and other boastings by F. Randall Farmer
This, my very first paper, documents my early observations of the Lucasfilm's Habitat Beta and Pilot tests in 1987 and 1988. These observations served as raw material for several published papers that became the inspiration for the formation of Electric Communities, a cyberspace research company founded by Chip Morningstar, Douglas Crockford and myself in 1993. If you don't know anything about Habitat, this paper won't make much sense. The unfamiliar should first read The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat in Cyberspace: First Steps from MIT Press.
This paper is adapted from a hypertext document.
The entire point of Habitat is The People. It is an interactive environment where people define the parameters of their experience. Chip likes to call it "A Social Crucible": throw some people in a room with some fun toys, and see what happens. If a situation arises that requires modification, first let them try to sort it out --avoid changing the rules-- and if they can't, take their input on how to change things. From this, it is clear that to understand Habitat, we must first understand its users.
There are basically 5 types of people in the Habitat universe:
Easily 50% of the number of users fall into this category, but they probably use only 20% of the connect time (rough estimates). They tend to "cross over" to Habitat only to read their mail, collect their 100t bonus, and read the weekly newspaper. They tend to show up for events ad-hoc and when the mood strikes. This is the most important area for development. Special events and activities need to target this "on for just a few minutes" group. This group must be lead by the hand to participate. They tend to want to "be entertained" with no effort, like watching TV. The trick here is to encourage active participation.
This group is the next largest, and made up the bulk of the paying user-hours. The active user participates in 2-5 hours of activities a week. They tend to log into Habitat right after connecting. They send out ESP messages to others on-line to find out what is going on. They ALWAYS have a copy of the latest paper (and gripe if it comes out late). This group's biggest problem is overspending. They really like Habitat, and lose track of the time spent "out there". The watch word here is "be thrifty". (See Quests for more on this)
The real heroes of Habitat. The Motivators understand that Habitat is what they make of it. They set out to change it. They throw parties, start institutions, open businesses, run for office, start moral debates, become outlaws, and win contests. Motivators are worth their weight in gold. One motivator for every 50 Passive/Active users is wonderful. Nurture these people. (See Motivators & Caretakers at Work)
Usually already employees. The Caretakers are "mature" Motivators. They tend to help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs, suggest improvements, run their own contests, officiate at functions, and in general keep things running smoothly. There are far fewer of these than Motivators. Out of a Pilot group of about 400, we had 3. What you want to do with a Caretaker is groom him for Geek Godhood. (See Motivators & Caretakers at work)
I was the first Oracle/Operator. (I talk about that experience in Geek Gods Revisited). The operator's job is most important. It really is like being a Greek God from the ancient writings. The Oracle grants wishes and introduces new items/rules into the world. With one bold stroke of the keyboard, the operator can create/eliminate bank accounts, entire city blocks, or the family business. This is a difficult task as one must consider the repercussions of any "external" effects to the world. Think about this: Would you be mad at "God" if one day suddenly electricity didn't work anymore? Habitat IS a world. As such, someone should run it that has experience in that area. I suggest at least 10 years experience in Fantasy Role Playing and 2 years on telecommunications networks (specifically ones with CHAT programs). A Geek God must understand both consistency in fictional worlds, and the people who inhabit it.
To optimize the Habitat funativity experience, the goal is to move the user from his/her present category to the next one up:
Move everyone one role to the right, and you will have a successful, self maintaining system. (Read: you will make bags of money.)
The Habitat Beta Test was actually a paying pilot-test. The testers would be paying $0.08 per minute to play and in this way we could see if Habitat was financially feasible. There were exceptions; about 25% of the testers would be QLink staff, who either had free accounts or were given a certain number of free hours. This distinction caused some difficulty in deciding if any Habitat activity was a success (see The Scheduled Events). We wanted to see if Habitat was fun enough for paying customers.
Read these (don't forget to read between the lines):
A certain user posted this message (edited for brevity):
As of today I am quitting Habitat. It costs too much. I have been a Q-Link subscriber for 2 years. The first year I used only 2 plus hours. ($10) The next year I used only 5. ($25) But in the last month, while I was playing Habitat I spent $270!!! I can't afford that. You need to make it cheaper.
$270 = 57 hours or over 100 times his previous peak usage!
We must have made it "too much fun!"
another user said:
I didn't realize that I was going to want to play 50 hours/month!
Habitat (for some) was addictive. Because of this, there was a call for "Bulk Discounts" and various schemes were proposed by the users. None of them were implementable, and all of them would have resulted in significant losses. I fully expect the call to go out again when it is released.
Yet another spent over $1000 in one month in Habitat. At around $300 and $600 dollars, he was mailed a message suggesting he "check out his usage in the billing section". If we could get 20 more of this type of "rich" user, we would be profitable!
The Habitat official currency is the Token.
You are "hatched" with 2000t, and every day you log in, you receive 100t. Money can be won in contests/quests. You can buy and sell objects using automated machinery. The Vendroid sells stuff. The Pawn Machines buy it back. Each Vendroid makes the purchased item out of thin air. That's right, no production costs. This leads to an interesting problem of runaway inflation. We never got enough people in the system to understand this effect, but got a taste of in when "The Big-Money Scam" happened:
During the Alpha test, "The Big Doll-Crystal Ball Scam" took place. In order to make the automated economy interesting, we made Vendroids so that the could have any price for any item. This was so we could have local, specialized economies (i.e. a widget could cost a little less if you bought it at Jack's Place instead of The Emporium). In two vending machines across town from each other were two items that were for sale for less than the pawn machine would buy them back for: Dolls (for sale at 75t, hock at 100t) and Crystal Balls (for sale at 18000t, hock at 30000t). One weekend several persons participated in the Scam, they took their money, purchased many boxes, walked to the Doll Vendroid and bought as many as they could afford, walked back to town and pawned them. They repeated this process until they had enough to purchase Crystal Balls. This took many hours. The final result was at least 3 people with 100,000t - 500,000t. In one night the economy had been diluted as the T1 (the Token Supply) has jumped 5 times! (for more on this Scam, see They Cheated!).
The new rich class now began to distribute their wealth by having treasure hunts. There were other quests and hunts that gave many users fat bank accounts. Soon a true economy began to emerge: Heads. Since you can change heads in Habitat, and unique heads were often prizes or gifts from the oracle or very expensive, their value skyrocketed. This would definitely be true when thousands of users came along, as there are only 200 or so styles of heads, and each user is initially given a choice from about 30 of those. Heads are the only obvious form of customization an Avatar has.
As I have said before, Habitat is a society, and as such, has spawned many debates about how the Habitat world should be. Very few "rules" were imposed on the world from the start.
A theme at the core of many of the arguments is philosophical. Is an Avatar an extension of a human being, a Pac-man like critter -- destined to die 1000 deaths -- or something else. Our answer is all of the above and none. Again the people decide what is right. In reading about the issues, keep in mind that our sample was very small, and skewed towards Actives and Motivators.
At first, during early testing, we found out that people were taking stuff out of others hands and shooting people in their own homes. We changed the system to allow thievery and gunplay only in non-city regions. (That one was easy! It gets more complicated from here)
The hottest issue was, by far, murder. In Habitat, if an Avatar is "killed" he is teleported back home, with his pocket emptied, what he was holding dropped, his hit-points restored, and his head put in his hand. However, only what he had with him and his position in the universe has changed. One of the Motivators took to randomly shooting people roaming outside of town. A debate arose: Is Habi-Murder a crime? Should all weapons be banned? Is it all "just a game"? There was such a debate on the issue, that a vote was taken. We were surprised by the results. 50% said "A crime" and 50% said "no -- it is part of the fun". Our outlaw had in fact demonstrated that human-human interactive combat was fun for over half the audience. And since anyone who didn't want to fight could just "ghost" and run away, there was no reason to consider the banning of weapons. (For more on personal combat, see Combat)
One of the outstanding proponents of the anti-violence-in-Habitat view was also the first Habitat Minister. A Greek Orthodox Minister opened the first church in Habitat. His canons forbid his disciples to carry weapons, steal, or participate in violence of any kind. It was unfortunate that I had to eventually put a lock on the Church's front door because every time he decorated (with flowers), someone would steal and pawn theme while he was not logged in!
Three Habitat weddings took place in that church. These were not human-human weddings, but Avatar-Avatar. Their turfs were joined so that they could cohabit. There were some technical problems with this that should be resolved in any new versions. Only one account could enter a turf if the owner were not home. We hadn't properly handled cohabitation.
The first Habitat divorce occurred 2 weeks after the third wedding. I guess Habitat is a bit too close to the real world for my taste! The first habitat lawyers handled the divorce, including public postings all about town.
The Party was one of my favorite activities. I liked to throw them at new Avatars' houses. I would ESP a known "Passive" Avatar, and ask him where he lived. If he told me, I would send ESP to "Actives" and "Motivators" that were on-line teleport to the address. Great fun.
A close cousin to parties was the Sleep-Over. The users invented this on their own. Often private discussions would take place in a turf. It was considered a minor social honor to be invited to sleep-over. This meant to log-out while still in another's turf. This was an honor because you would be able to log in later even if the host was not on. This would leave the host's belongings open to plunder.
Speaking of plunder... Stealing is still possible, even within city limits, as once an item is placed on the ground, it has no owner. Like murder, opinions on this issue are deeply divided and we think the best way to resolve it is to let (help) the players devise a limiting mechanism.
In the original proposal, all Avatars would be able to have unique names (separate from their log-in names) and they could say they were anybody they wanted. Like a big costume party, no one would know who was who. I lost the battle for unique names, and QuantumLink wanted an "identify" function. It seemed the anonymity I wanted was lost. But I suggested a counter-proposal. A tit-for-tat rule. If you "peek" at someone else's secret identity, you will be unmasked to that Avatar, and no one else would know the results. Some very interesting dynamics developed. Some people were offended if they were ID'ed right away. And others never bothered, if you said "HI! I'm WINGO". I remember one time that I convinced someone that I was another person by sending ESP as "myself" to the person in the same region.
The economy was a minor issue. Most everybody had plenty of tokens (except the Passives). In an attempt to open the retail business to Avatars, a Drug store was opened, with a locked room in back that only the owner could enter that contained the only vendroid that sold Habitat healing potions and poisons. The shopkeeper would pay the fixed price, and could charge whatever he wanted for resale. It was a success except for the fact that the owner logged in at strange hours.
Our design directive was not to interfere in Habitat politics or set up a government or law establishment. Many people thought that crimes of killing and theft ought to be punished. We decided to hold sheriff elections. The favorite candidate was a friendly guy, but many didn't know that this very same Avatar was the brains behind The Scam. There was a public debate in the Populopolis Meeting Hall with the 3 AvaCandidates making statements and fielding questions. I was among the ghosted attendees. I would pre-type some comment like "Vote for Foon!", de-ghost quickly, press return to send my message, and become a ghost again. No one would have any time to tell who I was before I was gone. This was fun. During the Question and answer period I, before appearing, typed this question: "Please explain to us why we should vote for a sheriff who obtained his campaign fees rather -ah- UNUSUALLY?". This started a real-life-like mud slinging fight. As it turns out, he won by a landslide anyway. Populopolis had a sheriff.
For weeks he was nothing but a figurehead. We were stumped about what powers to give him. Should we give him the right to shoot anyone anywhere? Give him a more powerful gun? A wand to >zap< people to jail? What about courts? Lawyers? Laws? Late in the test the answer struck me: ask the users! A "Committee for a Safer Habitat" sent out a mailer to everyone asking this question: "What should the sheriff be able to do?". Then another election was held "What is a crime?" and "What should the sheriff be empowered to do?". The results were unable to be acted on before the test ended. An interesting side effect of this was that it became apparent there are two basic camps: anarchy and government. It will be great to see what happens with thousands of users facing this decision. Habitat need not be set up with a "default" government (like reality).
Besides economic inflation, we also had Magic inflation. In the Dungeon of Death, the designer had a vending machine that sold magic wand that teleport to the oracle anyone you point them at for only 1000t. At this time magic wands worked forever. Soon everyone had one of these wands and people were zapping each other all over the place. Crime got really out of hand when criminals would travel as ghosts, wait for people to put their belongings down for a second, de-ghost - zap - and steal. I had always planned on implementing a limited "charges" feature but was to busy tracking down bugs. Soon it was clear it was time to act. "God" changed the rules, and limited magic. The issue became foremost in the discussion arena: Some people were using these rods for the "good" cause of rescuing people when they got lost. Many were outraged that the rules changed. Ask yourself this question: What would you have done? This is a tricky question, fundamental for the chief operator to understand.
By far the Caretaker who had the greatest on his fellow users was the editor of the Habitat newspaper The Weekly Rant. This user tirelessly spent 20-40 hours a week (free account) composing a 20, 30, 40 or even 50 page tabloid with containing the latest news, events, rumors, and even fictional articles. This was no small feat, he had only the barbaric Habitat paper editor, and no other tools. After he had composed the pages of an issue, he would arrange them in several chests of drawers in The Rant office and send me mail. I would publish it by using a special host program that would bind them into a book object and distribute it to the news vendroids, check the copy by hand for errors, and deliver a copy to the office (in Habitat). This worked great, but took massive amounts of his personal time. I began to automate the process further just as Habitat operation changed hands. The new publisher didn't publish on time, delayed getting the tools ready to speed up creation, made editorial changes (he wanted it to be shorter, less fiction), and didn't hand-deliver a copy of the final product. The editor quit. Just like real life: Someone new runs the show and the sensitive leave. Again, these people are rare and should be handled carefully. The Rant will never be the same.
One of the wands we implemented caused the victim to perform the "jump" gesture, accompanied by a "Hah!" word balloon. It was fun for a while, mostly because you could really effect another Avatar, but it got old fast. Soon a game was developed completely by the users involving these wands: The Duel. The rules were simple: two combatants, two wands, one judge. When the judge says "go" the first to "hit" the other with the wand 3 times wins. Not as easy as it sounds, since the duelists are allowed to run around.
Another Caretaker was the number #1 all-time most-traveled Avatar. He also was the longest lived. When new people started logging in, he took them on guided tours of this strange new world. He made them feel like they had a "friend" in town.
"Conflict is the essence of drama". We used this quote in the initial Habitat design document. Habitat (it was then named "Microcosm") was to have personal combat in the forms of weapons. Most computer games had combat, and we were offering a chance for users to effect each other!
Here I will explain how it actually ended up working. There were ranged weapons and hand-to-hand. An Avatar is born with 255 hit points (the actual number is masked from the user, and a "general state of health" message gives the user some idea how bad off he is.) While holding the weapon, you select a target and DO (attack). There is a telecommunications delay that may effect the hit-or-miss result. Each successful attack does some small amount of damage (i.e. 20 points.). You are always informed when you are shot, as your Avatar is knocked onto his rump.
As you can see, it would take quite a few hits to "kill" a healthy Avatar. Not only that, but you can avoid being damaged if the attacker can't "touch" you in 2 ways: 1) by turning into a ghost or 2) running around (not standing still). You use #2 when you are in a gunfight where you are shooting back. This seems to be a working dynamic. If you really, really are low on hit points, you travel the "wild" regions as a ghost. There are also devices that will restore your hit points. The real problem is communicating this to new users, who are often standing around in a region when a bandit comes along with a gun. The neophyte hears a "bang" and sees his Avatar knocked on his can. Instead of acting, he types a message like "What was that? Why am I sitting down?". Meanwhile, the bandit cranks out another 12 bullets.... Dead beginner probably had all of his money and stuff in his pocket too! This problem should be corrected in the Avatar Handbook, explaining that guns are dangerous (something we thought people would assume on their own).
For more on special types of combat see Magic Inflation, Duels, and Dungeon of Death.
The first treasure-hunt ever planned for Habitat was mine, the D'nalsi Island Adventure. I took me hours to design, weeks to build (including a 100-region island), and days to coordinate the actors involved. I had taken several guesses as to what how long it would take the players to perform each "segment" of the quest. The mission: recover the lost "Amulet of Salesh". First: A trial, introducing the characters and the first clues. Second: Salesh hires the adventurers. Third: The players needed to figure out the "secret" teleport address. Fourth, they must find the door to the hidden cave, solve the riddle. Last: find the hidden crawlway and the buried chest containing the amulet. The prize was 25,000t.
The first part was in the form of a "dinner theater"-like play, set in the county courthouse. It was heavily attended. Since it was set up as an introduction, there was no appropriate "time" for the players to discover anything.
On the day that Salesh "hired" adventurers to find his amulet, he gave out copies of a map of the island. Hidden on this map was a word that was the teleport address to the island. After about 15 minutes of hiring, when about the tenth Avatar was hired, Salesh (me) received an ESP from one of the Motivators: He had discovered the teleport address. Darn! It seemed that the others had no idea where to start, so I sent ESP to all the players announcing that the teleport address had been discovered to be a word on the map.
Within 8 hours the treasure had been recovered by that person who had first discovered the island. This was so soon that almost half the adventurers (the novices) had not yet even discovered the teleport address! It was clear that there is a very wide range of "adventuring" skills in the Habitat audience, and various events need to be better targeted, and should include handicapping mechanisms so that those behind don't get more and more behind.
This "combat oriented" dungeon was the brainchild of a Caretaker that had recently become a Q-Link in-house employee. It shows that experienced "insider" could design an successful event using his understanding gained through being a player first. (Note: I had nothing to do with this design, so it was my first event as a participant)
For weeks ads appeared in The Rant announcing that Duo of Dread, DEATH and THE SHADOW were challenging the adventurers to come to their lair. Soon, on the outskirts of town, a dungeon was discovered. Outside a sign read "Danger, enter at your own risk.". Two operators were logged in as DEATH and SHADOW, armed with guns that could kill in 1 shot (instead of the usual 12). The dungeon had totally dark (light did not help), dead end (trapped), and duplicate regions. It was clear that any explorer had better be prepared to "die" several times before mastering the dungeon. The rewards were pretty good: 1,000t minimum and access to a vending machine that sold "teleport" wands (see Magic Inflation). I even got a chance to play DEATH for one night. It was a slaughter. Avatars were dropping like flies... but most of them had prepared by emptying their pockets. When I got to play DEATH, I found him in one of the "dead ends" with four other trapped Avatars. I de-ghosted and started shooting, but was shot twice myself and died. Shoot! The last operator had not healed damage from his last encounters! The worst part of this is that "when you die, what is in your hands is dropped". Yep. Some normal Avatar now had the "elephant" gun that could kill in one shot. The most valuable weapon in Habitat. What should I do? I later found out that this was not the first time this happened, it happened to a Q-Link operator and they "forced" the Avatar to give it back. I did something else: As DEATH (never identifying my true self) I threatened to kill the new owner. She replied that she would never leave town, thus being safe. OK, I think, she's smart. After about an hour we settle on a deal, 10,000t to buy the gun back. We meet at The Oracle in town, where it is safe and make the exchange. It was great. The entire "operations accident" was handled within the game universe with no "external" interference.
These were short (1-2 hours) quests where a user pressed one of ten magic buttons to receive a clue to find one of ten hidden keys to be used in one of ten hidden safes. This were the all-around best quests to run (there were 3 of them) because there were always 7-10 winners. The only problem here was the Time Zone problem: The event had to be scheduled so that as many people as possible could participate from the moment it started. Q-Link access started at 6pm local time. This meant that for the Californians to have a chance, the adventure would have to start at 9pm East coast time at the earliest.
The Quest for the Money Tree is the first quest an Avatar learns about from reading his free Welcome Wagon version of The Rant placed in his Turf. There is a tree in a forest that will dispense 100t for every Avatar once. Everyone can feel like they have "found" the magic tree.
This was also one of the originally conceived of quests. A certain set of tablets contained the Tome of Wealth and Fame. If you found it, you were to hide it somewhere else. You would receive a reward based on how long it took another to find it. The problem with this was that the world was so large that it often took weeks for someone to find the tome. It wasn't an active process because, if you tried, it would take days of on-line time to find.
A trend became clear about quests in Habitat. The winners of the "long range" quests like The D'nalsi Island Adventure were almost always people with free accounts. The freebies would stay on for hours on end to gain wealth, things and status (See Habitat Money:"The Scam"). The paying customers could only come on 1-2 hours/week. The idea that people would be able to "work on" a quest for weeks is bogus. The long range quest must be something that either "everyone" can win or does not provide some significant advantage in the world. (See The Money Tree)
A real surprise was the popularity of the "Grand Opening". This the ribbon-cutting event when new regions were added to the world. Tokens and prizes were often hidden in the new regions, but it seems that the audience (especially the Passives) had an insatiable hunger to see new places and things. The Grand Opening of the Popustop Arms apartment building was the most heavily attended event of the Pilot test.
One of the more successful "games" we invented for Habitat was the disease. There are three strains currently defined:
We only were able to test Cooties with live players, but it was a hit. It works like this: Several initial Avatars are infected with a "Cootie" head. This head replaces the current one, and cannot be removed except by touching another non-infected Avatar. Once infected, you can not be infected again that day. In effect, this game is "tag" and "keep away" at the same time. Often people would allow themselves be infected just so he could infect "that special person that they know would just hate it!" Every time the disease was spread, there was an announcement at least a week before, and for at least a week afterward it was the subject of major discussions. One day that the plague was spread, a female Avatar that was getting married got infected 1 hour before her wedding! Needless to say, she was very excited, and in a panic until a friend offered to take it off her hands.
Some interesting variations to try on this are: Touch 2 people to cure; this would cause quite a preponderance of infected people late in the day. The "Happy Face" plague: This simple head has the side effect of changing any talk message (word balloons) to come out as "HAVE A NICE DAY!"... can you imagine infecting some unsuspecting soul, and him saying back to you HAVE A NICE DAY! ??? ESP and mail still work normally, so the user is not without communications channels. The Mutant Plague: The head looks like the head of a giant housefly and it has the effect of changing talk text to "Bzzz zzzz zzzz". We think these all will be great fun.
These were fun things to do to your fellow Avatar.
My invention - Type this: "You have *mail* in your pocket." and watch the fun as people say "That's strange! I don't have mail!"
Chip thought this up - Send this ESP message "ESP from: yournamehere", then quickly send a "Hello" also. Your "Hello" ESP will be announced 3 times!
We developed a form of communication "harassment". You can do this on almost any network. Just coordinate a few people all sending very short ESP messages to the victim. His screen will scroll faster than he can read. This was used against the social outcast mentioned in Dial H for Murder.
As the One and Only Habitat Oracle and Lead Programmer I was subject to some interesting conflicts of interest in operations. I cared intensely about the experience each user was having. I worried about bugs. When The Scam happened, I flipped my lid! "They Cheated! And they didn't report it in a bug report!". First indication I had was looking at the record for most tokens. Then I searched for bug reports. Then I sent Habitat mail to the two newest rich people asking them where they got all that money overnight. The reply I got was "I got it fair and square! And I am not going to tell you how." At this point I should have realized that my role as Oracle and Programmer were at odds, and that the users were not aware of the relationship of my Avatar (the one who mail them asking about the money). A Geek God must not lose his temper. Remember, Habitat is its own little world.
The greatest reward for being The System Operator is Fan Mail. When the Caretakers (who always end up finding out who the oracle really is) tell you that the world is a fun place to be because of you, it makes it all worthwhile. It does matter what you do (see The Rant). It all starts at the top of the pyramid. A bad Operator can drag the system down by not keeping track of details and promises. Trust feedback.
Since we (theoretically) could remotely update the disk we considered a "Monster of the Month Club" scheme where we would download a new Avatar body style for special events. There were some images that were not put in the current implementation of the system that would be great: a car and a motorcycle. Some other interesting ideas included a giant (full screen height) foot that would hop around, animals, and floating objects.
This game was designed by Chip. It required no programming support. The game is about politics and secret organizations. The idea was that the Operators and Caretakers would start the game by making up two separate secret organizations whose goals were to "take over" Habitat. They could only do this by recruiting more and more new members (while still keeping the organization a secret!). Secret "handshakes" could be set up. Meetings. Recruiting drives. Of course, soon there would be gang warfare. Who knows where it might go?
As I close this document I find I keep remembering dozens of other stories to tell. And all of these come from my experiences with only 200 or so people! Imagine what it will be like with tens of thousands of creative minds at work! Though as of this writing Habitat is still not a released product, I still am proud of the world we created. I really expect to be meeting you soon "On The Other Side" in a world not unlike Habitat.
F. Randall Farmer, aka SPBLives