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May 05, 2003 | interview

We all know what happened to MUDs. The text-based online dungeon crawls of yesteryear begat Meridian 59, Ultima Online and finally EverQuest, which begat so much raw cash that it spawned an industry within an industry. But what happened to MOOs? Based on the MUD Object Oriented code created by Pavel Curtis at PARC (whose test case, LambdaMOO, was the site of the "Rape In Cyberspace" of Julian Dibbell's famous article), MOOs fulfill the other side of the promise of immersive worlds (AKA cyberspace, the Metaverse, or whatever you want to call it). EverQuest puts you in someone else's world, but in a MOO, the world was yours to help create. Perhaps for that reason, MOOs tended only to attract the upper echelon of intelligent, technical freaks - the sort of people who have weblogs these days.

You just know that Stewart Butterfield was on a MOO way back when. His collegiate studies were in cognitive science and philosophy, and I can say from experience that those types were drawn to the MOO's questions of constructed reality and social illusion like low-level EQ fighters to a mob-spawn point. When early versions of Mosaic and Netscape sucked all the casual users out of MOOs (and MUDs, for that matter) in the mid-90's, many who might eventually have hacked MOOcode started hacking JavaScript and server-side Perl instead. Not only was Butterfield blogging before it was cool, but he created a contest called The 5K that was equal parts political statement against web-bloat, and demo scene for JavaScripters. Now he's taken the surprising move of entering the most cutthroat business in computing - games - with a company called Ludicorp and a multiplayer online world called the Game Neverending. GNE takes the social focus of MOOs and combines them with the Web technologies the MOO tribe has adopted since. The game that will result later this year just might hit the massively multiplayer gaming market in its blind spot.

Butterfield took time out from his young company's frantic push towards beta to exchange a few emails with Mindjack.

Mike Sugarbaker: What kinds of games did you play growing up, and how did they lead you to the idea in Ludicorp's mission statement?

"The secret is, even though it's called Game Neverending, it's not really a game at all. It's a social space designed to facilitate and enable play."

- Ludicorp CEO Stewart Butterfield

Stewart Butterfield: When I was really little I had an Intellivision, and though I enjoyed the car racing game, Astrosmash, and Advanced D&D, it was Utopia (a very early sim game where you controlled an island and tried to build a good society) that really caught my attention.

A few years later we got an Apple II and I played Hard Hat Mac, Aztec and Drol (classics all) while learning a lot of useless AppleBasic. Still later, I played some arcade games (none more than Galaga) but it was when the second generation of Macs came out that I got inspired. Balance of Power was great, but it was Sim City that started me on this course.

Even then I thought about what a game like Sim City would be like if you replaced the probabilistic functions which represented the populace whither people making real decisions - and that's a big part of what we are trying to build now. I like to think of it as a God game without the God.

But I think Ludicorp's mission comes from something a little more encompassing that games: play is a much larger and more fundamental concept. We play all the time, even when there is nothing like a formal game going on - think of great conversations and all the verbal play,of "goofing around," of flirting, of musicians jamming: these are all moments where the creativity is flowing, you feel completely alive, and you are able to fully express yourself at the peak of your ability without even trying. It is the new possibilities for these kinds of states that we are trying to create.

The secret is, even though it's called Game Neverending, it's not really a game at all. It's a social space designed to facilitate and enable play. The game-elements are there to provide both the constraints and the building blocks of interaction - since the thing you'll notice about the kind of play I'm talking about above is that it is the kind of thing that goes on between people. Ludicorp was started because we imagine all kinds of social computing applications that we'd love to use and participate in, and no one else seems to be building them.

MS: GNE's aesthetic, at least as far as a browse through the prototype's item encyclopedia shows, takes after the absurdist postmodern ethos of places like LambdaMOO - an aesthetic which stands to reason there, given that nearly anyone who could code was allowed to. Unless I'm wrong, GNE players are restricted to building social structures and "decorating" pre-fabbed objects, rather than building features onto the world in game terms. Is that likely to change, and in your opinion, does it matter?

SB: Well, there are lots of questions there: we will be offering lots of ways for the players to build features into the game, though this probably won't start with the first release (we'll start offering more advanced APIs once we have gone through the initial stabilization period).

There's been a few threads on our message boards about this topic and we are working with a few of the players to get a sense of their priorities for parts of the game for us to open up to outside programmers - sometime in the next few months we'll be announcing a developer network with resources, documentation and support for adding on to the world. This is something that is really important for us - although it will never get as free-form as a MOO since the resource constraints are one of the things that provide the tension which make the whole thing game-like, we want to gradually free the game world from our control. When we start, we'll have developed about 0.1% of the land on the map --the rest is up to the players: they'll be creating new hubs and building the connections between them.

More importantly, once there is a mature political system in place, we'll start handing control over to the political leaders - it may end up that different countries, continents or city-states in the game operate by totally different rules.

As one player said: "By all means, provide an 'Object Wizard' for non-programmers to use when the game starts, but leave the task of building the 'Killer Object App' to the players. You guys at Ludicorp are smart, but we are many, and clearly have time on our hands." This is very true: and as much as possible we are going to leave it open for the community to build the tools which enable the community to evolve and extend the game. This includes everything from group management tools to software for creating game objects.

Finally, we will be offering things like gateways to external instant messaging networks, weblogs and email so people can participate in the game without actually logging in - as much as possible, we want to blur the lines between the game and the rest of the internet.

MS: How will GNE interact with weblogs? Aren't they too static a form of "social software" to be a part of a living, breathing game? How can a game such as GNE add context to a relationship between weblogs, that goes beyond the stark binary nature of 'I linked you or I didn't'?

SB: Well, there are lots of things we could do. To be honest, at this point I'm not sure which things will make it off the drawing board and into the system. We made a decision on the technical side early on that every action in the system could be asynchronous.

That means, for example, if I request to 'make your acquaintance' (the basic form of making contacts and forming relationships in the game) I can come across you in some place in the game world and do it real time, when we are both logged in, and you will get a message right away that asks you whether you'd like to become acquainted.

Or, I can stumble across your weblog in my daily surf, notice that you have a GNE widget on your site, and make the request from there. You may not be logged in to the game right then, but the request will be there waiting for you next time you log in and you can reply at your leisure. (You could also choose to have messages like that directed to your email or instant messaging client.)

In the prototype we had this widget that GNE testers could include on their personal sites which would display their online status (in the game) and allow visitors to their site to send them messages in the game the messages were "notes" which were game objects that people could pick and drop and pass back and forth. Getting my first note in real time from this method was a bit of a thrill because I had never had that kind of interaction with a reader of my site.

These are pretty simple examples, but there is a lot more along the same lines: the widget could indicate what other GNE players were currently viewing the same weblog at that moment and allow you to launch a message session with them. Or it could list things you have available for sale in your store (using live inventory data) and offer directions and a map for how to get there. Or it could list trades you were willing to make and allow people to initiate the trade right from your site, without having to log in to the game.

We are batting around a lot of ideas in the space, some of which we're not ready to make public, and most of which won't happen in the first release. But it is an area which I think holds a lot of long term potential. Most of it requires people going to the trouble of including snippets of our code on their site and the ideal would be to integrate at the level of the weblogging software that our players are using and we're in discussions with some makers of that software right now. Either way, some simple forms of GNE-to-weblog interaction will happen right away and some more interesting things will happen in the first few years of GNE's post-launch development.

MS: GNE seems to want to integrate itself into the lives of its players (it's played in an ordinary web browser window, and has gateways to all these communications media we're already using), rather than blotting it out with a full-screen window like traditional online games (EQ and the like). Obviously, if Ludicorp felt that isolating players into "another world" in the game were more valuable, you would have done so, but can you speak to some of the social tradeoffs of integrating a game into the real world?

SB: I see a continuum of possible modes which players can adopt when engaging with game: from the completely anonymous player who offers no information or pointers tying them to an email address or a website, or even a gender or nation, to those who use their real names in the game and point to weblogs with about pages that reveal more or less everything there is to about the person.

One of the motivations for making GNE browser-based in the first place was interoperability with other internet applications, but even that doesn't necessarily mean revealing any real world personal information. For example, instant message conversations will talk place through proxy-bots - programs that collect and distribute messages from a group of people, any member of which may be inside or outside the game at any moment - so other players would only see the name that you used in the game, not your real instant messaging account.

Since a big part of the game is creating things - house, parts of the map, groups, new objects, etc., there is a real motivation for people to be able to take credit. And to whatever extent an individual player wants to be able to say "I, Milton J. Arbuckle of Minneapolis created this thing", it should be possible. (On the flip side, if someone develops a really cool fan site, than a formal (but simple) way should exist for me to follow a link from their creation outside the actual game space to their character in the game.)

Finally, because the game has lots of social possibilities, having a really ambiguous relationship between player (real person) and character (game person) was something that appealed to us. We want people to be able to think of their character sometimes as an avatar (i.e., their direct representative in the game world) and sometimes as an agent - doing stuff behind the scenes, even when the player is not connected to the game and a puppet under the players' complete control when they are logged in.

At this point it is too early to be able to know what the consequences will be, but we're betting that the ability make an explicit and externally-viewable bond between yourself and the character you are playing will make things much more interesting for a lot people who already live a good deal of their lives online.

MS: Are you at all worried about the interaction between GNE's economy and the real world's economy? Can you see anyone setting up a purple-paper sweatshop and hitting eBay, and would you care?

SB: I am unworried! Que sera sera. We have always been against the idea of selling stuff in the game for real money ourselves since it ... just seems lame (though I guess, like anything else, this could change). So, if people have the wherewithal to hoard and eBay their stuff, and if the buyers are there, then it'll happen.

However, I don't think it'll happen. We are trying to design the game so that relationships, reputation, skills and general who you are counts for more than the what stuff you have, so there should be less incentive for someone to good looking to convert their real-world currency to game things.

MS: Recently, the graphical MMPOG A Tale In The Desert created a voting system, in which players can write and pass laws which are actually binding for the developers of the game code. But in the days of LambdaMOO, the binding voting system devolved into a source of stress for everyone. With respect to the kinds of human interactions GNE wants to encourage, what might a democratic process in GNE look like?

SB: This is by far the aspect of the world that is hardest to design and the area that we have had the most unresolved debates, arguments, proposals, discussions and pillowfights. (I have a saying: "It is easy to make software that does something. It is almost impossible to write software that will do anything.") This is very complex.

Therefore, I had to turn this question over to Ludicorp's most passionate advocate for democratic complexity, Ben Cerveny. Ben says:

Questions on voting open up one of the fundamental curiosities we're poking at in the design of the game, "what is the nature of human social self-organization?" Part of what characterizes the 'play' of a game like GNE is communal experimentation with and exploration of the mechanisms and boundaries that define the social process. Inherent in the proposition of 'Neverending'-ness is the assumption that the Game will remain engaging through constant transformation, which will originate for the most part in the minds of its own participants.

Of course, we are also concerned about the prospect of self-organization for more practical reasons. Like Pavel Curtis and the LambdaMOO wizards, we hope to abdicate much of the responsibility (and minutiae) of world cultural mechanics and maintenance to empowered players once we set the platform for narrative interaction in motion. In an attempt to avoid the gradual messiness that befell LambdaMOO after the introduction of its voting mechanism, we are implementing some low-level 'social balancing' mechanisms we hope will be somewhat self-correcting.

The rules of our game can be broken down into two broad categories, cultural laws and 'natural game mechanics' (physics, 'making' recipes, et cetera). In GNE, the world will be big enough to accommodate a diversity of cultural laws, scoped by the bounds of nations created by players within the game. Within the context of nations, the respective governments will be empowered to enact binding social laws that apply to all players interacting therein. These governments will be formed through mechanisms of group formation and the players' ability to bequeath their trust to individuals and to these groups. A player or group is empowered to make decisions relative to the amount of trust he/it has received.

The system of natural laws can be transformed through a less direct approach. As players gain skills in GNE, they are able to 'make' objects of ever-growing utility and complexity using available resources and recipes in the game world. Eventually, their skills mature into an ability to 'invent' new objects. These new inventions may have the ability to affect some of the more basic dynamics of the game (movement costs, production of resources, etc). The invention process itself will be constrained (probably as a game-within-the-game) such that game balance cannot be grossly disturbed. As new player capabilities are added into the world, guilds will arise to regulate the development and availability of such enabling objects.

MS: If Ludicorp were forced at gunpoint to make an action shooter for the Xbox-or-something, and money were no object, what would you make?

SB: After a long discussion around the office we settled on three concepts - all of which should be available sometime in 2009.

  • Paleolithica! - A "shooter" (slings, spears, rocks) of Cro-magnon vs Neanderthal, set in and around the Pyrenees, Catalonia, Basque Country and the Langedouc. Advance your combat skills by developing new linguistic practices to co-ordinate with your fellow fighters. (You could also get into hand-to-hand combat and rip out each others' throats! Quest for Clans of Cave Bear Fires!!)

  • Library Bookbomber! - Set in the Library of Babel, you play Borges the nearly-blind Librarian battling a non-denumerable infinity of foreign-speaking janitors while hopping from low-ceilinged hexagonal room to low-ceilinged hexagonal room. Drop books on them, throw books at them: do anything you can do prevent them from kicking you out and bringing on the cataclysmic "closing time".

  • Nanoswarm! - If the budget really allowed for exploration, custom hardware would be the way to go! Imagine some kind of consumer productization of a local positioning system [like a spatially tracked ring or stylus] that gave the players gestural expression. Then, the game could involve gesturally shaping the behavior of billowing swarms of nanobots dancing in the air between combatants.

But first, we will finish GNE.

Mike Sugarbaker is a writer, coder and Certified Slacker-Futurist who lives in Oakland and at He previously covered the second Open Source Content Management Conference for Mindjack.

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