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8:10pm on Saturday, 10th May, 2008:

The Joy of Design


Today, I missed the final third of the Philosophy of Games conference to go to the Media Design Institute in Berlin, which runs a games degree. There, I spoke to about 20 of their students for around two hours, giving them my complete theory of why people play MMORPGs.

That 20 final-year undergraduates had come in to hear me talk on a Saturday morning in a language foreign to them was remarkable enough (especially given the attitude of many of my own students to attending my lectures), but after lunch (cookies and gummy bears) they presented their own ideas for an MMO. There were four of these, but we only had time to listen to three before we were thrown out of the building.

Now these students had only been working on their ideas for about 4 weeks, so things were a bit patchy. They'd gone into lots of detail in some places and less detail in others, so often they couldn't see what the consequences would be on later parts of the decisions they'd made in the earlier parts. As a designer, I could also sense they had conflicts between what they wanted to express and what they were expressing; for example, they might want a sandbox world, implying great freedom, but then impose unnecessary limitations on what the players could do in some specific aspect of play — an obvious tension to me, but one they wouldn't necessarily pick up on themselves until they'd spent lot more time on their designs. I think this was basically down to their not yet trusting their instincts: all the projects had elements to them which had come from other virtual worlds, but they hadn't yet figured that they were allowed not to put those things in if they didn't fit. So, they mainly had a lack of self-assurance, but that will definitely come.

Oh, and they were all blissfully unaware of the devious, scheming nature of some players, and the susceptability of their designs to griefing. I suggested they might want to consider how they could break their own designs (which is actually a good exercise anyway, because it means you get to understand your designs more). Hmm, maybe should have asked them to try to break each other's too, come to think of it...

If this were all there were to the day, I'd have returned a happy man. I love talking to people who are willing to listen, but also willing to challenge; who can be effortlessly inventive; who become excited by ideas, and can convey that excitement through their designs.

That wasn't all there was to the day, though. There was something else that was, alone, worth this four-day trip to Germany just to experience. One of the teams had an absolutely beautiful — that's beautiful way of handling religion. In the nearly 30 years I've been working in virtual worlds, I've never come across it before. It was stunningly elegant — I'm almost welling with tears here just thinking about it. It was one of those moments of designer joy that can't be expressed in words, that, I don't know, perhaps only 20 people in the whole world would fully appreciate, but is just awesome if you're one of those 20 people.

The students who described it liked it, and knew it was good, but I don't think they knew quite how good it was. That's as it should be: they included it because it said something they wanted to say, and the fact that it was a brilliant mechanic was just a bonus. It was there because it needed to be there, but my oh my, it was sweet.

Yeah, I know, you want me to tell you what it was they came up with so you can judge for yourself how good it is; sadly, I don't feel I can tell you. In part, this is because if you're not one of the 20 people who'll go OH MY GUCKING FOD when you hear it, you'll either take that as an insult or as evidence that I'm an addled old timer. However, the main reason I'm not repeating it is because it's not my idea to repeat. It would be like telling you how a magic trick works before it was performed. I'd prefer to give the magicians chance to show you the trick first — they deserve it.

Jeez, though, why has no-one thought of it before?

This is why I'm a virtual world designer.

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).