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What Is The Ultimate In Life? A Philosophical Response


Stratics Veteran
Stratics Legend
Hail and well met all;

I've just watched through the two hour interview with Richard Garriott, and there were so many topics that were touched upon, and in such an intelligent and good hearted manner; but at 1 hour 17 or so, he speaks of the benefits of being challenged in his assumptions too... and as I watched the questions of the nature of PvP, of what it is to truly Role Play, and later even the question of Blacksmith Apps, I realised that he and I see the philosophy of this style of gaming in radically different terms, terms that I want to explain here in the hopes it may illuminate different approaches in a respectful manner towards something we've both loved together.

This will be very, very long... but I feel it's something that needs considerable expansion upon, so please bear with me.

Let me start with a quote from Terry Pratchett's "Moving Pictures", because it cuts straight to the meaning of what to truly "play a role" is;
“Ginger: You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?... It's all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they're really good at. It's all the sons who become blacksmiths because their fathers were blacksmiths. It's all the people who could be really fantastic flute players who grow old and die without ever seeing a musical instrument, so they become bad plowmen instead. It's all the people with talents who never even find out. Maybe they are never even born in a time when it's even possible to find out. It's all the people who never get to know what it is that they can really be. It's all the wasted chances.”

You see, I believe the philosophy of design expressed in the interview essentially seems to see the act of role playing as being about the character you take; it's focused upon the individual. He mentions Conan, and how to "be" Conan you must follow Conan's amoral code; But this is only the core of what a role is, for to be truly that role, the world itself must at least recognise the code, give space for it to exist; when Conan raises his sword, the light of the local star must at least go *TING* on his sword, and illustrate the dramatic moment. Muscles must glisten. There has to be a physical and psychological space for the Barbarian Warrior and his sword to actually exist. He cannot exist in New York City for instance, because someone with a gun would just shoot him. And they would say "Good, he was clearly weird and didn't fit" if he was shot. Role-playing Conan to the perfect level just won't be enough; to be the Ultimate, the World must reflect him on some level too.

Expand the frame of reference wider, this exists for negative definitions such as tragedy too; Richard mentions Lord of The Rings, where the falling of the Good, and the struggles of the Fellowship is the vast majority of the book. The resolution is from an act of greed by Gollum. But in it's own way, this is still Vice's tribute to Virtue. Suffering of a conscience is proof of the conscience. It's frailty in turn proves it's worth and rarity. And even where there is no happy ending at all, we still recognise the essential dignity of the undeserved end. And Evil in turn is described by the degradation of the Good...

Where am I going with this? What I think Richard missed about the sheer power of grinding MMOs like World Of Warcraft is that they have an extremely crude but powerful understanding that the World has to be the "Role Writ Large". They have taken the levelling mechanic and made it such a part of the world that it literally draws out the path to heroism for you. Kill 10 Kobolds and you will truly be that much better a Conan than before. And the NPCs will recognise and reward you for it.

And when you won't ever really fly into space, when the girl at the check out doesn't notice any *ting*, when the pot holes aren't filled and the schools are crumbling and... well that's what escapism really is, you escape to another world where the part of you that still dreams inside seems woven into the very fabric of the new place; Ultima IV got this powerfully dead on in it's tagline, "In another place, in a time to come"... and this before you'd ever even rolled your character. This is where the series first grabbed me by the heart.

The mistake Ultima Online made was that it misread people's motivations as individuals, and it missed the wider problem of Role Writ Large.

The first part was that it assumed people's behaviour would, to some extent, be self regulating and that people wanted to role play as mostly positive (even Conan is an exemplar of strength). There is a huge body of psychological and historical evidence that this is often not the case; The Milgram Experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiments, even Rorschach howling in "Watchmen" about Kitty Genovese is based on a genuine criminal case. Nazi Germany and Democratic Kampuchea prove societies can go insane at both ends of the spectrum. The emergence of parallels in virtual worlds wasn't perhaps known during the trail blazing days of Origin Systems. But much as I deeply admire the humanist, creative, inspirational talents of Richard Garriott... much as he has a dream for how we could be, and a desire and yes even the talent to give us almost a form of Art that showed how we could reach towards... I think it's a terrible mistake to continue to miss this part of human nature even now. Simply load up any YouTube comments thread to see what happens when the virtual world people exist in doesn't pay attention to echoing a defined role in some way.

Secondly, it's also trying to square an impossible philosophical circle; Richard spoke approvingly of Thief, but whilst the game may encourage you to play in that role... the overall world is firmly based on the protagonists character. And that's fine, you're the only perspective in the game that counts. But like the Henchmen of Austin Powers you don't have the luxury of ignoring other perspectives in social settings, thus any expression of true "Evil" has to come at the expense of something "Good". Stealing an item that someone doesn't actually lose isn't stealing by any definition. What you don't know you've lost cannot hurt you. And a circle cannot have the properties of such, like the ability to roll, and also be a square, whose most important property is that it's stable and doesn't roll.

So let's apply these issues to the design of Ultimate RPG: Let us consider a Blacksmith. What would it take to be an Ultimate Blacksmith? It's not enough to be able to craft swords. Those swords have to have quality; and that requires that the world recognises "This is a good sword!" The reason we consider Theft a crime is not just because it's taken from a Smith, but because it steals the worth of that persons act; "This is not worth paying for". And because it reduces the ability of the Blacksmith to even survive, much less continue Smithing. And because it shows a complete disregard for the person of the Smith and is an assault on the concept of a world which can possibly contain valid Smithing.

Is it possible to square that circle? In real life, probably not. But in gaming worlds...? Ahhh now having identified the problems (I hope) we can perhaps do so! Let us look at positive solutions.

Interestingly, the question of individual Blacksmith Apps may provide the way forward. Now let's say we have our Blacksmith App: It's a forge, where all the interior is dedicated to the joys of smithing. How much of the exterior world do we really need to be a smith? Exploring for resources maybe. External trading perhaps. But you don't really need interaction to the level of "save the princess from the castle". Well, not unless she needs her chastity belt lock oiling maybe.

How do we make room for thieves? I remember one Facebook game, was it Mafia Wars? where you played effectively solo, but you could be a challenge for other players to beat and level up from; offline only, you didn't have to PvP at all. And you didn't actually lose anything though, no material worth was taken; but there was desire to progress just to be a harder challenge for people fighting. You gained reputation just for being a better role in your own game.

So the better you smith, the more attractive your tools are to thieving let's say. But... let's still focus on what it means to be a smith philosophically. You want the world to say "Damn good weapons!" So I put forward two ways this can be done; one you also tinker and design your own traps to keep them out. Like Dwarf Fortress for player Thieves, but it's optional. Because one of your choices as a Smith is to be either the local village centre, staying with people you love and have an RPG connection with... but in a dodgy wooden shack with local vagabonds about... or you take the Protection of Lord British and work in one of his castles with full protection and no thievery. (But access to Lady British. Not YOUR own Lady British, the fictional one coming to Ultima Forever maybe :p)

Levels of purchasable safes to not have EVERYTHING stolen would further refine the level of comfort people wanted to play at. And the more the worth of the item left on a window sill, the larger awareness of it's existence in the thief community, and the more pride for the Smith in the level of bait he can produce... if he wants to risk it.

And secondly... even when you choose to go the traps and fame route, the items taken give a positive benefit back. You get automated letters from people who own your GM made stuff saying "Killed 10 Kobolds with your sword that I bought from a blackguard, sorry it was pinched, but DAMN this is good stuff!" for example. They can use their smithing money to pay private investigators to trace their weapons across the world. Not steal them back because they aren't thieves, but get reports on one of their sword chopping off the finger of Madring the Bad say. Keep the connection with the crafter. Make them feel the ULTIMATE Blacksmith.

PvP is trickier, because the awareness of your opponent being beaten is harder is an essential part of it. But again, what WoW gets right is that it doesn't try and square an impossible circle; it's PvP worlds embrace that logic at a base level. It removes the trash talk, but leaves pure combat in Battlegrounds. However... and this is where I repeat what I've said elsewhere when ever we get the narrower perspective of those who ask for truly open PvP in an MMO setting... philosophically it's impossible. The reason it works in Quake and RTS games is because there is respawn of one kind or another, and no greater war that can be won or lost; Destroying the resource nodes in one game doesn't end it for all games. And the reason it works in WoW is because neither side can, outside of Battle Grounds, ever be "De-teched". Your characters level can only go up, your characters faction can never lose. You can only get better... or bored.

But in a persistent world, it naturally must carry a negative, because the resources you are destroying are other players and their wider achievements, in an economy which must support PvP itself. And in doing so, you limit the ability of PvP itself to occur; Most of the complaints about Felucca are because there's no-one there to fight, but they never stop and ask why.

A separate App for world combat may be the way forward too, but there's no reason they can't also be plotted on the map as background to other apps. You'd perhaps need some variant of Realm Vs Realm vignettes to give them meaningful unrestrained combat, but why couldn't the Blacksmith log on and see a punch up between two rowdy factioners in a nearby pub, or just a police poster asking if anyone did see the punch up outside their hut in the morning? Provide the potential for PvP to be infamous. And for chaotic evil blacksmiths to be able to sell weapons to war efforts in realm conflicts, whose price fluctuates depending on how their faction is doing! Daily newspapers, full of tales of bandits and scandal and conflict! But that you can unsubscribe from natch, if you don't want to read about them every log in.

But think the old UO reward system, the new Pirate hunting notice boards, think posses of NPCs hunting for the infamous Bob The Bludgeoner. There's no reason why it can't be a huge part of the wider role-played Legal and Moral framework of the world... to be an ULTIMATE killer is to be heard, sent challenges from other killers, to be feared and respected even when they logged off too.

As an illustrative aside, I don't know if anyone ever remembers this, but there was a webpage based roughly on old Amiga game ECO (although I emailed the authors but they denied it all, even though it was really blatant), way back in 1995-1997 maybe? Where you designed creatures from simple DNA and sent them out into a simulated world, and they'd send you emails of what they were eating, where they'd been, and what ultimately ate them. You could look up the webpage and see them plotted on the world map, moving slowly about. It was fascinating.... This is what I am thinking about now. One where you don't have to be eaten if that's not your game, but it's a world you can look out into all the same.

You'll notice I'm talking now about people having their character exist beyond their definition of themselves; This is deliberate. If you really, really want to avoid the problems I've discussed, the game designers should step in and quietly manipulate the wider programmed rules of the world to at least create the illusion of narrative space, whilst guaranteeing the freedom from others to damage or destroy it's core meaning.

And further more... provide inspirational space. We mostly fell in love with Lord British because he was in turn an exemplar of what we could dream of being. Don't fall into the trap of assuming genius and inspiration can be crowd sourced. It can't, not predictably anyway. We can find joy in companionship... and together we can create some magnificent things it's true; Richard went to space on the basis of an entirely different countries achievements. BUT, and it's a big BUT don't forget we're still out here average people coming home from jobs we hate or lives we want to escape and we've poop throwing monkeys in the mix too.

You, Richard Garriott have a talent. And if you truly want to create Art, don't be afraid to use those talents again. We need heroic quests (or heroic levels of villainy) to truly give that final feeling that there's something else out there in the world that reflects the greater part of ourselves. Art is the ULTIMATE illumination of something profound, and thus profoundly personal. Lord of the Rings clearly moved Richard personally; but the story wasn't his to start with. It simply opened up a path he later followed, then forged his own away from. My own user name here comes from the Sega Master System version of Ys, which followed Ultima IV on the same system for me. We as people, often week or tired people, gain strength in shared narratives which touch us. A true Ultimate RPG should never forget this either; we use Facebook to keep sharing, but we go to movies and read books and yes, play great games to hear stories that are not ours, but by inspiring us, become so.

So... tell us YOUR stories too. Don't be afraid to lead... and if we like where you're going, we'll follow you willingly.

This has probably gone on for too long, and it's only a first draft, so I'll end it here before I write more and re-write what I've already done. But these are my thoughts on what the problems and potential solutions to gaming are. I hope they prove useful, and thanks for reading this far, if anyone actually did!


Stratics Veteran
I don't know if you enchanted me with your refined prose; but I think this... this vision and ideas are pure gold.

It seems that Adol truly understands what the ultimate fun is. Two thumbs up!

Valice Belgraham

Stratics Veteran
The brake down of the life of a blacksmith is dead on, and stresses the importance of simplicity and not having an over polished uber item based world. Have plenty of items, but items don't need to scale in performance to accommodate "level" progression in the world. (I use the term level loosely because I'm pretty sure RG is going with the skill based world, which I've broken down the benefits of in other post.) Just have items scale with usefulness and practicality.