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Discussing Multiplayer Online Games with Digital Arcana's Jeffrey Sullivan


December 19, 1997 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

Jeffrey Sullivan is a partner with Bruce Onder in the company they formed together, Digital Arcana. They have published several interactive projects and are now at a very exciting point in their work. Digital Arcana is producing a multiplayer, online game, or MPOG.

Would you please describe for our readers what a multiplayer online game is like?

A multiplayer online game (MPOG) is fundamentally this: a computer game that can be played simultaneously by many people at the same time, and in the same game. (By contrast, a game of solitaire on the Web could be played by thousands of people at a time, but they're not playing together; that's a single-player online game.) Some MPOGs are what we call persistent-world games; in these games, players can drop in and out of the game at will, but the "game world" is always there, hanging and evolving whether a specific player is in the game or not. Some examples of this type of game include MUDs (Multi-User Domains) like Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and our own The Outer Limits Online. Other MPOGs have game worlds which only exist for a specific game; when that game ends (or all players leave the game), the game world goes away, only to be created anew when another game is initiated. These games tend to be action- or strategy-based games like Quake or Command and Conquer.

Online Multiplayer gaming is just now coming into the mainstream. Digital Arcana already has established itself in the field. How did you and your partner, Bruce Onder, get together on this?

We had been writing together since college -- first short fiction, then screenwriting, and finally interactive writing and design. So we've actually been at it (where "it" is writing together) for over 10 years. Our interest in multiplayer online games (MPOGs) came from our exposure to the highly-addictive text MUDs of years gone by, combined with computer- and paper-based role-playing games. We've wanted to bring that level of depth and immersion to the masses for many years, and now the technology is finally allowing that in a compelling way.

Tell me, Jeff, what skills, interests or talents did you have when you started?


Bruce and I had been trying to break into screenwriting for several years; we had sold a script and done some rewrites, but the scripts had not been produced. We had also done some TV animation writing, and had a short film produced as part of an independent horror anthology film. So we'd met with limited success -- lots of A-list companies had met with us and told us we were very talented, but our feature film projects were not getting made.

During this time, we were working in the computer field to support ourselves: I was an AI programmer for a think tank (Information Sciences Institute) and Bruce was a database consultant. All along, we have been very avid gamers -- from card and board games up through paper role-playing games and computer games of all kinds. I had been playing a lot of games and reviewing CD-ROMs for a variety of magazines (CD-ROM World, Wired, MacWEEK, MacUser, etc.), and when MYST came out, my eyes were truly opened. For the first time, I saw an experience on CD-ROM that matched the quality of experience of a TV show or movie or book. This, to me, was more than just a fun game -- it was a mass-market quality entertainment experience. (Bruce had different opinions about MYST, but since he's not here, I get to present mine.) The long and short of it is that we figured "Hey, we've got three great backgrounds for this stuff (screenwriters, gamers, and techno-geeks), so let's do it."

We created a few original concepts, showed them to Activision here in L.A., and they didn't buy them. But they did like us, and a few months later, they brought us in to do a complete redesign of an espionage game then called "The Colby Project." It later became known as Spycraft: The Great Game, and has gone on to win many awards and tremendous critical acclaim. We moved on from there to start a design for Planetfall 2: The Other Side of Floyd (a graphical rebirth of a classic Infocom text adventure), but departed the project when our vision diverged from the producer's. At that point, we knew we wanted to have more creative control over projects, and on our next deal, for The Outer Limits Online, we signed on to write, design, and produce. We're still in production on that project, which is a massively multiplayer role-playing game based on a few of the episodes of the new science fiction TV show from Trilogy Entertainment.

What projects have you (Digital Arcana) already created?


We wrote and designed Spycraft for Activision, and did the initial design of Planetfall 2 (the project was canceled about a year after we departed), also for Activision. We also did a complete redesign on a FMV-based adventure game for a company on the east coast, but that will be uncredited. We are currently writing, designing, and producing The Outer Limits Online: Beyond Resurrection for MGM interactive. It's a massively multiplayer roleplaying game designed to appeal to the mass-market rather than just hard-core gamers. We have written and designed another massively multiplayer game based on the paper role-playing game Space: 1889. We licensed the rights from its creator, Frank Chadwick, who is well-known in the roleplaying game industry for his compelling game design. We're currently seeking a publishing deal for that. We have also designed an online sports game which we are currently in talks with investors to fund and develop internally. Finally, we have done some initial proposal work on several online multiplayer games for major studios which are currently being discussed.

What influenced you to enter this area?

Having been pretty hard-core gamers ourselves, as well as professional screenwriters and technically-savvy computer programmers, we felt that interactive entertainment was a natural fit.

What are some of the factors to consider when creating a multiplayer online game?

With respect to creating a story-rich multiplayer online game, we think about four major points. I've listed them below. (Note: These points are summarized from a lecture we gave at the 1997 Computer Game Developers Conference.) These are only the tip of the iceberg. But the tip of the iceberg is crucial in this case, if you don't get these steps right, it doesn't matter how big the iceberg is, because nobody will see it. Here are the four basic considerations:

Step 1: Choose (or create) an appropriate world to build. Appropriateness, here, is the ability for the world to be scale up to allow thousands of players to have fun.

Step 2: Develop a compelling backstory. Here the emphasis is on back. You need to know what the state of affairs in your world is at the time the world is "born" in order to have a shot at building it well, but you shouldn't try to dictate what will happen in that world once you let players through the gate.

Step 3: Choose a presentation style. Choosing the style of presentation will say a lot about the kinds of things that are important (and even possible) in your virtual world. Unfortunately, this choice is often dictated by the game engine you're using.

Step 4: Provide powerful but appropriate tools. Make sure your players have enough fun things to do, and also make sure you don't let them do anything so "fun" that they ruin it for everyone else.

Do you look over the tools available and form your game to accommodate them? Or do you form a concept and go shopping?

We have done both. On The Outer Limits, we were handed a technology to use. Unfortunately, it was not mature, so it was evolving as the design was being created (and even afterward), so it was not a great situation. On other original projects, we design to the limits of known technology, but usually not to a specific technology. Since we have a pretty solid grasp of what can be done, we design to that, plus a little (since capabilities always increase faster than you expect). No matter what, there is going to be some amount of redesign all the way through production, as certain features turn out to have odd limitations, or just don't work quite the way you expected.

This is a relatively new format. What do you look for in a suitable concept? What influences your choice?

The best way to answer this question is to again excerpt from our 1997 CGDC lecture (since this was one of the topics). Let's step through the issues...

How do you go about choosing a world?

Obviously, few people are in a position where they can just "choose" to develop Star Wars into an online virtual world. However, if you're working in a company or have clients with properties, you'll want to spend a little time thinking about the suitability of the company's various properties (or about your various original ideas). Not all properties will have all of the elements that would make for a great virtual world, but you may be able to add them if they aren't there. Here are some questions to ask yourself. These issues apply to worlds that you intend to create out of whole cloth, too -- you will have to answer the same questions and deal with the same obstacles and challenges. Is the world visually interesting? A world based on Star Wars would be quite a feast for the eyes. A world based on Waterworld might be more visually interesting underwater than on top. The surface world would need some spiffing up. Is there a basic tension in the world? Conflict is the basis of all drama. Make sure your world has built-in tensions that are not easy to resolve. For example, players could get involved on one or both sides of a conflict in a world based on Independence Day. In fact, with a good design, players can create additional tensions by forming groups that play off both ends against the middle.

Other players may choose not to take either side, but they will undoubtedly be affected by a major conflict. Is the genre of the world fresh?

Let's face it everybody and their mother is doing a fantasy role-playing game. If your world has a different setting or genre that is also popular, you can easily stand out from the crowd. For example, the retro-futuristic setting of Space: 1889 makes it unique among a horde of SF games involving either cyberpunk dystopias or alien-infested bug hunts.

Can the world scale up to let thousands of players have a good time?

The scalability issue has several major components. The world needs to scale well in at least three primary ways:

Gameplay: The kinds of gameplay which are engaging with small numbers of players can quickly get unwieldy or boring with large numbers of players. For example, gameplay based purely around combat begins to get old after a few months. Any world based on or dominated by a single element of gameplay will not scale well over time. Players will get bored and the more players you have, the faster more will get bored.

Geography: As more players join the game, you've got to make sure that there's enough space to move around. A world that's big enough for 1,000 concurrent players probably is going to get crowded when you hit 5,000.

Population: Is there enough of everything to go around? This goes beyond simple geography to things like social power, interesting quests, world resources, and the like. You're creating an epic saga for thousands of players make sure the world has an epic scope. Some source material makes for a great virtual world, but lots of material just doesn't scale up, usually because it's too focused on a single main character, or a small cast of characters. Are the character choices interesting? Is there a variety to choose from?

Make sure that there is enough variety in character choices to appeal to a lot of players and to keep the gameplay interesting. In worlds where the choice of characters is limited, homogeneity and boredom are the inevitable results. Can you get thousands of players interested in playing in a world based on the Island of Doctor Moreau? Quite possibly -- there's a lot of interesting character types to choose from.


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