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.

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Posted on September 7, 2011, in Commentary, Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. “As a player, why would I WANT this?”

    Because I really liked Planescape: Torment.

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    • That’s sort of the point. The genius of Planescape was the writing and overall narrative, not necessarily the NPC emotive states. If you have already committed to crafting a Planescape-esque tale, does Storybricks actually make that process any easier? Or does it, in fact, make it more difficult by adding more moving parts?

      And nevermind how you’d get that to work in an MMO.

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  2. There are enough people playing MMOs who don’t care about other human beings. How can we assume that they care about NPCs?

    If their action has an influence on you you’re not going to enjoy that game.

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  3. “There are enough people playing MMOs who don’t care about other human beings. ”

    There are enough that do care, too?

    I see the problem of implementation – it’s easy to have great, theoretical ideas and there must be a thousand out there, but do they work in practise? an entirely different matter.

    If you however ask about ‘why’ should anyone want this, or ‘how’ can you make them care – there are ways the game can make you care. let’s be primitive: what if the greatest rewards came from dedicated NPC interaction, tending to your progress (rep) with certain groups of them etc.? and you needed “results” there to gear up for the next instance with your guild?
    oh, I can see plenty of players switching from daily grinds and 5mans to tending to NPCs.
    not that i thought it through to the end, but: what creates player motivation right now, you think? and why could you not apply that to a different NPC/scenarios approach than the one WoW has, for example?

    Also, as I wrote in my own Storybricks recount, it’s not “all or nothing”; the way I understood Namaste, this could be a more optional feature, so at worst what it does for you is offer variety in playing through player-generated content. or not.

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  4. I agree with you Stabs — Planescape: Torment was awesome.

    I’ve also been one to enjoy the dating-sim aspect of many solo Japanese rpgs, and storybricks feels to me like the next generation of dating-sim mechanics. Unfortunately, I don’t see this working in the modern-day mmo any time soon. And you are right Syl, that the game can “make you care”, but I don’t believe the reaction to people caring is going to be that people start “paying attention to what’s happening in the world”.

    Consider the consequences of killing those sheep. In a single player game, I’ll kill the sheep now, and see what happens. I might replay the game later and not kill the sheep. And I’ll probably pay a lot of attention to the world around me.

    But in an mmo, people will go online to see whether they should kill the sheep. They won’t “tend to NPC interaction”, they will pick a goal, read up on the most efficient way to achieve that goal, and then mindlessly grind sheep, or feed sheep, or do whatever they need to to accomplish their goal. At the end of the day, it won’t matter one whit if the consequences of sheep killing are derived from storybricks, or are more simple and obvious.

    And heaven forbid if the game doesn’t make it painfully obvious that there are possible negative consequences to sheep killing. I can see the forum rage now….

    So, for multiplayer games, I think I agree with you Azuriel, I wouldn’t want this, and for the reasons you give.

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    • Hehe, I can see the rage too…
      I think you’re very right, there are lots and lots of ‘buts’ here. which is good for Namaste because they need to hear them. if you’re looking to bring Storybricks elements into a classic MMO, it might actually require you to rewrite the entire concept – and then we can argue if it’s still the same genre, or not rather a sub-genre for a different audience.

      To get back to what you said about the sheep; I’m sure people would try and optimize any way they could. but then, this is a question of how quests are realized, more than NPC relations? what if the game made it impossible to anticipate when the sheep spawn? or where? what if it’s a bit more random, with different cues and spawntimes. or why not remove this type of quest altogether, where it’s just about an isolated, short-term goal?

      I dunno…. I try to think of SB as a lot more than just reading NPC text and doing their bidding. imagine them to be pro-active and simply react to whatever you do, like a life environment would. even if you ignore them, let the game present you with consequences that make you care. you can even go as far as implementing the need to heed sound or facial expressions. maybe interaction would still be goal-driven (or rather, it always will to some degree), but you would definitely pay more attention to what happens around you, if it mattered and wasn’t so much just added text – or if it was random, taking you by surprise.
      Maybe it’s just me, I’m an explorer-type according to Bartle, not an achiever. :) I see NPCs as an additional source to create “some” more immersion and atmosphere in MMOs – I’m not looking to make them my main focus.

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  5. Planescape torment was largely good because of its writing. It was essentially a good interactive story with interesting characters

    This does not work with MMOs for the reasons stated in this post.And honestly in MMOs I dont care for most of the player characters. Let alone NPCs! I dont need more fake stories which are not believable first place. My suspension of disbelief has limits -it might work in single player games, but not in MMO when I know everyone has access to same exact loot bags, “framed” as quests, and there is nothing ever really happening, except the ever repeating animations.

    Only true story mmo have the one about your character and community. Character stories are pretty shallow (leveled 1-x, got purplz). Communities can be much deeper. Stories of UO still live on. EvE stories fascinate even those who do not play. But who the hell cares about loot drama of WoW? Another “raid du jour” story?

    Storybricks would be great for Single player games. for mmo not so much

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  6. > There are enough that do care, too?

    Sure, but it takes only one person to kill an NPC/an objective.

    And if that has a negative impact on your game you can be sure that there will be at least one person willing to kill that NPC/that objective.

    It’s always easier to destroy then it is to create.

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  7. Azuriel, if you’d like a demo please contact me at kelly [@] namaste [.] vg. I’m happy to work to clear up misunderstandings regarding Storbricks and the game it will support!

    For that matter, anyone can e-mail me with questions…

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  8. My two cents on this whole post::

    It’s incredibly easy to imagine intricately detailed scenarios with something that doesn’t exist, and then use that detailed scenario (of your own making) to negate the entire premise that Storybricks rests on (user generated, responsive, dynamic content).

    The only problem is, however, that as you also note – it’s still just a tool, and we don’t even know if the scenario you outline is a realistic use of it. Things may look totally different once Namaste gets it into full production.

    My post was really to get people thinking about potential applications, and how exciting they could be. Taking my post as gospel truth about what Storybricks will ultimately *be*, however, is not something that I would encourage! :)

    ALL THAT BEING SAID – If I’m reading your post right, it really comes down to two things:

    1) You don’t think people will care about NPCs, no matter how interactive or dynamic they are. To which I would respond; maybe not. I don’t think the issue is whether or not I will fall in love with a Storybricks NPC (after all, as much as I love my dakimakura, I KNOW IT’S NOT REAL) – but whether or not we can make NPCs *more interesting* than the static placeholders that they are in every game today. And in doing so, can we craft more compelling stories that people will actually want to play out, and think about, whereas today, we install add-ons to eliminate quest-text. There’s a big difference there, and I think Storybricks has potential to move things in this direction.

    2) You’re concerned that I can kill your sheep. To which I would reply, your sheep are in great danger.

    Seriously though … that’s not even a serious argument against Storybricks. What happens in WOW when NPCs die? They do, by the way, as part of quests. They respawn. Problem solved.

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    • You’re concerned that I can kill your sheep. To which I would reply, your sheep are in great danger.

      Haha, this is a great line.

      My thoughts about NPCs has been moving a bit since this post, but my ultimate Storybrick concern is how everything that is necessary for it to work (e.g. player-generated content tools, writing dialog, making events, etc) is enough by itself to make the interesting NPCs; what actual time does Storybricks save in the process? Perhaps you can get some interesting unintended interactions based on behind-the-scenes relationship interplays (my Machiavellian plot)… but who is writing the dialog that accompanies those interactions? You are. If you already have to write out every eventuality the player can do, why not keep a tighter reign on the narrative and only allow a few different paths instead of everything?

      Like any small child, I don’t find consequences compelling in of themselves. Don’t punish me (for killing sheep), bro!

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  9. As a player, I wanted more interesting characters in my MMOs, wanted them to remember my actions, understand the context, and have some emergent properties that could make gameplay more interesting.

    Since none of the MMO vendors believed that people wanted this, I started my own company to solve this problem.

    I played Planescape: Torment and loved it, and ideally I would have loved to be able to keep playing in that world for hundreds of hours. But the reason why characters were interesting in P:T was that there was a lot of elbow grease in writing huge dialogue trees. I went out and looked at people who researched the problem and found technology that could address the problem and be more scalable.

    There has to be something more than killing ten rats and beating a guy with a big hitbox and 100m hit points.

    -Rodolfo, CEO, Namaste

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  10. I think alot of achievers are here saying what’s the point while a bunch of socializers and explorers will really love this type of thing. I look forward to seeing what this tool can do and hopefully one day getting to make games with this or something like it.

    As far as the good writing is concerned, this allows you to focus your writing on the big over-arching things and let the emergent interactions fill in the details. You can theoretically have a larger, fuller world with something like this I imagine.

    Also I as a player would care because it may finally allow me to gain the trust of the disenfranchised monster races and lead a rebellion against the humans!!!

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