Ongoing Uru Review #2: Thoughts on Drama in the Prologue

I have now been entering the world of Uru Live for three weeks... sporadically. I don't play every day, because not a lot is going on yet. The online game is still in a beta ("Prologue") phase. Cyan says the real game will begin "early in 2004".

To keep players interested during the Prologue, they're letting bits of storyline develop. It's live on-line theater, effectively -- interactive theater, because the in-game characters are speaking to the audience (us players) as much as to each other. We're involved, albeit not fully and not all the time.

Story Background

Let me quickly give the background. The DRC (Dn'i Restoration Council) are the people who discovered the D'ni cavern several years ago; they're in charge of it, and their (nominal) purpose is to open the cavern and its Ages to the general public. The head of the DRC is Dr. Richard Watson. Victor Laxman is a DRC engineer. Douglas Sharper is a researcher working with the DRC, although he isn't actually one of them. Phil Henderson is a student who vanished for several months; he recently reappeared, babbling about some indefinite mystical experience he'd had.

(All of these people show up in public areas from time to time, interacting with players.)

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Sharper disappeared in early December. He spoke of following "Yeesha's Journey", the challenge of the single-player Uru game (which many of us players have also completed). When Sharper returned, he -- like Henderson -- acted as if he'd had a life-changing experience. He denounced the DRC's handling of D'ni, and said that Yeesha (the daughter of Atrus) represented a "new way" for the restoration. Henderson joined him in this... although there is ongoing speculation about whether Sharper is as sincere as Henderson.

The DRC responded to all this foofaraw by grabbing Henderson -- in public -- and dragging him away, apparently by force. That started another huge round of arguments, of course, with many players questioning the DRC's motives as well as their tactics. Sharper rallied a mob of players and got them to break down a DRC barricade, opening up a previously inaccessible room in the city. In response, the DRC... well, you get the idea. Events continue.

This is not the first on-line interactive drama I've been involved in. See, for example, an award ceremony for the XYZZY Awards (best text adventures of the year). These always take place on a text-based MUD, with lots of role-playing and clowning around. Actually you shouldn't go look at that, because it's two solid hours of text adventure in-jokes. But it is a sort of cooperative theater.

Before that... well, I was around for the first ever performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show on TinyMUD. (1990, was it?) But I don't think I can say anything useful about that.

I'm sure there are many, many other examples that I wasn't around for. But the Uru Prologue intrigues me because it's somewhat impromptu. Uru wasn't designed as this kind of theatrical experience. The real online game may be a different thing entirely. The designers are doing this stuff because the Prologue phase is taking longer than they expected.

So it's a bit awkward, very off-the-cuff, and full of seams. Perhaps not ideal for a game, but fascinating for a game designer.

The Player-Minute Standard

First, it's not evenly balanced. There are hundreds of players in the Prologue, but only a few can witness any given "event". (The central city area is limited to 30 players at a time, because both the client and the server start to thrash at that load. There are many "neighborhoods" where people can gather, but the most popular of these also tend to top out around 25 people at a time -- same reason.)

So becoming an actual participant takes luck, or dedication. Most people hear about most of these occurrences second-hand, or by following the fan sites. (Uru Obsession is a popular one -- it has chat logs from all the significant events of the past month. If you want to know the details behind my quick summary, that's where to look. Also the D'niPedia.)

In a sense, the player-time economy of other multiplayer CRPGs has evolved in Uru. The more time you spend online, the more likely you are to witness something nifty. It's not a task-based mechanic, like clubbing rats or growing barley, but it still rewards the most dedicated players.

And effort is also rewarded. The more you interact with people, the more people recognize you. Several players are prominent enough that they have, de facto, become part of the storyline -- at least a little. They know the in-game characters personally. (Douglas Sharper's journal, in his in-game office, has recently been updated. It refers to some players by name.) Obviously the actors are not trying to play favorites; they make an effort to interact with everyone who is present. But these relationships do form and evolve. And they are very much analogous to the experience levels and valuable equipment of (say) Everquest. Player time and player effort bring opportunities that casual, occasional players (tend to) lack.

On the contrary hand, discussing these events with fellow players is also participation. So is maintaining the fan sites, and contributing to the web forums which follow Uru. So the fun spreads itself around. I'm not arguing that Uru has become a time-demanding brown-nose-fest -- not at all. I'm just fascinated by the way time and attention always crystallize out as the truly scarce resources of the on-line world.

Improv is Hard

Second point: interactive drama means improvisation, and improv is hard.

A couple of days ago, I ran into a guy named Vormaen in one of the popular Uru neighborhoods. He was, well, preaching to the crowd. His viewpoint was (interestingly) not aligned with either Sharper or the DRC. He seemed to approve of Sharper's vision of a new D'ni world, but not of the dissension that Sharper was fomenting. (Fair enough.)

I don't know whether this Vormaen is a Cyan actor, a player working with Cyan in the storyline effort, or just a player who is enthusiastic about his own chosen role. In this context, that doesn't matter. The interesting aspect is, he wasn't really responsive to what his audience was saying -- and there were a bunch of us replying to him.

Several players expressed the opinion (quite common among Uru players, I estimate) that we don't know enough yet. Neither Sharper nor Watson (nor even Henderson) has given a specific plan for the restoration of D'ni. None of the factions are talking details; they all seem to be concealing their true motives. Nobody inspires trust: the DRC kidnapped a guy, Sharper likes to incite mobs, Yeesha may just be nuts. So a lot of players are holding off, and waiting to see how events develop.

Vormaen didn't seem to accept this. When someone expressed reticence, Vormaen would respond with a generality; he'd say the speaker "didn't understand yet". Or he expressed sorrow that the speaker was under the DRC's sway. "True knowledge comes from within"; "those who are called will sense the truth"; and so on.

(I apologize, by the way, if I'm misrepresenting Vormaen's argument. I failed (again) to log the chat session, so I'm working from memory here. I think I've described the dynamic accurately, though.)

When Vormaen left, my comment was "I don't think he heard a word any of us said." Another player noted, out of character, that we didn't fit into his script.

Which is an excellent point. Vormaen was coming off as, well, as a religious fanatic: not absorbing anything which didn't fit into his worldview. Or, equally: as an actor with a script that didn't include other people. If your task is to wander through the audience and represent a point of view, it's hard to get into a real discussion. How do you engage in an argument when your character is pre-defined as having a particular belief?

Truly interactive drama would have to feature characters who are responsive to members of the audience. Of course, that's hard. (I'm certainly not slamming Cyan for doing it imperfectly. I have no idea how to do it.)

Now, maybe I'm setting up an impossible standard. Single-player adventure gaming has a long tradition of constraining the player to a well-defined storyline -- while still providing the sensation of freedom. (Or, I should say, providing true freedom of action -- but at a lower level, which never seriously derails the storyline.) Perhaps that's the road for on-line multiplayer drama. If so, the arsenal of technique has yet to be developed.

I think I'd better leave that topic for another essay. Possibly an essay written by someone else who knows anything about theater.

Encouraging Intercomplicity

Third point: socialization and player interaction are supposed to be the big draws of Uru Live. Cyan is already playing some cards to encourage these things.

For example, the Relto pages. These are bonus items scattered around the game. They don't have any real value; they give you the ability to customize the look of your private Relto Age in various ways. The more you collect, the more nifty decorations you have available.

A handful of these pages are to be found in the single-player game. There are two more (so far) in the online game. But neither can easily be found by solo exploration. One page jumps from neighborhood to neighborhood; you have to ask around and discover where it's last been sighted. The other, I believe, is in a private Age; you have to find someone who has access to it, and ask to be let in. (Or so I'm told. I haven't actually got that one yet.)

The same gimmick has popped up in other places. Recently, Sharper announced that he'd opened up a locked door in his private neighborhood; this is a door which remains locked in all other neighborhoods. For a day or so, he wandered around the public areas of the game, letting in anyone who asked. Again, interacting with the game's social world was rewarded, this time with access to a new area. (And again, players who play a lot got luckier than those who pop in once a week. And again, the lucky players shared the wealth by posting reports, descriptions, and screenshots.)

And again, the DRC came in after a couple of days and shut Sharper down. Arrogant twits...

(In case it's not obvious, this new area will be freely available once the real online game begins. Players are not gaining a permanent advantage from these interactions; they're just getting a sneak preview.)

Repeating Myself

And finally: it's still all going to be about what players can do.

The political argument about D'ni rages, and some players are getting deeply into it. But it still lacks real bite, because it's just talk. There's nothing we can do to support one side or the other (or however many sides there are). One thing I said to Vormaen was that the fate of D'ni will turn on actions, not words. I meant that both in and out of character.

When Sharper gathered a mob to knock down a wall, it was a fun piece of theater, but it wasn't supported by game mechanics -- there's no way players can gather to knock down a barrier of their own accord. It was a special effect, triggered by Cyan.

Victor Laxman has come through the city, talking about a "Great Zero project" which we can (soon) get involved in. Something to do with re-establishing the D'ni surveying and positioning system. How much player action will actually be involved, we shall yet see.

It's quite clear that everybody wants to work. The tremendous amount of volunteer labor which goes into the forums and fan sites speaks for itself. (Not to mention the number of words I've put into this silly essay.) Involvement is what we crave.

More shall come.

Oh, and in case you were worried -- Phil Henderson has been spotted in public, free of restraint and apparently okay.

Last updated December 25, 2003.

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