WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS
Originally published December 8 to December 12, 2003, here.
Last week I spent a lot of time online in Second Life doing a set of things I never thought I'd ever do online again at all, let alone in Second Life. I spent a lot of time killing monsters, leveling up, acquiring gold, buying weapons and supplies, and healing my depleted hit points.
I spent a lot of time, in other words, playing Second Life like it was any other online fantasy role playing game.
To play "Dark Life", a user-made game within a game, you purchase a backpack and basic weaponry from a store near the dungeon area. The backpack itself comes equipped with a fairly complex bloc of Linden Language Script, which tallies and displays traditional RPG elements of Hit Points, Experience Points, inventory, and so on, while it's worn. Once equipped, you're ready to go questing.
Dark Life is the brainchild of designer/artist Pirate Cotton and programmer Mark Busch, and an extension of Dark World, a medieval town created and inhabited by a group of dedicated residents in the sim of the same name. "We want to liven up Dark World," says Pirate, "'cause it's a great town. And it looks the part, ya know."
But Pirate had another motivation in this, as well. "I was flying around Second Life," he says, "and while interesting, it made me think that what people had made was a 'Dali-esque shopping nightmare! Lots of odd stuff to look at, but not much to do if you got bored of building, or chatting up the ladies," he finishes, laughing. "So I figured, 'I bet you can make a [RPG] dungeon!' Ignorance convinced me it was possible."
Other residents have surely thought of doing something like this--in fact, as we'll learn in coming weeks, Dark Life isn't the only resident-made game in development-- but Pirate is uniquely suited for the task. Professionally speaking, when he's not in Second Life, Pirate Cotton is a developer for a major MMORPG. (He declines to state which one, for the record, but hardcore fans of the genre would probably recognize it immediately.) His co-workers don't quite understand why he's devoted so much time in his spare time to creating Dark Life. "I think when you code and art and world-build for a living it seems madness to do so for free," he says, smiling. But they do look over his shoulder, when he has a chance to work on his Second Life project from the office. "They love the technology, the programmers are in awe... and the artists have been impressed with my bugs and monsters, which is flattering! Hired one to make the [Dark Life] logo."
"Are you creatively frustrated in the day job MMORPG?" I ask Pirate.
"Actually, I'd say no. Right now, I have four hundred more quests to write [at the office]. So I get creative," he says, laughing. "But a forty-plus person team means I can't say 'let's do this' and two hours later, it's done or in testing. With Mark coding we can come up with ideas and it's done. Also, my involvement is more personal. I do all sounds and most building... yeah, there's a more personal involvement there."
After a mutual friend introduced him to Mark Busch, who also works for a game company, the duo set to work, with Pirate on design, sound, and art, and Busch on coding. After two weeks of effort ("the backpack has close to two thousand lines of code I think," says Pirate, impressed) they had a rough Beta of their game to show Haney Linden, the company's community magistrate.
By the time I had a chance to try out Dark Life, a few weeks after it had been opened for testing, it had already become an unambiguous success, despite its unavoidable shortcomings as an early Beta. A hundred-plus residents had played it, many frequently. Indeed, as I spoke with Pirate outside the main shop, residents streamed past us, on their way to adventure.
"Love it," a goblin called AstriX Fate told me, "if I had the skills, I'd help make it better." I noticed the Hit Points counter above his head was already at 317. Getting it up that high must have taken dozens of hours.
"Whoa," I said. "How long have you been playing?"
Pirate laughed. "I think I've seen someone with 900."
Before my career as Second Life's embedded journalist, I wrote a Salon article on the future of MMOGs. The only way they'd thrive, I suggested there, was by getting away from the Dungeons & Dragons-esque model of "leveling up" a heroic alter ego in a Tolkienesque world--the kind of thing that had limited appeal outside fans of the genre. The future of the medium, I suggested, should be non-genre online worlds where the users spend less time leveling up on the monster-bashing treadmill, and way more time creating the content of their reality.
But one leading designer of fantasy MMORPGs didn't like that thesis one bit, and he rather heatedly e-mailed me after the story was published, to explain why. "Leveling up" or something like it would still be a necessary function, he argued, even in the next generation of online worlds: "The player's ability to affect change in these future virtual worlds," he wrote, "will be directly related to the amount of time and effort they invest in that change. And, given human nature, people will want approval from others." They got this through the leveling up process, in traditional MMORPGs, or in non-genre games, through leader boards, where the wealthiest/most popular/etc. players are numerically ranked for all to see.
"But in a world which emphasized user-created content," I replied (in words to this effect), "levels and ranks won't matter. They'll be having too much fun creating, for example, a haunted house, whether it makes them popular or not. "
"Assuming somewhat equal 'creative abilities' or what have you," he replied, "the person who spends 50 hours adding content to and just making 'cool' her haunted house will end up with an experience an order of magnitude more compelling and entertaining than the person who invested 5 hours… the treadmill's still there, the time invested is still there, and the result of the time invested is still being communicated to the player in the form of improving traits and/or abilities in gradual steps (regardless of whether the traits are associated with the player's persona or their property, i.e., their haunted house."
In other words, he believed the time invested to build a haunted house online was qualitatively the same as the time invested to, say, get your half-Elf Ranger to level 10.
After all, as he added later, "Life is a treadmill, James. It takes time. Effort. Fortitude."
We agreed to disagree on that point. But I had to admit I was thinking about it, when I bought my backpack, and was led by Dark World citizen valacia Leviathan toward the place where Dark Life is played: a castle occupied by all manner of supernatural beasts.
You know, like a haunted house.
Dark Life gameplay isn't too dissimilar from the classic RPG mechanic, actually. Creatures wander the halls and rooms of a spacious castle (so far, it's mostly spiders, deadly wasps, and a family of vicious floating brains down in the basement). You click your mouse at a nearby beasty, and your avatar lashes out with whatever weapon you have in hand. The monsters retaliate (if you get too close, they'll often attack first); if you hit your target, they lose hit points; if they hit you, you do. Unless you flee, this goes on until you're victorious, or you die. If the former, the monster drops treasure, gold, and sometimes magic potions or other nifty treasures. If the latter, the Dark Life script registers your Hit Points as zero, and your avatar crumples in a gesture of agony.
At that point, you can no longer interact with Dark Life objects and monsters, so you have to travel as a "ghost" to a shrine across the bridge, where you're resurrected, and can slowly build your Hit Points back to maximum. When you do "die", however, your avatar doesn't actually die in the Second Life sense, and you don't even have to resurrect your Dark Life character. Since the stats and inventory of your Dark Life character are registered in the backpack script, you're only "playing" the game while you're in the Dark World server, and you have the backpack attached to your body.
To be sure, the graphics and the gameplay are still fairly rudimentary; compared to professional games, the technical quality is somewhere in the range of circa early 90's. The monster AI is about as simple: they target, they attack, and they wonder around, and that's pretty much it. (Then again, running the AI and other Dark Life scripting is already quite taxing on the server, as it is. "We went through a week of crashing this sim almost hourly," says Pirate.) But all that aside, it's still suspenseful to fight an ornery creature down to your last remaining Hit Points, and you still feel a jolt of satisfaction, when you find a magic item, and when you--yes, indeed-- level up.
"Next version will have three classes (healer, mage, and warrior), more monsters, etc.," Pirate tells me, after I emerge from the castle. "More foresty newbie areas." They even intend to create an ongoing story, and hire other residents to run events, just like any other fantasy MMORPG. And just like Second Life, they plan to let their players build their own tools, as well. (Armor, weapon, and magic items, in this case.) "Players make a shop and submit items to Mark with a description," says Cotton. "Mark then codes them and places them in the person's shop-- we share some of the Linden Dollars generated. So it's a nice idea, I reckon, to get all of Dark World involved. Make it a social resting spot." It's also a fairly unique synthesis of old school online RPG, and user-generated content.
But even before he tells me this, I'm already impressed by one particular feature Mark and Pirate have come up with. Because here the thing:
Compared to most professional MMORGPs, on some key points, Dark Life is actually better.
"We just wanted a simple multi-user dungeon dynamic," says Pirate Cotton, of Dark Life. "Turn-based combat, [level] progression, magic, loot, etc. Player versus player one day."
"Though I noticed some new stuff I haven't seen in other games," I say, after I'd returned from my first dungeon crawl. "I think this is the first game I've seen where you get experience points for hitting a monster, not just for killing it."
"Yes," says Pirate, "Mark's invention, that one. That's the nice thing about a two person team. And why we haven't added more people [just] because we can, and why we're totally dictatorial. I say 'This could be cool?', Mark says 'Yeah!', and we do it."
But I'm not willing to let it go at that: "It solves a huge problem with MMORPGs, the whole 'kill stealing' thing." In most classic fantasy role-playing games online, only the player who delivers the killing blow gets the boost of experience points that advances their character. So another player can let someone else do all the hard work of softening up a monster, then sneak up behind and execute the coup de grace, and get the credit for the battle. "Kill stealing"is the root of innumerable conflicts among players, and what's worse, stemms from a fairly bad design principle.
"Which always struck me as stupid," as I put it to Pirate. "If I got into a fight with a monster, wouldn't I become more experienced as a fighter, whether or not I actually killed it? If I went around in real life punching guys in bars, fighting them awhile, and then running away, wouldn't I still become a better fighter?"
Pirate Cotton demurs, so I keep going. "But this is extraordinary, Pirate-- you guys have come up with a design feature in this little game that makes it better in that regard than the big boys!"
He laughs, abashed. "Just different, in my humble opinion."
"Nah," I press, "better, in the sense of designing a game that models real world behavior. I could see this becoming a regular thing-- professional developers trying new features out in Second Life to see how they work, before making the effort to build the whole game."
"Mmm, I think it's a way of testing systems, possibly," says Pirate, after some thought. "You could test social dynamics." He wonders aloud about tweaking advancement to make leveling up easier, toward the end game. "Or reverse [the leveling] treadmill: make starting hard (when people are keen [to play] after all) and end game easier (when you are getting bored)… I and many other gamers hit walls in MMORPGs at about the same level. What if you knew in two levels' time that you'd have five levels of easy leveling? Yeah, might make me stay, so it is doable."
It's not the only feature unique to Dark Life's designing. "We can make up monster-backpacks, so players can fight other SLers dressed as monsters." Creature AI in all MMORPGs is notoriously simplistic, so allowing some players to actually take over control of the monsters that inhabit the dungeon offers a lot of promise for more complex, strategic gameplay.
Aurican Sunchaser, who's already made up his avatar to look like a blue dragon, happens by the main store while Pirate and I are talking. He's excited about the possibility of playing as a monster, because after all, he says laughing, "I already look the part." He mentions that another popular MMORPG did try implementing a feature which allowed subscribers to play as monsters, "but it never made it off the test server."
Pirate Cotton laughs. "Second Life is a good place to get all those MMORPG braggarts who say 'Well if I made a game..." and let them come try. If I was concept-ing a MMORPG and had design questions, I might [do that]." Still, he adds later, referring to Dark Life, "Mostly it's just fun to make something fun and addictive, and role playing games are both."
Talking with Pirate Cotton about Dark Life brought me right back to that e-mail conversation I once had with the famed game designer (see Tuesday entry), who believed that online worlds like this one would always need some kind of form of ranking system, to reward time invested in them. I thought that subscriber-created content would drastically change that dynamic, but he didn't quite buy that.
So I brought it up the subject with Cotton:
"A very well known MMORPG developer once told me that non-fantasy MMOGS like this one will probably not work, because there's no leveling mechanism."
"I think he's wrong because he assumes entertainment comes from a Pavlovian response to reward," says Pirate, after a pause. "Now, that IS addictive... but addiction isn't required for fun. I'm not addicted to walking in the park. But I do so anyway often, 'cause it pleases me. But I'm not compelled. I'm not addicted to talking to my girlfriend either, but I do, because to do so is better than not," he says smiling. "And Second Life is the same. If you find something fun to do, it's fun!"
"Currently most MMORPGS don't have much else to do besides leveling," Aurican Sunchaser interjects, "so people try to have fun by getting with friends and running on the treadmill together." Aurican usually plays Second Life in an avatar done up to look like a blue dragon, as he is now, so his words have a surreal poignancy to them. (Like he's a monster exiled from a fantasy world, complaining about constantly dying at the hands of leveling players.)
"On the other hand," I tell Pirate, "you just built a game in here with a leveling mechanism, because you were getting bored!"
"Yes," he answers, laughing, "but that's because I found something fun for me to do, and that is make stuff, to have a project. Other folks enjoy playing, not just because it's leveling, but because it's leveling in Second Life. They can do two things they gain entertainment from."
"I wonder if one alternative will be a Second Life with a bunch of MMORPGs within it," I say, "which residents will play on the side, when they get bored with the usual stuff."
"Yes," says Pirate, "it's nice not to have a treadmill. Everyone [here] is as equal as their imagination and talent allows. Which of course means some will never find themselves equal to others like they can be in other MMORPGS, through basic application of time. Actually, I bet if you asked around, SLers would have a high proportion of ex-guild leaders and people with a bit of drive/creativity/flare." (And this is definitely true, in my experience: many of the most active Second Life residents are hardcore émigrés from various fantasy MMORPGs.)
"Lots of cool ideas [in Second Life]," says Pirate, a veteran of numerous online fantasy games, and a professional developer of another one, himself. "Though I missed bashing stuff. Mindless fun is still fun."
"Seems like we need a combination of mindless and creative," I suggest.
"Yes," Pirate Cotton says, "and most folks like switching between both. It's just plain fun to level a bit in Dark Life. And more fun to come back and make your own monster to give to the developers to add! That's one of the joys of DL: anyone can get involved and [help] build the game, as well as play it."
If Dark Life succeeds on both counts, it may turn out that my game designer correspondent and I were both right. Succeeding in Dark Life means being on a treadmill, as he argued; ultimately a matter of investing time, and being rewarded and recognized for your efforts. But creating weapons and monsters for Dark Life is also an end in itself.
And maybe that's how this world within a world will thrive, with residents flickering between both states, mindlessly leveling and mindfully creating, their efforts at each complementing the other. Life may be a treadmill after all-- just one that you can tinker with and improve, as you plod ahead. And enjoy the tinkering as much as the actual climb.