July 28, 2004

The “Narrative-Nudge” Model for Massively-Multiplayer Online Games

Timothy Burke, Swarthmore College

At the conclusion of my 2001 conference paper on the vritual economies of massively-multiplayer online games, I argued that the next generation of MMOGs should consider more tightly “closed” economies along with strong enhancements of the abilities of players to control the politics and and structure of their virtual worlds. In a forthcoming review essay about the MMOG Star Wars: Galaxies, I describe why I came to the conclusion that this argument was flatly wrong. MMOGs designed along the basic deep patterns laid out by their purely textual predecessors, MUDs and MUSHs, should not try anything particularly exotic with their virtual economies. In fact, they should seriously consider doing what the current game City of Heroes has done, which is to eliminate the player economy entirely. MMOG economies to date are not satisfying as world-simulations and they are not satisfying as games.

To some extent, this captures something deeper still about MMOGs. I still share the aspiration of many to explore and play in a virual world, a MMOG built around narrative, role-playing, and the simulation of an imaginary universe. But I am now certain that the conventional form of the MMOG cannot ever achieve this ambition, and that to even attempt to gesture towards it is to invite disaster.

What is it that distinguishes any MMOG from any other kind of online game? The genre’s fans have endless debates about this issue, but the only essential characteristic is persistence. When you log off, the game still exists and things happen in it while you’re not playing, and there is a linear temporality to what happens. Events progress forward in time, and the game remembers or is changed by the progress of events.

The reason conventional MMOGs can never be virtual worlds is that they vest persistence in the wrong unit. The major unit of persistence in a conventional MMOG is the player’s character. It is characters who level, who change in powers, who dress differently, who acquire items, to whom NPCs react differentially based on reputation, and so on.

If the gameworld itself changes, its changes are almost all non-persistent. Spawns of monsters may be depleted, but this is temporary. Buildings may be created, but they are essentially extensions of characters, not self-generating features of the gameworld itself. Quests or plotlines, if they exist, exist in massive parallel, as the repeated private experiences of thousands of characters—the same NPCs get rescued, assisted or defeated again and again by players, like a ride at Disneyland. There are few or no unique events—any implementation of such is seen (correctly) as outrageous favoritism and inequity. New plots or quests may appear, but they appear laboriously, mechanically, through extensive development efforts.

MMOGs can never be virtual worlds until they abandon the character as the primary unit of persistence. To be virtual worlds, they have to make the gameworld itself the major unit of persistence.

This is the dream of many MMOG players: they beg for gameworlds in which their actions matter, in which there are events of consequence. Developers promise to pursue this chimera, but rarely implement anything even approaching the most modest dreams of players. Sometimes when they do, they’re forced to rescind the promise. Famously, when the developers of the original Asheron’s Call allowed players to try and defend a magical gem from the demon Bael’Zharon and the players allied with him, one server managed to organize an effective defense around the clock. The developers hadn’t planned for the possibility of a divergence in events between servers—the update for the next month had to be the same on all servers. So they had to step in and force the planned conclusion to happen. The fullest implementation to date of gameworld consequences, Shadowbane, suffered so much from technical flaws that it was hard to assess its other design ideas, but clearly the developers had not thought clearly about what happens when the design of the gameworld’s geography allows the first guild to grab prime locations to dominate its competition utterly. The game more or less ends at that point in that there’s nothing left to do, and partly because the action of the game otherwise involves levelling your characters and acquiring resources for your guild. The alternative, in the player conflicts of Dark Age of Camelot, is a hard-wired game mechanic that tends to force everything back to a neutral state of equilibrium over time in an endless and predictable oscillation.

All of these limitations have a great deal to do with the fact that characters are where persistence is vested. By doing so, the conventional MMOG ties itself firmly and irretreviably to making persistence be about one and one thing only: accumulation.

The character experiences persistence in all MMOGs as a linear increase in power and often also as a linear increase in possessions and wealth. The actual curve of this accumulation varies from game to game, and in MMOGs with economies, the actual distribution of accumulated wealth across the entire character population will also differ (but usually demonstrates a very sharp differentiation between the vast majority of have-nots and a very small minority of haves). Characters do not change between two or three functionally equivalent states over time in any MMOG: there is no way to make equivalent states meaningfully different or recognized in a gameworld that is static. (The one modest exception to this is games which have some kind of implemented system for character respec, in which characters can trade in one set of skills or powers for an equivalent set. But even in this instance, this is on top of accumulative differences.) Accumulations in power and wealth allows the player to experience a static gameworld in different ways at different moments in the lifespan of the character, to access new areas or defeat new antagonists.

Persistence as accumulation is essentially the root of all MMOG evil. Everything that is unfun, unfair and repetitive about curent MMOGs comes from this essential design fact. The primal conflicts between player constitencies that I describe in my “Rubicite Breastplate” paper come from this fact. The utterly fubared design and gameplay of a MMOG like Star Wars: Galaxies comes from this fact. The only player activities which do not accumulate, like socializing, role-playing and exploration, are largely non-persistent, meaning they are not recorded by or recognized by the game. They may be recorded by players outside the game, on web pages and the like, and occasionally have in-game manifestations, like guild halls (but even these must be secured by the accumulative activities of characters).

I propose a fundamentally different root design for vesting persistence in the gameworld and not in the characters: what I call the “narrative-nudge” model of gameplay.

1) In a narrative-nudge (NN) multiplayer game, players control characters who are more or less equivalent from the moment of their generation and who do not markedly change in relative power or wealth within the gameworld over time. Characters who are killed as a result of game activities are dead permanently: the player must select a new character (who, because characters are non-accumulative, begins at a point of relative parity with other characters.)

2) The gameworld is constructed around a massively branching tree of preset “narratives” which are associated with present implementations of gameworld conditions.

3) Players use the actions of their characters to “nudge” the gameworld towards different branches of the narrative tree. Once a set threshold point is reached, the gameworld will at a random moment “launch” a new narrative branch and the distinctive gameworld conditions associated with it. Once the gameworld has moved along a new branch, it cannot return to past narrative junctures.

4) Some of the branching narratives of an NN-MMOG have a terminus point after which the game is over and a new version of the same game can begin. At each such new beginning, the narrative tree is shuffled around by the developers and given new weights and branching connections. (Developers may choose to add new narrative branches to help keep the game fresh as well.)

This is all rather abstract. Let me illustrate with a specific example.

In a hypothetical fantasy-themed NN-MMOG, one of the major locations with the gameworld is a town called Shangri-La. At the initial condition A when the game begins, the town is ruled by a council of wizards. There are four other factions in town: a thieves’ guild, a chivalrous order of knights, a sinister cabal of necromancers, and an association of merchants.

Each faction, including the ruling wizards, has a set of tasks that define their optimum narrative branch forward from the initial condition. The wizards are attempting to check the power of the necromancers and seeking a powerful magical artifact to assist them in doing so. The thieves are attempting to extort protection fees from the merchants while reducing the power of the knights. The knights are attempting to replace the wizards as the ruling elites of the town while chasing the thieves out of town. The necromancers are raising an army of dead in secret and offering an alliance to the merchants in return for protecting them from the thieves. The merchants are trying to make a commercial alliance with a neighboring kingdom while reducing the influence of the thieves and securing the protection of one or more of the remaining factions in return for low taxation rates.

Each of the narrative branches associated with a distinctive faction is preset by the developers. Each has “mini-branches” which do not change the overall gameworld condition but do change the developmental path of each major branch. So the merchants, for example, might move towards closer alliance with the necromancers or towards alliance with the knights or wizards: their narrative branch would allow for both developments, both would advance the merchants' storyline.

Each branch would move towards a “tipping point” based both on the incremental actions of players and non-player characters and on preset “major events” whose resolution would move a particular branch more rapidly towards a “tipping point”.

So for example, every day in the gameworld, necromancer NPCs might be found in the city’s graveyard, attempting to procure zombies. If players intervene by attacking and defeating the necromancers, that faction would receive no points for that day’s gameplay towards their “army of the dead” objective. If players instead actively assisted the necromancers, and raised zombies themselves, the necromancers would receive extra points towards their objective.

“Major events” would be a part of each preset narrative, programmed in advance by the developers. If, say, it takes 1000 points for the necromancers to hit the “tipping point” in their objective, past which the gameworld might at any time randomly initiate the next major branch in the narrative, at condition B, when the necromancers have 300 points, players might begin to receive hints or indications that a major battle between the knights and the necromancers is brewing that evening. That battle would occur at a random time between 6pm and 2am on the gameworld clock; if the necromancers win, their narrative would receive 100 further points towards its advancement.

Once a “tipping point” is reached, a new condition can launch randomly after a daily maintenance shutdown. When it does, the entire gameworld moves forward permanently onto a new branching point, with new conditions: it can never be returned to the point before the branching occurred. So, for example, if the necromancers are first to their “tipping point”, the next morning, the players might log on to find that the wizards council has fled the town to a set of distant caves, the knights have been defeated and imprisoned or executed, the merchants have struck a deal with the necromancers, and the thieves have promised their support as well. Players might wander through the city and find that the Army of the Dead patrols the town. Some businesses might be gone, and others appear in their place. And so on. Now a new preset selection of different branches might appear. The necromancer faction would now splinter into two competing groups vying for power over the other. The merchants would now have two factions, one of which has second thoughts and seeks to locate the hidden wizard refugees for an alliance. A new rebel faction might appear of citizens who want the Dead gone from their town.

The only persistence that would vest strongly in the characters would be accumulative points indicating their relations to particular factions, based on their past deeds. So a character at the initial condition A might work consistently to advance the fortunes of the knights. Each time that character succeeds, he would gain a point of “knight alliance”. The more such points, the more a character would see of the “inner workings” of a particular branch of the narrative. A character with no strong leanings might be able to assist in incremental gains for any given alliance during a particular game session. The necromancers will take any help offered in their nightly excursions into the graveyard. The thieves will take any help offered in stealing from the merchants. But with no strong leanings, a player will not be invited to participate on the side of one faction during major preset events.

After a major shift to a new narrative branch, a character may find that he is now at a serious disadvantage. After the necromancer victory, a strongly knight-associated character may now find that he is attacked every time he appears publically in the city. The player could decide at this point to give up the character and start a new character—knowing that he loses nothing except his knight affiliation—or he might decide to make a heroic attempt to stay alive all through the next branching, fighting for a lost cause. Perhaps this character will try to lose knight affiliation quickly by working for the merchants—affiliation points degrade slowly over time if not actively renewed.

An NN-MMOG would have some very serious design difficulties to overcome.

First, the effort of designing and programming what would have to be a very, very extensive and wide-ranging series of narrative branches would be enormous, easily equalling or surpassing the challenge that game content poses for a conventional MMOG. (On the other hand, eliminating the endless managerial nightmares posed by conventionally accumulative character-based persistence like levelling or loot would save labor, as well). The challenge isn't just a labor-time issue: it's a theoretical one. The evident comparison here is to the authorial problems and issues that hyperfiction has faced. I don't think I'm alone in finding that virtually all works of hyperfiction disappoint both in the number and type of branching explorations they allow. Every branch poses the question of its own limitations. The more expansive and imaginatively branching a work of hyperfiction or ergodic literature is, the more the reader asks why he should be limited to the choices provided. The more an author seems to cede control of the narrative, the more that an author's control is felt as an inimical presence.

Second, an NN-MMOG would face a problem very similar to that posed by quests and puzzles in a conventional MMOG. Conventional quests are very rarely “solved” through ordinary gameplay in a MMOG, no matter how cleverly designed they are. A very small group of powerlevellers, sometimes with covert help from developers, typically figures out how a quest is done, and then leaks or openly disseminates that information the vast bulk of the players. In some cases, players actively reverse engineer these solutions by hacking the game: the monthly updates of Asheron’s Call were usually figured out in their entirety by players who hacked the portal.dat file the moment the update went live. An NN-MMOG would face this issue in two ways. First, players who gained advance knowledge in some fashion of the particular “future events” of a given branch would possess an enormous advantage in terms of influencing the game in particular directions or predicting surprise “twists” in the plot. If there were multiple servers, if one server was temporally “ahead” of the others, players on all servers would very rapidly have the surprise of the unfolding story spoiled for them. In any event, as a much more content-driven type of MMOG, an NN-MMOG would also have to deal with the extraordinary speed that dedicated players can rip through content. How many branches would be needed in order to make a given iteration of the game last, and contain some sense of surprise for the players? How to keep the content relatively secret or veiled from the players?

Third, and related to the second point, the competitive dimension of the game would consist largely in terms of the coordination of group effort towards particular plots and in the intuitive grasping of where the highest “return” of active investment towards plot or gameworld events might be. The more that the underlying structure of the plots were known, or the relationship between activities and plot motion was understood, the more that players might exchange one kind of character-driven “grind” for another kind of plot-driven one instead.

Fourth, characters would still need to be able to act diffentially in the world, and if they were all perfectly identical, much of the immersive character of the game would be strongly and negatively affected. But if non-accumulative character designs differed significantly in their relative combat power or ability to influence the course of events in other ways, players might rapidly converge on a single “best” type of character. It would be important to allow players multiple specialized avenues for interacting with the game’s narratives and to try and balance those opportunities. (i.e., the nightmare of competitive balance would not go away, it would just be vested elsewhere). Part of the "fun" of playing in a virtual world is to choose the right tool for the right job, and to feel rewarded when you have done something particularly creative or efficient in that respect.

It goes without saying that this would be a boutique design, appealing to a subset of the current MMOG audience.

There are other ways to come at the same goals, but the fundamental shift that I think has to take place if we want to have virtual worlds is to stop making individual characters the main unit of persistence. Alternative strategies I can think of might be to make groups or guilds the main changing but persistent feature of the game; another might be to make NPCs the main thing that players would try to influence or change.

If all we want is games with no world component, no sense of world simulation, then I might suggest that developers would be wise to stick to the design philosophy of City of Heroes: a no-frills, combat-oriented design that is essentially a first-person shooter with persistent statistics. There’s nothing wrong with that: I like City of Heroes quite a lot, and play it regularly. But it’s not and will never be a virtual world. Nor will any MMOG which starts from the design foundations that all MMOGs to date have adopted.