Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 April, 2012

Precise terminology, or: a game vs. a toolset
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:16 PM
(This post has been viewed 7821 times.)

I feel like I should write a standard excuse for my sporadic blogging. Something I can cut and paste whenever I finally do sit down to write something. Doing actual creative and innovative work tends to tame my ranty side. The Storybricks project has been demanding a lot of attention.

But, I haven't forgotten you, brave people who still have this blog in your RSS reader, or who haven't removed me from Twitter yet, or those of you who notice when I post on Google+. Let me expound a bit about why Storybricks is a toolset and not a game (even if I mess up and use the wrong term sometimes).

Storybricks updates

Let me start by sharing a bit of Storybricks news. We have a new website for your viewing pleasure. And I do mean pleasure; it's a very nicely designed site. It shows off some of the progress we've made. We have also created a new dev diary with footage of the current state of the client. We've also been talking to a few companies about licensing opportunities, which is pretty exciting; it's nice that others are starting to appreciate what we're doing.

Anyway, take a look and then sign up for the newsletter, or follow @Storybricks or Storybricks on Google+ to keep up to date with our work. Call me biased, but I think Storybricks is something awesome worth supporting with your time and attention. :)

Categorizing Storybricks

We've had internal discussions about how to describe Storybricks. Is it a game? Well, not really. The term "game" has a lot of implicit assumptions and baggage associated with it. Saying something is a game, or more specifically an "MMO game" instantly conjures specific thoughts, perhaps of WoW or M59. But, you won't look at Storybricks and think it's like either of these games. (Not in its current state, at least.)

Of course, Storybricks is presented within the context of a setting, a world we've created; we needed some way to test the toolset and let people get meaningful feedback from their tests. However, our goal has always been to minimize the impact of the world on the toolset. We call the generic storybook-inspired world "The Kingdom of Default" because it's intended to be generic and malleable, to conform to assumptions and sterotypes to put the focus on the toolset instead of distracting people with interesting lore and depth. But, because we have a world, it's tempting to make a mental shortcut and consider this a game. When you compare Storybricks to established games, however, it's not really so close from that perspective.

But, what defines a toolset? It's a tool that allows you to do something. In the case of Storybricks, it's a toolset that allows you to create a story within a setting using a visual editing system. You do this by influencing how NPCs act within the world.

Storybricks within a game

If I wanted to write a really long post, I'd delve a bit into "what makes a game". It's possible someone will probably pick up this gauntlet and write a long comment about it. But, for now, let's gloss over the definition and consider what Storybricks might look like when put within the context of an actual game.

The core of Storybricks is allowing people to create their own stories. We've initially considered games from MMOs to games reminiscent of tabletop RPGs for the next context for Storybricks. Let's focus on an MMO for now, since that's where my professional experience lies. Standard caveats apply: keep in mind that this is my own personal opinion and not holy writ about the future of Storybricks. (We may decide to pursue other opportunities than something that looks like a traditional MMO, from small group games to licensing to other companies. Being a startup, we do what we can when we can. Not that someone won't dig up this post later and try to corner me about some inferred promise, right?)

The first important thing that a game containing Storybricks would need is a strong central world. In any creative endeavor, the hardest thing is often the blank page (canvas, screen, whatever) you start with at the beginning of the project. It's a lot of work to create a whole setting: the world, history, characters, and events that make for deep and engaging stories. If you've been on the internet for any length of time, you've probably seen fan fiction written by fans of a setting. It's easier to take an existing set of creative work and build stories within that. Even fan fiction about MMO game worlds. Don't mistake this fandom with laziness or lack of creativity; Liz is obviously a highly creative person, it's just that the setting provided her inspiration. Note that this setting could be anything from typical high fantasy to science fiction to a modern setting; Storybricks could fit within many different settings and games. But, in order to tell stories I think a strong central setting is vital.

The other part of this strong central world is compelling gameplay. A wonderful world with drab gameplay won't be very engaging. In fact, you could argue that a game with terrific gameplay and a mediocre setting is better as it will draw people in and give storytellers a lot more room to create compelling stories that don't compete with the official storylines. However, I don't think we need to intentionally make a mediocre setting to satisfy this. I think it's also important that the gameplay support the telling of stories. We've had a lot of internal discussion about how stories will be presented to players. We expect that not everyone will want to write stories, but we hope that many people will want to experience stories. How do we make them a vital part of the game without making them feel forced? How do we deal with inevitable issue of quality; not to slight our future players, but interactive storytelling is a rare art in our day and age, and it's something that might require a lot of practice before becoming very good in the digital medium. (However, I am always willing to be pleasantly surprised.)

The future of Storybricks

As we develop Storybricks, we will have to make a lot of decisions that shape its future. We also listen to the discussions of our players to guide our decisions as well. Right now, we're focusing more on the toolset than a future game we could put it into. Part of our focus right now is to make it so that the Storybricks toolset can fit within multiple games easily. Of course, this focus on flexibility can lead to frustration as games often live or die on their special, specific cases that make things more fun than alternatives.

What do you think? Did you think about Storybricks as a game before this? Or were we effective in communicating that it is a toolset? What type of game do you think would be best for Storybricks to fit within? What elements would a gameworld need in order to make it compelling for you to want to play and/or tell stories in?

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11 Comments »

  1. Thank you for the nod to my fanfic offering, Brian. I have written (and had published) small standalone tales, so the piece you refer to was simply a case of telling the story that wanted to be told in the setting that inspired it.

    I think examining what Storybricks is or will be, internally, is like going to war -- all bets are off once it hits reality. People are going to do things with the toolset that we never imagined initially. And that is GOOD.

    For better or worse, I find myself thinking of the quip I heard from an industry insider, once upon a time, when talking about Second Life -- something that got called a game in its heyday because of how much it looked, smelled, and felt like a game but wasn't (which adherents of SL were vociferously eager to emphasize if one mis-spoke). My friend compared something like WoW to SL, saying "WoW is a game. Second Life is a toy. Both are virtual worlds with entertainment value, but once you look at SL with that idea, the important differences between the two become crystal clear."

    I do Storybricks a grave injustice to compare it to SL, but the idea that we are giving players tools to... well, play with ... gives it some features of a toy. In this case, some of the better features, I think, and a helluva lot more fun (with a lower learning curve) than Second Life. At least, the SL I ever played with!

    As for storytelling -- once there are more examples to serve as conceptual guides to the possibilities, I think people will come out of the woodwork to craft stories for Storybricks. And I can't wait to see it happen.

    Comment by Liz Danforth — 21 April, 2012 @ 4:45 PM

  2. "What do you think? Did you think about Storybricks as a game before this? Or were we effective in communicating that it is a toolset?"

    All of the coverage that I've seen has focused on the toolset, so to that extent your communication has been successful.

    The part that I (still) don't understand is the key question for a consumer (versus my role as an armchair MMO analyst) - what can I buy and why do I want to buy it? Is this product going to be something like Neverwinter - I pay for a package that contains a campaign you guys made in house as an exemplar, but the real value is in the community-created campaign-editor content? Is this thing going to be a back-end platform like Unity or whatnot where your customer is actually the indie MMO maker, where I may not even know that the Storybricks engine is under the hood of their art and UI? Some sort of hybrid sandbox like Second Life where there is one server hosted by you on which content creators can set up little enclaves and create what they will within your parameters?

    The systems/toolset work sounds legitimately interesting, I just haven't been able to figure out the step that goes in between the design concept and the presumably commercial product that is going to pay the bills for you guys.

    Comment by Green Armadillo — 22 April, 2012 @ 4:43 AM

  3. Fair question. The first tip is that my official title with Storybricks is "MMO Architect". So, it'll be something MMO related most likely.

    To be honest, we really haven't worked out exact plans for what type of game we would put the toolset into. First of all because we want to make sure the toolset is something that we can accomplish, will be useful, and is something people want. The toolset is the foundation of any other work we do, and building a poor foundation is a recipe for disaster. Things are looking good so far, so we have been outlining concepts. The other issue is resources and audience expectations: doing a full-blown MMO is rather expensive. Could we do something limited in scale like Meridian 59? Would people accept that, or would they consider it "not a real MMO" and ignore it? Rushing forward into a project only to fall down later because we couldn't raise quite enough money, or because we built a game and nobody showed up is a danger we're trying to avoid.

    I think you've hit upon the major options we've considered. As I wrote in the post, we want to develop something that will make the Storybricks tool a central part, not some vestigial element that seems tacked on. Eventually we'd like to explore all these options, it's a question of what is the most appropriate in the short term. As much as I might love to say, "We're going to build the biggest MMO ever in an original setting with tons of content and player created stories as a focus," that might not be realistic for our little startup.

    Add to this that we're discussing licensing options and potentially looking to work with a big company on a big-name project, life gets even more complicated. (Yeah, I'm being vague about details because we haven't signed any agreements yet, but I am very excited about the possibilities.) A major project like this could influence what we want to (or even can) work on.

    So far, we've been pretty public about what we're doing. We've been posting more info about the development of the toolset on our public forums, so once we start working on our own project we'll be discussing it and working "out loud". We get little benefit from keeping quiet on our own plans, so it'll be a good opportunity to chip in your own two cents.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 April, 2012 @ 12:02 PM

  4. Hey there guys, Following SB so far I have always considered it a toolset and it is what has gotten me excited. I mean its basically like Little Big Planet taken to another level. Personally I think toolsets are going to be a big part of gamings future. There is a TON of talent out there, but these budding talents may never get to create "their" game or story because they just never had the opportunity. Face it getting into the gaming industry is very tough, and even if you do, you are likely just a cog in making someone elses vision, usually a crappy one at that.

    Personally I look forward to seeing where this all goes.

    Comment by TC Weidner — 23 April, 2012 @ 12:21 PM

  5. I think what I'm really expecting is interesting player-made content. So for instance I might find one world where someone has used Storybricks to create a Dracula story, lovingly faithful with authentic 18th century accents, then jump to another world which is about Washington gangs told through the idiom of a medieval game. (eg getting a Fireball in the face for selling your crack on the wrong street corner).

    To me that's the difference between a toolset (like Neverwinter Nights) and a story that is written by the devs and revealed to us (like SWTOR).

    It also seems a much better use of the resources of a small studio. Don't try to out-SWTOR SWTOR but harness the creative abilities of the players.

    The big problem, in addition to getting a working tool, is getting an interface/rating system so that the cream rises to the top. And managing that despite people's tendencies to sock puppet and upvote their own work in various underhanded ways.

    Comment by Stabs — 23 April, 2012 @ 1:27 PM

  6. Stabs,

    That would require an awful lot of assets - themed sets for each type of world and not just skins either. Does the idea of creating "fan fiction" inside an existing world appeal at all?

    Comment by Ophelea — 23 April, 2012 @ 2:03 PM

  7. I think that Storybricks evolving into a tool to create a game as Stabs suggests, rather than stories within a game, sounds like a good potential evolution for the tool.

    In the meantime, I was very intrigued by the dev diary and am looking forward to seeing more of Storybricks - hopefully in many contexts.

    Comment by Djinn — 24 April, 2012 @ 10:14 AM

  8. Ophelea, as a wannabe-hobbyist-game-programmer, the idea of creating "fan fiction" inside an existing world only appeals as an afternoon's worth of activity. If I'm building NPCs and stories, I want them to be meaningful. And I can't do that when there are too many cooks. I might certainly be able to add an awesome, well-written story into an existing setting, but if some random other user creates a really terrible NPC or story that intersects with mine (even if just in virtual location, like their NPC is in the same tavern) then that damages the experience I'm trying to create.

    The possibility of having "my sandbox" within the virtual world does appeal. So if there was some way to trigger the player moving into my virtual area of the world, where I would then have complete control, that would be fine. For example, if I create a town called "Washington" and then build the town, and the NPCs, and the stories - and only I can edit that town. Then a player travelling to that town is effectively using your setting, but playing my game. They can travel to a different town to find content created by a different toolkit user, but I don't have to worry about my serious murder mystery plot being ruined because someone else decides to fill the tavern with dancing monkey NPCs.

    Even so, I'm most interested in using this as a way to build my own games. My dream Storybricks solution would be to have "The Kingdom of Default" that I can build my fan-fiction into, play around, get comfortable with the toolkit, meet other toolkit designers. And then I can build my "Tony's game" environment, entirely disconnected. Select existing art assets OR import my own. Select existing gameplay mechanics OR create my own through some limited scripting language. And then create the game from scratch. With access controls, I might be able to invite my friends in to join the "development team" on my world. And decide which assets & scripts I've created I want to share. So if the Kingdom of Default has a medieval setting, I'd be able to build a medieval game. If I want to build a SF game, I might have to import my own character skins, or even character models. I might have to take the game scripts for, say, firing a crossbow and modify them to work for my setting. And I might decide to make my assets that I've just created available to the community, so other people can also create SF games using the toolkit. In my mind that gives me the best of both worlds, allowing me to make my own unique game, with control over the game & setting, while not having to build a whole game engine and being able to share assets with the hobbyist community. The disadvantage is that I'd have to build the whole game, so we'd probably end up with a lot of very small or unfinished game settings. I'm not overly worried about that. A game with a half-hour murder mystery plot can still be a very satisfying experience for the player, even if they never return. And I suspect the community would very quickly create "open" settings, like "This is Tony's SF game. Email him if you want to do development on it" and then I might have a hundred hobbyist designers working on that game. And I might manage my own design documents about the world setting, history, plot quality, etc. - although that's a lot of work, it's the sort of thing that people like me do as a hobby. But the sort of thing that I don't do within second life, both because of the limitations on what I can create, but also because of my inability to easily "block out" the others. (So my second life area might be next door to a nightclub for vampires. Uh. Not appropriate for what I'm trying to build.)

    Comment by Tony — 25 April, 2012 @ 9:28 PM

  9. Oh, I'd also be very interested in StoryBricks being a plugin to other, existing game engines.
    So if I'm building something using the Torque game engine, it'd be great to pay my $X developer licencing fee to buy a StoryBricks module, and start using it for my custom game.

    Comment by Tony — 25 April, 2012 @ 9:29 PM

  10. As about "What is a game", Chris Bateman just started a very deep article series about this topic.
    The first one is here: http://blog.ihobo.com/2012/04/implicit-game-aesthetics-1-crawfords-taxonomy.html , the subsequent ones (so far only the second piece) can be found on the same blog.
    It is a good reading, I'd advise everyone to read it if interested in this subject.

    Comment by VagabondEx — 26 April, 2012 @ 5:16 AM

  11. NBI: For Love or Money

    [...] not to say that projects like Psychochild’s Storybricks are somehow lessened by monetary concerns, or devoid of passion.  No, it just means that [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 9 May, 2012 @ 5:03 AM

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