Skeptical of Storybricks
You have probably read about Storybricks from any number of other bloggers. If you have not, well, take your pick. Far be it from me to denigrate free thinking and innovative design (god knows we need some these days), but none of these full-page ads for Storybricks ever seem to answer what is to me the fundamental question:
As a player, why would I WANT this?
Keep that question in mind as you read this excerpt from Too Damn Epic’s Storybrick article:
By focusing on expressive AI, a different experience than currently experienced in MMOs (one that is closer to a tabletop system) becomes available. NPCs will be given drives, emotions and desires. More importantly, relationships between characters will be developed and interactions between the player and characters will affect how characters relate to the player.
For example, imagine a farmer that you as a player have never encountered, an NPC that feels neutrally toward you. This farmer owns a flock of sheep. As a player, you come upon a merchant wanting wool and kill the sheep for the merchant. If you then encounter the farmer his reaction towards you will no longer come from a neutral disposition but one of anger or unfriendliness. And what you experience may be completely different from your friend who did not kill the sheep. Storybricks is the tool that allows players to build these complex relationships into their stories giving the depth to their experiences.”
Put aside for the moment what kind of game architecture would be necessary to compute all these dynamically changing quests and attributes. Would you, as a player, WANT to quest in a potentially labyrinthine “unforeseen consequences” environment? Killing a farmer’s sheep is pretty straightforward of course, but this sort of system could engender a Machiavellian plot wherein finding the Blacksmith’s hammer pisses off the Innkeeper whose daughter is in love with the prince who gives your execution order to the assassin who buys the temper-steel poisoned dagger from the newly upgraded Blacksmith. If someone (non-ironically) wrote a plot that involved every quest you completed as having the opposite effect you intended, you would call that writer a hack. As WOPR would say, “The only winning move is not to play.”
Of course, the Storybrick guys aren’t making a game like that, or any game for that matter; they are simply making the tools. More precisely, tools for a game that does not exist yet, and one in which would require user-generated content submission, such as Neverwinter Nights or Fallout 3/NV. I say “require” because I cannot ever imagine that a game designer would leave the fate of the narrative solely in the hand of player actions. And I certainly could never see it in an MMO. Why? Here is what epic.Ben asserts from the TDE article:
In other words, Storybricks is going to shift the focus in your MMOs. Instead of mindlessly clicking quest text and proceeding through a Pavlovian loop of grinding, achievements, and raiding, you’ll actually pay attention to what’s happening in the world around you. NPCs will display emotional depth, and dynamically react to your experiences in the game world.
One of the hallmarks of the MMO genre is a notion of a persistent world, but that persistence is always in tension with the fact that other players exist. Players say they want a world where consequences matter, that if a town gets burned down it stays burned down. But do they really want a world in which the choice of saving the town is never given to them because some noob 4 years ago logged off in the middle of the quest to put the fire out and the town burned down? “Phasing” was a much-touted Blizzard innovation which amounted to open-world instancing, with exactly zero of the MMO elements intact – the designer reaction to the infinitely frustrating disappearing party member issue of Icecrown was to… phase the background and NPCs in Firelands instead.
Going back to Storybricks, what happens when Bob and Tim want to quest together, but Bob killed the sheep while Tim bought wool instead? Under traditional MMO design, nothing happens because it doesn’t matter how the quest is accomplished (assuming you can even complete a quest different ways). And under Storybricks? I have no idea. Does the farmer have a Schrödinger-sheep that is both alive and dead? Assuming the farmer hates Bob and likes Tim, does he still give out a quest to both, or just Tim? Can Bob get credit if he helps Tim complete it? If the farmer has the same quests regardless of feelings towards Bob, does the farmer having “emotions” matter at all?
This is my fundamental problem with the epic.Ben’s assertion above, and Storybrick’s unspoken premise that “if we build it, they will come.” Or more precisely: “if we build emotive NPCs, the player will care.” Emotional depth and multifaceted character development are the pinnacle of what a storyteller can achieve when crafting a tale, but it always hinges on the listener/player caring about said character first. Why do I care that the farmer is mad at me for killing his sheep? Is he an interesting character? Or am I supposed to care because he holds potentially fun (or required!) quests hostage behind a fancied-up logic gate of prior actions? Much like what happens in real life all the damn time, just because a person interacts with other emotive beings does not mean they care about how other people feel.
I can see and appreciate the work the Storybrick people are doing in building a cart, and hoping that a horse comes along to carry it. Finding a fictional character you have some interest in and realizing that there is emotive, narrative depth to their actions is a truly magical experience. That being said, it still requires someone to have crafted an interesting character to begin with. And if they already went through that much effort to make one, I just do not see the appeal of using Storybricks to fill in the blanks Mad-Lib style. Nor do I see the appeal to the player of being in an environment where potentially random actions have lasting, permanent consequences. If accidentally killing a sheep with a stray Arcane Explosion can be rectified by reputation grinding with the Farmer, that is almost worse.