Designing Virtual Worlds

Ivan MillesMay 16, 2006

Without a doubt, this has been the most difficult book to review that I have ever come across. Not because of the book’s quality or subject matter, but because of its sheer density. It is so jam-packed with information, knowledge, wisdom, experience, and examples that it becomes hard to do it justice.

‘Designing Virtual Worlds’ must be the most definitive work to date on the phenomenon that is today lazily dubbed MMORPG. While this book goes over MMORPGs in great detail, it quickly points out that Virtual Worlds (VWs) can be so much more than EverQuest. In the same way, this book is much more than a book on VWs—parts of it have application to all sorts of games and online experiences, and, to some extent, to many real-world activities.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first five explain and analyze the practical parts of designing a virtual world, establishing a definition and giving the history behind them. The first chapter also demonstrates how to categorize VWs by clarifying and consolidating different aspects of them, such as genre, age, player base, and mutability.

The second chapter, alluringly entitled “How to make Virtual Worlds”, analyzes the development cycle and the architecture of the VW (by far the most technical part of the book, including both server architecture and load balancing), and includes a vital section on translating theory into practice. This chapter is the shortest in the book, but it packs quite a punch. Scores of others have offered descriptions of the development cycle, but Bartle succeeds in explaining everything essential in under twelve pages, with adjustments made for online games.

Subsequent chapters include “Players” (extremely interesting, regardless of what kind of game you are designing), “World Design” (useful for anyone designing a game with a world more complex than a boxing ring), and “Life in the Virtual World”. The player chapter examines different player types, what makes players tick, and the ways in which players are attracted to, retained within, and drop out of a world, as well as how to satisfy the different player types. The notion of “player type” is especially interesting. Bartle previously wrote a paper in which he divided players into four groups: Killers, Achievers, Socialisers, and Explorers. This result is based on their position on an interest graph containing an Acting-Interacting axis and a Players-World axis. (Bartle’s entire paper “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs” is available at http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm, with an accompanying “Bartle Test” at http://www.andreasen.org/bartle/.) This chapter also has a very insightful explanation as to why less sympathetic human behaviours should be avoided even in-game. Xenophobia and other types of prejudice and oppression are not only despicable in the real world; there are also design reasons to demote them.

The chapter on world design handles both abstract and practical questions. Bartle covers abstract matters such as deciding on an ethical model for a world (he provides quotes from Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism with book, chapter, and verse references) and the question of the extent to which the live team should affect the players (The “live team” consists of the people who run the VW after it is rolled out). Technical questions such as how to handle the edge of the world and whether to base geography on polygons or tiles are also addressed.

“Life in a Virtual World” is an insightful chapter that discusses character generation and development, combat and skills, player death, and combat types. This is not a chapter that gives definite answers—no one can claim to tell right from wrong here. Yet Bartle, perfoming a gargantuan task, manages to sort out and separate seemingly complex systems. Of course, some issues lend themselves to simple answers: “[Player versus Player] is ‘me against you’; [Player versus Computer] is ‘me against random number generator’. Which is the more thrilling?”

Thankfully Bartle is easy on the jargon. This subject lends itself to a great deal of specialized terminology, but here the terms are strictly confined, with the explanation for any given term close at hand. Those that are required throughout the text are regularly expanded and explained, so that one never has to look far for clarification on a specific term. That said, I would have enjoyed a glossary for reference, but you can’t have everything.

From chapter six on, Bartle delves into more abstract material. In my opinion, this is where the book truly excels. While the hands-on chapters are both useful and discerning, the latter part of the book is of great interest even to non-designers and those outside the industry. Should a journalist, for example, ask me for a thorough discourse on online gaming, I would refer them to pages 475-705 in Dr. Richard Bartle’s book. The last three pages (from the chapter on ethics) highlight some of the difficult and controversial questions that may have to be posed regaring VW design, questions that I certainly wouldn’t have given the slightest thought had I not read this book. A 35-page chapter on ethics clearly indicates that there are indeed problems that need to be addressed, notably censorship and the realization that players are real people. Even here, Bartle assumes a healthy position: “Don’t let my idealism do your thinking for you. Consider the issues, reflect them on yourself, draw your own conclusions.”

Chapter seven analyzes an issue that is dear to me: regarding games as art. “Towards a Critical Aesthetic” is a short chapter, but it is penetrating enough to deserve a book of its own. It might simply be the most intelligent and clear-sighted treatment of computer games as art out there, and is also the text to which I’d refer anyone saying something else. I’ll leave it at that, but if you are the least bit interested in examining this field, chapter seven is reason enough to buy the book.

To sum up, this is a phenomenal work. But who wrote it? If you read my review of Chris Crawford’s ‘On Game Design’ you know that any names in the industry besides Carmack’s are before my time. For those who can relate, let me introduce you to Dr. Richard Bartle; together with Roy Trubshaw, he created MUD, the first of its kind. That was in 1978, and Bartle has been around since then. Ergo, he knows what he is talking about.

In addition, this masterpiece of Bartle’s doesn’t lag behind stylistically. While academic in places, Bartle makes sure to supply real-world analogies for any content that might be difficult to grasp. He doesn’t bring academics to the reader, but rather brings the reader to academics. He relies heavily on footnotes to provide witty elaborations, humorous comments and anecdotes, and cross-references for further reading. When he cites a paper that is available online, you can rely on finding the URL at the bottom of the page (all online papers are linked from: http://www.mud.co.uk/dvw/bibliography.html.) Bartle is very thorough when referring to other works, but also often comments on the works themselves, whipping authors where whipping is due.

As for the text itself, it is extremely well-written and easy to read. Spotted with a Terry Pratchett-like sense of humor and a Monty Python-like eye, this book is much easier to read than it could have been, given the heavy content. The text is a bit low on images—a few diagrams are the only things to punctuate the lines. Then again, I can’t say I miss the spray of unnecessary screen shots present in many computer books. The fact that the text is easy on the eyes despite the lack of images just goes to show that the New Riders books have an excellent layout.

I usually conclude reviews with a short summary but it seems impossible to recapitulate this behemoth work in less than the three pages I’ve already used. However, Bartle himself does a pretty good job in his preface, when explaining who should read this book: “Virtual worlds are the future. If you want to create or understand that future, this is the book for you.” Heavily recommended.

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