GDCO 2010: Interview with Dr. Richard Bartle

At the Game Developer's Choice Awards of GDC Online 2010, Dr. Richard Bartle was the first person to receive The Online Game Legend Award. He is best known for co-creating MUD, the first virtual world, as well as his research that inspired the Bartle Player Test. What did he think about winning such a prestigious award? Follow along after the jump to read his thoughts on modern MMOs, the state of the genre and which upcoming MMO he's looking forward to the most.
Massively: First off all I want to congratulate you on your award here at GDC.

Richard Bartle: Thank you.

I want to go back to 1978, and MUD1 is about to launch. Did you ever anticipate the effect that it would have on the future of gaming and virtual worlds.

First of all, we didn't know that there were hundreds of other people writing things just like this elsewhere in the world, but we did know that what we were creating was something that would make a difference. That's part of the reason we wrote it, because of the way it empowered people -- the way it enabled them to be themselves. It wasn't just an intellectual exercise, we were doing it for idealistic reasons as well as for the fun of programming it, because it is actually fun if you're a programmer.

I'd like to talk about that -- the freedom. In an interview with Massively at GDC, Richard Vogel mentioned the same thing -- that when Ultima Online launched, they were very excited about the freedom it gave players, and how that was actually their sales campaign. In later years, MMOs have added a lot more structure, which some would say ends up stifling freedom. Is there a way to reach a balance?

"In the old days, we had permadeath. What that meant is that if you were a jerk, you were a dead jerk."

There is a balance, it's just that players aren't willing to accept it, so we can't really do that now. In the old days, we had permadeath. What that meant is that if you were a jerk, you were a dead jerk. Now, the only modern MMO that comes close to that is EVE Online. You don't die, but since you're pretty well defined by your spaceship, and your spaceship got blown into tiny little atomic pieces, you pretty much lost. So if you're a jerk, then you're going to suffer from it.

You can't do it in a modern MMO because some players have never even heard of permadeath. They would be staggered to find that if they died they didn't just lose a few minutes while they trotted back to their corpse. Their entire character is just off the database. With freedom comes responsibility, and the problem with giving people freedom today is that they're not prepared to accept the responsibility that comes with it.

One of the things that's amazing is the social bonds that develops in these games. Was that something you ever anticipated?

Yes. We had these visions of creating places that people would visit because it was better than the real world. We were only working on a DEC system 10 mainframe -- your recorder here has more computing power than a DEC-10 mainframe. But we saw these things as places, and I certainly expected people to go and do what they'd be able to do in real places. Because they were free from the real world constraints on them, they could be themselves or find themselves.

So we weren't surprised at all by this. In fact, I'm kind of disappointed in many ways that things haven't gone as fast and as far as I was hoping. At the moment, we're on a bit of a downward slide for MMOs because they're so expensive to develop, and that means people can't really experiment very well. They're being spread out, and people are playing them for reasons which are fine for gameplay reasons, but they're not really taking advantage of what makes MMOs special. So 10, 20 years from now, people will be looking back at UO, which is rightfully winning an award here, and think, "why did anybody ever find that fun." And they don't understand why people were playing it, or what it is about it.

There are a lot of new big budget games coming out that seem to be trying new things. Are there any in particular that you're looking forward to?

There are two that I'm particularly looking forward to. There's the CCP title World of Darkness, because CCP has got absolute integrity with EVE Online. They never wavered from anything and they haven't in any way dumbed it down.

The other one is the Bioware one, Star Wars: The Old Republic, because there's this kind of sense that this could be the last great ocean liner before everybody starts going by airplane, and hopefully it's not going to hit an iceberg. And that's the other thing, because its so expensive, if they don't get 2 or 3 million players, it could be regarded as a failure, and that's really a shame. The thing is, Bioware's got this reputation for thinking about what they're creating.

"There's this kind of sense that this (SWTOR) could be the last great ocean liner before everybody starts going by airplane, and hopefully it's not going to hit an iceberg."

I played Dragon Age: Origins, and I didn't get along with it to start with. But then, once I managed to overcome my initial feeling that it was running on rails, I really got to understand what they were doing there. Because they're actually thoughtful about what they're doing -- things are there for a reason. In Dragon Age: Origins, the priests are all female, and that's done for a reason, that isn't just done for, "oh what should we make the priests, all female or male?" No that's done for a reason. There's lots of that in Dragon Age, and I hope there's lots of that in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I just hope that there are enough people playing it that it doesn't get slaughtered, and people who aren't going to be writing bad reviews of it just because they can, just to take a pot shot of the old aged gunslinger. Because the amount of thought, the amount of work that's gone into it, I'm hoping it's going to be good.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you for your thoughts on social media. A lot of the original visionaries -- Richard Garriot, Raph Koster, even Brad McQuaid -- have made a foray into social gaming. What are your thoughts on it?

I see it more as a movies against television kind of thing. When television came out, movies were all looking down their noses and saying what dreadful things they were, and yet television was far more popular than movies.

I'd say personally, the way that the social media games are developing is too scarily mercenary for me. There's so much to do with metrics, and changing game designs not because you feel that the game design isn't saying the right thing, but that a button isn't being pushed enough. It sounds to me more like you're playing the game of optimizing your stable of games rather than designing games.

People design games for a number of reasons. If you want to design games to make money, well, you're in the wrong business -- you should be a banker. If you want to design games because you want to improve the lot of individuals, you're in the wrong business -- you should be in a charity. If you want to spread your political thoughts, well, why aren't you on a radio show? Why are you writing games?

The reason to make games is because it's an art form, and it's a way of articulating your own thoughts that you can only explain through the means of a game. And that's something which is hard to do with social games which are six weeks to make them, and three weeks and then they're dead. You can't put much soul into it. It's not why I create worlds, and so it's not for me, but I'm not trying to disparage other people.

One final question. What would you like to see in an MMO that hasn't been seen yet?

I'd like to see, in a modern MMO, an ending.

Imagine a game which was, say, escape from a prisoner of war camp. So you're stuck in the cold and you're trying to escape, and the whole thing is that you're attempting to get pieces of equipment and to dig tunnels, and anything else you can do. And then finally, after 18 months of this, you escape, you run across the river, you get into Switzerland, and you're free. Game over. On a high. There's no end game, where you're coming back into the camp, and running little instances. The whole point of it is to reach the stage where you don't have to play it.

I'd like to see something like that, as an end. Because otherwise, people never get to be themselves, because you've trapped them: "You've got to keep being here, because we aren't letting you out." But once you, yourself have decided it's time to let go and you can escape, then you're back to the real world, and now you're armed with everything you've learned from playing the MMO. Something where, at the end, you've finished playing -- that would be what I'd like to see. However I won't, because no one who funds these things is ever going to say, "You want them to stop playing?!" But if the theory's right, then that should make the games. The players will come back, they won't cancel, they just won't play with their main characters.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with Massively, and congratulations again on GDC's Online Game Legend Award.
This article was originally published on Massively.