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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5 Responses to Why Storybricks matters

  1. Tesh (8 comments) says:

    It’s a more organic approach to worldbuilding… and I’m really looking forward to it. I just wish I had more time to pay with the tools. Have you tried the playable alpha?

    Oh, and good to see you didn’t fall off the edge of the world. :)

  2. Gwaendar (217 comments) says:

    Still here, though I mostly just chat on Google+ these days :)

    Your last line is funny, at one point I pondered adding something about having smart dialogue in a game where NPCs like bartenders would suddenly wonder what had happened to some of the most famous players if they no longer show up. That’s more in the realm of chatbot NPCs though (and trivial to implement on the good old MUDs of yesterday).

  3. Tesh (8 comments) says:

    That sort of casual familiarity with notable PCs would definitely help to sell the world. It’s one more piece of the “citizenship” and reputation tapestries.

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green (3 comments) says:

    Absolutely spot-on. Thank you for writing this, I had honestly begun to wonder if we were reaching anyone with our pitch. People arguing if Storybricks is just a tool, ignoring the fact that the system (editor and NPC emotion system) would allow us to make an actual, breathing world. The people who seemed to really “get” it were the people I had taken the time to talk to directly. So, the fact that you’ve written this without me having to explain in gruesome detail about why Storybricks is so cool really lifted my mood.

    And, thank you for your support. I’ve said many times, and I mean it earnestly, we can’t accomplish anything without the support of people who want to see innovation in MMOs. I just hope that the larger companies don’t see the lack of support for Storybricks as the signal to keep cloning existing games tiny, incremental “improvements”. Beyond any selfish desire to get paid, that’s the thing that worries me the most.

  5. Gwaendar (217 comments) says:

    I think what you folks are trying to accomplish match thoughts I had on my mind for a long time – from long-forgotten design drafts for MUDs to posts I never wrote about what I call “pseudo-nonlinear” storylines in Mass Effect. I’m in training by trade, and stories, whether allegories, metaphors or shared experiences is one of the most powerful tools to anchor a topic in the mind and heart of the learner. What we see time and time again is that compelling stories are key to anchor a player in a game world. And the vast majority of those stories that really matter are not the ones written by the producer, it’s the player-driven content. What is missing is the glue that binds the player’s experience to the world, and Storybricks looks like the most promising way to do that I’ve read about in a long time.

    Social studies tends to agree that Gen Y members in particular strive to do things that matter and produce an impact in the workplace – how could it be any different in the games they play? Yet the only mainstream MMO I read of with fascinating stories is EVE Online, and even there, it mostly happens merely because players impact other players rather than the world itself.

    What you are building has a huge potential to simplify and advance the way those stories are written but most importantly, experienced and lived. I truly hope you succeed because this is one of the key components we need for next generation RPGs. The other one is a toolbox for handling dynamic environments so that players can actually “burn Jita” and it remains burned until rebuilt, while whatever function it is meant to perform migrates elsewhere. But that’s a different discussion :)