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Chain World: a game that exists on a unique USB flash drive (wired.com)
216 points by fserb on July 18, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

So... to add a little bit more to this story.

I have a copy of Chain World.

I was having lunch with a friend of mine in NYC a few weeks ago, and he was telling me about all this. He said that he was talking with his friend who got the USB drive from Rohrer (I assume this is Ji) and that before Ji sold it, he bootlegged a copy of it. A copy that my friend emailed to me.

I have yet to play (I haven't played Minecraft before, I want a bit of practice before I boot into the game world and die), but it's sitting on my desktop right now.

I think the fact that there is now at least two bootlegged copies going around adds to parallelism to religion. There is "the true path" (the original USB drive), and then there have been two "sects" that have broken off, gone to different parts of the world, and have begun to grow.

I plan on passing my copy from friend to friend on the West Coast. Maybe one day someone will come across copies of two different strains and they'll be able to see the differences that occur after 50 generations of evolution.

This Ji person turned out to be quite the allegory of the present moral state of humankind, didn't he? Is there any aspect of the original concept he didn't corrupt?

What's the bet he either didn't actually play the game, or played several times?

One kind of signposts the gameworld should have. Gravestones. Enter your name to play; when you die the game's graveyard gets a new headstone. Would show up... Ah! (slaps forehead) no - of course cheaters would use a different name each time. But still... a graveyard would at least show how many times the game had been played. Maybe the epitaphs could record the manner and time of death?

One question: Do the world save files all end in .dat, or do some end in .mcr?

I ask because some of my code (optimized save file format) was first included in Minecraft 1.3, but from the article it's not apparent which version Chain World is based on.

Better, can you get it to be rebroadcast on a server? I'm sure that somebody, somewhere, is gonna be sharing this as soon as they get the world folder off that thing.

I wouldn't want to share it like that. Forking the project continues the experience - albeit slightly different than originally intended. If it was uploaded somewhere for anyone to get, it would be no different than any other downloadable Minecraft world.

The cool part isn't the world - it's the legacy of everyone who's played before you.

What an absolutely fascinating story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. As a maker I am always thinking about the rules of what we make, and then once released in the wild we sometimes want to pull our creations back in, and sometimes we can, and other-times we can't. And when we can, those that thought that we were sharing our creations with them, for them to explore and change, feel alienated and rejected, and when we can't those that believed in our original intentions feel betrayed by their trust in us. It's a beautiful and terrifying relationship, and I am glad to be a part of it. Perhaps someday, I'll get to be part of Chain World too.

It's interesting that Rohrer played around with the idea of taking Chain World online-- when I heard about Chain World, the first bit of sacrilege that came to my mind was "well, why should this be restricted to a USB stick? There's no reason a multiplayer server couldn't be governed to do this."

I wrote Lonecraft as a way of replicating the Chain World idea, but using an Amazon EC2 instance as a multiplayer server with a few custom Minecraft server plugins and a Heroku instance as a web app to govern the rules of the game (to make sure only one player plays at once and no one plays more than once).

The code is here: http://www.github.com/ckolderup/lonecraft It needs some more work to flesh out the idea of resetting the world after a set number of players and exposing the blog entries of each player after the world resets, but the general game mechanic is there and functional.

My instance of it is technically up and running, too, but one thing my friends and I quickly discovered while testing it is that people who have been playing Minecraft for a while have a nasty habit of not... really... dying. Once you've learned the ropes it's pretty easy to make armor, carry food, and fight monsters. Death usually comes only occasionally and as the result of a careless mistake.

I've toyed with the idea of imposing a time limit or a number of logins that you're allowed before you're also kicked off, but that seemed to defeat the whole purpose of giving meaning to the in-game death.

Could you make it so that the longer someone plays, the harder it is to stay alive? Armour provides progressively less protection, you require more food, there are more monsters, monsters are more powerful, lightning more frequent etc...

It was something I had discussed with some friends who were testing it, but the combination of "would require more work" (although not necessarily too much-- there are various mods based around "survival" concepts that I could theoretically use) plus "gets away from the basic concept of out-of-the-box Minecraft" left me unmotivated to continue.

The basic concepts of OOTB Minecraft include bugginess and poor performance. Don't be afraid to make something new.

Game designer here.

Why not put in a time limit, but wrap it up in some kind of imminent death? "You have 30 days left to live." (Game days, of course).

It might be really interesting to see what comes from it, as people start with grand aspirations, but eventually flip to frantically trying to complete something.

As long as they keep playing and don't cheat, those careless mistakes will happen. It may take months but the game is great at dealing random misfortunes. I've been struck by lightning.

And future versions will likely have more dangers and more things to tempt you into danger.

You're right. The project just ended up being underwhelming when we only got 3 players deep after a month or two of alpha testing. :P

What if the game was driven by a countdown clock? For example, you only have 60 minutes?

I considered it, but to me part of the impact of the meaning of your "life" in the game being a "life" would mean that it would have to last long enough for you to carry out some meaningful work before you die of "natural causes" (i.e. a timer running out). In that case, the timer would probably be long, on the order of months, and I was just hoping that something else could be done to make the game harder to survive (there are lots of server plugins to do things like require you to eat to stay alive, etc; I looked into those a little bit but then got busy with other things).

The amount of maximum time should probably be random ideally with some distribution. It might also be good if people didn't quite know how long they had to live but had some signs the time was running out.

24 hours sounds about right.

Games are usually not profound and thought provoking for the same reason food is usually not profound and thought provoking. That's just not the path to enjoyment that the medium is naturally inclined toward.

Food, above all else, must be tasty. Likewise, games, above all else, must be fun to play -- or more precisely, must provide unusually fulfilling analogs of the plights and labours of real life.

If you manage to make food that is both tasty and cerebrally stimulating, that's pretty awesome. But food that is strictly cerebral is always going to have marginal appeal at best. And you can't accuse chefs of being lazy and unimaginative just because their food isn't cerebral.

(For the nitpickers: yes, food is an extreme analogy. There is more room for expressiveness in games than in food, and it's probably underexploited. But you see the point I am making?)

> Food, above all else, must be tasty. Likewise, games, above all else, must be fun to play

For broad appeal this is true, but says nothing of real value or artistic merit. Expression in every medium is mostly banal schlock, with a few shining examples of quality.

I don't see the good in slighting any artist or craftsperson for taking a road less travelled, or in suggesting that an entire medium for creative exploration should constrained by need of easy acceptance.

Art needs to command attention, to force people to think carefully about the ideas that are its payload. It can do this with beauty, or it can do it with ugliness.

To continue the food metaphor: Sea Urchin. Hákarl. Bitter melon. All of which are awful-tasting to most, but delicious to those who have fostered an appreciation for their peculiarities. Anyone who can stomach such foods are offered absolutely unique flavours that defy description or comparison.

It's a powerful tool in the chest of artists, to force their audiences to confront something they may find uncomfortable or unsettling. In every case where the work is truly great, the confrontation is simply an effective mechanism through which something deeply meaningful about the human condition may be revealed. Exemplar are the works of Damien Hurst, Odd Nerdrum, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, David Lynch, and so many others — all exhaustively-praised once the dust of their highly-confrontational works has settled.

Rohrer's games all exist in this domain, defying casual pursuit, but offering something immensely powerful for anyone willing to overcome their own reservations.

Couldn't the same point be made about cinema, though? Specially in the early years of the medium, it's easy to say that movies must be entertaining to watch. And yet we got fantastic works of art in cinema.

Keto and Paleo people will argue that good, cerebral food is also very tasty.

Think about a dessert that requires pig fat in its recipe.

If someone wanted to extend this concept a bit further, how about a one-play-only game that could only be passed on as a bequest. That is, no one else gets to play it until you are dead, for real. Bit of a technical challenge, to ensure the game data structures and code could always be run, no matter how much time passed. Also, to use a storage medium with a reliable lifetime of centuries - which Flash isn't.

Some people built an everlasting clock inside a mountain. http://longnow.org/clock/ It would be interesting to try building a 'game seat' like that - can only be reached by a hazardous journey, will be there and playable for a thousand years, you only get one go at it.

> you only get one go at it

Sadly, I don't see how you could hope to enforce this constraint... The idea of a game seat is nice, though -- a collaborative time capsule of sorts.

Easy. Any biometric sensor. Fingerprints for instance. If the machine detects the same person trying to play again, it just refuses to run. Or... (if I was designing this) kills them where they sit. Next person that reaches the game's remote location gets to remove the skeleton from the chair. Good incentive to not cheat. (I'm assuming some kind of real-world post-apocalyptic scenario, in which 'legal ramifications' don't exist.)

Actually, if there was some decently functional strong AI in the game, this could get very mythological. Quest to visit the Oracle - you have to get to the site then play the game in order to reach the Oracle in the gameworld. If you die in-game before then - well tough.

Rohrer is one of the few game-artist around. I'd encourage everyone to check out his life, career or works of art.

There are actually quite a few "game-artists", especially now that the independent gaming scene is thriving. But Rohrer is likely the most interesting for the casual observer. Passage has the startling capacity to reduce people to tears in five minutes flat. His works are absolutely without equal for their inventiveness and resistance to conform to conventional wisdom.

This is my favourite article about him, and one of the most memorable articles I've ever read: http://www.esquire.com/print-this/future-of-video-game-desig...

It's a great starting point for people who are unfamiliar with his story.

It kind of sucks that people can't just treat it as is - a game, and go with it, but whatever...a cool idea, nonetheless.

The fact it's not "just another game" is part of the point, really.

How so?

Did you read the article?

I did, however, I am not the one making claims that it is "not just another game". I'm pretty sure you have never laid eyes nor hands on it, so I would like to know what you are basing your opinions on.

Something along those lines that I'd really like to see (or maybe create someday) would be a decentralized virtual universe. Minecraft and such games are usually run on a server which is under someone's control; it would be funny to have a consensus-based distributed world (drawing inspiration from Freenet and possibly Bitcoin for the technical implementation) which would exist in the network of the players, be the same for everyone, and survive as long as people are playing it.

Wow, this is a pretty interesting idea. Have you given any thought on how you'd establish consensus on an ongoing basis? It seems like a hard but very interesting problem.

If this were just art, an artist couldn't hope for a better annoying foil than Jia Ji (as described in the article at least).

As it is, I'm just barely skeptical of the whole story -- could just be one of those weird stories. If Rohrer takes the fine art approach to monetizing his games, then his next one will be high concept, and even harder to get, somehow.

Not so sure about rule #9. Maybe never play the game in a long time like 9 years may be better. It's like visiting a new country, if the experience is good, I would definitely like to go back and experience the old and the new variations of it.

Isn't it obvious? The game is supposed to be a simulation of life. You only live once, and when you die you leave the world forever, with all of your contributions to it remaining for others to build upon.

Without that absolute rule, the game wouldn't have nearly the same symbolic/religious significance, notwithstanding all the meta-game that unfolded hence. Rohrer's son was upset by his father's death specifically because of the significance imparted by this rule.

It makes your time playing the game paramount. You will never play the game again. You will never have another shot at life, so you'd better enjoy it while it lasts.

EDIT: He's an atheist, I'm an atheist. There's an argument to be made for reincarnation, I suppose, but that's hewing close to respawning and it makes me uncomfortable.

For a game to be bigger than religion, it must take on a life of it's own that transcends the "lives" of the players.

Chain World sounds very cool, but it's lacking one crucial element, replication. An online version sounds intriguing, but would most likely need substantial tweaks to create the right incentive structure.

I posted the same link two days ago but with the original title "Chain World Videogame Was Supposed to be a Religion—Not a Holy War" but it passed completely unnoticed.

Hobbits really are amazing creatures

In all honesty, many people don't know what Chain World is (I didn't before reading the article). The sad truth of scrolling through new submissions is that the headlines are the only pieces of information we can rely on. A carefully worded headline can go a long way. Your title (and Wired's title) almost assumes we know what they're talking about -- Wired can get away with that since they're a magazine and this is a featured article that will receive readers regardless (a mysterious title can be beneficial). On HN, it's almost the exact opposite. If people can't tell what you're talking about (in general), it's a lot harder. I guess headlines that are easier to skim are easier to vote for, but I'm waiting for the day that we won't even need to curate content by hand.

I completely agree with you. In fact I found the article title from WIRED unsuccessful, but I opted to leave it intact so as to be also easily searchable. It is nice to see that the article receives the attention that it deserves.

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