Gordon and I didn’t always know that the virtual world we were creating was going to be a fair. We knew it was going to be a virtual world, rather than a single-person application. And it clearly had to be magic-themed. Gordon and I have both been fantasy geeks forever, and are uber Gandalf, Merlin, and Harry Potter fans. Magic was a no-brainer. But what was the context? That was not immediately obvious.
From the earliest days, when we’d tell someone we’re making a virtual world, they’d ask, “Is it a game, like WoW? Or a sandbox, like Second Life?” This is a weird question to answer, because it presumes there are only two possibilities: (a) a HUGE pre-created world with an elaborate quest and advancement system with virtually no user-generated content, or (b) a 100% user-generated world, with no quests, no direction, and no specified goals.
What we’re creating is something in between. It is a sandbox; no question about that. But one of the things that’s maybe not so great about some sandboxes is that there are no goals. You go in there and look around and say “This is neat, but what do I do?” Essentially, what you do is look cool and chat. And for some people, that’s exactly what they want, and it’s awesome.
Some people don’t want to just look at stuff, look cool, and chat. They want to create. And in some sandbox virtual worlds, you can create absolutely anything, but it’s (in my humble opinion) work. The tutorials that teach you how to create and animate stuff are so complex and discouraging (indeed, the tools themselves are complex and discouraging), a large fraction of people never make it past the tutorial and into the world itself. And if you do learn how to effectively create stuff, it’s still 100% up to you what to create. No quests or guidance. I find that overwhelming and intimidating.
You have to hand it to WoW and other AAA themepark MMOs: with their ginormous quest systems, you’re never at a loss for something to do. There’s plenty of guidance, and goals within goals within goals. However, for creative people especially, it can be a bit much, always being told what to do. And it’s no secret it can get grindy.
With our little indie team, we couldn’t possibly make a themepark MMO, but we can borrow something from them, to enhance the creative sandbox experience. It can be very motivating to have a specific challenge–a goal or sense of purpose–and the sense of accomplishment when it is achieved.
So, we wanted to make a sandbox, but one where
- creation is fun and easy to learn,
- there are goals or suggestions of what to do,
- but not so much direction that it’s grindy.
How to do that?
Our first thought was: an Academy. This was when Harry Potter had become a full-blown craze, but the last book or two hadn’t come out yet, and the movies were even farther behind. Who wouldn’t want to go to a magic academy like Hogwarts? Heck, yeah!
But as we went down this path, we realized it was getting way too structured: different classes that you had to pass in order to be allowed to advance to the next thing. And it was all about learning magic, but not at all clear what you do with the magic once you’ve learned it. Fun and easy to learn, and not grindy? Fail.
So, what’s some other context in which you learn and have direction, but it’s not a school? How about the Boy (or Girl) Scouts of America? There’s some structure: requirements for earning a badge, for example. But there’s also great freedom: do I work toward the Backpacking badge or Cooking? Maybe both. It’s much more sandboxy than a school. This seemed like a better model for our magical virtual world. Plenty of goals, but you can choose among them. We should be able to make sure it’s not grindy if we’re careful. But how much fun would it be, really? Earning badges, or the equivalent, in different types of magic? Again, what do you really do with it?
While we were pondering this, feeling like we still didn’t have it quite right, we went to Dragon*Con. Dragon*Con takes place in Atlanta every Labor Day Weekend and is, according to their web site, “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction & fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!”
This was our third or fourth time at Dragon*Con, and as always, it was THE MOST FUN WEEKEND of the entire year. Why? Because it’s a huge fantasy-geek fair! There are costumes, contests, games, performances, films, live music, a parade (not to be confused with the zombie walk), an art show, and a scavenger hunt. There are sessions where you can learn costume design, comic book art, puppetry, how to direct your own film, publish your first novel, make a video game, or build a steampunk contraption. And shopping! You can buy swords, armor, corsets, fangs, dice, masks, superhero t-shirts, and elf ears. You could miss every single famous-person panel in the entire con, and still have an absolutely fantastic time. Because it’s all about fans putting their creativity on display for other fans, and teaching other fans what they know.
And it hit us–like stepping inside from a humid, sweltering Atlanta afternoon, and getting hit by a delicious blast of hotel air conditioning–our magical virtual world should be a fair! Mages putting their creativity on display for other mages, and teaching other mages what they know. It would be like Dragon*Con, with magic, all year long!
How does a fair stack up against our objectives?
- creation is fun and easy to learn: You learn magic from other mages putting on demonstrations (or memories of those demonstrations). We’ll highlight the tutorial memories that are the most entertaining.
- there are goals or suggestions of what to do: Play magical games, go on a scavanger hunt, see (or give) a performance or demo, create submissions to contests, go “shopping” (Acquisitioing spell elements),….
- but not so much direction that it’s grindy: No quests, only merriments. A merriment is a suggestion or invitation for something fun to do, and it’s optional. You don’t have to complete a merriment in order to be allowed to move on. And there’s no reward at the end. You do a merriment because the merriment itself is fun. Even if you do them all, it won’t be grindy, because it’s all fun.
That was a couple years ago. And we’re still convinced this is it. This is the sandbox made by mages for mages.
And that’s why… Mage Faire is a fair.
P.S. We are not affiliated in any way with Dragon*Con. We just love it, and in fact, plan to be there this coming Labor Day!
P.P.S. We are not affiliated in any way with Harry Potter…or Merlin…or Gandalf. We just love them too!