Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 July, 2011

What I’ve been up to, and going to Gen Con!
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:47 AM
(This post has been viewed 8333 times.)

As those of you who stalk me on different social media sites have probably noticed, I've been talking a lot more about my current work at Namaste Entertainment. I figured I'd go into more detail for those of you who still read old-fashioned things like blogs.

Yes! An MMO!

I lamented earlier this year that MMOs were currently out of fashion. Hell, they're two generations out of favor, with social games on the decline. But, I still think there's a lot of opportunities to explore. Just because we've got one type of game that has dominated doesn't mean other avenues no longer exist. (Could probably say the same thing about social games, too.) In particular, I liked this quote from a Massively commentator reported by Nils:

I remember thinking when Ultima Online and Everquest first came out that games were on the threshold of bringing the pen and paper RPG experience online. Big, open worlds to explore with random danger and adventures. I expected that we would eventually see something like a living room Forgotten Realms campaign with hundreds of thousands of players and DMs.

Now it's 2011 and D&D is on the threshold of being an offline WoW instead.

(I guess someone's not a 4th edition fan...)

So, what are we doing if not making World of Peacecraft or some other silly knockoff?

Storytelling

I posted about a change in my opinion on user created content. I realized that the problem with a lot of the projects that tried to use user content in the past were trying to use the fans as a source of cheap or free content, a way to avoid paying for designers or programmers to do the dirty development work. Many people have said that MMO development relies on content, and that's the hardest thing, so it makes sense that you want to abuse people like that.

But, there is a kernel of truth there: that some people will want to tell stories. The trick is you can't just build a platform and let them come and fill in all the spaces; if you try that, you'll get Second Life, and we all know how that goes.

So, we're focusing on storytelling. Not in a "here's a complicated backstory that we'll ignore after the first expansion", or a "here's a strict story that the players have no hope of changing", or a "here's a tabula rasa, better hope your fellow players are good at writing" way. We're building a tool we're calling Storybricks. It's a visual programming language inspired by MIT's Scratch. In essence, you don't write programs so much as you put together bricks to train the NPC AI. If the Queen wants the Necklace, you lay out bricks to giving her that goal as part of the story. The AI systems are there to help out. Our early work has been very promising here, and I think there's a lot of potential.

If you want a glimpse into the discussions the team is having relating to storytelling, check out Stéphane Bura's blog post on Storybricks, Lore and the Kingdom of Default. You can also see some fascinating marketing survey results we collected as we were looking into the potential need for our toolset.

Artificial Intelligence

My boss might murder me for mentioning AI, as it's one of those "toxic" phrases to investors, but it's really is a significant part of what we're doing and what makes us think this is even possible. Part of what makes the Storybricks system work as an editing system is that the AI behind the scenes is there to take care of a lot of things. What does it mean if the Queen "becomes your friend" after returning her lost necklace? How do you implement that meaningfully? How does that affect other quests you might encounter that involve the Queen? That's where the AI system comes in.

The main problem with AI in games is that it's often a curiosity for the programmers doing the work. I've seen cases in the past where some programmer type stares at a screen where seemingly nothing is happening, but the programmer is amazed because he or she knows all the details happening behind the scenes. Well, that's great for you, but what about to the person playing the game? Knowing that it took five sub-systems to make the Queen turn and smile to that person but not even deign to notice this other person isn't interesting to the game player.

But, by using the Storbricks system, this solves this problem. First, it allows the player to get a glimpse of that machinery behind it all. Second, it allows them to tinker with it to change how it works. Assigning a friendship status between a character and the Queen will change things in a noticeable way.

Social Interaction

I'm like a lot of MMO developers in that I've been dismayed at how social network games often get called simply "social games", as if other games are somehow not social. (Yes, nomenclature is terrible in the game industry, says the MMORPG developer...) Many of us have felt that the synchronous gameplay elements of MMOs drive a lot more direct social interaction than the asynchronous gameplay found in a lot of social network games. Planning out a raid takes more discussion than clicking on your friend's portrait to ask them to send you a gift. (Yes, social games are "real games", too, and they're wonderful and all that. My heart is in MMOs and social games did steal a bit of thunder from my preferred medium.)

That doesn't mean that MMOs were the ultimate social experience, however. A lot of MMOs punish grouping by adding restrictive mechanics or needless overhead to interaction. MMO designers still need to improve how people actually interact with each other, as this is one of the strengths of the medium. And, no, this isn't about forcing people to get together, but working to ensure they have a good time when they do run into each other.

But, beyond other players, what about the non-player characters (NPCs) in the world? Too often in MMOs they're simply vending machines or help wanted boards standing around waiting for the players. What if NPCs became an active part of the world, as my colleague Phil Carlisle has been pondering. What if you fell in love with them or knew their names well because of their in-game actions, not just because of a bit of well-written quest text or some lore delivered in a non-interactive cutscene? Obviously there's some danger there, as you there are issues of convenience to consider when contemplating the private lives of NPCs, as nobody wants to go turn in a task at the end of the night only to find out the NPC has bowling night at that time and you'll have to wait until he or she is not busy downing beers and rolling heavy balls. And, of course, when you consider the collisions with user created content, it can get interesting indeed. But, perhaps it's time to start exploring some alternatives.

More like technology, less like games

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you know I find there to be some seriously wrong things in the game industry. There's just a lot of foolishness from terrible project management to a worship of the "bigger is better" mentality. Those are just two recent posts by other notable MMO developer/bloggers out of a whole host of issues I could mention. There's a malaise with how the industry treats developers as a whole who just want to make an awesome game.

So, it's a bit refreshing that our CEO Rodolfo Rosini is an entrepreneur from outside games. His previous companies were in security. Sometimes having an executive that isn't from inside the industry a scary thing. In this case it's not a problem because Rodolfo is that rare type of executive: smart enough to pick out good people and even smarter about getting out of the way and letting those people do their own thing. Not to say that Rodolfo doens't have some rather strong opinions, but he didn't waste our time getting good people together to design his half-assed game design. Plus, he's a pretty serious gamer.

What does this mean? For starters, it means I'm making a big post like this even though we're still very early in development. A game like Star Wars: The Old Republic was in development for a long time before anything was announced. We're taking the opposite approach and releasing information early instead of sequestering ourselves off and coming around later with a (potentially flawed) masterpiece.

Now, some of this is pragmatic. We think this is project is not quite right for a traditional game publisher, so we're looking for more traditional startup venture investment. Getting lots of people dying to use your product helps get investors excited. But, this also has some other benefits. For example, we're demoing our new Storybricks tool very soon, and we really want to get feedback. Maybe someone will have some insight into how the tool could be improved for real world usage. Maybe there's something so infuriating that we should change it instead of basing the whole tool around that assumption. We hope that we'll get great feedback from a passionate audience. Even if everyone thinks our idea stinks, at least we won't have wasted years of our life figuring that out.

But, let's be honest, there are some potential problems as well. It could be that we can't find the right audience for this type of project. Look at Metaplace, and how the technology was eventually used to create social games internally at the company. This showed that the tech wasn't necessarily the problem, but that it didn't find its market. Or, it might be that people will see our early work and can't get past the placeholder art assets; people may confuse art assets we put together over the course of a few months with the finished product that will look a lot better and more polished. We will have to deal with a community for a longer period of time, and keep them interested as we do develop our project.

Our first step: Gen Con

So, we're taking our show on the road. We are going to Gen Con in Indianapolis and have a booth there showing off an early demo of the Storybricks tool. If you're in the area, stop by booth 1643 in the Exhibit Hall and say "hi", see our early demo, and give us feedback. The artist Liz Danforth will also be with us; she's been doing some wonderful art work for us as well as sharing her gaming experience.

We'll also be posting more information about Storybricks and Namaste's first MMO online. You might want to check out these resources:

Storybricks on Twitter.
Namaste on Facebook.
Storybricks/Namaste news from our site.
The Namaste blog, which has posts from the blogs of some of the more prolific developers.

If you want to keep up to date and become a tester, check out the info at the top of the page at our site.

It should be an exciting journey!

--







24 Comments »

  1. I am quite skeptical. I mean, I sure wished storybricks would solve the not-enough-content problem. But I used to think that game designers should try to implement rules that make players interact (passively, actively, synchronously, asynchronously, ..) in a way that content appears in the game world he same way it appears in the real world.

    I used to call that player-generated content in contrast to player-created content. It's the difference between good chess rules that make moving pieces fun and new chess pieces on a larger chess board.

    It seems to me you try the latter with the help of AI and more user-convenience. I'd love to read more about it, but I fear you need to make some very good arguments to strip me of my skepticism.

    Comment by Nils — 27 July, 2011 @ 2:15 AM

  2. I love the idea of player generated content in games, I just haven't really liked any of the recent implementations. I'll be following Namaste's progress with Storybricks, it certainly sounds like a refreshing approach.

    Comment by Joe — 27 July, 2011 @ 2:20 AM

  3. Kinda reminds me of Chris Crawford's "Storytron" (http://www.storytron.com/), it has the same sort of goals, anyway.

    Comment by Tipa — 27 July, 2011 @ 3:42 AM

  4. I'm so excited about Storybricks that I nearly wet myself halfway through the post. It's such a refreshing, unique, different take on what a game (and MMOs) should be. Will it lead to mass-market success? Who knows, but it should be clear that simply following the old models isn't a guarantee of success, either.

    Innovation is always good.

    Comment by epic.Ben — 27 July, 2011 @ 7:48 AM

  5. Sounds awesome Brian, really looking forward to playing this.

    Comment by Stabs — 27 July, 2011 @ 7:52 AM

  6. Shadowrun MMO: More Namaste, Please

    [...] serendipitous moment? Like a deus ex machina, I read this blog post from Psychochild. In short, he and the folks over at Namaste are working on a new game system that – I hope [...]

    Pingback by Too Damn Epic — 27 July, 2011 @ 9:07 AM

  7. This post just took an hour of my life, following links and links from there, and ... But it was fun and interesting, so thanks!

    Or, it might be that people will see our early work and can't get past the placeholder art assets;

    Quite true. There's a word for people like this. Idiots. You don't want them on your team, so this will be a good filter.

    Comment by Toldain — 27 July, 2011 @ 9:29 AM

  8. All in all it was all just bricks in the story

    [...] blogger, tap dancer and semi-professional llama wrangler (I might have made some of those up) has unveiled some details of the project he’s currently working on, Storybricks, and it sounds really rather interesting. Definitely worth keeping an eye on. Posted [...]

    Pingback by Killed in a Smiling Accident — 27 July, 2011 @ 9:52 AM

  9. I've just been listening to Randy Pausch's Last Lecture on CD and he talked about Alice and the experience of a female coleague who found that storytelling gets girls interested in a way that traditional gameplay does not. Better storytelling could be a gateway to bring more women into games...and into programming.
    Good luck!!

    Comment by Chris — 27 July, 2011 @ 10:22 AM

  10. Toldain wrote:
    There's a word for people like this. Idiots. You don't want them on your team, so this will be a good filter.

    Well, I'm more worried about potential fans that can't get past the placeholder art. That's the danger of showing early work, where they can't see the potential like a professional can. We'll see if the core idea is compelling enough to overcome that possible problem, though.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 July, 2011 @ 10:24 AM

  11. A lot of the thinking in this blog post and the linked pages feels very much like a direction I've been trying to go (in my head, anyway) for a while now. I like deep, worldy, exploration-oriented games, where "exploration" includes social and system discovery as well as the physical mapping of terrain. So the achievement-focused, distilled-DikuMUD direction that MMORPGs have gone in since SWG launched has made me stop playing them (as I mentioned in a previous comment here).

    A big part of the problem lies with implementing non-player characters -- people -- as nothing more than quest dispensers or loot pinatas. The world of the game, which needs to feel plausible (not "realistic," but plausible), does not because NPCs are not plausible. Not only do NPCs express no goals beyond a bit of canned dialogue, they don't even react in an appropriate way to meaningful events that occur within eye- or earshot.

    What I would like to see is a game -- maybe it's a MMORPG, maybe not -- that is set in a huge landscape that is capable of changing over time, both on its own and due to actions by lots of people. (The work that Miguel Cepero is doing on procedurally-generated terrain/cities/buildings/vegetation is very close to what I'd like to see as a basis for this part of the game.) Within this world filled with distinctive places and functional objects, NPCs would exist that are capable of recognizing these places and objects and using them in reasonable ways to achieve role-based goals. (Rangers would seek out monsters in wild places as part of their goal of protecting people; governors would exploit human resources; smiths would forge tools and weapons; etc.) (Chris Park at Arcen Games seems to be creating something like this in his new game A Valley Without Wind.) NPCs would also be capable of interacting with each other (and the player) in logically and emotionally plausible ways... which is where something like Storyblocks might come in.

    In the kind of gameworld I have in mind, all these elements would be fitted together with a high-level scenario builder to form what I called a "Living World" game. You start up a selected scenario, then "possess" any character -- when you do, you get that character's distinct role-based skills. (So there's the RPG element.) But you also get that character's role-based life: maybe a baker's husband and children object passionately to your taking their wife and mother away from them, perhaps permanently. Wouldn't that be more interesting to experience than NPCs-as-scenery as they're implemented in today's MMORPGs?

    Within this world, the gameplay would see you using your character's abilities to respond to the goals of the scenario. These scenarios could range from a simple job to an epic quest chain that remakes much of the game world and spans several nations and hundreds of years.

    Allow scenarios to be written by players and made available to other players (in addition to high-quality scenarios by the developer) and now you've got not just an engaging gameworld, you've got a monetizable content generator for that gameworld.

    I think we're finally seeing all the individual pieces necessary to build this kind of game coming into existence. It just takes someone to put them all together. ("Just," he says. :)

    So is something like this in the general direction that Namaste is considering going? If not, what would be a more accurate strategic description of where the folks at Namaste want it to go?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 30 July, 2011 @ 12:32 AM

  12. GenCon!

    [...] with the mind I see coming through those mails. He recently wrote a really great piece about “What I’ve Been Up To“ that discusses the Storybricks [...]

    Pingback by Oakheart at LizDanforth.com — 31 July, 2011 @ 8:25 PM

  13. Bart Stewart wrote:
    So is something like this in the general direction that Namaste is considering going?

    Keep in mind that we're still very early in development; we've been planning things out for some time, but actual development has only been going on for a few months. We've been working hard to get this demo done to be showed at Gen Con. So, we're still deciding some things and details need to be worked out. The final shape will depend on many factors, such as feedback from people who show interest in the tools, the scope we're able to tackle given resources, etc.

    That said, I think what you describe is exactly what we'd like to go for given the opportunity. We want the world to be full of interesting people. Our early research indicates that people are more interested in expanding upon an interesting world rather than struggling with a blank page. We would like actions in one quest to affect things (world state, relationships, etc.) in other areas.

    In the short term, we're going to focus on the Storybricks idea. I envision that we won't tackle real "world building" for a little while yet as we measure interest in the tool and adjust that. So, in the near future we'll probably have a more generic world for people to build stories, but longer term the grand concept is to have a world (or several!) where people feel passionate about adding their own touches.

    It should be exciting! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 July, 2011 @ 10:05 PM

  14. Another article covering a demo we gave to some interested gamers: http://www.gamersinfo.net/articles/3675-storybricks-with-namaste

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 July, 2011 @ 10:10 PM

  15. No matter what the outcome of the project is, I'd just like to say thanks for being so open about it. It's really great to get a behind the scenes look at how things are developing.

    Comment by Joe — 31 July, 2011 @ 11:13 PM

  16. This may be covered here or elsewhere, if so my bad, but my big question would be is Storybricks intended to be used in a standard mmo type world of several parallel servers, or is it meant for use in something like private servers or even personal servers, or many small worlds?

    Would all players be able to determine npc status and behavior? For all others? Or do players only control perhaps a small server? Or maybe people (dms?) set up a server where they and their friends can mold the world?

    I'm sure you could answer better than i can ask the question actually ;)

    Comment by Torcano — 2 August, 2011 @ 1:25 AM

  17. I like the idea behind Storybricks, but me thinks you need give a good look at "The Sims Medieval"...

    Comment by João Carlos — 3 August, 2011 @ 11:51 AM

  18. Joe wrote:
    I'd just like to say thanks for being so open about it.

    Eh, secrecy gets you nowhere. Plus, we need support from the fans if this is going to get in front of investors and get funded. Enlightened self-interest. :)

    Torcano wrote:
    is Storybricks intended to be used in a standard mmo type world of several parallel servers, or is it meant for use in something like private servers or even personal servers, or many small worlds?

    We aren't set yet. That's the advantage of showing it off early. Our initial market research shows that people want a good central story to invest in before they make content. But, eventually I could see this providing people a way to make their own games on private servers.

    As for who can edit the world, we're still working out the details on that. Our current idea is to let people edit the world in instances, then others can participate in that content by entering and instance. But, we'll see what kind of feedback we get to see where we head initially.

    João Carlos wrote:
    me thinks you need give a good look at "The Sims Medieval"...

    We have looked at so many games it would make your head spin, including all of The Sims games up to and including the latest. The team is very experienced developers, so we've done our homework! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 3 August, 2011 @ 9:15 PM

  19. A few reports from people who have seen our demo:

    http://tobolds.blogspot.com/2011/08/storybricks.html
    http://www.kiasa.org/2011/08/02/link-it-to-the-world-link-it-to-yourself/
    http://toldaintalks.blogspot.com/2011/08/pizza-and-storybricks.html

    Lots of good feeback so far! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 3 August, 2011 @ 9:17 PM

  20. NPCs as Systems Nexus

    [...] plans for NPCs have been refined a bit. At first, what I envisioned sounds similar to the “Storybricks system” recently announced by Namaste. I’ve abandoned that, now, though, because it’s [...]

    Pingback by Elder Game — 4 August, 2011 @ 11:29 PM

  21. With respect to Storybricks specifically, the information coming out now has already been helpful -- I see a lot of little touches that speak to the design experience of the team.

    For example, I can see that the shape of the connector on the right side of each block identifies what kind of block can be attached there: circles for roles, squares for objects, arrows for places, L-shape (what do you call it?) for relationship definitions, and so on. Similarly, each category of block is color coded: yellow for objects, green for places, medium gray for desires, etc. If I'd been designing this, I probably would have wound up with some abstract textual matching system; using concrete shapes and colors is brilliant.

    I do still have questions.

    For example, would I be right to assume that it will be possible for users to extend the basic version of Storybricks by adding their own bricks?

    While the talk so far has been for NPCs in multiplayer games, I'm not seeing any reason yet to think that Storybricks wouldn't work as a development tool when making a single-player game. It seems to be thought of currently as a system that has an in-game interface for players to use. Has any thought been given to a (somewhat) simpler implementation as a back-end NPC design tool with a small interpreter library that could be linked into any game?

    Still on the subject of mechanics, in whatever form Storybricks takes, how are developers expected to link it to their code? Would it be some kind of external/standalone app with XML output data? If it's meant to be integrated into other code, will it be a library with an API? What development languages/environments will be supported?

    Also, how are bricks associated with objects or actions within a game? If I create a "finger" object, and a "pull" animation, how do I tell Storybricks that "finger" objects can be "pulled" and that a sound effect should be played when this interaction is triggered?

    I appreciate that Namaste may not be to the point of deciding these practical questions yet. I'm just putting them out there for consideration because this concept is really exciting when you start to see just how badly it may be abused. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 5 August, 2011 @ 1:42 PM

  22. Bart Stewart wrote:

    I do still have questions.

    As I keep reminding people at Gen Con, this is still very early so we don't have a lot of the details worked out. That's one disadvantage of revealing stuff early. We've considered a lot of stuff, but don't have all the answers. And, keep in the mind that answers I give might change as we continue development.

    For example, would I be right to assume that it will be possible for users to extend the basic version of Storybricks by adding their own bricks?

    We haven't worked out details yet. We do have bricks where you can input your own text, such as when an NPC says something.

    As for what we can put our work into, we're still figuring that out. We've had people ask for everything from an aid for tabletop RPG to adjusting forum titles on a forum. We'll see how things develop and what opportunities would work out best for the team. As you said, we haven't worked out a lot of details yet, but there certainly are a lot of possibilities... for abuse. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 August, 2011 @ 7:59 PM

  23. [...] As I posted before, however, there is some worry that people might be too quick to judge based on the surface. We did make a point to say that we've been developing the tool for only about 2.5 months, and that most of the art assets, while not bad looking, aren't necessarily indicative of our final product. But, it seems that most people really did "get" the underlying premise of the tool and could see some of the exciting possibilities. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog » Storybricks, and looking at what makes for interesting NPCs — 14 August, 2011 @ 3:01 PM

  24. Conferences, business, and growing as a developer

    [...] time of year is busy with conferences. I was with Namaste at Gen Con earlier this month, now I'm heading to Dragon*Con in a few days to speak there. I might be heading [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 28 August, 2011 @ 4:13 PM

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