Howaya howaya howaya. Back from GDC. Here’s Greg Costikyan’s report. I wasn’t QUITE that depressed. Well, I was during Raph Koster’s presentation, which I subtitled “Humanity is a ravening mass of jackals, and here’s how you can leverage that for your game!” But I’m not as convinced that the very lifeblood has been sucked out of gaming and no creativity is left. Hell, for online games we can’t get ENOUGH content. Content requires creativity. Well, it doesn’t, but it certainly helps it not sucking.

Oh, here in its entirely is the presentation I gave for the Mud-DEV conference, in all its poorly-read splendor, on the INCREDIBLY INTERESTING TOPIC of how many characters you should allow players on a game server. I was in favor of multiple character servers vs single character ones. (I know it may come as a surprise, but as a public speaker, um, I sux0r.)

“Our customers demand it. Oh, I have to talk for ten minutes? All right.

Seriously, depending on the game, MCS – multiple character servers – may well be the only solution for the developer. As an example, the game I work with, Dark Age of Camelot, is literally inconcievable as a single character server game. Games that use a class-based and level-based advancement scheme and lock a user into a development path simply can’t tell the user “no, you can only have one character of this particular type on this particular server with your friends”. When we developed our expansion pack, Shrouded Isles, we expanded our available character slots from four to eight, in spite of the commensurate increase in data storage requirements, specifically because most of our customers already had used all four slots available to them. If they felt that to play our expansion, and experiment with the new race and class choices we had developed, that they had to delete one of their existing characters that they had invested months of their time into, they would have been irritated. To put it somewhat mildly. And angering our customer base was not, we felt, the most effective means of convincing them to give us more money.

Other massively multiplayer games have in fact tried single character servers, often as part of a “premium”, “hardcore” or other creative marketing term for the segregation of this thought experiment far away from the majority of people actually giving your company money. They have traditionally been among the least popular of servers, and servers with few actual players will admittedly require less customer service – although if we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion we arrive at my personal preference, a server populated entirely with NPCs. Few NPCs have been known to use exploits, excluding the occasional memory leak. But I digress.

The one thing we have learned from single character servers in massively multiplayer games to date is that players will pay extra to ignore this restriction. This may be seen as a plus – how is collecting more money from your player base bad? Well, feeling as though you have to pay more money to compete on a level playing field is… well… the American way. But your players, in general, WILL resent you for reminding them of this, and your competitors will gladly point out that their game allows you to have 52 characters per server, all of which possess 42 unique varieties of sponges.

But all of you are smarter, wittier, and better dressed than I, and surely you’re not going to make THOSE mistakes. Your game engine is going to allow infinite choices! You can change your character as easily as you change your pants! It will take your customers only three hours to get to the end game! Well maybe four, depending on lag. Given all of that, surely no one will miss being able to create multiple characters on a server, right?

Well, there’s a fairly large problem here. No matter what the type of game you are designing, a character is the avatar of the player, in a very real sense. It’s how they appear to the in-game community. And people are going to want to experiment. They’re going to want to be both the hero AND the villain; the boy AND the girl (sadly, most of the boys are the girls, apparently); or, in a less The-Future-Of-Socialization-Is-NOW sense, perhaps just in two player guilds at once. People love “alts”, alternate characters that they can switch to on a whim. They love giving them money, and dressing them up. Especially with fancy hats. It’s the closest thing to children that we have. Surely you’re not going to stop this! Think about the children!

The point here, which I’m fairly sure I had when I started, is that players demand choices. My esteemed colleagues will try to convince you that there are many compelling reasons that players should be denied those choices, based on game design, community policing, or even data storage issues. I however will be curmudgeonly and old-school, and assert that if the customers demand something, we should at least make a good faith effort to deliver it. And the one thing my colleagues cannot deny is that our customers do demand the choices that multiple character servers offer.”

Oh, and Jessica Mulligan has a book out now. “You magnificient bastard! I read your book!” I intend on shouting when I meet her. Because I do crap like that. Anyway buy her book, it’s really good and will save you from making stupid mistakes assuming you’re making an MMO. If you’re not making an MMO, um, buy it anyway.