Ongoing Uru Review: Episode 5: "Scars"

We have completed "Scars," the first of Uru's story episodes. Which means -- what, precisely?

(Note: I'm calling it "episode 5" because that's what Cyan called it; that's what appeared in the startup dialog. Cyan called it "5" because it was the fifth monthly software release since Uru opened to the public.)


For the first three months after launch, Cyan ran Uru in the way we've always expected. Small additions to the game world appeared about once a week; new areas opened up every two to four weeks. The storylines (both the events of the Restoration, and the background history of the D'ni) advanced slowly. NPCs would appear in the game and talk to players, and a couple of players were involved in game events. It was not a static world -- some questions were raised, some mysteries were investigated -- but there was little sense of dramatic tension. Players had the sense (at least I did) that future events were being set up, but that nothing exciting would happen soon.

This slow progression also applied to the new areas that were being released. Through March and April, we got "the pods": four small environments which were obviously related in some way. As you might expect, the first of these raised some questions which did not become clear until the later ones appeared.

This led to quite a lot of hoo-raw and argument among the players. I will not go into the details (I'll write up a full analysis someday...) But the pods put players in a new position: for several weeks, we were part-way into a Myst puzzle sequence.

Previous Myst games (and even previous versions of Uru) gave you a complete puzzle area at a time -- often several at a time. Note that I say "puzzle area", not "puzzle". You would always have incomplete puzzles in front of you -- things that you couldn't solve, that you knew you'd have to return to later. But there would always be something you could work on next.

When we reached the first pod, we had an incomplete puzzle, but nowhere to go next. It was not an unsolvable puzzle, but we didn't have the information we needed for a full understanding of it, either. Result: frustration.

So. Faced with that frustration, and the unsatisfying story progression, Cyan decided to change gears. Early in May, they announced that they would be packing all of their monthly events and releases into a one-week period. The first episode, entitled "Scars", began May 19th.

(If you're thinking that this was inspired by Sam and Max, the monthly adventure serial which just scored big for Gametap, you're probably right. At least, it fits the pattern. I was happy to dive into a Sam&Max episode for a few nights per month; whereas logging into Uru nightly, for an occasional reward, was... well, an imperfect balance of frustration and payoff. Even for me.)


(This section contains spoilers. "Scars" is now over; if you log into Uru today, you will see consequences, but you won't see the events play out. However, I'm not trying to narrate the events, either. If you want that, check out the Cavern Today section of the Uru Obsession fan forums. This post will explain just enough of the events to analyze how they worked out.)

I got up on Saturday (the 19th) poised for a day of adventuring. Tried to play around noon... but the servers were loaded down enough to make logging in erratic at best. They cleared up by about 1:30. (US Eastern time, that is.) And... nothing much was happening. There was a small new item to find. Some DRC personnel made announcements. There were warnings of some seismic tremors. We learned that a major new Age would be released on Thursday -- the climax of the episode, not its kickoff.

So, the first day was all about anticipation. And I'm not sure that was a good decision. There were certainly lots of people in the game on Saturday. I spent some time hanging out. But what we were doing was, overall, exactly what we'd been doing the past three months: waiting. Waiting for a new Age, waiting for an earthquake (it seemed); waiting for the story to start.

I took a deliberate break on Saturday afternoon, and returned around 9:30 at night. Still no news. Still plenty of people milling around. Some irate posts on the forums; but there are always some irate posts on the forums. (That's the definition of forums. This was, however, when I swore off reading forum posts about the episode. I figured nothing would sour the experience faster than being drawn into arguments about it.)

I got back in-Cavern around noon Sunday. And... bam. Literally. A crack had opened up near one of the City buildings. (Actually, it happened late Saturday night, after I quit.)

As I said, I haven't read the forums, and I certainly didn't talk to everybody in the game that week. But with that crack, I felt the game atmosphere come alive. Players were jumping into the City to look, jumping back, exchanging rumors. Yes, we were still waiting; but we were waiting to see what happened next. The game, to clip a phrase, was palpably afoot.

The tension rose rapidly. The structural damage spread. The DRC put up barriers. Then we learned that two girls (one the daughter of a prominent DRC leader) had snuck through, and had been trapped by a cave-in. One was out of contact, possibly dead; the other was in contact only intermittently.

From Sunday on, everyone I met was caught up in events. Through Monday and Tuesday, the DRC tried to dig down through the rubble. We got periodic updates; players in the City could hear the communication between the girl and the other characters. (The digging itself was off-camera.) Other story threads progressed as well, and new items appeared. But the rescue attempt was what kept everyone hooked.

And Tuesday night... I will leave the details for you. But the outcome was unhappy. The tone shifted from tension to mourning. Dr. Engberg, the girl's father, went on indefinite walkabout.

Wednesday, everyone tried to figure out how they felt about it.

And on Thursday night, the new Age opened. Which crushed the servers again; I think I got in maybe two hours after the book appeared. (After the first couple of attempts, I backed off to trying once per hour.) Then I explored until I fell over.

That was another big shift of tone, naturally. Everyone switched from mourning into puzzle-solving mode. I gather that the Hive Mind tore through the puzzle quickly -- as was inevitable. I was still avoiding the forums (and, indeed, all player contact) so I could work on the Age myself. It took me through the weekend. Saturday night I made a breakthrough. By Sunday morning I had many of the pieces, but I was still stuck on one concept, so I went looking for a hint. Got one, finished the Age.

That was my experience with "Scars".

The Story

Was "Scars" a good story?

It was good storytelling. We cared what was happening. Afterwards, players were shocked, or hurt, or angry: the game moved us.

(Not everybody, of course. Some players said "whatever", some ignored the events, some found them trite or bathetic. But my sense was that the Cavern's mood on Wednesday was emotional, not indifferent.)

I saw a lot of discussion of whether tragedy was the right tone for Uru. Personally -- speaking as a game designer -- I say that if you've grabbed the audience like that, you've won. And if the intensity of the experience pushes one person away, it will pull in ten more. I know that's not a satisfying proposition if you're the one; but success is when people care. You may hate what happened in "Scars" -- but you're going to have a hard time telling Cyan that they shouldn't have done it.

I have not yet said that "Scars" was a good story.

I think it was part of a good story. And that's a problem.

Sometime on Wednesday, someone asked me what I thought of the tragedy. I said that I was happy with it -- out-of-character, that is; speaking as a viewer of the story. I said (approximately) that you have a problem, and then a loss, and then a success -- which does not cancel the loss -- and then an imperfect resolution, and that's Story.

(Or rather, it's the modern genre novel. It's not the form of all human narrative, I admit. I was overgeneralizing there. Shakespearean tragedy skips right over the success and resolves everything with corpses and rhetoric.)

Wednesday of "Scars" was the loss. I expected Thursday to be the gain -- the step forward whose travel-toll we had all paid, in coin of grief. That did not happen. Instead, Engberg vanished. Memorial speech, end of story thread. So: "Scars" was the loss, and next month -- maybe -- will be the gain.

My problem is, that's not an episode. It's a sequence of events. It has an inciting event, and then rising tension, and then a peak moment, and then consequences. But that doesn't make a whole story. When Engberg returns, we'll have a resolution of some kind, and that has the potential to be a story. (His story, that is.)

TV shows make this distinction very clearly. The show may have a plot arc, where story elements resolve themselves across a season. Or across the whole multi-year run. But an individual episode is still a story. You can sit down and watch it and laugh and cry and then stand up and say, okay, that ended well. Occasionally an episode stops in the middle, but that's rare, and we call it "part one of a two-parter".

When they took on the idea of episodes, Cyan bought into some expectations about what an episode is. I'm not sure they've realized that yet. They always had the notion of a plot arc, spanning months and years of real time. But you can't chop an arc into segments and assume each piece will work on its own. We're getting the segments as units now, with breaks in between. During each break, we're going to look back on the segment. So it has to work on its own.

(The other problem is that we've had DRC people vanish before. Phil Henderson in 2003, and Dr. Watson in 2004. Cyan has played that card. Yes, they're re-playing it in a way which ties threads together: the last we heard of Engberg, he was reading Watson's old diary. That's great. But I still reacted to the disappearance more as a running gag than as a dramatic event.)

The Puzzle

The new Age, Minkata, has little to do with the story events that led up to it. There's a thematic tie -- indicated by the title "Scars" -- but it's not strong. Nothing story-related happens in Minkata, and nothing that happened in the Cavern refers to it, except for the release of the Linking Book itself.

I don't consider this a flaw in the episode, but it was a missed opportunity. (TV episodes are sometimes built this way, particularly in shows with big casts. Picard tries to outbluff the Prosthetic Foreheads of Zavulon 2, while Worf struggles with his humorous medical problem. Generally, we prefer that the A-plot and the B-plot intersect -- and, ideally, reflect each other.)

But let me not complain. Purely on the puzzle level, Minkata was great. It kept me busy for the right amount of time; not so short that I felt cheated, not so long that I felt frustrated. I made discoveries and figured things out in a slow but steady trickle. I alternated between exploring (to discover things in the Age) and synthesizing (putting discoveries and clues together). I worked forwards and backwards -- sometimes I was deducing patterns from the world, and sometimes I was guessing at patterns and then testing them against the world.

I should point out that this forwards-and-backwards is the natural mode of puzzle solving. I've now seen a couple of forum comments like "Most people are stumbling across the first X, rather than following the clues..." Well, sure! I stumbled across the first X myself. And I noted it carefully. I made a guess as to how it fit the clues. My guess was wrong. I stumbled across another X, and then a third, and noted them as well. I made more guesses. Eventually I made the right guess, and the pattern fit, and I extended it... This is how most puzzles work. Look at crosswords: you work from the clues to the grid, and then from the grid to the clues. You guess and backtrack.

Minkata clearly takes this into account, because merely finding X isn't the whole puzzle. To continue, you must apply your knowledge of how the clues work. That's a well-designed puzzle: you can attack it from both sides, but you have to meet in the middle to win.

(Contrast this with the pods, which I mentioned earlier. They weren't as well-designed: you can reach all the pod rewards purely by luck, or patience. You don't have to understand the pattern. I think if Cyan had managed to work that understanding into the final pod reward, the pacing would have worked better. The clues in the later pods would have tied that "episode" together, rather than being a purely intellectual satisfaction.)

I didn't solve Minkata myself, which was my original goal for the weekend. As I said, I missed one key concept and read a spoiler for it. This was a mild disappointment, but it does not outrage me. Some adventure games (and Myst Ages) I solve without hints; more often, I tap hints judiciously.

Aside from that one hint, I didn't work with other players. But many players did attack Minkata in groups. I gather that that worked very well. The exploring elements are satisfying to share; people who work together will find those X's faster. And, of course, you can share puzzle insights. But you don't have to. So Cyan succeeded at that balance.

Also, let me add, Minkata is a fantastic enviroment. Full marks for visuals and atmosphere. I could feel the dust in my hair. When a game makes you want to take a shower, every time you play, somebody's doing something right.

City Limits

Now we reach the aspect of "Scars" which, everyone agrees, was lame: interaction limits.

I said that a bunch of things happened in the City; a crack in a wall, barriers, a rescue attempt, desperate messages. All these things happened in the common City instance. Every player can reach this instance, but there is a strict population limit of fifty avatars. If fifty people are in the City, you can't enter.

(Up until now, the limit has been forty. It was raised to 50 mid-week; but this didn't affect the dynamic I'll discuss here.)

(Also, this is not about overloaded servers. Serious server overload happened twice in the week -- times when I barely log in or switch Ages. Those intervals lasted a couple of hours, max. I can't diagnose or fix those problems; it's server tuning and database twiddling. That's on Cyan's plate. I'm here to talk about game structure.)

Getting into the City was not impossible for most of the week, but it required luck. You'd check the link, and either there would be 49 people in the city (if someone had just left), or 50. If it was 50, you waited a few minutes, and maybe it would be 49 next time.

To be sure, there wasn't much to see in the City. I made it in on Sunday, went and looked at the crack, said "wow," and left. It was not a major content release. Nonetheless, the crowding was frustrating.

The real frustration came when events started to happen. You'd get a conversation at the cave-in site -- these happened two or three times a day, lasting perhaps twenty minutes. And during these events, obviously, nobody would leave. So the chance of getting into the City dropped to zero until the event was over.

(The equally obvious result was that, to be sure of catching one of these events, you had to camp out in the City and wait. This was exacerbated by a bug which let people sneak around the population limit -- thus ensuring that the population stayed above 49 at dramatic moments -- and that was exacerbated by seriously mixed messages from Cyan about whether this bug constituted game abuse. All of these effects were bad, but they all stem from the same root, so I'll set them aside.)

Players undertook heroic measures to get the news out. There were always people in the City (and everywhere else DRC characters appeared), logging the discussion; chat logs appeared in the web forums promptly. Some players formed relay chains, retyping dialogue live for their compatriots in other game areas, who would re-retype it for the gathered crowds. The gossip vine was blazing away the entire week.

Community reaction varied wildly. I found these second-hand events fairly satisfying. Some people accepted them, but also tried hard to get into the City, in order to see the events "for real". Some people felt completely left out. Nobody, including me, thought the situation was ideal.

Conclusion: the City population limit is a problem, and Cyan needs to remove it. Right? Wrong.

Oh, the limit is a problem, and it would be great if Cyan loosened it. But it's not the problem. The problem, I think, is that Uru has no mechanism for real-time communication among huge groups of people.

...Or maybe that's not a problem. I was at a lecture recently by one of the Second Life people. He claimed that he'd rather have a thousand groups of twenty in Second Life, than host one enormous event of twenty thousand people.

And he has a point. Uru has trouble with more than forty people in a group -- but not because of the hard-coded limit, and not because of frame rate problems either. You can't talk to that many people. You can't even lecture to them. Little conversations break out, and since chatter overflows to everyone near you, conversations trip over each other. Imagine that rescue attempt with a hundred people crowded around -- or two hundred. The messages between the girl and her father would be drowned in a flood of suggestions, gasps, interjections, encouragements, questions; not to mention dissections of the story and plans for lunch. Or if, by sheer communal will, everybody managed to shut up, what would you experience? A stream of text that you could not comment on or reply to. In other words, a chat log.

Put it this way: a solution that lets more people into the City is not a solution. You can't play all day, every day, for a whole week. You have work or school, or (even if not) you should take a long walk or bake cookies or something. When you are in the game, you can't be everywhere at once. Events occured in the City, but also in several major Neighborhoods. So -- you will miss things.

The solution, or solutions, must allow you to feel involved in -- connected to -- the game events that you missed. And once that solution exists, the City population limit is reduced to being a problem. As opposed to "the" problem.

Maybe that solution exists already. I said it had to let you feel involved. Different players react differently. The forums work for many people. The in-game relay volunteers may work for others. Some folks are now tossing around the idea of an Uru-to-IRC relay bot.

There are, of course, several solutions that Cyan could implement. KI broadcast channels, game-wide, for game events. Neighborhoods with chat moderation, so that only select people could speak out loud. Relaying of select speakers from the common City to private City instances. Public imager screens displaying transcripts.

(Each of these solutions covers part of the problem, and misses other parts. For example: players also want to speak to large groups. Currently, player-organized gatherings top out at 20-40 people; but that won't always be true. So any mechanism that's restricted to Cyan personnel is incomplete. Of course, you need to think carefully about who can use what channel when, or it's just the flood all over again.)

I should note that there already two good broadcast mechanisms in Uru: the KI mail system, and pre-recorded character animations. Cyan used the mail system heavily in "Scars", and it worked fine; they can send messages to everyone in the game. It's not real-time, though -- it's for announcements, not live conversations.

The second mechanism is pre-recorded stuff, like Zandi and Yeesha at the start of every player's Uru experience. "Scars" didn't use that at all. It's obviously a lot of work to set up; much more work than Cyan folks logging into the City and acting. But it is a means of communicating with everyone in the game. And it has the advantage of reaching players in their own time, rather than on a fixed schedule. It may not be live in the sense that "Scars" was, but Cyan should keep it in mind for future episodes.

So What Would I Have Done Differently?

After all that?

Start with a bang. The event that grabbed everybody should have been Saturday morning, not late Saturday night. Yes, anticipation is great, slow buildups are great. But at this stage of the game, you want the "yow!" reaction right from the starting gate.

New Age at the beginning of the episode, or at the end? I expected Minkata to open on the first day, as did most players. The promotional announcements implied that without exactly saying so. Stupid announcements, but that doesn't answer the question.

Honestly, I think both forms are workable. If Minkata had opened Saturday morning, we would have been getting the story and the puzzles in parallel. (And it certainly would have counted as starting with a bang!) I think parallel would have been a nice experience. Whenever you were stuck on the puzzle, you could jump back and see what was happening in the City; and if nothing was happening in the storyline, you would go explore Minkata some more.

On the other hand, parallel ends sooner. "Scars" lasted eight solid days for me. If Minkata had opened at the beginning, I would have solved it just about when the story peaked, and "Scars" would have been barely five days long.

Duration is actually not the most important aspect of a monthly episode. (The whole point, after all, is to reduce a 30-days sequence of events to a week. Or to five days, if that plays out better.) So I lean slightly towards the parallel option.

But if the story and the Age tie together more -- which I'd like -- then that will determine the pacing. The story may require that the Age open early, or late, or in the middle of the story sequence. Or different Ages, or different parts of an Age, may open at different times. There are lots of possibilities, and variety is good.

An episode must be a story, not a chapter. This is my main point. "Scars" ended, but it didn't quite have an ending. (Nor did it have a cliffhanger -- that's a different feeling entirely.)

Let me be clear; I love plot elements that build slowly over several episodes. I am thrilled with the machine that fired up on Sunday night, but doesn't do anything useful -- yet. I am happy to wait to find out where Engberg's grief takes him, and what it has to do with Watson. And I am excited that we began to learn unnerving new truths about the D'ni world. But what we learned, and what we felt, and what we saw, didn't... It didn't scratch the "is that it?" itch. It wasn't a tale.

We shall see how next month goes.

Last updated May 31, 2007.

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