Ongoing Uru Review: Episode 8: "Deception"

I confess that I came into this episode thinking "I hope something happens." As opposed to "I wonder what will happen," which how I approached the earlier episodes. Is pessimism beginning to creep upon me? Let us see.

In fact, I had mixed reactions this time. Because Cyan did a lot of things, some of which were good.

Ups and Down

Cyan started with a mistake. The "coming soon" page on the Myst web site named the wrong date for the episode. It was corrected after a few days, but that's sloppy work.

Then another lapse: a server outage with no warning. It was the usual planned update -- the Thursday before an episode, they shut down the system for a couple of hours and upgrade. (Players then get the client update next time they log in.) We expected that, but this month there was no "Servers will be going down this afternoon" announcement. Double sloppy.

Then Cyan won back our affection by turning around a serious bug fix within 24 hours. (The command to save a chat log was broken by the Thursday upgrade. A new update occurred Friday evening, fixing the problem.)

No server crashes at all this month, by the way. In case you were counting.

The Cavern mood seemed pretty good on Saturday; I noticed lots of people in the city. We got the usual first-day stuff, and then on Sunday the first major event: the opening of the five new Guild Pubs. (Greeters, Messengers, Cartographers, Maintainers, Writers.) We don't have Guilds yet -- aside from Greeters, which has existed from the beginning -- but the pubs serve as community gathering points for the people interested in those topics.

To enter one of the Guild Pubs, you have to be wearing the appropriate Guild t-shirt (or have selected it earlier). This is an odd balance point between free access and limited membership. The shirts are out in the open, and you can switch as often as you like; but you do have to go switch.

Having lived with this shirt system for a week, I find that it does keep me hanging around with "my gang." (The Age Writers, you won't be surprised to read.) I toured all five pubs; but I keep the Writers shirt selected by default; but this won't stop me from attending meetings of other groups when I feel like it. So, a nice example of a technical solution to promoting community without any isolation or exclusivity.

...And if it sounds like I'm beating a drum for "openness", well, I am. But I will say more of that in another essay.

Stuff We Got

We had more events this month than new areas. Or... let me rephrase that.

We had several new areas this month: five Guild Pubs, and then the old Spy Room and Phil Henderson's Relto. The Pubs, as I said, are gathering places. And the Spy Room and Phil's Relto were introduced in Path of the Shell, a single-player Uru expansion back in 2004. So old Uru fans didn't get a lot of new Age juice; no puzzles, no depth of exploration.

I do not neglect the perspective of new Uru fans. (As I've said before, Uru Live must succeed by attracting lots of players -- and when it has lots of players, most of them will be newcomers.) New players have never seen the Spy Room or Phil's Relto. However, even as new material, those areas aren't very engaging. They have lots of story potential -- both tie into Uru's history, and will certainly figure in future events. But you can't put much game time into them.

And potential is great, but we've had potential since Uru Live opened. We're neck-deep in potential. I suspect most players are taking the potential for granted these days, and judging Uru by what actually appears.

Maybe I'm too much of an old Uru fan. I admit the bias. I shall move on.

Pellet Sociology

So, how are the pellets going? I brought that up in last month's review. This month, Laxman came out and asked the same question. In fact, he more or less begged us to get back to pellets.

Victor Laxman: I've been monitoring the pellet contributions on a daily basis. And have noticed that they have been steadily dropping this past month. So I just wanted to encourage those who are still interested in helping to light the lake to continue to do so.

(Full transcript)

Players immediately jumped in to ask about feedback. As you recall, we thought we had a feedback device in the lake monitor, but it didn't work and was removed last month. (It appears as if Cyan never intended it to work. Which is sad. Or, as I said last month, deep design doo-doo.) The pellet excitement in the forums faded after that, and I think that's representative of the community mood.

Laxman's reply:

Victor Laxman: If the numbers in the KI don't help, then no other numbers will either. The numbers are arbitrary. They mean nothing in and of themselves.
That, I fear, is the sound of a game designer in denial. Observe: a bunch of players have lost interest in a particular game mechanic. Possibilities are two! The players are broken; or, the game mechanic is broken. Notice that Laxman was attempting to correct the players. What mistake has he made? Very good. It's the game that needs fixing.

To Cyan's credit, they paid attention; they came back the next day with a KI message showing the pellet progress rate for the past month. (Also online at the DRC website.)

This was, in a weird way, the most convincing response we've ever gotten out of them. It's an ugly graph, and it doesn't show up well in the KI interface. It's exactly what the DRC would whip out if Laxman came into the office on a Monday night and said "Hey! You! Pull the numbers and shove some sort of chart into the lattice, would you? The explorers were all over me today."

The question is, will they update it? Or will it fade from Cyan's consciousness for months at a time, like the rest of the DRC web site?

Event Presentation

As I said, we got a lot of events this month. "Events" meaning a DRC member (or other character) came out and talked at us. Again, some good and some bad. The actual storyline was pretty good, so I won't address it. Instead, I'll ramble about storytelling technique.

Cyan tried a few different variations this time around. We got the question-and-answer sessions we're familiar with, and the confused prophetic rambling. We got a straight-up, no-interruptions speech. We also saw a dialogue -- two people talking to each other, mostly ignoring everyone else. That was nice; it let them get from one end of a scene to the other, which is actually unusual in Uru to date.

(Why is this unusual? My current thought: Cyan is still thinking in journals and cut scenes -- the kinds of story interaction that worked in Myst and Riven. They write a scene, and then come out and expect to convey it. That information would work as a journal, or even as a dialogue. But there isn't really a plan for how to react when players appear -- and bring their expectations of interaction. Even "answer questions" isn't a useful plan, because the information Cyan wants to convey was written into the scene in the first place.)

(Yes, I'm oversimplifying the problem. I believe Cyan has thought about these problems. But I haven't yet seen a good solution. If they have a plan for the players' role in these events, either we're not catching on, or it's so subtle that we have no sense of agency in the results. Which is just as bad as no solution.)

Mostly, these days, our role is the flash crowd. A DRC dude shows up, and whoosh, eighty or a hundred players converge. Community mechanisms like the Relayers help everybody who doesn't squash in; but that doesn't change the fact that an event locale will fill with people until their clients creak.

And it's nice to know that Uru's population is now high enough to make this inevitable. That's success, right? But it's also a scaling problem, one which won't go away.

Cyan took a shot at curbing the crowds on Tuesday, when two major characters showed up at the same time, in two different places. A nice try, but it can't be more than a stopgap measure. Something is going to have to change; and pretty soon. A Cavern public address system? Pre-recorded events spread across many instances? NPC appearances as commonplace instead of rarity? Journal updates? Possibilities are many.

I keep thinking that Uru needs more texture. Cyan has all these information channels: two web sites, forums, journals, KI mail, game changes, character appearances. But they neglect half of them. We get KI mail and NPCs; we get "coming soon" announcements on the Uru site. All the other options are more or less dead. But adventure games are about immersion -- which should mean every information channel, all at once. I have to imagine that Cyan has pigeonholed live events as "real", and everything else as second-rate experience. But from where I'm standing, it's the narrowness of the choice that hurts the experience. When background and foreground are all alive, that's when the game feels real.

(A side note, or possibly not: the episode titles. I give Cyan full credit for using that information channel. The titles have played into each episode nicely, providing both foreshadowing and a couple of layers of meaning each month. The "Deception" this month was rather a surprise; despite two weeks of intent debate, no player (that I saw) picked up where the title was going. See Watson's speech, linked below, if you're curious where it wound up.)

When Players Create

The final big push of the week was new art -- more stained-glass pieces in the Neighborhood linking rooms. These were particularly cool, because they're the winners of a competition for player-submitted art. (See Eder Delin and Eder Tsogal contest pages.) The competition was announced several months ago, and sparked a flurry of entries; see the forum threads for Eder Delin and Eder Tsogal.

A sidelight to the Uru story? I say the new art is more than that. The final event of the episode was the reappearance of Dr. Richard Watson -- the last of the missing DRC personnel. He gave us his take on the past months of the Restoration, and the catastrophic war which appears to have enveloped the Bahro. And his speech was a signal cannon:

Dr. Watson: That's where the Guilds come in. We have got to work together. It will not happen overnight. It will likely take many years, in fact. But I believe the Guilds are the key. [...]

As time passes, it grows increasingly unlikely that anything is going to be found in an Age the D'ni have or had access to. And so, we are going to need new Ages at some point. There are those among the Explorers who may eventually be able to assist in that regard. That is the direction I believe we must take. The Guilds (and even the Explorers who are not interested in joining a Guild) will have to work together: writing, maintaining, mapping, and exploring those new Ages.

(Full transcript)

We can always argue what a character's speech in the Cavern implies about Cyan's real-world priorities. But this is about as clear a piece of game-framing as I've seen from Cyan: player creations are going to be a major focus of Uru. Perhaps the major focus.

Which is what I've been thinking for a year. But then, I didn't imagine I was the only one who thought so. The nascent Guild of Writers has been arguing vociferously for weeks on how to constitute itself; I've been vociferating a lot on the topic myself. You might think Watson's announcement would electrify that debate... but in fact we were already fully gung-ho about Age creation. No, we don't have any construction tools compatible with Uru Live. But there have long been unofficial tools for the old single-player Uru (based on Blender), and we're all expecting that those will be adapted.

Obviously, we have no timetable. I do not imagine that player Ages will be the big draw of Uru next year. Even if tools and a contribution process appeared next month (which I don't expect), the community would still be crawling up the learning curve -- making little Ages, samples, and experiments. (And starting grandiose Ages that don't get finished.)

But we're now in the process of hammering out what we can do, and what we'd want and need from Cyan. Cyan is clearly taking that in, because they're still in information-gathering mode; they aren't giving us guidelines or even goals. Something will happen. I guess I have to conclude with that, because it's all I've got. Nonetheless -- it's an exciting "something will happen."

Last updated September 16, 2007.

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