Ep 034 Creating virtual worlds with Professor Richard Bartle

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Richard Bartle is best known for having co-written in 1978 the first virtual world, MUD (Multi-user dungeon), and for his 1996 Player Types model (killers, socializers, achievers, and explorers) which has seen widespread adoption by the MMO industry. His 2003 book, Designing Virtual Worlds, is the standard text on the subject, and he is an influential writer on all aspects of MMO design and development. In 2010, he was the first recipient of the prestigious GDCOnline Game Legend award.

A regular day would probably be one where he’s teaching. It starts when the sun wakes him up prematurely, fairly early. He heads to the university, switches on the computer to see if there are any emails (but doesn’t answer yet), then arrives early to the lecture hall, which then leads to supervisory meetings with students. He later likes to get into academic papers and emails, in the afternoon he might be giving some other lecture and then arrives home to play computer games relentlessly until its bedtime! We then also had some conversation about university student behavior, including some confessions of my university years 🙂

An interesting approach to failure that prof. Bartle had was a time he knew that something wouldn’t work but to provide some learning to the players he actually allowed it to fail. It happened back in the days of the creation of MUD, many people were asking for a killing character, a berserker or similar, it didn’s fit his vision of what it should be like. In programmer terms, he surrounded this new character with “IF” so it could be taken away easily. It was out for a couple of months and the audience realized it was not a good thing, so he took it out. However, they came up with new ideas he didn’t agree with and decided to put them all “in the list”, so if people asked about their ideas they would all be “in the list”, some of which he confessed is still somewhere around. Within this answer, he has many strategies for embarassing people without humiliating anyone, which is quite interesting and it sounds like a pretty potent experience to learn.

Finding a success story he wanted to talk about was not an easy one! It is a humbling experience to talk to this legend and almost have a hard time pulling some success he is proud of. In the end, we settled on the story of MUD. In 1978 “when dinosaur’s roamed the internet” and was actually called ARPANET, Roy and Richard were creating a virtual world (in text since there were no graphics, all they could do was print text!). They were creating a world because they didn’t like the real one, they felt it was not fit for purpose unless you were born in the right family or had the right connections. All these things determined too much of people’s life. They didn’t like the way the real world judged people based on the things you had no control over. Their ideas were not to seize the means of production but rather to make a world where things can be good, to make some competition for the real world. As an idealist computer scientist, what they did is they went ahead and created that world.

When he’s creating a game, the first thing he needs to know is what he wants to say to the players through the game, they why he is making it. Then after that, he needs to find out who will be the players. His advice for non-educational game designers is to figure out these two because the rest will flow out from this. With MUD, it was about freedom, to be, to be yourself. That makes the other decisions easier. He recommends staying away from creating a game around a mechanic because that leads to a toy-game and not a message that could be sent, because game design is an art form for professor Bartle. Deriving from this, if you’re gamifying something, you must know who you’re doing it for!

A best practice for gamification is to make sure you know why you’re gamifying! This actually helps you do it and to do it right if it’s what makes sense. His favorite game is Dungeons and Dragons. This game has been coming up recurrently, perhaps it’s a signal for me… Professor Bartle is a bit nostalgic about the original editions and how they enabled you to create worlds which are certainly a trend throughout his work. He also approached the question about who he’d like to listen to as a guest in this podcast in a completely different way, and said he’d like to listen to an interview where I’m answering and not asking these questions!

He would like to recommend a book that is not directly about gamification but rather about world building, he could recommend “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R Tolkien, or as a textbook-type, he would say Jesse Schell’s “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses“. If it’s more about understanding why people play, something that is accessible, it would be Raph Koster’s “A Theory of Fun.”

Game design is Richard’s medium, if you ask him how do you do it, he… well, just does it, the same way many other artists do so. So his superpower is actually game design in itself, he’s been doing this as far as he can remember! His final advice would be to think about why they are doing game design or gamification. If you have no experience you can take a look at a few examples to see what it involves and give it a shot. If it works well it’s certainly your thing, if not you can choose to grind for a while to get better or great or decide it is not your thing!

If you want to get in touch with prof. Bartle you can email him to richard [at] mud [dot] co [dot] uk or rabartle [at] essex [dot] ac [dot] uk, there’s also a website from 1997 at mud.co.uk

3 Replies to “Ep 034 Creating virtual worlds with Professor Richard Bartle”

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