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The nature of a virtual world's design is determined by three factors:

  • Business. What will it cost? How will it be sold?

  • Technical. What can be implemented? How long will it take?

  • Gameplay. What will people do? How will they have fun?

These are general terms. “Business,” for example, doesn't necessarily mean commerce: Even a free, stock, textual world will need an investment of time, and its players still have to come from somewhere.

Using Chapter 2's, “How to Make Virtual Worlds,” model of a massively multiplayer games development house, “business” covers company leadership, sales/marketing, finance/accounts, and HR; “technical” means software development, operations/IT, art/animation, and support/QA; gameplay is the design team.

This chapter concerns only gameplay.

Typically, business will want the virtual world to have certain features that it considers prerequisites for its success. Some of these just won't work in a virtual world, and others will be unimplementable. Technical will want heavily over-specified kit, on which it will implement everything in experimental, beyond state-of-the-art ways. Gameplay wants a world that won't sell, and that would need more computers than there are atoms in the universe to support it.

There will thus almost certainly be criteria from the business and technical sections to which the designers must adhere. These will vary on a case-by-case basis, but the ones that are most frequently “a given” are

  • Genre

  • Platform

  • Unique selling point

Designers of virtual worlds have very little influence on genre unless they had it explicitly written into their contract when they signed up. Designers of free textual worlds effectively run their own company, so in theory can do whatever they like; the availability of a suitable codebase may force their hand, though.

Nevertheless, within a genre there can still be a lot of leeway. Fantasy and Science Fiction are very broad areas, for example. Even within a license there can be freedom, although as noted in Chapter 1, “Introduction to Virtual Worlds,” some licenses are pickier than others.

Related to genre is the user base. Designers can't choose where their players come from. Often they have to address a particular market. A virtual world expected to be played primarily by adolescent boys will be different than one aimed at homemakers. An inclusive virtual world that welcomes everyone has balance issues that a world for children aged eight years and under doesn't. Designers can hope to expand beyond their core player base, but the core itself is often determined from the outset.

The technical platform of both server and client is also a given, although the client more so than the server. This isn't too bad: Designers look on technology as physics that they can't do anything about, so they accept it. It's only an issue if programmers push their luck and claim that things can't be done that can.

Architecture, however, is a technical consideration that may be imposed for business reasons. Designers are told whether the virtual world will be textual or graphical, and, if the latter, what sort of graphics they will be (2½D, 3D). From a purely gameplay point of view, text is better for intimate, intense, imaginative worlds where thought is more important than action and individuals are preferred over parties or clans. Graphics are better for gregarious, large-scale, beautiful worlds where action is more important than thought and clans and parties are preferred over individuals. Designers have no say in which they get.

A unique selling point (USP) is a Big Idea that marketing people feel will attract players and interest to the virtual world. Examples are: “Inter-clan warfare!,” “Pay real money for game money!,” and “A five-year story arc.” Most of these aren't as unique as the people who think them up like to imagine, and they're often of dubious worth as selling points, too.

Designers can have a big idea, just the same as anyone else. Be very careful if you do, though. A big idea completely dominates a project, with everything becoming subservient to it. This makes the virtual world one-dimensional, preventing people from having multiple big ideas.

Sometimes, though, a big idea can lead to a paradigm shift. EverQuest may have been dominated by the big idea of having first-person graphics, but benefited because this really was a big idea (albeit one pioneered by Meridian 59).

So, designers will have constraints on what they can design. For the most part, these will be beyond their control, and represent a non-negotiable starting position. Within such parameters, however, designers have absolute dominion. It is here that the virtual world is shaped to their will.

This is the context that the remainder of this chapter assumes.

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