Designing a Living Society in SWG, part one

author image by maxjam | 0 Comments | 24th March 2017


Designing a Living Society in SWG, part one


Once upon a time you could drop things on the ground. It’s one of the first things a baby does, one of the most human things to do. You pick something up, drop it somewhere else. You build piles. Piles turn into houses. They turn into furniture. They turn into gathering places, into churches, into seats of civilizations. Dropping stuff on the ground is pretty important to who we are.


In the last post, I talked about the technical underpinnings that allowed us to provide a dynamic environment in SWG. But really, all that was in service of something bigger: having a living society. One of the challenges in creating online worlds is that societies are powerfully shaped by the environment they are in. A static, unchanging world will inevitably give rise to certain sorts of behaviors: spawn camping, for example. Players flow like water around gameplay obstacles; if a game doesn’t offer them the ability to run a shop, they’ll set up their character as a bot and sit online for hours to replace the system — or rather, the standard human social structure — that is commerce.


A lot of MMO design, especially in the last decade, has been about preventing behaviors, rather than enabling them.



That pesky core loop


In Ultima Online we had a classless skill system that grouped into these major social roles:

•resource extraction via killing living things

•resource extraction from the environment

•turning resources into finished goods; most goods were to help resource extraction

•healing people who were killing things

•stealing goods from other players


Oh, there were things like pets, and shops, and house decorating, and so on, but they fundamentally weren’t noticed by the game. The game itself recognized only specific actions, and rewarded you for them. The other activities were sort of epiphenomena as far as the game systems were concerned.


Star Wars Galaxies set out with the intent of “letting you live in the Star Wars Universe.” The fanbase was very diverse, from people who just dreamt of lightsabers to people shipping Oola and Jabba. And there are a lot of ways to make a living. Because of this, the entire game was built around the idea of weak-tie interdependence: the idea that people you don’t know well at all are in fact crucial to your survival, and important, and matter.


In UO we saw people kill each other in droves, because that simplistic social model effectively meant that social structures could stay pretty small. There weren’t longer chains of interdependence. Whereas in SWG, I wanted to make sure that people knew they were part of a society, and most features were centered around that. Not just because it was cool to experiment with human behavior, or “ant farming” as some designers call it, but because that sense of “I might bump into, or need this person again someday” actually drives better behavior in general, less griefing, more sense of community. Which should equal greater retention and more money made.


We’ve always talked about player types, different types of people who enjoy different ways of playing. But MMOs in general have mostly been about extracting advancement from the world. They’ve been about getting, getting, getting, about power. If you want to have a society you need all sorts. And so, in SWG, that’s what we set out to do. And in order to accomplish that, I knew we needed the game to care about what they did: to recognize their actions and achievements and give credit for them, or they would always be second-class citizens, mere “support classes.”



Ground Rules

The first thing that had to happen to enable this was to get rid of the classic advancement paradigm. Why? Because it is geared entirely around only rewarding combat. Past systems that attempted to reward alternate playstyles, such as giving XP for exploration, always felt tacked on compared to the rich systems surrounding combat — which include weapons, clothing, armor, levels, and more.


To quote myself from a blog post back then (props to Joshua Goode for hanging onto the quote after all these years!):


“A sad fact about you players, as a whole: you only do what you are rewarded for. You will do something less fun if you see a carrot at the end of the stick, and you will ignore something more fun if it doesn’t give you a “ding” or an XP reward or a title.” – Holocron (11-26-2002 10:55 PM)


We explored a few alternatives. On Privateer Online, which had a very commercial mindset to everything in the gameplay, we were using “paying dues.” You earned certifications, but hardware and whatnot actually wouldn’t work for you unless you were paid up on your guild dues. That way if you wanted to drop back on something, or even skip past levels in the economy, you could just bankroll your way to it. But that wasn’t very Star Warsy.


In UO, of course, we were using a use-based skill system. The issues there are many. It encourages grinding. But really, the gap between a use-based system and an xp system is really what grants you the XP: merely committing the action, or some sort of “summary action,” such as a combat victory against something that is fighting back. In that sense, the difference is that XP is more about results, rather than the mere action.


We set out to define a type of XP for every major activity in the game, then. After all, we expected each action in the game to have real gameplay: meaning, if you were going to participate in the economy, the economy was “fighting back.” So we should be able to find a “real victory” for anything.


All the combat professions were easy. All the crafting professions fell under the bucket of something that in the end didn’t ship because it was too expensive to implement, alas. It was the idea that you earned experience in crafting when people actually used the stuff you had made. You’d therefore want to get your stuff out into people’s hands. You’d even be willing to pay them to use the blaster you made — sponsorships! You would want to make something that out-competed the goods made by rivals, because it would drive more advancement. It would also unlock massive amounts of offline advancement for any player whose output could be enjoyed asynchronously.


This fell victim to the fact that having every object in the world send a message to whoever made it every time the object was used very quickly would have made our database fall over and die. Which is too bad, because it was actually a fundamental aspect of the game. Crafting (and even the performance professions) therefore fell victim to the classic grinding problems anyway.



Feeling Powerful

The other half of advancement that needed to change was power. Using only combat power differentials as the chief marker of advancement is obviously not going to work so well for someone who is a Creature Handler or a Merchant. It also creates almost a caste system, whereby people who aren’t combatants really can’t even safely venture into huge swaths of the world. We needed near equality (I’ve written before about whether levels suck, in a two-part article: 1, 2).


From that were born a few things, one of which famously never worked right, and that’s the HAM system, which stood for health-action-mind, the three different hit point/mana bars in the Galaxies system. Abilities pulled from one of the three bars, and in general an attack also reduced one of the three bars. They were supposed to regenerate fairly quickly, with a “bouncy” feel to them. So a typical attack was really more about preventing you from using your specials, not about getting hurt. Occasionally, you’d get hit with something that was actually “damage” and take a “wound.” These reduced your bar, so your bounce range was reduced, and that sort of damage actually required a healer (there was one more sort of damage above and beyond that, which I will talk about when I get to combat and healing).


This system never worked. Sorry. 🙁 I actually have trouble thinking of anything in SWG combat that worked as intended.


More successful was the idea that your feeling of becoming more powerful should arise from the addition of capabilities to your character, not from incrementing the maximum value of some bars. It was the notion of horizontal progression, whereby you became more capable because you simply had a broader palette of “moves” available to you. In SWG there were over 30 professions, each with 18 skills, and that is not counting the Jedi stuff nor the later addition of spaceflight-related ones.


We very carefully picked a number of individual abilities you could actually know at any given time. We also then had to think about what would happen when players had multiple characters: they’d start making alts to create self-sufficient units at the account level. So we decided, after a lot of debate, to simply lock down players to one character per account per server. It would force mutual interdependence. It would prevent people from muling (having characters simply for extra storage), from engaging in all sorts of cheating with the PvP system in the game, and… if people really did want to do those things that basically broke the game, at least they would end up buying another account and therefore pay for the privilege of causing us customer service headaches. This was easily one of the most controversial things about the game at the time.


Players rightfully said that they enjoyed variety, and wanted to try lots of things. So we let them very easily change their character. You could simply surrender any skill, and go learn another one, when at the cap. We also very much encouraged players not to think solely in terms of specialization. Doing hybrid characters was actually the ideal, not specializing solely down one tree. We were pretty sure it would be more fun for the players, and we selected a skill cap that encouraged players to do so.


Finally, in another design move which I honestly think not even everyone on the design team quite understood, we capped all the stats on players at a relatively low number. The nine stats in the game were arranged in a triangular relationship to Health, Action, and Mind, and each one represented the max capacity, the growth rate, and the spend rate for that bar.


Players would never be able to have as many hit points as a Krayt dragon. They’d be able to buff up, but only to about 10% more than that, the sort of range that you hear about with adrenaline rushes in sensationalistic newspaper stories. A combatant would be only marginally tougher than a dancer, in terms of how many womprat bites it would take to bring them down. And if they wanted to tackle something big, well, they’d have to bring numbers. Every monster in the game was scaled off of “how many players does this equal.”


I say that I am unsure that some on the team quite grasped this, because when the buff system went in it allowed buffs up to 400%, or something. I suspect this is likely because many of the team were just used to EQ-style advancement. I didn’t even notice it was that far off until way later, when players had advanced enough in crafting to actually make some of the powerful buffs.



The Economy and Crafting

As I described in the last post, the environment of planets in SWG included an arbitrary number of “resources” under the ground. These were scattered around the map using Perlin noise, and once extracted were actually removed. In fact, once a resource was mined out, it was gone forever. Every resource was rolled up randomly, as a subtype of a broader resource type, such as “ferrous metal.” Each variant of ferrous metal had different stat ranges, and there were actually a fair amount of stats. This didn’t apply just to metals either. It applies to what you got from creatures. It applied to what you got from plants. It applied to everything. There were seventy-nine different subclasses of resources, ranging from “insect meat” to “siliclastic ore” and everything in between; each of these had multiple types, for a grand total of 474 distinct types — which we then rolled unique ones from. This system was the design work of Reece Thornton. (Some of those 474 went to recipes and systems that never made it into the game, resulting in database bloat).


There was an entire set of skills based on exploring the map and locating resources. It effectively worked a little bit as a hot/cold mini-game. In part it was inspired (as so much of what I do is) by surveying in M.U.L.E. Given that resources expired and you might well not even get a ferrous metal the next time, it was entirely likely that you would have to search all over again — perpetual exploration. There were skills to help you move about the landscape faster, to hide from aggressive critters by masking your scent, and of course you needed specialized tools for surveying. We clumped a bunch of things related to harvesting and exploring under the Scout starter profession.


To help exploration out, there was a “badge system” at launch, which was inspired by the WHOIS strings in LegendMUD. Today, badges are known as “achievements” and are old hat. They weren’t then. A bunch of the badges at launch were for mastering skills, but others were for visiting various locations in the world.


Originally, there had been plans for a separate miner profession but it was cut for time. My memory of it is hazy, but Thomas Blair, a designer on the team much later, tells me that their removal had very negative long-term consequences because it made harvesting far too widespread an activity. We allowed you to drop down resource harvesters — think those moisture harvesters in Episode IV — and these ran whether you were present or not. You’d have to check in periodically to empty them, because they would fill up. This asynchronous farming gameplay is essentially exactly the same thing as what later on drove the periodic check-in play in social games such as Farmville. Visiting lots of harvesters could get pretty tedious, so we had pictured the ability to hire other players to collect stuff for you, and so on.


As time went on, eventually players simply built up enormous networks of harvesters that they never moved, because they gave adequate coverage across the entire map. (They also cheated by having players from other servers come in and place harvesters for them; “lots” for structure placement allowed sharing permissions, so people built collectives. This allowed them to circumvent the limits on the numbers they could place). We really should have made the harvesters simply need to be re-made or re-built from scratch every time the resource they obtained was changed, because it turned out there were not anywhere near enough economic sinks for high-end businesses. Ah well.


We also failed to make crafters have a limited enough inventory of recipes they could know, which resulted in high level crafters still owning the markets for components and cheaper items; we discussed limiting each crafter to ten recipes total, but it never happened and probably should have to preserve vertical interdependence between advanced and lower level players, something which was a key pillar in other areas of the game design.


The fact that resources actually went away altogether was incredibly important to the game. It created obsolescence. When a crafter went to go make something, the recipe called for “ferrous metal.” Perhaps you had a ferrous metal called unobtanium (we rolled up random names for all the resources). You stuck the ingredients in, and you basically gambled, adjusting the desired item stats, using resources of as high a quality as you could, because the input into random rolls included both the stats on the resource, and the targets you were setting. So higher quality ferrous metal could yield a better item. High quality materials were critical, and having a supply chain of them was too.



But — if you simply crafted the item, you got a one-off. The real money was in mass production. To do that, you had to craft not an item, but a specific blueprint. And the blueprint didn’t call for “ferrous metal.” It specifically demanded “unobtanium.” The blueprint could then be handed off to manufacturing droids — factories — which would craft copies for you,as long as they were fed with unobtanium. But if there was no more unobtanium in the game, well, that recipe was literally never craftable again.


Worse, those items might well need repair at some point. Everything in the game was set up to take damage, to decay. And you could repair stuff, but it was originally intended to call for some of that unobtanium. Which might be off the market. I mean, the random rolls meant you might not even get “ferrous metal” again for weeks. Heck, even the repair tools you needed to repair something got used up.


The result was that everything in the game had obsolescence. It cost us Excalibur, of course. No more rare drop epic weapons with names coming from raid bosses. Instead, we allowed the crafter to create a brand of their own, and give names to models. If they were making a one-off, they could actually make Excalibur and dub it thus themselves.


This was a major change to the standard MMO paradigm, in which the best of everything comes from loot. Players kicked pretty hard against no loot; there’s an ingrained expectation going back to the earliest days of CRPGs. The stuff that NPCs dropped in the game was mostly junk, and what we did for newbies was provide a way to sell of that junk for basically pennies while you got going. It also had psychological trade-offs: you have shared experiences from working to obtain Excalibur, and once you have it, you use it without regard to its safety until you out-level it, whereupon it becomes basically a trophy hidden in your inventory. While you have it, people can at a glance look at you and see that you are wielding a plus seven sword with a crit attack or something.


In SWG, you couldn’t tell that well at all. A superbly crafted little pistol might well be deadlier in the right hands than an impressive but clumsy Big Gun. And someday, you knew it would be an antique, suitable only for hanging on a wall, because to fire it once more might make it blow up in your hands. The specific stats on the different (many) sorts of things that could be crafted were tied to specific stats on the resources themselves, so you had to learn what stats had what impact through experimentation. The crafting system had you gambling with “experimentation points.”


People would discover great new minerals, and quickly mine them and hoard them away, trickling them onto the market to keep the prices up. They would arbitrage the market, keeping a great resource until there were no ferrous metals available in the entire galaxy, and then they’d release it to that pent-up demand and make a virtual killing.


Crafters and brands who got access to the best materials and who were diligent about experimenting could effectively build up very real fame on the server. However, the loss of XP earned by others using your goods meant that grinding away at making stuff was still an issue. We also had a vertical integration issue, in that most entrepreneurs chose to set themselves up as harvester/crafter/merchants, owning the entire supply chain. The economy pretty quickly developed into a Pareto-distributed economy where the richest were insanely rich. I commented at the time that we had successfully managed to recreate the rich oligarchs of the real world, so something must have been working reasonably correctly. This wasn’t all that popular a statement.


So: a lack of phat loot. There was also a corresponding lack of shops. All shops were run by players, using vendors. Ultima Online had pioneered vendors in MMOs by allowing you to hire an NPC shopkeeper (the design work of Ragnar Scheuermann). In SWG we expanded on that, providing a skill tree that gave access to things like advertising mechanisms, branding tools, customizing your vendor down to what phrases they might say to greet people, and so on. The fantasy we were trying to emulate was that of running a shop, or a tavern. We wanted to give people the experience of owning that cantina in Mos Eisley or that junk shop of Watto’s.


Given that player shops weren’t in the main cities at all — because we had no player housing in the cities — this meant that shops could be tricky to find. In general, players who were interested in buying things weren’t thrilled. It was quite an obstacle to have to shop around, to hunt down shops, and to have to travel from planet to planet to find the best blaster on the market. To players used to going to the main town and walking into the weapons shop, this was a massive inconvenience.


We did have a “commodities market” intended to supplement this issue, which trafficked at first only in bulk resources and in the low-level drops. The commodities market was very carefully not a full auction house, and most especially didn’t let you buy something cool and teleport it to you. (We originally hoped you could set up player missions for people to deliver items for you). We didn’t want a perfect information economy, because providing one would have effectively flattened out all price variation across the servers, and provided a huge advantage to the players who developed into the equivalents of Amazon or Wal-Mart; perfect information economies are great for people who buy things, and terrible for people who sell them, because you cannot compete on price, and the largest scale therefore inevitably wins. When the game first got going, the first month was a hardscrabble existence, as no players were yet expert enough to craft anything good, and fighter types were not able to kill much because there were no good weapons.



Keep in mind, we’re talking everything was crafted. The resource harvesters. The factories you used to mass produce. The guns you shot with. The clothes you wore. The buildings the shops were in. Everything.


Everything was also freely tradeable — there wasn’t any “bio-attunement” or “soulbinding” at first. Nothing even had a value, because every price floated based on the whims of an actual, real-life functioning market. The net result of all this was that there were sites devoted just to the intricacies of the game economy. A site tracked commodities prices in real-time like a stock market; encyclopedias developed on just crafting.


I used to track the economy quite obsessively. I knew exactly how much money was flowing into the game, and from what sources, and what was flowing out and being destroyed. I could identify the existence of a dupe bug based on whether these figures were lining up.


Eventually, a fair amount of this was broken and changed, and I will talk about that in another post. But when people ask why SWG crafting hasn’t been replicated, this is why.


•You have to start with the dynamic world data structure, so you can build anywhere.

•Then you have to build in procedural resources. (Eventually, years later, the server actually ran out of space for more resource types, and the old ones had to be cleaned away more or less manually).

•And a system for creating items with varied stats. And plan for a database explosion of unique items, sucking away performance like a hungry vampire. (In a game like WoW, where every DaggerX is a clone of a master DaggerX, the database load is cheap).

•Then you have to build in obsolescence, with everything that implies. Item decay. Repair. Stuff players will kick and scream about. Item trading, with all the headaches that implies for unbalancing your game.

•Then you have to break the player expectation on loot, and find replacements that are emotionally satisfying.

•And the expectation on shopping, and that means providing an adequate layer of convenience for players who really don’t care to know about this huge infrastructure you have built up.

•And provide an entire merchant paradigm and feature set to replace shopping, because NPC shops with coder-set price floors and the like certainly won’t work.

•And endure a period where the game’s economy is simply barely working because “nothing has been invented yet.”


I get asked this question all the time. In fact, now that I do consultancy from time to time, it’s not unusual for a company to come to me and say “can you put in crafting like SWG? Our players say it was the best ever!” Usually, they have actually, you know, designed their game already, or even built it. And I have to tell them, “No. You build your game around it, not the other way around.”



Even then, though, all of this is only there to serve as the basis for the rest of building a real society. The world isn’t only about stuff after all. In part two I’ll talk about social professions, downtime, missions, mentoring, and politicians — all the other things that go into making a world feel real. All this is just the beginning.



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