Back to index

The copyright situation for this article is unclear. It does not belong to the author of this site. Please see the copyright notice. If you have information about the copyright contact me!

Case for Multiple Experience Games

by John Buehler

game ex-per-i-ence: gam ik-'spir-e-nts: noun. an activity that a game provides that players can engage in for perhaps a month of repeated entertainment.

"Deus Ex" provides the single game experience of using stealth to accomplish anti-terrorist objectives. "Caesar III" provides the single game experience of city construction in the period of the Roman Empire. "Close Combat" provides the single game experience of controlling World War II troops in period battles. Each of these games is designed as a single-player or head-to-head competitive game. In the multi-player realm, "EverQuest" is a rough attempt at providing multiple game experiences, but boils down to essentially one game experience: combat with non-player characters (NPCs) in order to advance skills and to gain valuables. Although the experience of 'the trades' is available to players, that experience cannot be effectively pursued without money. Money is only gained through combat.

The majority of games involve a single experience, yet we will find players attempting time and time again to find something new to do in the game that they are currently playing. EverQuest has a very common scenario that takes place, where a player advances a character to some point and then tires of that experience. Then the player either starts a new character in a different class in hopes of experiencing the game a different way, or starts to play around with the trades. This suggests that players are not interested in surrendering their investment in the current game and looking for something new somewhere else - if they are enjoying the game.

But game designers seem to believe that every great idea that they come up with deserves a new game title. This is a natural reaction, given that a new game title means a new purchase from the gaming community. The thing is that just as Microsoft has come to dominate the business software world primarily by integrating business software, game designers need to learn to integrate game experiences in order to reach a new plateau of game software.

The process that players currently endure in order to enjoy a single experience game goes something like this:

1. Players make a decision about which game provides the experience that they would find entertaining, requiring a decision to spend upwards of fifty dollars to enter into that new experience.
2. Players go through an installation process that consumes tens or even hundreds of megabytes of disk space for each game.
3. Players learn the game controls, many of which are gratuitously changed from game to game as game designers disagree on how to control an aspect of game play (movement, targeting, inspection, etc).
4. Players develop any character skills or accumulate possessions.
5. Players play the game to its logical conclusion, having experienced something new.
6. Players remove the game from their computer in order to reclaim resources.

Because this process is involved with every new game experience, it constitutes a barrier-to-entry that determines how serious a gamer must be about pursuing something new. To provide an impetus to overcoming this barrier, game publishers frequently rely on demonstration software to give players a free taste of the game experience. In order to get players even interested in those demonstration packages, game publishers rely on word-of-mouth, advertising and public reviews.

Instead of developing multiple games with a single experience each, companies should also be pursuing games that provide multiple experiences. When organizing multiple experiences into a single game environment, there is the issue of how to present the overall package. One such presentation is that of a virtual environment, where different experiences can be presented largely as they are in the real world. For example, if presenting the experience of auto racing, the player visits the racetrack. If presenting the experience of amusement park design and construction, the player visits a certain tract of land. This suggests that there exists a virtual world where the player can interact with and affect a number of objects in the world, permitting the player to experience various activities.

The means of the player moving from experience to experience can be presented in a number of ways. By simply scrolling around the virtual world, the player can reach the various activities that are interesting. Another technique is to use a virtual character that physically travels from point to point in the world. This could mean walking, driving in a car or any other mode of transportation (each of which offers yet another experience). Further, if multiple players participate in a single environment, the interaction between characters offers yet more experiences - created entirely by players. Electronic communities can be a significant draw for players. The social experience is an important one for us all.

Now consider the process that a player of a multiple experience game is faced with when considering embracing a new game experience:

1. Players use the existing game controls to move to the location of the new experience and begin experiencing it.

That's not a very significant process, I grant you, but that's all that should be required. Not even an increase in billing is necessarily required. The introduction of a new game experience into the existing environment is intended to not only give the existing players something new to do, but also to attract new players. Those new players are not only gaining access to the newest game experience, but to any others that were introduced earlier. As the set of experiences grows, new customers gain significantly in value returned for their money. It's somewhat analogous to a theme park adding a new ride.

By following this model of adding experiences to one game, certain desirable traits surface:

1. Experiential depth. Star Trek has experiential depth. Star Wars has experiential depth. Experiential depth is developed by players repeatedly having experiences within a uniform context. Star Trek and Star Wars both developed their depth by drawing movie goers back to the same fantasy worlds over and over again, presenting a new experience each time. Examinations of a context from many different angles is precisely what multiple experience games are about, and that leads directly to experiential depth - assuming that the experiences are related in any way. Experiential depth requires less suspension of disbelief and draws players in more completely. They are more willing to invest of their emotions and their energies when it appears that there is depth to be explored - when there is an apparently significant return.

2. Built-in demonstrations. Demonstrations of the game require no more than permitting a player to spend a brief time in the game world. The complete richness of the game environment, with its multiple experiences, serves as the enticement to continue experiencing the game. Further, modifications of a standard piece of software are not needed to provide a demonstration.

3. Development tools. An investment in tools becomes a real possibility. If a game company is going to invest of itself in providing multiple experiences in a single content infrastructure, that infrastructure bears investment itself. This means that tools for designing objects, skills, characters, terrain and other content of the game world is more effectively produced. That might mean the same quality for lower cost, or higher quality for the same cost.

4. Retention of player investment. If the game environment permits the player to have a presence of a virtual character and the player has evolved it to some degree, that character's gains are not discarded simply to pursue a new game experience. Further, player familiarity with the game controls and user interface structure is retained, eliminating training problems with each new game. EverQuest makes some attempt at providing multiple experiences by providing various classes, but EverQuest violates the rule of retaining player investment: in order to pursue the experiences of being a druid after having played a warrior, the player is unable to turn their warrior into a druid. A new character must be started.

5. Community development. If the game environment involves multiple players in a single game environment, a fairly stable community can be formed. This is particularly true when the game offers a range of experiences in order to keep the players active. Players who leave a game environment typically do not remain members of the game community.

Unfortunately, there are caveats to all of this, and certain significant challenges remain to be faced:

1. The pace of technological change can be extraordinary. The capabilities of a standard personal computer a year or two ago are dwarfed by the capabilities of current machines. This means that a game company that builds its game and designs its game experiences for the current set of machines is running the risk of being unable to compete with games of the future. Those games of the future would be single experience games custom-designed for the machines of the future, taking maximum advantage of everything that they have to offer. Certainly software can be redesigned and redeployed, but the techniques for doing such things are not widely well-understood.

2. The pace of increasing our understanding of the multi-player, multiple-experience genre remains significant. Ultima Online attempted to tackle this genre while failing to foresee several psychological, economic and political effects that were to come into play. Many important lessons were learned from that game experience, and similarly from the many multi-player games in and around this genre. That learning process continues today, as evidenced by the wide range of game systems that attempt to provide an intriguing and entertaining experience for players.

3. Merging experiences requires the game designers to do their job 'just right'. If something is created such that it just won't work or it conflicts with existing game experiences that are already being enjoyed in the game environment, the entire game experience (and attendant revenue stream for the game company) could be at risk. This is much like deciding to add a ride at Disneyland that injures park visitors. It impacts the entire theme park's reputation and alarms the patrons who are already in the park.

4. Every point about multiple experience games that lowers the barrier to entry of a new experience is a double-edged sword. Many players may prefer to discard their old character, the old character controls, the old community, the old skill system and so on, in favor of learning a new character skill system, etc. That is, neither the content of the game, nor the game experiences themselves, are necessarily what players will be interested in changing.

Mixing Game Experiences

If games are actually going to have multiple game experiences, how can it be done? Players should be able to transition between game experiences in a straightforward way that does not immediately defy the player's suspension of disbelief. When transitioning, it is important that the player retains some sense of context. As stated earlier, one way to give players a sense of context is to let the player control a single character in a virtual world. This character represents an individual, and all players are familiar with controlling an individual in the world. Another example of giving players a sense of context is to let them control an entire city. They then identify with that city and transitions between experiences would then be centric to that city.

One technique for transitioning between game experiences using characters is to geographically separate those game experiences. The player is then obligated to physically move their character from one location to another in order to select game experiences. This mirrors reality quite well and players accept it as reasonable. Geographic separation of experiences has one significant positive side to it, and that is the granularity of control over separation. A reason for permitting players to transition between game experiences easily is so that the player can get to what they want. There is also the opportunity to provide a spectrum of experiences instead of discrete steps of experiences.

An example of discrete steps can be found in Ultima Online. When a player character leaves a city, it leaves the protection of the city guards as well. This is a very definite transition point for a player experience: danger outside the city walls, safety within.

An example of providing a spectrum of experiences is very close to that of Ultima Online. Ultima Online states that the city guards implement the justice system. Further, the guards will not act outside of the city walls. This is why the experience is discrete, or stepped, in Ultima Online. If the guards were permitted to wander outside of the city walls, then the justice system would travel with them. If we were then to consider a view of the city and its surrounding environment from the standpoint of frequency of guard presence, the city would look like a hot spot of justice enforcement and the areas farther from the city would be less intense in their enforcement of justice. This would be true because the guards would wander outside the city, and statistically they would enforce the justice system more or less effectively. The farther from the city, the less frequently a criminal would stumble upon a guard.

This is only an example intended to suggest how one experience (lawlessness) can be 'feathered' into another experience (lawfulness) geographically. It is not intended to suggest how justice systems should be implemented.

It is also possible to provide experience isolation along axes other than geography. Suppose two player characters are standing near each other, where one has perceptions that let it see the relative wealth and awareness of characters near it. These are the perceptions of a thief, and permit that character to effectively identify good risk/reward scenarios. The other character lacks these senses and is less able to be effective at selection of thieving targets. These axes of experience isolation might be the 'perception' axis.

Multiple Experiences versus Multiple Players

A single player visiting a virtual environment and interacting with a number of experiences would undoubtedly provide an interesting and viable game. The use of the computer as an opponent ensures that modern computer games do not consist of constantly playing solitaire using various oddly shaped cards and different deals. However, the computer is limited and, in the end, players know that they are playing by themselves. As was stated earlier, the social experience is an important one for all of us. As a result, games that permit multiple players to interact will always offer a more complex and invigorating experience than one that limits players to interactions with computerized opponents.

When multiple players visit that same game environment, there is a spectrum of results as far as what players are expecting from the game. In cases where players agree about the experience, community forms. However, the other end of the spectrum is rather more difficult to deal with. If two players are in direct opposition in what they are trying to obtain from the game and they come into contact with each other, it's possible that one or both will become disgruntled over the resulting un-entertaining experience and simply leave the game world behind. That constitutes a loss of revenue for the game publisher and is to be avoided (assuming that both customers are actually of a variety that is desirable to retain).

This brings us to the first rule of games that permits multiple players to interact: the players are interested in their own entertainment, not that of other players.

There is a corollary to the first rule of player interaction: the administrators, the masters of the game environment, are required to be interested only in the entertainment of the players and not their own.

The 'rules' above sounds harsh, but they are completely reasonable. Players will certainly be willing to take steps to enhance the entertainment of their friends, and some players will even take long strides to enhance the entertainment of those they don't know. However, the fundamental premise of player participation in the game world is that players pursue their own entertainment. Sometimes that form of entertainment actually involves entertaining other players. Sometimes it very definitely does not.

The classic debate that rages in this area is player-versus-player encounters, or 'PvP'. PvP encounters are cases of one player challenging the actions of another player. In a character-based world, this would mean one player's character challenging the actions of another player's character. Sometimes, this sort of challenge is exactly what both players want. They have implicitly agreed to compete with each other and welcome the opportunity to test their skills. Sometimes, this sort of challenge is not desired by one of the players involved, as with the case of one player deciding that the other player's character needs to die. The second player is not interested in the defense of their character and find it annoying to be assaulted. That is, the second player is not finding the encounter entertaining.

In a single experience game, this can be reconciled. That is because if the game experience is predicated in player-versus-player encounters, the second player is simply playing the wrong game. But what happens in a multiple experience game, where we might have stealthily-skilled player characters as in the case of 'Deus Ex', and other driving-skilled player characters as in the case of 'Big Red Racing'? They might come in contact with each other. The stealthy killer might well think that shooting the leader's tires out on the final lap would be a wonderful challenge. The leader of the race certainly would not.

This is precisely the challenge of PvP encounters. One player is experiencing the game one way, and another player is experiencing it in another way. That is because the multiple experiences of the game environment (cooperation versus competition or predation) are not isolated. They overlap.

A very straightforward approach to ensuring that conflicting experiences do not get mixed is to ensure that the experiences cannot be mixed, period. Geographically separate them, or separate them based on time of day or age of the player or a token held by the character. For example, only if the leader of the race is carrying the "Intrigue" card can he be interacted with by the "Deus Ex" character. Or only night races are subject to infiltration by a "Deus Ex" character, and so on.

A more subtle approach to ensuring that conflicting experiences do not get in the way is to pursue an effective justice system.

Justice Systems

When attempting to intermix game experiences that are in opposition to some degree (such as the sniper at the race track), a justice system provides a possibility for characters pursuing those multiple experiences to exist side by side. In other words, the sniper can visit the race track and watch the race, or even compete, but the sniper cannot shoot anything or anyone.

To continue in the spirit of the above sections, a justice system is responsible for ensuring that a multiple experience environment does not permit players pursuing one experience to impose their experience on other players who are pursuing a different experience. There are two ways to meet out justice. The first is to penalize the player via in-game metrics. Take money from the player's character, limit the character's ability to perform skilled tasks, etc. The second is to penalize the player via real-world metrics. Prevent the player from playing the game, a fine on the player's credit card, forcing the player to run the game at a reduced resolution, etc.

It might seem intuitive that penalties that are in the real world would be reserved for grief players; those who are simply playing the game in order to be annoying to other players. They have no real interest in their character, so penalizing their character is a pointless pursuit. However, it should be remembered that real world penalties work equally well on players who are quite interested in their characters. Playing with a limited character is far better than not being able to play the game at all. When penalizing a non-grief player in the real world, however, the real world penalty should still make sense in an in-game sense. For example, if the character dies, perhaps the player is unable to play that character for some period of time.

Justice systems are useful for maintaining separation of game experiences by declaring that if an interaction between two players' experiences are unsatisfying to one or the other, that there is a defined way to pursue a reasonable penalty for the transgressor. A 'reasonable' penalty is one that ensures that actions that are inconsistent with a victim's experience are made to be unreasonably difficult for potential transgressors.

As an example, consider the theft of items. In a virtual world where characters have possessions, it might be possible to take items from another character. This might be permitted by the owner and it might not. This is where two experiences are possible, and they are radically different. One game experience might involve traveling through a tough part of town and having to keep an eye on one's possessions. Thieves are challenged to take items. Another game experience elsewhere in the world might include the need to take supplies off of a wounded comrade's body. In the thieves' world game experience, theft of items is a normal part of life. When something is taken from you, your only recourse is to steal it back. But in the game experience of combat, theft is not tolerated - even though the game world permits it universally. The use of a justice system is present to ensure that anyone who chooses to steal in the combat game experience is penalized so heavily that theft of any item is simply not attractive.

Remember that the purpose of this discussion is to pursue multiple game experiences in a single environment for players. The use of a justice system is a means for ensuring that the game experiences remain distinct, despite the fact that two characters that are enjoying those distinct experiences might be standing next to each other.

In "EverQuest", players have the option of declaring their character as being open to player-initiated combat. This provides a simple mechanism where players interested in different game experiences can declare the fact. Players can freely interact in all conventional ways, but those who have selected it cannot touch those who decline player combat. Only two players that have selected player combat can actually engage in player combat.