The power of stories

Speaking about Storybricks got me thinking about how solid storytelling can make a real difference in the way we take in what we experience. The amazing thing is that strong emotional reaction can come from the tiniest things.

The video here represents, to me, one of the most powerful moments of storytelling in Mass Effect 2. Perhaps even more impressive is that it lasts less than 50 seconds. Several things stand out:

  • This is an almost inconsequential micro-quest: while doing something completely different, your character stumbles upon an item. If you later come by the right NPC, you can give her that item. The rewards are completely trivial and don’t matter at all in your character development
  • This scene illustrates just how little it takes, in reality, to weave in content that adds substance to the experience you are creating for your audience
  • It is also a demonstration how good voice acting really brings it to life. Without it, the effect would be totally lost. And the actress voicing the distressed NPC struck it exactly right – even slightly more melodramatic would have totally ruined it. This is what every successful stand-up comedian knows yet many storytellers forget: the delivery is at least as important as the content.

If an image says more than a thousand words, a short scene says as much as several dozen images. This, more than anything I wrote in my previous post, is why I truly believe in Storybricks’ potential.

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Why Storybricks matters

“I saved the world but I still have to pay for my own drinks when in town”.

This simple observation about the state of most, if not all, currently running MMORPGs is probably what explains the problem Storybricks tries to solve best. Over the past decade, almost no games have been funded, let alone published, which gives the player the opportunity to shape the world he’s playing in by his actions.

Storybricks is a toolset being developed by some of the industry veterans which aims to give game developers the means to build better NPC interactions. It is not intended to be a game by itself, rather, to become a foundational technology that allows MMOs to fulfill, at last, the promise of you, the player, becoming an integral part of the story, rather than just an insignificant collection of data whose presence matters as much as its absence (read: not at all).

Farengar Secret-Fire

Farengar is asking the Archmage of the College of Magic if he wants to dabble in the arcane

The implications go beyond MMOs of course – this screenshot taken from Bethesda’s acclaimed single player RPG Skyrim illustrates the nature of the problem very accurately. At the time this screenshot was taken, my character is clad in full Draenor armor (the second best you can craft in the game), has saved Dragonsreach (the place where this dialogue takes place) and killed the great Dragon Anduin, the main antagonist in the game. He also happens to be, at this time, the Archmage of the College of Magic in Winterhold. Yet the lowly court wizard addressing him seems to be completely oblivious to any of that.

This is perhaps one of the most immersion-breaking yet pervasive elements to be found in more games calling themselves roleplaying that we could count. The diffculty comes from the fact that in most cases, each NPC is manually hard-coded, and if for some reason the person writing the dialogue for that specific character doesn’t add checks for specific achievements and related dialogue, Farengar and all like him will forever remain utterly unaware that they are speaking to the saviour of the realm and the best magician around. Storybricks can change that.

How so? Like it says on the tin, their toolset is built around adding story elements, like Lego bricks, to NPCs. Dialogue is the first and most obvious component here, but beyond that, attitudes and moods are also planned for.

Final Fantasy Online (FFXI, not the ill-fated FFXIV) had a quite typical faction reputation grind mechanism that had the player turn in rabbit hides for fame. I remember joking about it to the linkshell “saving the world one rabbit at a time”. While whether to become a honoured member of a faction by hunting rabbits is certainly debatable as a mechanism, if we assume for a moment that such one would remain, in a more immersive manner, the greatest rabbit hunter should be treated as a legendary rabbit hunter by the people he meets – certainly not the same way as the sword-wielding hero who saved the town from an invasion of angry orcs.

Storybricks aims to make such distinctions easy for game developers. Widespread distribution of behaviour (“All mages in the realm have heard of the new archmage”) as well as individual customization (“Fizzgnat the wizard doesn’t really respect authority unless it comes from someone at least 10 years older than him”) should become as simple as copy / paste, then click and edit. If a faction as a whole sees you as a fiend and the guards will mostly attack you on sight, some may hesitate if your battle prowess is equally famous. Some might also secretly hate their own faction and turn a blind eye.

Hardcoding such behaviours has always been possible, and houses like Bethesda, or BioWare, have a track record of paying attention to details enough that examples like the one above are a rarity, devoted to minor NPCs. At the same time, the industry has excelled at producing some outstanding graphics engines or physics engines, that make building new and compelling games easier in specific areas.

With Star Wars: The Old Republic, storytelling came back as a compelling element in MMOs. If you want more of that, but also better and smarter, Storybricks is currently our best chance to build better and more engaging worlds for the games of tomorrow.

Storybricks is seeking funding on Kickstarter, and I’m proud to be a backer. If the possibilities above sound compelling to you, I urge you to do the same and help them fund their project. It is our best chance to finally break the mold of the overly dominant themepark MMOs and get better Virtual Worlds.

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Just a quick note – after logging on tonight and looking at my crafting window, I finally realized that in the previous two posts, I had forgotten to account for the craft experience needed to reach proficiency. My numbers were 33% off.

Both tables have now been updated with the correct numbers.

Posted on by Gwaendar | Comments Off

LotRO: Leveling Woodworking from Scratch to Mastery, Journeyman tier

Following up on last night’s post, the table for the Journeyman Woodworker tier, using Ash Wood, is already a bit better furnished:

Total Wood planks Total Exp How many to 840 Total Planks needed Total silver Total Crafting actions
Champion Horn 4 8 105 420 0 105
Ash Weapons 2 10 84 168 201.6 168
Stout Ash Weapons 4 16 53 212 127.2 159
Heavy Ash Weapons 6 22 39 234 93.6 156
Parchments 2 6 140 280 0 140
Everything else 4 8 105 420 0 105

* Updated to include proficiency

As with the previous table, the numbers assume that you already have Ash planks at the ready, so the cost of turning the raw wood into planks is not part of the price evaluation here.

Going forward, there are several more choices on what to craft in each tier. What remains true is that the faster you want to level, the more Rowan planks will be required. Most wood-efficient remains as always the first set of weapons in this tier – something that we will see later is also verifiable in the Expert tier, and, I suspect, will not change all the way up to master at the very least.

As Longasc mentioned in his comment on the last post, these tables are obviously only directly useful in this form for someone wanting to speed-level woodworking – something that should become very simple to do on a low level alt after the new patch goes live. If you level the craft in parallel with a character’s natural progression, it is best to blend in the higher level weapons as you need them.

You will get most benefit, in fact, if you are able to speed level to proficiency with the plain ash weapons (using 56 ash wood planks), then craft critical equipment for your use. The weapons for instance have quite a nice edge over the normal versions, and the same goes for the musical instruments. Critical equipment also tends to sell quite nicely on the AH (provided it is not completely flooded of course) and can recoup quite a bit of investment if you buy the wood planks instead of collecting them yourself.

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LotRO: Leveling Woodworker from scratch to mastery, Apprentice tier

What is the most efficient selection of recipes to get woodworker to mastery? Browsing around, I found only either out of date or incomplete information. Some initial material I found online looked promising… and then I went in-game to verify it, and saw that in the meantime, all recipes had been normalized.

What’s a blogger to do? Research the stuff myself, of course. Whether you want to level woodworking with the least wood, the least money or the least time, the table below should help you decide.

Today, we’ll look at the simplest table of them all, the apprentice level using Rowan Wood planks.

Total Wood Planks Total Exp How many to 660 Total planks needed Total silver Total Craft actions
Rowan Weapons 2 10 66 132 105.6 132
Heavy Rowan Weapons 4 18 37 148 59.2 111

* Updated to account for proficiency level

Crafting the normal, level 7 Rowan weapons takes least wood but more money and time. Picking the Heavy Rowan weapons instead saves on time and money, but will require 21 more rowan. If you gather them yourself, the time savings will be lost with the foresting work

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LotRO: No more Clown Shoes – Outfits Explained

When I recently ranted about the problems that mismatching armour would do to a fashion-conscious character, reader Longasc reminded me that Lord of the Rings Online actually had a great system to customize every toons’ appearance, Outfitting.
Of course, me being my usual slow-witted self, I needed some serious twitter coaching by the same Longasc to finally get it. And now I’m totally taken by the system.

When the game first introduces you to Outfits, you get a free cosmetic circlet with the gift pack every new adventurer obtains at the end of their Intro. And I tried that one out immediately, of course.

How does that work? Besides your normal character equipment screen, you also get currently two tabs for outfits, a series of duplicate slots that will accept cosmetic items – gear that is purely decorative in nature and has no stats.

After receiving my first gifted circlet, I promptly equipped it in one of those outfit tabs… and noticed that it would remain in my inventory. As bag space tends to be at a premium (isn’t it always), I promptly banked the thing, and dismissed the whole system as more or less useless.

Say it ain’t so.

And indeed, it isn’t. The system is way better than that.

How the cosmetic outfits transform a clown into a scholar

What I finally understood was that cosmetic items remain in your inventory because they act like templates: drag them onto your character’s outfit panel, and a copy gets created that dresses your toon accordingly. Then you can send the same cosmetic item to another of your toons and equip it. Which is nice. But it doesn’t stop there.

To really get the full grasp of what Turbine has done here, one needs to spend some TP and get at least one shared wardrobe expansion of the Lotro store. And BTW, they’re on sale this week, which makes it a good time to grab them if you got any Turbine Points to spare.

Shared Wardrobes come in 10 slot increments and are, as the name states, shared among all your characters on the same server. They work the same way as your character’s outfit panel, in the sense that you will copy an outfit into the wardrobe while the original remains in your inventory (and you could for instance resell those after you copied them to the wardrobe).

Screenshot of the LotRO wardrobeFrom there, you can again simply drag and drop a cosmetic item from wardrobe to character panel and create a new copy. Fair enough. But where the system starts to shine is when you add the various dyes available in the mix.

If you apply a dye to an outfit in your inventory, it takes on the new colour scheme while losing the previous one. Straightforward. However, if instead you apply the dye to an outfit in the shared wardrobe, it will get added to the selection of colour schemes for the same outfit.

From there, you simply select what colour version you want for an outfit and drag it into your character panel and voilà, you have a wardrobe with up to almost two dozen different colour choices for every single piece of outfit available (and every piece still only uses up one space – my wife’s dream come true if this was possible in Real Life).

Of course, Turbine also thought of the people who would apply dyes to the cosmetic item in your inventory instead of the wardrobe, and if you do that, dragging the outfit with the new colour onto the wardrobe adds the new colour to the existing schemes. What’s not to like?

How a hobbit farmer becomes a warden

As the picture comparison above shows, I’d rather have my little hobbit warden looking the part instead of a stocky shire farmerwoman who just fell off the haystack. Only remaining concern: I need to find cosmetic pants, shoulderpieces and gloves.

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The MMO Law of Gathering Professions

While I’ve made cynical observations about loot drop in MMOs before, in an amusing twist of fate, the invaluable Casual  Stroll to Mordor today blogs about optimal profession spread between four alt characters in LotRO. As coincidence has it, I made another observation on this very matter last night.The laws of gathering professions

“The valuable resource you just found can only be collected by your one alt located on the other side of the world.”

True fact.

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LotRO: Warden’s Heal over Time, Second take

Tooltip for Impressive FlourishIn my first attempt, I gathered the relevant information from the Lorebook and lotro-wiki, for the sake of convenience. Unfortunately, when playing my Warden the next time, I found out that the in-game tooltips didn’t always match the external data I had been using. In particular, the previous table displayed several HoT with a 12 seconds duration and my superficial analysis was based on that.

In-game, however, the HoTs only last 6s, at least for the two I can verify with my low level warden.

Luckily, one of the cool features your class trainer offers is to see all your class skills complete with their tooltips, including all of those that you won’t get for another while. And even better, all effects that scale based on your stats or level are also scaled down to the present character’s level.

Which gives me a new table as presented below and a first approximation on the relative efficiency of each HoT. Approximation because I only have two data points to look at so far, at level 14 and 16. While this isn’t enough to work out precise formulas for each gambit, it at least gives a certain indication of what gambit produces how much healing:

Skill Gambit Length Total healing / level Healing / Power Notes
War-Cry 2 2.1 1 6s
Impressive Flourish 2 2.1 1.2 6s
Persevere 2 3.2 13-15 6s
Safeguard 3 5 2.9 6s
Celebration of Skill 4 5.8 5.1 6s
Restoration 5 6.7 6.7 6s
Fierce Resolve 3 2.7 1 16s leech
Resolution 4 2.7 1 instant leech
Exultation of Battle 5 5.4 2.3 16s leech

Source: In-game tooltips, 8 March 2011. Note that “Power” reflects on the power stat (aka mana in other games, not the notion of potency)

Absent from this table is Conviction, which I understand is a quested gambit and would obviously not appear here.

As mentioned, no HoT lists a 12s duration at present, and I did verify by playing that everything I had access to would only tick for 6 seconds, so that part is consistent. Later on, the Warden can unlock traits that add ticks to his HoTs, and that may be the reason for the differing data gathered from other sites.

I’ll have to gain a couple of more levels to start figuring out the formulas which give the exact healing per level, so this table will probably be revisited again some time in the future. Until then, the approximation should be sufficient.

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From Azeroth to Middle-Earth: United Colours of Clown Outfits

From Azeroth to Middle Earth logoOne thing that both Lord of the Rings Online and WoW have in common: the garish fashion sense that results from collecting the gear from quest rewards, skirmish tokens and crafting.

To wit: United Colours of Clown shoes
Yes, unfortunately, that live embodiment of a complete lack of fashion sense in the middle happens to be my Runekeeper, waiting for a cooldown to finish to go and dispatch some undead creep. And apparently the undead are also immune to displays of bad taste.

LotRO offers a solution in the form of dyes that can be applied but I’ll have to confess that yours truly is a bit too stingy to spend money on that. The gentleman to my left, a guardian four levels above me at that time, was wearing a set. The lass on the right was level 40, go figure what fashion outlets they get in Rivendell.

Completely mismatched gear seems to be a common trait of several MMOs (and don’t get me started on the Subligar Men in FFXI…), almost to the point of becoming a reassuring feature that transcends many settings.

Food for thought: in the fiction works inspiring our MMOs, the protagonists usually start and end their adventure in the same armour (and often with the same weapons). In LotRO, players eventually get access to Legendary Items, a weapon and a class-specific accessory, which will level, can be imbued with effects and reforged as needed (but, I gather, still get replaced every so often).

I for one would be keen to see a game system where you start by creating the looks of your armour set at toon creation, then keep the same throughout your career, with enhancements no longer in the form of wholesale armour pieces dropping (hey, look, that tiny goblin just happened to have a blue mailshirt that amazingly fits my elf three times the size perfectly!) but rather an expansion of enchanting and gemming systems, where over time you reforge and mend and add in and gradually replace materials to your taste.

One can always dream. In the meantime, walking around like a poor impression of a clown or buying dyes off the AH seems to be the only way to ward one’s innards against unwanted spilling out.

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