Monday, January 18, 2010

Messaging, transfers and auctions

My basic verbs for virtual worlds were a suitable set five years ago, when thinking of gameplay and what it can all be boiled down to. Now, however, I've seen one or two of today's MMOs, and as intimated in my last post, they can't just be summed up with the plain ideas of getting around in a virtual world -- they have needs that transcend the world of the character, to the world of the player. Chat is one of those things; it's all find and good to roleplay your characters talking in-world, even if out-of-context, but that still requires proximity to be heard, or some in-game mechanism to reach further, such as Ultima Online's communication crystals. These other features don't necessitate a new server, as the last post discussed, but just some in-game features -- reduced down to verbs, perhaps, -- that allow them to exist in any game developed in MMORF.


The chat server discussed before is useful for live communication with players in-world, or indeed, if external access is made available (which I think is necessary), then completely external live communication is supported, making it no different than your ICQ/MSN/AIM environments. But what about leaving messages, the in-game equivalent of email? Ultima Online had the idea of bulletin boards that you could leave on your in-game house, Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft have a mailbox with which you can receive messages from friends, strangers, and perhaps just as importantly, from the game world, either in-context or not.

All three examples use an in-game object or person to get these messages, requiring characters to be in certain areas to receive them. This might not be required, however; a game world might break immersion by allowing access to these communications through some pop-up menu, being more communication for the player and not the character. This means not restricting the functionality just to objects and scripted behaviour, but as something that objects interaction OR the client itself can communicate. Indeed, in DDO, there's an icon that appears on the player's HUD that signals mail presence, thus combining the in-world mailbox for the character with the information provided to the player -- the fact that the character "knows" to go check the post office is only a slight break from immersion.


Transfers are different from a GIVE verb which is a live interaction between two characters. Instead, transfers are a way to transfer between two characters that aren't in proximity. DDO and WoW support mailing objects to others through the post office -- I don't know about WoW, but DDO has a fee system that provides a gold sink, based on the value of the object. Transfers are often used for two "non-standard" purposes -- transferring between a player's characters on the same account, and storing extra items beyond available in-game storage (character inventory, bank slots, housing). Not that these mechanics matter; what matters is that there's a method to transfer in-game objects, securely, to another character in the game, whether through an in-game system or right in the client. The allowed uses for such a system is up to the game designer.


MMOs are, to a lot of people, all about acquiring virtual goods. Sometimes this is out of necessity, to advance through the game with the best gear, and sometimes it's just for having the best, for having a whole set, or just for having. To facilitate the trading that goes on between characters/players that don't know each other, having a method to post an item for a specified price (or a minimum bid price) in a centralized location. UO did this by allowing players to purchase vendors, which were placed in player housing and handled the storefront of items priced at a set price; DDO and WoW allowed characters to put items into an auction house and hope that someone else wanted them. Again, each of these games uses an in-game concept for handling this offline transfer between characters, though this doesn't have to necessarily be the case - having a web interface into the auction house could be very useful for the player (and who knows, perhaps WoW offers this). Typically this mechanism also provides a goldsink for the game -- the vendors charge a rent, and the auction house takes a cut on the sale and/or a posting fee. This need means that the auction/vendor system needs to go through the game server to allow for the developer to provide the rules for transfer - to add on the fees, to restrict transfer of too-high items or bound items, etc.

In essence, each of these features could be added in-game using scripting and basic verbs such as USE on mailbox objects, or GET/PUT/SAY to a vendor as Ultima Online indeed does. But the idea of these features existing outside of the world, escaping the virtual to include actions that players might take, means to me that they are their own, albeit more complex, verbs of gameplay in today's virtual worlds. And there are more...

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