|Virtual Worlds: First Principles||2007-05-07 05:21:00 GMT
by Kami Harbinger
Richard Bartle's asking over at Terra Nova about alternative design ideas for virtual worlds.
I'm a big fan of really weird gameplay, and creating new environments, but several of the ideas are way off. They seem to ignore the fact that virtual worlds (VWs) are SOCIAL environments. If you're not building it for people to connect and communicate, you shouldn't be making multi-player VWs, you should stick to 1P games (nothing wrong with that, I like both 1P and MP games).
You shouldn't take out direct communication, and you can't prevent indirect communication. At the barest minimum level, there's always blockchat (pushing objects, or even just walking, into positions to shape letters or numbers to dial on an external channel). Moreover, unless you have somehow made the greatest environment since sliced bread, people won't put up with heavy obstacles put in their way.
Artificial intelligence and NPCs are pretty close to the perfect example of things that shouldn't be in VWs. There are over 6 billion other primates on this planet, of whom 1K to 10M might reasonably be in the same VW as you. Who needs a crappy software agent pretending to be a person? Do you really need a dragon to slay, if you can instead go to a combat zone?
Do you really need an NPC shopkeeper, if there's a friendly player who'll make and sell stuff? In FFXI there were three economies: the NPC shops, which had hugely overpriced garbage, but were the only source of certain disposables and unique items; the official auction house system, which tended to have lots of crap at reasonable prices, but not much of the good stuff; and people with packs full of goods set for sale, where you got the good deals, and could often haggle with them, and could buy supplies from wandering merchants. They could easily have eliminated the NPC shops, and possibly even the auction house system, and made the world more social. I like running my little shop in Second Life. My sales boxes are basically vending machines, so it's not a 40-hour-a-week job to run it, but I'm often there to meet people and answer questions, and I sell more when I'm present for a few hours a week than I do all the rest of the time. Why is Second Life full of casinos and nightclubs? Because those environments let lots of people get together in one place and share some experience, and you get to meet lots of people. You could make all sorts of profitable solitary businesses in SL, but few people do, because they want to be with other people.
AI is great for 1P games, because otherwise you're all alone. But if you can't get the other players to fill those roles in a multi-player game, you are an incompetent game designer. I don't know how to say that nicely; NPCs in MMOs are absolute proof that you don't know what you're doing. I think Myst Online: Uru Live is a giant empty disaster, but at least in theory they got the right idea: the "NPCs" are role-played by staff at Cyan. Everyone else is another player, and mostly they stay in character.
Richard's dead-on about magic being overdone. I'm not without guilt: I've done my own share of Greek alchemy magic systems, but magic is ridiculous and obsolete and, worst of all, boring. Players will demand some kind of powers outside of the mundane, but it doesn't have to be the same-old, same-old D+D crap. I think Second Life has the best magic system ever. Anyone with intelligence and talent can learn to be a sorcerer who can make objects out of nothing and create complex enchantments that animate them; mundanes who can't script, paint, or build are mere consumer scum. If you're making a game instead of a VW, go ahead and give the construction system some fiction, even simplify it more than SL's system (the Lego Mindstorms programming tools might be a good model), but don't do another magic system. The Matrix Online's special abilities were pretty neat, and did something creative with the setting. If you can't be more creative than the Matrix Online, go home.
 The one possible exception being worlds for children. Frankly, I'd rather that parents acted like responsible adults and just supervised their children, but since they're often dumb enough to think the Internet is just like a TV set and therefore a mindless babysitter, censored VWs for children are going to happen.
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