Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Tribe Followed by a Hundred Zeroes

Recently, I've talked about lots of things, but I want to take a bit of time to glue a few theories together. The theories about gluing agency to content and the theories about player-generated content, to be specific.

Player-generated content is pretty much a holy grail: if you can get enough players generating enough content, you don't have to do anything other than upgrade the server cluster every few weeks. It's the best possible thing - nobody gets bored, you don't have to pay people to develop content, and so on.

But swamping rears its ugly head.

Swamping is when too many players are connected to too much content (which includes other players). Instead of feeling like they have a choice, instead they feel like choice and/or content is meaningless. Not all such situations lead to swamping: some players are more swampable than others, and swampability depends on their mood. But, generally, conditions which are swampy lead to swamptastic reactions.

That kind of reaction (we'll call it "swampalitic") will essentially destroy your content. The players will have dramatically reduced levels of immersion, emotional investment, and awe. While your "super" content may still be super, everything else becomes meaningless.

Think of it as kind of the "parent theory" to mudflation. If you want a concrete example: freaking blood elves, man. Blood elves.

Anyway, all games use barriers to prevent content swampification. Can't really do this until you're level 49142, can't wear that until you have a "beating heads" skill of 2022189. Can't communicate with the other half of the player base, can't hear people who aren't shouting, can't get in there without the Key of Faragoharigornahogard (he's from Brooklyn).

But these systems are insufficient when it comes to coping with the ultimate swampifier: player-generated content. It's like trying to hold back the ocean with nicely paved streets. Not gonna happen.

Instead, more radical approaches are required, of which there are essentially two options. I'll call one the Dutch Windmill method, and the other I'll call the Railroad Hobo method.

The Dutch Windmill method is to hold the flood at bay. Players can create content, but only a bit of it gets into the game proper, via some kind of rigorous quality control system. There are bunches of problems with this: things you approve of aren't likely to match things the players want, it costs a lot of money to check and check and check content, and players are likely to make a gray shard with looser restrictions.

The Railroad Hobo method essentially lets there be as much content as anyone cares to make, but connects it in such a way that it is unlikely a given player will encounter all of it. Instead, the player interacts with a strictly limited amount of content (including other players). Implemented poorly, nothing is more irritating - players are hitch-hiking on a set of rails leading from place to place.

The Railroad Hobo doesn't have to be so irritating, but then, neither does the Dutch Windmill. They each have intrinsic problems and payoffs which have to be carefully considered and managed.

I generally use a variant of the Railroad Hobo method I call "International Politics". That works great for 3-20 players, but falls apart when you start getting into MMORPG player counts.

It's just too many damn players. You need to build your whole game antiswampamorphically. Here's the thing: even if you don't think you allow player-generated content, you do, and you need to be careful that your swampalicious game doesn't flounder.

Of course, these swampariffic measures tend to have profound side effects on game economy, uneven treadmills, social interactions...



Craig Perko said...

The amusing thing is that the essay started as an essay on letting player content also create rules (which glues agency to content)...

The swamp-man! It's the Swampalator! The swamptastic Swampalini!

David said...

I always wondered why MMOs didn't put a hard limit on the amount of gold in the game, just like in the real world... Seems like games would be alot more interesting if there were rich and poor people in the actual sense. But like you said, the problem is really the number of players.

Craig Perko said...

Actually, something similar has been tried. Players begin to use something else as currency - some in-game item such as "swords of smiting" or "keys of monkeyballs".

There has to be enough money to keep products flowing, and if there isn't, players invent money. :)