Artwar

The total number of people working on Artwar is (was, we should say) actually fantastically small. The code shop called itself Flights and never really called itself a "code shop" in so many words. If you considered the entire group as a single human being it would have been a hugely productive and competent polymath. Yes, software and the game of Artwar was a byproduct of Flights' process. But the greater focus was on procedural content generation, by which much of the game world (Versuni) and infrastructure and economy were generated and balanced. And stories and challenges, too. That was what their resident mathematician/linguist Yuko brought to the table. Yuko's research, the stuff which got her noticed and hired, was into framing stories mathematically.

Protagonist overcomes obstacle.

A notable percentage of Flights' output was in the form of academic papers and research. Yuko managed to create a mathematical description of a "protagonist", an "obstacle", the verb "overcome". She created business objects inside the Artwar codebase for plot, subplot, story beat, twist. She read hundreds of books and unwound them into mathematical constructs, modifying and expanding the scope of the schema as each story invariably introduced more and more complex variations on the theme, each story invariably introduced something seen before in no other story. A new and consistent secondary mathematical definition of the term "derivative" arose. It was possible to mark a story in terms of how many of its components appeared in other stories.

Right from the first line of her thesis Yuko had confessed that it would be a losing battle and that to attempt to describe and encompass all possible fiction in such terms. By definition, her work would produce rules and by definition a human brain would always be able to jump out of that system and a produce a story completely orthogonal to it, unclassifiable. "Yes, I have read Joyce." Even constraining oneself to a linear story with beginning and end, climax, even drilling down to the level of heroes and villains, doesn't diminish that weakness. But that invalidates nothing. Procedural narrative. Procedural dialogue. Yes, she writes, but not as much as you think.

Scenery and landscapes were constructed in more conventional ways, using established techniques, albeit refined to suit purpose. Some realms of Artwar's core are seen differently by every player, as if "skinned". Some realms serve no purpose, having no meaningful game-property dropped into them. In them, players just wander and look around. They're there to look good. Lake, cliff, waterfall, worn sandstone temple (eroding visibly in the rain over years of game time), ancient impossible holy rope bridge (spanning into fog literally forever), Celestial colossi's armour shells propped up with people living inside (old woman who lived in a shoe). The clue's in the name. Some of it really is just there to look good. Or to cultivate an emotional response.

It is tuned.

Some people go through the same processes. There are common characters to the Artwar universe's backstory. Autostories are difficult to generate without repetition or familiarity. This, Flights admits, is not the strongest suit in the game. "It is not perfect, but we hope you have experienced a few things." There are cities of NPCs. It is not without glitches. NPCs say similar things, or drop out of character or stop working. They end up in two different places at once interacting in multiple stories simultaneously. It is incredibly difficult.

That much is the contribution of Yuko and the Yuko team. Harry and the Harry team operate in terms of game dynamic, making the world as amenable to change as possible. The scientific method as applied to software engineering. Did this work? Okay, develop that further. Keep going. Now we are seeing something inexplicable. Are we closer? Is this the right direction? Roll back. Try something else. These techniques are applied to items, weapons, armour, clothing, user options, money, rewards, trinkets, jewels, spells, mana, property, animals, houses, territory, gossip, information, political change, enemies, resources, skills, environments, confrontations, campaigns, missions, tasks, projects. If something which works too frequently gets boring, the rules will be changed. If something is unpopular, the rules will be changed. If something breaks, the rules will be changed.

Johann and the Johann team, meanwhile, create things and create the tools with which the players are permitted to create further things. This the more powerful content-creation component of Artwar, and it is where the buildings and cities of the world come from. You work hard, and you can acquire a plot on the river and go fishing in your spare time. Work hard and you can acquire some rooms over an inn and put whatever you want in them. Work hard and buy a plot in the city and build your own inn in whatever shape the system will let you select. It becomes a metaverse, a shared collaborative canvas. Cathedrals! Gothic and mediaeval alleyways and labyrinthine rooftops, ideal for criminal pursuits! Winding cliff roads with dragon roosts overlooking the Greater Versuni planes, ice castles with miniature communities rooted in there.

The degree of griefing that becomes possible is unreal and the systems which have to be set in place and constantly monitored with an eagle eye to prevent that griefing are mind-boggling. Players have limitless capacity for irritating other players, but that gets kept under a lid to the greatest extent possible. You may get turned into a demon for your trouble, canonising your evil nature for as long as you survive.

It's not the world's biggest MMO and it's hardly the world's most imaginative. It runs a few years. It has a devoted cult following. Those who don't like it don't play it, those who do do. It has a large and well-established backstory, which concerns heroic immortal icons who buried the great evil Slaughter King in the Oryis Ocean which forms the centre of the game world. The ocean is infected from below by the buried evil as it tries to escape. Crossing it by ship is treacherous, with sea monsters and vicious wood-eating piranha swarms and tornadoes and a monumental hurricane event which develops out in the middle of the sea and slams the civilised coast, wrecking buildings. There are other evils wandering the land.

*

"Have we engaged you?

"We will refund all remaining subscriptions. That is the good news."

Thultraea and Ghakat are not their real names but they have known each other since close to the beginning of Artwar. They are quote-married-in-the-game-unquote. There are others like them. There are big networks of buddies and friends and pals and associates. There's an in-game economy of sorts. There's a prophecy of doom. There are precursor events. There are guilds and corporations and farms and families. Yeah, you can raise a kid inside your home and train him (program him with NPC-like attributes) and release him into the world and see what kind of story he follows. You can take his role and when your character gets old and dies you can take up the mantle and continue to fight for the same ideals. Thultraea and Ghakat have kids.

They have a white picket fence. There is a patch note from yesterday: "Removed: justice. Versuni is no longer 'fair'."

The Sun is the wrong colour when it rises in the in-game morning. It casts the wrong colour of light.

Everybody has a history with evil. Everybody's done some variation on the great quest where an NPC friend (you have a long and ongoing story, remember) is kidnapped and imprisoned by evil minions working for the Slaughter Monster (it has lots of names, that makes it scarier), and you go underground into a really frightening dungeon scenario and have to save them and there is no way to succeed and escape. Your friend is doomed. No win.

That had good emotional penetration. But nobody cares about NPCs.

There is a patch note from today: "Removed: the Binding Chain of Ealraag." This, those who know the lore, is the aeons-old containment spell which has kept the murderous King of Horror imprisoned under the sea. Fragmented fractured aspects of this same spell appear in many inventories. No longer: they are discovered evaporated into luminous dust.

The forums are taken offline.

"Please watch carefully."

The ocean boils. The plume of steam rises to a mile in height and is visible from all parts of Versuni. Rainbow light refracts through it from the sick Sun. A moon rises along with it, sliding into position and casting an eclipse. Flaming asteroids begin to fall out of the black circle in the sky, peppering the coastline and carving out critical paths between settlements and locations in the world.

The White Tower on Calumnu Mountain, visible from miles in every direction, crumbles and slides into the valley. It looks cinematic. There were people in the White Tower. Most of them are killed. They can stay online ("We have removed your game controls.") but there is no respawning.

Firing more missiles indiscriminately into the coastal settlements, black and grey living ships wriggle through the water up to the land and beach themselves, opening colossal sandworm mouths and disgorging a stream of war engines and living ghouls out into the world. Above, warped oversized dragonflies with chittering mouths, selectively swooping into the populace and picking off vulnerable prey.

The ground forces come in various sizes but after the first few waves are picked off by hurriedly-organising defence forces they sprout more impressive armour and more grotesque facial features, resembling wriggly feelers and tarantula legs and compound eyes. They become impossible to hold off and start taking stuff from people's inventories. Swarms of indistinct shrieking things steal armour and swords from warriors' hands.

"This is pretty cool!" is the reaction from some parts as people are disarmed, stripped of everything but basic garments and herded out of cities towards convenient locations for bulk killing. "Hey I hope this is just an event because it took me-- I spent four years putting that house together, you can't-- oh shit." BOOM.

"Removed: Text communication interface. Players can no longer talk to one another. Removed: profile access. Players can no longer provide or display real-world information including email addresses."

Monsters from Ghakat's past steal Thultraea. Monsters from Thultraea's past pin Ghakat down and wipe out everything he is, invoking a hitherto seldom-used permadeath action.

"Please stand by and watch helplessly while we torch everything you have ever created."

The moors are on fire. Farmhouses burn up and explode as the fire reaches stored chemical and magical ammunition. Those who are offline are burned to death in their sleep, those online can only watch dumbly and if they manage to escape on a steed or on foot they are caught by flying vulture-monsters and taken to bits.

"This is not a hack. Removed: user control of player characters. Removed: free will."

A black pall is cast over the world. Colour visibly drains out of the red forests and blue mountains. They become sick and filled with an intolerable, voracious buzzing. After eight hours only ten percent of the playing population is left alive, and those are on the run, hiding in dungeons which will be flushed out by disgusting yellow rapidly-reproducing ooze-creatures which physically flood the tunnels from below. People logging in after the fact are transported to a bird's-eye view of the devastation, with familiar monuments, now shattered, prominently featured, or perhaps a stationary location pointing at the burnt remains of their house and their player character's corpse.

There isn't even a forum to rage on. There isn't even a web form to vent into. If you didn't swap email addresses beforehand, it's all over now--

A message on the main site. "Flights is shutting down. We have destroyed all the backups. Artwar is concluded."

*

The final member of the team is, or was, Mr. Brian Stannon. He is unconventional to look at, skinny, bearded and pierced. "This was the whole point. You've played a million games with 'war' in the name. This is an expression of something which we at Flights believed was absent from those games. We were trying to create an emotional connection and to provide an environment in which players could invest their time and their selves, culminating in this... event. We were setting out to embed those hooks as deeply as we could.

"We've seen a great deal of anger and frustration, but we've also seen a lot of more positive reactions from people who had... who saw more clearly what we wanted to express. I hope these people can talk to each other and come to an understanding of their shared experiences. I hope people can write down what happened from their perspective. It's right to feel shocked. It's okay if you won't ever play another game I'm involved in.

"Yes, we lost a lot of money on this. The clue is right there in the game's title."

Discussion (21)

2010-11-09 21:10:58 by qntm:

2158 words. Running total is 17990. Based on the concept "Well, here's a challenge: write something set in the destruction of an MMO..." given to me by BaronWR.

2010-11-09 21:28:42 by qntm:

Also, I just read The Invisibles in about three days flat, so that is where some of the imagery is inspired from although it's not nearly as scary.

2010-11-09 22:19:14 by Gil:

I'd play it.

2010-11-09 23:07:56 by AnonymousCoward:

"This the more powerful content-creation component of Artwar" Missing "is"? Paragraph starting "The degree of griefing that becomes possible is unreal and the systems which have to be set in place and constantly monitored with an eagle eye to prevent that griefing are mind-boggling." Meant to be in a smaller font? Great story.

2010-11-10 00:24:08 by KWD:

The game itself reminded me a lot of Dwarf Fortress (and a bit of Minecraft) taken to their logical extremes. Dwarf Fortress already makes stories, with independent characters and everything. Both games were made by pretty much one person each, also very Artwar-like I definitely enjoyed the story. I like the fact that it remained just a game, not truly affecting anything on a huge scale or taking over the world et cetera. Just an amazing game out to prove a point.

2010-11-10 00:40:48 by Baughn:

Dwarf Fortress isn't multiplayer, though. Maybe someday...

2010-11-10 01:45:31 by YarKramer:

Yeah, this one has a rather high "emotional reaction" quotient. Good job, now that I've taken a moment to calm down. But yeah, stuff like this is EXACTLY why I don't play MMORPGs.[/facetious]

2010-11-10 02:43:43 by BrightMikal:

Alas, none of the MMO's will ever attempt something like this, mostly because they want <i>money</i>. A very well told story though! I liked how it progressed, kinda building up similar to an explosion, before finishing.

2010-11-10 04:07:56 by Gruntbuggly:

I guess people who were in the game are somehow unable to talk about it elsewhere? Nobody can start a thread on Digg or Reddit or Craigslist and say, "Hey, I was Thultraea on Artwar, and I'm looking for Ghakat and anybody else who I hung out with"? Anyway I'd give it two days before the first basement-dwelling weirdo shows up at the CEO's house with a bat, and gets arrested. Two weeks after that, the serious obsessives start becoming noticeable, with much more careful planning. (These are the real devotees of crafting games, the ones who pour years of their lives into even the most inconsequential virtual project-- the ones who create working CPUs out of in-game wood and string.) Such persons don't go off half cocked; they plan everything out, and even their backup plans' backup plans have backup plans. All of Flight's management personnel wind up dead in a hideously complicated murder-suicide-revenge-murder-murder-arson-murder plot. The collective obituary reads, in part: "They should have realized that griefing your customers is not art, no matter how pretentiously you manage it."

2010-11-10 05:13:35 by Naleh:

Gruntbuggly: Certainly people can start those threads, but good luck finding your friends in the whole internet, unless they had very distinctive, Google-able names. Personally, I think I'd have loved to participate in that. A very cinematic end. (Most MMOs end with a whimper, after all.) I've always been happy to lose things I've worked on in games for an appropriately cinematic gain.

2010-11-10 11:09:17 by strangexperson:

The company's claim to have destroyed all backups is not credible. All their own backups, sure, but somebody, somewhere, acquired an unlicensed copy at some point and spread it around by torrent. There would be at least one unofficial forum or wiki.

2010-11-10 16:09:35 by EthZee:

Good story! But I do like Gruntbuggly's epilogue and will be taking it as part of the story.

2010-11-10 16:32:05 by PUBLIUS:

And the moral of the story is... exchange emails ASAP on an MMO. It reminds me of that WoW plague thing, where the zombie plague was hyper contagious and spread through the people's ranks. And later, it was analyzed by anti-terrorism workers and some sociologists. It would be nice, an MMO that actually has a sceduled doomsday. But I'd hate to have just joined yesterday and a day later have everything explode. The one thing I don't get: "Yes, we lost a lot of money on this. The clue is right there in the game's title." How does "Artwar" imply massive money loss?

2010-11-10 16:33:03 by qntm:

It's a work of art. Art costs money to create.

2010-11-10 16:33:19 by Snowyowl:

Oh to see all the videos on Youtube made by people with screencap software handy.

2010-11-10 18:37:08 by Val:

I enjoyed the story very much. The only thing I think would have made the experience more intense, if the destruction would have been a little bit slower. Give a false sense of hope for those who fight the monsters, and let the fight last for days. After half the wolrd is destroyed, the players can regain some territory, start hoping, but then comes a bigger wave which finally destroys them.

2010-11-17 23:00:22 by Col:

I don't see how that would have lost money short, simply through refunding remaining subscriptions?

2010-11-17 23:02:00 by Col:

Oops, let me try again: I don't see how that would have lost money simply through refunding remaining subscriptions?

2010-11-18 13:27:50 by pozorvlak:

Naleh: Someone would start a Reddit thread within hours. It would quickly become unmanageable: but that wouldn't matter, because someone else would build a "find your lost Artwar pals" site, hosted on some cloud server and searchable by name, location and in-game occupation, within a day or two.

2018-02-13 23:45:28 by Party:

Trolling is a art

2018-10-04 01:44:51 by tahrey:

I took it more of a "driving home the visceral real-life horrors of war to those who have only every experienced it in a videogame setting where the entire point of the narrative is to become an invincible hero, rather than a victimised civilian" effort, not a user-trolling one. Am I close?

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