BEP and the Goldshire Conundrum

bloodelf

Tobold stirred up the blog community last week with a post asking why there aren’t more porn oriented games and MMOs. After all, the core audience for both has traditionally been similar. So surely adding porn to MMOs would be a sure fire winner, right? He concludes that it’s probably much cheaper to pay an actress than to create a game engine with good enough models and animation.

Psychochild followed up with a post which looked at attempts to do exactly this (porn MMOs) and why they failed.

r u hot?

It’s obviously not true that people don’t want sex in their MMOs. How else can you explain Second Life? (This is a post about sex in Second Life, probably not safe for work. It is an interesting article though, she discusses the difference between porn and cybering.) They may not want porn per se – games are all about interactivity and it isn’t clear whether people want to interact with porn in that way even if the NPCs were pixel perfect. But talking dirty to real people? That’s hot.

So is being able to roleplay through scenes in a game that aren’t possible in real life, either because it involves some fantasy kink or even just because the people involved are miles away from each other. It shouldn’t be surprising that virtual environments have been popular with furries and with some parts of the BDSM community – they are mostly safe places to play.

From my experience with MUDs et al, I have formulated a new internet rule:

Spinks’ Rule: If it is possible for people to cyber in any medium, then they will.

This has been true for every MMO I have ever played. It was also true of Usenet, IRC, MUD, MUSH, livejournal, SMS, and I assume people are cybering on Facebook and twitter as well.

But it is ironic that Blizzard announced the intent to police Goldshire on one of the US servers, due to complaints about people cybering there in public, in the same week bloggers were arguing that sex in an MMO could never work.  And if you don’t play WoW then don’t worry, they’re doing it in your game too!

Iiiit’s Timmy!

I said this weekend that I pitied the GMs who were stuck with patrolling Goldshire. Especially when there’s a game full of players who would probably happily play at being the cyber patrol for free.

This story reminded me of back when I was involved in running a Vampire MUSH. I may have mentioned this before, the game was based on second edition V:tM and was set in London, and most of the players had vampire characters. The specific game/edition is important here because part of the background was that Vampires didn’t have sex drives or sex at all, in general. In the words of one of my co-staffers who was writing this up for the in game theme news:

You’re dead. Look down. It is too.

Another part of the lore was that some vampires could become invisible. We had code to mimic this ability so people could wander around stealthed. We also had a staff mailing list for that game, to help us communicate over the various time zones. Players who had roleplayed dramatic scenes of which they were especially proud could send us the logs in text form and if we were impressed by the standard of RP, we’d give out XP awards.

You can probably see where this is leading. Add Spinks’ Law (if people can cyber, then they will) to stealthy player characters and what you get is …  Timmy, the soi-disant morality patrol.

Every couple of weeks a big fat text file would land squarely in the staff mailing list. It would be from a player whose character was called Timmy. He was a stealther. His hobby was being a virtual voyeur. And he sent staff any evidence he found that people were breaking the theme of the game by RPing sex on their vampires. Morally, it was an odd situation for us. What he was doing was perfectly in character. What the cyber crowd was doing was generally not, and doors were lockable in the game if people really wanted to make sure no stealthers could sneak in to their bedrooms.

But more importantly, having to read through a ton of badly written semi-porn would ruin anyone’s day. As to what staff could do, we posted up information reminding people that doors could be locked. We tried to give Timmy some different plot hooks. We also posted some general info reminding people that this wasn’t the game for RPing torrid sex.

Then we left it and hoped for the best.

What about games designed around sex?

Back in the MUD/ MUSH days there were games which were unashamedly adult in theme. Many of them were also furry and/or BDSM in theme, I, being sadly vanilla, was happy with my vampires and never had much interest, but I did hang out on a bboard for MU* Admin where people sometimes discussed the seedier side of the hobby.

One particular game was known for the ‘anything goes’ theme. You could go create any type of character you could imagine and then … do adult themed stuff with it. And some players took this as a challenge – there were centipede men with 1000 pairs of legs (and presumably the other bits to go with it), there was a woman/ icecream van hybrid (don’t ask), and several people played historical characters and apparently roleplayed them very well. (I know this because people posted the more way out or amusing character descriptions on one of the MU* Admin threads to amuse everyone else.)

And apparently, when they weren’t all having bizarro sex, the general level of RP and discussion on the game was very high. I always found that quite curious, although it makes sense that sex is a social activity so a sex game would tend to turn into a social game.

The type of design which would make a game amenable for cyber would also be good for other types of roleplayer. Lots of private spaces. Ability to dress up your character. Some kind of character matching to help people find others with similar interests. Engaging hangouts with activities that encourage people to chat and get to know each other. You don’t need to design the porn into the game, just let players set the scene and RP out their own fantasies.

Spinks’ law will take care of the rest.

Can Goldshire be contained?

One of the biggest issues standing between MMOs and the mainstream right now is whether it is possible to clean up the real time chat channels. Granny may be happy to come and kill kobolds on her paladin, but what’s she going to say when she hears trade chat for the first time? Or when some jerk in LFD talks smack to her in an instance? And before she does any of those things, she will have to brave Goldshire. (For the sake of hyperbole, let’s ignore that Granny probably knows more about sex than all the inhabitants of Goldshire put together.)

As an aside, I sometimes wonder if an influx of older female players would have a good effect on manners in game. I’m sure a few people like my mother in law (a retired teacher) would soon have trade chat sorted out with its Ps and Qs and teach it grammatical English at the same time.

But the general issue isn’t going to go away. The cyber crowd can be chased out of Goldshire (they’ll go somewhere else) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t want to go to a specialist game. They want WoW … and the cybering is something to do in downtime.

Can a massively multiplayer game ever be really controlled unless you ban chat channels altogether? Or would an army of nosey stealthers set to embarrass people in public do the trick?

The future of storytelling?

There’s a great interview with Jeff Gomez at The Narrative Design Exploratorium where he discusses both the past and the future of interactive storytelling. He’s an artist and visionary which means he lapses frequently into outrageous and overblown metaphors. I’m not  sure we’ve quite reached the point of:

We will weave dense, elaborate tapestries of narrative with our mobile devices, for example, to which a few or many thousands of audience members can contribute creatively.

Well, not unless the ‘dense and elaborate tapestries of narrative’ are Kanye West jokes, anyway.

But aside from all that, he makes some very good points. Social networking is making it easier and easier for fans to find each other and share their enthusiasms, to collaborate and cooperate and to communicate. Fans write fiction, they run games, they set up mailing lists, they build a whole network of creative and cooperative fandom and it encompasses a lot of different media.

In short, you buy what you love, and you want to share what you love. The Internet and especially social networking makes it easier than ever to tell people about what you love. It’s become a specified form of self-expression.

In any case, it’s a great interview. Gomez describes how he’d been a fan of cross-over stories even while reading comics as a kid, he played D&D, he’s worked in the comic industry and on Magic: The Gathering so he’s coming at this from a very different perspective than a computer game designer.

And if it highlights one thing to me, it is that there is an important halfway house between players and game designers/ TV writers. It is a place for player generated designs, player generated stories, and player generated mentors and fansites. This isn’t just the difference between casual and hardcore players, it’s to do with people who want to get personally involved and contribute something creative.

D&D gave us the notion of players as storytellers, and inspired a whole generation of game designers who grew up as kids running games for other kids. MUDs and MUSHes did the same thing for players like myself who ended up helping to staff them. But what about MMOs? Can they ever open up those sorts of opportunities for players too? CoH is the only game brave enough to have really tried it so far …