Reflective Learning

It was somewhat striking for me to see the first project outline for what would become Epitaph (I posted this last week). I had forgotten that I had even written this, and I don’t recall it being something I used at any point when I actually branched off into making my own game. The most surprising thing about it is how much of it generally holds true, even these years later.

What’s more interesting from the perspective of a blog post however is likely to be the bits of the design that were discarded as time went by – mainly because in there we can find much to analyse. The three elements in particular that were highly stressed in the outline were the ‘very limited area development’, the emphasis on taskmaster advancement only, and the Cthulhu elements for the plotlines. I’d like to talk about all three of those and why they fell by the wayside.

First of all, let’s look at the limited area development. Those of you who have logged on to Epitaph will undoubtedly have taken in our uilitartian approach to descriptions – it’s my firm belief that the majority of players never read a tenth of what the game presents to them, and that the expectation of MUD developers that every single room should be unique is actually a harmful perspective. I’ve said before that I think there’s too much reading required in MUDs, and that view hasn’t changed.

However, despite the fact that we’ve got all kinds of random generation going on in Epitaph, it’s not enough to sustain an interesting game world. People like to explore, and they like to encounter things they’ve never seen before. The claustrophobia element too turns out to be too limiting in a game like this – it does its job in creating tensions, but it makes the world feel very limited. Moreover, it ends up being bad for developers. Seriously, who wants to write *yet another* factory in some industrial zone? There are oil rigs, air-force bases, warships and abandoned castles out there in the apocalypse. They’re fun to write – why would you want to deny yourself that fun?

So, in the end we arrived at what I think is a happy medium – the main city is mostly generated from config files, but it contains within it a wealth of hand written areas. Each individual ‘point of interest’ within the city gets its own descriptions, it’s just the city streets that don’t. That way there is still the ‘interactive fiction’ reward structure for those who explore, while concentrating our attention on the bits that matter. In general, I don’t believe people are all that interested in the journey in games like this – it’s all about the destination. There are some, of course, who will love to drink in the atmosphere of every single room – those are a minority, and if atmosphere is what they like we have different ways that we can produce it. Our NPCs on the whole are fonts of context and background information, and our rumour mill system allows us to make available information about our game world in a contextual way.

We tried out the ‘all taskmaster’ advancement model at the start, and it actually lasted quite some time. In the end though it was mothballed because it basically disincentivised exploration and risk-taking. ‘Why would I want to cut my way through hundreds of monsters just to get better at cutting up hundreds of monsters?’ was a question I was asked[1]. There was no ‘fungibility of action’ – if you went out killing, that’s all you got good at. It makes sense from a realism perspective, but I think from a gameplay perspective it’s something of an own goal. People shouldn’t feel as if one activity is robbing them of fun in another – fungibility of actions allows for that, and the simplest mechanic of allowing that is XP. It also allowed for us to beef up factions to a satisfying degree – they weren’t much of a draw without having something substantial to offer, and now they offer places at which experience can be spent.

The final thing of these three that we abandoned was the Cthulhu elements. I hummed and hawed over this for a long time, partially because I didn’t feel that the apocalypse we were building was credible without some supernatural element to back it up. I was also concerned that having no option later down the line to incorporate a magic system would be a turn-off for many people. After all, even games based in modern times usually have some kind of ‘psychic power/occult ritual’ system to satisfy the Gandalf in everyone. Mass Effect has its biotics. Star Wars has the Force, and ‘real world’ settings have Cthulhu dark powers to rely on.

However, in the end I thought it would take away from what I wanted to achieve – a statement of sorts on the self-destructive nature of mankind. There are several philosophical themes embedded into a lot of my descriptive work – the corrisive nature of globalisation[2], the importance of ethics in ensuring sustainable progress, and the transience of humanity’s accomplishments in a vast and unknowable universe. I’m not a gifted enough writer to be able to really express those concepts with any justice, but you’ll find the as common motifs stitched into the world. In the end, I thought ‘and it’s caused by magic’ was the lamest cop-out possible if the apocalypse is going to actually ‘mean’ anything. I have an explanation for the apocalypse that ticks all the boxes that matter – of course, you’ll need to play through to the very end of Epitaph (in the distant future) to find out what it is.

Some things in the document are still aspirational for us – we haven’t yet achieved the level of dynamic interaction in our areas that is discussed, but we get closer to that every day. Our systems interlock in many ways, and many of them are enabled to allow exactly that kind of narrative experience. For example, we have windows you can set in a room (allowing you to look in and out), and having the windows open (as opposed to closing the curtains) will tell you what’s going on outside. Rooms with windows will invoke certain kinds of room chats when it’s raining, and so on. All of these are small things, but each one brings us closer to the goal of interactivity I outlined. Eventually it will indeed be possible to break open windows and climb down fire-escapes, and seeing that document reminds me of why I wanted all of that in the first place.

So, on the basis of experience, testing and getting feedback from our players we made changes to the game to make it better. The game we have now is very different from the game we had at the start, but what’s comforting to me is the degree to which it matches what I originally wanted to achieve. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Don’t you think that’s strange?[3]

My free time is easing up now as I start to poke my head above water with regards to work, but as I say I have piles of other documents on my hard-drive that people may find interesting. Let me know if at some later date you might be interested in reading more.


[1] Let’s leave aside that’s the basic gameplay mechanic behind a number of high profile games.
[2] Random areas aren’t just a quick fix to ensure developmental efficiency – they are also very consciously a statement on how homogenous globalisation has made the world.
[3] Go ahead, let your hair down.

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