Second Star to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning

Richard Bartle gave a talk at the IMGDC about different approaches to games wherein he compares games to Dorothy (of Oz fame), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and Wendy (of Neverland fame).  As his works are wont to do, this got me to thinking… and as is not uncommon, I found myself agreeing with much of what Bartle said, though not all of it.

To summarize briefly, Bartle suggests that Dorothy-style games are about achievement; Alice-style games are all about exploration and discovery, and Wendy-style games are about socializing and narrative flow.  Or perhaps it’s more that Dorothy-style games have clear direction (designer-created content), Alice-style games are open and directionless (sandbox with heavy user-generated content), and Wendy-style games are explicitly about user-created content.

Bartle then suggests that Wendy-style games don’t really mesh with Dorothy-style and Alice-style, which is an idea I’ll return to in a bit.  He proposes that WoW is one Dorothy-style game (leveling) followed by another nested Dorothy-style game (raiding), which strikes me as quite accurate.  He then goes on to suggest that games would be well-served to begin Dorothy-style and evolve into Alice-style; I think this is intriguing, but propose that there’s room for Wendy in there as well.

Imagine, if you will, a game that starts out similarly to today’s Diku model – the player is introduced to the skill or level system and shown one basic primary path through the game, featuring explicit success conditions (more levels and loot are better) and a simple path to those success conditions (kill things, do quests).  Within a short time, the player is introduced to some more sophisticated concepts; characters can influence the politics and economics of the world through direct actions.  Gaining loot and levels on the Dorothy-line can assist one in this Alice-line, but the success conditions are different and the paths diverge.  As the player grows more experienced and progresses along the Alice-lines OR Dorothy-line, more paths open up, more options become available and the game becomes less and less linear – players now create their own success conditions in addition to following the simple conditions of the Dorothy-line.  Perhaps some players want to become real estate magnates, while others want to run popular taverns, and others want to become esteemed and influential politicians.  With enough progress down BOTH the Dorothy-line and Alice-lines, a third option becomes available; characters with enough wealth, power, and influence can create content of their own.

A young man named Robert sets out to win his fortune… to start with he performs errands for the people of his village, perhaps engaging in diplomacy to make things better for his neighbors.  After some time he’s become a fairly skilled diplomat and decides to become and alderman, serving his community through planning and diplomatic interactions with neighboring communities.  As his influence grows, Robert is able to establish trade routes with other towns, and can directly contribute to the economic welfare of his home town.  Eventually Robert amasses some wealth and power and gets permission to expand the town, building some businesses, running some himself and hiring people to manage others.  In time the town grows to a prosperous city, and Robert owns or controls rather a lot of it.  Robert arranges for his town to merge with several nearby ones, over the course of a long career, and in time the city of Robertsville is known far and wide as an economic power to be reckoned with.

That’s an extreme example, since of course not everyone would want to or be able to succeed according to those conditions… but it demonstrates how Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy can coexist peacefully, and how a game can (and perhaps should) allow gradual progress from one style of game to another.  Nesting Dorothy-lines inside Dorothy-lines worked for EQ and WoW, but the model is tired and old, and suffers greatly from predictability and shallowness of content.  Alice and Wendy games don’t have that problem, but as Bartle correctly noted, they’re unforgiving to newbies, so it’s wise to start out with some clear direction.  Follow the Yellow Brick Road past Oz and you’ll find a Wonderland.  Explore there enough and you can start to make your own Neverland inside Wonderland.

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