a massively-multiplayer game of burglary and home defense by Jason Rohrer
by dinopoke » 03 Mar 2013 07:08
a massively-multiplayer game of burglary and home defense by Jason Rohrer
by dinopoke » 03 Mar 2013 07:10
RPS: Can you tell us more about the Castle Doctrine? All I really know is that initial mysterious reveal in October.
Jason Rohrer: In that reveal, I talked about how it’s a massively multiplayer game, which I guess is something people are wondering about. I’m doing it by keeping it simple, and keeping it asynchronous. You don’t ever see other characters running about in the game. Because it’s a game about home defence, and robbery, and burglarising other people’s houses, obviously that only happens when you’re not at home. So it works really well thematically to have these houses that you’re working on and editing while you’re home, then when you leave your home, when you go to sleep at night, log out of the game, or you go out of your house to go and rob somebody else’s house, then your house is open to being robbed by somebody else while you’re not there. Then you return to your house to see the results of that robbery.
RPS: How do you make people care about their virtual possessions, to the point that they’ll actually feel violated when it’s gone?
Jason Rohrer: You start the game with a relatively small amount of money, in terms of the scale of the economy of the game, so you use that money and think about the best possible security you can potentially build for that amount of money. Then you have a family that’s in the house as well, a wife and two children. You get to position them in the house, and think about how you’re going to protect them with security as well. So when you’ve run out of money and you’ve built the best security that you can, you go out into the world and you try to get through other people’s security. You can buy tools and so on to do that. Then you come back to your house, and if you’re lucky your security’s worked and kept people out while you were away. If it has, you can build up a little more security with the money that you’ve gotten, right. It takes some time, it takes some planning, it takes some thought to build up a house that actually has really good security that’s going to trick people and keep people out.
As people come to rob your house, and they fail because your security is good, then all the stuff they were carrying, all their tools and their guns and their saws, all the stuff that they didn’t use by the time they died in your house, gets put into a vault with all your other possessions. So over time stuff kind of accumulates in your house. You can see a list of houses in the game and see how many times… Like, 25 people have tried robbing this house and ten of them have died trying. So, over time you can see the wealth kind of accumulating in this house because so many people failed. So you’ve got all this stuff, stolen from other people’s houses, and you’ve got money and you’ve got all this valuable stuff from people failing at your security. Losing all that is a real dagger in the heart, right?
Jason Rohrer: Yeah. Anyway, back to the point – I’d been working on this list for about a year, inspired by all this stuff, but it was always just a game where you were alone in your house, and you were building your security, trying to protect your physical possessions, and you’re going out and trying to steal the physical possessions of other people, breaking through their physical security… Then I had this dream in the middle of the night, and I realised that the core of this game is really about protecting a family, but there was nothing about it in this game. That was about a month and a half ago, actually, right towards the end of development of the game. I realised what was missing was a wife and kids mechanic.
RPS: Something that you really want to protect, rather than just collect.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah. They’re not player characters, they’re not controlled by anybody else. You get to place them in your house, it’s a wife and a girl and a boy, and they’re unique. There are different appearances that they can have that are assigned to you. You might get a wife with red hair and a green dress, or a little girl with blond braids, that sort of thing. And they have names, unique names. So you have this unique little family, and you want to protect them because they’re unique. If they get killed, they’re gone forever and you’ll miss them, right? But then I still felt like they weren’t hooked into the mechanics of the game enough.
You were asking before about how you make somebody care about these virtual possessions or virtual people, so I gave the wife a gameplay function. When someone breaks into your house she tries to leave the house through the front door, from wherever you’ve stuck her in the house. If she gets out of the house, she carries half of the money with her. So if somebody gets into your vault and steals all your stuff, when you get back to your house and you find it’s been robbed but your wife is standing by the front door, she’s still got half of the money left. But if somebody manages to find her as she’s making her way through the house trying to get to the front door, and then kill her, they can take that half of the money she’s carrying. Then they can also potentially get to your vault and take the other half too, and leave you with nothing.
So if you let somebody’s wife escape, which is sort of the altruistic thing to do, you’re not only doing this thing which is symbolic – I’m not going to kill your wife – you’re also leaving them with some sort of bootstrap to get back into the game after they come back and find their life destroyed. So the wife has both this thematic meaning and a very important gameplay meaning. The moral choice that you’re making when you decide to kill somebody’s wife, obviously has a lot of thematic weight behind it and you’ll probably feel kind of strange when you do it, also has this moral implication in the game. You’re basically scorching this person’s earth when you do this, taking everything that they’ve worked on, this house that they’ve built up, and leaving them with nothing to repair it.
RPS: And breaking their hearts to boot.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right, and doing this very immoral thing to them. I really wanted those two things to be so intimately linked that it’s not just a virtual moral question, about whether you want to kill this imaginary wife. It’s actually a real-world moral question. Which is strange, to try and build that into a game and… I guess I’m still grappling with this, with the moral implications of this game, what it means. It’s kind of an experiment. Some of my early testers – it just got launched into testing on Friday – and somebody just came into my house and killed my two children for no reason and left. They posted on my testers’ mailing list, “whoever’s kids I just killed, haha!”
RPS: God almighty.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, and I was like “that’s not the reaction I was expecting.”
RPS: But people are going to do that. This is the internet.
Jason Rohrer: Of course. And the game does also provide you with security tapes, so you can watch someone who has robbed your house, see how they did it, and see every dastardly deed that they did when they were there. Then you can see their in-game name, their anonymous name, and you can go potentially after them for revenge, or to get your possessions back or whatever. So they might also want to scorch your earth in order to prevent you doing that, so you don’t have the resources to come back at them. But you can always come back at them in a second life, after you die or commit suicide you can start over from scratch.
There’s a potential for people to become kingpins in the game and rise to the top, have a little empire where thousands of people have tried to get into their house and all failed, but eventually everybody’s going to fall.
RPS: Going back to the wife and the fact she’s there to protect money, it almost seems as though you’ve taken the question of love out of it, and replaced it with money. The wife’s purpose becomes about money rather than your personal attachment to her. It almost seems like a statement.
Jason Rohrer: I’m not trying to make a particular statement with that, as much as I’m trying to get somebody to feel love, some sort of attachment, or feel like they want to protect this person. This is what the game is about, it’s about protecting these things which are vulnerable and important to you, trying to elicit that emotion even if it’s a false, indirect version of that emotion. It’s worth trying to do. I’m not trying to make a statement about [cackles] your spouse is only valuable to you because she has money. It’s just about trying to make you feel this profound sense of loss. And these family members are unique, they’re these sort of unique, collectable pets [laughs].
The game has permadeath, even in your own house – if you stumble into one of your own traps, you die permanently and lose everything. And if you make a mistake in somebody else’s house and die, you die permanently and lose everything. So, along with losing everything and starting over from scratch with an empty house and a new family, you can potentially have a few of your family members killed and they’ll be gone forever until you die. So you can go from having a wife and two kids to a wife and one kid, or one last orphan kid without a mother. That, I guess, has some emotional weight to it, because you grew attached to their names and how they looked, you’ve been protecting them for a while, so it’s a sort of pet owner-level attachment. They’re just little pixellated characters, they’re not like characters from Sleep Is Death that actually have conversations with you.
RPS: It sounds like, as well as the political aspect, it’s more consciously gamey than a lot of your other stuff. Obviously if you mention Passage, there’ll probably be a large contingent of people claiming ‘there’s no game in there’, whereas this sounds like it has compulsion loops and feedback loops and…
Jason Rohrer: Oh, c’mon, you know that all those people who say that about Passage didn’t realise that they can also push the down arrow, right? ‘I held down the right arrow key for five minutes and watched a movie, that’s not a game.’ [Laughs] ‘Wait, there’s a maze? There were treasure chests? There were decisions to make?’
So, y’know, is this one more game-y? Uh… Not intentionally so. If you look at the game, in terms of what you can place in your house, there are three types of wall and they all have completely different functions. There’s wiring and switches, a couple of different types of switch that all function in completely different ways, there’s three different kind of animals that all function in different ways. That’s about it, there’s maybe about 20 different things that you can place in your house, and when you go to look at the tools you can carry in your backpack there’s about 10 of them. And they all function in totally different ways.
So it’s a very clean, no frills, no fluff, no filler kind of design. Everything is there because it fits together and has a reason for being there. The classic strategy of [mock announcer voice] ‘load the game up with all this cool stuff that you can collect, and that has only slight variations, like 15 different kinds of swords that function slightly differently,’ there’s none of that in there. Some people have complained about that already, like ‘I’d really like to put couches in my house, or lamps.’ And I’m like ‘this is not FarmVille.’ I’m avoiding all this fluff, all that stuff which just appeals to people who play a lot of games or for whatever reason are drawn to that kind of stuff.
The other thing about this game is that there’s this idea of player-generated content that’s been floated around for about the last four or five years, and how interesting this is. Like Spore and Minecraft and Little Big Planet, these kinds of games that let you modify the world. But when I play those games player-generated content kind of sits in this place where it’s cool to see the stuff made by other players, but it really doesn’t matter to the game so much. Like the way your creature looks in Spore doesn’t really have much of a gameplay function.
RPS: Yeah. They said it would, but the reality was that different legs meant a different animation.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, two legs versus eight legs, or whether they have a short neck or a long neck. There’s a couple of things, like whether they have claws on the front or something, but we were all making these things which look cool but basically they just look cool. And in Minecraft, which was another inspiration for Castle Doctrine. Part of the inspiration is protecting your house in a multiplayer Minecraft server, where you bury your house under a hillside and hope nobody finds it. Then you come back a few days later, you make sure it’s still there and no-one found it and cut through the hillside and got into it. In there, there’s all this player-generated content but once you get past building the most basic cave that protects you from monsters, everything else is just icing.
So I wanted to make player-generated content that was really central to the game, but that mattered to gameplay, where every wall that you place has some mechanical meaning. You’re building this house not just because it looks cool, you’re building it because you’re actually engineering this thing which is for a purpose, which is to keep everybody else out. And if you do a bad job crafting and inventing your thing, then it’s going to do a bad job of keeping people out.
RPS: And presumably if a player sees certain structures he’ll know what they mean, it’s not just ‘hey, he’s built a nice barn, I think I’ll burn it.’ It implies a certain challenge.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right. This player-generated content is encountered by the other players and has mechanical meaning for them as well. It serves as the meat of the game. The meat of the game is going and poking around in somebody else’s house and trying to figure out how to get through this without dying. Even in the first couple of days of testing, I’ve already had that experience a number of times. I’ve watched replays of people looking at my security and sniffing around, then finally taking a risk and going for it, applying what they’ve discovered.
RPS: Watching the replays sounds really tense – you know you’ve put something here or here, are they going to go that way, are they going to find your family?
Jason Rohrer: Or ‘they cut the wrong wire, yes!’ Exactly. So I really wanted to have that be at the core of it, so if you say this is more gamey… If you look at other games that explore any of these territories at all, they all do the more kitchen sink, filler approach. I really avoided all that kind of stuff, so in that way it doesn’t feel very gamey, you’re looking at this more honed, refined set of objects and trying to figure out how best to place them in your house to achieve a very clear effect.
In terms of feedback loops and things like that, there’s no levelling up, there are no player powers. A single hit from a pitbull or a single step on the electric floor or into a pit, you’re dead.
RPS: But there’s cash, yeah? Is there not an element of it being about making that number go up all the time?
Jason Rohrer: There is, yeah. You start off with some cash in the game and that’s what you use to build your initial security, then all the additional cash that you acquire comes from successfully robbing other players. So it’s not easy cash and it’s not something where you just click a button or come back later and harvest. It takes a lot of work and planning. And the game landscape is going to change over time, because after people try certain types of security and everyone figures out how to get past that…
One of the types is to create three doors that you can’t see down the hallways of, put a sticky switch behind the door that closes the door after you walk in. One of the doors has the vault in it and the other two have nothing in it, or maybe has a pitbull in it. So you have to pick one of these doors, then the door closes behind you. That is something that a bunch of people have been experimenting with, how best to set these up so that someone is really tricked into walking through the wrong door. Or how to set it up so they can’t just use the saw to cut through the wall next to the door, all this kind of stuff. This was just in first few days, people were discovering stuff that I hadn’t even thought of. And once people have figured out how to out-smart that, they move on to more sophisticated security, and so on.
The landscape is going to be constantly changing, it’s not like ‘so long as they keep swinging the sword at this one monster, eventually they’ll get their reward.’ The rewards are only given out in cases of you demonstrating skill and intelligence. And the skill and intelligence required in this multiplayer setting as the game goes on is just going to increase. It’s not like it’s going to get easier because you become more powerful – there’s no power fantasy. You’re always just as vulnerable as you ever were. There’s no body armour. One wrong move and you’re dead, your whole empire is gone.
RPS: Are you sort of prepared, if it comes out and very quickly people come up with unbreakable strategies, to go in there and add new things in response? Or does that not sit with the idea that there’s no flab and everything’s fixed?
Jason Rohrer: This was one of the big worries back when I was designing the game in the beginning. Somebody’s going to design some sort of unbreakable security, then their house is going to just sit there and nobody’s going to be able to get through it and that’ll kind of be the end of the game. And once everybody sees how that person did it, they all copy them. So how do you prevent that? How do I make the server detect that somebody’s house is unbreakable? There’s no way good way to do that, there’s always some way to outsmart any algorithm that I come up with.
So the way that I handle it is almost this Judo move elegant solution, which is that after building your house and designing it and you’re ready to submit it to the server, you have to get through your own house and get to your own vault using no tools. There has to be a clear, safe path. You can’t put, like, 50 pitbulls standing right around the vault, because when you go up to the vault the pitbulls are going to get you, right. You can’t even be carrying a gun in your own house to shoot your own pitbulls. Basically you’re doing a dry run, a safety drill for your own family, and they all run out of the house and you get to see how they run out, then you have to get through your own security without dying. If you make a mistake while testing your own house, mixing your own dynamite effectively, and you blow yourself up, that’s it.
So there’s peril around every corner, but that makes the game totally fair. It’s impossible to make a house that is unbreakable, because you yourself have to be able to break it.
RPS: I like the idea that you’re terrified of your own house. You want to try something new out, but it might kill you, so you might be moderate than you necessarily should be.
Jason Rohrer: Right, and whenever you’re testing all the stuff that you’ve put in your house, you’re sort of the dummy going through a test track, but a vulnerable dummy who can die. I wanted to people to be, for the lack of a better expression, eating their own dog food. You’re dealing with dangerous stuff, and the vast number of people who are bitten and killed by pitbulls are the pitbulls’ owners.
There’s also the stuff about how you’re much more likely to be shot by your own gun than to shoot somebody else and all that, which is a classic anti-gun argument. But the idea is that you’re dealing with this dangerous stuff, and you’re going to inflict it on somebody else, it’s actually being inflicted a little bit on you as well, it’s poisoning your own environment. That makes it fair and really prevents any of the stuff where somebody comes up with unbreakable security.
We also have the benefit of potentially hundreds or thousands of people trying to get past that person’s security, maybe collectively if need be. So if someone’s setup something really tricky that requires a really smart solution, you could have a bunch of people try to collaborate.