2001-04-03: Comments from Sage

Comments from Sage

Apr 3 2001 1:31PM

This was originally posted to Development at [1]

Last week at the Game Developers Conference, I met some really great people and caught up with old friends in the industry. Almost all aspects of game development were discussed, but one of the hotter topics debated at the conference was ways to integrate meaningful story into our games. Like all good debates, there were two sides:

the story should be pervasive in the original design, and players should be encouraged to involve themselves in that story
the story should be emergent based on behavior of the players, and the design should offer interesting choices so the story derives from player activities.

I am confident that there is a middle ground, as Lee Sheldon said, and that developers will be able to find that road more and more. Still, I think we should concentrate on the second argument more at this time, as this is the more underdeveloped of the two concepts in the industry, and perhaps the best in dealing with MMOGs. (<-- Fill in your favorite acronym here.)

As I’ve grown to know MMOG community, I’ve found endless fascination in the ability of players to create their own stories, sometimes because of what tools we have given them, and sometimes in spite of the tools we have not given to the community. I want to devote time to exploring this, both because I feel it is important, and because I believe we (the dev team and the community) can do more. I think enabling tale-weavers to create better stories derivative of their world involves, at least, the following three items:

  • An interesting overarching fiction, or a history if you will.
  • The ability to make a meaningful decision that the player might not be confronted with every day.
  • A captive audience for the stories that are told.

The history of the game world is important because it couches the emergent stories in a meaningful context. For instance, a great experience in Pong might be fascinating to you as a gamer, but telling people that the Great Paddle Battle of 1979 involved the final bank shot of the dot with a blistered thumb, is about as exciting as a sack of wet mice. However, telling someone living within the same world, that you met the scoundrel Skeeve the Magician, who had of late run around as the scourge of Trinsic, and defeated him in a heated duel, has meaning. Still, if a player doesn’t understand who Skeeve is, the story has less impact on the listener. This is why it is important that as many people as possible know about the story, and why the story shouldn’t be overly complex. Most people, I am sorry to say, are not interested in investigating the stories of the world. Whether that be a problem with delivery, a problem with public interest and attention span, or a combination is up to you to decide. So, perhaps a story about an incredible fight with a valorite elemental is more meaningful to most of the audience. Is it any less stupendous of a battle than the one fought with Skeeve, scourge of Trinsic? Probably not. Is there room for both stories? Of course. While one may be more closely tied into game fiction, the other has a far greater chance of reaching more people. Will Wright, of Sims fame, calls this a “point of brag”, or a point in the game where two people can share stories about what occurred when said event happened to each of them. Stories are much better when they develop into conversations!

One of the points I clearly remember from college literature is that the main character / protagonist of a novel is usually the one who has undergone change. The amount of change can be small, but change is important. Remember a battle where you tried something different for the first time? Normally, you might send a dragon in to deal with a valorite elemental, but when the valorite elemental goes through your dragon faster than Dean Wormer expelled John Blutarsky, a new choice has to be made, and quickly. That choice makes you change your tactics, and a story emerges. Afterwards, you realized you needed to relate your story so that others might learn about the problems you encountered, or you just wanted to relate the final outcome of the might battle.

So how can you tell your story, if no one is around to hear it? Unless trees in the woods have imparted secret information to you about an age-old conundrum, you can’t. One of Jonathan Barron’s rules on MMRPGs is: Glory is the reason why people play online; shame is what keeps them from playing online. Neither is possible without other people being present. Glory is all about story. Being able to relate your stories to others who understand their context is important, because it is the social nature of people to relate events. I think UO provides this opportunity in a very unique way, and therefore is one of the best storytelling platforms in the entertainment medium. Still, I think one of the weaknesses in UO is that much of our past contributions to story have been limited to reaching a small group of people who know about “events”, while leaving many of our other players in the dark. It is a matter of logistics; when you have finite time, and finite resources, you can only reach a small number of people if you must have manpower involved in each of the events. Exceptions to this pattern are events such as the invasion of Trinsic during Renaissance, but even that required a massive amount of effort and manpower. I would like to get back to the kind of event where everyone can benefit, but I would also like to have more ongoing content with items such as glacial staves, gargoyle’s pickaxes, etc. New items, monsters, etc. introduced in context has a better chance to reach the majority of our players. The impact of the new slayer weapons appearing in the world reached a vast majority of our players, and gave them something new to do. As we put new additions in a better context format with more story, the interest in the game grows. This is an area in which I believe we can show quick improvement over the course of the next few months.

In order to do so, we will be making some changes to our in-house events team. Our current event staff will be trained in the scripting language and given the power to see that new items and creatures going into the game have meaning and are part of a larger plan, rather than being separate and unrelated to the overall story. Jonathan “Calandryll” Hanna will be heading up the “event” team, with Tom “Augur” Ivey and Dave “Gromm” Saleh rounding out the team. We understand this will be a very different way of bringing story into UO than what we do currently, but we think the majority of our players will benefit. What we will be able to do over time will grow as we learn to stretch UO’s limits.

Finally, I would like to end this Comments from the Team with a fond farewell to many of my friends who have recently departed OSI. Losing the ability to see your friends day to day is a very hard thing on anyone, and I hope they know they will be missed.