edited by vera, cover image by turbo
For this installment of Devs on Devs, GVN of Moving Castles sat down with Neilson of the Gaul team and lermchair of Emergence. GVN is (as noted in the conversation below) a jester or gadfly of the AW space – playfully pushing people to refine their definition of autonomous worlds, and using his own experimentation onchain and online to seek truth and explore the terrain. With Moving Castles and Trust Support, he has worked on projects like Mascot Stream 3D, an interactive Twitch gameplay channel, Eat Drain Arson, an onchain game built on MUD, Network States, an onchain game co-built with Small Brain and 0xHank, as well as numerous essays, like The Three Eras of World Generation. Neilson and lermchair are the minds behind the MUD template for Unity, a plugin for MUD and the Unity game engine, as well as projects like Engine Study, Gaul, and Emergence. Gaul will have playtests soon, on the Small Brain Games Discord channel.
In the conversation, the three go deep on the philosophical and social considerations of games and autonomous worlds: whether it makes sense to design with accessibility and references in mind, or whether an autonomous worlds demand interactions that are as novel as the new medium itself. They also discuss the relationship between autonomy and automation, historical precursors to autonomous worlds, and explore the idea of onchain consequences.
NEILSON: I think a nice place to start would be with inspiration and what each of us wants to build and what you look to when you're building that thing. This is how a lot of games are pitched: “I'm doing…Super Auto Pets plus League of Legends.” So you're always thinking in a very game-genre-istic style, if I do “this” plus “this.”
GVN: That's a good point. It was a struggle for us for a long time because we are doing something that's never been done before. On one hand, I believe that you should not always be able to explain in just words what you're doing. But at the same time, I think as a game design lesson (that we learned the hard way at Moving Castles) is that it is actually good to start from something that players are already familiar with just because it cuts the learning curve.
NEILSON: Exactly, expectations. And that helps prompt the player into a certain mind space.
GVN: Right. I was watching this GDC talk by one of the Magic the Gathering lead designers. And one thing he mentioned is piggybacking. So it’s this idea that you can only introduce so much new information at once. He uses an example of aTrojan Horse card that they renamed the Akroan Horse to embed it in their world building. And players understood it because it still represented the idea of the horse. But then, the developers changed the name of the card. They called it the Crown Bear or something. It was the exact same card. And people were like, “I don't understand how to play this card.” And so I like this idea of piggybacking familiar terms because people get it immediately. It's an interesting question: even if you're building something new, how much do you want to piggyback on top of familiar game genres just to make life easier for your players?
NEILSON: Blockchain or not, you want to also have something that you're setting up for the player and for yourself as what you're building on the top or extending or remixing. The blockchain almost brings us back to first principles.
GVN: Yeah. But, more practically about inspiration, what's your inspiration?
NEILSON: I don't know. I don't know if I have a genre. I'm making, like, a Sokoban-style game. I play way too much Super Auto Pets now. I'm throwing this one to you. It's gonna be a Super Auto Pets conversation otherwise.
GVN: I downloaded it. And I must say, I’m not hooked. It doesn't suck me in. I don't know why, but I would play more just to understand it. So maybe I am addicted.
NEILSON: Do you play any Vampire Survivors?
GVN: Yeah. Somebody told me that the designer used to design slot machines before. What about you [Lermchair]? What, what's your inspiration in gaming, or in general?
LERMCHAIR: The classic answer to the question is: “everything's inspiring.” You constantly collect thoughts and then once in a while your ideas bump into each other and you get a new insight. I've been looking at things outside of games. For example, complex adaptive systems and concepts of emergence, self-organization, and co-evolving processes in general.
GVN: I think it's a very good point also. I think a lot of the onchain games/autonomous world world discussion right now is people thinking through the lens of games specifically. And sometimes I'm like, “actually we can go beyond that.” I think autonomous worlds take inspiration from social media and the idea of worlds that are interconnected, that are bridges. They're not just entities, but they're also bridges between different types of worlds.Twitter is a world, and Discord is a world. Imagine building the bridges together between these two environments, opening it up and then creating a larger world around them. Maybe we're not just building the future of games, but we are also building a new medium altogether.
NEILSON: I think emergence for me is still a goal. That's where you always want to be headed to, where you’re finding complex behavior by designing simple rules, and you eventually arrive at very complex patterns. Which is a lot of what I have been trying to do: don’t anticipate what's going to happen next optimistically before the chain even resolves, because the chain has all these emergent, complex behaviors that can happen when things are interacting. I want to try to find that space of designing rules, pulling things from all these other games, designing a lot of simple things together, and then hopefully unleashing them into a shared space where they can start behaving in more mature ways or complex ways. So emergence, for me, is a big inspiration.
LERMCHAIR: Do you think emergence is something you can actually design for?
GVN: Yeah I was going to ask that.
NEILSON: I think it's a target you aim for.
GVN: I liked what the EVE Online people have said about not protecting players from other players as a sort of way to foster emergent behavior. You don't design for emergence, but you design a sort of frustration that has to be directed towards someone. It's not directed to the developers, but it's directed towards another player. So you want to do something about the frustration, and then you have the tools to do something about it. And that's where emergence…emerges. You're just indirectly giving people the tools to fix something that has been done to them. And then you have the type of frustration when people nerf your warlock, and if there's nothing you can do about it, that generates frustration towards some sort of authority. And then you end up spinning up a completely new world out of it.
NEILSON: But I'd love for worlds to start at a place of surplus. And I feel a lot of what's being built is a very, very immediate economic tradeoff in gameplay. How can a world when it spawns and players enter into it not be immediately confronted with all these economic realities that a lot of onchain games have? And instead be at least unleashed into a space where they can not just gather for the sake of gathering, spending, and building, but actually feel there’s like a surplus of activities they can do that aren't just in service of achieving higher levels of either crafting. It takes longer development times and more cycles to find enough activities and items in the world so that it doesn't feel so progressive and linear, and to get to a place where it feels like there's actually a range of options.
GVN: So do you use would you, like, means or, surplus in opposition to scarcity or…
LERMCHAIR: Or do you just mean, like, there are a lot of things to do inside the game?
NEILSON: Yeah. I think it's both. Literally in the amount of items that are present. You're not burdened with an economic choice the moment you start playing the game of either the gas or the resource or some other token. These aren't the conditions through which you start playing because you won't want to experiment or play because you're already feeling the weight of that scarcity. And so surplus could take both that form, but it can also take the form of a surplus of decisions you can make inside game, but that aren't, “I play this one move immediately and I already see my doom portended in my first move as, like, my numbers dwindle and I kind of go down the funnel.” Right? Hopefully it's a widening of options and decisions instead of a foreclosing or limiting of decisions you can make.
LERMCHAIR: What about decisions that have been outside the game? For example, some of the most interesting behavior that happened in Dark Forest wasn't actually in the game, but outside of it – people forming DAOs and these DAOs having wars with each other – creating bots to automate gameplay.
NEILSON: That is the kind of emergence that can arise when a game like Dark Forest gets large enough. It does allow for those meta-games or social structures. You already have something clearly in the game that's strong enough to support these things that build and scaffold themselves around the game. So I think Dark Forest set a very high bar for many other projects.
GVN: Maybe that's actually what really turns a world from the simulation of a world to a world that is alive. Fan fiction, like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Ring, whatever, you name it. Traditionally, they are so popular because of fan fiction—because there’s an outside component or a part of the world that exists outside of the world itself. What autonomous worlds habilitate is the capacity for the “outside” to enter and be part of the world itself.
Roguelikes and Autonomous Worlds
NEILSON: Since we have a mascot of autonomous worlds – the jester, the conjurer himself – I feel like I want to use this as a small opportunity to define what autonomous worlds means to you. I think I look to you more when it comes to what this means in design and art and culture, instead of through the lens of onchain game development.
GVN: In 2008, a lot of people met in Berlin to talk about roguelikes. The “Berlin Interpretation” is a series of rules of what roguelikes are. And they made the “temple of roguelike”. It was just a bunch of people that were dedicated to defining what a roguelike is. And it's funny to read because I think there's a lot of things that we are going through in the defining of autonomous worlds. An interesting outcome of it was that they wrote “We can’t define roguelike, but we can build a spectrum, to understand how roguelike a game is.” So I think, first of all, it's interesting that we don’t need to say “This is an autonomous world. This is not an autonomous world” but it's a spectrum. And I’m not sure if it’s possible to build an autonomous world outright.
GVN: Based on our practical experience in development at Moving Castles, I think that large autonomous worlds are only a series of standalone onchain games that have bridges between them, rather than a single game that is developed by a studio.
NEILSON: Which is why we need a Berlin School of Autonomous Worlds, a San Francisco School of Autonomous Worlds, and we need some schools of thought to just start creating different interconnected versions that talk to each other.
GVN: Is Dark Forest an autonomous world? I don't know. I think it's on the scale for sure. And I think it's also, there's so much that can be implemented, to make it a larger environment that also embeds different types of gameplay.
NEILSON: Well, I think following what your line of thought and into, and maybe to connective where I've been kind of thinking about it is this maximizing of autonomy. You also brought another figure into the room which is automation, which is what you can do without thinking about something. Autonomy is very much a freedom or individuality or release from constraints. Autonomy is the ability to either make decisions, or be an individual that can make decisions on another’s behalf or to be free of other constraints for lack of a better word. But automation feels like the opposite of that. Promodium is about automating things, right? Like, trading an automated devices in the game that, that, that builds into, like, larger structures, which is what a lot of, autonomous worlds would be: all these different fingerprinted pieces being able to automate each other and do all these things to create large, vast worlds that that can basically exist independently of each parts.
GVN: Can you say more about the relation between automation and autonomy?
NEILSON: The shift that I've imagined is when you play a game in a sense, you become an automated subject that follows the rules of a game. So actually you as a player are playing a game and are somewhat automated. You lose autonomy because actually you're deciding to agree to the rules of a game. So in in that sense –
GVN: In a sense you hope you're starting to obey, exactly. It's something to sacrifice your agency or your vision of what that thing can be to obey a certain vision of the game creator.
NEILSON: Yeah. You sacrifice ever so slight amounts of autonomy in your life just to follow a few rules. And you're free now within that structure to be automated, but also then to explore your remaining autonomy within those rules, because really what games are is still expression. It's not like because you've lost some autonomy you’ve lost expression. You actually gained expression because you're in a similarly constrained environment with a bunch of other automated things. So I think that this is where I'm really trying to tease out: how automation and the ways that games automate your autonomy. I think a big one is, like, I think a lot of people love watching, for example, Twitch streamers or parasocial relationships where you're watching someone. And you're automating your sociality off to some other thing that plays games for you. You watch people do things for you. You watch these autonomous individuals do things for you. So I think it's all this relationship between where you automate parts of your life out to other individuals or or games or things and order to either, probably gain some autonomy or lose some autonomy productively.
GVN: Yeah. I have to figure out automation, the world automation and autonomy are political.
NEILSON: So like some Italian Futurist stuff.
GVN: In Italy, in the seventies there was a very very strong, like leftist, autonomist, or workerism movement.
NEILSON: It would be a dark rabbit hole.
GVN: I think that what we're going to see in gaming is this idea of games that play themselves. Which is a tricky subject in an environment that has no ticks or has no self-execution. But something that I experienced recently is I was playing Zelda after a day of work and I was, like, super tired. You know, I was just like, “I want to space out. I wanna play this game on my console.” I order food, and then I start playing, And when the food arrives I still don't wanna think about anything. I want to watch something that plays itself, like a movie, but I also don't want to leave the world of Zelda because I was immersed in it. I don't have the energy to step out and immerse myself in a completely different world. I just wish that I could put Zelda on autoplay or that I can have someone share my account and play for me while I eat. It would be very cool if you have a Zelda multisig. Me and my partner, we play Zelda like that because sometimes I'm away and I have specific things that I want from the game, and she has other things that she wants in the game. And when I'm away, she goes around and collects stuff, takes photographs, cooks, and makes potions. And then I come back and I have all this new stuff, and I'm like, it's so nice to share an account with a person that fills the gap of the game, or all these things in the game that I missed because I'm not necessarily invested in it.
NEILSON: I think it's so beautiful to imagine that, both in the world of Zelda, but not necessarily competing. And I think that goes back to how we get worlds that just feel like you're adding value. There's not this oppressive feeling of necessarily having to deal with competition, but you being able to cooperate in a single player world that you share, which is an awesome moment.
GVN: Another important question is: how open is your world? And in the case of Zelda, you have a very safe environment. You can't actually share the account. But it still works because me and my partner live in the same place. That's a very safe experience — trusting the people that you let into your world. And then on the other spectrum. You have a fully open autonomous world where everybody should be able to change it at any time. Do we actually want the world to be that open? Are we ready to come up with design solutions that don’t allow one miserable person to destroy the experience of everyone? I mean, that's what games had. EVE Online had to deal with this. Going back to autonomous worlds on a spectrum there's so many points in the spectrum where you can develop worlds. And I think the interesting thing is how all of these pieces in the spectrum get connected together to form the whole.
LERMCHAIR: It's easy to think of Zelda as being a world that could have either a multiplayer component or a single player. That could almost be a mistake, though, to try and think like that. Worlds are very slippery things such that the worlds of video games really aren't separate from the rules and design of the game itself. If you're able to actually create blurry world borders by objectively defining concepts that are inside and outside the world, which is one of the goals of autonomous worlds, then interoperability becomes easy.
GVN: I think a big question still is what the players want from autonomous worlds. Like, we kind of started to know what we as designers might want from it, but is it the same thing the players want?
NEILSON: And it's worth noting I'm speaking both from a game design background, and how I might pitch a game. You pitch a fantasy, a dream, or the peak player experience, and really that's it. The first thing you pitch is what the game world's about and why people will play it and want to continue playing. I think that comes first. For me, at least one design is an image in my head of the player doing a series of things that they would enjoy doing, and starting from there.
LERMCHAIR: What do you guys think are precursors to autonomous worlds we've seen throughout history?
GVN: Nice question. What do you think?
LERMCHAIR: Have you read Tools for Conviviality? It’s a small book by Ivan Illich. And Illich describes radio as a convivial tool. After radio was introduced in communities in Central America, there weren’t always manuals or blueprints available to fix it if it was broken. However, because the technology of the radio was accessible and “convivial” enough such that people are able to naturally play and interact with it, these Central American communities were able to and grow a tradition around maintaining these radios. The technology formed a community around it to keep it alive. And you can see this pop up multiple times throughout history. For example, in the 1980’s, there's a project in Berkeley called Community Memory, which was a mainframe in a warehouse. It was the first version of something like Reddit. And the project would put terminals out on the street that anyone could use to read and post to a message board. And then the problem became “Okay. We have these really expensive electronics out on the street in public spaces that can be very easy to break. How do you make sure people don't just wreck them?” And the answer that the creators arrived at was that it is necessary to form a club or organization around this computer in order to maintain it, keep it alive. And this eventually led to the Homebrew Computer Club, which is how Apple got its start as well. So there's always examples of people coming together to maintain something and keep it alive as long as possible.
NEILSON: That'd be a good definition of an autonomous world. A fire you have to keep alive. Everyone's just pitching him. I think that at the end of the day, the only autonomous world that's worth building is something like that. I think people worry too much about keeping things alive for too long. I think that's the feeling every game should try and strive for—this idea of everyone in the community keeping the game alive and feeding things into it and building more things.
LERMCHAIR: Open-source software can be like this as well.
GVN: I think it's such a nice example of how game design should work in autonomous worlds. I feel there's still a sort of eagerness in giving people solutions. It's like, yeah, this is the game. This is how we play it. But I think my approach would be to design autonomous worlds through giving people something to care for. And the first thing to understand is, do they care about it? Dark Forest was so successful because they gave people something they cared for and therefore had to come up with a solution to keep their idea of the world alive. In the series Lost, in the second or third season, the characters discover an underground bunker with a computer that has a countdown, and then they have to type a passcode and then press enter, and then the counter resets. And the characters are told that the world will end if they don’t do this. And I think that's an interesting beginning for an autonomous world because the game is not about putting the code in, but the real game happens when the characters start having contradictory or different opinions about it. “Is this real?” “Should we actually keep doing what we're told?” Then they formed factions and those factions tried to decide whether or not to continue or interrupt this process. And that is where the world actually comes alive. So you have this game loop that doesn't really matter, but then there is our mission that the world is going to end if we stop doing this. This is where players can create this emergent world around the mission.
LERMCHAIR: Maybe the nice thing about putting something on a blockchain is you have actual consequences. On Ethereum, we could have a million dollars in some contract in your game somewhere and say in the lore that if the world ends, the contract loses all your money. If you die in Ethereum, you lose all your money.
GVN: That could be such a fun thing. You could pretend to be a hacker group, but you're like, “if you guys don't do this every day, all the day, we’ll steal all the crypto in the world” and then see what people do.
LERMCHAIR: It’s like that meme, if you die in the metaverse, you die in real life.
GVN: I like this point also about real consequences because one thing that I hope to see in autonomous worlds is the end of the conception that games are separated from reality. The metaverse kind of tries to forget there is a reality, and instead reconstruct reality in a sort of perverted, boomer idea of what the world is. I think an autonomous world, actually, is the power to just connect games to a world outside games. Maybe EVE has that: you can actually invest real money and you can actually lose money in your ship. What I think is very interesting is this interconnectedness of information.
NEILSON: How do you know when you're doing something that feels good? Losing real money doesn’t feel good. How do you know what intuitions to follow?
GVN: So I think that's an important discussion to have because I feel that we are all experimenting. I think most people have failed in building something. How do you deal with that? And how do you make something good out of it? Because I feel, personally, we at Moving Castles, made a lot of prototypes which we sometimes don't even publish, but we learned so much from. And also we just learn that some directions are actually not the way to go. When we talk about games we can have a lot of interesting technical ideas to experiment with, but they are not guaranteed to be fun.
NEILSON: It is good to definitely try and make as many prototypes and go as fast as you can and just figure out what is fun. Then, the even harder step is to make sure that your projects don’t die on your hard drive, and that you make the effort to really hit the publish button one day and get it out there. I think there's a lot of amazing projects and software that only go 80% of the way. Hopefully a lot of people in the next year who are finding this and starting to build, actually go all the way to the finish line, really push it out there. I think it's really important to train yourself as a developer and a designer to figure out what it takes to finish something. Get all the junk and prototypes out the way as fast as possible but then also finish something. It's very, very different from starting a project. It's an entirely different world that I think people don't realize until they get there. So, yeah, hopefully, we have people entering the space and finishing things, which is to say, starting things.