2002-01: GameSpy Dev Diary: UO: Blackthorn's Revenge, Volume 5: The Challenge of Dynamic Ongoing Fictional Scenarios

UO: Blackthorn's Revenge, Volume 5: The Challenge of Dynamic Ongoing Fictional Scenarios

This was originally posted at GameSpy [1] as part of their Dev Diary series, where developers would write about some aspect of game development.

UO: Blackthorn's Revenge, Volume 5: The Challenge of Dynamic Ongoing Fictional Scenarios

Dave Saleh points out the difficulties in maintaining a cohesive storyline for an MMORPG.

By Dave "Gromm" Saleh

One of my primary duties as a member of the ongoing content team is to act as keeper of the fiction. Fiction has been a huge part of UO during its four-year lifespan and the content team now holds the fiction torch, so to speak. Our job is to make the world of Britannia a richer and more exciting place for everyone that lives his or her virtual lives there by attempting this with new items, monsters and world builds that all go together under one theme. One of the limitations of the game client is the inability of the software to communicate storylines. So, to ensure players are exposed to game fiction short stories are posted on the UO Website.

In our efforts to get a cohesive story out to a large population of diverse players we, of course, run into a few problems. Most of us, grew up playing single-player videogames because honestly, that's pretty much all we had. Sure, there have been multiplayer games in some form or another for years, but the age of the massively-multiplayer game is just truly starting to gain popularity.

Creating an interactive story for a small group of people is one thing. Creating one for a world (or shard as we like to say in UO) that has to accommodate thousands of players online together presents some entirely different problems. There are no books written on the topic. No one in the gaming field has a lifetime of experience. Essentially, this is a totally new type of job in the gaming industry. Although it's a blast being one of the pioneers of this new form of storytelling, it is also a huge challenge.

We decided to start with the basics. For a story we needed conflict, and for conflict we needed an antagonist. UO had no major villains that were still in power, and very few villains that had ever really had a global effect. To find a compelling villain we looked back at the fiction in the original Ultima single-player games and the natural choice was "Exodus." "Mondain," an earlier villain, was dead and Minax was occupied with the factions system. Therefore, we felt Exodus would have to come next.

The problem with Exodus was that he wasn't really a person or anything with a physical embodiment; he was just more of a mysterious entity. That's where the idea of using Blackthorn came in. Evil needed a face for players to rally against and once converted to a half-human all evil tyrant by Exodus, he had a very nasty appearance and demeanor that matched the mechanical theme that's always been associated with Exodus. For this reason, we gave him the role of front man for the new crew of evil. So we had our evil duo ready to go out and wreak havoc now the problem was hot to go about doing it.

One of the biggest issues in presenting fiction is the diversity of the player base. UO has every different type of game all in one place. Power gamers, role-players, socializers, dungeon-hackers, crafters, resource-gatherers…the list goes on and on. Some of these people are starving for fiction, some just like having it around to enhance their gameplay, and others are not even interested.

So, how do we make the fiction impact players in the way we want it to? How do we please the people who want to be as involved as they can be in the fiction without changing things too much for those that have a routine they don't like having interrupted? It's a problem we're still trying to find solutions for to this day, but one thing remains constant; we want to affect everyone. This is, after all, a virtual fantasy world, and in a fantasy world "big bad things" can and will happen.

We've already seen the fictional scenarios impacting players in a variety of ways. However, we are still working to integrate the scenarios more seamlessly into the game. When a player gets killed by a scenario monster we want them to think, "That darn Exodus!" not "That darn content team!" We want to see the scenarios become advanced enough to be seen as part of the world, rather than imposed upon it.

Someday, years from now, I hope we have a good chance to look back and laugh at how difficult it seemed to be to produce a story large enough to have an impact on an entire world. With every new attempt we make new discoveries and new mistakes. We get cheers and jeers, praise and criticism, love and hate. And, who knows, maybe someday we can make everyone happy.