27 July, 2011
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?
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.
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.
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:
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!