“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).
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.