An Interview with Oracle Vaserius
Many people from back in the day will remember the three Oracles: Oracle Teresias, Oracle Uni and Oracle Vaserius. A couple of years back I managed to get in touch with Vaserius and he graciously agreed to do an interview but somehow with computer problems and real life getting in the way it took nearly 4 years to complete!
This interview is in four parts, and will be published exclusively in the Virtual Planet in the weeks leading up to the Dreamscape's 10th Anniversary so please keep an eye out if you enjoy this :)
1) How did your position as Producer of the Dreamscape come about?
In the early 1990s, I was working at Logitech in the Entertainment and Virtual Reality (EVR) group for James Barnes and Joseph Pinzarrone, doing evaluations of VR hardware such as head-mounted displays and wireless controllers and the like. One day while reading one of the cyberspace newsgroups, I came across a job listing for a writer on an online virtual world product. (Honestly, it has been so long I don't recall how the product was described.) The job entailed creating the back story and mythos for this new virtual world being created by Fujitsu: Cultural Technologies. I wasn't a writer, but my wife (now ex-wife) Maria Alexander was. So I passed it along to her and she was hired to create the cohesive storyline for the Dreamscape. She created and used the character of the storyteller Alayne as her device.
In 1994 the EVR group was shut down, despite producing one of Logitech's most successful line of products, the Wingman joysticks, and I found myself looking for my next job. A few months later, Maria told me about a job at Fujitsu for a helper and world guide. I can't recall if the job title was "Oracle" at that point or not. It very well could have been. I had "Oracle" as the title on my business card for a long time. I do remember there was a debate as to whether or not the volunteer helpers were to be called Acolytes or Docents (or some other mundane term). Randy Farmer believed in Maria's mythology, as did I, and I didn't even know what the hell a "docent" was. So Acolyte triumphed.
While I didn't have direct experience managing a community (I don't even think the job title "community manager" existed then), I had 4 years of technical support and customer service under my belt (including managing bulletin boards), more than a year working on cutting-edge VR software and hardware, and 5 years running my own company creating and running live action role playing games. So I had a pretty good handle on managing interactive stories, people and problems.
In any case, I interviewed with Tony Christopher (who was either Director or VP of MarCom at the time), Paul Taylor (who ran the customer service team) and Randy Farmer. I remember Randy being a very good interviewer. His technique focused on one's ability to arrive at an answer versus the person already knowing the answer. My second interview with him was a walk along the levee behind Fujitsu, and was more of a conversation. I don't even think I knew I was being interviewed. It seemed his primary concern was about the candidate's ability to adapt or evolve along with an object-oriented world that could be manipulated (and hacked) by customers.
One of his benchmark tests was the Checkers Conundrum. The goal: put the game of checkers in the world. The problem: How do you deal with the countless variations of rules? The answer: don't code any rules. Let the players decide on the rules and enforce the rules themselves.
(Actually, the laws of the Dreamscape were built on a foundation of self enforcement. At least to the extent possible, and balanced with the realities of having to run a business. More on that later.)
I guess I got the answers correct to his satisfaction, because I started as an Oracle in October of 1994. The only problem was, there was no community for me to manage. When I came on board, almost immediately the product was delayed. I don't recall why, but there was no question it wasn't ready. I was picking up tasks here and there, doing research, but not really doing what I was hired to do. I remember Randy coming to me and telling me I was brought on too early.
This was a very good thing.
Instead of telling me to go away and come back in 3 or 6 or 9 months, Randy began teaching me everything I needed to know about running the Dreamscape. He taught me how to design the world map and why certain things should be placed in certain places. He explained the decisions behind things like implementing teleporters versus having to walk places. He taught me what would make a good Acolyte and what would make a good beta tester. I kept gobbling it up and he kept handing me more and more stuff to do. Pretty soon, I wasn't a community manager, I was a world designer. After that, I was a product manager. Finally, I became the producer. But I left "Oracle" on my business card until I became Producer.
If it hadn't been for Randy taking the time with me back then, I wouldn't have a career in communities today. You can trace a line through everything I've done directly back to him.
Right or wrong, there was a conscious decision to do the things we did in the world. There was a reason you had to walk to an ATM, or that different Pawn machines paid out different prices. Back in the mid 1990s, there weren't a lot of "best practices" or "lessons learned" documents floating around. As far as I knew, the only people who had done this stuff before were Randy and Chip Morningstar (and Oracle Layza from Japan). The boys were on contract with Fujitsu, but Chip was leaving to work full time on Electric Communities. Randy stayed behind longer than intended just to help launch WorldsAway.
2) Were you hired after Electric Communities Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar were creating the software or were you only hired once the world was in its initial beta stage?
I was hired near the end of their contract. In fact, their initial contract had probably lapsed and they were on extensions.
The WorldsAway technology existed (and was in alpha) when I was hired, as did the back story. Artwork for the world existed, but not in a usable form. The world map did not exist. When I arrived, Randy was working 100% on WorldsAway (codename: Reno), Chip was working half time (rapidly reducing to no time). My time with Chip overlapped only slightly. Douglas Crockford was working full time on developing the Electric Communities business plan and waiting for Chip and Randy to break free. (Thanks to Randy for filling in my sketchy memory here!)
I created the original Dreamscape regions by hand using a pencil, graph paper and trial and error. I had to recompile my test world every time I wanted to move stuff around. Jeff Crilly and Norman Morse were my heroes. Jeff developed the devClient and Norman developed fiddle. Norman and I hold the patent for fiddle (US Patent #5802296 - Supervisory powers that provide additional control over images on computers system displays to users interactions via computer systems). I did all the updating of the world on John Onusko's Sun system, Akasha. John was like a god to me - he was brilliant and helped me out whenever I needed it. He would come into The Cave (the former server that served as the art room and Oracle room with all the fluorescent lights off), we'd brainstorm and the next day he would have added some desperately needed feature.
There were multiple permission levels for an avatar: avatar, acolyte, oracle and dog. If you had the dog bit flipped, you could do anything in the world. The dog bit was created by John, after his avatar name, Surfdog. Five years later, after joining There, I was looking through the code for that product and found that the permission bit for in-world helpers was called the acolyte bit.
3) I'd like to talk about what was originally planned for Dreamscape, I have heard rumours that were to be things such as Magic spells and that you could kill people like in Habitat. What was the original story for the world? and were there characters and events we never heard about but they were planned
Those aren't rumors, those are facts. Spells were a big part of the world as originally conceived. As were curses. These were created by Randy and Chip: An avatar becomes cursed by finding a planted object and can only become uncursed if she touches 5 other avatars that haven't already been cursed. There were also cures and other variations on the theme. That was a major part of the interaction I wish we could have experienced.
I don't believe killing was ever seriously considered, at least for Dreamscape. The idea of being able to affect another avatar was in the design, as were permission bits for when and where that could happen.
When the Bar-L Bar opened, there was a locked chest inside that had an Asian Opera head in it. The chest originally had a combination lock on it, but we were told the combination lock class was not secure, so it was changed to a regular keyed lock. I had always planned a quest for the combination but it was never fixed and I never got around to it.
The World Plan shows to some extent some of the objects and interactivity we had in mind.
The original story of The Dreamscape is complex. It involves the god Morpheus and his brothers Phantasus and Phobetor. Morpheus gets bored and decides to leave humanity, inviting his brothers to go away with him. Phantasus is bad and Phobetor is worse. They plot to seal Morpheus in the Dreamscape and take over humanity. Morpheus discovers the plot and gathers his Oracles and followers and away they go to the Dreamscape where Morpheus creates the island of Kymer and they live happily ever after.
From Brothers, by Maria Alexander:
The city of Phantasus is named after, well, Phantasus. There were plans for Oracles of Phobetor to arrive and begin a war. The Blasted Heath was to be the land of those who worshipped Phobetor. One of the original plot points was the introduction of the Nightmares. The flaming hoof print objects were created but never used. The hoof prints were to show up inexplicably over night, ushering in a time of battle between the gods that engulfed the dreamers.
There is a secret history of Oracles. Only a handful of people knew it. Probably, only a few remember it. Likely, only two of us still have the document.
4) How different was the Dreamscape in it's first few weeks of production than the Dreamscape that was released to the public?
Well, there was no Charles Faulter, PhD, no Void, no aliens and no way to customize the color of your clothes. There was no newspaper, but the Kymer Clarion didn't take long appear. There were very few objects in the world, almost all of which were knickknacks. But the biggest difference, at least in terms of being a service provider, is that the Acolytes had no powers! All they could do was use the persuasive force of their typing skills (a.k.a. "the wagging finger"). The only power the Oracles had was permanent banishment, so problems tended to get resolved immediately, else they went nuclear real fast.
Eventually the Acolytes got their books (object class: amulet) and Oracles got their staves (object name: fiddle), and all was good in the world.
To overcome the problem of everyone looking the same, we invented The Oil of Okay, which was an Oracle staff in the shape of a jar of ointment. We created the characters of Charlotte-N and Yul Brenner who held paint days. People lined up for hours while they painted clothes. This solution obviously wasn't scaleable, so the paint can was created so people could paint themselves. However, there was still a desire for Charlotte-N and Yul to paint, because they could paint any color in the color palette, as they had dog powers. I was Charlotte-N.
The first accessory created was a pair of glasses. They didn't fit right. So I gave them to Randy Farmer's incognito avatar, along with a Tell Me About of "Trust Vaz". Well, having the only pair of glasses in the world made him pretty popular, pretty fast. Soon, people were clamoring for accessories. So we bumped them up on the schedule. This was one of the underhanded ways we got things done back then - introduce a broken copy and tell management the customers are going out of their skulls because of it.
Some people thought we were great, some people thought we were blowing it. We tried very hard to make sure there was a reason (even it was a goofy one) for whatever we introduced into the world.
Here is the Dreamscape Rollout Schedule, as reflected in an email from me to Tony Christopher on 30 July 1997:
* 8/95 - 0.8 Released
* 8/95 or 9/95 - Body Spray introduced
* 9/95 - Grand Opening - StarWay Cafe
* 10/95 - Halloween Celebration (Decorations)
* 11/15/95 1.0 Introduced
* 12/1/95 - CIS What's New
* 12/15/95 - WA on CIS CD
* 12/15 to 12/25/95 - SantaLand/Santa in DS
* 2/96 - Month of Romance
* 2/14/96 - Real-World Wedding
* 3/19/96 - Introduced The Void
* 4/16/96 - 1.1 Available
* 4/26/96 - Grand Opening - Turfs
* 7/96 - NuYu Reopening/Head Rotation
* 8/96 - Phantasus Fern Festival
* 9/96 - Kymer International University
* 10/96 - Halloween - Accessories Released
* 11/96 - Grand Opening - Meditation Park
* 11/15/96 - Dreamscape New Year
* 12/96 - Kymer Kringle in SantaLand
* 2/97 - Month of Romance
* 3/97 - Grand Opening - Isle Caribe
* 6/1/97 - Grand Opening - Monument Park
* 7/97 - Conversion to 2.0
Be sure to check for the next part of this interview next Wednesday! If you have any comments or questions ESP me inworld.