Where social software should go next — Habitat’s lessons

MMOGs have not pro­gressed since 1990. Nei­ther has social software.

Well maybe a lit­tle, but not much. At least that’s what I’m lead to believe after read­ing anoth­er won­der­ful essay in The Game Design Read­er—a book I like to dip into once in a while to read what­ev­er catch­es my fancy.

In The Lessons of Lucas­film’s Habi­tat1 Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar share their expe­ri­ences build­ing pos­si­bly one of the first graph­i­cal MMOGs ever. The game’s front-end ran on a Com­modore 64 and looked some­thing like this:

Screenshot of Lucasfilm's Habitat

It’s strik­ing how many of the lessons summed up by the authors have not been (ful­ly) tak­en to heart by MMOG design­ers. Bitch­ing aside, their arti­cle offers as much use­ful advice to game design­ers as to design­ers of any piece of social soft­ware. Since this post has grown unex­pect­ed­ly long (again). I’ll sum them up here:

  • The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant.” — on loose­ly cou­pling a world’s con­cep­tu­al mod­el and its representation
  • Detailed cen­tral plan­ning is impos­si­ble; don’t even try.” — on relin­quish­ing con­trol as design­ers, co-design and evo­lu­tion­ary systems
  • Work with­in the sys­tem.” — on facil­i­tat­ing world cre­ation by play­ers and mod­er­a­tion from with­in the world

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Loosely coupled

The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unimportant.”

Mean­ing that how you describe the world and how you present it can or should be loose­ly cou­pled. The advan­tage of this is that with one world mod­el you can serve clients with a wide range of (graph­i­cal) capa­bil­i­ties and scale into the future with­out hav­ing to change mod­el. Their exam­ple is of a tree, which can be ren­dered to one user as a string of text: “There is a tree here.” And to anoth­er user as a rich high res­o­lu­tion 3D ani­mat­ed image accom­pa­nied by sound.

And these two users might be look­ing at the same tree in the same place in the same world and talk­ing to each oth­er as they do so.”

When I read this I instant­ly thought of Raph Koster’s Meta­place and won­dered if the essay I was read­ing served as some sort of design guide­line for it. What I under­stood from Raph’s GDC 2008 pre­sen­ta­tion2 was that they are try­ing to achieve exact­ly this, by apply­ing the archi­tec­tur­al mod­el of the inter­net to the design of MMOGs.

Look­ing at social soft­ware in gen­er­al, how many exam­ples can you give of the cur­rent wave of social web apps that apply this prin­ci­ple? I’m remind­ed of Tom Coates’s Native to a Web of Data pre­sen­ta­tion—in which he argues that a ser­vice’s data should ide­al­ly be acces­si­ble through any num­ber of chan­nels.3

Sim­i­lar­ly, web 2.0 poster child Dopplr is designed to be “a beau­ti­ful part of the web”, “a fea­ture of a larg­er ser­vice, called the inter­net”.4 And they want to be every­where, adding a lit­tle bit of val­ue where it is most need­ed. Per­haps not exact­ly the same thing as what Farmer and Morn­ingstar are allud­ing to, but based on sim­i­lar principles.

As an aside, in MMOG land, there is one oth­er major con­cern with this:

Mak­ing the sys­tem ful­ly dis­trib­uted […] requires solv­ing a num­ber of dif­fi­cult prob­lems. The most sig­nif­i­cant of these is the pre­ven­tion of cheating.”

Cheat­ing might be of less con­cern to social soft­ware than to games (although there are excep­tions, take Digg for exam­ple). For those inter­est­ed in more about this, Raph Koster recent­ly post­ed an elab­o­rate exam­i­na­tion of hack­ing and cheat­ing in MMOGs.

Control, co-design, evolution

Cheat­ing aside, there is more use­ful (albeit famil­iar) advice for social soft­ware design­ers in the piece. For instance on the need to hand over (part of) the con­trol over the sys­tem’s design to its users:

Again and again we found that activ­i­ties based on often uncon­scious assump­tions about play­er behav­iour had com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed out­comes (when they were not sim­ply out­right failures). ”

They go on to say that they found it was more pro­duc­tive to work with the community:

We could influ­ence things, we could set up inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions, we could pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for things to hap­pen, but we could not dic­tate the out­come. Social engi­neer­ing is, at best, an inex­act sci­ence […] we shift­ed into a style of oper­a­tions in which we let the play­ers them­selves dri­ve the direc­tion of the design.”

Again, famil­iar advice per­haps, but they describe in some detail how they actu­al­ly went about this, which makes for enlight­en­ing read­ing. That this prac­tice of co-design goes against ‘com­mon’ soft­ware devel­op­ment prac­tices is not left unad­dressed either:

[…] the chal­lenge posed by large sys­tems are prompt­ing some researchers to ques­tion the cen­tral­ized, plan­ning dom­i­nat­ed atti­tude that we have crit­i­cized here, and to pro­pose alter­na­tive approach­es based on evo­lu­tion­ary and mar­ket prin­ci­ples. These prin­ci­ples appear applic­a­ble to com­plex sys­tems of all types […]”

(Empha­sis mine.) I am intrigued by this evo­lu­tion­ary mod­el of web devel­op­ment. In the abstract for Move­ment, Matt Webb writes:

the Web in 2008 has some entire­ly new qual­i­ties: more than ever it’s an ecol­o­gy of sep­a­rate but high­ly inter­con­nect­ed ser­vices. Its fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive, rapid devel­op­ment means dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing inno­va­tions are quick­ly copied and spread. Atten­tion from users is scarce. The fittest web­sites sur­vive.

(Again, empha­sis mine.) I think the chal­lenge that now lies before us is to not only as design­ers prac­tice co-design with our users, but to go one step fur­ther, and encode rules for autonomous evo­lu­tion into our sys­tems. These are the adap­tive sys­tems I’ve been blog­ging about recent­ly. An impor­tant note is that sys­tems can adapt to indi­vid­ual users, but also—in the case of social software—to aggre­gate behav­iour of user groups.5

This can be extend­ed to a world’s gov­er­nance. Here is one of the ideas I find most excit­ing in the con­text of social soft­ware, one I have seen very few exam­ples of so far. 

[…] our view is that a vir­tu­al world need not be set up with a “default” gov­ern­ment, but can instead evolve as needed.”

I can­not think of one MMOG that is designed to allow for a mod­el of gov­er­nance to emerge from play­er inter­ac­tions. The best exam­ple I can think of from the world of social soft­ware is this arti­cle by Tom Coates at the Bar­be­lith wiki. Bar­be­lith is a some­what ‘old school’ online com­mu­ni­ty com­prised of mes­sage boards (remem­ber those?). In the piece (titled TriPo­lit­i­ca) he writes:

Imag­ine a mes­sage board with three clear iden­ti­ties, colour-schemes and names. Each has a gener­ic set of basic ini­tial forums on a clear­ly defined range of sub­jects (say — Pol­i­tics / Sci­ence / Enter­tain­ment). Each forum starts with a cer­tain struc­ture — one Monar­chic, one Par­lia­men­tary Democ­ra­cy and one Dis­trib­uted Anar­chy. All the rules that it takes to run each com­mu­ni­ty have been suf­fi­cient­ly abstract­ed so that they can be turned on or off at will BY the com­mu­ni­ty con­cerned. More­over, the rules are self-reflex­ive — ie. the com­mu­ni­ty can also cre­ate struc­tures to gov­ern how those rules are changed. This would oper­ate by a bill-like struc­ture where an indi­vid­ual can pro­pose a new rule or a change to an exist­ing rule that then may or may not require one or more forms of rat­i­fi­ca­tion. There would be the abil­i­ty to cre­ate a rule gov­ern­ing who could pro­pose a new bill, how often and what areas it might be able to change or influence.”

He goes on to give exam­ples of how this would work—what user types you’d need and what actions would need to be avail­able to those users. I’m pret­ty sure this was nev­er imple­ment­ed at Bar­be­lith (which, by the way, is a fun com­mu­ni­ty to browse through if you’re into counter cul­tur­al geek­ery). Actu­al­ly, I’m pret­ty sure I know of no online space that has a sys­tem like this in place. Any inter­ac­tion design­ers out there who are will­ing to take up the gauntlet?

Creativity, moderation

Work with­in the system.”

This is the final les­son offered in the essay I’d like to look at, one that is mul­ti­fac­eted. On the one hand, Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar pro­pose that world build­ing should be part of the sys­tem itself (and there­fore acces­si­ble to reg­u­lar players):

One of the goals of a next gen­er­a­tion Habi­tat-like sys­tem ought to be to per­mit far greater cre­ative involve­ment by the par­tic­i­pants with­out requir­ing them to ascend to full-fledged guru-hood to do so.”

And, fur­ther on:

This requires find­ing ways to rep­re­sent design and cre­ation of regions and objects as part of the under­ly­ing fantasy.”

I do not think a MMOG has achieved this in any mean­ing­ful sense so far. Sec­ond Life may offer world cre­ation tools to users, but they are far from acces­si­ble, and cer­tain­ly not part of the “under­ly­ing fan­ta­sy”. In web based social soft­ware, sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is of less con­cern. It can be argued that Flickr for instance suc­cess­ful­ly offers world cre­ation at an acces­si­ble lev­el. Each Flickr user con­tributes to the pho­to­graph­ic tapes­try that is the Flickr ‘pho­to­verse’. Wikipedia, too offers rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple tools for con­tri­bu­tion, albeit text based. In the gam­ing sphere, there are exam­ples such as SFZe­ro, a Col­lab­o­ra­tive Pro­duc­tion Game, in which play­ers add tasks for oth­ers to com­plete, essen­tial­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ing the game with the designers.

Like I said, the les­son “work with­in the sys­tem” applies to more than one aspect. The oth­er being mod­er­a­tion. The authors share an amus­ing anec­dote about play­ers exploit­ing a loop hole intro­duced by new char­ac­ters and objects (the play­ers gained access to an unusu­al­ly pow­er­ful weapon). The anec­dote shows that it is always bet­ter to mod­er­ate dis­putes with­in the shared fan­ta­sy of the world, in stead of mak­ing use of exter­nal mea­sures that break the play­er’s sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Play­ers will con­sid­er the lat­ter cheat­ing on the part of administrators:

Oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el pro­duced a very sat­is­fac­to­ry result. On the oth­er hand, what seemed like the expe­di­ent course, which involved vio­lat­ing this mod­el, pro­voked upset and dismay.”

Design­ers should play with users, not against them. This applies to social soft­ware on the web equal­ly. It is this atti­tude that sets Flickr apart from many oth­er online com­mu­ni­ties. Flickr’s design­ers under­stand the prin­ci­ple of “oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el”. For exam­ple, look at how they han­dled con­fu­sion and irri­ta­tion around the last Talk Like A Pirate Day gag.6


In sum­ma­ry, dear read­er, if you got this far, I would love to see exam­ples of social soft­ware that:

  • Are acces­si­ble in a num­ber of ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tions’
  • Are co-designed with users, or bet­ter yet, apply evo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples to its design
  • Allow users to devel­op their own mod­el of governance
  • Allow users to eas­i­ly add to the sys­tem, in an inte­grat­ed way
  • Are mod­er­at­ed from with­in the system

If you—like me—can’t think of any, per­haps it’s time to build some?

Image cred­its: © 1986 LucasArts Enter­tain­ment Com­pa­ny.

  1. The essay can be read online over here. []
  2. More about my GDC 2008 expe­ri­ences. []
  3. This prin­ci­ple is now being applied to the extreme in Yahoo!‘s Fire Eagle. []
  4. The for­mer quote I first encoun­tered in Matt Jones’s pre­sen­ta­tion Rule­Space, the lat­ter is from this BBC arti­cle on Reboot 9.0. []
  5. For more on aggre­gat­ing user behav­iour in social soft­ware also see Greater than the sum of its parts by Tom Coates (yes him again). []
  6. Tom Armitage has some good thoughts on the Talk Like A Pirate Day deba­cle. []

What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

I’m find­ing myself in the start­ing phas­es of design­ing a casu­al MMOG (or vir­tu­al world, if you pre­fer that term). When I say design, I mean deter­min­ing the struc­ture and behav­iour of the world — inter­ac­tion design, in oth­er words. 

It’s an inter­est­ing chal­lenge (and a sig­nif­i­cant change from design­ing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the poten­tial for more emer­gent phe­nom­e­na, both social and eco­nom­ic. This is tru­ly a sec­ond order design challenge.

Of course, the same old play­er needs still hold true, and tools and tech­niques such as sce­nar­ios and sto­ry­boards are just as use­ful here as in any oth­er project. But the need for an iter­a­tive, test dri­ven design and devel­op­ment process becomes huge­ly appar­ent once you start to think about all the effects you sim­ply can­not design directly.

You might think I’m involved with a WoW- or SL-like endeav­our. On the con­trary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique plea­sures of a vir­tu­al world to a mass (adult) audi­ence.1 That means mak­ing the expe­ri­ence more casu­al, more short-ses­sion.

Our play­ers will still want to feel relat­ed and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activ­i­ty. They’ll still want to feel com­pe­tent and achieve, but with­out hav­ing to make too huge an effort…

There’s plen­ty of move­ment in the space of casu­al, short-ses­sion MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Pas­sive­ly Mul­ti­play­er Online Games — and focus on mak­ing them open sys­tems that inter­act with dai­ly life. I’m try­ing to imag­ine what — as a closed sys­tem — a casu­al MMO should feel like, what its aes­thet­ics (PDF) need to be. What, in oth­er words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamo­to-san had designed it?

  1. Plus some oth­er more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []