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Still Skeptical of Storybricks

This past weekend Nils and I were walked through the Storybrick demo with Kelly from Namaste in a sort of dual presentation. It was illuminating in a lot of different ways.

A) Storybricks is actually two seperate things: the AI and then the game.

To understand how big a difference this is, think about the difference between the Havok engine and Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Half Life 2, LA Noir, Portal 2, and the Witcher 2. Havok, by itself, is not anything – it is not a game, it is a tool to make games. Storybricks is NOT entirely like the Havok engine though, as it would essentially be a tool within a tool, Inception-style.

This is an important distinction because the build-it-yourself AI part of it is actually pretty interesting. It reminds me of a post by Notch of Minecraft fame where he made what seemed like a mild change (animals flee when attacked) and then discovered an “emergent” AI behavior when suddenly sheep would realistically flee from wolves. Even though I pooh-poohed the thought of unintended consequences in my last Storybrick post, that was more in a story aspect. I am otherwise a big fan of tweaking small variables in a complex system and watching how the dominos fall in unpredictable ways – fans of playing/theorizing the WoW AH pretty much have to be, by definition.

B) The Storybricks GAME doesn’t exist.

This is a particular point I feel was not emphasized enough in other Storybrick write-ups. There is no game, at the moment. Kelly described how they do not want to start building a house, and then halfway through realize they should have been using a hammer instead of a rock to nail everything together. That… sort of makes sense. I mean, I am not a game designer or anything, so I do not know what the “proper” way of game development consists of.

What concerns me, and I got this impression from Nils as well, is that it is always easy to come up with ideas that should be fun; actually having them be fun is another matter entirely. As I mentioned in the previous section, I like the idea of subtle changes making surprising differences down the road. I also like the idea of a Silent Hill meets Fallout 3 style game. There is nothing to really say that either will be fun in practice however.

C) The Storybricks game won’t resemble any MMO.

Making matters worse, as Kelly explained, is that you cannot really even begin to explain a Storybrick game. This is not WoW + NPCs that remembers you. This Storybrick game would not have combat, no NPCs could die, and they are debating right now whether leveling should even exist. The socializing and NPC relationships would be the game. Which confuses me when she explained how all these D&D DMs were excited about it: what exactly are they imagining here? Their campaigns “coming to life?” What is D&D without dice rolls, saving throws, combat at all? It is a purer form of collaborative storytelling, sure. But it is no longer D&D. And they (or their players) probably signed up to play D&D.

So instead of imagining your favorite game with more compelling NPCs, imagine your favorite game without combat, without gear progression, without levels, without a set narrative at all. Then you can start imagining Storybricks and its emergent interactions. The closest thing I can imagine is Myst, except people are the puzzles.

Concerns

Now that I have kind of outlined the experience, I am going to more briefly list my concerns about the project. And because this whole post is a lot more negative and antagonistic than I necessarily feel, I have a bonus section for the Namaste folk at the end. So my concerns are:

1) I do not see Storybricks working in an MMO setting at all. One of the examples that came up in the demo was how a player might need a key from the guard to unlock a door. The guard might just straight-up give the key to Bob because of their prior relationship, whereas Tom might be forced to run some errand for the guard. The issue is that if Bob and Tom are friends/grouped up, would Bob not be able to simply give Tom the key to use? If that is the case, could you not imagine Bob hanging out in the newbie area and offering to escort new players straight past the “guard gate” (assuming there is some medium of exchange possible)?

2) Related to 1), I have never felt it particularly compelling in D&D when the guy with the highest Charisma or Speech skill is the de facto NPC ambassador. This is not to say specialized roles are not compelling, simply that if Bob is better at making the Storybrick connections (aka making the dice rolls), Bob will basically do them for the group. At most, I have a connection to Bob or the group as a unit, not to the NPCs. In a single-player game on the other hand, each player will have 100% connection with the NPCs.

3) It may be beyond the scope of the tool, but I do very much hope that Storybricks would have some kind of mode or setting that would allow the players designing the modules to be able to direct a player’s experience in a more traditional way. In other words, let people go nuts in the village with NPC interaction, while still having a overarching narrative in the castle.

4) I think serious consideration should be given right now as to what the object of a Storybrick game would be, e.g. the fun part. Sandboxes are all about player-driven goals, of course, but the sand has to be fun to play with. Speaking of which…

Bonus: Ego to Absolvo

In this Storybrick game type, the player explores a mysterious realm populated with souls from Purgatory. The object is for the player to escape the realm by releasing the Pivot Soul, the deceased spirit which binds the player to this place. Souls can be released by either directing them towards an act of contrition (absolve), or by convincing them their earthly transgressions deserves a more permanent punishment (condemn). It is up to the player to decide whether to absolve the Pivot Soul or condemn it; similarly, the player must decide whether to try and release/condemn the other souls (and which ones) before the player leaves. All the souls in each level are connected in some way, either by the event that led to their deaths, or by some other means.

The above concept requires no combat and no particular narrative beyond the Pivot Soul. Better still, you can use the same stock medieval models/setting in your demo while not being tied to a more cliche archetype. And to me, such a scenario is immediately more compelling – assuming the writing is done well, I can imagine seeking out every NPC even after identifying which of them is the Pivot Soul. Players could talk about the “moral” choice they made (absolving a murderer vs leaving them in Purgatory vs sending them to Hell), how many souls they absolved/condemned, which ones, by what means, and so on. And because of the way the Storybrick AI works, you probably could not save them all.

In any case, I do wish the Namaste folks the best of luck. My skepticism is not rooted in malice, or because the tools lack potential. Rather, my skepticism is merely a pragmatic expression of More Show, Less Tell.

Incidentally, if you want someone to brick up a truly convoluted Machiavellian scenario, or want to run with the Ego to Absolvo idea, have your people call my people.

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