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Chapter 4. World Design > Major Decisions

Major Decisions

Designers can't leap right in and start work at the nuts-and-bolts level. Although such a “bottom-up” approach may work for smaller tasks, virtual worlds are too complex for this. If you were designing a cruise liner, you wouldn't start by specifying the décor for cabins. Yes, at some point you would need to do it, but there are other things that are more important; some are even so important that they impact on it (the cabin's dimensions, its window sizes, furniture access, and so on).

So it is for virtual worlds. Some things have to be decided first, because they affect what is decided later.

Most of these have already been introduced in this book, so now let's look at them in detail.


What kind of a virtual world do you want?

To a large extent, it depends on the players. Where will they come from? What will their background be? What player types will dominate? Why will people eventually leave?

Players bring aspects of their real-world community—their culture—into the virtual world with them. Part of the point of virtual worlds lies in being able to pick and choose what you leave behind. Culture is that which is passed from generation to generation without being inherited; virtual worlds let you rethink what you've been taught at every level.

One player may find this a liberating experience and take a more progressive attitude in real life; another might despair of the superficial values and reaffirm their real-life cultural anchors. It doesn't really matter which: The point is that players must have the option of stepping out of their culture; whether they stay out or step back is irrelevant.

If players do step out, though, what do they step into? It can't be a wild maelstrom of anarchy, because otherwise players could only interact transiently with one another and the virtual world would not survive. The virtual world must itself have a culture—one supported by its community in general. Sure, it's not as deep as a real-life culture, but it's a culture nonetheless.

How does this culture arise? It emerges consensually from the player community. As noted in Chapter 3, this is something designers can shape but can't control.

The theory works as follows:

  • The designer determines an ethos, and fixes the virtual world to reward activities that exemplify this ethos.

  • Players who share the designer's ethos seed the virtual world.

  • The virtual world's design attracts players hopefully compatible with its ethos.

  • Thereafter, it's mainly self-selecting (newbies either take the ethos on board or don't like the atmosphere and leave).

  • The live team can reinforce or undermine the ethos by example.

In practice, designers are often cheerfully unaware of the extent to which they set the tone of their virtual world. They seed it with people whose shared ethos is to find ways to exploit or otherwise abuse the virtual world. Cynical marketing techniques attract players to an image of the virtual world that doesn't necessarily match the product. Newbies who don't like the culture damage it before they leave. The live team spends all its time firefighting and doesn't have the staff to do anything more cerebral[1].

[1] Sometimes, the customer support staff develops its own rogue culture independently, which then becomes embedded in that of the virtual world. If the staff has a lax attitude to its responsibilities (for example, fixing bugs), players will develop lax attitudes to theirs (for example, behaving civilly).

That said, the exercise isn't entirely pointless. There may be obstacles piled at the window, but if a single shaft of light gets through it can be enough to see by. A virtual world drawing players from advertisements on first-person shooter web sites will be different from the same software drawing players from advertisements on chess web sites, but some attitudes may prevail in both.

As to what ethos to adopt, well that's really up to the designer. Be sure you do have one, though; if players can't sense how they should behave, the law of the jungle applies, and as with any question of morality, different people have different ideas. However, there are some things that are more conducive to the prosperity of virtual worlds than others. Many of these occur in multiple philosophies[2] and will usually appear in some form by default anyway. Of those attitudes that don't, you should probably consider promoting some or all of the following:

[2] Hinduism: “Do naught to others which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.” Mahabharata 5:5-7. Zoroastrianism: “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself, do not do unto others.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29. Buddhism: “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” Udana-Varga 5:18. Confucianism: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” Analects 15:23.

  • Reality is another place.

  • A virtual action with real-world effect is a real action.

  • Yours is just one way of many to play.

  • There's no stigma to role-playing.

  • Newbies aren't children.

  • Evilness is not a winning strategy.

  • It isn't rude to say hello.

Unending or Circular?

In a single-player computer game, when a player makes a mistake it means a restart from their last save. In virtual worlds, this is impossible—a restart for one player means a restart for all of them. How, then, can a player learn from their mistakes? Do similar situations arise regularly? How about the same situation? Does everything repeat in time, or does the world evolve?

This is basically a change and persistence issue.

Players consume content. There is certain content that they like, and which they are not averse to consuming several times. Other content they can only really consume once. On the other hand, just because one player has consumed something, that doesn't mean someone else wouldn't like to try it. How can these differences be reconciled?

Well, that's what you have to decide. In practice, you can't have them all at once: It's a sliding scale from low change/persistence (circular) to high change/persistence (unending). A fully circular approach reuses content but has nothing new; a fully unending approach abandons used content but offers fresh experiences.

Virtual worlds that don't change much and don't persist much have to be sufficiently broad and deep that players take an age to explore them; otherwise, only the activities of other players will provide novel experiences. Virtual worlds that do change or persist will retain players' interest[3], but be costly (because new content has to be created[4]) and wasteful (because old content isn't reused). Furthermore, virtual worlds need checks and balances to ensure that all new content is in keeping with the virtual world as a whole.

[3] Unless there is so much change that it renders large chunks of players' knowledge unusable.

[4] It's a never-ending commitment, too. Once you begin adding content regularly, players will come to expect it regularly, irrespective of whether the virtual world actually needs it.

Virtual worlds that don't introduce content are called fixed. Whether virtual worlds that do introduce content are fixed depends on whether the content is fixed. A predetermined storyline is not new content; it's old content that hasn't been added yet[5]. Players have no more ability to change the future than they do in a virtual world that resets every two hours. If storylines are reactive or emerge from player actions, that means the virtual world is not fixed.

[5] Players may perceive this as new content, because they haven't seen it before. From a designer's point of view, though, it isn't new. What constitutes “new content” varies from virtual world to virtual world: It usually means new monsters and areas, but it could also include additional skills, spells, classes, or even races. Basically, if “content” is stuff that holds the interest of players then “new content” is stuff that does this which wasn't there before.

Note that by “virtual world” here I don't mean just its physical geography; anything from its social structures and mobiles to its economy and combat systems can be changed. Asheron's Call and Anarchy Online both have basically fixed storylines, but the former's can involve the leveling of entire cities whereas the latter's (because of how it's implemented) can't.

Does the virtual world have a future? If so, who decides it?

You get to choose.

Hands On or Hands Off?

Intangible content in virtual worlds will arise naturally through the interactions of players. Designers can and should assist these interactions, by providing tangible means of support and encouragement. How far should they go, though? In particular, should they be proactive to the extent that they provide for live team “leader” players to catalyze these interactions?

In traditional tabletop role-playing games, the referee not only designs the game world but can lead the players through it. Players perceive a highly detailed world because the referee can resolve everything they do, to whatever depth. Referees don't have to think up everything in advance; they can create some of it in response to the actions that players take.

In a virtual world, the designers have to put everything in to begin with. There's a bedrock level of detail beyond which players can't descend. This is most noticeable in the behavior of mobiles, none of which have remotely convincing artificial intelligence[6]. There is, however, something that can be done about this. People could be allowed to play on the same “side” as the virtual world, as an adjunct to it. There is already a community management team; why not allow specialized members to participate in the virtual world in character?

[6] If they did, how could developers hope to control them (both practically and morally)?

There are several levels at which such characters could operate:

  • Undercover. Nobody knows they're part of the live team, but they make life interesting for other players through what they do. They're like audience plants who “volunteer” to help magicians[7].

    [7] The irony with these is that to succeed, players must not recognize them for what they are. This means that when the live team sets up large-scale events, players don't credit them with having done so. In Ultima Online, players were found to express disappointment at never having participated in an organized event when at that very moment they actually were participating in one!

  • Entertainer. Everyone knows these people are part of the live team, but by their ready wit and repartee they manage to make the world more fun.

  • Performer. Players in a Lord of the Rings universe will want to meet Gandalf—he's part of the package. The live team therefore hires an actor to play the role.

  • Guide. “So you guys have never visited the caves of Drachen, huh? Stick with me and just maybe you won't get hurt too bad….”

  • Referee. These are guides that have out-of-context world editing abilities. If a player on a quest decides to do something inventive that wasn't planned for, the referee can produce a tangible response.

  • Unseen referee. The quest is managed behind the scenes. Players don't know that the reason there's a key lying in front of them is because they didn't search the body of the troll and find it earlier.

The hands-on approach is used mainly for manufactured quests. It had been applied for other purposes right from the start: MUD1 had organized events called “spectaculars” that involved much hands-on activity by a wiz-level administrator. Only with plotted quests, however, were the virtues of participant management to become fully apparent. Avalon pioneered this idea commercially in the early 1990s, and it became formalized in Achaea circa 1996. Nowadays, some of the products of the innovative textual world company, Skotos, rely so much on the activities of highly experienced referees (which it calls storytellers) that they would be almost dead without them; with them, however, they are profoundly alive.

If a hands-on style can deliver this degree of immersion while fostering community, why would a designer not want it?

Firstly, it's expensive. There may be players willing to do it for free, but quality control and time management are difficult to maintain. Also, developers are sensitive to accusations that they are exploiting their player base, and therefore prefer to have people on their payroll[8].

[8] The fact that developers risk being taken to court under minimum wage legislation if they don't is perhaps another factor.

Secondly, the deeper levels of event management only really work in smaller virtual worlds. If there are 2,000 players milling around and 40 referees running quests, it's harder for them not to tread on each other's toes than if there are 100 players and 4 referees (despite the latter's greater density of referees to players).

Thirdly, the players don't all like it; specifically, the players who don't get to participate in organized events don't like it. To an achiever, seeing someone (particularly someone else) go up levels after being “walked” through a quest is galling. Getting help from community management—it's like cheating! Socializers may view intervention as patronizing. It's a virtual world, not a theme park. Skotos targets its games at players who do like this degree of personal touch; virtual worlds that don't may not have the same results.

Fourthly, it's very difficult to test quests and events prior to running them. There may be unwanted effects (such as bugs) or side effects (such as characters getting frequently killed). Occasional events with wide coverage can be very popular, but they tend to have a greater chance of going wrong, too.

Finally, no matter what spin you put on it, using real, live people to make your content interesting is like an admission of defeat. It says that a virtual world is neither sufficiently compelling to be interesting in its own right, nor sufficiently rich to enable players to make it interesting themselves. Of course, it could be argued that no virtual world is so compelling, but that's not how designers see it. Besides, professional mourners can spoil a funeral, rather than enhance it.


Another major decision designers have to make is whether to categorize players or not. In many cases, the question they actually ask themselves is what categories to have, which rather jumps the gun. The categorization of players is not a fundamental component of virtual world design.

Chapter 3 described the differences between classbound and classless systems. There, I argued that a classless system can fake up a classbound one while offering more. Because some players (particularly newbies) can benefit from the provision of predefined character types, I suggested a “character kit” approach to allow them to choose a pseudo-class while retaining the overall flexibility of the classless ideal. Ironically, this means that even if a designer decides against a classbound regime, they could still have to produce something that looks like a list of classes (if only to placate newbies who are expecting to see one).

So what are the usual lines of partition?

The first one is, inevitably, gender. Textual worlds are hamstrung by language in this respect, and graphical worlds by images. Although it is quite conceivable to create a virtual world in which all the characters are of the same gender, it's nigh impossible to create one in which characters' gender is merely unspecified without convoluting the language[9]. Gender is probably the only categorization that virtual worlds are stuck with.

[9] This is in Indo-European languages; it may be easier in others. As I alluded to in an earlier footnote, the Mandarin Chinese word for “he” and “she” is the same——although they're written using different symbols.

Gender is a physical difference, although in virtual worlds it is usually presented as a cosmetic one. The reasons for this are given in Chapter 5, “Life in the Virtual World,” but the basic explanation is that designers don't want to offend anybody.

Another physical dimension for partitioning players into groups is by race. Given the way that virtual worlds are so politically correct about gender, one would expect that race was also a purely cosmetic issue, but that's not the case: Races are presented as being fundamentally different, with significant strengths and weaknesses. The reason for this is that what virtual worlds call race, the real world would call sub-species; what the real world calls race, virtual worlds call nothing at all and do treat as a merely cosmetic aspect of a character. Some of the moral implications of this are discussed in Chapter 8, “Coda: Ethical Considerations.”

Races follow stereotypical lines. The short, stocky, bearded axe-wielders who live underground hate the tall, slender, pale archers who live in the forests, and vice versa. Scaled-up humans have more strength than brains, whereas scaled-down humans have more brains than strength. Nobody likes a lizard.

There are common sub-races, too, which also run along stereotypical lines. Fantasy worlds have half-elves and half-orcs, but never quarter-elves or half-dwarfs[10], and there isn't even a word that means the progeny of an orc and an elf.

[10] Most virtual worlds that have them refer to “dwarves” rather than to “dwarfs.” This is either because their designers are following Tolkien's lead or they're illiterate.

Because races have physical differences, designing kits for them is tricky. It's easy enough to make height, musculature, skin tone, ear and eye shape, hirsuteness, and so on be parameters that can be adjusted at character creation time, but this would allow players to customize races of their own—giant, puny, hairy lizards, for example—that didn't make sense. Representing these graphically may introduce unnecessary complexities, too. For this reason, virtual worlds that must have races (because of their fiction) almost always have to hardwire them in. It's limiting, but it's a necessary compromise. Although people who start off as farmers may become politicians, nobody who starts off as a troll is going to become an elf[11].

[11] Yes, I know, in some enlightened virtual worlds race can be changed through magic or whatever. On the whole, though—especially in graphical worlds, where identity is bound tightly to appearance—race is pretty well inviolate.

Related to race is the notion of nationality, or, more accurately, country of origin. This is a less frequently used way to categorize characters, combining them by geographical proximity. The reason it's not so popular is because players want to move around as their characters progress, to be close to the facilities they need (and things they want to kill). The result is that nations are often only nations of NPCs, as PCs are spread about all over the place.

Although one race may dominate a region, others are not excluded; also, the same race may dominate more than one region. Nationality is best used to engineer social conflicts between large groups of players, and in that sense it doesn't necessarily play a part in a player's sense of their character's identity. However, when nations are typecast it can become a constraining influence. The cultures of the three realms in Dark Age of Camelot are quite distinct.

Beyond the physical and geophysical, categorization becomes harder to justify. The dominant approach is that of character classes, which derives from the old tabletop role-playing paradigm. Skills systems are usually grafted on to this, rather than being independent of it, which is rather a shame.

Both character classes and skills systems are fairly arbitrary: Depending as they do on the nature of the virtual world itself, there isn't really a systematic way to determine which ones you “need.” I'll describe the various ways to organize skills in Chapter 5; only in creating the skills will designers get a feel for what character kits might be appropriate. Thinking up the kits (classes) first and then imposing them on the skill set is the wrong way to go about it. I won't be listing any skill sets or classes here, but if you want ideas you should look at other virtual worlds[12].

[12] Textual worlds are particularly fruitful in this regard.

The final common way to categorize characters is by alignment. This, too, is an old tabletop role-playing game concept, intended as an aid to role-playing. The idea is that players decide in advance how their character is to behave, and stick to it. If they step out of line, the referee penalizes them. The traditional alignment dimensions (from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) are law/chaos and good/evil, with the crossing point of the two axes labeled “neutral.” A lawful good character is benevolent and just; a lawful evil character plays by the rules but is without mercy; a chaotic good character is a rebel with a conscience; a chaotic evil character is a self-serving bully who'll do anything to further their ambitions. There are another five combinations involving the concept of neutrality.

Alignment is a useful concept for soft role-players because it's moveable. By saying that your character is lawful neutral you're making a statement about how you intend to role-play that character. If you consistently act good in situations where you could equally well act neutral or evil, eventually your alignment will shift to lawful good. Some actions may be outlawed altogether—paladins don't get to douse beggars in burning oil no matter how bad they smell.

In tabletop games, the referee determines when alignment violations occur. In virtual worlds, much of what is good or evil, lawful or chaotic, is intangible; it can't be tracked by the virtual world, therefore it can't be enforced. If I attack another player, am I being good or evil? What if they had stolen something from me? What if it was theirs in the first place? What if they had attacked me in the past? What if I'd attacked them beforehand? What if I attacked because they'd killed a friend? What if the friend had started the fight and I only think they were innocent?

There is no point in trying to get the virtual world itself to track alignment.

So is attacking another player good or evil? If they're evil, it's good; if they're good it's evil. Put this way, good and evil are just badges. Players will say they're evil without understanding in the remotest sense the depths of cruelty that this implies; players will say they're good without ever having exhibited the slightest tendency toward compassion. They're just labels: They may as well be green and yellow.

It may be possible to define an intangible concept like alignment[13] by asking other players to make judgments in a tangible fashion (for example, by voting). This isn't without its problems, though: It's immersion-breaking, it depends on player goodwill, and it's too easy to subvert.

[13] Reputation systems, which are discussed in Chapter 5, are closely related to this idea.

On the whole, alignment in virtual worlds works only as another shallow, artificial way to partition players into smaller communities. Unless it's an important part of the virtual world's fiction, it's probably not worth having.

Intimate or Grand Scale?

Virtual worlds imbue a sense of size. Players have very definite views on how large the areas they cover are. Asheron's Call feels bigger than EverQuest.

Size is affected by many factors. The most obvious is the number of discrete points that a character can occupy: A text world with 20,000 rooms will generally feel larger than one that has 500; a graphical world measuring 32K by 32K will feel smaller than one measuring 256K by 256K. Speed of travel affects size: If it takes you half an hour to traverse one virtual world and two hours to traverse another, the former may appear to be smaller than the latter even if it isn't; if you can teleport anywhere, the world will feel smaller still.

The abstract size of the world being modeled is significant, too, especially in textual worlds. One room may only be 50 moves away from another, but if the locations in between are written to convey an impression of vastness and fraught with dangers and dead ends, players can be left with the feeling of having undertaken an epic journey.

As well as the physical size of the world, there are other features that can indicate its scale—the number of independent organizational substructures (dukedoms, countries, planets, and so on), for example. The reach of these can help convince players how big the virtual world is: If the non-player characters (NPCs) change language or religion, or the currency no longer works, or the buildings have onion domes instead of towers, it reinforces the notion that a place is remote.

Virtual world designers like the idea of creation on the grand scale. The more there is to design, the more designing they can do, and therefore the more fun they'll have. Big worlds have interesting interactions that small ones don't; a big canvas makes for more detail.

Unfortunately, virtual worlds can be too big. Scatter 100 people around a regular house and it will seem crowded; scatter them in the Sahara desert and they'll never find each other; put them next to each other in the Sahara desert and they won't see more than a fraction of the rest of it.

Virtual worlds have to be of a size appropriate to the number of players they attract. In textual worlds, a rule of thumb is to aim for a rooms per player ratio of about 40; 20 rooms per player is crowded but bearable; 60 rooms per player is sparse but you can still bump into people by accident. It's possible through design to influence how crowded a virtual world feels—for example, by introducing honeypot rooms or thoroughfares to attract players to the same location, or by starting players near to one another or far apart when they enter the virtual world. In MUD2, I have self-contained flood-control areas that only open up when a certain threshold of players has been reached. On the whole, though, it's better if you just get the size right to begin with.

Another problem with having a large virtual world is that it needs content. More content means either more designers or more time for them to design in, both of which are expensive. Players would rather play in a world that is small yet packed with interesting things than a world that is large but empty.

As I remarked, actual size does not have to coincide with apparent size. A small world can seem large, and a large world can seem small. A seemingly expansive world will impress relative newbies and give them the urge to explore new vistas; a seemingly cozy one will feel more secure to them and make conversation easier. Designers will therefore use a hybrid approach sometimes, whereby newbies are initially presented with an intimate[14] environment, then see things on the grand scale when they emerge from it.

[14] Hopefully, not claustrophobically so.

The apparent size of a virtual world helps contribute to its atmosphere. The actual size is important to ensure that players meet each other serendipitously often enough to form relationships yet not so often that these turn sour. Ideally, a designer can find such a balance. Sometimes, though, their hand is forced. In particular, if they are writing to a license, they could have problems. The licensed world may be impractically large (for example, Middle Earth) or impractically small (for example, Hogwarts School) for the numbers of players expected[15]. Designers then have to decide how faithfully to honor their virtual world's sources. “Inspired by” can work: Dark Age of Camelot isn't an authentic retelling of Arthurian myth, but is close enough in spirit not to disappoint newbies. However, DAoC didn't pay money to use its sources; had it done so, the pressure to use the entirety of what it had bought would have been great (not least from the license holders wishing to protect the integrity of their universe).

[15] That said, textual worlds are much better at dealing with this kind of thing than graphical ones are.

Size doesn't just pop out of a design. You have to think about it from the beginning.

Purposeful or Decorative?

You look at a wall. Hanging on the wall is a picture. You go up to the picture to remove it and find it's actually part of the wall. In a textual world, it would be embedded in a room description; in a graphical one, it would be part of the texture for the wall. It's purely decorative.

Some objects are in virtual worlds for tangible reasons; others are there for intangible ones. Should you give even the intangible ones some tangible purpose, or keep them as the props they are?

It might seem a little premature to decide at the very beginning of a virtual world's design whether to assign meaning to everything. Surely you can figure all that out later, once the really important things have been done? Well yes, you can, but by that time you may discover that the decision has been made for you: It would be simply too much work to give everything meaning. This is why so many virtual worlds have windows that don't break, chairs you can't sit on, grass you can't pull up, trees you can't chop down….

If you know from the beginning that objects will all have tangible functionality, it means you can design for this from the beginning. If you know they won't, you immediately increase the range of what you can design. You'll have longer to do it, too: Depth eats into design time, but if it's there from the start, it won't eat anywhere near as much as it would if you added it later.

An example: Are clothes just costume or are they fashion? It's possible to analyze what characters are wearing statistically and determine what is and isn't in fashion. If you wear fashionable clothes, your status goes up; if your status is high, what you wear is fashionable until everyone is wearing it. Non-player characters will treat high-status characters in a tangibly different way than low-status characters. Should this gameplay element be added to push players into making choices about how their character looks? Or should they be free of such tyranny and be able to wear whatever clothes they like? Even those of the opposite sex?

Another example: Should coats of arms be regimented or freeform? Real coats of arms are steeped in symbolism. Should players send their characters to a college of heralds to compose their device from templates? Or can they scan a photo of themselves and use that? In the former case, NPCs could be expected to “read” the meaning and react appropriately (farriers may give a discount to a knight whose shield features a horseshoe; bandit rebels may decline to attack a character whose shield bears a holy symbol[16]). Uploaded images are meaningful to players, but meaningless to NPCs.

[16] Or, of course, they may attack if it's the wrong holy symbol. This won't go down well with players who were only carrying the shield because “it looked cool,” but that's the price of vanity.

In general, designers do want a gameplay meaning for everything in their virtual world, because it makes the world more immersive. If they don't determine this from the outset, though, they may be unable to have it when they're at the point they need it (fleshing out the details after the framework has been implemented).

There's a second issue here, though, which is more contentious. What we've been asking so far is whether things that are needed for out-of-context reasons should be given some contextual meaning. However, what about things that are needed for contextual reasons that have out-of-context meaning we don't want? “I was lying across the tracks when the train ran over me: Why am I still alive?” “Because we thought you might stop playing if you died.”

This tension between what is good for tangible reasons but bad for intangible ones has claimed many victims in the past; it's sure to claim more in the future. It isn't only manifested by permanent character death (the virtual economy is the other big loser, and there are many smaller ones), but that's where the battle lines are drawn[17]. The problem is that some things are really, really desirable for tangible, gameplay reasons and really, really undesirable for intangible, business reasons. If gameplay wins, business suffers; if business wins, gameplay suffers (and then business suffers).

[17] The arguments both for and against permanent (character) death are considered in Chapter 5.

The general policy with regard to whether gameplay or business imperatives have priority should have been decided when the parameters of the design were set out. For a well-known issue such as permanent character death, this will almost certainly be the case. However, there will undoubtedly be other instances where friction will occur. Be sure that the procedures for dealing with the resulting disputes are in place; you'll need them.

Closed or Open Economic Model?

The first question you should really ask is whether your virtual world needs an economy at all. They don't have to have one. If, for example, characters can take nothing with them between playing sessions, not only is an economy unnecessary, but you can't have one anyway. The more persistent a virtual world, the greater its need for a means to facilitate the efficient transfer of goods between players, but even then this doesn't imply the worlds need a formal currency. That said, the real world has money and therefore virtual worlds that want to seem real will have money too.

There are two ways to run a virtual economy: The one that designers want to have, and the one they end up having. The former is the closed economy; the latter is the open economy.

A closed model is internally consistent, with inbuilt defenses against abuse. It's a cycle. Resources are taken from the virtual world at the rate they are returned to it. There is a set[18] amount of money and a set amount in circulation, although the goods that can be bought with it may increase or decrease in number (that is, the economy can grow/shrink). On the whole, cash retains its value.

[18] This may be pegged to some indicator—for example, the total number of players. In theory, you can instead fix the number of goods available and make the money supply variable, but that's not a popular solution.

An open model is not internally consistent. It's faucet/drain. Resources enter the system and resources leave the system, but there is no prescribed relationship between the two. If the cash sinks aren't big enough, then players can hoard money, which therefore decreases its value; if the cash sinks are too big, then players have to spend money, which therefore increases its value.

The closed model is desirable because, done properly, it delivers many benefits[19]. There is no inflation; market forces control the price of goods; it allows for economy-driven gameplay. On the other hand, it's very hard to balance, highly sensitive to bugs, not accepted by players, and (most devastating of all) too easy to gouge. Players will attempt to break it, and will invariably succeed.

[19] I suspect, however, that none of the benefits I'm about to list are the real reason many designers want a closed economy. The thing is, a closed economy is just so much neater.

The open model could, in theory, be balanced. In practice, though, it's much easier to give characters money than it is to take it from them; rampant inflation is the result. Virtual money rapidly becomes worthless, and players adopt a barter economy instead.

Designers therefore have three options:

  • Create an unbreakable closed economy. No one has done it yet for large-scale virtual worlds, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. The global economy of the real world taken as a whole is closed.

  • Create a managed open economy. Put in checks and balances that will regulate both the flow of the faucet and the outflow of the drain such that if the two aren't reasonably close to equilibrium then measures to correct it are taken. No one has managed this yet, either.

  • Don't have a formal currency. Players are going to end up bartering anyway, so throw in the towel and build for a barter economy from the beginning. Perhaps have a throwaway currency that newbies can use, but accept they'll rapidly be measuring their wealth using floating-point numbers and will then switch to the formal barter economy.

We'll discuss these particular ways of handling virtual world economies later in this chapter.

There are other ways to look at economies, of course. Some, such as gift exchange, are promising but as yet unproven; they may work as part of a more general economy, but don't seem strong enough to work alone.

A perennial favorite is to integrate the virtual economy into the real one. This does have merit—it works for the textual world Achaea[20], for example—but there are limits. Few players will object to another player paying real-world money for an item to be given properties that have no gameplay value. For example, a rich player could pay several thousand dollars to have a customized sound played whenever they unsheathed their sword. Other players may find it amusing, tacky, or “unfair” (that is, they're jealous that they can't afford something similar). However, if the sword doesn't do any extra damage or convey any tangible benefits it didn't have anyway, that's fine.

[20] http://www.achaea.com/

Intangibility is the domain of the real world; paying real money for something intangible is justifiable. Paying real money for a tangibly better sword is another matter entirely, though; virtual worlds hoping to use exactly this as their business model should pay very close attention to the likes of Achaea to see how to do it—it requires some very careful balancing and only attracts a certain breed of player. Designers intending to extend the model by letting players take real money out of the virtual economy (Project Entropia[21] is the trailblazer here) have considerable cause to worry—even if they do by some miracle manage to get their virtual economy to work.

[21] http://www.project-entropia.com/

The final point to make about a virtual world's economy is that at an abstract level ecologies work the same way. If you have a closed economy and open ecology (or vice versa) you should ask yourself why one works in closed form and the other doesn't.

Information Versus Immersion

Which is better: to tell a player they hit a troll really hard, or to tell them they did 25 points of damage? The former is what the character would see; the latter is what many players want to see. If they do see it, though, it works against immersion: In the real world, you don't see numbers appearing every time you hit something with a hammer, so why should you in the virtual world?

The last of the major decisions that designers have to make about their virtual world is the degree to which immersion should be sacrificed for the benefit of players' spreadsheets. It's easy enough to say, “Oh, let the players themselves decide,” but there are limits. Also, designers get to determine the default; what newbies see can have a lasting impact on the culture of a game.

The trade-off between information and immersion uses a sliding scale that can be split into three zones:

  • Immersion always wins. Players don't get to see the code that dictates mobile AI, and that's final.

  • Players choose. Some will see it as “the red bag,” but for others it's “bag002.”

  • Information always wins. You're told the name of the nearby character, whether or not your own character has ever met them before.

Designers set the boundaries. Although the middle zone allows for multiple settings (“I want to know how much I've been hurt, but not the true names of objects”), in practice it works fine as a single, binary setting.

Again, the reason that this seemingly mundane decision assumes unusually high significance is because by the time it becomes an issue it's normally too late to do anything about it. During testing, everybody wants as much information as they can get; the capability to switch it off can be left almost as an afterthought. It needs to be determined right at the beginning.

Players want to see numbers (or stats bars or labels) because it helps them play. Information given in more circumspect ways is an unnecessary encoding. Everyone is eventually going to get the data they want anyway, so why try to hide it? Once numbers are accepted as part of the virtual world then surely they won't thereafter disrupt immersion? In the real world, some objects do have numbers on them: If I buy a bag of sugar, its weight is written in bold letters on the side; if I buy a car, it has a license plate that identifies it uniquely. Freedom of information is good. Isn't this obsession with “immersion” just pretentious nonsense?

In some respects, a designer's decision of whether to favor information or immersion is a partial statement of their design philosophy. Players want information for achievement and killer purposes (explorers like it too, but then they also like deducing it when it's not provided). If you give numbers to newbies, you're telling them that this is a virtual world that they should take by the scruff of the neck and make their own; if you don't, you're saying it's a mysterious, perhaps dangerous place, where knowledge reveals itself only through experiment or the experience of others[22].

[22] In large-scale games, players will eventually need to be able to switch on the numbers even if they start out being unable to; this is for the simple reason that if they can't, they'll generate huge numbers of false bug reports because the virtual world is not behaving exactly how it should (according to their empirically derived definition of “should”).

Decide what you want to tell them and why. Then tell them.

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