Friday, June 23, 2006

MMNG, How Not To Play

I've been trying to figure out how to write the MMNG design up, but it's not something that can really be summarized very well because I can't say, "well, it's just like X except Yier."

So, I guess I'll talk about it in little parts.

This first part is how not to play a game.

When you let people build their own stories in your game, it is a common mistake to think that most players will want to do that. In actuality, although more than 50% of your players will probably try it out, fewer than 5% (and probably closer to 1%) will produce much. And their skill will be, for the most part, pretty low.

A game which allows people to generate content cannot, therefore, be simply a game that lets people generate content. It has to have a backbone of other kinds of play.

For example, SecondLife has a strong socialization, grouping, and trade backbone. This isn't actually very much, and is probably responsible for the rather low player count.

The problem is that any game which players can generate content for rapidly unbalances. The "first person shooters" in SecondLife are worthless, because it's relatively easy to build a nuke and kill everyone in the quadrant. The more tightly you control the game, the more balanced it is, but the less player content interacts with it.

The solution is fairly simple: partitioned player content.

This is sort of like not letting that irritating twink play your tabletop game with his level eight million wizard of god-slaying.

There are, as far as I can tell, two big ways to partition player content.

The first is a "hard" partition: in order for player content to affect you/the world you're in, it has to follow your rules and/or be explicitly allowed. This has the major downside of requiring players to do a lot of work to manually tweak these settings, and that has a bunch of downsides.

My preferred method is a "soft" partition. By using a carefully designed system of creation, you can have player-created content "decay" as it gets further from the source. This can be a universal decay, or it can be a social decay (IE, the more people use it, the less decay it suffers).

The hard partition means that when Avagadro makes his 6.0221415x10^23-bladed sword, it is useless unless they allow for hugely powerful swords in their world (or worldview).

The soft partition means that Avagadro's sword can still be used anywhere, but the metaphysics of the universe differ enough that it is blunted to a reasonable weapon.

There are a million ways of dealing with this in particular, mostly linked to how your creation system works and what your setting is.

Annnnnnyhow, now that we've wandered off, let's bring it home:

Using a system of automatic (or mostly automatic) re-balances, you can bring player-generated content under control, and allow it to be used in minigames without crashing the game's balance too much.

You do lose some of the freedom player-generated content normally provides. For example, you can't allow people to program objects using a powerful script code, because they'll work out some algorithm which makes their otherwise-generic object into a killing machine no matter how weak you make it.

There's ways of minimizing this loss - use of energy costs and a restricted scripting dynamic, primarily.

But the basic idea is relatively simple:

You can't have a game which focuses entirely on generating narratives: not if you want it to be popular. But player content (narrative or otherwise) normally unbalances the other games you might include.

So, allow it to be unbalanced, but only in a limited scope.

That allows BobTheBreaker to design a narrative in which there is a god-king Centennial who kicks all the ass... but if he includes Centennial in other people's narratives, unless the local author allows for Centennial's power, Centennial is stuck being a moderate power level.


Jason O said...

Unlimited player content always causes problems because there will always be people who will take advantage of it outside the intended game context. That is a given. This is because most game players don't understand how game balance works. A lot of Starsiege players hated missiles or smart guns because they thought they were "cheap" in terms of game use. Yet the real problem was that counters to missiles and smart guns broke their configs. So the answer was to ban the use of missiles and smartguns on servers, which actually then DID unbalance the game and caused even more problems. Players continually complained the game balance was horrible but then continually played on servers were missiles and smartguns were banned. Players cannot be put in charge of anything that changes game balance because they will invariably break it. I think the best system is one that allows for player content that has to exist within the rules of the gameworld. This is not a bad thing. If you don't control player options to some extent they will end up unbalancing the game. They may not even do this maliciously.

I think it follows the basic software concept that there is always at least one user out there dumb enough to break your brilliant code.

Craig Perko said...

The problem is that in a game which allows narrative creation, you flat-out need to allow broken content.

I'm not saying it's going to magically fix it so that everyone will be happy, but it will prevent people's broken-on-purpose content from overwhelming the system.

And, if player A wants to have his content be unbalanced on his turf, I let him. But on player B's turf, he's only as unbalanced as B allows.

(WTF? Word verify: rxfmmqpp)

Jason O said...

(Beat ya - 'mayqypx')

I think I understand what you're saying but is this going to be a universal narrative or a localized narrative? What happens in a narrative driven sense when Player A goes into Player B's sandbox?

I've seen problems with this in serial stories such as comic books where characters grow or lose power depending on who is writing them and if they are in their normal book or one where their regular writer is not present.

While this can lead to some interesting stories, it does kind of mess up continuity and always left me feeling a little disconnected with the story.

If Player A has his God-killer Sword but it doesn't work on the same level in Player B's world (sandbox, region, whatever) what effect does that have on the universal narrative? Will it be up to the players to decide how that works?

I'm not against the concept it sounds fascinating, but it seems a little inconsistent. On one hand I think players will always bring content that the developers may never think of and add to the gameplay experience. On the other hand I fear for what kinds of ideas players may bring and the effect it would have on the overall game.

Craig Perko said...

The problem you're talking about now is definitely a problem, but it's a different problem. A different essay will address it. :)

The actual gaining or losing power has to be written into the theme, of course. For example, you only have power on the plane you were born on, or your spaceship's doohickeys operate at limited efficiency because the rules of physics change subtly from light-year to light-year. It's not just a random "oh, I'm weak now" thing.

And universal narratives and content propagation are my very next essay!