Intermission

This week begins my first *real* week of teaching for work, so my time is VERY PRECIOUS. As such, rather than write a new post I thought I would post an old document I wrote back as an newly returned Lord on Discworld, because I found it while going through some backups and though people might find it interesting

That’s all! No comment, no commentary – just the posting of a file I had lying on my hard-drive. It is genuinely the blogging equivalent of the teacher pulling in a TV and saying ‘We’re going to watch a program for our class time today’.

It outline a kind of ‘path not taken’ for Discworld – a development plan that I was intending to push through in the wake of the achievements system. It was a plan I had hoped people would make happen when I quit, but alas – like many such plans, it simply ground to a halt.

The only real relationship to Epitaph in this document is that it outlines a lot of my thinking before I started here, and you can see in it a lot of the philosophies that would go into shaping the core of Epitaph.

Enjoy. Or not. Look, I’m too busy to care if you like it.

A Proposed Discworld Development Plan

Introduction

So, you’ll have all seen the stuff I’ve been posting on lordboard. It has become immensely frustrating to me how difficult it is to provoke real discussion amongst most of our lords, and so I’m going to try and boil this down into an actual proposal for the people who can actually decide whether or not to make this so.

What I’m going to put here is a proposal rather than a plan, because I don’t want to invest too much time architecting it if it’s not going to go anywhere. I appreciate there are concerns about everything that will be suggested, but we can deal with those in the detailed part should the bones of the plan seem worth… uh… planting? Pursuing? My metaphors have gone to hell. Anyway, this is basically my tying all the stuff I’ve posted on lordboard into something approaching a coherent proposal.

General Development Philosophy

Where is the Fun

The general philosophy behind this is the ‘Where is the Fun’ principle. I think many of our developments over the past have gone counter to the fact that we’re supposed to be in the business of building a game. Thus, the focus will be on adding fun to the game, not by extending its size particularly, but by enhancing the richness. The achievements system would be a good example of this – it piggy-backs on all this code that we already have, giving people new things to do with areas and commands we already have. As far as possible, we should be looking to maximise the Game we have out of our existing areas, and adding new areas only when they are justified. I think this is something that we’re all agreed on, but bears writing down as the core philosophy of the proposal.

Agile Developments

I’m going to steal a term from software engineering here, and use it quite incorrectly. I like the idea that we should be putting out more agile projects – projects that are quite small and self-contained in scope, and things that can easily slot into the game without the often hugely ponderous rate of development we usually get with new cities and such. We’ve indefinitely stalled dozens of projects over the year because of this kind of development, and I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a skeleton system in the game early, and extend it as we go along, than it is to go for an infinitely more detailed development that never finishes. Thus, as part of this proposal, I’ll try and layer the development into milestones that we could definitely reach in shorter timescales than we usually associate with our development.

You Go To War With The Army You Have

Rumsfeld said this at the start of Gulf War Two, and was slated for it, but I see his point. We’re quite short on the masses of largely idle creator power we may have had in the past. However, what I want to do with this proposal is put together something that could be pushed through by a small number of focused creators. What I’m suggesting for this is kind of an elite ‘black ops’ team who are putting together the architecture for this. There is scope for less dedicated and focused creators to participate, but it has to be done in such a way that there is a solid core taking the brunt of the responsibility rather than dissipating it too far.

Game Problems

We have the following major issues standing in our way of becoming a larger, better game:

• A declining playerbase (this has been reversed by the achievements system, but we don’t know how long that will hold)
• Large amounts of terrains that do nothing except reduce our social density
• An advancement model that is moving us perilously close to unsustainable player levels.

I won’t repeat too much of what I’ve already posted (since it’s on lordboard if you want the fine print), but aside from the first of these (which I will get to), I’ve posted suggestions for development directions we could pursue for each of these.

Short Term Goals (six months)

I think our first goal is to get some momentum going in our player-base – we should be trying to build a sense of excitement for what is to come. There are dangers in this, in that we can easily disappoint by promising something we don’t deliver, so we should focus first on laying the foundations.

The first thing that’s standing in our way with regards to adding interesting new game mechanics is our advancement model. We can’t just keep throwing new sources of XP into the game, because they exacerbate our existing problems of skill levels. On the other hand, XP is the only thing that has any worth in the end game for our players.

I think that’s a problem we need to address sooner rather than later. In the past, I’ve argued for a skill decay – I still think that’s the best solution, but I don’t think we’re in a strong enough position to do it. We’ve long passed the point where we can indiscriminately piss off players in the knowledge that there’s always more where they came from.

So instead of a painful re-balancing, let’s look at diversification. We need to make it viable as a progression path to improve equipment, and to accumulate money.

So step one in this development proposal is the introduction of legendary equipment. We can provide a self-regulating balance here by making it necessary to trade off personal xp/hr for equipment xp/hr – you can have 800k/hr and very little progression in your equipment, or 200k/hr with substantial progress in your equipment. For example, most number-chasing groups will routinely avoid the really tough NPCs because while their XP yield is high, they are too time-consuming to take down quickly and easily. By choosing to give the equipment a bigger reward there, we can get people to willingly focus their attention away from accumulating experience.

To begin with, I suggest we introduce legendary weapons. These would be progressed by first purchasing a custom weapon, having it deluded, and then leveling it up. Each level of the weapon would grant a new power (some minor, some major), a few cosmetic touches, and perhaps even some sentience as time goes by (Drakkos’ Sword says: ‘Hey, you know what I fancy doing? Killing giants. Let’s go kill some giants!’). I know all the problems with this with regards to ransoming valuable equipment and such, but we can resolve them.

Thematically, this is consistent with the idea of the Archchancellor’s Hat in Sourcery – that enough of a person can rub off on an item to imbue it with powers of their own.

As a secondary development, well, we all know I’m working on a piracy and trade system. This isn’t just vapour ware! It’s actually in a pretty advanced state of development, and I wouldn’t feel worried about putting its completion as a short-term goal. I’m pretty sure this will be a popular addition to the game, and certainly almost everyone I have spoken to about it is excited by the potential.

Thirdly, I think we should look at putting the infrastructure in place for instancing support. There are three barriers to this:

• Our grouping model doesn’t require real teamwork
• We need diversification of high-level rewards to avoid these being just a big free XP area
• We have no meaningful conception of a ‘boss’ NPC

The second of these is addressed in part by the legendary weapons, and the other two would be ideal short term developments to pursue. Boss NPCs would just be normal NPCs dialed up to 11, with a range of unique powers and abilities to go with them. Boss NPCs should realistically require groups to take down, and for that we need a better grouping model.
That gives us three pretty cool short-term developments to aim for:

• Legendary Weapons
• Piracy
• Boss NPCs

And a fourth infrastructure project that supports future development:

• A modified grouping system

Legendary weapons, the grouping system, and boss NPCs all feed into the eventual goal of having player instances. Piracy feeds into the eventual goal of player run strongholds.

Medium Term (a year)

Having gotten legendary weapons, boss NPCs and a modified grouping system into the game, we can start to put together the architecture for instances. These can ideally exist in two flavours:

• Tightly scripted, domain developed initiatives
• Randomly generated terrain encounters

For the first, we can really start drawing exciting material from the books as inspiration. For the second, I’m thinking of something like nethack style dungeons (which one of our creators already has plans for, and I think they’re pretty groovy) dotted around the terrains. That way if you want the thematic encounters, you go for something scripted, and if you just want some unpredictable killing fun, you find a nethack style dungeon.

The technical architecture needed to support instances is pretty bare-bones. Really, we could do it tomorrow if we wanted, but doing it right needs longer. What we need is an easy way to configure a set of rooms, encounter triggers, and some measure of genuinely engaging NPC grouping. I believe there is a Forn domain creator already doing some work on this, which could be tied into the larger plan.

Each of the domains will need to put together their own instances too, but I suspect that’s likely to be more fun than area work usually is.

As indicated on lordboard, any plans we make for larger initiative should have short-term deliverables, so as a part of putting together the framework for eventual player run strongholds, we should also be looking at hirelings as part of this.

The sailing system meanwhile can be spooled out into a land equivalent, allowing for both sea-based and land-based trade, along with piracy and banditry throughout. A key aim of this would be to increase the impact of player actions on the game world through the incorporation of emergent world states. If pirates are disrupting your supply of Klatchian steel, then there’s no Klatchian steel for you to make custom weapons/armour out of.

So medium term, that gives the following:

• Scripted instances
• Random nethack style instances
• Hirelings
• Land-based trade
• The beginning of emergent world states

Scripted instances are likely to be a hugely popular addition – as I said, it’s a sign of good design that if you are going to steal ideas, steal the ones that obviously work. Hirelings would allow for a lower threshold of entry to both the piracy and the land-based trade systems (don’t have a crew? Hire one), as well as permit even the most solitary of players to attempt instances.

Land based trade and emergent world states feed into the larger plan of player strongholds – if a stronghold is to have value, it has to allow the player to exert some kind of impact on the game.
Long Term (two years)

This part of the proposal is intentionally vague, since I don’t think it’s a good idea to plan *too* far into the future.

The long term would be focused on bringing player strongholds properly into the game, which involves an effective system of player impact on terrains (laying down a flag and saying ‘this is my land’, or perhaps a more restricted method) through modification of terrain states (these hills are mine, and they are being mined). It should also introduce the first step of incorporating player layouts for strongholds.

All of the infrastructure to make this worthwhile should be done in the preceding stages. But at this point we actually start to make it all work as a cohesive whole. Dasquian and I talked this over a bit on lordboard, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal.
Player Numbers

Player numbers are obviously one of our important ‘health metrics’, and the fact they’ve been pretty healthy over the past few weeks shows that decline isn’t inevitable. If we can get people excited, they’ll keep coming back, just like they used to when people were geared up about CWC and such. But we’re going to lose people, that’s natural – but it means we need to get new people in too.

I don’t believe that MUDs are necessarily in a state of decline because of MMORPGs. We survived and thrived when Everquest and Ultima Online were our competitors. I do think though that people have less of an idea of what MUDs actually are.

I’ve been reading a bit about Achaea recently. I don’t know how reliable the figures are, but it seems like they manage 400-700 players online, with a commercial revenue stream and full-time coders. MUDs may be niche, but I don’t think we’re necessarily dying.

One kooky idea that struck me though was related to all the talk about Threshold MUD being deleted from Wikipedia on the grounds that MUDs are no longer notable. I asked my students a while back how many of them knew what a MUD was. None of them did. They all know what an MMO is though. Maybe we should consider re-branding ourselves as a text MMO rather than a MUD. We could be Discworld MORPG instead. I know that’s stepping away from our roots a bit, but people know MMO and they don’t know MUD. As I say, a kooky thought.

But I digress!

I think we need to make an active effort to put ourselves Out There. We don’t have much of a presence on many mud sites because most of us are not active participants in discussions. We could be more so with a little effort. Additionally, we used to get a lot of interest from Serious People through Imaginary Realities. Maybe we should think about resurrecting something like that. That was something we were talking about years ago, and we had some nice plans for it, but never got anywhere. There’s a lot of idleness in the MUD community in general – I think there’s room for us to make a bit of noise by taking on more of a mantle of community leadership. The work Sojan is doing on a new DW mudlib release would be a great way to do that.

I do think the players are out there – we just need to get ourselves recognized, and recognized for what we are.

Conclusion

So, that’s what I think we could do, on the basis of the stuff I have been posting and what I’ve been thinkin’ in my pretty little head. Assuming it met with agreement from your good selves, it’s a case of putting it forward as a firm objective, first to the domain lords, and then to all of our creators.

However, while I think all of this is doable (even in the times I’ve quoted, which you may think to be optimistic), it needs a high lord to actually take ownership of it and actively push it forward. It’s going to cut across all of the domains and need work from everybody to support, and I think one of you needs to be the one to say ‘here are our development objectives’, because even if you are all quite happy with it as a plan, it’d mean nothing coming from me. :-P

So that’s it – sorry that this week is such a cheat, but I thought you might be interested anyway.  If you are, let me know – I have a few other documents floating around on my hard-drive that might make an interesting glimpse into the road not taken.

 

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