Last Wednesday, I had Pizza in Palo Alto with Brian “Psychochild” Green, along with spouses, girlfriends and daughter. We had a great time swapping stories of RPG’s and MMORPG’s and crazy stuff we’d done in them. Brian works for Namaste, which is running a demo at GenCon this week of Storybricks, a brand new technology and approach which Namaste is trying to bring to the market.
It’s my sense that Brian (and possibly others at Namaste) want to make MMO’s more like tabletop RPG’s. Which I love, so that’s good.
Phil Carlisle of Namaste says this:
What I’m more interested in, is the ability to actually feel like the world is allowing me to play a role. That I’m part of a story and can explore the world while the story unfolds, where the drama of the world evolves over time and where the mechanics of play in the world are less about accruing items and more about social play. Which I guess is why I’m here working for Namaste.
Yeah, that’s the cool thing about a tabletop campaign – the stuff your characters do matters. This could play out at the level of lore. Stephane Bura, also of Namaste, writes:
lore is useful for giving some context to the players’ goals: there are Demon Princes and Forger Kings, pick a side and kill the other one. It’s the wrapping paper on the quests. There is some reason, somewhere, why it’s important to slay demons in this game. This is comforting for some players because it brings a sense of order to the world – a sense that the developers know where they’re going. This kind of lore is also useful for setting up worldwide events and giving context to new content. However, even if lore distilled through quest texts can be very well written, most players skip it (trust me) because, in the end, it’s inconsequential. Players have no influence over such lore and its details have rarely any bearing on what they effectively have to accomplish.
But that’s only one level of lore. Stephane goes on to write about others:
So, there’s this magic item called the Scepter of Life and it control plants. A King owns it. You can bet that the farmers in this kingdom have a completely different life from your stock farmers’. They don’t fear droughts and they don’t need to take care of their lands so much. They’re much better at harvesting, since they do that all year-long. Inns serve soups, salads, jardinières and pies, as much as you want. Commerce is based on the exports of virtually free food, with dozens of caravans and shipments leaving the kingdom every week. Nobles fight over the amount of woodland and arable lands they control. The woodcutters have the most powerful guild. No imagine how all this would change if the Scepter of Life were to be stolen by some Demon Prince…
And the world is ready for virtual worlds that are like this. Liz Danforth, who is joining with the Namaste crowd at GenCon, says this:
Something has fundamentally changed in our expectations about entertainment and our interactions with the things we love. We expect to participate, tinker with someone else’s creations, to contribute and to share what we make. When Time magazine featured an article about fan fiction and the writer gets it entirely right, warts and all … Time magazine for heavensake! … the world has truly changed (and is continuing to do so).
So there’s a hunger for worlds that players can change, and canvases which are collaborative and expandable. That hunger goes back to Tolkien, who imagined Middle Earth to be a place where others would dally, and write songs or stories about. This is an entirely different approach to fiction from that of, say, Lois McMaster Bujold, who ascribes to “just in time” world creation. There’s a lot fewer continuity issues to fuss about her way, to be sure.
Anyway, I got a demo today of the Storybricks system pretty much as it will be demoed at GenCon. Kelly Heckman of Namaste took time out of her own preparations for GenCon to show me the latest build. What I saw was in two parts. The first was a screen that looks like the graphic I’ve posted above. The second was a typical Medieval street scene, with a guard, a citizen, and a thief. I watched as Kelly added Storybricks to say that the citizen would be happy to see me and the thief would be angry. The guard stayed neutral. As the player character approached each of these characters, it triggered animations that portrayed those attitudes. The guard turned to look at me, but showed little emotion. The thief glared and put a hand up in the universal stop sign. The citizen seemed very happy to see me.
These are the basic building blocks of storytelling. I’ve seen this kind of thing in a few places before. Specifically, once you did enough writs for the Qeynos Guard in Everquest 2, guard members would sometimes stop and salute as you ran past them. I have to say, that felt fantastic. Presumably this was done, for EQ2 via special ad-hoc programming in a scripting language and added to the guards. Storybricks, at the level that was demoed to me, would codify that kind of thing, and make it easy for content creators, be they professional or amateur, to add this kind of thing to a virtual world.
Tools matter a lot. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writer productivity is a lot higher now than they were in the days of Tolkien, who wrote all of his manuscripts by hand in soft pencil and then wrote over them in ink. And at that level, Storybricks already looks to be something useful. The system will allow one to describe changes in attitude. For example, you might retrieve a Philtre from a crypt on behalf of a shopkeeper, and he will be grateful when he finds love. You might think that the point of the episode was that sword of smiting that the player gets, but it might be that the point was to make people happy, because that would foil some other plot. Or make someone like you. The potential for matchmaking is there, and that will definitely encourage competitive shipping. I can see it now: Factions competing between making Bella like Edward or Jacob more.
Err, never mind. Namaste isn’t really promising that. But they’re dreaming about it. Psychochild described to me, over that pizza, how you could have instances in which Bella preferred Edward and instances in which Bella preferred Jacob. (Actually he was talking about the dictator of Freeport Lucan D’Lere who has a crush on Bella and …. never mind) And by their interactions with those instances and the characters, one of those realities would get promoted to the default reality. ( I think we can safely say that three-ways are out of the question.)
So, I think they are on to something that players will like, and that’s possible. It’s a big job, though. But they have the sort of goals that, even if they don’t make all of them, they will still probably get something very cool. My only request is a Storybrick that says: “If (elf has red hair) then (NPC thinks he’s fabulous)”