The Original Multiplayer Mode
As we prepare for the rollout of Generation 8 gaming consoles, let’s detour for a moment in the Wayback Machine, and see how the world’s first MMORPG, Dungeons and Dragons, worked…and what game designers and players can learn from it today.
Strictly speaking, D&D wasn’t the first multiplayer game with an interactive, malleable “world” affected by the players. You could argue that distinction goes to board games like Monopoly…or even chess, if you want to stretch the definition of a shared “world” to a 64-square board that never changes. But Dungeons and Dragons took the concept to a level orders of magnitude more complex than anything that came before…and introduced the concept of a shared narrative that transcended any board or map. Neither the cute little shoe-token nor the rook or knight have a story behind them; at the end of the game they go back into the box, with no memory of the game of which they just partook. Not so with a D&D character!
Advanced information technology and whiz-bang graphics are not necessary to have an immersive gaming experience. D&D could be, and usually was, played with no electronic aids at all. You could, of course, use a computer and dot-matrix printer to write supplementary materials like custom character sheets or house rules. I did. But for the game itself, you did not need anything electronic (I once spotted a slide rule in use at a tournament circa 1981, but I think it was more geeking out than necessity). The Internet didn’t exist—at least, not in anything like its current form. I think what would shock the modern gamer the most about viewing an early 1980s D&D game in action would be the utter lack of technology at the gaming table itself. Even the plastic molds and sprawling tactical maps of today’s tabletop games were seen only at big tournaments, if at all. Where maps were used, they usually consisted of pieces of flat cardboard with quadrille or hex paper laminated onto them. Features like walls, trees, bridges, bodies of water and dead bodies of monsters were drawn in with Vis-à-vis overhead projector pens. Usually there were lead figures to represent characters, but at times they were just penned in too. Note that painting of lead figures was uncommon, regarded as both art and luxury. Us vintage D&Derswere downright Luddites in comparison to a modern gamer tricked out with two 1080p monitors, 16 gigs of RAM and the latest Nvidia card.
In modern computer games, you generally hit Control or Alt-something-or-the-other to open up a chat window to communicate with other players. Indeed, the opportunity to interact with your fellow players—for such interaction, in fact, to create its own “meta-game” experience—is highly valued. This often takes the form of guilds or alliances. Old-school D&D had that too: you opened your mouth and spoke, as your fellow players were, like, right there in front of you. And as with modern online RPGs, you had friendships and romances…and fallings-out too, both in and out of character. You even had the occasional griefer; to this day, pencil-and-paper gaming organizations have lists of banned players just like online services.
In D&D, players left permanent marks on the game world itself. The Dungeon Master saw to it that there were reactions for character actions. This could take the form of anything from a character becoming persona non grata at a tavern for trying to pick one pocket too many, to a higher-level character founding a keep or town that permanently altered the landscape and got his name on the map. This is a concept most digital age massively-multiplayer worlds really haven’t grasped. In Dungeons and Dragons, when a dragon is slain and his treasure seized, it permanently alters the world. In online games, a new dragon with a new insta-hoard will spawn in an hour or thereabouts. There’ll be no trace of the battle, no heroes forged, no songs sung in local taverns. I think this is a major missing piece of most modern multiplayer gaming experiences…and why the few massively multiplayer games that offer at least some smidgeon of this (like Evony and Kingdoms of Camelot, where players can found towns on common maps visible to all) do better than one might expect.
There’s quite a bit of talk about obsessive behavior amongst today’s online gamers, so much so that it’s even getting attention in peer-reviewed journals. So could a gaming experience without graphics, without sound effects, without any electronics, make people forget about life and immerse themselves wholly in the game for a (perhaps arguably unhealthy) long period of time? I can tell you that some old-school D&Ders got pretty heavily into their game. At the university I attended, it was not uncommon for players to dress in period garb (much like fandoms do at conventions in contemporary times), and play in games that would begin late Friday afternoon and proceed nonstop until sometime Sunday…fueled by epic binges of pizza, Mountain Dew, and Jolt Cola. Indeed, some of the same types of controversy modern video games experience, were experienced by Dungeons and Dragons players back in the 1980s. “The more things change…”
So what can modern game designers take away from the vintage Dungeons and Dragons experience?
The concept of adventuring through a shared universe has staying power. The exact expression of this has changed over the decades, but the concept of “being” someone else and kicking butts and leaving a mark on a virtual world is still as popular in 2013 as it was in 1983, if not even more so.
The technology per se doesn’t drive this. Technology plays an important role in making the experience flashy and accessible, true enough, but at the end of the day it’s an auxiliary role. Frames per second and pixels and vertex shading do not, in and of themselves, a game make. You can handle the math with a slipstick, or cocktail-napkin calculations.
What does make a great game? The opportunity for players to become part of—indeed, to help create and drive—the story. Avenues (like chat windows and well-moderated forums) for players to interact out of game and enjoy meta-game experiences like fan fiction and after-action reports. A sense that what players do actually matters in game and even alters the game. The game evolving in difficulty as the player progresses through it. Players having a voice in how the game progresses, including the ability to set their own goals rather than being constrained to a linear path. This formula is what drove Dungeons and Dragons to become a gaming legend. Grognardian preferences for the pencil-and-paper experience aside, this winning formula is just as accessible to computer game designers today. Now if only we saw it more often…