Posted Fri, Apr 20, 2007 by Ethec
Richard Bartle at IMGDC 2007 - Page 2 of 2
It Takes Tools, Baby
Dr. Bartle returned to discuss 1989’s Adventure / Megameet to point out some of the results of that early collaborative event. Following the event, five distinct toolsets came into preeminence that, through their varied strengths and weaknesses, allowed designers to realize ideas as diverse as an economics sim MUD or a hovercraft-shooter MUD. To Bartle, the keys to creativity are the variety of design tools available (“There’s too much similarity if we all use the same tools”) and the willingness of the developer to stray from the out-of-the-box middleware features (“The more you do yourself, the more different your game will be, and the fewer design constraints you’ll have.”).
Still, Bartle stressed that originality doesn’t necessarily mean more players or even that you’ll capture some segment of the market by default. One need not look past EverQuest (EQLive) or World of Warcraft for proof that you needn’t be the most innovative game to capture the market. There is and forever will be lots of “dire clones,” but it doesn’t matter - people will play it if it matches their concept of fun.
Going Against the Grain
But tools are only part of the equation. You have to have an incredibly well thought-out concept before you can use those tools to bring your dream to reality, and with every problem you encounter, you'll have to decide whether to use some other game's solution or forge your own path.
I've uxoriously stolen the title of this article from the topic of Bartle's roundtable discussion, which ocurred later that same day, because it clearly expresses where Bartle's game designing heart is at. The premise for the discussion was what do we really need to make an MMO. Bartle offered two givens: 1) a world, which could be a spaceship, biosphere, or anything with boundaries that within which feels contiguous, and 2) players, without which the game would be kind of silly. Bartle proposed that everything else was up in the air (quite literally - differing gravity was one of the suggested changes).
We've short-shrifted our writeup of the roundtable event because, as roundtables are wont to do, the conversation lost focus, devolving from what would be fresh and fun for players to what's the most unique thing within an indie dev's power to do. Combat was offered up as a sacred cow, as was showing players the numbers behind the game. The most fascinating tangent was a sort of tug-of-war between those interested in permadeath and those who didn't want death in their game at all. Dr. Bartle finally interupted the conversation by trying to bring the conversation back to a player's perspective: "Do you want permadeath or pedophilia? Both seem equally attractive to most players."
Someone mentioned that sacred cows are sacred for a reason and that you need to understand what makes it sacred before slaughtering it, and another dev offered that perhaps one great way to preserve the fun factor is to take a game that players acknowledge is fun, remove a core mechanic, then try to accomplish the same effect a different way. Dr. Bartle and many others in the room heartily agreed with this "break a game, then mend it with a different tool" approach, which may be the only thing everyone really agreed on. It was an interesting exercise, and in a way the sheer volume of disagreement proved that, despite all appearances, the genre is still wide open for innovation.
And Never Say Dinosaur
As the co-innovator of the massively multiplayer way of playing games, it’s natural for people to ask what he’s working on these days. It’s a question he goes into great detail answering in a recent post to his insightful and highly entertaining blog. While the technical answer is that Dr. Bartle is a lecturer at Essex University and a games consultant by trade, at heart he’s still very much a game designer that’s been in the industry for as long as anyone has. Naturally, like many of us, Bartle has an idea for the kind of MMO he’d like to create, and who wouldn’t want to play that MMO?
But that’s not Richard Bartle’s raison d’etre for staying current in the games industry. “Most of all,” Bartle explained, “I want to be surprised for once.” MUDs are more creatively fertile than graphical MMOs (for the same reason that books are more creatively fertile than movies – that is, visuals limit the imagination), and in his time he’s heard a lot of “unique” ideas for MUDs, of which “magic returns to a world destroyed by cataclysm” seems to rank high on everyone’s unique idea list.
Continuing the thought, Bartle shocked the room by saying, “Why am I giving this talk? It's only happening because people are still stuck in the same paradigms...I’m a dinosaur; I really should be extinct... I want you to make me extinct. You can do that, you are designers, the people with creativity.”
But maybe such a declaration from Dr. Bartle is not so astonishing. It might be cliché to draw parallels to the monomythical resolution of a true master in search of his better in order to retire to obscurity, finally assured of a continuing legacy. However, such a scenario seems to fit this self-effacing yet absolutely timeless force of online game design. Yet we and countless inspired others hope he’ll stick around for many years to come, offering if not more games, then simply his time-honored wisdom, clarion common sense, and English wit to many more generations of game designers to come.