Thursday, September 29, 2011

Storybricks + DikuMUD = Balance in MMORPGs

To follow my previous comments about Storybricks, this time I'd like to get into the nuts and bolts of how Storybricks works. (Note that this is based on what has been revealed of Storybricks at this time -- things can and will change as Namaste continues to develop the concepts and implementation.)

Nearly all MMORPGs today are descendants of an early text-based multi-user dungeon (MUD) called DikuMUD. There are three interrelated reasons why DikuMUD proved to be genetically superior to other MUDs, and why it became the progenitor for nearly all modern graphical MMORPGs:

  • it emphasized easy-to-understand and action-oriented combat over other forms of interaction
  • it simplified interactions down to easily-trackable, table-driven statistics, and
  • it was designed to be easy to modify and install by gameworld creators.

These elements combined to catapult DikuMUD and its successors to prominence in the world of computer-based roleplaying games. As other forms of MUDs became less visible, and as new gamers arrived and saw only DikuMUD-derived MMORPGs, eventually only DikuMUD-descended MMORPGs remained.

This wasn't inherently wrong. Obviously a lot of people enjoy the focus on simple fighting, and DikuMUD-derived MMORPGs have prospered because they satisfy that desire. It's also easier for developers to manage table-driven, numbers-oriented content than features that highlight emotional interactions or logical exploration, so that's the kind of game they tend to make and the kind of features they prefer to add to existing games.

But I think it's also true -- and there seem to be at least a few other gamers who agree -- that something important has been lost in the Cataclysm that is World of Warcraft and its close MMORPG siblings. In particular, and as I noted previously, these stat-driven games have dehumanized roleplaying. While there are some dedicated souls who try to enjoy what little roleplaying and exploration content exists in today's MMORPGs, for the most part you're only as useful as whatever combat capabilities your character brings to a group. You're not a person with an interesting history, living in a richly detailed world filled with fascinating people -- you're the equivalent of a car with a gun strapped to the hood, useful only for how much destruction your character can help the group do per second.

In the DikuMUD-based MMORPGs available today, story is dead. (Again, with respect to BioWare and the story emphasis they're trying to offer in Star Wars: The Old Republic, while I'm glad to see that they're trying to inject some story into the combat, in the end it's still going to be about the numbers-driven combat. I expect that over this this will be what gets the most developer attention in SW:TOR, just like in every other MMORPG.)

What's so refreshing about Namaste's Storybricks is that it restores the power of character creation -- thus reviving the power of human-oriented storytelling -- to roleplaying games and to the gamers who enjoy them.

Most content creation tools for computer games are created by developers for developers. Sometimes, versions of these tools are released to gamers. Examples include the Neverwinter Nights story creation tool, the GECK tool for Fallout 3, and the quest creation toolkits in the Champions Online/Star Trek Online MMORPGs. Standalone content creation systems such as Unity and RPG Maker are also becoming more widely available. And support for user-made modications ("mods") such as Notch is adding for Minecraft is also provided occasionally.

Having these tools available has been exciting for gamers who enjoy creating their own content, and I salute the developers who have taken this step. But all these tools been limited in some way -- either by creating content that can only be used locally, or by tightly limiting multiplayer content, or by exposing so much power that the would-be content creator is overwhelmed.

Storybricks -- by design -- addresses all of these impediments to user content generation by including players as creators of game content right from the very start and by making the content creation interface simple but expressive.

Of course it's natural to try to understand new technologies in terms of what can be done using today's tools. This has led some, hearing about Storybricks for the first time, to wonder whether it's simply another iteration on the content creation tools currently available. So it's worth taking a moment to try to address some of these questions and concerns.

First, the current plan (as I understand it) is that when you create characters and place them in the gameworld, other players can play with them as well. This way you can build your own stories and then allow others to join you in discovering where those stories lead. This ability of players to create content for each other appears to be a central goal of Storybricks.

As for being just an improvement on quest creation tools like those for Neverwinter Nights or Champions Online/Star Trek Online, there are some mechanical similarities in that all these allow the content creator to establish connections between characters and objects. But Storybricks is more focused on creating and expressing personal relationships among multiple characters (PCs and NPCs alike) than on associating experience points with object-based player actions. The core of Storybricks is not so much a system for detecting the completion of certain player actions (although it must do that, too) as an AI engine for storing and reflecting personal drives and multi-character relationships.

And unlike powerful quest-generation tools like the NWN toolset or general content builders such as Unity, Storybricks is very simple to use while being extremely expressive. You simply drag nouns and verbs and adverbs from a context-sensitive list and snap them together. In the same way that a few natural-language sentences can express powerful thoughts, the linguistic construction model for relationships in Storybricks is capable of defining a remarkable amount of communication with just a few clicks.

By design, however, the real power of this system is encapsulated in the AI engine that carries the load of emotional interpretation. The building system that is exposed to the player is really simple to use, and Namaste seem determined to keep it that way even as they add useful new features.

Another concern I've heard is that in a Storybricks gameworld, you'll be forced to make your own content or somehow pushed into giving developers "free labor." I think I'm safe in asserting that no one will ever be forced to participate in content creation in a Storybricks gameworld. All the details of how user-generated story material gets used and distributed have not been worked out yet, but the developers of Storybricks have made it absolutely clear that their goal is creative freedom for players, not player control. I'm confident that adding your own story material will be completely optional; those who only want to play in a story-friendly game world will be free to do so.

Finally, it's important to bear in mind that the Storybricks system is not at this time being developed as some kind of external engine-plus-user-interface that can be plugged into an existing MMORPG like World of Warcraft or EVE Online. The degree to which the relationship AI has to be keyed to everything -- objects, places, factional states, movement animations, available interactions with other characters -- means that you pretty much have to build the entire gameworld around this relationship engine. Playing with Storybricks will mean playing in a Storybricks gameworld.

That's admittedly a limitation of the Storybricks idea. To have immediate impact, it would need to be easily implementable in existing gameworlds. But the association of emotional states with character animations and interaction options, not to mention character awareness of objects and places, is so pervasive in Storybricks that it would be extremely difficult to retrofit to an existing gameworld. Such an extensive web of connections basically has to be baked into a game from the very start.

This doesn't mean that the Storybricks idea can't have wide consequences, however. It only means it will take time for elements of the Storybricks approach to character design -- once the kinks are ironed out in practice -- to be integrated into new MMORPGs.

Not every new MMORPG will need or want emotionally plausible NPCs. Some will continue to implement NPCs as quest dispensers and mobile targets. There's nothing wrong with that in itself; it's fine and even desirable for there to be games that follow the path laid down by DikuMUD and its descendants.

But to do well over the long term, I think MMORPGs can't afford to neglect the storytelling and world-discovering interests that gamers also have. And that's why I'm excited about Storybricks.

For the MMORPGs that aspire to being narratively rich places, whose creators care about letting gamers create and interact with interesting characters who are capable of driving stories of intrigue and passion and revenge and all the rest of Georges Polti's 36 plots, I believe that Storybricks truly does have the potential to give the MMORPG evolutionary tree the strong new branch it needs as a counterbalance to the old stats-and-combat-focused DikuMUD branch.


  1. Awesome article.
    I'm a bit scared about how well you can read my mind, though ;)
    Here's a slide from my StagConf presentation to show you how on the money you are with your reference to Polti:

  2. Thanks, Stephane. I've enjoyed reading your published design ideas on the Web for several years now, so it's very satisfying to hear that I'm understanding something of what you're trying to achieve.

    Incidentally, I also have the book on Plot by "Ansen Dibell" that's shown in your slide -- in fact, it was "Theme and Strategy" by Ronald Tobias in the same Writer's Digest series in which I first encountered Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. I'm looking forward to seeing whether the creative users of Storybricks will be able to dream up any additions to the 36. ;)

  3. Awesome post man, just awesome!

  4. I have been impressed by your bio. It's a bit off topic, but man, I would love to hear what you think of our open-world game engine so far:

    If you became interested in the project becoming as big as blender, there is plenty of room for Leadership roles.

    Whatever the end result, please let us know what you think and any advice you can give! It would mean a lot to me, thanks