[Scorpia] It’s your turn, you know, you can take all the time you want.

[Alan] I think basically Hundred Years War and Federation come from different traditions as I’d said before, and I think, in a sense, that kind of stuff we are doing a GFE, and Gordon who’s looking miserable over there is a programmer of it. I think there’s a good deal that’s true in what Jim says. The bandwidth on the internet is free. Well this doesn’t make sense, it can’t keep going. Sooner or later someone’s going to run out of money and then you’re going to have to start paying for it. There are certain things that I think will be very nice once people have to start paying for it like mail. If there’s one thing that will stop the current level of spam it’ll be if people have to pay half a cent to send a letter. When that happens we will obviously have to either rewrite some of our current games and probably redesign the stuff that’s in department already to cope with the fact that the actual delivery mechanism, if you like, has become a lot more expensive. The moment, all we have to pay for is our connection to the web. We don’t have to pay for anything over that. We just have to pay to get to the web, and our users have to pay their end into the web, and I often wonder what sort of economic model it is that has that bit in the middle free, because I’d quite like to get my bit of it, quite frankly. This is an economic model I like, so long as I’m not the one funding in the middle.

I think that multiplayer games have reached a static sort of thing at the moment and I think that’s because nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen to the Internet and nobody’s really quite sure where they’re going. In a sense, Jim has a unique perspective on it, because everyone else is interested in getting a maximum number of people on, and certainly my point of view, if there are less than 100 players simultaneously on Fed we have a problem, because it’s to do with critical mass, and the number of peoples that are there and the fact that the game is written so it doesn’t work properly if we don’t have that number of people to interact properly. Jim has written his game slightly differently so he can get away with a lower critical mass and I envy that and will be stealing some of these ideas for future games. I’ve checked with my lawyer and he says he’s better than Jim’s lawyer. [audience laughter]

[Scorpia] So you actually need 100 people simultaneously online in Fed?

[Alan] Ah, yes. We need to have that realistically because the way in which Fed works the levels of the game are divided into bands, and people compete within each band. People compete with each other. Across the bands, it’s set up so they’re interdependent, so the people in one band will need the assistance in the next band down and maybe the next band up in order to move forward. So it’s set up in such a way that you simultaneously have that spur of competition to get on but you also need to cooperate with one another and if you are completely anti-social and don’t cooperate, you will not get very far. And that, frankly, is deliberate. I don’t like anti-social people in my games, and if anti-social people come in it they’re not going to get very far. So it does need that number of people. Jim has organized a game in a totally different way. The two of us were discussing this the other day.

The fact of the matter is if you have a lot of people in a game, there are serious problems because people actually only relate to a small number of other people. It’s partially to do with the way that the human brain is setup. It’s partially to do with what people can cope with. Now I chose to partition Fed into small groups via the mechanism of duchies and so forth; people naturally group themselves into smaller groupings within one big game. They’re all in one big game, and they can find their friends within that game. Jim took a different route and partitioned his game by having multiple games. Now my way of doing it allows a certain amount of flexibility in some areas and makes my game very inflexible in others. Jim’s game goes the other way and took the things I can’t do for its flexibility and some of the things I can do, he can’t do because of the way he’s done it. I think that is a design decision. I don’t think one of them is more valid or less valid than the other.

[Jim] I think the critical thing here to control use of access is the concept of time. Now let me throw this out, you’re all Fed players. Would you accept adding to Fed the concept of time? In other words, in gameplay every twenty-four hours represents a year. Within that year, of the things you have to do... you already have the concept of time in the game in that when you send a ship and you’re trading from point A to point B it’s going to take a certain amount of time to get there. But if you made time part of the game mechanics in that each year you had 50 weeks to do things. And not all, but a lot of the things you did, not talking obviously, not carrying out in Chez Diesel’s or a lot of the fun stuff, the entertainment players provide for themselves would not be timed, but those economic things. Power basing, tangible power. Not that intangible power a lot of you have at your fingertips. What if that were a limited commodity? So every day was 50 weeks, and once you did all the things, moving around to your different planets or did certain economic acts in the game, and once that time was gone you had to stop and all you could do was talk and carry on... would you be against that?

[Audience Members] Yes!

[Jim] Once they’ve tasted it... it’s like a dog, if all you give them is dry food they never complain because they’ve never had the canned stuff. Once you give them the canned stuff they’re spoiled. You give them the usual mush and they’re like, "Ahh! What’s this?" You’ll just have to start a new game.

[Audience Member 1] Jim, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in Fed before, but we do have time restrictions on what we can do in Federation.

[Jim] I mean using it much more aggressively. For example in Hundred Years War, each season, the game is played in season, we can change the tempo. Now the idea of having separate games is something I’ve hit on Alan many times, and I can understand his problem because Federation is one of the massively massively-multiplayer games like Gemstone. There’s always been two kinds of games out there. There were the simulation games, the real-time games, like Air Warrior. And then there were those which by their very nature of their combat, of their actions, could only handle so many, could only have so many planes you can get in a furball. Even in MechWarrior there are only so many mechs you can get out there and have a comprehensible action. And then there were the vast, the horde games, where in some cases you can have thousands of people. How many people have been in Ultima Online? [a few mutterings] All right.

The big problem they have there right now is crowd control. They have thousands of people online simultaneously; you had that on Gemstone in AOL, I don’t know if they had it in Fed. You feel a little crowded and what have you. I tried to do something a little different and do something in the middle. People always want something different. Now one of the advantages of an online game is that you never finish it. You’re always upgrading the damn thing online. It’s not for faint of heart from a programmer’s point of view. It’s like doing repairs on a car that never stops. Speed plus, right? If it stops it blows up! If it goes down all your customers go away, worse than an explosion. So you’re constantly improving the game, or fixing it, depending on what you’re fixing. It’s quite possible we get them called "improvements."

[Alan] Features.

[Jim] Features! But anyway, one of the advantages you have there is that people are much less likely to get bored in the game. Playing stand-alone games, no matter how good it is, and I know people who’ve been playing Civilization for five years now who say, "I’ve heard about Civ II, is it any better?" There are some games like that. Indeed, I know some people who still have their Atari so they can play M.U.L.E. There are some games which have long legs, like they say in showbiz, they just keep on going. But by and large, the majority of people will get bored quickly. So with an online game you can keep adding new stuff so people come in. There are people in Fed who’ve probably been playing for ten years, and there are people, several dozen I can think of off the top of my head, who’ve been playing Hundred Years War since the very beginning. They never quit because it constantly changes. You can increase that rate of change by having separate games, just like having separate universes in Fed. The trouble with Fed is all the eggs are in one basket. It’s a massive system, there’s much more work to keep the thing going because it handles so much more. The software design of our system was made so you can just keep adding more and more games and they can be slightly different. In our game we have what we call a Sysop Editor that has fifty different items where the sysop can literally change a bunch of the basic functions of the game and call it a new game. What if historicals, different versions. This is important because people will play more than one game. So basically you can go with that flat rate model, six bucks per game, per character. If you want more characters and more games, another six bucks, another six bucks. It’s known as nickel and diming people to death. If it’s done right, you get away with it. So, there are many tricks to designing the game. The problem is, in the constantly changing marketplace we have here, you have to keep hauling out new tricks in order to keep your head above the water.

Now going back to the access problem, you gotta understand that there’s the United States and the world as far as the web goes. In every other part of the world you pay for local phone calls by the minute. Britain, I think, is two cents a minute. Now normally that doesn’t bother people too much because they’ve never known anything else, except when they come to the United States and find out about it and go back a little apoplectic. The telephone companies in the United States are up against the same problem, trying to add time to Fed, trying to add that per-minute meter that may eventually have to happen if it gets to the point where there simply isn’t enough bandwidth to make the phone calls. Your average phone call takes maybe two or three minutes, believe it or not, especially those of you who have teenage children. The average online session is twenty or so minutes. More than that, the bandwidth on an online connection, if you’re downloading files you’re taking up far more bandwidth than if you’re just talking on the phone. If you talk on the phone and there’s silence at both ends of the line as there is from time to time, the amount of bandwidth being taken up goes down to practically zip. When you have an online connection, it occupies a much larger chunk of the pipe and when you’re sending data through, whomp! It takes up a huge part of the pipe. So something will have to happen, we cannot predict when it will happen and what will happen, we just have to be ready to adapt in order to keep making money in this business. And right now, quite frankly, no one’s really making any money in the online business. Everyone even admits it, which is really scary. You figure you’ll have a couple bullshitters out there, "Oh yeah, we’re making money!" etcetera, but even the people who still have privately held companies say, "Yeah, I’m not making any money," or they’re making very little. Everyone’s just waiting for the promised land. We may just turn out to be another religious sect that went wrong. The promised land isn’t coming.

[Alan] I’m making money. [audience laughter]

[Jim] But for how long?

[Alan] The better part of the year!

[Jim] The companies that are in the mass market for gaming are not doing as well. Kesmai, Simutronics... basically a mass market game can be the kiss of death in today’s market because you always have that temptation of "Well let’s do another one." Of course the competition comes in, and once you have a lot of competition... One thing my group, Erudite, and IB, is that we have chosen a niche where there is no competition, no direct competition. That basically gives you all of a small market, but you’ve got it all. That tends to be much more profitable chunk of business than if you have a much larger market because everyone’s coming out with, "Can you top this?" If you do go and look at Ultima Online, you don’t have to be a software engineer to realize this is an extensive thing they’ve put together. We’re talking millions and millions of dollars. It’s very expensive to keep going, and they are part of a publicly held company, which stock analysts find out when and if they’re going to make money, and right now there’s a big question mark. But everyone believes that it is big, it is going to happen, it’s just how it’s going to happen.

[Alan] Just to go on what Jim was talking about earlier about multiple games versus big games, in fact by this time next year IB’s portfolio of games will in fact include games that are multiple games because that’s exactly how Barbarossa is intended to be handled where you actually do have a restricted number of people, probably not more than a hundred in one particular game of Barbarossa, and there will be multiple games of Barbarossa. We haven’t yet discussed what the fees for playing Barbarossa are yet, but one of the things I certainly had in mind is the fact that it might be a suitable game for flat rate because you can buy it by the game, by the command that you hold, and so on and so forth.

[Jim] Old British tradition. [audience laughter]

[Alan] Yes, buying commissions is a very old British tradition.

[Scorpia] Jim brought up an interesting point about the fact that unlike the stand-alone boxed games multi-player games have to keep evolving. You can't just put up a Federation or a Hundred Years War or an Ultima and just leave it there and fix all the bugs.

[Alan] You CAN’T fix all the bugs! [audience laughter] The best features are the ones that actually prevent people from logging on. Basically I kind of agree with Jim on that; all our experience shows that this is exactly the case. Federation is going to be ten years old in January and we haven’t actually finished it yet. There’s a number of reasons for that...

[Scorpia] Some of which you don’t want to make public?

[Alan] I have always promised the players that Federation will be ready by Christmas, but I’ve never actually said which Christmas. The same applies, of course, to Barbarossa and Age of Adventure. The thing is, there are two things that stop games from being finished. First of all, you really actually don’t want them to be finished because this is a very incestuous business, there aren’t very many of us in this business.

[Jim] Thank God.

[Alan] Yeah, right. As people come up with new ideas, frankly, we all incorporate one another’s ideas into the game. Players have a right in the sense to have the latest things in their game, the new things and what have you, and we all come up with our own new ideas as well. It’s always very difficult to know whether the new ideas you now have should be part of a new game, there’s always the temptation to feed them into the old one until it bears little resemblance to what you originally started with. You also have the problem of course that the operating conditions change, maybe because the standards on the web have changed, or you’ve moved to a new host system, and I don’t think very many players realize the number of programmer hours that get burned up just by changes in your operating conditions, and that covers not just the fact that you may have to move it to an entirely new operating system. Fed has run on something like eight different operating systems in its lifetime. With each of those we’ve had to rewrite the code to work with it, even though it’s a portable code, quite a lot of it had to be rewritten. On top of that, every time the baseline number of players you have changes, you have to make design changes which you then have to code in. this is all without the game getting anything new in it. you can burn up two or three programmers a year just actually keeping it going. On top of that, the players want new things. In the case of Fed, which is in a sense a hardcoded game, that means programmer time. Every time you make a change, your programmers have to be able to code it in.

That is a major flaw with Fed, there are no two ways about it. So much stuff is hard-coded in. That relates to the history of Fed. There were no game writing programs, no real concepts of game-writing programs when I started writing Fed. The MUDs of this world, the MOOs, the MUSHes and all other sorts of unpleasant swampy-sounding things didn’t exist at that time. When I came to write Fed, truth to tell, it wasn’t written to evolve. I’ve said before to people, I didn’t expect this to last two years! I didn’t expect to make a living out of it. and so Fed is in a sense a remarkably rigid game. I make no apology for that, it’s a product of its time, just as the same as anything else. something to last 10 years in the computer industry is a major achievement, right, most things in the computer industry don’t last 10 weeks, and box games don’t last 10 days out on the shelf before the distributors are looking for the next one to put in their place.

Some of that we’re addressing in Age of Adventure, which will be a much more flexible game. It has facilities to keep pumping in new scenarios into the game, which is something we simply don’t have in Fed because Fed is locked in. I think that’s a very important component because I just don’t think people are prepared to continue paying and playing games online if they don’t change. And of course, the two unique things about online games; first of all, you can actually get feedback from your players, you can’t get that in box games at all. It goes out on the shelf and I’ve written a box game, I know. I have no idea what the people who bought it thought of it. I don’t even have any idea if the people who bought it actually played it! I know they play Fed because I can see them, I can go on there, and they can whinge at me about the fact that we haven’t yet got the workbenches in operation, or something like that.

But the other thing about it that I really like, and this is probably just a personal ego trip is that writing a new multiplayer game, and putting Age of Adventure into player beta, is to me, and I’m sure Jim would agree, it’s performance art. I program something, I put it in, and everyone comes back and says, "Yeah, that was great!" Now I really like it when they say that, it’s a big ego thing. And then they say, "But what about--?" And that’s good, that gets me going, and I go back, and I go, "Grrrrrrrrrr." And that’s something you don’t get from box games. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not very good at that sort of thing because I never finish them, y’know, and I never get the feedback that is the performance art part of it, of actually saying, "Yeah, we can do this." I have to say that sometimes things slide in which really shouldn’t have gotten in from a designer point of view because I’ve been making concessions to the fans, if you like.

[Audience member 2] Like what?

[Alan] Never you mind. [audience laughter] It may make a mess of the game’s balance. To me, the really wonderful thing about multi-player games is the fact that you can get to talk to the people who are playing your multi-player game, you can take account of that, and you can make your game grow and evolve and you can make it their game as well as yours if you know what I mean.

[Jim] The whole idea of communicating with the customer is one that the more successful companies have always done very well. The early days of the computer game; well, let’s go back to the board games. I always depended heavily on the input of the customer. That’s why we were able to keep SPI going for so long. You can see it now in the stand-alone games, the box games, where the more successful ones have been paying attention. A classic example is Civilization. How many people here have played Civilization? [a number of hands raise] Oh, good. When they did Civ I, it was basically an outgrowth of several existing games like Railroad Tycoon. You can see those ideas had come from earlier games, build on success. But then Civ was much bigger, and of course you could tell how big it was by noticing around the bulletin boards and finding all of the add-on programs people had done unofficially. And many of them were to modify the game to make it more flexible. Microprose and Sid Meyer and his crew basically saw that and said, "Well those are very good ideas," and put them into Civ II. Now another aspect of that is the series games. Now this is something that is nothing new. To give you a sense of history I started doing this back in the early 70s and said, "Hey, this is a good game, this is a good game system, let’s do a dozen games using this game system," because you could do that. World War II battles at a certain level, they all share certain characteristics, so you can use the same system. Why re-invent the wheel? So you see people not just in the strategy games, the war games, but also sorts of games. The arcade games have been very successful doing that. How many grandchildren does Mario have now, how many generations has that gone through? Hey, if it works... and people are still asking for a Windows 95 port of M.U.L.E. So there are a lot of good games back there which never did get carried forward.

So you have talent which has been making money with their series games, you have the Civ engines and there’s probably going to be a Civ III, Star Control 5 I think they’re up to now, Ultima which is going into double digits, and all of those ideas come from the players. The thing which attracted me to online games, I wasn’t really crazy about getting back into the game business in any way, was the fact that you have a much shorter, a much tighter group. Someone can just come online and say something. We pride ourselves on this, because the guy I originally got in to do the programming is now a vice president of a software company. He doesn’t get to do as much programming as he used to, except when he’s on vacation and then he does it for fun. But we can sometimes implement things in ours. Granted the programmer’s doing it really to impress people, they like to do things like that which is fine if they work. [audience laughter] Somebody will say, "Why can’t you do it this way?" and in two hours, boom! It’s up there.

[Alan] And then they say, "Oh, I see why you didn’t do it that way."

[Jim] Or, "Oh, it’s so easy! Here’s my list." Most of the best elements in Fed and Hundred Years War, or any good online game, come from the players because they know what they want. They sometimes have a better idea of what is going to work and what’s not going to work. I certainly trust the players’ judgement more than I trust my own when it comes to game mechanics. You can’t play, in fact no one in the senior staff can play, because we’ve all got access to the sysop’s menu which can change anything. Oh, you have great stats? Not anymore! [audience laughter] That army you had? It disappeared. Your wife’s suddenly infertile, too bad. We have one game, a staff game, where we use the sysop’s menu on each other which is not too much fun after a while. I do depend upon on the line staff, the heralds, which do actually play. What do you call them in Fed?

[Alan] Navigators.

[Jim] Right, same thing, but they are staff and some of the most interesting conversations in the game are in e-mail amongst the staff just discussing. Sometimes we include players; if a player makes a suggestion we’ll add his name to the cc: list and he or she stays with the list until we come with a conclusion. We decide, "Hey, we’ll do it this way," and I put it on the To Do list and it ages for two years before we put it up. But I think this is the way of the future, because something else you’ll see in the online business is that actually a lot of the online games today have been around for a while because it’s so hard to get in. You never hear about the dozens, scores of online games that had hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them, they never got online. There’s a bunch of real turkeys out there. It’s just as well you didn’t see them. Really painful. And it’s a very high entry cost. There are technical issues that a lot of people never manage to get control of, and there’s also the idea of let’s do something that people want. Indeed some of the most successful online games have been successful stand-alone games that have never had anything added to them. Now that’s all very well and good, but they’re rooted; those games are usually limited to half a dozen or so players. What people are finding is that it’s not very easy to go from a multi-player game to a massively multi-player game because it’s a beast of a different color with quite a different disposition. So I think the players catch onto the idea that they’re a part of the team because indeed they are very much so, and that sense of community builds. Of course, it’s limited to a certain extent.

On AOL a lot of the people don’t realize how few people online actually play games. Why, we don’t know. Maybe we could put something into the water to increase that. But right now it’s only five or ten percent, and many of them will only play a certain type of game. The MUDs are very popular because A) they’re in effect free, and B) it’s like glorified chat. Now that’s not to put down chat; chat is very popular and myself I write books on the side so my fingers get enough exercise as it is. It’s hard to build a game around just talking. Now Fed has done it very successfully! But you’ve got stuff in there to give it enough structure that most of what makes the game go is people just communicating. You have to have a lot of that for an online game, although I think you’ll find that for any game you have a lot of people who just want to go in there and play to screw it up for other people. Y’know, sociopaths. [audience laughter] Hey, it’s better than sending letter bombs. If whatshisname had been on the Internet we might not’ve had all these tragedies with letter bombs.

The problem you have there is making it pay, not just for the players but also for the provider. There is very much a market, there’s a curve of market-size versus cost of the product. A lot more people use Kleenexes than Rolls Royces. You’ll see that across the spectrum of the same product. A lot more people have 24" TV sets than 60" units. And what we basically want to provide is the 60" at 21" black and white TV prices, and that’s what people want. Getting it to them is a whole other matter unfortunately.

Battle of the Game Designers - Part 3

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