Hey everybody! A few weeks ago I watched Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One. While I consider the film itself to be only okay, I found the visuals and the concept of the OASIS to be fascinating. After watching the film, I immediately decided that I had to read the book as well. I am only a little over 1/3 of the way through the book, but already it is starting to not only fill in some of the gaps left by the movie but also raise some questions of its own.
Between the movie and the book, there is a lot of interesting material to talk about. There are interesting characters to explore, infinite story possibilities that barely got scratched, and moral quandaries to ponder. However, today I mostly want to focus on the game design aspects of the story. Is the OASIS a well designed game? Should it even be considered a game at all? And how in the world is GSS making a single dollar of profit?
What’s in a Game?
Let’s start by looking at some of the major mechanics of the game itself. The OASIS is described as a virtual reality MMORPG (a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), where users can explore thousands of different worlds. According to the book, the OASIS is innovative for its size, and the fact that all of it’s players are able to inhabit a single world instead of being separated into separate servers with a few thousand users.
One of the first things that struck me as I learned more about the OASIS is how little it actually innovated in a game-design sense. While a virtual reality MMO is surely a great idea, and I have no doubt that it will be a massive success for the first company to actually pull it off, the idea in and of itself is not that original. The idea for this type of game has been around for many years, with series such as Sword Art Online, Code Lyoko and even Spy Kids exploring the idea long before Ready Player One was published.
In addition, all of the innovations the OASIS supposedly pioneered regarding the size and scope of it’s universe are actually not that innovative at all. While the book claims that something like this had never been done before, that is not the case. EVE online, which launched in 2003, already allowed all of it’s players to play on a single persistent server with thousands of planets to visit. While EVE online has never reached the same level of popularity as the OASIS, it does show that such technology is possible.
The virtual reality technology itself, while quite impressive by today’s standards, also seems somewhat disappointing. The story itself takes place in 2045, and I sincerely hope that by then technology has advanced far beyond what is shown in this book. The VR headset and haptic gloves used to control this game seem like technology that we will have within the next 2 or 3 years, not the next 30.
The actual mechanics of the game itself also seem relatively standard. Players choose an avatar (and possibly a character class, at this point in the book I am unclear), and level up their character through combat. They take part in quests, earn credits and experience points, and collect magical weapons and armor. All of these mechanics are common RPG mechanics that have been around for decades.
The main thing that sets the OASIS apart from other MMOs in my mind is the implementation of permadeath. When a player in the OASIS dies, they lose all of their levels, items, skills, credits, and experience, and have to start over from the beginning. As gameplay innovations go, I personally think that this is one of the worst that GSS could have possible made.
Permadeath definitely has its place as a game mechanic, but that place is not in the OASIS. According to the book, people in the world of Ready Player One spend most of their lives in the OASIS. They have friends in the OASIS, work jobs, sometimes even get married all within the confines of this game world. It even goes as far as to say that the OASIS credit is one of the most valuable and stable currencies in the world, and many people rely on the income they earn within the game to support their real-world lives.
And yet, all of this can be lost by stepping in a trap, or randomly getting attacked by the wrong player or NPC. In my mind, this is an absolutely ridiculous game mechanic. However, I do not believe that this mechanic was implemented into the game for gameplay reasons at all, but for story reasons. Having permadeath helps create a sense of tension in the story that simply wouldn’t exist if the player were able to respawn after dying and just keep going.
The OASIS OS
Although the OASIS might be a pretty bland, straightforward game, I don’t think that is where it really shines. The primary innovation of Ready Player One is not a virtual reality MMO, or a persistent virtual shared universe, but as an operating system. After all, the game itself seems to be a blank slate, providing the necessary infrastructure for a game but not really building on it by itself.
I think that the OASIS itself should not be thought of as a game, but as more of a console / development kit. Although the OASIS launched with a few hundred planets, it appears that most of the content in the OASIS was created by users or other companies who bought up virtual space to place their own games. This is especially evident in the movie, where you can see entire planets dedicated to third party games such as Minecraft.
The most interesting aspect of the OASIS for me is the fact that you can move a single user, with the same skin, levels, and skills, to various different games within the same operating system. The OASIS has a massive variety of different types of games, from shooters to racing to building, and yet they all allow you to use the same character. I think this is a really interesting concept that deserves to be explored more in the real world.
While there are some game series that allow you to transfer data from one game in the series to another, this is quite rare and has never taken off as a mechanic. There is also the Nintendo Miis, which allow you to create a simple character avatar that can be used in a number of different Nintendo games, but in this case only the avatar is transferred, not any skills or levels that the player may have gained.
I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to such a system. One major advantage is that players would not have to customize their character skin in every different game that they play, but instead would simply be able to create their character once and use that avatar for everything. Another advantage is that a player would not always have to start over with nothing every time they started a new game, but would retain their progress.
One possible disadvantage of such a system is that players entering into a new game might have a really easy time if their player is already leveled up. However, I think there are a number of ways around this, such as adjusting the difficulty of the world relative to the player’s level or simply having different options for quests, some of which are more challenging than others.
All About the Money
My final question about the world of Ready Player One is this – how in the world is it supposed to make money? At first, the answer may seem obvious. After all, the book does detail several different things that the OASIS sells to help sustain itself. These include virtual real-estate, and what we would now call microtransactions for things such as character skins. Finally, the last major source of income for GSS is teleportation fees, which are required if you want to go from one world to another.
However, the game also makes it very clear that there are a number of things that they do not sell. There is no subscription fee to access the game, only a one-time account activation fee of 25 cents. They also do not sell advertisements, and while it does appear that they sell hardware, they also give it away freely to millions of school-children.
While all of this may seem perfectly reasonable, I actually have a number of issues with the way the OASIS is monetized. My first issue is that it seems incredibly unlikely that these methods would be able to actually sustain the OASIS at all, once you take into account the massive costs of developing and maintaining this world.
One of the biggest things that both the movie and the book try to drive home about the OASIS is its massive size. However, massive size also comes with massive costs. While some modern games, such as No Man’s Sky, are capable of creating thousands of unique planets, this is only possible because these planets themselves are algorithmically generated. This helps spread out the cost of actually designing these planets – once you have created the algorithm, adding a new planet costs you basically nothing.
While some of the worlds of Ready Player One ARE algorithmically, generated, the book specifically mentions that other worlds are crafted entirely by hand. Unlike procedurally generated worlds, the cost of a hand-crafted world scales linearly with the size of the world itself. This is why even worlds that are considered massive by today’s standards, such as Hyrule in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, max out at a couple dozen square miles in size. Handcrafting an entire planet, even a small one, would cost an insane amount of money.
To get an idea of just how costly this could be, lets compare it to other MMOs that already exist. The Elder Scrolls Online has an estimated budget of around $200 million, and a map that is 27 kilometers on each side. This comes out to 729 square kilometers, or about 281.5 square miles. Compared to the surface area of a small planet such as mercury, which has a surface area of 28.88 million square miles, and it’s not hard to see just how expensive these worlds can be. Scaling up the costs for this single world, and you get a budget of 20.48 TRILLION dollars.
Even if development actually only costs 10% of this estimate, you are still looking at a budget in the trillions. Then you have to take into account that there will be multiple planets like this, some of which are likely to be much larger than this, and it’s easy to see how it quickly grows out of hand.
And those are just the up-front costs. There are also the additional costs of maintaining the software, powering enough servers to keep billions of users on a single-sharded system, and paying for all of the additional programs such as the free public school system. And that isn’t even to mention the licensing fees for integrating what seems like every single book, movie, television show, song, and video game ever created.
However, assuming that the OASIS is in fact able to pay for itself, I also have another major problem with this game. While the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, seemed adamant about making the game affordable to the masses (thus the lack of a subscription fee), choosing to make a transportation fee is arguably much worse.
While players can ostensibly access the game for only a quarter, they are stuck on the world of Incipio with very little to do except talk and buy things. The main character of the book apparently spent years on this first planet, unable to even level up his character. While he technically had access to the OASIS, he couldn’t afford to teleport to a planet where he could actually do anything.
This, in my mind, is the very worst form of a free trial system. You buy the game, but you cannot actually play it without paying to go to another planet. And from that point on, every single time you want to play a different game, you have to pay again. While there may be no subscription fee, the fact that players are charged every time they want to go somewhere else is just as bad, or even worse.
There are many ways to remedy this situation. The easiest is to simply bite the bullet and charge a subscription fee, even if it is relatively small. In the real world, people have subscriptions for all sorts of different things, from phone bills to insurance to internet access. The OASIS would in many cases actually end up saving people money, because by buying an OASIS subscription you are basically combining your internet, cable, and phone bill all into one low monthly fee.
Another option is to have players pay to unlock a world, and after unlocking it they can go back and forth as many times as they want. If we treat each world as a separate game, players could just choose to buy the games that they want, and not get charged every single time they want to go somewhere else.
I know I have spent a lot of time on this monetization issue, but I mostly find it egregious because it becomes a centerpiece of the entire plot. IOI is considered to be the villains of the story because they want to monetize the OASIS by putting fees and advertisements in it. Yes, they also blow up Wade’s home and try to kill him, but they were clearly established as enemies long before then, even though all they wanted to do was establish a sustainable business model. If the movie hadn’t put so much emphasis on this issue then maybe I could let it go, but here we are.
Until Next Week!
That’s all I have for this week! What do you think about Ready Player One? Do you agree or disagree with the points that I made? As always, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments below or on social media. And if you are interested in seeing more of my articles in the future, be sure to subscribe to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post something new. And join me next week, where I will be talking about storytelling in games!