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Virtual Worlds

Key concepts: virtual communities, computer gaming, virtual politics, virtual economics, violence, automation, virtual personae, entertainment industry

Attention Conservation Notice: Almost 3,000 words. Of interest mostly to net.organizational specialists.
Written in subcultural jargon of computer gaming industry.
Unlike most tracts on virtual community, reflects actual, sustained, hard-won experience with its subject matter.
Has little to do with CO2 emissions, except that 125,000 computer gamers whacking imaginary dragons with imaginary swords are emitting a lot of actual carbon dioxide.

Entries in the Viridian Summer Health Warning Contest:

http://www.earthlight.co.nz/~bretts/vs.html http://www.tux.org/~lasser/viridian/
http://www.ugrad.cs.jhu.edu/~rmharman/img/viridian/sun.bmp http://humlog.homestead.com/viridianart/HEAT.html http://members.tripod.com/~MSpong/viridian/heatdeath.html http://www.premierestedivolt.com/HEAT.HTML http://www.radix.net/~kreinsch/viridian/heatkills.html http://www.provide.net/~herrell/heat.html http://www.gothic.net/~weasel/viridian/ http://home.earthlink.net/~keim9/heatwarning.htm http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades/viridian/viridianhea t.html http://www.octa.net/heatposter.html
http://www.boston.quik.com/kitsune/gfx/heatwarn.jpg http://jhunix.hcf.jhu.edu/~djb14/viridian/heatkills.htm http://www.artlung.com/viridian6/
http://www.well.com/~smendler/heat.html http://www.greenbuilder.com/viridian_heat_load@148K.html http://www.powerbase-alpha.com/bigmike/heatkills.html http://www.cs.brown.edu/~pal/viridian.html http://www.potatoe.com/viridian/poster.html http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Village/3203/viridian_heat.h tml

This contest expires on September 1, 01999.

Links: http://www.ultimaonline.com

(((Raphael Koster (rkoster@origin.ea.com*) was lead designer for Ultima Online, an interactive virtual world with over 125,000 subscribers. He and his colleagues have come up with a set of principles and rules of thumb for managing these complex interactive environments. == bruces)))

The Laws of Online World Design

by Raphael Koster

These are taken from both experience and from the writings of others. Many who have done this sort of game design take some of these rules for granted, but other rules may be less intuitive. Many of the laws here were actually stated as such by others, and not by me.

A Caveat

Ola's Law About Laws:
"Any general law about virtual worlds should be read as a challenge rather than as a guideline." You'll learn more from attacking it than from accepting it.

Design Rules

The secrets to a really long-lived, goal-oriented, online game of wide appeal:

* Have multiple paths of advancement (individual features are nice, but making them ladders is better);

* Make it easy to switch between paths of advancement (ideally, without having to start over)

* Make sure the milestones in the path of advancement are clear, visible, and significant (having 600 meaningless milestones doesn't help);

* Ideally, give your game a sense of limitless significant milestones (try to make your ladder feel infinite).

Modes of expression

You're trying to provide as many modes of expression as possible in your online world. "Character classes" are just modes of expression, after all.

Persistence means it never goes away

Once you open your online world, expect to keep your team on it indefinitely. Some of these games have never closed.
And closing one prematurely may result in losing the faith of your customers, damaging the prospects for other games in the same genre.

Macroing, botting, and automation

No matter what you do, someone is going to automate the process of playing your world.

Corollary: Looking at what parts of your game players tend to automate is a good way to determine which parts of the game are tedious and/or not fun.

Game systems:

No matter what you do, players will decode every formula, statistic, and algorithm in your world via experimentation.

It is always more rewarding to kill other players than to kill whatever the game sets up as a target.

A given player of level x can slay multiple creatures of level y. Therefore, killing a player of level x yields (n)y reward in purely in-game reward terms. Killing players will therefore always be more rewarding in game terms than killing monsters of comparable difficulty. However, there's also the fact that players will be more challenging and exciting to fight than monsters, no matter what you do.

Never trust the client.
Never put anything on the client machine. The client is in the hands of the enemy. Never, ever, ever forget this.

J. C. Lawrence's "do it everywhere" law:

"If you do it one place, you have to do it everywhere." Players like clever things and will search them out. Once they find a clever thing, they will search for other similar or related clever things that seem to be implied by what they found, and will get pissed off if they don't find them.

Hyrup's "do it everywhere" Corollary:

"The more detailed you make the world, the more players will want to break away from the classical mold."

Dr Cat's Stamp Collecting Dilemma:

"Lots of people might like stamp collecting in your virtual world. But those who like stamps will never play with those who like other features. Should you have stamp collecting in your world?"

We know that there are a wide range of features that people find enjoyable in online worlds. We also know that some of these features are in conflict with one another.
Given the above, we don't yet know if it is possible to have a successful world that incorporates all the features, or whether the design must choose to exclude some design elements in order to keep the players happy.

"Koster's Law" (Mike Sellers was actually the one to dub it thus): "The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing."

Hyrup's Counter-observation: "The higher the fee, the better the roleplayers." (And of course, the higher the fee, the smaller the playerbase.)

Enforcing roleplaying

A roleplay-mandated world is essentially a fascist state.
Whether or not this accords with your goals in making such a world is a decision you yourself will have to make.

Storytelling versus simulation

If you write a static story (or indeed include any static element) in your game, everyone in the world will know how the story ends in a matter of days. Mathematically, it is not possible for a design team to create stories fast enough to supply everyone playing.

This is the traditional approach to this sort of game nonetheless. You can try a sim-style game which doesn't supply stories but instead supplies freedom to make them.
This is a lot harder and arguably has never been done successfully.

Players have higher expectations of the virtual world

The expectations are higher than of similar actions in the real world. For example: players will expect all labor to result in profit; they will expect life to be fair; they will expect to be protected from aggression before the fact, and not just to seek redress after the fact; they will expect problems to be resolved quickly; they will expect that their integrity will be assumed to be beyond reproach; in other words, they will expect too much, and you will not be able to supply it all.

The trick is to manage the expectations.

Online game economies are hard

A faucet->drain economy is one where you spawn new stuff, let it pool in the "sink" that is the game, and then have a concomitant drain. Players will hate having this drain, but if you do not enforce ongoing expenditures, you will have "Monty Haul syndrome," infinite accumulation of wealth, overall rise in the "standard of living" and capabilities of the average player, and thus imbalance in the game design and poor game longevity.

Ownership is key

You have to give players a sense of ownership in the game.
This is what will make them stay==it is a "barrier to departure."

Social bonds are not enough, because good social bonds extend outside the game. Instead, it is context. If they can build their own buildings, build a character, own possessions, hold down a job, feel a sense of responsibility to something that cannot be removed from the game==then you have ownership.

If your game is narrow, it will fail

Your game design must be expansive. Even the coolest game mechanic becomes tiresome after a time. You have to supply alternate ways of playing, or alternate ways of experiencing the world. Otherwise, the players will go to another world where they can have new experiences.

This means new additions, or better yet, completely different subgames embedded in the actual game.

Lambert's Laws:

"As a virtual world's 'realism' increases, the pool of possible character actions increases."

The opportunities for exploitation and subversion are directly proportional to the pool size of possible character actions.

A bored player is a potential and willing subversive.

Players will eventually find the shortest path to the cheese.


No matter how many new features you have or add, the players will always want more.

Pleasing your Players

Despite your best intentions, any change will be looked upon as a bad change to a large percentage of your players. Even to those who forgot that they asked for the change themselves.

Hyrup's Loophole Law:
"If something can be abused, it will be."

Murphy's Law:
"Servers only crash and don't restart when you go out of town."

Dr Cat's Theorem:
"Attention is the currency of the future."

Dr Cat's Theorem as expressed by J C Lawrence "The basic medium of multiplayer games is communication."

Hanarra's Laws:

"Over time, your playerbase will become the group of people who most enjoy the style of play that your world offers. The others will eventually move to another game."

"It is very hard to attract players of different gaming styles after the playerbase has been established.

Any changes to promote different styles of play almost always conflict with the established desires of the current playerbase."

"The ultimate goal of a virtual world is to create a place where people of all styles of play can contribute to the world in a manner that makes the game more satisfying for everyone."

"The new players who enter the world for the first time are the best critics of it."

"The opinions of those who leave are the hardest to obtain, but give the best indication of what changes need to be made to reach that ultimate goal."

Elmqvist's Law:

"In an online game, players find it rewarding to save the world. They find it more rewarding to save the world together, with lots of other people."

A corollary to Elmqvist's Law
"In general, adding features to an online game that prevent people from playing together is a bad idea."

A caveat to the corollary to Elmqvist's Law:

"The exception would be features that enhance the sense of identity of groups of players, such as player languages."

Baron's Design Dichotomy

According to Jonathan Baron, there are two kinds of online games: "Achievement Oriented," and "Cumulative Character." In the "Achievement Oriented" game, the players who "win" do so because they they are the best at whatever the game offers. Their glory is achieved by shaming other players.

In the "Cumulative Character" game, anyone can reach the pinnacle of achievement by mere persistence; the game is driven by sheer unadulterated capitalism.

Online identity

We spend a lot of time enabling people to have a very strong personal identity in our worlds (letting them define themselves in great detail, down to eye color) . But identity is portable. How many of you have been playing the same character in RPGs for 15 years, like me? You cannot count on a sense of identity, of character building, to keep someone in your game.

In-game calendars

It's nice to have an in-game calendar. But emotional resonances will never accrue to in-game holidays. The only calendar that really matters is the real world one.

Don't worry about breaking fiction==online games are about social interaction, not about fictional consistency.

Social Laws

Koster's Theorem:

"Virtual social bonds evolve from the fictional towards real social bonds."

If you have good community ties, they will be out-of- character ties, not in -character ties. In other words, friendships will migrate right out of your virtual world into email, real-life gatherings, etc.

Baron's Theorem:

"Hate is good." This is because conflict drives the formation of social bonds and thus of communities. Hate is an engine that brings players closer together.

Baron's Law:
"Glory is the reason why people play online; shame is what keeps them from playing online." Neither is possible without other people being present.

Mike Sellers' Hypothesis:

"The more persistence a game tries to have; the longer it is set up to last; the greater number (and broader variety) of people it tries to attract; and the more immersive it attempts to be--then the more breadth and depth of human experience it needs to support."

If you try to create a deeply immersive, broadly appealing, long-lasting world that does not adequately provide for human tendencies such as violence, acquisition, justice, family, community, exploration, etc (and I would contend we are nowhere close to doing this), you will see two results.

First, individuals in the population will begin to display a wide range of predictable socially pathological behaviors (including general malaise, complaining, excessive bullying and/or Player-Killing, harassment, territoriality, inappropriate aggression, and open rebellion against those who run the game).

Second, people will eventually vote with their feet==but only after having passionately cast 'a pox on both your houses.' In essence, if you set people up for an experience they deeply crave (and mostly cannot find in real life) and then don't deliver, they will become like spurned lovers==some become sullen and aggressive or neurotic. Eventually almost all leave.

Schubert's Law of Player Expectations:

"A new player's expectations of a virtual world are driven by his expectations of single-player games."

In particular, he expects a narrow, predictable plotline with well-defined quests and a carefully sculpted role for himself as the hero. He also expects no interference or disruption from other players.

These are difficult, and sometimes impossible, expectations for a virtual world to actually meet.

Violence is inevitable

You're going to have violence done to people no matter what facilities exist in the game. Violence may be a combat system, theft, blocking entrances, trapping monsters, stealing kills to get experience, pestering, harassment, verbal violence, or just rudeness.

Is it a game?

A virtual world is a SERVICE. Not a game. It's a WORLD.
Not a game. It's a COMMUNITY. Not a game. Anyone who says, "it's just a game" is missing the point.

Player Identity

You will NEVER have a solid unique identity for your problematic players. They essentially have complete anonymity because of the Internet. Even addresses, credit cards, and so on can be faked==and will be.

Jeff Kesselman's Theorem:

"A MUD universe is all about psychology." After all, there IS no physicality. It's all psych and group dynamics.

Psychological disinhibition

People act like jerks more easily online, because anonymity is intoxicating. It is easier to objectify other people and therefore to treat them badly. The only way to combat this is to get them to empathize more with other players.

Mass market facts

It's disturbing for those used to smaller environments, but: administrative problems increase EXPONENTIALLY instead of linearly, as your playerbase digs deeper into the mass market.

Traditional approaches start to fail. Your playerbase probably isn't ready or willing to police itself.

Anonymity and in-game administrators

The in-game admin faces a bizarre problem. He is exercising power that the ordinary virtual citizen cannot.
And he is looked to in many ways to provide a certain atmosphere and level of civility in the environment.

Yet the fact remains that no matter how scrupulously honest he is, no matter how just he shows himself to be, no matter how committed to the welfare of the virtual space he may prove himself, people will hate his guts.

They will mistrust him precisely because he has power, and they can never know him. There will be false accusations galore, many insinuations of nefarious motives, and former friends will turn against him.

It may be that the old saying about power and absolute power is just too ingrained in the psyche of most people; whatever the reasons, there has never been an online game whose admins could say with a straight face that all their players really trusted them (and by the way, it gets worse once you take money!) .

Community size
Ideal community size is no larger than 250. Past that, you really get subcommunities.

Hans Henrik Staerfeldt's Law of Player/Admin Relations: "The amount of whining players do is positively proportional to how much you pamper them."

Many players whine if they see any kind of bonus in it for them. It will simply be another way for them to achieve their goals. As an admin, you hold the key to many of the goals that they have concerning the virtual environment you control. If you do not pamper the players and let them know that whining will not help them, the whining will subside.

Hal Black's Elaboration:

"The more responsive an admin is to user feedback of a given type, the more of that type the admin will get."

Specifically, as an admin implements features from user suggestions, the more ideas for features will be submitted. Likewise, the more an admin coddles whiners, the more whining will ensue.

J C Lawrence's "stating the obvious" law

"The more people you get, the more versions of 'what we're really doing' you're going to get."

John Hanke's Law (cited by Mike Sellers):

"In every aggregation of people online, there is an irreducible proportion of ... jerks" (he used a different word :-)

Rewarding players

It is not possible to run a scenario or award player actions without other players crying favoritism.


The longer your game runs, the less often you get kudos for your efforts.

J C Lawrence on Utopias;

"Don't strive for perfection, strive for expressive fertility." You can't create utopia, and if you did, nobody would want to live there.

Who contributed (purposely or inadvertently!), sorted alphabetically:

Myself, of course.
Richard Bartle: along with Roy Trubshaw, developed the first MUD.
Jonathan Baron: producer & designer for Air Warrior.
Hal Black: And another MUD-Dev member!
Dr Cat: the man behind Dragonspires and Furcadia.
Niklas Elmqvist: another active MUD-Dev member.
Ola Frosheim Grostad: researcher into virtual spaces, MUD-Dev member.
Marion Griffith: leads the !Overlord Project.
Hanarra, aka Jason Wilson,: of Nightfall.
Darrin Hyrup: designer and/or programmer for Gemstone, Dragon's Gate, Darkness Falls, and Magestorm.
Jeff Kesselman: helped run Dark Sun Online, and is developing DSO2.
Amy Jo Kim: consultant and web designer.
Jon A. Lambert: active MUD-Dev member.
J C Lawrence: moderator for the MUD-Dev mailing list.
Damion Schubert: a key designer for Meridian 59, Might & Magic Online, and Ultima Online.
Mike Sellers: a prime mover behind Meridian 59.
Hans-Henrik Staerfeldt: one of the guys who wrote the original DikuMUD.
And all the members of the MUD-Dev list as well.

O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O

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