ArdenHow could you go wrong choosing William Shakespeare’s plays and characters to be the centerpiece of a massively multiplayer online game?

Just ask Ted Castronova who received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation to create Arden: The World of William Shakespeare, then discovered genius alone isn’t enough. As Chris Baker reports in WIRED this week:

Ted Castronova, a social scientist and professor at Indiana University, made a name for himself studying the economies of online games, going so far as to calculate the exchange rate between US dollars and EverQuest platinum. But he wanted to do more than study virtual worlds — he wanted to create one.

So in 2006, armed with a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, Castronova and a team of grad students got to work designing Arden: The World of William Shakespeare. The aim was to have players explore an Elizabethan environment, interact with characters from the Bard’s plays, or just go to a tavern and wager a few farthings on card games like One-and-Thirty. Meanwhile, Castronova would further his research by studying players’ behavior. Hey nonny nonny!

The game was released last fall — to little fanfare. It seems something was rotten in the state of Arden. “It’s no fun,” Castronova says ruefully. “We failed to design a gripping experience.” The scholar says he has, however, gained a deeper appreciation for the challenges of game design… article continues >>>

What can we learn from Castronova’s perfect storm? To begin with MMOGs are enormously complex systems, so having some humility and realizing you don’t know everything is a good starting point. Castronova’s five tips for making games that don’t suck, which are discussed further in Baker’s WIRED article, are valid too:

  • Don’t Be Overly Ambitious
  • Go Low Tech
  • Think About Your Audience
  • Get a Full-Time Staff
  • Concede Screwups

A couple of years ago Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein made an effort to articulate the rules of game Rules of Playdesign in The 400 Project. Although they never got past #112 it’s still a good staring point. Taking it further, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman literally wrote the book on game design in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentalsand A Theory of FunRaph Koster’s A Theory of Funcan’t be recommended more highly.

Above all, don’t get discouraged. Play as many games as you can — both the genre you’re creating and those that you’re not — and remember, conceiving of and designing virtual worlds and MMOGs isn’t supposed to be easy. As with three-act plays for the stage in the Bard’s time, video games are still a relatively new form of creative expression. And with all due respect to Castronova, Harwood and Falstein, Salen and Zimmerman and the Bard himself, the rules of this game are still being written.