Monthly Archives: June 2008

Bartle versus MMOs, but solutions are in sight

I cannot believe I missed this.  Our new ION buddy Scott Jennings, who’s working on an unannounced MMO, posted a link on his blog to an interview with Bartle.  It spawned a lengthy conversation in comments, with Bartle himself weighing in several times.  Here’s the crux of Bartle’s argument:

  1. MMO designers don’t have the interest or ability to improve on the MMO genre in general
  2. MMO designers don’t give any reason or meaning to the worlds they create

Commenters immediately went to town on Bartle, condemning him for only being a consultant among other issues.  In the interest of full disclosure, we are actually consulting on an MMO where Bartle is also a consultant.  That said, having both consulted and worked on a number of MMOs, I have to agree that if you’ve worked on more than one, you get an idea of what is innovative and what isn’t.  If you happen to work on more than one during the course of a year, you really get to see what’s going on currently in the world of MMOs.  As for Jennings and Bartle’s assertion that designers don’t have knowledge of game design history, here’s a quick refresher from a game story perspective.

On the second issue, I can’t claim to know what is going on in the minds of all MMO designers, and neither does Bartle.  However, assuming Bartle is correct, starting with a unique vision, then setting up your world and gameplay to convey it is a step in the right direction.  It’s not enough to say “sci fi world” or “fantasy world,” because this type of world could fit into any game of the genre (not for nothing, but we presented a panel on Writing for Fantasy Worlds).  The worlds of Warhammer, Age of Conan, and World of Warcraft all take place in fantasy worlds, but fantasy worlds — and fantasy games — shouldn’t be interchangable.

Hop on over to broken toys and throw your comment into the mix, or drop your comment down below and tell me if you think Bartle’s dim view of MMO innovation is right or wrong, especially when it comes to MMO game story.   

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Filed under Game Design, Game Industry, History of Games, MMO

Create your own time to penis quest!

My friend Paul was driving some conservative out-of-town visitors around Los Angeles one sunny afternoon.  Paul was explaining that the city was actually quite normal, despite what the news media suggests.  Just then, a giant inflatable penis bounced across the road.  Turns out, that is quite normal. 

The Spore creature creation tools have caused quite a humorous conversation on other blogs and the women developer list because of TTP.  TTP or TTC describes how long it takes user generated content (UGC) to yield a penis, hence “time to penis.”  At ION, we talked about how UGC can connect the player to the game story as well as the player’s story.  If we handed quest creation tools to players in MMOs, what do you think would be the TTP?  Let’s find out!

Create an in-game MMO quest that clearly invokes what TTP is all about.  Let’s assume that the designers have coded restrictions on profanity and the use of certain terms, like penis.  Even with this restriction, you can still write some blue content.  A line from an old MUD stated proudly: “(playername) strokes his long black rod.”   Come up with a short quest or quest premise, and post it in the comments if you’re bold or e-mail me if you’re shy at anne (at)  I’ll come up with one myself by next week and we will see whose TTP is faster!

Need inspiration?  You can set your quest in any MMO, but if you want to narrow it down quickly, set it in WoW.  Extra points if you can tie your UGC into the game story that already exists.  Have fun! 

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Filed under Amusing diversions, Game Design, Games, Writing

Anthropomorphic characters — more than just easy to draw

I am taking a class on storyboarding through the Animation Guild, because I really wanted professional artists to laugh at my artistic skills.  Oh, and supposedly I am there to learn a smidge about the art of animation, which just makes me wish I could draw.  Biggest take-home so far?  Anthropomorphic characters are easier to make appealing than human characters in animation.  Now I understand why monkeys were big a few years back.

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Contributors wanted via Twitter

Sometimes when I’m writing this blog, I must come up with examples — which games do use the environment well in telling game story?  What are all the player archetypes in MMOs?  What was that one game with the thing and the stuff?  Often I inundate my poor IM list with a barrage of questions.  But I have a better idea.  Do you Twitter?

If you’re not on Twitter, it’s <yet another> social networking tool, kind of like a one sentence mini-blog.  Many bloggers actually use it as a research tool — the blogger asks questions, and followers (aka subscribers) answer them in about one sentence.  If you’d like to contribute your opinions and knowledge to this blog, then come on over and follow me on Twitter:

Sande is at

I’ll see you there!

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Whither D&D? Episodic gaming and MMOs

This Saturday I volunteered to teach foster kids about video game design. One of my students came out with something that surprised me. He liked “series games” — those that come out with sequel after sequel. I like ’em too, but that’s because I consider them episodes, which conveniently ties in with my last post on D&D 4th edition. Last week I wrote about how D&D approaches player types and tone. Today I’ll take another look at how D&D’s 4th edition can come in handy with game design beyond the stand-alone game.

The DM Guide illustrates different types of games:

Campaign Games
According to the guide, campaign games mean what you do matters next time — allegedly. However, if the DM burns out, the story never finishes. I’d have to disagree with point one — sometimes in a campaign game, what you do in one session doesn’t always matter down the road. From a video game perspective, having one DM — or one writer — on a project can often lead to a weakness in one or more areas of the story, because there’s no one to bounce ideas off of. Therein lies one of the reasons for the Writers Cabal!

Episodic Games
The DM Guide indicates that episodic games don’t fit into a larger story, leading to a sense of purposelessness (fun word!). I have to disagree, and my TV roots will start to show. Episodic stories can take place in a campaign world and/or with the same characters. In these cases, the stories will be satisfying, because each adventure will (hopefully) lead to a satisfying conclusion, and they can all eventually lead into a larger campaign. Stephen King, for example, wrote many disconnected stories. Now — decades later — he realizes he can tie them all together with a big good vs. evil storyline. Furthermore, if your campaign story ends up having a lame or fizzled ending, you will at least be able to say, “Oh, and this one time, I did this!” The best stories are made up of a bunch of smaller ones.

Ongoing/One-shot Games
Ongoing games can either be episodic or campaign oriented. Ongoing games with the same group of people can encourage cooperation, while one-shot games encourage exposure to different types of player types. These concerns tie in more directly with multiplayer games, so…

D&D 4th edition demonstrates influence from certain MMOs. One commenter on the Gamasutra article noted that the “Healing surges” mechanic of 4th edition seemed similar to the rate of recovery popular in MMOs. In general, 4th edition definitely wants to take advantage of the online space as much as possible, even making it easier to run D&D games online. Do you think this trend will be good or bad for D&D?  Personally, if I’m going to play a game online, I might as well do so with my gaming group in an MMO. That said, maybe I could run a D&D game online that I wouldn’t want to do in person. Who’d be interested in that?

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D&D — the only place for moral ambiguity?

I was asked earlier this week on which games have influenced me as a writer and designer, so I thought I’d draw attention to the granddaddy of it all, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.  In fact, maybe D&D can still influence the game industry for the better.  How do you approach the tone and feel of your game?  What can you do above and beyond creating fun gameplay?  The DM Guide asks the DM to take into account the DM or game style, usually somewhere between two perceived extremes.  Here are a few of them and what they could mean for video games.

Gritty or Cinematic
In this sense, gritty refers to realism and consequences, while cinematic implies an action movie.  Even with these explanations, the two terms represent a false dichotomy.  “Realism” is pretty darn boring — you think reality television is entertaining because it’s real?  No, it’s entertaining because they take artistic license and take pains to heighten the drama.  Conversely, a gritty gunshot wound is actually pretty boring if it takes you 5 hours to painstakingly operate on it.  The best gritty parts are inherently cinematic.  Maybe the intended dichotomy here was serious vs. entertaining, but Sande would fight you to the death if you said serious games could not or should not put entertainment or fun at the top of their to do list. 

Silly or Serious
Lighthearted or Intense

I’m glad they brought up these dichotomies and noted you’d probably end up somewhere along the scale.  I’ve seen a lot of video games that are just unenduringly serious.  Comic relief will help wonders, no matter how important saving the world is.

General or Thematic
This dichotomy interested me especially.  What exactly is a general game?  One that meanders with no reason?  Have you seen any examples of “general” video games?  When creating a game with a story, whether emergent story or narrative, consider your theme, because you will probably end up with one or several whether you realize it or not.  While what is theme could be a topic of an entire post, I’m always amused by point number 10 on this blog.  Best theme of a game I’ve worked on?  The Witcher: “There is no good or evil, just decisions and consequences.”

Morally ambiguous or heroic
Speaking of good and evil…  Personally, I love morally ambiguous choices.  I love having choices at all in video games.  But by the same token, many people have insisted they like playing heroic characters, who often have a clear right and wrong.  Check out the responses to my post on unlikely heroes for some opinions on the hero.  Can you feel heroic if you made the right choice but you didn’t save the world, or saved the world, but made a horrible choice?  Is there room for more moral ambiguity in computer games?

So now you’ve got an idea of player types, themes or approaches to your games.  What can D&D tell you about telling the game story?  I’m not done yet — see you next week!

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What D&D teaches about game design

A reader asked a question this week: which games have influenced us as game writers?  As luck would have it, one of my major influences just came out with a new edition this week: Dungeons & Dragons.  Just opening up the Dungeon Master’s Handbook gives you a quick overview of infos you need in game design — whether pen and paper or MMOs.

Right at the beginning, the author encourages you, the DM, to identify the types of player motivations, many of which map to Bartle’s 4 types and beyond for MUDs and MMOs.

Actor — The person who likes to roleplay.  I’d say that’s a cross between the explorer and socializer archetype from MMOs.  Agree, disagree? 

Explorer — Just like the explorer archetype

Instigator — Likes to make things happen.  Woosh, have I been that on occasion.  I’d say this type of player most likely aligns with the architect archetype.  Instigator overlaps with killer, unfortunately.  Also socializer, if this person is a natural leader. 

Power Gamer — Achiever

Slayer — Killer or Achiever

Storyteller — The player who likes to find out what happens.  We like to think the people who care about story in games are a subset of the explorer archetype. 

Thinker — These players like to solve puzzles and strategize.  You could argue it’s a subset of the achiever type, but I believe the thinker is happy just to solve puzzles and is not doing it for phat loot.  I would say these types are most likely explorers, who want a full understanding of the game system.  It’s a bit of a stretch, though.  Strategizer — that must be an archetype, if it doesn’t exist already.

Watcher — This person is along for the ride.  Pure socializer

What’s missing?  I noticed the killer archetype seems somewhat under-represented.  My friend quite kindly points out that the catass gamer, who just burns through content as quickly as possible, is not represented either.   These types are like achievers on crack.  I’m not sure these types can exist in regular D&D.

Once you have all these player types in mind, though, you will need to avoid the 4 misuses of Bartle’s Four.  What other wisdom is buried in D&D?  Stay tuned…

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