I Was Young, I Needed the Money

So, it’s the year 2000, at the height of the dot com boom. You’ve just been hired as Head of Online Games for a company with a paper value of over a billion dollars. You’re promised a team of 30 people and as much time as you want to create the world’s best massively multiplayer game world. What do you do?

What you should do is hire the first 30 people you see on the street, irrespective of their skills, abilities or state of sobriety. What you shouldn’t do is advertise, interview applicants, assess what they can bring to the project, and make appointments only after careful consideration.

The reason you should do the former is because that’s what everyone else will do. Thus, when the company’s directors realize that expansion is happening too quickly and they impose a recruitment freeze, you have all the job slots in place, if not any people who can actually do those jobs. You won’t be calling a producer and telling him he should take his house off the market because we can’t hire him after all, you’ll just be replacing the Australian gap-year student you met playing snooker in a pub.

This explains how I was left to develop a virtual world with a team consisting of three programmers, a level designer and me, when there were six people officially working on the company’s single-page WAP site.

Oh, we were given a more concrete deadline, too: one year. We were also given a budget: nothing.

What kind of massively multiplayer game could we write in 12 months from a standing start, with only three programmers, a level designer and me? No producer, no artists, no QA; no design document, no tools, no middleware; no hardware, except our 700MHz PCs and a 250MHz server.

Hey, I know this one – we write a text game!

This did make horrible sense. I already had all that was needed to build and operate a textual world, because I’d spent 20 years building and operating them. It would be a push, but we could do this.

All we required was some fiendish mind-control system to persuade people to play a text game when they really wanted to play EverQuest.

So, that would be sex, then.

I’d written a pitch for a sex MUD about five years earlier, but the funding fell through. Now was the time to dust it off! The thing is, sex in a text world has three things going for it that sex in a graphics world doesn’t:

  1. It’s freeform. You don’t have to motion-capture every position in the Kama Sutra and beyond, because people can animate it themselves using words.
  2. It’s legal. You can write about antics that you would be jailed for depicting visually. The word is pornography, not pornotexty.
  3. For a basic sex game to work, you need comparable numbers of both men and women. A female-friendly game, by virtue of its having women in it, is male-friendly; therefore, you need to attract women. And hey, guess what? Study after study has shown that, in general, women prefer words to pictures – especially when it comes to sexual fantasizing.

We toyed with the idea of creating a game for the gay market, on the grounds that there might be more homosexual male gamers than female gamers of any flavor, but unfortunately we were all straight so we weren’t sufficiently engaged with the culture to know if this was indeed the case. When I approached the one gay guy in the office to ask him what he thought, he indignantly told me that he wasn’t gay, and if I spoke another word on the subject he’d have me for harassment.

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As luck would have it, around this time we noticed our level designer was female. This settled it: We decided to go for the broader market, as clearly one person is able to represent the views of 50% of the population with absolute accuracy. We’d program in functionality for non-straight encounters, but wouldn’t build the game around them.

The atmosphere we strove to engender was one of wit and humor. Whether players would continue with this when they got down to business would be up to them, but we assumed they probably wouldn’t. Humor was important for us, though, because it lightened the mood, giving a liberal and liberating “anything goes,” fun impression. And, frankly, if you have to implement fetishes for opera gloves, headphones, feathers and being stuck in a car in a muddy field, well, how can you not inject humor into it?

The overall premise was that players were executives staying in a hotel in downtown Anonymous American City. While they were logged off, they’d be buying or selling or whatever it is executives do, their performance at which would be tied directly to how satisfied they were with their life. In other words, the better the sex they had in their time off (that is, while playing the game), the more money they’d make in their work time (that is, while logged off). They could spend this money on a better hotel room with better facilities and lots of clothes, toys and other goodies – so long as they could fit all these into their suitcase. This was so people who wanted, say, BDSM would visit a BDSM club and mix with other like-minded people, rather than kitting out room 419 with a rack and electrodes and sitting there glumly all alone.

Geographically, we arranged the world using the traditional grid system of every Anonymous American City. The hotel Blue Heights occupied the middle block, with two blocks on either side for us to fill with stuff. The further from the center you were, the more colorful the services on offer you were likely to find. Horizontal thoroughfares were numbered, from 69th Street (what else?) to 74th Street. Vertically were named (therefore themed) avenues: Peters, Queens, Great Union, Straight, Bohemia and Bacchus. Thus, if you wanted something to pep up your performance you might visit the Chinese medicine shop on 73rd between Gt. Union and Queens, but if you just wanted to mail something to someone you’d go to the post office on the corner of Straight and 72nd.

We decided to allow some real-world illegal activities such as narcotics, but to make them losing strategies for gameplay. If you wanted to get high on cocaine and point a gun to a character’s head, you’d get associated medical and police problems that would cost money to address and would never go away entirely. Still, if this is your bag, better you do it in a game than in real life. That said, consent was central to everything: Thus, no bestiality and no pedophilia. You can make love to a beanie baby (people do, I’ve seen the web sites), but not to a squirrel, no matter how much it’s giving you that come-hither stare.

So far, so good, but you’ll have noticed we were making some moral judgments here. Many people in real life insist on no sex before marriage; we, however, were condoning sex with people who were complete strangers five minutes previously. How did we make these decisions? Well, we basically determined to allow anything implementable, whether we ourselves were in favor of it or not, so long as it was not so emotive as to break the “magic circle“: If any one of us felt something came with too much Reality, we didn’t put it in. For example, some people – interestingly, many more women than men – have rape fantasies. Should we have implemented rape? Well, no, because that’s too serious for a game. Even if characters were allowed to flag themselves as “rape-able,” it would be too much. You’re probably balking even reading about my discussing it, it’s so emotive.

It was clear to us that not only should everything be consensual, but it should be personal to individuals: You could say, “These specific people are allowed to make love to me,” but not, “Anyone in this room is allowed to make love to anyone else in this room.” To this end, we implemented a fairly neat permissions system whereby every character had an attitude toward every other character. The default was stranger, which meant all physical contact was forbidden. Next was acquaintance, which allowed formal contact only. You could get to this stage either by setting it manually using a permit command, or by doing something that implied it; for example, proffering or accepting a handshake. From here we went to friend (non-intimate contact), boy/girlfriend (intimate contact), lover (sexual contact) and, for the sub/dom community, master/mistress (unrestricted – they could control you as a puppet if they wanted).

Sex in the real world has biological consequences, the main ones being sexually transmitted diseases and children. STDs were present only when curable; you might catch chlamydia, but not AIDS. Children, we completely ruled out as an option; characters might suffer gameplay-affecting is-she-pregnant anxiety after a wild night of unprotected sex, but it would last a (game) month at most.

As for the sex act itself, we implemented it using a modification of the classic MUD combat system. Before you get all uppity and insist that it’s disgraceful to associate sex with fighting and I should not be allowed within looking distance of women for merely harboring such thoughts (and I have, indeed, had people say that), let me highlight the word modification. The mechanics are similar (automatic exchanges of interactions, qualified by inputs undertaken during the process), but that’s where it ends. For example, in a combat MUD, your actions typically determine how many points you get; in this game, your actions determined how many points your partner got. In other words, your partner benefited from your sexual prowess, not you.

Lest you gain the impression that the only interesting thing about this game was its subject matter, I’d like to say, categorically, right here and now, that OK, you’re probably right. As a designer, I was personally very excited by some of the concepts we developed, but there are probably fewer than 20 people in the whole world who would share my enthusiasm in this regard; sadly, therefore, there’s not much point in my boasting about it. I would, however, like to mention our superb system for automatically monitoring the ability of body parts to function.

For instance, take room descriptions. They would change on-the-fly if you were unable to see or hear or whatever; commands which required the use of fingers (such as playing the piano) wouldn’t work if your fingers were restricted (such as they would be if you were wearing mittens). This worked across all sensory modalities and all components of the body (and yes, male and female bodies did have some different components). It remains cutting-edge stuff for textual worlds, but of course only designers are likely to care much about it; as a player, you just want to play. The reason I mention it is that although it’s something that would enhance all MUDs, it was developed specifically in response to a sex game requirement: bondage. If you’re blindfolded and have a horse bit in your mouth, you can still make out some of the environment (“hmm, that feels like the heat from a branding iron”) but you can’t always perform everyday commands (“I’d shout for help if it weren’t for this horse bit in my mouth”).

Plus, I do want to boast, dammit!

I could continue for pages and pages, here. I could tell you about the fetish system, the mad cultists, the Little Black Book, how fashion worked, interactions with NPCs, layers of clothing … but I can’t right now, so I’ll have to stop. I will say, though, for you designer types out there, we did account for my player types system, and I didn’t advocate having permanent death…

But it all fell apart with some four months to go. Despite the fact we were on course to go into open beta by the end of our allotted year, the company didn’t have a year’s worth of money. Somehow, hiring 800 people on the strength of a business plan that could be paraphrased as “spend what we have and then figure out how to get some more” was not sustainable. We lost our jobs and the game went into mothballs.

Would it have worked? I was cautiously optimistic, even though there was no support in the company itself for the product. (“We can’t be associated with sex games, only with violent games” – actual quote from a member of the sales team!) I don’t think it would have been a huge storming success, but I figured we could have got maybe 10,000 regular players within six months of opening – perhaps more, if AOL had banned it.

Would I do it again? Well, I’d certainly think about it. It raised some very interesting design issues that produced some highly novel solutions, which I’d like to see in action. The subject matter isn’t itself remarkable, though: Rather like writing for a franchise, you can stray within the confines of the defined world, but you don’t get to change the Unique Selling Points.

It beats the hell out of WAP, though.

Dr Richard Bartle co-wrote the first virtual world, MUD[/I] (“Multi-User
Dungeon”) while an undergraduate in 1978, and has thus been at the forefront of the online games industry from its very inception. A former lecturer in Artificial Intelligence and current Visiting Professor in Computer Game Design (both at the University of Essex, U.K.), he is an influential writer on all aspects of virtual world design, development and management. As an independent consultant, he has worked with most of the major online game companies in the U.K. and the U.S. over the past 20 years. His 2003 book, [i]Designing Virtual Worlds
, has already established itself as a foundation text for researchers and developers of virtual worlds alike.

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