World Theory


design: limiting the real money trading cheat

Real money trading (RMT) is a result of users being able to organize themselves on the web and selling their in-world assets for real money. This detracts from the virtual world as a coherent self-sustaining entity and real-world inequalities spill over into the game. So what can you do about it?

There have been many discussions in places like Terranova, Raph's blog and Tobold's blog, but most designers seem to agree that RMT is an evil that cannot be eliminated without harming the game. I don't disgree with this assertion, although I believe it can be controlled.

So what are the most obvious options for a designer wanting to control RMT? The simple answer: To design for it or remove what enables it.

The Trading Card Game

Embrace and extend what is going on in existing games on a relatively limited level by making it the core focus of the game. Design the game from the ground up as a trading card game. By selling random undisclosed assets you get to sell the same useless equipment over and over, forcing players wanting the best stuff to keep spinning the lottery wheel, paying thousands of dollars. As there are no opportunities to gain assets cheaply the RMT market is curbed. The RMT market is further curbed by making cards either consumables or timelimited and having them stick to the character on first use.

The Fading Template Game

This is basically a class-based design in which you don't pay for an account, but purchase the right to play a specific class of characters. You can then provide opportunities for upgrades and multiclassing. Let characters' abilities rise and fade over time, following a predetermined curve, basically forcing the player to purchasing upgrades from the game company at regular intervals. This also curbs the RMT market as there is no way to gain assets cheaply and assets loose value over time. The net advantage is that you can provide the service at multiple pricepoints and that players can switch back and forth between cheap and expensive options depending on their activity level.

The Inflation Game

Forget everything you know about creating a balanced design. Try to get the inflation rate as high as possible. Deflate the value of all assets continuously. Investing in assets become a lot less attractive. The key example of this type of game is a reset based game.

The No Feedback Game

Make sure that there is no way for the player to objectively tell what the capabilities of a character is and no way to tell what the the capabilities or remaining duration of assets are. This curbs the RMT market as there is no way to know whether you get what you pay for. The net advantage is that it doesn't curb gifting.

The Neutral Game

All assets are average, exchangable and easy and fun to obtain. Nothing is special, players have to depend on social relations, knowledge and real skills.

The Social Game

Focus heavily on prestige related to group membership. Each guild is a hierarchy to climb with their own rules about how to climb the hierarchy and how to go about it, and it is supervised by guild representatives. You don’t eliminate RMT, as you can still have a RMT guild, but they would have less prestige. So it matters less.

The bullet list.

Limiting RMT means attacking the foundations which makes RMT attractive.

  • Focus on how, not what. Assets are easier to trade than situastions.
  • Focus on collective achievements. Collective achievements encourage group identity, group prestige and moral and makes hiding RMT-bought assets from your peers more difficult.
  • Focus on lots of tiny assistance (sp?), discourage players from giving big one-shot favours. That makes selling a service tedious and you thus have to rely on real friends to support you.
  • No sex before marriage: Require players to spend time with people they receive major favours from. This doesn't prevent RMT, but ensures that you are tied to the person, thus you have to think twice about who you receive major favours from. It better be someone that you want close ties with.
  • Focus on diversity. Selling assets which the purchaser has no knowledge of is difficult. If all items are different and personalized then the market for each item will be difficult to find.
  • Focus on customization and use-once assets. It doesn't prevent RMT, but limits trades to whole charcters.
  • Focus on transparency. Let players prove that they have gained their trophees themselves, you cannot sell honour.
  • Focus on independent groups. RMT-based groups should not be allowed to rule non-RMT groups.

Label the cheaters and attach fingerprints to creations

The most potent tool for reducing the negative effects of RMT is entirely psychological. Strive for a cohesive culture in which RMT is viewed as non-threatening. RMT is most damaging to the magic circle if it is viewed as the main route to success. If those who object to RMT can choose to view RMT as a failure or non-important then it will trouble them less.

Remember that do-it-yourselfers, roleplayers and artists don’t suffer from RMT. Encourage those activities which involves personal expression. For an artist the template is a failure, breaking away from the template is (partial) success. Everbody in a group can be “an artist” within that group’s culture (a great moderator, a great leader, a great joker etc). Associate prestige with that which have your own personal stamp on it. You cannot purchase your own fingerprints. Having other people appreciate that which is essentially you is an invaluable aspect of virtual worlds.

In essence, make sure that what the users value the most cannot be bought for a high price. Signs of honour have to be authentic.


gems: fun flash games with artistic value

Flash has enabled solo programmers to create games on their own without the backing of a big team. Here are a few I appreciate, all created by individuals or small teams...

The following games are single user, but they also provide a world with a distinctive and artistic uniqueness to them. In addition, they play well. Not a small feat.

  • Fancy Pants by Brad Borne is a platform game which doesn't provide unique game play elements, but it does provide a very unique and artistic game play experience. It provides easy gameplay, which in combination by the perfected esthetics ensure that the player can sustain a unbroken flow of animated bliss. Each level is also appears to be uniquely constructed, except for the monsters. This adds to the world, you don't feel like you are walking through a landscape of repetition. This uniqueness creates an expectation for the new and unseen, and thus fosters appreciation and delight.
  • Vector Tower Defence by David Scott is a strategy game in which you place out defences around a maze which is attacked by stupid alien invaders that stream on in a relentless fashion. What makes it brilliant is how well the different elements fit together. As a whole it presents a rather crowded frenetic type of excitement, which indeed makes me think of discos and raveparties. This feeling is supported by the upbeat music and the visual laser-like effects. Indeed, without those elements the game would have lost its artistic value. The perfected whole.
  • A Walk in the Park by is a game I discussed the artistic value of over at Raph Koster's blog. The artistic value of this game is twofold. On the semiotic level it creates a rather surrealistic situation where you play a dog attached by a leash to a man sitting in a wheel chair. You drag this man around in a rather abusive, but friendly, fashion. The game-play is less artistic, but the two-fold string-attached avatar creates a constrained feeling that most platform games try to avoid. You feel hampered, rather than free.
  • Wink: the Game by AndrĂ© Nguyen is artistic in the sense that it fits the platform perfectly without resorting to overly simplistic game play. It wouldn't have made it on this list if it was released on a console, though.
  • Climate Control by Tom and Dim Vian has artistic merits for the opposite reason of Wink. It does fit the Flash platform, but stretches the technology by using a 2.5D landscape most of the time, creating a 3D feeling. Other games do this as well, but by going for a full featured non-violent adventure game set in Hawaii makes it stand out as special. The most appearent artistic design is the use of icons instead of text for speech. The characters in the game essentially talks using modern hieroglyphs.
  • Samorost 1 and Samorost 2 by Jakub Dvorsky et al. These are very simplistic point and click adventure games, but the world atmosphere is constructed using smooth animations and scenery artistically built as photographical collages. Outstanding artwork.
  • Note: More games will be added later!
Last edit: 2007-07-31.


theory: dimensions of role-acting

The term role-acting is a subsitute for the term role-playing, as the latter is more confusing than useful. Different people have different ideas of what it means. This is not surprising as the few players who consider the role-play aspect to be their main activity have to invest a lot of time and effort into bringing the psychological dimensions of their character to life. This is not for everyone.... At least not without some guidance and inspiration. The majority of players of online role-playing games are not actually role-playing, thus the confusion with what the term denotes.

A new term is therefore needed to pin-point pure roleplay as a serious playstyle. In 1997 I suggested the term role-acting on the mud-dev mailing-list. Apparently the distinction was useful as it stuck with a few writers, for a while.

Role-acting is a form of improvised theatre where you try to bring your character's personality to life through interacting with other players and the environment. The three main dimensions at work are: character-personality construction, plotting and immersion.

Personality play

Role-acting is centered on your set of characters, usually one at a time. By acting and speaking through your character's avatar you bring your character to life and set the personality with which you want to be consistent. You may state with a blank slate and let the character's personality be formed by the various encounters you experience, or you may predefine a particular personality and predisposition, or both.

The delight that may be derived from role-acting is the possibility of experiencing a different personality and setting compared to the one you are framed by in everyday life. You might gain insight into how you feel when being framed as the opposite gender, as a moron or an evil-doer. If you play anonymously and claim the character's identity to coincide with your own as a player, then you might gain insight into how people respond to the opposite gender, to stupidity, to evildoers...

Many players choose to adopt a personality for their character which is close to their own personality. This may be helpful for players who find role-acting difficult, but it might also make the player's real self-identity vulnerable if the player's character is abused.


Role-acting where there is no direction and no overarching theme or goal to play up to can be confusing and has lower potential for dramatic tension. Such tension, the struggle between characters, their personalities and which direction they go can be quite exciting and also promote immersion.

Plotting can come in many forms, in the pure improvised style you have vague ideas of what interesting dramatic directions the current situation affords, thus you select between possible future plots when you select between competing actions that your character might undertake.

Sometimes a predetermined plot set the stage, this makes role-acting easier as the partitioning of available actions become clearer, but it also reduce the tension between participating characters. This is commonly found in events held by players, where one or more of the participants have either predetermined a task, a storyline or an overall goal to be accomplished. Not all the participants might now these plot components, but they usually know who are responsible for the main plot.


Immersion takes place when the physical surroundings go to the background and the user's character and what happens in the world takes foreground, both on the cognitive and emotional level. Moreover, when immersed the user is less concerned with his physical body and more concerned with the the character's presence in the surroundings.

When you are fully immersed you adopt the emotional repertoire of your characters personality, acting on these emotions rather than reasoning about what you character should have felt. Achieving this level of immersion takes time and persistence.

Most likely players will have to utilize their own personality and experiences in order to achieve deep immersion, down-playing certain aspects of the real self and opening themselves up to aspects they usually suppress. These deep levels of immersive role-acting can thus be viewed as psycho-analytical self-exploration.


While role-acting usually takes place between equal participants one shouldn't forget that they also constitute an audience for each-other. I can identify at least these audience groups:

  1. Self-audience: role-actors who interact are their own audience.

  2. Participant audience: role-actors may engage a mixed crowd of users to participate in an event, such as a demonstration.

  3. Passive audience: role-actors performing an event, such as singing christmas carols in a town.

  4. Victimized audience: role-actors engaging other users in confusing ways in order to get responses which they can build on. Often characterized by deceit and internal humour.

  5. Reader audience: this group is more undefined, and less visible to the role-actor, it is the audience you get when creating web-sites and forum-posts.

The feed-back loop

Role-actors may validate their character's personality through the feedback they get from the environment. This can be viewed as a feedbackloop going through a series of phases, although in reality they aren't distinct:

  1. Plotting: during the plotting stage the role-actor evalutes how the environment can be used to provide interesting dramatic directions, moods and actions for his character. These opportunties are seen in light of the constraints formed by the character's personality.

  2. Taking action: the role-actor selects and undertakes action, often improvised in the setting, guided by directions from the previous phase.

  3. Evaluating the response: the role-actor evaluates the response he gets from others, and also his own immersion experience.

  4. Personality-validation: If the preceding evaluation leads to a confirmation of the character's direction and mood then the currently assumed personality configuration is validated and strengthened. If the response was lacking the role-actor get a chance to re-plot, assume new directions for his character such as taking on a new mood, or even twist or change his character's personality.

Personality adoption

This section is temporary.

There is a great variety of role-acting styles. I will here only distinguish between some differentiating character-building strategies.

  • Passive blank slate: the character enters the world using a diffuse personality with no preconceived history. Major events in the character's in-world life shape it's personality.

  • Active blank slate: the character enters the world using a diffuse personality with no preconceived history. Major situations are exploited by the role-actor to maximize dramatic potential. Not yet determined characteristcs of the character's personality is filled in, in an opportunistic fahsion.

  • Pure personality: the role-actor selects a set of key personality traits, moods and attitudes and switch to whatever set suits the situation at hand.

  • Full history: the character's history up to it's current fictional age is detailed and the role-actor use this to form a personality which he sticks to.

  • Cross world personality: some role-actors replay the same personality in a wide selection of online worlds, just shaping their history and preferences to suit each world.

  • Hybrid role-acting: the user's personality and moods are flowing in and out of the character's personality and moods.

In reality most role-actors will probably be rather flexible, these character creation strategies are highlighting extremes. I suspect hybrid role-acting to be the most common approach.


This article is primarily based on my own experience, research and to some extent based on discussions on mud-dev in which I have participated.

Other terms such as roll-play and munchkin have been used in the table-top roleplaying community to create distance between the theatrical and more technical play styles.

(There is a lot more to be added to this article, but I have to go through my notes and other writings first. Might not happen anytime soon.)

design: basic constraints

When designing a virtual world you need to consider how the online reality differs from physical reality...

This is a list of some of the major constraints that applies to most virtual worlds, their games and economies. Particular designs have to deal with even more constraints, of course. This list is temporary.

Strong constraints

  • New users arrive all the time: a key design challenge is to allow new players to join at any time while keeping the game fair and interesting for them.

  • A single user might have multiple accounts: Designs which gives a new character exchangable resources is prone to abuse, as a user may create multiple accounts and transfer all the resources to one account.

  • A user might never return: so you have to make sure that user's who never return don't create bottle-necks or dead-lock like system behaviour.

  • Users have access to alternative communication channels

  • Users might be able to use the network protocol directly

Weak constraints

  • A user may have to log off instantanously

  • Fraudulent behaviour: users will try to cheat on other players if the system allows for it, by faking system messages or other means.

  • Infrastructure attacks: whatever is exposed of the network infrastructure opens it for attacks from vile users.

  • A user may have technical issues: network latency, lack of audio etc.

  • Some users cannot deal with complicated interfaces

  • Some users suffer from disorders: epilepsy, motion sickness etc

  • Minors may obtain access to the system

Desirable properties

  • Encourage friendships and altruistic actions: create meetingplaces, and make it easy and cheap to do favours for other users.

  • Allow users to spend time together: avoid forcing single-user gameplay, allow other users to tag along and help out.

  • Allow identity formation: allow enough varieties of creative outlets for the user to establish an identity and form which he can identify with.


philosophy: cheating is impossible

Designers and users are easily annoyed by cheating in their game worlds. This mentality is destructive for the world...

There are two main types of exploits:

In-world cheating takes place in the world and involves users breaking the norms that is imposed on them by themselves or others. The term is often used to refer to users who gain advantages by innovative exploitation of the environment.
Infrastructure abuse
Out-of-world infrastructure abuse involves using the interface, computer-system, network or other out-of-world means in unexpected ways to achieve effects which affects the world and the users of it in a negative fashion.

Let me start by a contradiction. Cheating doesn't happen within the world, as that is clearly not possible. If you think somebody else is cheating it just means that their local norms are different from yours. Cheating is all about breaking norms, but breaking norms should be allowed in a virtual world. That is, if you want it to be a world and not merely a game.

Games versus world

Games are all about global norms (rules) and climbing some power-ladder while staying within the limits of the rule set (either by lowering the powers of others or increasing one's own power). Worlds are all about not having to know the rules on which the game world physics relies.

In a game you are meant to stay within the confines of the intentions behind the rules. If you are not, the referee (game master) will make sure to interpret the rules for you and enforce it. In a world you shouldn't have to learn the rules, but do what you feel like and learn the consequences by success and failure. Whether you should be happy with the consequences of these successes and failures is really up to you and not up to global norms.

A game is different in the sense that it assumes that you want a dominating position. If other users optimize for loosing rather than winning, the game breaks. Not so with worlds. If it is a world, you simply live in a world full of loosers...

Design flaws

What you do have in virtual worlds are bugs and flawed designs. Whenever a user has to appeal to admin power the world has failed. The stronger presence admin power has in the world, the less it is a world, simply because admins are out-of-worldish and the ultimate failure you risk by challenging their rules is also out-of-worldish (i.e. a ban).

One could also argue that admin presence makes a shift from world to game, as the sole purpose of having admin moderation is to enforce global rules that are not embedded within the world. Such rules will be highly gameable as their enforcement is less strict, more subjective and easier to influence than hardcoded rules.

Immersion breaking exploits

When the world operator finds that users are using the world in ways which he doesn't like, he will think of them as cheaters and demand that they stop exploiting his system.

This is where the water gets really muddy. Its muddieness is best shown by the fact that some operators not only forbid users to use exploits, they also forbid users to communicate the exploits to others. You are basically assumed to know or accept that some consequences are intended while others are not. This is where the world dies and the game wins. It institutionalizes the idea that you should know the rules before you interact with the world and that you are not allowed to take the world for what it is.

This contradicts the main pre-requisite for deep immersion. In order to achieve deep immersion users will have to give up their norms and let their character's personality interact directly with the environment as experienced. Deep immersion doesn't allow for two parallel consciousnesses, the user must be allowed to yield to the character-in-the-world.


So what about role-acting where you rely on norms about separating what is done in-character (IC) and what is done out-of-character (OOC)?

Clearly this is a global norm generally enforced by the users themselves. The need for the norm arise because users always have an out-of-worldish component to them. In the case of role-acting other users constitute a vital part of the virtual world which you are exploring, and the isolation of the out-of-worldish aspect becomes important.

I will however still argue that the argument I have made about cheating also holds for the IC/OOC case. If a user starts to act OOC then role-actors will either ignore him, reply in IC or switch to OOC. The user is allowed to learn by success or failure. In the odd case that you have an operators that is enforcing IC/OOC separation by moderation then the very definition of OOC becomes gameable. If users are able to make the definition of what is IC a powerbase then the moderated role-acting system takes a swing from world towards game.


Cheating isn't possible in the world, only in the world's games. All attempts to get rid of cheating are detrimental to the key characteristic of virtual worlds.

The rules of the games in a virtual world work against the world when enforced. Such rules should instead be embedded in the world physics and deduced from the use context by the users. If they are enforced and defined out-of-the-world then you no longer have a contained world. If you forbid cheating you get a game, but you don't get a world.

Together we fall... Designers and users.


This article is based on a mud-dev discussion from 2004. It was triggered by the constant disturbing murmur of game-players who keep ranting about players who cheat. And, I might add, a slight annoyance with Espen Aarseth's claim that cheating is a play-style on the same level as Bartle's four play-styles.


define: avatar, character, persona...

Users of virtual worlds are usually represented in the world in terms of a character and the avatar of that character. Here are my definitions...

(Please note that these definitions are preliminary and are likely to change.)

An agent is an entity in the world that is perceived as being autonomous and which is viewed as being capable of causing actions to take place.
A character in a virtual world is an identifiable entity that is also an agent. The character has a collection of associated traits. These traits includes data represented in a simulation as well as information about the characters personality, the latter doesn't have to be represented in the simulation. A character is often given a description which will make a human being think of it as a single individual, but that is not required.
A persona is a character which a user has established in a virtual world and which the user identifies strongly with. The persona is used as a mask in the virtual world allowing the user to take on new roles and a divergent personality which doesn't match how the user is perceived by others in the real world.
An avatar is the collection of signs which signifies a character's presence in a virtual world. The avatar may be represented as a combination of icons, textual names, graphical figures, sounds, smells or any identifying set of signs that can be mediated through the system.
A handle is a discriminating identifier which can be used to address an entity in the world. A character often has a unique name as it's handle.


The terms defined here are often confusingly used to denote incompatible phenomena by different authors. It is for instance not unusual for users to confuse the term avatar and character. Some authors use the terms persona and character as synonyms, which is reasonable, but wasteful... I have chosen to distinguish those terms by using persona to refer to a subset of characters.

Related terms

One might want to distinguish between characters controlled by a computer and characters controlled by a user.. This distinction is usually accomplished by referring to the former as a Non-Player Characer or NPC for short, and the latter as Player Characters or PC for short. This distinction is often used when the computer controls characters that are roughly similar to those controlled by players. The term mob or mobile, a computer-controlled movable object, can also be used to refer to NPCs and similar computer-controlled entities.

Users often use the term toon to refer to either their avatar or their character, or both.


pattern: inflation based expansion

Virtual worlds usually have static and dynamic aspects. For pragmatic reasons most online games provide static environments where the gameplay is fairly predictable. Common wisdom says that metamorphosis is more problematic than expansion...

Unfortunately, continuous expansion without any clean-up can turn the world into an incoherent inflation mess.


Inflation solves the long term consequences of hoarding and content starvation without taking anything away from the players by force. If the expansion treats all players fairly this is perceived as being more acceptable than a nerf, even though the overall effect isn't all that different.

Introducing new more valuable content can shorten the gap between older players and newer players by gradually deprecating the old world in favour of a newer world. This assumes that the new content doesn't favour older players over newer players. Unfortunately, reality is often different.

You can keep the world fresh and competitive, which in turn gives you free press.


The real danger of focusing on growth by expansion is that you create social gaps between groups of players. If the land areas expand too much player density may be too low for good sociability.

You also risk getting a widening gap between hardcore oldbies and casual newbies, creating fractures in the social fabric of established social groups as well as in the overall social sphere of the world.

The addition of new items tend to make older items useless, making the world confusing for both newbies and revisiting players. Revisiting players may feel like newbies and choose not to come back after having a brief look. In addition old play-guides and other non-controlled content become misleading which may cause additional confusion.

And finally, continuous development is expensive. Especially if the foundational architecture isn't solid.


Some of the disadvantages can be addressed by recycling and deprecation.

Problem: When adding content it is tempting to focus on high level content. The effect is that casual players feel left out. This increases the gap between harcore and casual, oldbies and newbies.

Solution: Rescaling of the achievement-ladder. Some games do this by extending the number of levels and increasing XP gain at lower levels. Basically, as real time progress, the lower level players get their efficiency improved. This we might call level-inflation. Developers should not forget the lower level players when they design expansions. The synergetic effect is that more low-level content increases replayability.

Problem: Expansions are easier to make than changes, both technologically and socially. Unfortunately, the population growth might not match your content growth. Too much expansion may lead to a less socializable desert, too many trash items and overall lower usability for newbies.

Solution: deprecate content. Maintain several sets of content on all levels, of which one set is meant to be less attractive and phased out. When the popularity of this set is low, remove it or refurbish it.

Problem: Expansions are expensive.

Solution: Plan and design for recycling and refurbishment. High level content that has been deprecated can be introduced as mid-level content, thus retaining those players who never will make it to the highest levels. Removed monsters can be refurbished and tweakd and play secondary roles in new content.

Problem: Expansions might feel like a nerf for revisiting players.

Solution: Design for replayability and let players gain some in-game advantages based on how long they have been subscribers. Even XP or other types of capital.


This list is temporary.

  • What effects and how varied are the effects of introducing new content?Have you considered all groups, including newbies and revisiting players?

  • Have you planned right from the start how to deal with rescaling of character-levels? How far can you expand your level range?

  • What are the weak spots in your architecture? Where does it handle growth, deprecation and refurbing? Where does it not?


This article is based on some posts I made to mud-dev in 2004. A level based design is assumed to simplify the discussion, but most of the pattern might apply to level-less designs as well.

define: virtual world

The term virtual world can be difficult to grap, therefore a definition is needed...

Last update: 2007-06-22T23Z

The term virtual world has grown out of the term virtual reality, thus signifying something that presents itself with traits from the physical world, but doesn't exist as a physical entity, typically mediated by a computer.

This view is too limiting and arbitrary. A more abstract defintion is needed. The following is a temporary definition, I'll come up with a better one later.

virtual world
A virtual world is a computer-mediated reality which presents the user with an experience which can be reasoned about as if it is a world, but the represenation of that world is not required to be analog to a possible physical alternative.
A world is an environment that is intuitively interpreted by most human-beings as an interconnected collection of places which have qualities that can be found in the habitats of human beings. One important quality is the ability to choose where to go and what to do.
multi-user virtual world
A multi-user virtual world is a virtual world centered around interaction between multiple users.

Alternative list of properties

Although I think the previous definitions are sufficient a tighter list of core properties for online virtual worlds might come in handy. The following is based on the properties I used in my 1999 report (Design av virtuelle flerbrukerverdener for fritidsbruk, section 3.1):

  • The system provides a geographic environment where the user can discern between here and there.

  • The system provides the user with decent support for orientation and movement.

  • The user experiences high levels of interaction with the world and other users.

  • The user has a sense of being able to affect the world.

  • The user experiences a strong sense of taking initiative in relation to the system.

  • The user experiences a continuous existence crossing a series of sessions, while mediating a stable identity to other users.

  • The system constitutes a coherent vision.

Not all virtual worlds will provide all the properties, but if they do, they certainly qualifies for the label online virtual world.

Discussion and examples

There is a great variety of virtual worlds. They can be single-user simulations of historical sites or simulated walk-throughs of urban designs. They can be real-time or not. They may be recreational or not. They may include gaming aspects, or not.

Important: Often the term virtual world is used to mean a real-time multi-user virtual world. However, qualities such as having multiple simultanous users are volatile, at some points in time there are no users.

Because of the wide connotations of the term world, the term virtual world has to be understood in context. Usually you can deduce from the context what it is meant to cover. There are plenty of examples of how a narrow interpretation of the term keeps causing confusion. A recent discussion is the confusion about whether a game is a virtual world and the term has been discussed at length on the mailinglist mud-dev in 2004.

Related terms

Other terms have been used that have a lot of overlap with the term virtual world. One of the earliest terms was MUD after Richard Bartle et al's MUD1, often taken as an acronym for Multi-User Dungeon or Multi-User Domain. Another early term used by VR researchers is the term CVE an abbreviation for Collaborative Virtual Environments, usually used to signify 3D VR-like applications for serious uses rather than gaming. More recent and widespread terms come from the gaming communities: MMORPG stands for Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game and MMOG/MMO stands for Massively Multi-player Online Game.

Of course there are a bunch of other terms that have been used to described similar phenomena, as I wrote on mud-dev in 1999:


shared virtual reality (shared VR)
Used by the VR community to describe VR with multiple participants.
shared spaces
Used by authors discussing general problems, such as temporal aspects, which are relevant for all spatial multiuser systems.
collaborative virtual environment (CVE)
Used by the spatial oriented branch of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) with links to the VR community.
multi user dimension (MUD)
Used by those who have a background in textual multiuser systems with links back to Mud1. Originally known as "multi user dungeon".
multi user virtual environment (MUVE)
Not too common, probably used to distinguish their work as more serious than what most MUDs are.
multi user adventure (MUA)
I think this was introduced to avoid the confusion between the term MUD and the game MUD. Didn't succeed.
multi user game (MUG)
I believe I used to see this term quite a lot in the late 80s.
multi player online game (MPOG)
Used by those that came to the field through singleuser games which were turned into "few-player" multiplayer games. Often simple peer-to-peer systems.
massive multi player online game (MMPOG)
Used by those who use the term MPOG. It basically means the same as MUD, but as those systems which are described as MPOGs typically have a large commercial entrprise behind them, they are expected to cater for thousands of users.
virtual world
Used by those who think about their system as a graphical avatar space, where users is living in a habitat. Typically these systems is more oriented towards the surface than mechanics. Unfortunately this term is heavily used in other fields as well, for instance as a general term which to describe hypotetical avant garde 3D models in architecture.
collaborative virtual world (CVW)
Used by the same guys who are likely to use the term CVE. It is used to describe spaces which is less bent towards CSCW, and more towards creating an experiental world.


virtual reality
Yes, this term has in fact been used to describe even text-only MUDs. Probably because of the high hype factor...
multi user game world
gaming world
Rare. (I believe Bruce Damer/CCON use it)
online role playing game (ORPG)
massive online role playing game (MORPG)
Used by those who try to avoid what might be associated by MUD and MPOG.
Not a stand alone term. Usually used in a context where virtual and multiuser is assumed. Decends from Habitat/WorldsAway.
virtual space
Yet another term used to describe MUDs and similar systems.
virtual community
Generally used for all types of online community like systems, but also used as a reference to MUDs by some authors.
multi user player-extensible game (MUPEG)
See Bartle's MUDReport.

Of course, this is list is not complete. Raph Koster provides some other terms on his blog. Here is a selection from his blog-entry:

Online game
a game played using network connectivity.
Online virtual world
a simulation of persistent space connected to via a network, wherein users are represented by proxies often terms avatars. Note thatboth “online” and “virtual” are often elided from the term.
Synthetic world
see online virtual world.
the hypothetical idea that online virtual worlds would be linked together to form a single network.
Mirror world
an online virtual world that mirrors data from the real world.

There are also some additional terms coined by non-gamers who are discontent with being associated with virtual worlds as gaming-platforms, and vice versa. One such term is social worlds, which is basically a misnomer as almost all virtual worlds are social and have some users who primarily socialize... Thus it essentially describes a lack of games rather than a presence of social features.


devil: worlds as web

What can you learn about virtual world design from the web-sphere? Game design guru Raph Koster sees a lot of connections. Of which some hit closer to home than others. I look at the others... and take the liberty of playing the Devil's Advocate. Feel free to put me in place. Just remember that this Devil has a pitchfork. You have been warned.

From the slides:

The value of the software is proportional to the scale and dynamism of the data it helps to manage.

Hardly! This is 100% contextual and depends on the particularities of the application. Does this even translate to a game or virtual worlds? Are bigger more convoluted games, better? I am sure players and researchers of GO! have a different opinion on the matter. Are bigger and more complex worlds better? Not for a roleplayer it isn't. What happend to the aesthetics of minimalism? When did maximalism become a goal?

The fail fast, fail often method: Users must be treated as co-developers.

Hardly! By exposing the evolution of the system to the playerbase a small segment get the upper hand. From an immersiveness perspective you want the underlying engine to be completely invisible. Bugs and evolution expose the details. You want players to live in a world, not in an engine. Unfortunately, current worlds are too shallow to benefit from this, but that is no excuse! We want the perfect world, after all.

Release early, release often

No, no, no, no, nooo! Release often if you want the user-base to be forum-whiners craving changes to the world rather than experience the world as is. Virtual worlds aren't TV, they are self-contained universes to be explored as is, not a series of soap episodes.

Small pieces, loosely joined: lightweight programming [...] Loose couplings (e.g. XML and HTTP, not SOAP, not custom protocols) [...]

Oh dear! Let's create a massive bandwidth and space problem, right from the start! Anything that is stitched together with a mess of verbose protocols is going to be costly to develop and maintain. XML and HTTP? Hello, welcome to the stone-age! We want compressed binary dedicated protocols designed with a particular world model in mind. Anything less is throwing bandwidth out of the the window in favor of sloppy performance.

Above the level of a single device. Meaning, make no platform assumptions.

Rrrriiight! Let's create the entire game with SMS in mind and then scale it up to a full-blown Playstation 3 world. You cannot design without making assumptions. The more assumptions you can make, the more freedom you get to make something great.

The service automatically gets better the more people use it.

I absolutely loved to see my favourite community being ruined by a swarm of snot-nosed eros-ridden teengers. Not not not! Few people, tends to mean higher identification with the system and better socialization. Call me a snob, if you wish. What's wrong with designing for snobs?

I guess that's enough whining for today. Go read all the slides, not just this tiny selection, it's worth it. Learn from the web if you must, just don't translate it into virtual worlds. Please?

(Disclaimer: I don't have audio hooked up so the above is entirely based on the slides. Which probably sound different than they read. Feel free to flame me over it. I am the Devils Advocate, after all.)