A Spine of Trust

I first got the idea for the web game I’ll be working on when I was at a company that was an unhealthy environment:

I worked at a startup with an abusive, toxic culture. Insults were used in place of greetings, screaming was used in place of negotiation. The culture came from straight from the CEO. The 2-3 managers (total company size fluctuated between 12 and 60) were his old friends who he only rarely attacked, so they imitated or let his shit roll downhill. The CEO was an amazing salesman, though, so employees were hugely motivated for a few months before total disillusionment.

The company grew and shrank between 12 and 60 at the impulse of the CEO and that quarter’s business model. To address your question, I wouldn’t say that growth was extremely well-managed.

I can only think of one person besides mgt who stayed longer than a year, typical employment lasted 2-6 months. The company released a 1.0 that got limited traction but never was able to release 1.1 because they had a terrible codebase (due to demotivated coders) which no one could maintain (due to everyone leaving/quitting and no docs). I know of one employee whose loved ones staged an intervention to get them to quit, and one whose doctor ordered them to quit.

Last I heard they performed some kind of corporate shell game to get out of obligations to their initial investors (mostly employees) and started from scratch for 1.1. I can’t expect anything to come of it.

I’ve never before or since seen such an extreme in culture, but it sold me on thinking of software as a product of the community and culture that created it. I’ve been blogging a bit about that recently in relation to open source and am consciously planning company culture of the business I’m soon starting.

(Note: Comments speculating the company’s identity are off-topic and will be removed. Save me the lawsuit, ok?)

Daydreaming about building the awesomest web game EVAR was, of course, escapism. I wasn’t happy at work, so I was trying to imagine something wonderful I could play, build, maybe just live inside. Around then I read Raph Koster’s amazing book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, which argues that games are fun (in part) because they exercise the brain’s desire to learn and master new things.

The theory makes a lot of sense (and even helps explain my escapism), and it occurred to me that I could make a game about trust. At the company there wasn’t trust on any level: for privacy, in the competence of coworkers, that agreements would be honored, that promises would be kept. I wondered: could I design a game that teaches people the value of trust and to recognize when it’s being abused?

The first game could think of like this was Eve Online, a massive space RPG with a player-run economy. Players band together in corporations to build the biggest spaceships, to run trading empires, to defend against enemies. But Eve is in the news about quarterly because of some kind of gigantic breach of trust:

This map of Eve space is interesting for what’s not in it: namely a Corporation called Band of Brothers (BoB). BoB was previously one of the biggest Corps in the game, controlling the majority of what is now shown as unclaimed space. [...]

The question is: is this good? It’s definitely audacious and breathtaking. It totally appeals to me as an observer, and Eve players definitely have more control over their fate than in WoW. But in this instance, the work of thousands of players was essentially undone by the betrayal of a single guy. How many people will quit because of this incident? Will this be offset by the people attracted to the possibilities the incident will bring to light in EvE?

Raph Koster nailed why this keeps happening in Eve:

And the game, as a game, does want BoB to fall, because from a purely mechanical point of view, what is fun about EVE is the struggle, not the victory condition. The victory condition is boring.

Lots of folks lose their livelihoods when an empire falls, and players invested in BoB are likely upset that years of work were lost. But EVE is not a game about the height of the Roman Empire. It’s a game about the sacking of Rome by barbarians, so that they can become the next short-lived top dog. BoB existed to be torn down, and anyone who dreams of permanent glory in a game like that should understand that their destiny is to be taken down by the next upstart, in a dog-eat-dog world.

I think it’s possible to design a game that’s about trust but not about betrayal.

I think, in part, this is proved by the success of games like World of Warcraft, where the end-game content is raiding: you band together with a few dozen other players to defeat the most difficult challenges in the game. If your teammates know and execute their parts, you succeed. If someone fails, usually the group fails.

But I’d like this to be a deeper part of the game’s core mechanics, not part of the surrounding social layer. One game that does this is the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Here, the game (in the slightly-different “game theory” sense of the word “game”) has trust as a core mechanic. If the prisoners succeed if they can trust each other and lose if they don’t. In studies, the best strategy for playing many rounds of the game is tit-for-tat: trust the other player, but return equally any betrayal.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma by itself isn’t a fun game (back in the “thing you play” sense). It suggests a path I plan to follow, though, where gameplay involves understanding the minds of your teammates and working in harmony with them.

As this is a high-level theme, it may not be especially visible in the finished product. It’s what Twyla Tharp calls the Spine of a work: “It keeps me on message, but it is not the message itself.”