Tuesday, March 22, 2005

What's in a world?

This project aims to ultimately reduce all MMOs down to their bare essentials, to their common ground.

I posit that all MMOs are the same; they just differ in graphics, text, and play interface. Sacrilege, some might cry, but it's all in the presentation, I say.

So what's in a world? What can you do? Here's a list off the top of my head; I'm sure I could find a similar list in literature about virtual worlds if I just went looking.

LOOK (around, at this item, at that mobile)
SAY (or whisper, or yell, or private-message)
EMOTE (bow, yawn, laugh, cry...)
MOVE ("go north", "go to room 5", "run this way")
GET (this or that item)
PUT (this item)
USE (this item)
ATTACK (that target)

These are in order of "difficulty" or "complexity", in that simple worlds might just implement the first few, but more complex worlds would have the later commands. Let's look at each in detail.


This command would get information about your location, about objects nearby, or about other characters or NPCs in the area. You could implement a virtual world that has nothing but this command, though it would be very limiting indeed.

In a text world (MUD), you might use "look", "look [at] Joe" or "look [at] sword". As you enter a room, you might automatically be given the results of a "look" command, or perhaps that only happens the first time you enter a given room. Some systems will give you the full description the first time, and an abbreviated version the next; typing the "look" command at any time after that might re-iterate the full description. Looking at an object or mobile will return information about it, though perhaps not all - I might be able to see how many uses are left on my magic wand, but other people can only see that it's a magic wand. I might see Joe, that he's a human barbarian, and that he's got a shield, but his guildmates might also get to see his guild title, and the amount of stamina he has left. Looking can have very different results based on the looker.

In a graphical world, there is no explicit "look" command - the graphics are there to constantly show you what you see. Some games (World of Warcraft) might not only show you the terrain, and the objects, and the mobiles nearby, but the names of them above their heads. Ultima Online, on the other hand, shows you the names as they enter your view, but they vanish after a few moments -- an "all names" macro can be set up so you can "look" once more at these specifics.

Looking at an object in a graphical world might involve passing the cursor overtop it, prompting a "tooltip" to appear with the object's information, it might require clicking once on an object; or it might require bringing up a context menu for the object, and viewing the properties that way. In the case of mobiles, one might be able to bring up a separate window that continually updates with the "look" information about it, so you could watch the health of a monster as you fought it, or the health of an ally as he was being attacked. This information might also be constantly present (as I believe it is in WoW) as a statbar above or below the mobile.

As for implementation, the server might send a certain set of information to the client in anticipation of the user asking to look at this or that object. Alternately, the server may send nothing up until the client (by way of the user) explicitly asks for it; this could also allow every object to have a "look" script attached to it, so a character that looks at the crystal ball is teleported inside, or anyone that looks in the mirror is paralyzed by their true reflection.

Interestingly, you *can* implement a world without this command; I would say that a chatroom would almost be such a world, except most chatrooms have a "user list", and that itself is a "look" in the room.


Communication is probably the most important part of a virtual world; it's what makes it a community.

A world could, I suppose, function without any way of characters to communicate directly to each other -- they could run around, attack each other, pick things up, and perhaps try to spell messages on the ground with items, but it wouldn't be very immersive if basic communication is missing. And, in my opinion, that communication should be immersive. In Ultima Online, a player types in the game window, and their words appear above their heads; the conversation appears where the player is looking, and associating the text with the character is simple. In World of Warcraft, however, there was a text window on the bottom of the game window in which all communication took place.

To know if someone in front of you was talking to you, you would have to look in the main screen to see the name of the character that walked up, and then watch the chat window to see if any messages came in with that name. I did not like this method of communication at all.

Granted, the WoW method is useable across vast game distances, where the UO method is not. In UO, you must be on the same screen to communicate with people. There is another method in-game in UO that allows a similar chat window to the one in WoW, and it has the limitation of having to "enter" a room to chat with people you probably know. WoW has the idea of rooms, too; your guild, public channels, and probably "area" rooms too.

Talking can also include "tells" or "whispers", where communication is directly to one individual, perhaps in the same vicinity, perhaps not. In virtual worlds where everyone has a unique name, you can attempt to "/tell Joe" and be guaranteed to get the Joe you know, not a stranger. In games that do not prevent name collisions (Ultima Online), this mechanism isn't available, though there is a way to whisper to a person nearby, by being within a couple of spaces of them and starting your conversation with a "; ".

Because speaking in world is a textual affair, the keyboard is involved whether the client is a text-only one or a graphical one. Whether communication happens directly (just start typing) or requires a prefix ("/tell ", "say ") or requires typing into a separate window, is up to the designer of the client, not necessarily the game.

But is communication solely text? With Teamspeak and Ventrillo, two popular voice-chatting programs over the internet, more and more players are able to communicate with each other without using in-game mechanisms, and certainly more quickly than having to type. This can lead to an eerie feeling from observers, as they watch a whole guild of characters swarm into an area, fight for a bit, then leave, all without a single word to each other. They just seem to move as a hive mind. While being able to speak directly to the "character" right beside you is great for immersion for the players involved, it can prevent immersion for those nearby.

So perhaps, in these days of high-speed connectivity, a game could support this natively (as many games are starting to do), and audio can be passed back and forth from client to server and to other "nearby" clients. This would just be a version of the "say" command that has a binary stream of digitized voice instead of a string of characters. Players could hold down a key on the keyboard, or the mouse, if they wish to speak to their guild (a party chat) versus "out loud" in the game.

Of course, profanity, slurs and the like are less likely to be screened in this scenario, but that's not the concern of the designer of the game framework -- that's up to the administrators. *:^)


This should, perhaps, be a sub-command of say, though with graphical worlds, the outcome can be quite different than the spoken word.

Emotes are ways to portray emotions or actions. Early chatrooms used "<laugh>" or "*grins*" or "*:^)" to demonstrate that the user is laughing, grinning or smiling. Acronyms appeared (LOL, ROFL, etc.) to denote more complex feelings and actions. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) supports a "/me " command, where "/me grins" will say "* Crwth grins" to others in the room. This is usually highlighted in a different color, and is preceded with special characters (an asterisk and a space) to let others in the room know the difference between an emote and a typed message.

Textual worlds might have a generic command (like /me or /emote), and might also have shortcuts for many of the popular ones (/grin, /laugh, etc.) They might allow the character to use a macro to insert their name in a different part of the action ("/emote you made $$ cry!"), making it more powerful than the IRC "/me" command which always puts the user's name first. In all cases, the other characters in range will be told in words what the other character is doing.

Graphical worlds might support something similar. In Ultima Online, text preceded with ": " will be surrounded by asterisks and possibly shown in a different color, above the character's head (": grins" will show "*grins*"). While a person could just as well type the asterisks to the same affect, the use of a different color for emotes allows those viewing the emote to tell the difference.

Additionally, graphical worlds allow for animation, so common emotes can not just be told, but seen. Ultima Online has support for a few, including bowing, so there is no need to use ": bows", when your character can actually be seen doing it. World of Warcraft has many as well, and perhaps too many; for some reason, the designers thought it would be amusing to allow some characters to make a train-like motion with their arms while their character says "chooga chooga chooga chooga! WOO WOO!" And in the beta test, at least, the players were just as amused. I suppose that beats having "*choochoo*" above your head?

Emotes are, of course, not necessary. In the early chatroom days, as mentioned, people parenthesized their actions well enough, and email still has this type of emote within. But for those who want to be immersed in their world, these are an easy enough addition to any game, and with graphical clients, they're even more so.


Before I sorted the list above, this was the first command I typed in. You would think that movement is the fundamental action in a virtual world. How else do you get around the virtual world??

But, from the simplest example, a chatroom, you don't. Okay, perhaps that's not quite true, as even in IRC you can "/join" a different room, and this is just like moving from one to another (or, being in two places at once -- not something you do in most MUDs!)

Text-only worlds typically have a "go" command, such as "go north". This is usually also available as the shorter "north", and most likely "n". Newer ones might support the special keycodes of the arrow keys on the keyboard, so the up-arrow can send a "go north" command automatically. As mentioned above, this usually returns the result of a "look" command explicitly, as you're now in a new location (provided there wasn't a wall). Veterans of a virtual world may not need (and may wish to remove) the explicit "look", because they have a map of the world in their head. The old game InFiNiTy CoMpLeX didn't have such a device, but the software on which it ran (MajorBBS), supported the CTRL-O character as a "flush anything you were going to send me" code, so you could send ten or twenty movement commands rapidly, and instead of waiting for ten to twenty room descriptions to appear on the screen (over a nice, slow modem), you could send this "abort" command and you would suddenly be 20 rooms away, ready to give more commands.

Early multiline bulletin board systems, such as MajorBBS, had their chatrooms as well, in which you could only be one at a time. The command was probably something like "/room" (it's been a long time) and this could be seen as an absolute movement, where "go north" is a relative movement.

I would say that relative movement is the norm, and absolute movement not. You could, of course, support "go to blacksmith", where the game then tries to figure out the best path from where you are to the blacksmith, but this is just shorthand for "go north; go north; go west; go west; go north". The point of a virtual world, at least one with a large expanse, is probably to have things in the spaces between A and B, and thus the world designer is most likely to want the character to traverse that space.

Note that there can be in-game methods of performing absolute movement, but these are not actual "absolute movement" commands. Ultima Online has moongates in which you can step to transport yourself around to one of the other moongates scattered across the land. It also allows mages to "mark" a runestone and use it at another time to "recall" back the spot on which it was marked. Instant transportation, true, but not as a simple command -- it's objects in the game that do this for them.

Graphical worlds, and their close tie to the mouse, don't require these obvious commands. Sure, early graphical games, before the mouse (early Ultima or any other Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs)) still had the arrow keys or something similar to move them about on the colorful screen. But some modern clients now let you click on the screen to tell your character to walk there, or you hold down a mouse button and your character walks in the direction of your cursor. Other graphical games have stayed with the keyboard interface for movement, leaving the mouse available for every other action (coming up in the list).

Variations on movement my be supported in the world as well. Running might be possible, but then your character most likely has some sort of stamina attribute which will wear down as you continue to do so. Worlds might also support "crawl", "sneak", "tiptoe" or some other form of movement, either for roleplaying purposes or actual in-game effect.

The rest of the list will be continued tomorrow...

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