Storybricks Demo and Interview

Who would I talk to if I was building an MMO on story? I’m not talking about a single-player story, even one as satisfying as Mass Effect, tacked in a phased/instanced manner on an MMO. I’m talking about making real stories that the whole server takes part in. Stories without a connect-the-dots type solution. Stories that I can create and share. Stories that I can mess up.

I would do what Namaste Entertainment did for their Storybricks tool and go to GenCon and talk to table-top roleplayers. (PAX too; afterall Tycho is of the old school.) Table-top roleplayers are used to that collaborative effort, imagination requirement, and undefined path to get through a good story. Video gamers, I would argue, especially conventional MMO fans, have been trained to receive story in a linear format more similar to books and movies. They just wouldn’t understand as quickly.

I had the pleasure of having an online demo with Namaste’s Kelly Heckman (Community Manager, who says I have some “design chops”) and blogosphere favorite Brian “Psychochild” Green (MMO Master, actual title) for their upcoming Storybricks tool and the first rays of light of their MMO that will use the tool. This is that story.

What is Storybricks? Many great blogs have already thoroughly defined the tool. I will take my shot at it. Storybricks is a visual programming tool, similar to MIT’s Scratch, where creators define character traits for non-player characters (NPCs), such as relationships and motivations, in order to build a story. An AI element then controls what has been built in the game. I highly recommend Stabs’ Storybricks in pictures article to see a swath of stories created by Storybricks.

The kicker is that defining the NPCs does not in itself create the story. The player creates the story by interacting with the NPCs. For the most part, Green, said they want the player as the story mover. One of the design challenges, he went on, is going to be balancing psychology with storytelling. A guard should immediately arrest a thief on sight, but if that happens outside of the player’s view, is that really a good story? Throughout the night, Green emphasized that they really want Storybricks to be about stories.

Using this blog’s namesake as an example, Green said that a “kill ten rats” quest would be quite fine within Storybricks. Except the story isn’t that ten rats are killed. He gave the specific example of an NPC wanting immortality. Within the bounds of the story it could take a philosopher’s stone and ten rat tails to make a potion of immortality. So the story is really about getting that NPC the ten rat tails, and then dealing with the effects. Players could barter for the rat tails, get someone else to get the tails, find a spell that turns gold in to rat tails, or simply go kill ten rats. Yet the story doesn’t have to stop once the rat tails are turned in.

Playing off his example, the relationship between various NPCs (and players) can change over the course of the story. What if there was a rat farmer NPC? Killing his rats will likely enrage him. Buying his wares (dead rats) would likely make him like the player. What if the king wanted immortality-seeking NPC dead? Well the player just helped the NPC become immortal, and the king is likely not going to be happy about that. Regardless, there can be a whole story built around the much reviled get ten rat tails quest. (By the way, Green, jokingly believes that anybody having a rat tails quest in game will be auto-banned.)

Depending on the depth of the story, players can basically affect the story before it begins. For my example, if the player spent some time helping the rat farmer with his snake problem, the farmer might be far more helpful in getting the player ten rat tails. Reputation is persistent for the whole story so story creators can create very complex stories where even the creator is not sure how the dominoes will fall. Luckily the tool is built so that the tool and underlying AI takes care of the many unknowns in the story.

For example, the NPCs start out with archetypal traits. A guard will want order. A noble will want wealth. Dropping a bunch of guards around town will create an area of order. Dropping a bunch of brigands outside of town will automatically create an area of disarray and danger. One super simple story-creating relationship that Heckman quickly created was a noble wanting love, a peasant wanting love, and a guard wanting order. If the noble and the peasant fall in love that defies the natural order, so the guard won’t want that. If the story creator fiddles with the guard a bit to make him like chaos the guard might then overlook the tragic romance.

This fiddling allows players to drop in NPCs that have a more complex relationship with the story, but it still allows players to quickly add actors that fill the background who will still have affect on the story. They are almost story mooks, in a sense. They also plan on allowing some random-type story effects so even the story creators won’t know exactly what will happen with all of the effects if this randomness is desired. Green gave the example of instead of “gorgon appears” just have “monster appears,” which allows the system to be more flexible. A minotaur could instead appear, which even outside the combat frame of mind, could have different affects throughout the whole story. For one, it could make the cow farmer much more important.

I brought up the similarities to interactive fiction and also asked about possible emergent behavior. Green said that they believe there will be emergent behavior, but their goal is to let people tell stories instead of creating a simulator.  Green admitted he had actually not compared interactive fiction to Storybricks, but he could see the similarities. Their goal, and the reason they are focusing on the MMO side of things, is they they want people to tell a story to share with others. They want a live environment. (I do admit that Minecraft’s handling of a collaborative creation kept flashing through my mind at this point.)

I wrote a few years ago a free tabletop roleplaying game supplement called the Universal NPC Emulator (UNE, rhymes with loon). The similarities between Storybricks and UNE was pretty mind-boggling once I noticed it. It is so simple to create a story using actors and motivations, which was what UNE was all about. In fact, one time I let UNE create a story for me that was so complex, I just had to give up. I am glad that someone else agrees that story creation can be done so elegantly. This is the reason I am excited about Storybricks.

They have a long way to go before a game sees light, but they are looking for feedback right now on the tool. They do currently have some closed testing, and they are looking to having a bigger beta in the coming months. Heckman said that the first game would be a tighter, “proof of concept” which they then could add on more complex systems. Either way, if you are interested, I recommend joining the mailing list.

–Ravious

14 thoughts on “Storybricks Demo and Interview”

  1. Thanks for mentioning my post, I enjoyed talking to Kelly and Brian too.

    It quite interested me that there’s been a little backlash against Storybricks. For instance:
    http://inanage.com/2011/09/07/skeptical-of-storybricks/

    That’s a positive sign I think, it’s a game system interesting and important enough to get people saying “no way will they manage to pull that off”.

    If they do pull it off I think it will be transformational. I think some aspect of the Storybricks system may come into all sorts of games that don’t now have any non-linearity. Much in the way character development elements have migrated from MMOs and other CRPGs to shooters.

    It’s certainly a project to watch.

    1. I agree. It feels a little “blue sky” at the moment. If it succeeds though, I feel it will definitely shake the video gaming genre.

      What worries me most is the complexity of interactions. Not that the CPU cycles can handle it, but rather will the AI respond in a fashion that makes sense. Will it miss things that I want to happen. I mean with the above example, what if I go in to a sewer to kill rats. Will the rat farmer even notice? Things like that… how intricate will things be?

      1. Storybricks will probably not be kind to completionists. I’m OK with that, but it will cause some friction.

        …it might also call into question the old “who saw what when” and the weird omniscience that NPCs seem to have.

        edit: Ah, Anthony ninjaed me. Seems omniscience is a natural thing to question in this Brave New World.

  2. I’m very interested in Storybricks, but in the end I’d have to say that story is one of the parts of MMOs in which I have the least interest. I really don’t think MMOs are, or need to be, a narrative form. They have more in common with knitting or wood-carving, in my opinion, than they have with novels or movies, in that they are primarily something to do with your hands while your mind thinks about something else.

    I would guess that whatever Storybricks turns into it will indeed have more to do with interactive fiction than MMOs as we know them. Be interesting to see how it turns out.

    1. @bhagpuss

      There are probably many different reasons that people play MMOs. I actually enjoy the stories very much and will go out of my way to find more story. Like reading the WoW novels.

    2. Up-front disclosure: I work for Namaste on the StoryBricks project.

      I read this and felt sad: “I really don’t think MMOs are, or need to be, a narrative form. They have more in common with knitting or wood-carving, in my opinion, than they have with novels or movies, in that they are primarily something to do with your hands while your mind thinks about something else.” When I got into roleplaying games, and computer roleplaying games after that, it was about being an adventurer in an unknown world, about being someone I could not be in real life, playing a part in fantastical tales of swords and sorcery, and being a part of a story. The idea that this has somehow evolved into a semi-automated activity that doesn’t even require your full attention to play truly saddens me. It doesn’t surprise me though, because it strikes right to the core of why I can’t enjoy games like World of Warcraft.

      If you go back to the dawn of MMOs, the time of Ultima Online and Meridian 59 and their text MUD contemporaries, there was a hope that these games would evolve into detailed and persistent virtual worlds with an ongoing story. The industry had other plans, as we’ve seen, and WoW has made a success story out of a much more linear approach to multiplayer RPGs. But although WoW may have the majority of the players, it is just one possible approach among many. A more story-focused approach is an alternative. And I think there is a real appetite among many players to get back to the roots of online RPGs, to bring back the importance of the story, and to shun the idea that these games are just something to play on auto-pilot.

      I would never wish to deny players like yourself the type of experience you enjoy with modern MMOs. But with Storybricks we’re really trying to do something different. Whether you can lump both World of Warcraft and Storybricks under the MMO title is not so important, but we’re sure there are many people who will enjoy playing through massively multiplayer online stories.

  3. Probably a stupid question: how does the game react when a powerful player character, bored by the NPCs, just decides to eradicate the entire NPC species from the face of the world and goes on a NPC-killing rampage?

    Or the NPC are eternal/static/immortal/repopping as in the other MMOs?

    1. It’s not stupid because it’s not been answered. Perhaps there can be a “kill” flag set… so certain NPCs can be killed, while others simply can’t. Perhaps word would quickly spread and other NPCs start hiring guards.

      The griefing aspect is one they are really looking in to… Bartlett (the guy who thought up Explorers, Achievers, etc.) has consulted with them and this story griefing was one of his major concerns, and so it is one of theirs.

    2. As Rav said, it’s not stupid. And, honestly, I don’t have a firm answer because we haven’t planned that far quite yet. But, it’s not a problem we’re ignoring; I have plenty of experience dealing with griefing players who want to disrupt a game. Unfortunately.

      One problem is that your question has a lot of assumptions. What’s a “powerful player character” in the terms of our game world? We almost certainly won’t have the typical power curve where level 85 character is literally several orders of magnitude stronger than a level 1 character. So, it’s not like you can get a bunch of raid gear and go wipe out NPCs with no hope of being stopped like in other games.

      Part of our goal for making more interesting NPC reactions is to make it so that combat isn’t the oly solution to a problem. So,what about someone who rises to power by convincing others to hate another species, mirroring a certain real world villain? Would everyone else sit around and be complicit in this genocide? That’s a bit more interesting to think about, even if a bit more scary.

      There’s also the question of what makes for a more fun game. Is it more fun to allow the player to commit genocide? Or is it more fun to not allow this type of behavior to not disrupt existing stories? That’s a decision we’ll have to make. I suspect that for the initial settings for our game, we’ll side a bit more on the “what makes for a good story” side than the “what makes for a good simulation” to keep the game fun. I suspect that means that NPCs might be immortal, in that they can’t be randomly murdered by a bored player, but that doesn’t mean they have to be eternal or static.

      1. If a player kills an NPC merchant, after a while he might be replaced with his offspring, who has the same traits as his father, but now also a deep-rooted hatred for the merchant-killing player, and setting off a plot for vengeance. He’s affecting the players reputation with the other NPCs in the world, turning him into an outlaw. Excluding the one rival merchant who’s glad the competition is gone, and now approaches the player with another assassination task.

        It’s just more story, really. You can allow NPC killing as long as it has a consequence. Now you only need to figure out how to make your system do it ;)

  4. Actually, my official title is “MMO Architect”, even though my business cards say “MMO Wizard” because the full title was too long to fit. ;)

    It’s a bit more tangible than blue sky at this point, but I will freely admit that we’re exploring different concepts and that we don’t have all the answers. This is what real innovation looks like, though. We’ve identified what we think is possible, we’re going out and getting feedback from people. Of course, we also need to demonstrate to investors that this is something that people really are interested in, otherwise we don’t get the resources necessary to continue on.

    So, please do keep an eye on what we’re doing. Give us feedback, because we definitely want that. But, keep in mind we’re not EA or Activision, where we’ve worked on this for years and are now showing an almost finished product. This is more like Minecraft or Mount & Blade, where we’re showing off an early version, getting feedback, and building things based on useful feedback. I’m hoping this creates something better than yet another WoW clone.

    Anyway, thanks for the support. We plan to show off something more in the upcoming months. I think it’s very exciting, and I’m glad that others feel the same way.

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