Richard Bartle gave a highly inspirational, insightful, upbeat and entertaining keynote entitled “Independence Day: How Imagination Triumphs over Orthodoxy.” He began with an historical overview of virtual worlds, comparing the “flowering of virtual worlds” that took place in 1989 with what’s happening today with Indie MMOGs. At that time, he pointed out, virtual worlds had been around for around a decade, and a confluence of conditions enabled a period of immense creative and productive activity.
Beginning with Bartle’s own MUD1 (created with Roy Trubshaw in 1978), a number of text-based virtual worlds emerged. Early progenitors were Shades, Gods, and later Mirrorworld and Federation II (apparently there was no Federation I). 1989 saw what Bartle termed a “flowering” of virtual worlds. From there emerged the graphical worlds starting, with Meridan 59, eclipsed by more successful games, which seemed big at the time, until…(insert Elephant-in-Room, aka, World of Warcraft, here).
Bartle’s marked a conference similar to this, Adventure ’89, as a key moment in this “flowering,” and posited that we are now in the midst of another flowering similar to that which took place in 1989. One of the exciting things about this particular historical momenet was that these games were all different. A few examples: Federation II (space opera), Dark City (cyberbunk), Prodigy (ancient Britain), Empyrion (undwater city), and Trash (fire breathing cabbages and inflatable hover-cars). Even the fantasy worlds were diverse, he said, citing Gods (in which players can create objects using points given by worshippers), Bloodstone (which had decomposition and humans made of 260 parts), Mirrorworld, and Avalon, to name a few.
The earliest games were important because they showed what was feasible, and for the imaginative, what was possible, and most makers of each successive generation of games are players of the preceding. At core, he pointed out, all players want to be designers, but not all players truly are designers. I’m not sure I would agree with this, as I think environments like Second Life and There.com have demonstrated that, given the proper context, tools and social feedback mechanisms, a surprising number of players can make the transition gracefully and effectively to creators. However, I agree with Bartle that a designer is someone who “does not make the game they want to play but the game they want to design.” I would aruge that the same holds true of player/creators. In other words, they have something specific to express in this medium.
What caused this initial flowering in 1989? One major contributing factor was the advent of the PC. Mainframes, such as the one on which MUD1 was developed, cost more than Ocean Liners. Once hardware costs came down, costs to develop text-based worlds were still high but “tantalizingly within reach,” at least enough so to attract the passionate.
The advent of graphical games added to costs: they required better computers, more bandwidth and creation of artwork (a major increase in cost, effort and barriers to imagination). Now, due to the advent of better graphics-oriented PCs and lower cost tools, graphical worlds will remain expensive to run as well as to write, but are “tantalizingly within reach.”
Bartle reinforced Brian Green’s point about the financial potential of indie MMOGs. 18 years ago, he pointed out, even small-scale textual worlds, the largest of which had 3000-4000 players, still made money. In early games, much like the old AOL model, people paid by the minute or the hour. The typical hourly cost for an MMOG was the equivalent of about $4 in modern dollars. Thus you could make a reasonable amount of money with as little as 1000 players. Some made a profit, such as On-Line Entertainment, whose founder coined the term “Massively Multiplayer Game”; most managed to break even. In many cases, success is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. He gave the example of TalkWorld (1997), a precursor to Second life that bombed. (It’s interesting to note, and this is my aside, that while it never seemed to exceed more than a couple hundred thousand users, twelve-year old ActiveWorlds, another user-created virtual world, is still alive and well, in spite of its now-hokey graphics.)
Bartle reiterated the idea of managing your expectations. “The bad news,” he said, “you are not going to get half a million people in your virtual world.” The good news: an indie MMOG with 20,000 players is sustainable, 40,000 players constitutes a success, and if you get 100,000, you can dance in the street.
Bartle also brought up the use of existing game engines. For the most part, they are too expensive, don’t do what you want, and in some cases, you can do something better (that you can then license to others.) However, we are seeing a rise in off-the-shelf engines with a low barrier of entry such as Multiverse. But using any such engine will still require some hacking and adapting. The extra work of building custom tools or modifying existing engines, however, is good for creativity. The fewer constraints, the more different your game will be. The shortfall of using an existing engine is that there is too much similarity if everyone uses the same tools, as was the case with TinyMUD, DikuMUD and others of that ilk. Nonetheless, he was encouraged by the diversity of games presented at the conference, even those that used off-the-shelf tools. “Who would think you could get Mermaids?” ☺
A wonderful insight that I found to be generalizable across all media was that new media only get one window of exuberant creative expression; then tools come out and the fallout is that paradigms and conventions become too established.
Bartle cited Daniel James of Three Rings (Puzzle Priates) as an example of someone raised in the old school (he worked on Avalon) who was now creating innovative new MMOGs like Puzzle Pirates. At this phase in the game, he said, we are privileged because our work will be more noticeable.
Another change is the production process. Bartle quoted Jack Emerett (City of Heroes), who said that game design is a relatively new phenomenon in video games…originally games were designed by programmers. But Bartle argued that he felt the inverse was the case; that in fact early games were programmed by designers. I think one could argue either way, depending on the game.
The key factor that makes this flowering of virtual worlds inevitable? Designing virtual worlds is FUN. Bartle said this was the most important, indeed the only reason, really. Virtual Worlds are not something in high demand in the real world. We may justify our passion by saying it “could” be profitable, but that’s not why we’re doing it—you’d more money programming for a bank (which, I later discovered, was the “day gig” of some of the conference participants.)
The part I loved the most: It takes a special person to design a virtual world. It’s a way of articulating thoughts, desires, a way to express yourself. Everyone who watches a movie thinks they can make one, who reads books thinks they can buy one, who plays virtual worlds think they can design one. Most players can only design worlds they want to play.
Designers play worlds they want to design. For us, the fun is creating “the world.”
He also reassured us not to worry about the future: “You may think you are lagging behind, but what’s ahead of you is also lagging behind.” Meridian 59 was state of the art when it came out. We have to accept that everything made in the future will look better, but don’t fret about it. As an indie, people aren’t going to play your game for state-of-the art graphics. And don’t worry if someone else has the same idea. Even if someone has a similar premise, said Bartle, don’t worry about it, don’t panic; the premise may be the same, but the details will differ.
A few other inspirational thoughts:
A virtual world is more than a mere idea. If you’re truly a designer, it’s part of your soul.
You can’t compete with big companies. But they can’t compete with you. If they blow it they will be burned. You can experiment. You have the freedom to fail. Can you make money? Sure, a little Runescape is a good game and successful; Tale in the Desert is a moderate success with 2000-3000 players. (Its creator, Andrew Tepper, is now doing something much bigger, but again, Tale in the Desert gave him the experience and credibility to do that.)
Big companies games are evolutionary, but not revolutionary. They polish existing ideas, get rid of stuff that people complain about. Indies can be revolutionary.
Richard’s self-reflexive (and to some extent self-mockery) was epitomized by this remark: “Why am I giving this talk? Because I haven’t DIED yet. I’m a dinosaur who should be extinct. The only reason I am here is because people are still stuck in the paradigms that I created. I WANT you to make me extinct. I want to see something I haven’t seen before.”
With shades of Joseph “follow your bliss” Campbell, he urged us to “follow your own hero’s journey through designing a virtual world. Along the way you are learning things about yourself. Artists need to understand themselves and are driven to express their ideas in some way, and eventually, they will end up like this, speaking at a podium.”
In reflecting afterwards a few things occurred to me. One thing is that some people (and I’m one of these) are meant to create imaginary worlds. (I spent my child ambling through the virtual worlds of Wonderland and Narnia, as well as new worlds of my own invention.)
I also had an insight that stemmed from the designer/programmer observation. I have always been a game designer, but never a programmer. Is it possible that the heavy emphasis in virtual worlds on stats and numerical translations of such otherwise amorphous cultural qualities as “skill” and “reputation,” arises out of the fact that their early inventors were also programmers?