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Ink: An interview with designer Kym Buchanan at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Ink, a multiplayer online writing game (logo)

Earlier we posted on Ink: a multiplayer online writing game. Ink is being collaboratively developed by Kym Buchanan and David Sheridan with the support of the Michigan State University Writing Center and the Writing In Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center.

WRT interviewed designer Kym Buchanan about Ink:

WRT: Is Ink primarily oriented towards fictional or non-fictional writing?

KB: Both. The theme of Ink is low-threshold: players can represent themselves and discuss ‘brickspace’ ideas and events, such as politics. In that sense the orientation is toward non-fiction. However, we have some compelling mythic / fantastic elements in the world and game systems. Players can invent alter egos - even nonhuman ones - and much of the discourse will focus on the City at the heart of Ink, which is fictional. Role-play is largely a fiction ‘genre.’ But as players write journal reflections about their writing, as part of their advancement on semi-mythic paths, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction will be blurred.

WRT: Ink aims to blend writing instruction with gameplay. Will this primarily be done through a different player culture, or are there game mechanics designed to foster good writing?

KB: Both. Ink is like a MUD and like a MOO, but it departs from both genres. MUDs have sophisticated game mechanics for combat; MOOs give players considerable freedom in creating new content. Ink is a hybrid: we’ve made new content creation a game mechanic. The central commodity / currency is ‘ink.’ You can earn and spend ink in a variety of ways, including creating new content and selling it to other players. Such content could be items, rooms, documents, and more.

Ink is simultaneously a reputation economy, in which I can spend my ink to laud or libel you, your creation, or your group. If I laud, you gain a percentage of the ink I spend. If I libel, you lose a percentage. Thus, we will try to foster a player culture around the creation, exchange, and appreciation of new content. Ink will include a elected, semi-autonomous player government and fully autonomous player groups, which should foster a rich culture of multiple, competing perspectives and agendas. Multiplicity and competition should foster compelling rhetorical opportunities and exigencies.

WRT: What comparison do you see between the formal reputation economy of Ink and the informal reputation economies of online discussion forums in which writers post creative work?

KB: There are several possible comparisons, but more importantly, both economies are microcosms of the general reputation economy. Unfortunately, many people don’t see or understand the general reputation economy. When I taught high school, I had a student who had worked at Taco Bell for two years. He confided that he wanted to resign, but was trying to get fired for the severance pay. I tried to explain that a two-year job reference was far more valuable than two weeks of minimum wage.

Slashdot and eBay depend on a reputation economy; it’s the only truly scalable trust system. Other inspirations for Ink are Google’s PageRank and Amazon’s recommendation system (”People who bought this book also bought…”). Ink is also inspired by peer-to-peer, the long tail, folksonomies, viral marketing / memetics, and Wikipedia. David Sheridan, my collaborator, points out that Wikipedia is something like A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Earth.

There will be a monument in the center of the City with the inscription: “Ideas thrive when they are shared.” There will be ‘mainstream’ distribution channels, like traditional advertising. But Ink is Dr. Cat’s Theorem in form and function: “Attention is the currency of the future.” Everywhere you go on the Net, almost everything you do, you’re leaving a digital trail. In Ink, that trail / attention is a game system: ink paid out in large and small amounts to visit rooms, read texts, create new texts. The player’s experience is different because it’s not just a web site, chat system, or discussion forum: it’s an inhabitable metaphor.

WRT: You call Ink “a persistent alternate world, similar to a MUD / MOO.” What examples or experiences inspired your use of the MUD form for this project?

KB: The first great MUD I played on was Dragon Realms, circa 1998. The level grind, the areas, and the staff were generally lackluster, but the community was much better than we’d found elsewhere. (My wife and I play together. She’s better than me.) Immersive role-play and player-run groups called “clans” made the game great. A bunch of us tried to develop a better MUD, Aarinfel, with more support for role-play and story and more contemporary systems that were open-ended, instead of based on classes / levels. For a number of reasons, there was a major staff feud, and we left. Part of the feud was that other staffers were ostracizing some volunteers; elitism and cliques are ever-present dangers in a persistent alternate world. Yet new people bring invaluable energy and creativity. I learned a lot from the management of Aarinfel, and the mismanagement, which was partially my fault. I still run into people in other MUDs who remember Aarinfel fondly, so that’s something. I’ve played on a couple good RP MOOs since then. There’s no level grinding and the staff and community have been pretty good, but the systems and help files are often a Frankenstein’s monster. I believe telnet and command parsing alienate many potential players. I agree with experts like Haynes and Holmevik that MOOs can teach programming in a fun way. But I’ve always enjoyed room descriptions, role-play, and other writing more than clever feature objects. So Ink will include advancement and skill systems, user-created content, and similar features from MUDs and MOOs, but we’re also doing many things differently.

WRT: What made you decide on using PHP / MySQL rather than say building it on top of an established MUD / MOO framework?

KB: The PHP / MySQL decision is tentative. Our Lead Programmer / Systems Designer is about to start work, and his expert opinion may take us elsewhere. However, our criteria probably won’t change. We like open source, for the price and communities of mutual assistance. We want Ink to be accessible through a web browser, so we can include rich media such as images, sound, Flash, Shockwave, and so on. We want to be able to customize every aspect of the experience. There are some excellent established MUD / MOO frameworks, especially enCore. But the basic interaction model of a MUD / MOO is “telnet with a command line.” We’d have to radically mutate a framework to offer the “web pages with buttons and menus” model we want.

WRT: Are you planning on eventually distributing Ink in some fashion, or will it remain centrally managed for the foreseeable future?

KB: Distribution is an intriguing idea, and we’re discussing it and other intellectual property issues with our funder. A successful persistent alternate world is as much about management as framework and design. So while we might share a framework or elements of framework, we wouldn’t be distributing Ink per se — MIT’s open courseware is no substitute for an MIT education. On the other hand, some fascinating work has been done interconnecting MUDs and MOOs. In the long-term, I would love to see Ink as one node in a constellation of worlds, with players traveling from one to another seamlessly; it’s certainly possible with present technology. In the end, it will probably depend on a collective decision about how to best serve the interests of the University.

WRT: It there anything you’d like to add about Ink?

KB: I haven’t talked about some of the most exciting features, nor have I talked about the vast research opportunities. I encourage people to watch the blog (http://inkdev.blogspot.com/) and join the Yahoo! group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ink_announcements/).

I want people to know that we understand the importance of world / community management. I’m an experienced MUD wizard, our lead programmer is an experienced MUD wizard, and we’ll be recruiting an outstanding volunteer staff. We’ll do all we can to make Ink a welcoming, enjoyable, exciting place to play, learn, and just hang out.

WRT: Thank you so much for participating in this interview.

KB: It’s been a pleasure.




7 Responses to “Ink: An interview with designer Kym Buchanan”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    The project sounds fascinating — I’m finding it hard to imagine though. I look forward to actually experiencing it. It is great to see such thought, teamwork and technical decisions behind a creative work.

    Well done Jeremy too, great interview.

  2. 2 Malcolm Ryan

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    As I fairly serious MOO-builder, I’m quite interested in any project that takes this kind of writing seriously. But I’m confused about the form that ink is going to take. If it’s just ???web pages with buttons and menus??? then how is it different from writing a website?

    The advantage of a MOO is it’s real-time interactivity. It gives you the feeling that you are there and things are happening, rather than just reading text on a page. And you can be there _with_ someone else and talk to them (and ‘emote’ with them, which I think is very important).

    Also, I find the command-line interface very valuable. Because it doesn’t just present a list of “things you can do”, but allows players to try things. As a designer, this is very helpful to me, as I can record the things that people try which are as yet unsupported, and use this as a source of inspiration for further improvement.

  3. 3 Kym Buchanan

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    Ink will be different from writing a website in a number of ways. It will have real-time interactivity, and it will strive for sense of place and immersion (”an inhabitable metaphor”). Malcolm seems concerned by the possible absence of real-time speech and emoting. Rest assured, those have been core features from the beginning.

    I’m not opposed to command line interfaces; they have their merits and appropriate uses. However, the focus in Ink is creating and sharing texts. With due respect to the brilliant work that’s been done with online coding/creating (OLC) systems in MUDs, I prefer an interface like this blog’s commenting system.

    The player feedback piece is a valid concern. Players will have extensive opportunities to make suggestions and even direct improvements in to the world/interface/systems/etc., and be rewarded with ink for doing so.

    We’re not trying to build a better MOO. We’re developing something different.

    If people are interested in discussing these and other matters, I encourage them to join the Ink Community Yahoo! group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ink_community/).

  4. 4 Boggbee

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    The year I spent in Aarinfel was one of the happiest in my life..

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