Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Little Less Conversation... A Little More Action Please!

A moment ago, I talked about a hazy future-world. Now I'm going to talk about something I barely touched on: the pain of SecondLife.

It HAS been about a year since I played SecondLife. Perhaps the learning curve is softer, the experience more forgiving. I doubt it: that part of the product is not player-generated.

This is a starry-eyed post about SecondLife from one of the people involved in making it. Some solid points, but nothing extremely interesting. However, it reminded me of PAC - my pet theory on pattern adaptation. Don't worry, this isn't one of THOSE posts.

It is a post about game design, though.

If you told this guy that he could fly to Paris right now - for a week's wages - do you think he would do what we have done, and never go?

The problem is that we are not told we can fly to Paris for a week's wages. We're told we can fly ANYWHERE for a week's wages.

Our system is flooded. It's not an opportunity: it's just... a part of reality we don't really think about much.

SecondLife is similar. As much as it might remind you of a world of opportunity, in many ways it is not. The system is flooded. Everything is SO connected that there is nothing special about anything. Something is solely what it is. And, in SecondLife, what something is isn't very important. A giant glass castle sure is cool, but only because of the work someone put into it. It isn't cool because it has secrets - it doesn't have any.

The most interesting parts of SecondLife are on restricted islands and in restricted houses. Not because those parts are actually more complex, or more interesting, but because they are secrets. I've seen some of those secrets: the camera in those days was extremely malliable, so you could sweep it through locked houses. Of course, the contents of those houses were always trite and usually pornographic. The only interesting things were the ones which were obviously part of someone's second life. The photo albums, the custom furniture, the untold stories.

Similarly, the most interesting parts of reality are the ones we're not allowed to know about. People in general get a thrill learning a tidbit about something secret. For most of the general public, this can be as simple as learning that a given actor is actually a Scientologist! Or has lost twenty pounds! Or has broken up with their actress lover!

Others are more discerning, their tastes running to conspiracies, technologies, etc.

It's very simple: by hiding something, you make it worth something. By making it an effort to uncover, you automatically add as much value as it took effort.

SecondLife's major problem, in my eyes, is that it doesn't do that. Nothing is sacred, nothing is difficult, with the sole exception of architecture. Which makes architecture the only truly interesting thing in SecondLife, aside from the various usually-pornographic relationships between people.

What if we took the idea of sailing a ship to an extreme? Hows this for a thought-exercize of a game:

Give EVERY PLAYER A SHIP. There is no one "planet" - there are lots of planets. Ships can attach to each other, in essence becoming one, larger ship. Let every player customize their ship. A ship may land on a planet, and a planet may be modified for a significant energy outlay, but the ship is the heart of the player. Everything else is landscaping.

Every player can customize their ship, their outfit, etc. Every player has specific capabilities they either start with, buy, or discover. Perhaps one player has the ability to create flowers. Another player might be able to make extra-large living quarters. Maybe somebody makes hats. Sure, a lot of players have overlaps, but the core idea is that you'll always have a hook - something you can do that most of the people you meet can't do.

By restricting the flow of players, you can make it so there is no flood upon the system. The players won't be drowned in opportunities. The fact is: she's on a space ship. Maybe this planet up here is inhabited. That space station over there certainly is. They'll be people there... but not too many. Maybe not any, at the moment. They might all be sleeping (logged off).

But it's a chance to see what someone you've probably never met has done with their abilities. Abilities you don't have. Each one is special, each place contains pieces of that player's life, even if that player's life is largely just customized flowers.

The point is twofold:

First, SecondLife suffers from a kind of malaise. The players who stick with it become very good at one particular thing - fashion, for example, or vehicle scripting. But the players who have just started - they don't know what they're going to do. They don't even really know what the options are.

By telling them (or letting them buy) "you are able to make flowers" or "you can do telescopes", you are giving them a hook. Something they can fasten on to, something they can "level up" with. Something they can invest themselves in, and something that will enrich your game world.

Second, SecondLife suffers from a glut of products, most of which are worthless largely because there is something better ten feet away. By making it significantly more difficult to find players, you make those products more valuable. Their ship might not be the grandest ship in the universe, but it is interesting, and it's one of the few around at the moment.

Obviously, this has two major problems that need to be remedied:

First, people like being social, and this kind of game works by restricting that. That has to be juggled, but the basic idea is that people can communicate just fine, maybe even teleport. But there's no way to "display your goods". There's no such thing as a world-wide communication, there's no such thing as a globally accessable shop. The closest you can get is viral marketing through your friends, and a sale-boat (har har har) which automatically hails anyone who enters the vicinity with an advertisement.

Second, people like gathering and dwelling in "cities". People will undoubtedly hook their ships together into massive cities inhabited by hundreds of players.

We could stop that, I suppose, in various ways. Complexity could make life support unreliable, for example. But why stop it? The point is, it's a rat's warren. There's no way to "fly over" and "look for the best stuff". You're crawling through places, trying to find something interesting. You probably have some kind of energy scanner which lets you know when a person or something interesting is in the area, but largely, it's a rat's maze.

You could make this game in several ways. You could make it totally nonchalant, like SecondLife, or you could make it somewhat difficult to survive. For example, maybe ships have vermin... but the more ships that hook together, the larger and more dangerous the vermin. Perhaps ships have defense systems that can actually injure you. Death would be largely meaningless, of course: a minor penalty, getting shot back to your ship, whatver. Of course, that would make it disappointing when there was nothing of value to find, so perhaps the vermin arise in places of high 'energy' (large expenditures of attention), but where there are few people.

The advantage of a dangerous game is that things will actually have value. In SecondLife, the only things of value are the things which matter to you as a PERSON. Usually, sex and real money. Real money = land/architecture. Those are the only things worth a damn in SecondLife.

If you wanted a little bit more of a "real life" feel, you could make it so that guns actually have value, or robots, or hacking skills. The difficulty could ramp in quite the opposite of the normal way: the more people gather together in a party, the more difficult the game gets. This would tend to push people to be either wanderers or hermits, both of which would support the feel of the game.

Of course, the downside is that lots of people don't want to play a hard game, and the people who want to be social MOST rarely want to play hard games. So maybe it's all about how many ships there are pasted together. If you teleport over to your friend's ship, the danger level doesn't go up. Maybe it actually goes down.

I kind of like this idea. You'd need to have hella' diverse content, and some kind of method for conspiracies. And some method of pointing people at particular ships for no particular reason, just so they mix it up some.



Darius Kazemi said...

I agree with your comments about Second Life in general. However, my feeling when playing for a week was that it's hard to do EVERYTHING, not just architecture.

I like your idea for a ship game, particularly the idea of maze-cities, the larger ones containing worse vermin. It's a pretty nice negative feedback loop.

Craig Perko said...

Sorry to mislead: I never intended to say that just architecture was hard. I intended to say that just architecture COST REAL MONEY. Therefore, it has a weight that the other objects do not. Everything is cludgy in SecondLife - architecture is just kludgy AND important.

I actually wrote up a quickie game spec for the ship game, but I've got other things on my plate at the moment. :)

Craig Perko said...

Holy hell, I didn't realize how long this post was. How did anyone get all the way through it?