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Thursday 24 February 2022

Make your own heaven

Last time we were talking about the metaverse (sort of) and then I came across a proposal I worked up with the filmmakers Marc Hawker and Ishbel Whitaker under the aegis of a madly cool and swish brand agency in Soho. I managed to talk David Docherty into coming along to a meeting in the agency's boardroom. Getting there early, I spotted a whiteboard with a bunch of marker pens under it and proceeded to sketch out the idea of a virtual online world and how it would connect to brands, events and so forth. After ten minutes or so, the agency execs began to trickle in. They gawped wide-eyed at my spider charts -- not gobsmacked by the future, though, but simply aghast. "That's not a real whiteboard," said one. "It's an artwork!"

"But the tray for the marker pens," I pointed out.

"That's... ironic."

So we had to clean that daftly expensive bit of white-painted wood before could crack on with the meeting. David solved it: "Those marker pens aren't washable, so write over the whole diagram with pens that contain solvents and then we can wipe them off."

"Or we could just call my diagrams an artwork," I suggested to the agency fellows. "You could pay me ten thousand dollars or whatever the thing cost, and then we'll get on with the meeting."

Anyway, fast forward twenty minutes and we're finally talking about virtual worlds -- without the benefit of a whiteboard. We had been calling it Heaven (not my idea; terrible for search engine optimization even back then) and I'll put it here as an example of what we were thinking twenty years ago. So, purely for historical curiosity's sake, here's my stumbling steps towards imagining the metaverse back when the creators of Minecraft and Fortnite were barely out of college and Herman Narula was still at Haberdashers'. (Yes, I feel old.)

Oh, and you will spot the bits that wouldn't work, of course. But in the brainstorming phase we never stop to think about those. There's so much I'd change about this now. For one thing, I wouldn't start from here. But as a snapshot of how we were beginning to think about the metaverse -- and for the fact that advertising agencies and music producers were the ones most vigorously driving it at that stage -- I think it's worth risking a little embarrassment.


Heaven is a place in virtual space. Heaven is the frame for all our other worlds. Heaven is as perfect as any human society can be that is open to anyone. There are no crimes other than social ones – slander can happen, but not murder. You have no physical form, you cannot be hurt. The world and other people appear and sound as you choose. You can tune anyone out, and make yourself invisible to anyone.

What this means is that Heaven is whatever you want it to be. Everyone could have their own unique Heaven. In practice, most will use one of the “default” Heavens that we provide to begin with, but in fact the whole thing will evolve over time and there will eventually be multiple, parallel Heavens that you can move between at will.

Subworlds are places in Heaven that you choose to enter and abide by the subworld rules for a time. They can be games, private chatrooms, plays, movies, concerts, TV shows, etc.

Money does not have any function in Heaven itself, but can be exchanged to reflect real-world or subworld transactions.

No-one can affect Heaven itself. You can’t move or alter anything. You can spawn messages that you could leave around Heaven, but these remain part of your reality skin, not the “true” Heaven, meaning that others can tune them out.

No person can ever be destroyed. They can of course be ejected from a subworld (even from everyone’s perception of Heaven itself – a terrible form of exile) by peer decision.

Moving and acting

In Heaven there are no physical constraints. Anyone can go anywhere – except into another player’s house, if they have such a thing. (Which is a subworld that you couldn’t see or interact with unless you have their permission anyway.)

By choosing sets of constraints voluntarily, you join a subworld – which could be a game or other entertainment. For instance, agreeing to take on virtual weapons and hit points and a certain set of rules enters me into a stalk-n-shoot game. Or agreeing to enter a subworld in which I cannot talk but can watch might be the basis of a “cinema” subworld.

(Aside: a good cinema subworld would have a vestibule area where people could choose go to chat about the movie before, after or even while it’s on. Incidentally, Marc mentioned the idea that 10 friends might create a subworld and rent a movie jointly at $1 each instead of the full $10. This has interesting ramifications – studios may prevent movies from showing in Heaven until they have first been on general release. However, alternatively, we as curators could set up an official subworld, acquire the latest film releases, and collect full per-head takings at the door just like a real cinema.)

Usually you’ll join a subworld by picking up an entry pack (= rules and special attributes, etc) at a start location. That stops you just jumping into a game at any time and place. (People in Heaven can of course teleport anywhere at any time, but you would be required to accept a pack that temporarily disabled that ability while playing in a game.)

Modifying the world

Anyone can modify their own private world-view. You can show others your world-view and they can incorporate it into theirs. If enough people like your bridge over the river, it’ll become a “real” fixture.

Everyone gets basic building blocks – shapes, colours, sounds. You can build anything you like. Those become things in your world. Other people can acquire them from you on any terms imaginable.

Therefore, over time, there will be lots of new buildings and music and more advanced blocks created by the participants. Thus there will be more different skins you can choose to enjoy – one person could in theory create a whole jungle version of Heaven for his personal subworld and other participants might even buy it.

It is possible that we as the curators of Heaven (the Seraphim?) might acquire an object created by a participant and make it part of the official default reality. Would we pay for that? We might have to – it is legitimately an artwork in which the originator has moral rights, though quite how the moral right of integrity could be upheld in a user-defined environment remains to be seen! (See how interesting this could get?)

I suggest we have two modes when wandering around Heaven. One (the preset mode) is that you see only “official” Heaven or anything added by people on your approved list. The other mode is that you can see absolutely anyone’s modifications (assuming they haven’t locked them as secret) until you turn them off. (although we need some way to limit this, otherwise the player might see 2384 different bridges in the same place across the same stretch of river -- one to think about.)

What that means is that say I paint some graffiti. If you’re in the standard mode, you don’t even see it unless I’m on your list of friends. (This is a good mode to leave on when your kids are in Heaven.) If you are in the other mode, you get to see my graffiti. If you don’t like it, you notice that it was Dave Morris’ graffiti (anyone can find out the “author” of something) and you can just remove me from the list of people whose mods appear in your skin of reality.

Groups will soon set up subworlds with their own group rules and forums that are always on. These are the beginnings of the subcultures on which Heaven will thrive.

Social aspect

Subworlds will have laws. Those laws and how they are enforced (usually by expulsion) could be really simple (eg, the rules of football and fair play in sport) or they could be as complex as the full rules for a society (a Constitution and a set of laws outlining how people are expected to behave).

This is why the only crimes will be those like libel, racism, etc – not physical because there are no physical resources to steal (unless you opt to live permanently in a subworld that has them) and no hit points (ditto). You can of course tune out any offensive comment and even ostracize the guilty individual permanently from your view of Heaven.

Real-world fraud perpetrated in Heaven is a special case (“he sold me a world and never downloaded it, officer”) and would presumably be subject to real-world laws!

I said that Heaven is not itself a game – but there is a sense in which all societies are games. Prestige, respect and social mobility are important. Heaven is the American Dream to the Nth degree. You may be Time’s cover star this week, but next week it could be me.

There will of course be many coexisting subcultures in Heaven, with very free mobility between them. I can be a Goth today and a Frat Boy tomorrow. This is good because it means there are many ways to be a social winner. I’m drawn to the analogy of clubs at university, where there is always a place for everyone to shine. (If you can’t get on anywhere else, you can always join the Christian Union – even in Heaven.)


Doors aren’t the only way into subworlds, but they are the way most people will choose to enter them (By “door” I mean only “a physical start point for entering a subworld”. Could very well look like a door though.) This does mean that most people will effectively have an “address” and that address will inevitably carry some kind of connotation. It also means people may vie for addresses (they are a physical representation of prestige).

Now, there’s nothing to stop me just saying, “I don’t have an address; If you want to visit my subworld, just select it via your interface.” But I wonder if people will want addresses in the “official” version of Heaven. It raises the question of how we would allocate addresses. A rent that people pay us in real world money? An organic system that organizes your address location according to social contacts? First come first served? Planning permission by democratic vote?

Or – more simply – maybe you simply can’t have a unique physical location for your start points. People simply access you off an interface menu. Only that does seem to miss out on the fact that a 3D world is a great interface for arranging addresses!

How is this different from The Sims Online or Habbo Hotel?

The Sims Online has an object-oriented structure into which new objects can be fitted and new combinations of objects can be endlessly invented by the participants. The Sims Online has theatres and film studios in which you can make entertainment content for other participants.

But The Sims Online is a game. Heaven is not.

You can fit any number of games into Heaven (in the form of subworlds) but Heaven itself has no economy, for example. One way in which The Sims Online is a game is that it has an economy – and because it is a complex, chaotic system it will eventually go into a recession.

Heaven is a non-complex system (only the personal relationships will exhibit complexity, not the system itself) and will remain stable indefinitely.

Now (this is a related topic, though now I’m talking about the open economy that links to our world) I know that people have talked about the idea of earning money if other people come and visit your virtual house, and so on, as in The Sims Online. That will not (should not) be a compulsory part of Heaven itself, but it can be a subworld that many people may choose to activate.

Same with other games. You might want a world in which you are a fantasy adventurer. Anyone can set up such a world – think of it just like playing an imaginary RPG in parallel with everyday life, only with graphics. It’s up to the individual if they join in such a subworld. Most such subworlds will suffer the usual economic ills and may become unstable or moribund. Doesn’t matter (same thing happens with small RPG campaigns) because there are infinite opportunities to start new subgames.

Unified Fiction Theory

This is just a fancy name for a metamodel we will use to create all subworlds. Very simple subworlds might amount to just a 2D tile with a moving picture on it – that’s a TV show or a movie, the equivalent of placing a QuickTime movie inside a 3D game.

With games and interactive stories in 3D subworlds, the Unified Fiction Theory is more than just a physics system, it is a combined physics/story metamodel. This is important because the rules (often implied) of different stories and worlds may be different. Faith exists in the movies Excalibur, The Searchers and Saving Private Ryan, but it means a different thing in each case. The sword Excalibur is a holy item, which in the movie Excalibur gives it all kinds of special powers. In The Godfather it would still be a holy item but that doesn’t mean the same thing.

This means that objects will be created with the possibility of having all kinds of story-relevant attributes at the class level and with polymorphism depending on the kind of fictionality that applies in each subworld.

(It does not mean that every object has to begin with a hideously long list of attributes, just that we need to recognize and plan for types of attributes that are not represented in pure physics. That is why I mentioned the role-playing game rules GURPS – they show the wrong way to do it, because all GURPS universes operate according to the same rules of fictionality. So although I can take Laurel and Hardy or Luke Skywalker into the Band of Brothers universe, in GURPS I can’t reflect the different kinds of reality that apply, the way that the UFT will allow.)


I think the best description of what such a virtual world might actually feel like is not to be found in cyberpunk but in Jack Vance's novel Rhialto the Marvellous. (It's not actually about a virtual world at all, it's just about relationships and magic.)

Thinking a bit about some placeholder terminology... I'm throwing these in just to see if we like them or can think of better ones. Socrates said that before you investigate a new thing you should first think of some new words that you can apply when you find it.

  • MetaWorld - that's the default world. I was going to say it's what's real for everybody, but when playing you could skin it how you wanted or indeed tune it out. It's useful because it represents a default (majority-controlled) environment.
  • SubWorld - that's a parallel world that may or may not (usually won't) resemble the MetaWorld. A subworld could be a game (you pick up attributes on joining and dropping into the subworld) or it could be just a place. Most people would at least choose to have a subworld home -- they might very well have a MetaWorld home as well. Subworlds don't have to (usually won't) map to the MetaWorld; the whole of Halo might exist in my broom closet.
  • Unified Fiction Theory - okay, just a deliberately arch expression, but the fact is that there must be a core "Platonic" physics even though it may (probably will) be entirely uninvoked in the MetaWorld. By "Platonic" I mean that it consists of the real root classes of things which may never be seen in their Platonic form because they are always applied in the context of the subworld -- eg, health means one thing in the real world and quite another in Ready 2 Rumble.
I'm aware these terms come with certain assumptions. I don't mind if we keep the words and ditch the assumptions, or vice versa, or ditch both even. It's all just brainstorming at this stage.

ADDENDUM: I just learned (25 Feb 2022) that Marc Hawker died six years ago. He was a bright, funny, creative person and a gentleman. It's a sad loss.

Thursday 17 February 2022

How to create a new world

You’re creating a virtual world. What’s your job, and what isn’t?

You’re god here. You’re laying down the rules of the universe. And you need to be a benevolent god because malevolent gods don’t have many customers. So you won’t populate the world with lots of dangerous critters – or anyhow you’ll provide safe havens from such critters. You’ll start people off with the rudiments of an economy. Maybe some tools to get them started.

But only to get them started. It isn’t god’s job to design buildings and cities. You might want to make a city – gods, like everybody else, gotta follow their bliss. But the laws of the world and the basic tools will mean that pioneers will take one look at your city and go, “Nah, I’m going over here to build a place of my own.”

That’s a good thing. Gods have to let go. For starters, if the people in your world are designing stuff then that’s less work for you. Also it gives them ownership. It means they get the virtual world to be what they want it to be.

Think of it like making the Garden of Eden. You come back a few days later to find Adam and Eve growing trees and herding sheep. A bit later they’re tapping for rubber, carving wood, using sheep intestines to make string. Next time you see them they’ve invented tennis. And all you had to do was the physics and the biology.

So virtual worlds can and should grow to reflect the wishes of the users. Except…

Seen The Deuce? You probably wouldn’t want to live near Times Square in the 1970s. What if your early adopters turn the world into Damnation Alley but you’d really like to attract the vuppies (sic) who’ll bring in the money and numbers? They get turned off by all that dark sleaze and might not come back for a second look. If your world is big enough there’s room for both groups of players, but that’s kind of a cop-out. It’s really two different worlds.

Around the time Second Life was making a big noise, a finance guy asked me to design a virtual world. Actually, he didn’t so much want a designer as somebody to take notes, as he already had a lot of ideas about what the world should be like.

“It’ll look like a modern Western city,” he said. “People will use money and they’ll be able to have sex.”

“So there’ll be prostitution.”

“No, I don’t want prostitution. Also, you can mug other players’ avatars and steal from them but you can’t kill them.”

“So there’ll be rape.”

“No! No rape! What are you saying?”

“What’s to stop somebody from stealing another user’s money and then only giving it back if they agree to sex? Or threatening them for sex? What’s to stop somebody demanding money for sex? If you put those elements in, prostitution and rape are emergent.”

“I don’t want those things in my game.”

He couldn’t see how his design decisions (mugging, theft, sex) had consequences. Tutoring a money guy on how game design works isn’t on my list of enticing jobs. I turned him down. But it did get me thinking about how you police the behaviour of people in a virtual world.

The ideal answer is that god doesn’t need to be a lawyer or a policeman any more than he or she needs to be an architect or a city planner. If people want a civilized society, they can organize it for themselves. Your job is to give them the tools to do that. You might, for example, place a constitution monolith in the centre of the world. Users can vote to add, remove or modify rules. Those could become laws of nature. Swear words, say, might be auto-censored. Or they could be behavioural guidelines that users are expected to abide by, and policing that social contract becomes a community matter.

There’s no hard and fast rule, but my working principle would be to give the users the tools and let them decide how to use them, whether it’s to make towns or to make laws. If there’s a demand for something – cars or buildings or whatever – then somebody will supply it. There will be businesses springing up with car designers and architects. The world developers are free to focus on the important stuff, like gravity and sparrows.

I’m talking about the big virtual worlds here. The ones with their own economies, where famous rock stars come to give concerts and studios hold movie premieres. But there are also what we might call boutique worlds, effectively cosplay theme parks. They will appeal to smaller groups of players with more specialized preferences, who come to play and typically won’t fuel much of an internal economy. The difference is that they will pay you more than the casual everyday user of a big world, and in return they expect you to do the heavy lifting. You’ll have to be an immanent, hands-on deity.

A fictional example is Westworld. Everybody who comes there wants to cosplay in a wild west setting of the late 19th century. Think of the real world (our world, that is; the one the guests come from) as a typical big virtual world – it has an economy, assets are user-created and traded, laws are user-designed and agreed on. If you want to play a game in such a world, you design it. You might make or buy a ball or a set of pieces, explain the rules to others, and you can play whatever you want. It’s real life. Westworld is a boutique world. In effect it’s a game, a traditional one, whereas the larger virtual worlds are exactly that: worlds.

People who come to Westworld aren’t there to redesign the town, they’re there to play the game. (Admittedly, like roleplaying, it’s actually a set of overlapping games with personally defined goals.) There won’t be any Travis Scott concerts, although some boutique worlds might be designed specifically as music venues. With a boutique world, you have to dress the world as well as create the fundamentals. Why would you do that, given that you’ll get fewer users? Because most of the people who frequent the big, tabula rasa worlds are not going to be giving you a lot of money. Most of them, the ones not directly driving the internal economy, are casual visitors – tourists in your world, really – who can and will migrate to other virtual worlds whenever they like. But the aficionados of a themed world will pay a lot, and they’re likely to stay.

I haven't even touched on the ethics of enslaving intelligent AIs to play the NPCs in a theme park (real or virtual), a topic examined in Westworld and discussed here by Dr Richard Bartle.

Between the themed and the tabula rasa world there’s another option: the world specifically designed for tourists. Literally tourists, in fact, as these would be recreations of real-world locations that either no longer exist or that some pesky pandemic or travel restriction or lack of time stops people from visiting. Imagine you could walk through the ruins of Pompeii – and at any point you could dial back to 79 AD and see what it looked like before the lava rolled in. Or London before the Great Fire. Or Tenochtitlan before the Conquistadores razed it. Or Angkor Wat without the blooming jungle. You could climb Everest. You could explore the Mariana Trench. You could stroll around the Forbidden City or Jurassic Park.

Who pays for that? Many developers already have models of such locations. Museums too. You might do a deal with the Great Courses to feature some of their content in the audioguide. Hilton hotels might provide visitors with their only 50th-floor view of Lake Texcoco. Tickets for real-world tour trips might be hidden, Willy Wonka style, for visitors to find. Reuse the content as AR so that tourists in real Pompeii can still look into your reconstructed version through their phones.

Virtual worlds are going to be sprouting up alongside the real one in ever-greater numbers. People will spend more time in them. They will have real economies. Events will take place in them: concerts, political rallies, parades, riots. Some people will make their living there. What happens there is going to matter. The gods of those places had better be ready.

Monday 14 February 2022

Fighting Fantasy auction

Jamie and I, alongside luminaries of the hobby such as Jonathan Hicks and Stuart Lloyd, were recently roped in on a worthy cause promoting an auction to raise funds for Mind, a mental health charity.

There are lots of signed gamebooks and RPG supplements to bid for, but the prize I'd like most would be one of Matthew Dewhurst's masterful character portraits. (The only problem is which character I'd pick out of the dozens I've played over the years.)

Other treasures on offer include The Cursed King, an adventure for Dragon Warriors set in Thuland; lots of original art; some figurines; and signed copies of The Keep of the Lich Lord, Way of the Tiger, Fabled Lands and Knightmare. Remember that before "diamond-handed apes" started lobbing bundles of cash at digital NFTs, the original collector's items were actual physical things that artists signed. That's real non-fungible; accept no substitutes.

The auction runs till the last week of February and it's being run by The Warlock Returns magazine. (I know it says on their site that it ends on January 30, but in fact that's when it started.) Take a look at the full list of items here and even if there's nothing you need you can still make a donation.

Friday 11 February 2022

To Carry A Sword

Cast your mind back to last year when we were talking about the early-release version of To Carry A Sword, a CRPG by Fabled Lands team stalwart Richard Hetley.

In the game you're one of the guards protecting a caravan in medieval times. Think Wagon Train meets The White Queen. You'll make tactical decisions but you'll also be dealing with relationships between the characters along for the ride. "Swords and words", if you want a genre label for it.

The game is out on Valentine's Day. Available to order now on Steam.

Thursday 3 February 2022

Two styles of gamebook design

A few people have asked about the differences between my Vulcanverse books (The Hammer of the Sun and The Pillars of the Sky) and Jamie's (The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods). When we wrote the Fabled Lands series our styles were pretty similar, so you can't always spot where I (or in several cases Tim Harford) wrote parts of Jamie's books. 

Nearly thirty years on, we write very differently and I'd be surprised if somebody playing the Vulcanverse books couldn't tell which of us wrote what. It would be hard nowadays for Jamie and me to split a book down the middle, as we did with The Keep of the Lich Lord, and not have readers spot the join.

On a trivial level, I notice that Jamie will put things like, "if you have codeword X, read on," so you get to see in the same section various alternative outcomes that you shouldn't really know. Of course, that only matters if you cheat by reading on when you don't have the relevant codeword. Here's an example from The Wild Woods:

On the other hand, I plan the logic diagram as if it were to be handed to a coder, separating each step in the process into its own section. In an example like the one above, I'd split those filters (the codeword, the title, the tickbox) into separate sections, like so:

One advantage of that is it's a lot easier to bug-check the book. If the Vulcanverse gamebooks are ever turned into a CRPG, in mine those logic gates are already fully planned. Jamie's approach uses up fewer numbered sections, and means less page-flipping for the reader, but it can lead to some very long chunks of text.

Jamie uses a lot more codewords; I use a lot more tickboxes. That's because tickboxes are fine for any non-global change, and so I tried to limit the number of times the player would need to refer to the codeword list (codewords being necessary for something that changes the world in more than one location). Neither approach is wrong; it's just a stylistic choice. And some people have told me that the "elegant logic" argument doesn't persuade them in favour of tickboxes because they don't like writing in their books.

Another difference is that Jamie's Vulcanverse books are much more comedic (as you'd expect of the winner of the Roald Dahl Award) so he'll have gods and other mythological figures talking in modern slang. No less a talent than Joss Whedon did the same thing with the Greek gods in his (unproduced) Wonder Woman script, and it's the entirety of Taika Waititi's approach to his Thor movies. Which is not to say that my own Vulcanverse books are without humour, but it's more character-humour in my case, so a bit like Thor: Ragnarok compared to the first Thor movie. Take your pick, or better still enjoy both.

Also, I do a lot more with companions in the Vulcanverse books than Jamie does. Instead of companions, he tends to have more localized character-based stories -- the insolent butler, the orphan you have to return to his uncle, the sick child whose father is destroying the woods, and so on. The trade-off is between highly focused mini-narratives and the more general interactions you get with companions, of whom only Loutro (in The Hammer of the Sun; I picture him played by Toby Jones, incidentally) is guaranteed to get a full character arc.

And there are differences too in the way we construct our books; Jamie tends to have fewer and longer sections. Still, just as you get different styles between the writers on a TV show, hopefully the variety only goes to enhance the whole.