['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column highlights the ongoing MMOG-related game design conversation happening at The Cesspit.]

The CesspitSo far, in the 'Citizen Spotlight' series I've interviewed two highly cogent World of Warcraft players and an astute news blogger. There's something about being a veteran of Massive games, though, that brings out the designer in everyone. Perhaps it's because of the very personal nature that players have with game worlds; it's hard not to have opinions on, say, a combat system after you've been intimately familiar for years at a stretch.

Likewise, the scope of a Massive game makes it hard for any one person to have a monopoly on understanding everything. These elements combine to make long-time players some of the most vocal 'backseat designers' in gaming. While there's no comparison to years of experience on the job, actually making games, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Rarely are game design related-opinions stated so forcefully as they are on the site simply named The Cesspit. Written by the blogger named Abalieno, the posts to the Cesspit site tackle all aspects of Massive game design. From the very high-level (“How to design a Fallout MMO game”) to the most specific of gripes (“I design a competent LFG tool”), the ideas coming from the Cesspit are always thought-provoking. He is a self-described logorrheic, and the few interview questions I shot Abalieno via email generated over 5,000 words in response.

I've edited down his responses to capture the core ideas, and have gone back through the last year of Cesspit posts to offer up the blog entries I found the most interesting. This was a challenge, as nearly every entry Abalieno offers up has some chewy thoughts at its center. Read on, and learn a little bit about what keeps the Cesspit in the RSS readers of enthusiastic gamers and veteran designers alike.

His Words They Flow Like a River

Michael: The Cesspit is primarily, it seems, a focus for your design-related ideas and thoughts. What prompted you to start the site? Was it a specific event, or just a general need to get your ideas out there? Once you'd begun, what kept you blogging over the course of the two+ years since May of 2004?

Abalieno: Well, there are many different aspects to it. Let me take this from an unconventional perspective. I recently watched the second movie of "Ghost in the Shell" and it talks a bit about the concept of "external memory". This is something I've always done. Before I started writing on a website I always went around with a voice recorder. I have thousands of hours recorded with my thoughts about everything. The ideal would be about using a videocamera and record just everything, every single second. The particular light of an evening, your thoughts in that moment, and so on. It's like an obsession (Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World" is also about this).

More specifically, I think everyone who participated to a community like a forum knows the frustration when a site goes down or a database gets wiped. Or an hard drive crash, in a more personal case. I don't think I'm the only one who freaks out when things like that happen. Well, starting from the "golden age" of Lum the Mad there's so much that was lost. Millions of messages, articles. That's our history and it's priceless. The website basically has two purposes, work as a memory and a workshop. Initially the website was the result of a whole lot of frustration. I beta tested "Wish" for a couple of months and poured a lot of thoughts on the beta message boards. I saved some forum threads before the beta boards were closed. The frustration was because I couldn't accept that all the community had done, and all the good premises of that game were going to be wasted. I couldn't accept that the time I passed there was going to be simply useless.

So I felt the need to save all that, give it a "following" so that it wouldn't be all lost and forgotten. Keep a memory of things. Learn lessons. My site served the purpose of "fixing" some stuff. Maintain a memory and use it to fuel my own learning process. I think working on games is exciting also because there's a lot going on, a lot to absorb. The reason why I am now pulling the handbrake is simply for one reason: addiction. [The site has turned into] an endless passion that I fear is way beyond what I'm allowed to do.

Michael: On the site, in commentary, and in your discussion of why you started the site, you show an obvious passion for Massive games. What got you 'into' the massive genre in the first place? Was there a friend or game that drew you in?

Abalieno: Here I show how far I am from the stereotype of the hardcore gamer. None of my friends play online games and none of them could be considered "gamers", so I'm mostly a loner. It's not the hook with a group that led me to online games by chance. Instead it was something I looked for all by myself and that I strongly wanted. Previous to MMOGs I had some experience on MUDs, both as player and as maker, but as maker I just wrote a whole lot of ideas. Months passed, I keep writing and nothing was ever implemented ... I liked the kind of experimentation that Tarn Adams is doing today on Dwarf Fortress, and I wanted to bring that to a MUD.

I spent very little time playing and a whole lot discussing features, development and more, but I wasn't part of the team (and all of the design and coding was done just by one guy) so I was just there creating and participating to discussions. Then, with the time, the MUD kept growing and drawing in more players and the focus moved more toward the game itself, worldbuilding and less on the experimentation and creative design, so I slowly lost interest and moved my attention somewhere else. I don't consider myself particularly smart, nor particularly creative. Just the same, I'm a sponge. I absorb, understand and learn very rapidly. And as a sponge I think I'm one of the best in the world ;) This means that everything had a strong influence on me at some point and that I owe a lot to my experiences, the communities and so on.

Michael: What was your first MMOG?

Abalieno: My first "real" MMOG was Ultima Online. I was in a mall with my friends, around the end of November of a few years ago and I noticed the boxed set of the "Second Age". I'd always been a fan of all kinds of RPGs and obviously also of the Ultima series. I remember that I kept rereading hundreds of times the same reviews of those Ultima games, the Bard's Tale series, Wastelands ... for me they weren't games I wanted to play, they were dreams. Playing those games was for me like the ultimate wish, so I created a myth in my mind that wasn't necessarily tied to the reality of those games, but just the way I imagined them. That kind of approach still influences me today. It's something extremely strong.

When I was young the quality of the game didn't matter. I remember that I played and loved games that from the design perspective were terrible. Despite this I still preferred them to much better games because I saw in them the projection of my myths, my desires, and that was stronger and more important than everything else. This is something I have a strong nostalgia about. The sort of feelings I had by playing those game when I was young are lost and elusive. And when I try to imagine something today I try to go back with my mind and try to seize those feelings. The possibility to see in a small group of pixels the most incredible things. The more time passes and the more you feel detached, and you need more and more so that you can feel a similar emotional bond. But at the end, even today, that's what keeps me hooked to games and, inherently, to game design. The immersion. The "magic".

I still remember when I logged in the game for the first time, after the long patching process. I made a new character in Trinsic (mimicking the start of Ultima 7). I already knew how to use the UI as I had some experience from previous Ultimas and the inventory system was essentially unchanged. But while I didn't have any problem with the basics, I still didn't have any clue about what to do. There wasn't any kind of NPC who came to greet me as the "avatar" as I expected. I was dumped in this new world without even a vague clue. After getting lost in Trinsic (and get disconnected twice because of crappy connection) I decided that a trip to Britain to visit Lord British should have been my first goal. I made it to Britain only to be left clueless again.

I was expecting to go straight to Lord British, but the throne room was deserted. Actually Britain in general was deserted. I was expecting to find it filled with NPCs, quests and stories to discover, and instead the more I continued to explore the game, the more it was impenetrable to me. For months all I did was to go from the inn near the center of Britain to the sewers to kill some rats and frogs while skilling up a little bit. When I had the courage to dare some more I learnt to go deep in the sewer till I was able to zone into the "Lost World" where I could fight some more challenging monsters, and in the case I died I could quickly come back and save my stuff. I memorized that path and that was all. I was eventually able to join a guild and they introduced me to PvP, even if I was never able to do anything worthwhile due to lag issues. I was usually just the victim. I was the perfect goose for PKers and thieves. I accepted that part of the game and adapted to it. There were instead other things that bugged me in that game, for example the fact that there were more houses outside a town than inside it, or that I couldn't find a two-handed sword.

You know, when you play your first MMOG you couldn't care less about what the game can offer to you. Instead you bring along your own expectations, your own imagination. I wanted to fight with a goddamn two handed sword, but there weren't any, and I was pissed. Those are the sort of things that I never accepted. The shantytowns outside towns, lack of quests, lack of stories, lack of two-handed swords. And the dragons looked very lame and so far from my idea of a scary, powerful, huge, fire-breathing dragon. UO graphic could have been considered everything but awe-inspiring. It was very conventional and monotonous. What fucking fantasy game is it if it doesn't have a two handed sword? That's what I thought.

Michael: What would you say your 'proudest' moment from a Massive game might be? The moment you'll tell your grandkids about.

Abalieno: I think the best moments I remember are still from DAoC. In WoW there's a lot of activity at the endgame in the raiding guilds, but the way this content was developed segmented the community a lot. There can be from ten to twenty raiding guilds or more, each with its own little world and ecosystem. These guilds rarely communicate between each other and, in a general sense, there's no real community or identity on a server. DAoC from this perspective was really different and *felt* different. You started as a phantom and slowly became tangible. That's the reason why my memories from that game will remain stronger. The idea of the three realms at war is a very strong one.

DAoC felt different because it gave truly communal objectives that were shared between all players. There was a community because we shared the world and we played always together in the same zones. The "war" was a context shared by everyone and where everyone could participate. Your own story, or the few hours you had available during an evening to play, weren't just a personal experience that is relevant solely to you and your guildmates. Instead the RvR zones were a real battlefield, and every other player was playing a part in your game. Participation.

Those are my fondest memories. Playing for hours deep in the night to defend or capture a relic. Huge, truly epic battles between hundreds of players. A "campaign". Aside bitching and discussing strategies on the raid chat channel I never lead anything, but even being there as one of those hundreds of players was a great experience. Sometimes the action was very slow due to some design issues. Waiting just too long inside a keep waiting for an attack that never arrived. But despite the downtimes you could feel the motivation and involvement. You could feel part of something. You could capture a keep and be sure that soon the enemy realm would come to take it back. Those desperate battles were something truly unique. It didn't matter that at the end you would lose, what mattered is that it felt great and you had a part in a greater scenario.

Michael: Likewise, what would you say was the most memorable bad experience you've had in a MMOG?

Abalieno: I use to think about these from the perspective of game design. I can remember bad experiences because I was deluded by some decisions. Guild drama never touched me. I never fed it, nor felt it entertaining. I consider "Wish" a bad experience for all the time and commitment I dedicated to it. When they, very abruptly, decided to fire Dave Rickey and from there the whole project went downhill till it was canceled a year later. The premises behind the game weren't exactly brilliant but I had faith in that game.

I suppose I could also say I'm angry at Mythic because (in my opinion) they've abandoned DAoC. They've also sold out to EA, wasting in a second all that they had achieved and that was left. At one point I had infinite esteem for Mythic. From that point they've cruised in a downward trend that I still cannot believe was even possible. They made a great entrance in the industry, they were a wind of change. And then they threw everything to hell.

Michael: If you've found Abalieno's responses interesting I highly suggest you check out the site soon. The man behind the words was kind enough to keep the site up long enough for this interview to be posted, but he's soon planning on retiring the site to the internet aether. Many thanks to Abalieno for the time involved in answering my questions, and for his consideration in keeping the site live.

There is More To Life Than MMOG Design

As tends to happen on any blog, Abalieno has occasionally strayed from his primary topic to touch on other aspects of gaming. His comments on the remastered Another World very much matched my own enthusiasm for the title. He's chronicled his frustration with Oblivion mods, as well as his appreciation of MMOG-related books. He forsaw the failure of Auto Assault, and was proven right in some commentary about the Star Wars Galaxies NGE.

He's also used the site for the occasional comment on his real life ... such as his announcement that he was closing up shop. ”The reason why I'm done: the reason why I'm done isn't because this site had a goal that I wasn't able to reach, nor because I cannot pay the hosting fees. The reason is entirely external to the site and is about myself. Writing about mmorpgs completely absorbed me and I loved it. I wasn't bored doing that, I wanted to do it MORE. Dedicating it more time without feeling bad, but legitimate. I simply reached a point where I wanted to justify what I'm doing. Is that odd? Justify that dedication. Find a sense so that I didn't feel like wasting time. Find a legitimation. But I knew that I didn't have an option, so I felt like being pulled into two opposite directions, and I broke there. I'm broken.”

Meta Commentary On a Meta Community

The Cesspit has also always made it a point to occasionally look up from the games to make a thoughtful remark about the bigger picture. This includes noteworthy news about the industry, such as the Blizzard/Vivendi Powerpoint fracas back in June or the ongoing success of NCSoft. The site also took some time this year to keep an eye out for MMOGs at the last 'real' E3. Abalieno also uses the site to respond to comments from other MMOG bloggers. Lum's community comments and SOE's efforts to alienate commentators were both dealt a verbal lashing on the Cesspit frontpage.

Sometimes the rants get a bit knee-jerky ... but really, that's part of the joy of reading the site. ”When I'm in a fantasy world I think of Tolkien and I think to all those myths that have been part of my early years (I read LOTR at 12). I DON'T THINK of a trauma center. I think of adventurers in armors, spellcasters, dragons, menacing castles, orcs, goblins. Histories about foreign and harsh lands. Magnificent sights. The struggle to survive away from your home. The need to preserve your world from an invasion, the fight against the corruption. Men of valor and charisma. And this is what I want to PLAY. What I would like the game to reenact and evocate. Drag me in. This is what I want the game to make me FEEL. And the current game mechanics, that silly mata-game of colored bars and buttons, doesn't make me feel that way AT ALL. It's exactly that meta-game level to be totally inappropriate, ineffective and that I was criticizing.”

Thousands of Words – No Real Worlds

Primarily, though, the Cesspit is about the design of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. What makes Abalieno's writing thoroughly readable is the variety he explores within that single subject. From the very act of designing to the nitty gritty of model animation, there's a wide gamut of design elements to explore on the site. Some posts are completely random ideas, perhaps prompted by inhaling too much tea ... and they're still compelling reading. Low-level systems often get some attention, such as looking for group widgets, crafting, PvP, and progression systems. I personally enjoy his high-level looks at specific games, such as tweaks to Eve Online, Everquest 2, SWG, Warhammer, and Everquest.

Abalieno's own words paint him as a dreamer, and in the end the very best Cesspit posts look over the hill to the horizon in a new and different way. His discussion of race and class selection as metaphoric values, or the attention he gives to the healer role as a meta-game byproduct is the kind of mind-gristle a certain type of gamer can't help but love. ”Final Fantasy XI is also one game with a surprisingly even racial distribution. Why? Because everything in a Final Fantasy is strongly characterized, so building its own personal myth and style more than borrowing from a shared, consolidated "imaginary".

All the element of the game are much less stereotyped and familiar compared to western games. It's all part of the "package" that bundles together the physical appearance with the symbolic value suggested by that race. When you choose one you also choose your 'mode of expression', your identity in the virtual world in the way you see fit. The way that is more appropriate to the ideal you have. The form is always a reference to the metaphor suggested. Along with a physical, objective description, there are always subjective, typical traits. Who you are. What you are saying about yourself.”

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]