Games People Play – a future for online worlds? Part 2: Overt and Subliminal status games

When we featured Tiny Empires and Bloodlines on the Designing Worlds show, in our episode Games People Play, a very interesting point emerged.  Although these games had very different premises, and used different tools to control the game play, the players who appeared on the show were surprised to discover how much the underlying concepts of the game had in common, and how the reward systems shared certain characteristics.

You can learn more about these games on their websites, but let me give a rough summary here:

Tiny Empires Products
Tiny Empires Products

Tiny Empires is a medieval-themed multiuser game within Second Life. The goal of the game – as they state on the web-site – is “to cultivate a cadre of loyal followers (subjects), and ascend ranks by amassing gold and land. Gold and land are gained naturally in the game as you play, but they can be more efficiently obtained by attracting and maintaining subjects. The irresistible urge to play grows as you start to realize that your friends may make excellent subjects, and you lure them into the game.”

Well, that’s very up front!  It makes it clear that you can develop status in three ways:
1) Amassing gold
2) Amassing land
3) Most effective of all – gaining followers or subjects

When a player joins the game, they will also become the subject of a particular kingdom, ruled by a liege lord.  To maintain their position in the game, they will have to pay homage up the feudal chain, the lower ranks paying the heaviest burden of taxes.  This is in the form of ‘gold’ i.e. game tokens rather than Lindens. Players accumulate gold by owning acres (not SL land), or by accepting homage from those lower in status.  A fuller explanation of how this works can be found on the Tiny Empires wiki.

Bloodlines products
Bloodlines products

Bloodlines is a vampire/lycan/human system and multi-player role-playing game based in Second Life. It began as a vampire game, then added the lycan component in mid-2009.  Recently a new component – the Human – has been added.  The objective here is to stay “alive” and to increase status by collecting Blood or Lumen Wealth, or by collecting Souls (for the vampires, this means “biting” new people who then join the game and become a member of your Clan).  There are clear similarities with Tiny Empires in this – and you can see more about the premise at the web-site.

However, Bloodlines was initially a much more controversial game – as it allowed players to gain Souls simply by “biting” them.  Once someone had been bitten, they were entered into the Bloodlines database, and counted as a collected Soul, whether the affected avatar was aware of what this meant or not.  There were abuses – with some players hanging around Info Hubs or places set up as gateways for new avatars.  It is still common for popular clubs to carry a warning that “No Biting” will be tolerated on the premises.

The developers of the game responded by offering a string of garlic that could be worn once – and then rendered the wearer immune to being bitten.  Although many people took advantage of this, there was still strong community feeling that any solution that forced the uninvolved avatar to become proactive in having to obtain and wear a device was quite unreasonable – especially in the case of new avatars who, heaven only knows, are scrabbling up a steep enough learning curve as it is.  Thus the Bloodlines collecting of Souls was modified – now a Soul is only counted not when the person is bitten, but when they obtain the HUD and become a player of the game themselves.

Both of these games are run through HUDs or Heads-Up Displays which players obtain from the game developers.  This is, I believe, one of the key ways in which the developers recoup their investment – the Bloodlines “Thirst” HUD which all vampires need costs L$599, for example, while the Tiny Empires HUD costs L$799 (but does offer a Free Trial).  In addition to the HUDs, there are a range of accessories – some merely desirable, but most verging on essential for those wishing to become fully involved in the games.  A glance at the Bloodlines Product Page is instructive.  Tiny Empires has fewer accessories but, interestingly, has developed a whole new game – Tiny Empires 3000 – which uses what is essentially the same system and objectives transferred to a science fiction environment.

Please do not think for one minute that I am critiquing – let alone criticising – the economies that underlie these games.  It is clear that a great deal of thought and work has gone into their creation, and it seems to me perfectly fair that the developers charge what the market will accept for people wishing to play.

Tiny Empires 3000 products
Tiny Empires 3000 products

Obviously, a key pleasure (or even jouissance) of the text of both these games is a player’s personal advancement, and gaining in rank.  But in both games, this cannot be done individually.  To advance to the higher ranks within the game, you need followers/subjects/souls – and this immediately adds a social dimension. Tiny Empires is most open in urging you to recruit your friends (I think of it as a sly wink), but the Bloodlines premise that you need to acquire Souls makes this social dimension an obvious game factor.

But then – and here, it seems to me, lies the simple beauty of the games – in order to keep your followers and prevent them from joining some other Kingdom or Clan, you have to provide incentives for them to stay.  Therefore the “rulers” within the game will be eager to supply social incentives (e.g. a tournament in Tiny Empires or social events such as parties in both games) and game benefits (e.g. a reduction in taxes in Tiny Empires).

This means that the rewards of gaining status are balanced by responsibilities.  The more one advances, the more one is expected to do (in game terms) to maintain that status.  This is a powerful hook to keep people within the game.

The rulers who have the most followers will be better placed to offer the greatest incentives and benefits, and so they will be eager to keep their kingdom or clan as strong and as large as possible.  However, the size of the kingdoms/clans are, generally speaking, limited to a simple pyramid structure; each will have one (or a united pair) as leader, and then, in terms of rank, the kingdom/clans will form a pyramid structure – the broad base of peasants or basic vampires/lycans rising to the ruling apex.

Bloodlines adds a further twist – each day a player suffers a net loss (called The Curse) of their vital element: blood for vampires and lumens for lycans.  This must be repaired or otherwise the player will eventually lose their “alive” status.  There are various ways to replenish the lost material … ranging from wearing protective amulets to (surprise, surprise) recruiting new players.

At this point, readers might be muttering about pyramid schemes.  But, although the games have that pyramid structure, an examination of from where players draw their pleasure in the game is instructive in helping us to perceive that in reality, the games offer a system of checks and balances in giving pleasure to the players.

For an entry level player, pleasures will lie in joining both the game and the community.  There will be the pleasure of learning the new system, enjoying the associated social events, the acquiring of points and of rising through the lower levels (although I don’t KNOW this, I imagine that it is easier to rise through the lower levels – that is standard game technique). The games also offer the opportunity for creativity in crafting a character – and each of these games offer a greater or lesser degree of fantasy in doing that.

For a mid level player, the pleasures will be in the social community with which one surrounds oneself, the entertainments on offer – and may also come from one’s perceived status.  For some people there will also be pleasure in the increased responsibilities and more detailed character crafting.  But the other side is that there are now responsibilities which may or may not be pleasurable – to maintain one’s position in the game.  Generally speaking, the people who rise above this point will be those who find the increased responsibilities pleasurable, or who have a serious stake in the social community of the games.

The games I’ve looked at here are structured and formalised with the wearing of a HUD.  But can the same principles be applied to less overt games? Can there be subliminal games which, without the use of a HUD, the role play runs on similar lines?  I think that in fact they can.

Caledon Steam Sky City (seen over the Primgraph Press in Caledon Glengarry)
Caledon Steam Sky City (seen over the Primgraph Press in Caledon Glengarry)

If we look at regions that have a similar kind of community, such as the Victorian/steampunk regions, or the Baroque regions, we can see many of the same social pressures at work – albeit not so rigidly enforced.  But it is true that there is a hierarchy in these regions and that – generally speaking – people earn their position and respect by the work they put in, promoting and organising region events, working on Relay for Life, becoming an Estate Manager, working on the Community Gateways (r what has replaced them, such as Caledon Oxbridge in Caledon). Generally speaking (but not inevitably) people within the community will ‘own’ land within the region.  This land may be their home, but quite often it will be some building used for what may be termed ‘the public good’, in other words improving or enriching the experience of the community as a whole.  Even where land is not involved, the donation of time spent by the avatar could be regard as a donation to the community. Perhaps a real life equivalent could be seen in the cities of ancient Rome where citizens would donate lands and fund to build public works such as baths or libraries.

The reward for this is, by and large, not delivered as Lindens, still less as game tokens, but priarily in terms of social standing and, quoting Maslow, esteem and even self-actualisation.

Steelhead Shanghai
Steelhead Shanghai

In order for this to succeed, there needs to be a strong sense of community, whether the game is overt (with a HUD) or subliminal.

And community also plays a part in the next game we shall look at – Seven Seas Fishing.


Games People Play – a future for online worlds? Part 1

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