The future of storytelling?

There’s a great interview with Jeff Gomez at The Narrative Design Exploratorium where he discusses both the past and the future of interactive storytelling. He’s an artist and visionary which means he lapses frequently into outrageous and overblown metaphors. I’m not  sure we’ve quite reached the point of:

We will weave dense, elaborate tapestries of narrative with our mobile devices, for example, to which a few or many thousands of audience members can contribute creatively.

Well, not unless the ‘dense and elaborate tapestries of narrative’ are Kanye West jokes, anyway.

But aside from all that, he makes some very good points. Social networking is making it easier and easier for fans to find each other and share their enthusiasms, to collaborate and cooperate and to communicate. Fans write fiction, they run games, they set up mailing lists, they build a whole network of creative and cooperative fandom and it encompasses a lot of different media.

In short, you buy what you love, and you want to share what you love. The Internet and especially social networking makes it easier than ever to tell people about what you love. It’s become a specified form of self-expression.

In any case, it’s a great interview. Gomez describes how he’d been a fan of cross-over stories even while reading comics as a kid, he played D&D, he’s worked in the comic industry and on Magic: The Gathering so he’s coming at this from a very different perspective than a computer game designer.

And if it highlights one thing to me, it is that there is an important halfway house between players and game designers/ TV writers. It is a place for player generated designs, player generated stories, and player generated mentors and fansites. This isn’t just the difference between casual and hardcore players, it’s to do with people who want to get personally involved and contribute something creative.

D&D gave us the notion of players as storytellers, and inspired a whole generation of game designers who grew up as kids running games for other kids. MUDs and MUSHes did the same thing for players like myself who ended up helping to staff them. But what about MMOs? Can they ever open up those sorts of opportunities for players too? CoH is the only game brave enough to have really tried it so far …

Improving Roleplaying: Sharing our Stories

This is the fifth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts in the series were:

All roleplaying involves telling stories about our characters with other people. They may not always be exciting stories, but they are ours. Through those stories, characters change and grow. Farmboys become heroes, students get bitten by radioactive spiders, political movements rise and fall, love triangles form and reform, characters meet new people, destroy threats, and write their own histories into the story books.

Our characters and their stories exist in the same virtual world, so to bring that world to life, we need to share those tales. People need to know what other characters have done in the past or are doing in the present – it might affect their own story. If you ask any roleplayer what they’d most like to see in a game, it is very likely that they’d want to see their stories affect the gameworld around them. Since other players form a large part of that setting, this means finding a way to share those stories or at least the parts that might affect other people. If you engineer a revolution in a city in the woods and no one knows about it, did it still happen?

Keeping everyone up to date on everything is an impossibly complex task in a large game. Even with as few as 20 players, it’s hard work to keep the updates rolling. Even if you just focus on the parts that affect people individually. But we can take a leaf out of the real world and how we keep up with the news in real life. We can focus on picking out the relevant information and figuring how to let people tap into it to improve the RP experience. We can ponder opting in to information streams, and locating people based on their current plots and goals.

In the end, there are two main tasks here.

  1. How do we share our stories? This involves sharing events that happened before the game started (ie. character backstories or histories), sharing the history of events which have already happened in the game so that new players can catch up, and sharing information or collaborating about plots on which we are working at the moment.
  2. How do we get other people to read our stories and act on them appropriately? Most people have limited interest in other people’s stories unless they are personally affected (this is true of the RL news too). So how can we pick out the information generated by other players/ characters and show people only the parts that might affect them?

Why bother with character backgrounds?

In some games, players can write a few paragraphs about their character’s background (ie. what they did before the game started) and store it somewhere in the UI where other players can read it. I asked last week how many players actually read other character backgrounds. Quite a few people said that they did.

The purpose of a character background is to answer the questions, “Who am I, and how did I get here?” where ‘here’ is the point at which the character ‘goes live’. From a roleplaying point of view, the background also gives you a jumping off point for RP. It explains who the character is, and perhaps why s/he became that way. A publically accessible background can let other people hook into that story too.

  • For example: If you came from one specific town, then other players whose characters are from the same area can RP that they knew you as a child. (note: it is polite to whisper someone first to ask permission and check that they’re OK with the connection before launching into RP about it.)
  • Another example: If your character is a notorious crook and someone else plays a policeman, this might suggest RPing that you have crossed paths in the past.

We call these types of starting points ‘plot hooks’. So part of the purpose of a RP character background is to provide plot hooks for both yourself (e.g.. “my character is searching for her lost brother”) and for other people (e.g.. “I am a notorious con artist, anyone in law enforcement probably recognises my name and curses it daily. I might even have ripped your character off in the past. Contact me to work out a story.”) So backgrounds are not just self indulgent fanfic, they can provide useful RP pointers both for the player herself and for other players too.

Here are some things that make people more likely to read backgrounds:

  • the game rewards you in some way for reading/ acting on other player’s backstories (this happened in MUSHes)
  • background is short and easily accessible from in game. No one is asking you to read and memorise a novella.
  • background is well written.
  • background belongs to a character you play with regularly so you either like the player or think you might want to use it in RP with them
  • you are given hints that the background might be interesting
  1. character looks interesting (has a good costume)
  2. character acts interesting (maybe you see them roleplaying)
  3. you find the lore interesting and know that the other player does too (maybe they posted on forums or said something in a channel that caught your eye)
  4. the game itself tends to inspire interesting backgrounds (superheroes in particular often have strong backstories, it’s just part of the genre. hobbits in LOTRO probably don’t.)
  • You are bored or have some downtime and it’s something to do
  • You were asked to read it, or they read yours first and you want to reciprocate
  • You regularly read character backgrounds whenever you get the chance .. and you get the chance

So the background story can be both interesting and useful to roleplayers. If given the opportunity, more people read them than we otherwise might assume. Actually discussing how to write a compelling, non-clichéd backstory with which others will want to interact is a whole different issue and not something I’m going to cover today.

But a block of text on the screen is not the only way to introduce a character’s history to other people.

Towards more interactive backstories

The great advantage of freeform writing – the blank box of text – is that you can write anything. The problem with freeform writing is that people can write anything. It can be totally off-genre, it can be poorly written, it can miss the point completely (people who don’t understand that a backstory is history and use it instead to describe their characters’ clothes, for example), it can be wildly unbalanced or simply unbelievable, it may not fit with the game lore.

We could try to distill out the information that is useful to other players, while still giving people some room to just write about their characters. To do this, we’d need to think about what other people might want to know, and we’d need to encourage players to decide which of the information in their background might be publically known. (It’s silly to put information in your background that contains major spoilers or that you have to ask other people not to use.)

They might want to know where the character is from. You could imagine a game which put you through a series of questions while doing your starter zone. Maybe you are offered a map of the world and allowed to pick in precisely which region your character grew up. Then add in some kind of search function and it becomes easy to see who else is from the same region. Maybe even give them their own chat channel. Mark on the list which characters are new to the game so that more experienced characters can (if they want) make an effort to involve them.

They might want to know which in-game organisations you have been associated with. Is your character religious? Does it have links with the city guard? Was your character’s mother an army officer? Does it have criminal contacts? Again, being able to somehow associate yourself with those groups means other players wouldn’t have to pick through all the background information to find out who they might know. Instead they could just do a search, or even have the information delivered to them.

They might want to know what other plot hooks are associated with a character. In a MUSH it would not have been especially unusual for players to be asked to think up a couple of plot hooks for themselves to put into their background information.

Players also might want to be able to collaborate on backgrounds. If you have a great idea for a family of travelling players, you may want to find out if anything like that already exists in the game, or if anyone else is interested too. It isn’t as easy to find good collaborators as it might sound. Not only do you have to roughly share the same goals, you need to be on similar time zones, have similar play styles, and be able to get on OOC. You won’t know if all these things are true until you actually spend some time roleplaying with other people, so there’s a good chance that even if you could put up some kind of advert for people to join your band of travellng players and got some responses, most of them wouldn’t work out.

Having said that, sometimes it is possible to collaborate on backgrounds without committing yourself to a heavy RP schedule. You could agree to have been members of the same band of travelling players in the past, for example, and then collaborate to decide what happened to the group, why it split up, and whether there might be some good plot hooks there for people.

We can also make use of social media for our collaborations these days. It doesn’t all have to be mailing lists, bulletin boards, and IRC. I see this as a big trend in MMOs and it will be fantastic for roleplayers, who do need to coordinate with other players.

Bottom Line: If we abandon the totally freeform backstory, we can make it easier for players to hook up and interact in MMOs. I think this is true for a lot of MMO roleplaying – by narrowing the scope and limiting options, we can get a more productive and accessible RP environment.

There will always be room also for the totally freeform style of roleplaying. It may require small, disciplined groups, good GMs, and a lot of give and take, but it works just as well in MMOs as in chatrooms. However, it will never be accessible or massive. Complexity in sharing backstories and coordinating schedules is one of the things which simply does not scale well.

Recording our In-Game Stories

If history is made by the players in a roleplaying game, then where is the history recorded in a persistent RP MMO. Who knows about how the game has changed and what plots have been run? Even on a small scale, who can keep up with the social drift within a small RP circle? Who is sleeping with who? And why? What does a new player need to know to catch up?

Again, this is a huge and complex problem when large numbers of players are involved. Most people don’t want to be told to go read novel-length write ups of things that happened before they even joined the game.

So how can we get the news out and how can we record it? Wikis have been some use in this respect but have the problem of RL news outlets – who is going to keep updating them, who is going to keep them free from bias?

I don’t have a good answer to this one. In the past we have archived stories using player logs (in a text based game, it’s easy to store the log of a scene online), we have set up forums and encouraged people to keep their stories updated, we have allowed people to alter their character backgrounds to keep them current, we have seen people write in-game newspapers and news files or summaries.

So rather than run on, I’ll just say again that it is a huge problem. If lots of players are actively RPing then there are a lot of stories to keep track of, and no one can really hope to track them all. The best you can hope for is to channel players into a smaller number of larger plots and try to note any major worldchanging events that would affect large numbers of people.

Again, making good use of social media is where today’s MMOs can really start to shine. We’re on the cusp of this really taking off – we’ve seen integration with MMOs and websites, twitter, chat channels, achievement lists, and other information that can be accessed outside the game. You could imagine a newsfeed that is accessible within and outside the game and is updated based on in game world events and character plots.

Achievements in particular show the progress of a character’s story. As they are currently, they don’t do this in a very exciting or compelling way, but they do record the story of “I did this, then I did that, then I did that,” in a way to which other players can relate.

Fanfic

I will be honest, I am not a fan of fanfic. But writing stories about events that happened to your character in game is a time honored way of recording a personal history. Whether it’s a fully blown novella, a set of comedy sketches, or a blog/in-character diary, it is another way for players to find out what has been going on in game.

Allowing players to link somehow to external sites on which they can store fanfic, visualisations, family trees, descriptions of their character’s homes, or anything else that helps to flesh out the character and share its story would reward people for the extra work. It would also let them explore each other’s writing and character stories. It is something that devs could easily encourage, just by making it accessible from inside the game.

More mechanical methods to share stories and collaborate

Achievements, gear lists, calendars, automated scene logs, progression histories and guild histories can all be part of a character’s ongoing story. And these have the advantage of not requiring players to pour their souls into fanfic or spend hours working on a character website. Calendars and sign up lists in particular represent a form of online collaboration that is still in its infancy. We could have in game whiteboards, methods for people to collaborate on storytelling or working out backgrounds or organising RP events, and I expect to see more of these things as time goes on.

In particular there is a lot of work going on at the moment in tools for joint storytelling. It isn’t happening in the MMO field, but if it exists then players will use it. And if it is brought into the MMOs, people will use them in MMOs.

We could imagine scene schedulers, plot arc schedulers, co-operative NPC design (usually in MMOs someone will play the NPC as a low level alt) and so on.

But with all these complex character stories going on, who can stand back and see the long view of how they all intersect? This has always been an issue with scaling up roleplaying. So many stories going on in parallel and it’s difficult to see how things play out on the grander scale. The complexity involved is terrifying. You can’t code your way out of complexity, but you can look for ways to make it easier to manage.

Why Superhero MMOs have failed us

I’m disappointed in so called super hero MMOs.

It isn’t because I hate superheroes. I used to read X-Men religiously as a teenager and I bought all the Sandman comics as they came out. I love Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and my husband even made me read through his old copies of Luther Arkwright before we got married (I think he wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by not knowing the dialogue off by heart.) I have original copies of The Crow. And, big admission, I also collected all the Marvel Secret Wars comics.

But somehow all the superhero MMOs  model the dull and more tedious parts of the superhero experience, and not the things I loved.

See, the basic problem is that superhero comics are very squarely all about the main character. S/he is pasted up on the cover and takes front and centre of every story all of the time. Writers do use this as a way to discuss what it means to be a hero, and particularly what it means to be that specific hero. You may not get vast amounts of character development but when you do, it’s a major huge plot point. The story, the villains, the drama, the setbacks and how they are overcome — these things should be front and centre of the superhero experience.

Things you can do in a superhero MMO:

  • Design a cool costume and write a backstory that is largely irrelevant
  • fight random baddies
  • quest

Things you cannot do:

  • Have a dependent NPC who gets into trouble and needs to be saved a lot
  • Run a story where you start by fighting with another superhero and then team up with them (unless you pre-arrange it with another player and duel them to fake out the fighting)
  • Quests that tell personalised stories about what it means to be a superhero (note: fighting hellions in Perez Park does not count)
  • Soap Opera style supergroups.
  • Have a mentor who gets intro trouble and needs to be saved a lot.
  • Have a secret identity. Worry about whether it gets discovered. Need to balance the needs of the secret identity with the needs of the superhero persona.
  • Have a gearing up sequence (like in Iron Man)
  • Play out your backstory
  • Get captured by a supervillain and have to escape a deathtrap

If I can’t show what being superhuman means to my character then what is the point? If I can’t show the tension between the superhero role and the ‘real life’ role then all that is left is flying around (which is cool) and fighting bunches of mobs that might as well be the MMO standard pig for all they mean to me.

A MMO is more like a LARP – no player is particularly special. They’re all average Joe/Jane characters getting on with their lives. But it isn’t even a simulation of what it might be like to live in a city full of superheroes. The characters never clash over territory, never both jump into the same fight, suffer mistaken identities, and fight each other by mistake. They never get into trouble with the cops for acting like vigilantes. So even as a less personal simulation of a city full of supers, the games don’t work.

Maybe they work as small scale tactical fighting games. Maybe the fluff and costumes and travel powers is enough to keep people amused and they can tell their own stories in-between the gaps. But how is that really different from kill ten rats? It seems to me like such a wasted opportunity that CO didn’t try to do something just a bit different.

How things are shaping up for Aion

It was back into the world of Atreia last weekend for a second bite at the Aion beta cherry. This time we had the chance to play Asmodeans — the evil faction of winged humanoids — up to level 10. The game now has a release date (September) and it’s looking better than ever.

A few baseline observations first. As an MMO Aion has clearly learned many many lessons from the current generation of games. Questing is smooth and takes you neatly on a tour of the newbie zones. The writing (and localisation) is great, although they still need to translate the help system. Controls are smooth and easy to pick up, using a lot of the standard UI features that players will be used to.

Character classes will be familiar also. There are two heavy armour classes (one tank, one dps), two casters (one nuker, one pet based), two healers (one ranged, one melee), and two non-caster dps (one dual wielding melee, one bow user).

They have also taken some design aspects from Asian MMOs which are less familiar to western players. Casters have to rest to regain mana (i.e. you use the rest command which makes you sit down). There’s no auction house, instead players can populate their own private vendor and set it out for other players to look at. This means that in any populated area, you’ll have to push your way past hordes of players in vendor mode. And if you want to buy, you’ll need to browse all the vendors individually.

(Edited to add: OK, I’m wrong and there is an Auction House in the capital city. Sorry for misinformation. But we were just playing from levels 1-10 in a weekend beta, and all the populated areas were heavy with player vendors so I’m just saying what I saw.)

You can also kill-steal – if two people who aren’t grouped attack the same mob then the xp/loot goes to whoever did the most damage.

It’s beautiful. I’ll keep coming back to this (and so will everyone else who writes about the game) because the game is absolutely stunning. This is partly because they’ve thrown out the ‘green and brown for more realism’ rulebook that EQ2 and LOTRO designers are so attached to and used the whole paintbox. It’s a colourful game. It also runs very well on my mid-range system. No glitches, no crashes, no slomo frame rates, no falling down holes in the map.

It isn’t just the backdrops and character designs either. The animations are fantastic; your character looks around, fidgets, licks her lips, and acts as if she’s a part of the world around her. Animals are brilliantly animated also.

If you like pretty games and want to be blown away, it’ll be worth a month of anyone’s money just to see it in action.

Storytelling Innovations

It’s very easy to sweep Aion away under the category of ‘been there, seen that’, but that would miss some of the innovations. One of them is the neat insertion of cut scenes into quest dialogue. Not every quest or discovery comes with a cut scene but occasionally you’ll get a few seconds of camera work which does give a more cinematic experience.

In particular, we loved the little cut scene that showed you exactly what happened to some poor mage’s beloved pet when we were playing the good angels last time around. It was unexpected, short enough not to be annoying, and very funny.

But the most stunning thing about the initial storylines is the great use they make of flashbacks and flash forwards. All characters start as human, and after level 9 you are able to do a quest to ascend (ie. get your wings, be transformed into an immortal angel being). Your character starts with a bad case of memory loss, but during the first ten levels, you meet people who are able to share visions of yourself in the past.

And what you see is downright amazing. You see your own character, wings and all, in awesome high level armour, in some amazing looking PvP zone. NPCs address you as Lord. You are able to play through some of the flashback sequence. It’s an amazing way to show the player what lies in store for the character if they keep playing. I’d defy anyone not to think ‘Oo, that looks cool. I’d like to do that.’

Another tweak that I loved was that the Asmodeans start as part of a gang of raiders. Your character in particular is quite an incompetent/ inexperienced raider at the beginning. And one of the NPCs lectures you when you accept a quest, saying that a true raider shouldn’t say wimpy things like ‘As you will’ when they accept a quest. They should say ‘THE TASK IS MINE’ and storm off to do it. Well, your character evidently takes this to heart because for every quest after that, the phrase you click to accept is ‘the task is mine’. It amused me, anyway.

So far, everything I have seen has also been soloable, but don’t expect that to last. There are definitely higher level quests which you’ll need to group up for. Classes do also vary at which levels they get various useful survivability skills (I struggled on my caster until she picked up a self-shield and knockback, at which point it became very easy.)

How about the PvP?

As far as I can tell, the endgame is all about PvP. There’s an open zone (or several) where you can fight other players and mobs, and capture keeps, Warhammer style. Because of the wings, PvP will have a 3D aspect. I suspect this means that casters will be more effective than melee because it’s much easier to manoeuvre in 3D when you have more range to play with. However, you can’t fly indefinitely. Your wings will get tired and you will need to come down to earth to rest them.

But I haven’t tried the PvP myself yet so I could be talking out of my hat.

When two tribes go to war

Because of the PvP side, I have to wonder how well the two factions will be balanced. They have access to identical classes, but that won’t mean much if players have a strong bias to one or the other.

Based on what I have seen in beta, I suspect most people will pick Asmodean. They seem that bit cooler, that bit more beautiful, that bit more exotic, and that bit better written. They also aren’t eeeeevil in the same way that we’re used to seeing, they’ve just had a rough deal and are more pragmatic in their drive to survive.

I will be amazed if this is not an issue.

How to get the wings

I don’t normally do this but I picked up a search term this week on the blog for ‘How do I get wings in Aion?’. So just for the record (and to prove I did it), the Ascension quest will appear in your quest log when you reach level 9. Just do that quest. You’ll get the wings, and you’ll also get to visit your local gorgeous angelic city of choice.

It’s a small world?

Summing up, it’s a beautiful game. It will blow you away if you let it. The actual gameplay feels very similar to current generation MMOs so it will be very easy to pick up for new players. Wings are great, flying is too. If you’re bored of your current game and want to try something similar (with wings) but a bit different, it’s got to be worth a shot.

I do think I get a bit worn out on the tourguide model of quest based levelling. They do it well in Aion, but a tour is still a tour. The world doesn’t feel large to me yet, and I’m not sure how many things there are to do or see if you choose to run off the rails. Also the Asmodean quests and starting areas have a bit too much in common with the Elyos – they’re good but it doesn’t really feel like a completely different experience. Similar mobs, similar terrain layout, and so on.

I know that for me, there is something missing. A sense of the world around me, perhaps. When everything is on rails there just isn’t any room for things to be there just because it would be a better simulation of a world if they were there. I’m also not thrilled with the player merchants or kill stealing. But if the quality of storytelling remains this good, it’s tempting to at least run through it once, to see how things end.

The next beta weekend phase starts on July 2nd. So scramble around for a beta key before then (or you can get one if you pre-order).

KOTOR vs Planescape: Steel Cage Deathmatch

I enjoy interactive storytelling. From first ventures in playing D&D with my sisters and cousins as a kid, experiments in playing by post, MUDs/MUSHes, more roleplaying games as a student, Freeform LARPs, to computer RPGs, playing by email with IRC interludes, cooperative fanfic, party games like Pantheon and Baron Munchausen, letter-writing games on blogs, and eventually MMOs, it’s been a long strange trip and I’m sure that it isn’t over yet.

I’ve played a few computer games with good storylines (Gabriel Knight, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Diablo II Act II with Tal’Rasha etc comes to mind) but three of them really stand out when I look back. These are, in order:

  1. Planescape: Torment
  2. Final Fantasy X
  3. Knights of the Old Republic

Why Planescape?

With Planescape, Black Isle picked the most brilliant and iconic of all the 2nd Ed D&D settings and brought it to life. It is pure fantasy, but it isn’t the standard medieval elves and knights in shining armours. I don’t think there is even a single dragon.

Instead, there is the disturbingly weird magical city of Sigil, a hub between the planes where even gods dare not tread. Any doorway (a category that can include wells, cracks in the wall, etc) could hide a portal to one of the outer planes. Demons and strange elemental beings go to Sigil to rest from their eternal wars. It’s like a fantasy-steampunk London – anything is possible there.

Also, although there have always been fans of D&D artwork (and they have had some fantastic artists working with them), Planescape is the one setting which everyone in the fan community always associated with its brilliant lead artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. You can get a feel for the style here. So it was always a setting with a strong visual identity, and also a strong writing style. Characters had their own slang (it was intended to have a London Cockney feel to it, I think).

So that’s the setting, which is cool in itself. Add in a storyline about the mysterious and amnesiac Nameless One who appears to be immortal, gathers a bevy of fantastic and well-loved allies/ enemies, and explores the setting within the confines of a very tightly written story. And then if that wasn’t enough, explore some of the philosophical implications of what the Nameless One finds out about his past and give him the chance to make some big moral decisions.

What can change the nature of a man, indeed?

But what made the storyline for me was how much I was drawn to care for his allies. I never could bring myself to play through the game as an evil alignment because I just didn’t want to hurt them, and you were given some truly evil ways to torment your allies if you really wanted to do that.

I can’t really talk about Planescape without feeling betrayed by the game industry. After I played through that game, I hoped that just maybe it would be the harbinger of a new age of brilliant interactive storytelling RPGs. But it never happened. Maybe it didn’t sell well enough. Maybe there just wasn’t the demand. Maybe people just wanted WW2 shooters instead. I don’t know. Planescape was the end of an era, not the beginning.

But for all that, if you can get hold of a copy and put up with the 1999 era graphics, it’s one of the best storytelling experiences you’ll ever have with a game.

KOTOR

I’ve been meaning to play Knights of the Old Republic for ages and just never got round to it. (Playing MMOs will tend to do that to you – I see  a game, think ‘I must play that sometime’ then come back to it 3 years later). But I did recently play through it myself, and it was tons of fun.

I’m comparing it to Planescape because the stories have a few similarities. You wake up with no memory. You gather a team of friends around you. You go off on adventures. You find out more about your characters past, which turns out to be fairly important. You are able to play as good or evil or something in between and the moral choices you make will affect how the game plays and the outcome. There are some cool revelations, so no spoilers here. (Although honestly, when you meet someone right at the beginning who says specifically that jedi can erase people’s memories, I don’t see why people get too surprised if this turns out to be the case later.)

You also get to play with the Star Wars setting. Despite being set X thousand years before the films, it turns out that apart from the political setup, not a lot has changed. You’ll get to play with lightsabers, train as a jedi, fly jet-powered swoops, have your own pet droid, and wookie, turn to the dark side, or not, and go to a lot of the planets mentioned in the films.

Unfortunately it just isn’t as good. If Planescape is steak, KOTOR is burger (it’s good burger, mind). If Planescape is ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, KOTOR is ‘something really popular but not so smart or deep’ (I was going to say ‘The Da Vinci Code’ but then I remembered that I hated it and never got past the first page, which is a bit unfair because KOTOR was fun).

Unfortunately the NPCs are extremely bland, which is I suspect what really brings the game down. Planescape had amazing NPCs, and I really cared about them. KOTOR has mostly dull NPCs (apart from the killer robot) and I really didn’t. On the other hand, you as the player do get to be the big damn hero is a very big way.

So like a harlequin romance, KOTOR is pure ego bait. You are the hero. No one else is as interesting or important as you. They all exist merely to stroke your ego, entertain you, or throw themselves under your lightsaber. The romance plotlines are amusing but a bit creepy. I guess I just don’t like the notion that if one can only say the right thing to the NPC at the right time, they’ll fall madly in love with you. And I think it encourages you to relate poorly to the NPCs. You always think of them as puzzles which you can unlock rather than as characters in their own right.

Call me an old romantic but I prefer to subscribe to the theory that if someone is into you, they’ll not mind if you don’t always say exactly the right thing. And vice versa.

But it certainly does stroke the player’s ego to feel that cool and important people from the setting are falling at your feet. BUT I expect that in the fanfic (I haven’t checked but there’s bound to be fanfic) most people prefer to write about the relationships that the developers did not allow. Forbidden fruit, etc.

Oddly, even though the dark/lightside nature of the jedi should lead to some philosophical musings (I mean, if one can switch from light to dark or back again so easily then how strong precisely are jedi in a moral sense?) it never does. The game never once asks ‘what can change the nature of a man’ even though it’s about that even more than Planescape is. It never really answers the question either.

And on another side, the actual game sides of the game are very hit and miss. Some of it is painfully easy. The puzzles aren’t difficult at all. Then some bits are arbitrarily hard (the later swoop races, shooting stuff down in the ebon falcon etc) and you’re given no chance to really practice in advance. I saved my game a lot while I was playing it.

So, good fun game. Recommended, especially if you like Star Wars and fanfic. Probably better storyline than the actual films. Prepare to have your ego stroked.

FFX

Final Fantasy is a rather different beast to the games I mentioned above. For a start, it’s a Final Fantasy game with conventions of its own. But what really marks it out as a storytelling game is the relationships you have with your companions.

Auron in particular is one of the coolest and most badass companions in any game ever. And even he has a cool revelation of his own before the game comes to its inevitable end.

And I defy anyone not to feel a pang of … well something … for the little summoner when you realise that she’s going willingly to what may be a fate worse than death.

I really cared about the NPCs in that game, which was what brought the storyline to life.

Picking a Favourite?

Well for me it’s clearly Planescape by a country mile. And I realise how much I appreciate a storyteller who can make me care that much about the setting and the other characters in the game while still making it all about me. I loved it so much that I picked up a lot of old boxed sets of the D&D setting, which are very much prized possessions for me even though I never got to play/run it as much as I would have liked.

And going by past history, I rather think I’m more intrigued by FFXIV than by SW:TOR as upcoming MMOs. I know which storytelling team have the track record for me.

If Cryptic stopped futzing around with Neverwinter Nights MMO rumours and just got the Planescape license, I’d drop everything to play it.

Do you have favourite stories in games?

When achievements tell the story

Achievements are a waste of time.

They’re time consuming, they don’t grant significant gold, don’t give any other significant rewards, and there’s only a small number that might even be worthwhile for boasting rights. They’re very obviously designed as timesinks and players fall for it every.single. time. No, it is not fun to kill 5 zillion foozles for any reason, no matter what title you  get at the end. What is wrong with us?

And how can we stop it before the business world takes note and we have to set pointless achievements for our minions at work too?

“Uh, I name you, ‘Chief build system wrangler when the other guy isn’t here’. Congratulations. Here’s a badge with your title on it. Now never mention the build system to me again.”

Bad news there, I’m afraid. We can’t stop achievements. They play into simple human nature, the desire to celebrate things that we have done and to be regularly rewarded with titles, recognition, and peer regard.

They’ve been fantastically popular in every game that has used them. From CoH with its crazy myriads of titles (it is practically guaranteed that at least one will be perfect for any character you can dream up), to LOTRO with its traits for killing racial enemies and practicing your abilities, and Warhammer with the Tome of Knowledge.

I do have a soft spot for the tome because it even looks like a book. A book, which contains the history of your character and all the (great and not so great) things it has done. You can leaf through it, looking for achievements in various categories, and see where you’re at and where you’re going.

Achievements and Storytelling

The basic story for any player in an MMO is the story of your character. It’s the story of a simple farmperson who becomes a skilled, geared, and feared world-saving hero. The rest is window dressing and guild drama.

And naturally, as the character gains in power, it marks this with various achievements. Some are mundane (Congratulations! You are level 10!) and some more tricky (You fought the fifty armies while balancing a spoon on your nose!) but each one marks a rite of passage.

One of the innovative things about the WoW achievements is that they are broadcast to your guild. I wasn’t sure about this in the beginning because it seemed kind of … nosey? But in practice having the achievement broadcasts turns out to be quite sweet. Items of Some Consequence practically makes a lifestyle out of achievement snooping! Everyone in the guild congratulates people, you can see how all the alts are doing, and — most importantly — because there is an achievement for level 80, no one ever has to spam ‘Final ding!’ ever again. I owe Blizzard for that one.

I like the idea that the achievements help to mark out the story of a character. One day, I think we’ll have proper generated character narratives to record what we have done but until then, the ‘recent achievements’ tab will do.

And also, some of the achievements will have a memorable story. A lot of people remember what they were doing when they hit max level. Some of the dungeon achievements have a resonance for me because of the people I was with, and will do even a year from now when I skim through them.

Achievements and decoration

It’s common to have some achievements associated with special titles. I think of these as being like vanity pets or glowy weapons, a way to add extra sparkly description to a character. Sometimes it means boasting about what a character has done, sometimes it just describes who a character is.

Either way, it’s an important draw of specific achievements to specific people. If you want that special mount, you know which achievements you have to do. If you want that particular title, it will point you at other activities in game.

And we do like to decorate our characters. This is the main reason I want to get ‘The Undying’ on my warrior, or why I bought green dye for my Archmage during the brief period when she was ‘The Green.’ It’s fun.

Different types of achievements

I despise grinding. I can sometimes be lured by a game into doing it, but it’s something I avoid when I can. So a lot of achievements involve activities that I simply would never do. I freely admit I don’t understand the people who do them, but hey, different strokes.

In any case there are different sorts of achievements:

  • Things you would do anyway. These can help teach new players about the game (if you’re not sure what to do next, check your achievements tab) and mark the simple progression of a character. These are also fun because they’re so organic, you are happily playing the game and *ping* a new achievement comes up. Shiny!
  • A bit of extra grind. Push you just a little into more exploring, more hanging out online and killing orcs, running that one extra instance because you need that reputation for an achievement.
  • A lot of extra grind. Something for the OCD. As I said, I have absolutely no idea why people do these things but glad they’re having fun. And if a game ever makes the rewards for these so high that they become nigh-compulsary, I will drop that sub like a hot brick.
  • Doing something unusual or amusing. Good amusement value, something relaxing and non grindy to do.
  • Doing something at greater difficulty than usual. Extra challenge, can be extra content if the achievement requires a whole new strategy. I like the idea of these, especially if they are mostly optional.

The great strength of achievements is that they mirror the strength of MMOs. There is something there for all abilities and all playing styles. And they’re optional — I think this is a really key point. WoW has ominously assigned points for completing achievements but there’s nothing yet to spend them on. Let’s hope that Blizzard understands the importance of only allowing small or cosmetic improvements as rewards here.

They’re a waste of time, but damn if I don’t really  like them :)

(Thanks a lot to Pixellated Executioner and the Blog Azeroth crowd for the shared topic idea.)

Are you living in a (sand)box?

One of the thrills for me of logging into my first MMO was the feeling that I had a huge world to wander around in, full of places to go,  people to meet, mobs to kill, and adventures to be had. I’d played tabletop RPGs but actually walking around a real (if virtual) world was a different ballgame from peering at a lovingly hand drawn map on the living room table. I didn’t have to ask the GMs permission to look inside an old tower or over the top of a mountain, I could just go and look for myself.

And along the way, anything could happen.

There are a lot of single player games which successfully give that ‘wide open world’ feeling. GTA and Fallout do it particularly well. I love those too. But an MMO is a world on a larger scale, and full of other (real) people to interact with, as if they were also denizens of that world. I come from a RP background, I was awed at the prospect that other players would bring the world to life … which they kind of do, although maybe not quite how I imagined.

I had played and staffed MU* (MUDSs/MUSHes/etc), which could be very sandbox affairs. We had player run organisations, player run criminals and baddies to fight, player organised mass destruction, and so on. MMOs have tended to be not so much, with the honorable exceptions of EVE and Tale in the Desert, in their own different ways.

In practice, the problem with player run organisations is that they are run by players. There’s no guarantee that a player run entity will be looking out for YOUR entertainment. The world can be changed around you and it might not be in ways you would like. Maybe your character even ends up on the wrong side of a fight you knew nothing about and gets killed. I’ve been killed for crazy, trivial reasons in MUSHes and it was not particularly fun. (Admittedly I have also killed other characters and that was more fun.) And in a roleplaying game you don’t just respawn, because your character is dead. You reroll.

And yet, players long for the wide open world full of choices and the feel of the sandbox. I think one of the reasons that Wrath has been so staggeringly popular is that Blizzard have learned a few tricks for making the game world feel sandboxy than it really is.

Choices? Or were you just drawn this way?

I wrote a piece a couple of months back on BoG about the Death Knight starting quests. I had just completed them for the first time but one quest in the chain really stood out for me. It was the section of the story where your character is supposed to start questioning its loyalties and death knight-ness.

This is important because the Death Knight starting quest chains tell a story arc. And it’s a strong one. It is the story of a character in service to an evil overlord who rebels and strikes out on their own, seeking revenge. At no point in this storyline does the player actually get to make any choices. You either do the quest or you don’t (and you do, because you want to eventually get out of the starting zone, even aside from the xp and shiny quest reward gear).

In modern MMOs, the levelling game has become a series of quest arcs. Some games do it better than others. Warhammer actually has very well written and engaging quests, on the whole. LOTRO can be patchy (hello boring lone lands quests that everyone hates) but when it is on form, it is absolutely stunning. Both of those games make good use of their game worlds and lore to draw players in.

Blizzard has always done the levelling side of WoW well, it’s the big hook that drew players in right from the start. But the big gotcha of Wrath is that they have surpassed pretty much every other game in the market with their questing game right now. The writing is sharp and witty, the storytelling is solid and the quests themselves have a good mixture of fun things to do (this is an area where other MMOs tend to fall down in comparison).

But the downside of quests, however great the storylines, is that the player ultimately has only one choice. Do the quest or don’t do it. In a game where the characters are well drawn and well defined, it isn’t much of an issue. In LOTRO it is very clear that your motives are to fight the shadow and help the fellowship, so there’s no reason for you to drop a quest (apart from it being boring or not being able to find a group for it).

But Blizzard has been more ambitious with their storytelling. They want to tell stories in which the character makes a poor decision and later has to deal with the consequences. But due to the limitations of quests, they have to do this in a way that makes the player feel as though the character made a choice without actually doing it. Sometimes this works well. There’s a stunningly epic storyline in Storm Peaks which starts with you meeting a poor old woman who is imprisoned in a mine and only finding out much much later that she had you fooled from the start.  It feels entirely reasonable that your character would have fallen for it.

In other places, it works less well. Any situation where the player thinks, ‘Wait, my character needs more choices, I don’t want to do that’ is a place where the illusion of choice wears thin.

I think that as players, we’re prepared to enjoy the illusion for what it is IF the storyline is compelling and convincing. I’ll give up my free choice to go off and farm more boars instead of doing your quests, but in return, I want a game to deliver me a brilliant, entertaining story.

Freedom to explore

Another way which MMOs in general and WoW in particular gives the illusion of a sandbox is in the way quests are laid out. We are already bored with the convention of “travel to the next quest hub, pick up quests, do quests, rinse and repeat.” Hence the breadcrumb quest which lures the player seamlessly to the next quest hub.

A variation on this is where the breadcrumb quest just takes the player on a route through which they cannot avoid finding the new quests. But still lets them feel as though they had to explore a bit. So you are off on your fun quest when you spot a few quest icons on the minimap — you let yourself get distracted enough to go and investigate and BAM it’s as if you found the quest hub all by yourself.

A great example of this is the opening quest for Dalaran that is given to players after they hit level 74. There are several potential quest givers for this, located in towns where you might reasonably be when you hit this level. So you level up, you carry on about your business, and … ooo… new quest, whats that? I thought it was particularly cunning of them to stick questgivers for this one between the flight masters and the zeppelins of the towns from which you travel back to Azeroth. Because naturally, when you hit a new level, you’d want to go back to train. You really cannot miss the Dalaran quest. It’s just not possible. But it will always feel as though you discovered it yourself.

Or another one is where a questline starts from an item dropped by a mob … with no actual quest to kill the mob. Just quests that put you in an area where it is very very likely that you will do this. Again, you kill some random and totally unexceptional mob because it’s there (that’s probably enough reason for most players) and hey, it starts you off on a whole new quest chain. The game gives you an illusion of exploring, but that quest object was never intended to be missed or obscure.

I think a big part of the popularity of Wrath is that Blizzard have used a lot of these techniques to give players the illusion of character choice, and of exploration, but without the dull options to which some choices and some exploration can lead. I can’t fault them for it. I love sandbox games and I hope very much that someone someday will make more of them, but I am also a sucker for a well put together illusion.