devoid of plot, prone to half-assed extensions and updates... it wasn't a game, by any definition. But players felt they had a stake in UU, in a way that never gelled for Uru Live.

And I say this without having been there. I'm reading the tone of the community. In the days since the cancellation post, people have been all over the idea of bringing back UU. It's Cyan's decision, mind you, and Cyan hasn't said anything about it. (They haven't said anything at all about their plans, except that they will continue making games.) But people remember what it was like to be the ones who kept the City open.

People liked that. I will return to this point.

You know what, I'm not even going to talk about the final cancellation of Uru Live. I'll give the thirty-second summary: Gametap funded Cyan for a couple of years. Whatever deal they made, it didn't work out. Cyan spent some time updating their 2003 code, some time fixing bugs, some time updating old material from Path of the Shell, and some time creating new material. None of these really happened fast enough to build a stable, enticing game experience. Maybe if Gametap had pumped the money faster, or for another year, or if Cyan had built something else, or run their game differently, it would have worked. It didn't, so it's done.

(I must address one point specifically: I am not blaming the POTS material for killing Uru Live. It was old hat to a lot of old players, including me. But Uru failed because the growth rate was insufficient. Growth is defined as new players, meaning people who (mostly) haven't played the 2004 expansion packs. 2007 was all new to them. And it still didn't bring them in fast enough. So now you know.)

The real question is: Do I see Uru coming back?

Not in its original form. The plan for Uru was a commercial, online, massively-multiplayer adventure game, with new adventure material constantly being produced by Cyan and consumed by players.

This plan now has several fatal holes. Cyan is smaller than it was in 2003. It has not managed to produce a stream of great adventure material in the online mode. The Uru codebase has scaling issues on multiple axes. (I'm not just talking about frame rate. The player-to-player message system is nearly useless for a large community; the world state model has synch problems in crowded Ages; the physics system is a millstone in several ways; the avatar and clothing system can't make a crowd of people look distinct.)

None of those are unbreakable obstacles -- but breaking any of them would take a pile of time and money. Another pile, I should say. Cyan spent all of 2006 working on these problems, using Gametap's money. The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better.

Which brings up the real fatal hole in Uru's plan, which is that it's failed twice now. Only a crazy person would fund it again. By "crazy person", I mean someone who would be willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into a hole and never see it again. And even if you found such a person, would Cyan want to exhume the project? I cannot remotely imagine the burnout, the pain that those coders and admins and artists must associate with Uru right now.

So that's a dumb question: Uru is not coming back as a commercial Cyan enterprise, not anytime soon. The real question is, will Uru return as a player-supported project?

It could, as I've said. If Cyan opens up exactly the same server system that they did in 2004-2006, people will run servers and hang out. It would not be a blip in the gaming universe, mind you. It would be some people sharing a virtual space. Maybe several hundred, maybe as few as fifty, on a regular basis.

Or maybe more than that. If new areas begin opening up, it's more than a chat room. And players have been working on new Uru areas, using homegrown tools, for years. Those efforts went into high gear in mid-2007, when Cyan announced that Uru's social model would grow to include Guilds, modelled after the Guilds of D'ni history -- including the Guild of Writers, the creators of Ages. (In December, Cyan slipped a hint that their intended arc for 2008 was "Rise of the Guilds".)

The player-organized Guild of Writers is using the Uru software of the 2004-6 era. Several showcase Ages are already shaping up. So there's an obvious route: fan-run servers, connected through Cyan but not under Cyan's direct management, with fan-created content posted as it appears. Anarchic and vital, as I've been pushing for all along.

I am glossing over an entire sub-argument: how much oversight Cyan should have over player Ages and storylines. Do they review designs before implementation? Do they accept some as "official" after release? Will there be such a thing as an official constellation of Ages, an official storyline?

I've discussed all these arguments before, in the pre-cancellation era. There wasn't any community concensus then either, but of course all the goalposts are shifted now. (And will continue to shift, since Cyan's plans are still unannounced.) The past week has seen dozens of posts about the "obvious" plan of bringing back Untìl Uru with fan-created Ages. Each of them has an "obvious" notion of Cyan's role in this plan. No two such notions quite agree.

If you dig even a few inches down, I suspect, you'll uncover the real relic of contention: was Cyan's plan for Uru a work of genius, murdered by insufficient funding? Or was it clueless blundering devoid of story, immersion, and interest? (Both sides add a twist of the shallowness of our corrupt society, chill and serve with bitter aperitif.)

I am condensing these points of view, not exaggerating them. Forum threads are going on right now on both themes, and both have been stated in about so many words. (And, I admit, many more judicious and less extreme.) The valuable question is not which is right. (Both are self-evidently true, to an extent. You already knew that.)

The real question is, can you criticize Cyan's handling of story, interactivity, and game design -- all of which I've done, intelligently, I hope -- without also criticizing Cyan's role as the ultimate arbiter of Uru fan work? That is: who says they're so smart? Look at all the mistakes they've made.

Cue wild disagreement on just what mistakes those are. Which is precisely my point.

One might argue someone has to be in charge, if the universe is to have any consistency, and it might as well be Cyan. To which I say: Cyan hasn't been that big on consistency either. Look at any discussion of linking-book logic, or Age instances. Or, don't. Every such discussion descends into pages of detailed minutiae, precisely because Cyan has fudged their rules again and again in their quest for better gameplay. I don't hold this against them -- gameplay should come first.

Since Uru invites us to design gameplay on an Age-by-Age basis, the argument for a Grand Master of Consistency vanishes. This is massively-collaborative art, not a single game. We've had the era of rigid central control. Look how well it worked. Next!

The whole debate assumes that Cyan wants to be overseer of Uru; it assumes they'll have that power. In the UU era, Cyan ran a central authentication server. So they had no real power except the power to shut all the servers down (which they did, when Uru Live launched). But nothing says Cyan even has to go that far. If they release server binaries without that authentication hook, Uru moves entirely into the hands of the players.

Or, for all I know, we could do that hack ourselves.

To some degree, the Uru code -- venerable and scary as it must be -- is not the heart of Uru. I mentioned scaling issues. Who says Uru should continue on Cyan's client and server architecture? Certainly, if I had fifty million dollars to refloat the project, the first thing I'd want is rewrite a whole lot of code.

Yes, we have reasons to lean towards continuity. Dozens of Age models using the current codebase. The Guild of Writers tools are geared for... well, a three-year-old version of that codebase. If Cyan restarts UU, just as it was three years ago, everyone will go there by default.

But virtual world platforms are becoming a commodity. From a quick web search:

  • Second Life. Okay, everyone knows it. And I can't mention it without using the phrase "rain of genitalia". But it's big, well-tested, and you can fence off areas for your own community. Or, heck, run your own Second Life server -- the code is open-source, and I hear it's not expensive to run if you turn off all the server-side physics.

  • Metaplace. Not open yet; don't know much about it. It doesn't seem to be open-source, but the goal seems to be to let people create and script 3D environments.

  • Project Darkstar. Sun offers MMO-specialized server hosting. Open-source, but you have to like Java.

  • Croquet. Open-source software system. Looks low-level, but therefore powerful.

  • Multiverse. Software system for MMO creation. Not open-source, but free for non-commercial use.

This is not intended to be a complete list. (See this post for a much better one.) I'm pointing out that a lot of people are working on this. Multiplayer world hosting is going to be an off-the-shelf solution soon, if it isn't already. Uru is not a perfect system today; it's tempting to ditch its bugs, and equally tempting to ditch the effort of writing our own Age creation tool.

So the real question is: what do we want? And what's stopping us?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Games that don't exist

Greetings, devoted bloggees. I am Andrew Plotkin -- or, as some of you know me, the Internet's Zarf. You have no doubt seen me on the Gameshelf, abetting werewolves and villagers in their mutual slaughter. I also write text adventures, review games, and generally mess around with the notion of gaming. And I am delighted to join the Gameshelf Blog.

For my first post, two variations on the theme of "games that don't exist"...

Invisible Games is an occasionally-updated collection of... of... you know Italo Calvino? He wrote Invisible Cities, a collection of brief and wonderful accounts of cities. Magical, impossible cities -- cities that do not exist, but ought to.

Fantasy author Catherynne Valente has created a few such cities herself. Thus her Invisible Games: the games that might have been. A story here, a photograph there -- redacted, uncontexted, obscurely indexed.

In 1971 a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of Scientific American. It read, simply:

Never Be Alone Again.

It has been estimated that some thirty-five people responded to the ad, and another seventeen the following year. However, it cannot be ascertained at this point whether these fifty-two participants comprised the entirety of mail-in replies or merely selected out of a larger pool. In either case, each of the fifty-two respondents received a package approximately six weeks after enclosing twelve dollars in an envelope and sending it to a P.O Box in St. Paul Minnesota. The package contained a simple lightboard, various cables, a 103A modem, and a black button that depressed with a satisfying click.

(From The Loneliness Engine.)

Caverns, in contrast, is the story of a game that was never invented. As a child, David Whiteland played a game of dungeon exploration, assembled out of hand-drawn bits of cardboard.

Although I was told at the time that what I was seeing was a copy of a real, commercially-available game, it was over a quarter of a century later that I finally saw the original on which it had been based. By which time I had played it for years, grown up, and made several versions for friends' children.

The "original" that Whiteland eventually discovered was The Sorcerer's Cave, by Peter Donnelly. But Caverns is not The Sorcerer's Cave. Donnelly's game was a solitaire adventure; Caverns has players competing to finish quests (a mechanic taken from a different Donnelly game). More interestingly, Caverns gives an eliminated player the option to keep his hand in, by controlling monsters for the rest of the game. And Whiteland describes the fine game-balance that he remembers from his childhood Caverns set.

Where did these differences come from? New rules are big changes. Game balance comes from months of variation and testing. Someone invented each element of Caverns -- presumably a child, playing the eternal metagame of "Let's try it this way!" But this was no game-design studio; it was a kid's basement. Quite possibly the players didn't think of their work as game design, or testing. They were playing their favorite game. And what came out the other end was a coherent game, recalled by an adult who went on to make sets for more kids.

Whiteland does not include the rules of Caverns on his site. He merely describes them. If you play the game, you will invent it too.