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Game Critique
- Marian Griffith
Games as art
- Raph Koster
Problems with mudlists
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- Eli Stevens
Mud, a thing of the past?
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Game Critique

by Marian Griffith

On his website, Raph Koster rightly complains that in the world of muds there is a great lack of critique. Raph Koster's article about games as art (talking about the lack of critique) is also published in this issue of Imaginary Realities. There is a certain level of (amateur) review going on through the Mud Connector and the Game Commando's. These reviews tell potential players which are possibly interesting games for them. It does not tell which are actually quality games. Works of art if you will. In this post I try to put together a number of aspects or qualities that a good mud must address in some form. Because there can be so many different muds, it is impossible to come up with a definite check list. In fact, I only try to start with a list of terms that can be used to describe muds; I am not thinking of putting together a scale along which to judge different muds, which I think is impossible anyway. I am also not the person to say anything sensible about the technical aspects of muds, which are often as important as the softer aspects I am talking about here. Hopefully, others on the list are willing to extend this list I am presenting. Many of the terms originate on the Mud-Dev list and form the beginning of a vocabulary to describe and compare muds, as is also done on the list.
Nice suit

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Any comments are welcome.

The vocabulary list (so far):

  • Game Oriented Play, or GOP.

  • Role (oriented) Play, or RP

  • Acting

  • Consensual and Non-consensual

  • Bartle's Suites

  • Realism

  • Completeness

  • Artistic quality

  • Immersive (game)World and (game)Play

  • Player versus Player, or PvP

  • Policing

  • Marian's Tailor problem

  • Open Ended Goals

  • Goal variety (Kill the Foozle)

  • Elder Games

  • In-game communities

    There probably are many more, but these should be sufficient to start with.

    Game Oriented Play, Role Playing and Acting are all different ways to play a game. While familiar to those who subscribed to the Mud-Dev list, I will briefly explain what each term means. There is of course a lengthy discussion possible (and in fact there has been) on what exactly these terms mean. While these types of play do not exclude each other, theoretically they do so in most players. Attracting a large portion of role-players tends to drive out the goal oriented players, and vice versa. Game Oriented Play is where the player tries to beat the game. The player is not looking for an immersive experience, or for any kind of experience at all. Instead, the aim is to achieve some kind of goal that the game has set. The most common type is the traditional mud where players must try to achieve the next level. The means by which that is achieved may vary, but the players themselves are busy working towards that goal. Role-playing is where players do just that. They have a character and are playing a role in a larger setting or scenario. Many single player computer games that are marketed as role-playing are in fact game oriented play. The player is not playing any role but is rather trying to defeat the computer game. The role-playing aspect comes from the fact that there is a scenario that is being followed by the game. Goal oriented play games lack even that. Acting is the most immersive form of gaming. It is related to role-playing, but the player is trying to act out a character in a (game) world, rather than playing a role in a scenario. There is no clear distinction between these three types of games, though in general most games focus on one of them. Many role-playing oriented games vary between the acting and role-playing, or role-playing and goal oriented play, and even acting oriented games often have role-playing bits and pieces in them.

    Consensual play means simply that players can agree that something happens to their characters or can prevent it. The opposite is Non-consensual play where obviously things happen to the player, without her having much (or any) control over it. Consensual games are often found in the role-playing environments, but they certainly are not limited to that segment. A game where player versus player combat is prohibited except for certain areas is implementing a consensual action in an otherwise Non-consensual game. Which aspects of a game are consensual and which are non-consensual has a significant impact on the game play; witness the near identical Dikumud derived games where some have unlimited player versus player fighting and the others prohibit that, and yet others relegate that to specific areas or player groups.

    Richard Bartle came up with an influential article about four distinctly different playing styles (this is published in the Journal of Mud Research). He named these after the suits of a card game. Each player is primarily one of the following four types (not exclusively of course, many players experiment or have a gaming style that does not fit clearly in just one of these categories):
    Explorer, Killer, Socializer and Achiever. In his article Bartle explains that a game needs a healthy mix of these four playing styles to remain interesting in the long run. The only exception is a game like IRC which can consist entirely of socializers, but that can hardly be termed a game.

    Realism is a phrase that repeatedly spawns heated debates in news groups and mailing lists that deal with muds. The common misconception is that realism means 'as in reality'. In the mud community it does not. Instead it is the somewhat nebulous quality that the perceived laws of the game universe are consistent and reasonably predictable. Having two goblins in the game, one of which is found in the training grounds and is a practice target for new players, and one who is found in a high level area and can wipe the floor with all but the most powerful characters is not realistic. Not because a goblin could not actually be that powerful, but because first, in the game a certain expectation is created about the relative danger of a goblin which is subsequently ignored; and second, because usually by the game's laws of nature, goblins are indeed weak and wimpy characters. Another example of where the game fails to be realistic is when the frame of reference is mixed up. A game where smurfs, hobbits and Chtulhu wander side by side can not be considered realistic, simply because these different creatures do not belong in the same universe. This kind of realism however is not necessary for all games. In general games aiming for an immersive experience have much higher requirements as far as realism is concerned. If a game is meant to attract 'Acting' players it better be highly realistic in its visual details (and mechanical details as much as it has the latter). A goal oriented play game, however, must be realistic first and foremost in the underlying achievement mechanism, as the slightest inconsistency will be picked out and mercilessly exploited, or if it can not be exploited it will be complained about.

    Completeness is the complement of Realism. Where Realism is about consistency, completeness is about the level of detail that is applied throughout the game. Again this is somewhat nebulous and encompasses more than the obvious meaning. The size of the game world, the level of meaningful details, things that are named are described or shown, and so on. For game mechanics, a similar level of completeness is required. If the game has fighter, mage and other classes, each of them must have a similar level of detail applied to their skills, abilities and gameplay.

    Artistic Quality is the quality of the presentation of the game. This may be the details and richness of the images, or the quality of the text the player must read. Artistic quality can also be found in the game mechanics and game world itself. It is a very important quality to initially draw the players (who tend to be turned off by chunky graphics or text) and to maintain immersiveness. If the game world is presented so appealingly that the players enjoy wandering through it and just looking at things, then the game has a very high artistic quality. The same is true for a game that is so entertaining that players keep on playing it.

    Immersive Gameworld is a quality in a game that may or may not be of importance to a particular game. In many ways it follows from the previous three qualities. Immersive Gameplay is the same for the game mechanics. For some games immersiveness is not as important as for others, but in all cases it is an indication of the underlying attractiveness of the game as a whole.

    Player vs Player is something that some players enjoy most of the time and most players enjoy some of the time. And that some players want to have nothing to do with. Any game however must take a position on this subject and abide by it, simply because a game is strongly influenced by PvP and it is impossible to entirely prevent a determined player from harming others. It is possible to take measures in the design of a game to make such activities less rewarding and less common. Or instead, a game can be designed entirely around this activity. It also can be made an integral but not central part of the game. Whatever policy is adopted, it is important to know how well it is implemented and how firmly it is enforced. A game that officially frowns on PvP activities but takes no official measures to prevent them from happening is more poorly implemented than a game where it is made clear that PvP is allowed and likely to happen.

    Policing extends on the previous subject. Any policy that is adopted for a game must be policed in one way or another, and as Raph Koster pointed out there is a huge difference between the amount of effort this requires and the amount of effort players are willing to invest in it. This means that if there are rules, then the game must aid in enforcing them. The policing itself is also part of the rules. How much of the policing is left to the players, and what measures can players take to enforce policies? The state of most muds today is that the players are expected to police the game but are given no more tools to do so than the game offers any player. This does mean that the criminal (in game policy terms) is given an equal power as a police officer, or in other words, policing is reduced to vigilante level. The result is that the players are usually forced to resort to the type of game play they are required to police against. Policing requires finding a criminal and capturing him, then proving convincingly that the player is indeed guilty, and finally a means to punish a player in some form or another, and preferably the punishment must be meaningful. Death and confiscation of possession are not meaningful in games where a characters is essentially immortal and new possessions are easy to come by. There also is a large difference between goal oriented play, role-playing and Acting oriented games in terms of possible crimes, policing mechanisms and possible punishments.

    Marian's Tailor problem is another Player vs Player related dilemma that many games must address in one form or another. Basically the dilemma says that if a game is supporting both violent and non-violent activities, you introduce players in the game that have neither the skill nor the inclination to defend themselves from the violent players. It is unreasonable to expect these players to do so regardless. Or at least, that is the dilemma that must be addressed.

    Open ended goals are what makes players return to a game. If the goal is to complete a certain quest then once that is done the game is finished and the player will have to find another game to play. Muds attempt to make the players return to the game as long as possible, and therefore cannot rely on fixed and clear goals to attract players. Rather, the game must allow many ways to complete the game so players can return to try a different approach. Also, a game where the solution to achieve a goal is not obvious is likely to remain interesting longer. However there is a danger to this because it is also harder for new players to start the game and to understand what they can do in the game. This later problem is especially prevalent in Acting oriented games where the game does not provide any actual goal or activity. New players there often find it extremely difficult to 'get into' the game. Games should deal with this issue, but especially the commercial ones.

    Goal variety is another approach to make games more lastingly interesting to players. Where open ended goals stress the point that the player can not immediately see how to achieve a certain goal, goal variety implies many different things a player could strive for. In the typical mud, the game has a single goal (reach the highest level) that can be achieved in essentially one single way (kill the monsters). All other tasks are either utilitarian or boring (and frequently both).

    Elder games are a third way to prolong the interest of players in a game. They are new games to play after achieving the initial goal(s), sometimes in the form of basically the same game with different abilities of focus, sometimes by adopting the role of opposition, and sometimes by taking on an entirely different role in the game. Even if the game does not supply an elder game they sometimes emerge when players who have played out the game but are unwilling to leave find new tasks for themselves.

    In-game communities are not really something you can design. When the game is large enough they will emerge. However, the game can provide a mechanism to encourage and support community building. Any game that aims to grow beyond a minimal player base (Raph Koster mentions averaging 250 players on-line simultaneously) will find developing communities, and should provide for that to happen. In general a greater variety of things that can be done and ways to express identity are enough to get the process started. If a common enemy is introduced or allowed in the game, that also is a strong way to encourage community forming. Shared danger forms the strongest bonds between people and this is equally true on muds. Communities are also what keeps a mud active and lively and are something that is very important for a game. The number and health of the in-game communities, how many of them are socially constructive or destructive and how well (or poorly) the game supports them are important qualities of a mud.