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.