Someone just coined ‘unfiction’ as a way of describing mmoe-like games such as the AI or The Spooks game. I’m not sure whether it’s particularly descriptive, and I prefer my own ‘mmoe’ (what a surprise). But ‘unfiction’ is easier to say than ‘mmoe’ – so from henceforth, I decree that ‘mmoe’ should be pronounced ‘Moe’.


The BBC has started up a new AI-like game! Quite a surprise, I’ll have to admit. It’s called ‘Spooks’ and you can find the entry page here.

Positive points: It’s done by the BBC, who have a good track record of Internet stuff. They openly acknowledge a debt to Microsoft’s AI game. It’s tied to a TV programme, which as I’ve always thought, could result in much neat-o happenings (you should expect an article about that very thing in the near future).

Negative points: It looks quite cheesy. They say it takes place in ‘real time’ which could also mean ‘we are going to put artificial blocks in front of your progress.’ They expect 200,000 players – now, they might get that many but to be frank I’ve always thought it was better to underplay things rather than overplay them.

More negative points: You have to sign up to do certain stuff. I hate having to sign up to things. As yet, I haven’t found any other sites apart from the This is, to put it lightly, really poor since it means that the entire game will take place within one website and with one site design. Reeks of laziness. Makes it too easy for players – I mean, it even tells you when certain pages have been updated? They might as well just give you the answers straight off!

Okay, so this post is turning out to be longer and more negative than I expected. Even so, the burden of proof rests squarely on the BBC to show that they can make a game as compelling as the AI one. I think their main problem is a typical English one: they’re being too meek and conservative. Don’t get me wrong, I live in England and it’s a great place, but when the designer of the game says:

“There will be about three tasks a week and we will send out a resume for anyone who can’t keep up or who has gone wrong. We didn’t want to make it too hard or take over people’s lives.”

that makes me wonder what the hell the point of it is. Big Brother was a big phenomenon because it took over people’s lives! People want their lives to be taken over, as long as it’s for something fun. I’ll be frank here – massively multiplayer online entertainment of the AI ilk will never attract the soap watchers, or even the majority of the Big Brother watchers, at least not any time soon. It will attract the experienced Internet users of the UK, and these guys can recognise good content and have time to burn. MMOE cannot do things by half measures. I think that the BBC has a great opportunity to prove itself here as being on the forefront of online entertainment, and by the looks of things they’ve drawn a wrong set of conclusions from the (massively successful) AI game. More on this later.

For Freedom!

(This is a first draft.)

Within all computer games exists an eternal struggle: how much freedom should you give to players, at the sacrifice of a storyline? Both freedom and a good storyline are extremely valuable traits for a game, but exactly why are they mutually exclusive, and what implications does this pose for mmoe?

First, we have to get a grasp on what I mean by a story, and what I mean by freedom.

A few examples. Tetris does not have a story at all, since the only point of it is to stack up blocks in lines. The earlier incarnations of Mario Brothers has a very rudimentary story (rescue Princess Peach, etc), which you achieved by jumping on top of things, and such. Dragon’s Lair, that classic CDi interactive cartoon game, had a typical Disney-esque story with one-button interaction. Final Fantasy games (any of the PS versions) have very involved stories. I don’t want to give the illusion that there is some kind of chronological progression in story complexity though – some of the early text and graphical adventures had very involving stories, but the latest Civilization 3 game has no story.

At the same time, games vary quite considerably in the freedom they offer to players. Now, the question of game freedom is difficult to handle. I think there are two ways to measure game freedom; you could say that it is defined by the number of different actions the player can make, or you could say that it is the proportion of actions that the player can make relative to the total number that should be feasible within the game environment.

What on earth is that supposed to mean? Let’s use a few examples (again).

Tetris. The game environment is a load of blocks in a column. You only have four actions – move a block left, right, down, or rotate. A pitiful number of actions, right? However, within the game environment, that is all that you are supposed to do! So at once, you have hardly any freedom, and complete freedom.

Mario Brothers. You can move left, right, and jump (well, you could climb in a few, I guess). Only three actions. But the game environment wasn’t realistic, let’s face it, so we have pretty much the same situation as Tetris.

Quake. You have much more physical freedom here, you can move in 360� on the horizontal plane, walk, run, jump, crouch, climb and shoot. It doesn’t get much better than this, at least in first person shooters (FPS). A staggering amount of freedom, really, and this is magnified by the increased number of effects actions can have on the environment. However. Quake, and most other first person shooters, have a game environment that is supposed to mimic that of the real world. But it’s inconsistent. You’re given these actions, running and shooting, that can affect the world in some ways but not others. You can shoot through windows, but you can’t blow holes in walls. You can strafe across a room, but you can’t fling yourself to the ground and roll sideways. You don’t really have that much freedom after all, do you? (actually, Quake isn’t a very good example, since it doesn’t have a story except for ‘blow up everything that moves’)

The same occurs with Final Fantasy; despite the fantastical settings of the games, they still bear a great deal of resemblance to the real world, magic and spaceships notwithstanding. Yet you can’t really do that much, other than wander around, pick stuff up and start fights against monsters. A friend remarked to me, “Final Fantasy is just like Dragon’s Lair, except you have to press more buttons to get the story to move along.” Haven’t you ever wondered in these games, why can’t I do x? Why do I have to walk all the way over to this other country, why can’t I jump on a horse? Why is it that no matter how I play the game, the evil lord Zarquon kills my character’s best friend?

Clearly the amount of freedom, measured proportionally, in a game is dependent on two factors; the richness of the game environment, and amount of resources the game developers have. If you have a simple game environment, it’s not too difficult to put in 100% freedom. The richer the environment, the more difficult it is to cater for all the possible actions of the player and accommodate them into the storyline.

You have to be careful when you talk about game environments though. A lot of this depends on the expectations of the players, which are in turn set up by the game designers. In Mario, players don’t really expect the world to obey proper physics – it’s only 2D, after all! What’s more, the designers certainly don’t pretend that it’s realistic – I mean, flying bullets and Italian plumbers riding dinosaurs? No-one expects much from a game like that. So you have a good illusion of freedom.

Same for a first person shooter like Max Payne. Sure, you might not be able to shoot at a gas pipe and see it blow up, or set explosives to destroy doors and entire rooms at every point in the game, but at least you get to do both sometimes. Again, there’s the illusion of freedom, and you also have a relatively interesting story – and the illusion is provided by the fundamentally linear nature of the game. If you want to get to the next level, you must hit this switch and collect that object; there are no two ways about it.

Well, in Deus Ex, another FPS, there are actually three ways about it. In every level, you can take one of three pathway to complete the required objectives – you can go in all guns blazing, you can use tools or you can use stealth. There is more freedom, but it has to be designed in. Presumably, if you wanted to give the player nine unique pathways, you’d need to put in three times the work. Obviously, the clever game designer will try to figure out a way to save time, by using the same environments and just giving the player different choices of combinations of actions. Indeed, the holy grail would be to produce some sort of game environment in which any conceivable action, within the rules of the environment, is possible. That way, you have a huge amount of freedom.

But is freedom fun? Not always. Games such as Deus Ex rely on set pieces, carefully designed and scripted events that really set the pulse racing, such as trucks smashing through walls or aliens suddenly bursting through the floor. Pre-planned elements constrain freedom, which presents game designers with the dilemma of finding the perfect balance between freedom and constraints.

Sweeping statement alert!

The more true freedom you provide, the less story you can have.

Corrolary 1: When you have total freedom, if you have created a rich enough environment and setting, your players can create their own personal stories that can surpass anything you might have written. Artificial intelligence is extremely important here.

Example: Civilization 3. There are no stories, multiple objectives (conquest, space, diplomatic, domination, cultural and histograph), each of which can be accomplished in a myriad number of ways and unorthodox methods. There are no scripted events, and each new game is completely different. The artificial intelligence is excellent, and when you play, you create your own story based on the actions of the other civilizations. There are some excellent stories at Apolyton.

Still, the fact is that not everyone has the inclination or imagination to bother making up their own stories – it does take a bit of thinking. Also, a really well written story is going to beat anything a player can make up him/herself retrospectively.

Corrolary 2: Giving the illusion of freedom is almost as good as giving true freedom; hence, you can design in a literally captivating story without making your players feel constrained. Remember though – the more bored your players become, the quicker they’ll see through the illusion.

Example: First Person Shooters like Max Payne and Halo. You feel like you have a great deal of freedom in wandering around and shooting things, but let’s face it, nothing you do can alter the storyline one bit. It’s predetermined.

How does this all tie in with massively multiplayer games, which after all is supposed to be the point of this weblog?

I believe that massively multiplayer online entertainment can be broadly and usefully defined by the amount of freedom it provides to the user. Traditional profit-making mmoe games such as Everquest and Ultima Online offer practically limitless freedom within the confines of the game universe. Particularly in Ultima Online, you have hundreds of players doing mind-numbling boring tasks such as fishing or baking bread all day – although (hopefully) the players who do this are actually having fun. In these games, what matters is not any kind of designer-controlled storyline but the setting and environment of the game; and in any case, how can the game designers ensure that any story they introduce to the game will satisfy and involve all players?

So my personal belief is that it’s not really possible to have strong storylines in these games.

I’ve often wondered whether it’s possible to have both freedom and a strong storyline in an mmoe. I’m not really sure if it is, and it certainly hasn’t been done yet. The Microsoft AI web publicity campaign had an astonishingly strong storyline – which of course was completely predetermined, and this alone limits player freedom. However, the illusion of freedom in this entertainment is unsurpassed, and that’s all done to one thing – it was conducted in real time. The designers would often put puzzles online, and suddenly the players would do something unexpected. In a non-real-time game, there’s nothing you can do about this and the whole thing would break. In a real-time game, the designers can actively incorporate the players’ actions into the game.

There are of course limits to this, which become more apparent as the game becomes increasing real-time. For example, a real life event was held with a couple of actors in three cities in the US; it went relatively well, until someone followed one of the actors to a restaurant after the end of the event and cornered him. There wasn’t much the actor could do – he simply wasn’t fully briefed about the game.

Getting back to the original question, if pressed, I would have to say that it is not possible to have both complete freedom and a strong storyline in an mmoe, unless it’s a radically different mmoe to anything I can imagine – or unless the story was written in real-time. And unfortunately, the best stories are never written in real-time by some kind of game designed ‘god’, they are always predetermined. No, if you want both things, then the players will have to make their own story…
Continue reading “For Freedom!”

Introducing massive…

Welcome to, my new weblog covering massively multiuser online entertainment (mmoe), among other subjects. The format of differs quite a bit from my old weblog,; there are now three concurrent weblogs running called massive, middling and tiny, updating at different intervals and concentrating on different themes.

Tiny will be (in theory, as with everything else here) updated daily with various assorted interesting links.

Middling will have personal commentary and some links, updated every three days or so.

Massive is the centrepiece of this weblog and as such will carry on the Vavatch spirit of updating at completely random periods (nominally once a week, but who knows how the whims of the universe will change that?). Massive is one of the main reasons why I’ve created – I wanted a place where I could talk about massively multiuser online games – but more about those later. I’ll also cover space and biology topics, as usual. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to increase the length of articles in massive so they’ll go into some depth, and also back articles up with links and references. The latter is quite important to me; much of the stuff I read on weblogs is interesting but ultimately pure unsubstantiated speculation dealing in generalities – I want to avoid that.

So, you might ask, exactly what was the point of starting up a new weblog at Aren’t I just complicating things with this weird differential concurrent multiple weblogs thing? After all, I could simply write everything in one column.

I could, but I’m not going to since this keeps things more organised. I was aware on Vavatch that there were plenty of topics that interested some people but not others, and this problem would be exacerbated if I was serious about writing about mmoe. With this new layout, people can easily pick out and read what interests them – the serious articles, the personal commentary, or the random links.

I registered because I thought it’d be nice to have a change, and also because it’s a more relevant name than Vavatch.

*What is massively multiuser online entertainment (mmoe)? It’s any form of entertainment that involves over one hundred individuals interacting in some form, separated in physical but not temporal space. Games such as Ultima Online and Everquest qualify as mmoe, but not Starcraft or Quake. However, I’m not exclusively talking about massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (mmorpgs) here; they might have the lion’s share of the users and media attention, but that won’t last. I’m talking about any form of entertainment – it might be a group of a thousand people reading an online detective story, solving puzzles, finding hints and exchanging tips with each other (ring any bells?).

Why is it important? It’s a form of entertainment never seen before, and it draws together a number of new technologies that vastly increase the scope of entertainment in general, allowing it to be experienced collectively by more people than ever, over a longer length of time and larger physical space for less money. It sounds attractive, but it’s hard to do and has already seen the world’s largest game company lose $10 million in an attempt to put mmoe into practice.

Can you be more specific? Yes, I can. That’s the purpose of the mmoe section on this weblog – to explore in detail the possibilities of massively multiuser online entertainment and to look at the current developments in mmoe right now.
Continue reading “Introducing massive…”