Raph Koster on MMO ecosystems, the balance of power, and tennis

    
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Most MMORPGs have the core sandbox problem: Whoever gets there first, controls all the toys and has the power to drive everyone else away. Even in a themepark, the “richest” players, whether they control the gold or the dungeons or the gear or the PvP, eventually help kill the game.

That’s the subject of a Raph Koster blog that recently popped back up on my radar. Koster, known for ecosystem-oriented virtual world MMOs like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, is subtly making the case for MMOs that end, even if that end starts a new beginning. It’ll sound familiar to A Tale In The Desert players, surely, or anybody watching Koster’s latest MMO, Crowfall.

In the service of his argument, he references a blog post about the age of the world’s best tennis players, which just keeps rising. Is it because the olds are innately better at tennis? Nope. It’s because the “winners” are entrenched in a rich-get-richer situation that ensures “the typical person in the system ends up below average.” The more the winners win, the more money they have to ensure they win more, whether that’s with better coaches, better equipment, better medical treatment, or just plain more time to train, which makes it progressively more expensive (on all fronts) for newcomers to compete… until the newbies stop trying and the olds start retiring.

And then? The whole system collapses.

“Systems that don’t destroy their kings on a regular basis end up destroying the kings and the citizenry,” Koster argues. “And life under a king is never advantageous to the citizens, either.”

“There is a sweet spot for ecosystems, you see. A certain level of connectedness, a certain level of inequality, gives us teams and cities and competition and cooperation. But a level above that gives us stagnation and centralization and loss of freedoms. There are thresholds in systemic complexity that serve the system but do not serve the components of the system well. Having hugely paid celebrity tennis players serves them and the system of tennis that monetizes that celebrity well, but does not serve anything else in tennis well, just like having a music scene of only the major rock stars does not serve garage musicians well.”

The takeaway, from an MMO perspective, is that our worlds need to be designed with “ferment,” not stability, in mind. The power and profit ecosystem must be constantly shifting and breaking down so that if “kings” – be they the uberguilds that control the dungeons, the gankers who control the farms, the PvP powerhouses that cap all the territory, or the number-crunchers who rule the trade economy – do rise up, they don’t last forever. Hopefully, that’ll mean the game will.

Source: Raph Koster
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Dread Quixadhal

The biggest problem with MMO ecosystems is simply that they’re all using the faucet/drain model for resource management. In these systems, resources are infinite and enter the world at a given rate (the faucet), which usually is based on player activity. More players farming materials, or looting, means more resources entering the economy. These resources exit the world at another rate (the drain), which is also based on player activity. Players having to repair gear, buy consumables, craft items.

The problem is, all MMO games are balanced towards the faucet side. Players can choose to simply never repair gear (and just get new), never use potions or food, and basically bypass much of the drain side of the equation. Thus, you end up with an economy that becomes pointless, as crafting doesn’t yield you as good results as farming, and materials become too abundant to be worth much.

What I’d love to see is an MMO that is built around a scaled semi-closed ecosystem. A closed ecosystem is one where there are fixed quantities of raw materials that are never replaced, only combined and broken apart. In a pure closed economy, players would start mining copper and gradually get lower yields as the amount present goes down. At some point, it will be more economical to start reusing existing items with copper, than to mine any more from the depleted ground.

I say “scaled semi-closed”, because of course a pure system isn’t fair. So, I would make the total amount available scale based on active player population. There are a few quirks to work out in doing this (such as scaling player inventories of people who quit and come back years later), but I think it would be much more interesting to have to trade goods to melt down as materials for new goods.

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Schmidt.Capela

UO originally tried that. It failed because players hoarded all kinds of resources to such an extent it paralyzed the closed-loop economy.

Something similar can happen in the real world, mind. If most people decide to save most of their money and only spend on the essentials, this can effectively paralyze the economy and cause a recession despite people having plenty of money to spend. I believe Japan went through one of those in the 90s.

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Cosmic Cleric

Something similar can happen in the real world, mind. If most people decide to save most of their money and only spend on the essentials, this can effectively paralyze the economy and cause a recession despite people having plenty of money to spend. I believe Japan went through one of those in the 90s.

I remember during that time, the news was talking about how the vast majority of U.S. citizens had almost no, or none, savings. There was talk about commercials and such to bring public awareness to the issue, but it was scrapped, because of fears of tanking the economy. Fundamentally, our economy can’t handle smart citizens that “save for a rainy day”.

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Dread Quixadhal

The problem there is the difference between “need” and “want”. The real world economy is very much based around what people “want”. As a result, it’s very possible for people to save and slow the economy down to the edge of collapse. However, in an MMO, you can engineer the gameplay requirements to shift things to a “need” based economy.

The trick is, advancement must be tied into those “needs”. Maybe if I want my character to grow from “level 3” to “level 4”, I need to either kill a bunch of critters that are too difficult to handle without better gear, or perform some quest that needs resources I don’t have access to. In either case, the only way I can advance is to satisfy that need, which means finding the materials to craft what I need, or buying what I need from someone else that already did that.

If, OTOH, I can just sit back and continue doing the stuff I already do for a bit longer instead, it’s not a “need”, but a “want”.

That’s why I suggest scaling resources based on player population, and removing hoarded resources from players who are no longer playing (work it into the story however you like…. bandits broke into your storage locker while you were gone, tax collectors, whatever). It’s natural for a limited economy to have periods of stagnation and periods of growth.

Consider digging for oil in the real world. At the dawn of the industrial age, people could only literally dig holes and hope oil came gushing up from the ground at them. Today, we extract oil and gas from rock layers by forcing materials into it to displace them. Technology improves, but the amount of oil hasn’t increased, we just get better at finding it.

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Raph Koster

I have a had an idea for a long time around a game that involves colonization. Using procedural content, you could actually have an endless supply of new locations — planets, say — and you could ALSO have each one be a closed system, and therefore have all the gameplay and lessons inherent in a resource management game where you have limited resources. Cities would have to give up farming, because they’d sacrifice it to housing, but you could set up farming worlds, so to speak. But they could actually suffer from crop exhaustion. Etc. Basically, a different way of doing turnover.

When everything is in one closed loop space you basically have to either have a HUGE resource pool that is so large all the collective player actions don’t actually make a dent (like many humans think of our planet now), or you hit all sorts of resource exhaustion way too early, like UO did.

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Raph Koster

It’s really interesting to see the comments on this. It reinforces a couple of things I’ve long known :)

  1. MMO players are pretty smart and thoughtful! And they know what they like.
  2. People hate losing anything.

I think it’s important to take the step back and look at what I said again, outside of an MMO lens. For example, if I say “hey, it’s better for everyone if a few rich families can’t gradually end up owning all the wealth in the world,” you probably wouldn’t disagree. If I said “it’s not good if one company can end up owning all other companies in the world,” you likely wouldn’t disagree. If I said “maybe we shouldn’t exterminate all other life on earth…” You get the idea.

Nobody likes “losing” but we all recognize the risk in concentrating too much power over time, until it turns into a runaway phenomenon. Even having it happen in small ways, for bounded periods of time, can be really problematic for those who are living through that period.

A classic way this manifests in games is something that tends to be considered bad design: a positive feedback loop where whoever is winning becomes more powerful exactly because they are winning, and there’s no way to cause a reversal. This is why so many people hate Monopoly — a game that was, in fact, originally designed to make that point.

MMOs, like the real world, aren’t single-axis achievement ladders — unlike tennis, where there’s really only one key way to measure status. So right off the bat, it’s not a direct comparison. There can be many different ways for players to invest, and we don’t need to make you “lose everything” in order to cause the type of ferment we are talking about. What it really means is things that many of you have actually cited as some of your favorite elements in some of my games:

  • A player driven economy where lots of roles were possible — which is dependent on item decay (.e.g, turnover!)
  • Shifting and emergent gameplay as circumstances change what’s going on in the world — which is dependent on power realignment in the game such as resources moving, powerful guilds losing standing, etc
  • Diverse player groups actually needing one another, contribnuting to the sense of a “world” — which is dependent on not allowing total vertical integration, e.g. groups not permitted to grow so powerful they can cover all their needs themselves

It’s worth pointing out that people didn’t like crafted items being better than looted ones, item decay, house decay, or anything else similar. They DO all represent forms of loss. But they are the loss that allows new life to grow between the cracks. You want, and need, other players, especially new ones, to be able to come in and find the same sort of home you did.

There are many ways to invest into a system without losing everything, too. One can keep a permanent rank of some sort (G.O.A.T. in tennis!) without staying at the top seed. Of course, few can achieve being the greatest of all time, so finding even more ways to drive personal satisfaction at a level that doesn’t necessarily require huge fame or standing atop the pile of every other player in the game is critical.

This isn’t solely about competitive play, either. Social networks are also a type of network that falls victim to this same phenomenon. Plenty of people have commented over the years on how it can feel weird to have a server dominated by a single uberguild. That’s the same sort of accrual of power, and it may not even be done competitively.

So… it’s not that I am describing a desire to take things away. I am describing a desire to keep a world alive through turnover. After all, if everything is going to grow static over time, we might as well have built a themepark in the first place. :)

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socontrariwise

There are only kings if you design a game with this kind of dependency and power-over-others structure. The very point of a virtual world is that we can get rid of artificial resource restrictions/limitations. You can compete for “highest” tetris levels and still everyone can have their own progress or development speed and not be impacted by what anyone else does – because the game is player focused, not competitor focused.

Going back to ATitD designs just means in my opinion a lack of imagination and trashing a VERY valuable resource – especially within a persistent, complex world. And that is people’s spare time. We are mostly no kids anymore and if we play short term games (anything below a few weeks max) that is a choice, they are “exercises in struggle and accepted loss” in my opinion. But a MMO is something very different, it is a place to call home and connect and build long term. The very reason I left ATitD was because it replaced organic gameplay with grind and extraordinary hardship just to then erase everything. That kind of repetitive stuff I’m getting rewarded to only do MORE repetitive stuff is NOT what I want my scarce spare time for. That is what work is for. And the increasing attempt to squeeze work-style mechanics into spare time while pretending it is FUN is very bothersome.

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Karma_Mule

That final point you make is my key for evaluating any MMOs suitability for my putting time into it: core activities must be fun in and of themselves. The tricky part for MMO creators is that what constitutes “fun” can vary greatly from person to person.

My only caveat is when you say something like “….that they mistake for fun and enjoyment”. I think people are their own best judges of what is entertaining for themselves, and while you may find a particular activity tedious and hard to believe anyone could truly have fun with it, after watching my bf who can be slightly OCD I can assure you some people find these very routine tasks very enjoyable.

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Carebear

But if we remove the sense of “investment” in MMOs what separates them from single player games then? The key to MMOs is that there is a persistent world where you “invest” time to become better.

Some people do think invest as fun… they are not fooled by it. Thats how rpg and mmos are… not all games are like pubg or fifa where you join to play a match for fun..

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Robert Mann

Hmm, that doesn’t conform with my ideas and desires for a virtual world. Where I agree there are many things that need to be left shorter, given that nobody is going to spend real life years to make a food item in game… at the same time complete non-scarcity of resources leave us with the status quo of crafting. Where it is, frankly, boring and pointless outside getting a little in game cash off those with no desire to bother.

Given that I like crafting, but not as it currently exists, I can’t agree that the only factor involved is time. I do believe there needs to be a balance between things, and generally favor different games for different people. Then again, the last thing I want for it is just more grinding (I got very sick of several games that made me gather thousands of materials just to progress craft tiers, for example, which is entirely the wrong solution to my mind.)

Also, I would argue that the biggest issues with resource scarcity come into play with the relatively low area of games compared to players playing… which is another issue in and of itself.

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Schmidt.Capela

That is part of the reason I only play MMOs where other players can’t influence my gameplay unless I allow them. Which takes care of most, if not all, imbalance issues, or at least the ones that matter to me.

Caveat, I’m not competitive. I don’t care about winning against other players, or about having more or better things than anyone else. As long as other players having power can’t negatively impact my gameplay, my access to content, I don’t care if everyone else has more power than me; I will keep progressing at the pace I’m most comfortable with, without any regard for whether I’m falling behind.

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wieland

While i can understand that it might be good to have regular restarts, its not for me to constantly lose progress. I am not getting younger. My online time is getting less. Such a game would definitely not be for me.

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yep realname

only the campaign is gone. it’s like playing a board game, someone winning/losing and starting over. the character’s skills are saved, any items exported are saved and can be used to build in the player housing or traded.

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Sally Bowls

I certainly don’t want to argue against Raph. But I wanted to say that for me, YMMV, the pace can be too fast. I am looking for some persistence in my MMO. You can’t have a game where the 5-year veterans have an insurmountable lead. But I don’t want the next match to be the same as the last; I want some sense of “progression.” in my MMO without it being reset with a new season let alone game.

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yep realname

would you consider skill training as part of progression? what about player housing starting from unusable land to building a castle over a period of time?

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Daniel Miller

Well bring Archeage into this. A player loses all assets in land, and many cases innovatory.

As for pvp, a new user or even casual will never achieve anything due to the cash shop or way gear score works in that game. Hence why they server wipe so often.

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Raph Koster

By the way, the blog post wasn’t about Crowfall; I realize people want to connect what I write to specific projects, but the blog post wasn’t even about MMOs in particular.

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Arktouros

I largely agree with him on this.

One of the biggest problems there is in persistent, on going PvP scenario is generally speaking the winners keep winning and the losers keep losing. This is because the losers will stop logging in or playing because getting crushed night after night just isn’t very fun as much as well enjoy an underdog story. If you know the battle is hopeless before you even log in, why log in when you could go do something you have a chance at? However equally boring is always winning because you’re never challenged or pressured to be better. It’s the opposite issue where if you know you’re always going to win then why bother playing?

So game mechanics that offer a chance to reset things or change things serve as a way to disrupt the status quo and offer a chance for people to switch things up are always regarded as good things to me. The key is keeping enough persistence that players feel like they want to stay invested in a MMO space (which is all about persistent progression) yet keep it fresh.

GW2 I think does a fantastic job of showcasing this principle and even 5 years later every Friday night for WvW resets is always maximum queues on each WvW server and it’s a big event. But slowly over the week you see the inevitability of the outcome sink in and population dwindles until the next reset.

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Schmidt.Capela

IMHO the WvW PvP in GW2 was far better back when it reset daily. And the original plan was to make each WvW match last two weeks, but thankfully ANet gave up on extending the matches past one week.

Funny thing, the difference between Beta players and regular players seemingly played a role in why ANet thought 2 weeks long matches were a good idea. In Beta, the fight would go back and forth, with players of all factions fighting for their side until the end even if their situation seemed hopeless (which is what enabled all the back and forth in the first place); regular players, on the other hand, mostly gave up as soon as it seemed likely their side would lose.

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Arktouros

Oh my God those were frantic times back when it reset each day. We spent soooooo much RL money converting to Gold to buy enough siege to keep fighting.

And yea even today it’s like Friday -> Monday is pretty heavy action, then it dies off till reset basically cause the winners are usually in by that point.

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Mailvaltar

I’m someone who was never the richest, or the top tier, or the top anything in an online game.
Yet I still do absolutely not want my progress to be erased regularly (or ever). For that alone Crowfall doesn’t interest me in the slightest.

Sorry Raph. I loved SWG and are onboard with your thoughts and ideas often, but not at all this time.

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Raph Koster

Think of it like in sports; league standings reset, last year’s champion doesn’t determine this year’s champion. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad, right?

The issue is that if you just let benefits accrue and accrue, then pretty soon the winner always wins, forever.

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Rolan Storm

‘Of will and skill’, huh? That’s good. I have not yet read your original article, though.

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socontrariwise

It still sounds as bad if you are not interested in “matches” in your spare time. Matches tickle the competitive streak and there are people who enjoy just this or want more of this beyond there job. More power to them. But I don’t play in my spare time to be squeezed into a ludus approach.

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yep realname

Your account training doesn’t reset but the worlds do. it’s similar to an instanced PvP match only thing that changes is the instanced match, rest is persistent.