Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 August, 2018

Crazy ideas: Storybricks
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:00 PM

In another kind of cray idea, I wanted to write a bit about Storybricks and what we wanted to do with it. It’s a concept I think still has a place in game development, but it was perhaps a little ahead of its time.

Lets jump in the Wayback Machine!

This relates to the prior post about How MMOs can do stories better. A lot of what we wanted to do with Storybricks was to have the game let players discover their own stories through the game with Storybricks AI driving things.

At the core, Storybricks was about giving a character an emotion or motivation, describing them in some way that fit within the larger world. This worked on multiple levels: in combat, a “striker” NPC with large damage output but low defense would have the motivations to kill things and stay alive. That character would look for ways to inflict maximum damage while taking minimum damage. A tank, on the other hand, would value survival less (but not necessarily ignoring it!). But this went beyond combat: a group of enemies might desire treasure, and would seek villages and trade caravans because treasures are found there.

And further, these motivations could be used to describe characters. A character who does a lot of missions with loot might start being known for having a high desire for treasure; NPCs might exploit this (“There’s extra gold in it for you!”) or even react to a character differently (“You just care about money, not about virtue!” says the paladin.) In some cases players might be able to change their motivations, within reason, maybe treating them like old-school skills in older games like UO or M59: you slowly work toward a cap or a decay limit.

Taking this to another level, you could then have plots that rely on certain desires or motivations. For example, you might have a love triangle plot that has a couple and then a third character with a high lust motivation going after one of the couple. If players or NPCs use the same systems to measure motivation, then either could fit into this plot: an NPC would create more of a feel of a “living world” happening around other players, whereas a player would get to experience a small story, but only if appropriate to the character. The game would also match patterns, so a player hitting on an NPC could trigger a love triangle plot without it being like an “open quest” waiting for the player to come do this.

All these levels would have a common underlying system, the core of Storybricks. The Storybricks themselves were just a nice graphical interface for manipulating the system underneath it all.

So, how does this make for better stories in MMOs? First, stories would be set up indirectly by the designers instead of explicitly laid out as the FFXIV MSQ is. Enemies in the world are given motivations instead of explicit quests, and then the world “figures out” what to do with them. This means that the world is full of examples of how individuals live their life without needing a central story to dominate the player’s attention.

Second, it puts the focus back on individual stories. Players could affect such stories: stopping orcs from looting a village might drive those orcs to another village, for example, which would be determined by the system rather than a phased instance like it is in most current games. The orcs changing their target might mean that another village’s story changes. For example, if a bunch of tribal characters setup a location for their tribe and protect it, that would change the world based on their actions. On the flipside, those Xaela might disrupt the area badly, especially if they look to manipulate the system for their own benefit. It would need to be developed and continuously improved.

Ultimately, this is one of those ideas that kind of went nowhere. The Kickstarter failed and SOE never shipped EverQuest Next as we hoped. But maybe a few of these ideas will live on in other projects.







4 Comments »

  1. I thought at the time and I think now that the “Storybricks” concept was an articulation of the same “better AI” narrative I’ve been hearing since I first discovered MMOS in 1999. I clearly remember interviews with devs from the early 2000s where they said (rightly I believe) that the problem with smarter AI wasn’t technical – it was acceptance. I also remember DAOC in 2001 having certain mobs that did have superior AI, which would stay out of sight and snipe, and how very unpopular that was.

    Players always say they want things to be more complex, less predictable, more nuanced and subsets of the audience genuinely do want that, but time and time again it’s been demonstrated that the great mass of MMO players (may not be true of single player games – I wouldn’t know) move inexorably towards the easiest, most efficient behavior. They say they want complexity and depth but really all they want is the best gear, the fastest xp and they’ll do the most tedious, boring crap to get it.

    Rift, for example, had some of what you describe in beta. It had NPCs that acted in concert with each other against the best interests of players. It had hordes that would overrun quest hubs, kill all the quest givers and hold the location until players removed them. I loved it but it was so unpopular it was watered down in beta and removed entirely within a few weeks of the game going Live. UO, famously, had the mechanisms whereby different creatures would colonize and move into different areas according to predation and players ruthlessly exploited it until it was removed.

    Many early MMOs had mobs that would exhibit individual, rational behaviors: deer in EQ2 travelled in large herds and would always run when attacked, for example. Ryzom had excellent AI for its predator and prey animals – I used to watchthem hunting and moving in beta and it was like watching a wildlife documentary. Almost none of this survives today. It’s been flattened out of the genre in response to hostile responses by the audience and in recognition of player behavior, which is to shun any AI that isn’t complaint and biddable.

    I tried the Storybricks demo, which could have been designed to put people off the entire concept, and probably did. My heart sank when I heard Smed had picked up on the concept for EQNext. EQN was already a mishmash of very bad ideas that were never going to work and open pandering to the fantasy wishlists of people who’d never played an EverQuest game (or possibly any MMO). The best thing that happened to the genre in the last few years was the nixing of EQN, which, had it ever limped out the door, would probably have signalled the death knell for any largescale MMO for the next decade or more.

    I do believe that all the ideas you list could work in MMOs. Most of them already have been used somewhere (Horizons, back in 2002/3 claimed it would have a lot of them). If the end result of implementing them is anything other than a clear “Win” for most players, though, they will never be accepted. And once they become a “win” they become meaningless as the kind of open-ended, nuanced system you describe.

    Comment by Bhagpuss — 21 August, 2018 @ 1:16 AM

  2. Sounds like Storybricks potentially offered two major features – smart combat AI and emergent narrative, where the designer could set initial conditions and then sit back and watch as the story unfolded, influenced by (but not solely driven by) the players’ actions. As Bhagpuss points out, players (or at least a substantial majority of them) don’t actually want smart, challenging opponents. They want reliable and efficient loot and XP pinatas.
    As for the emergent narrative – I like the concept, and it very much matches the way I used to GM tabletop RPG campaigns. I would put a lot more work into establishing a setting and characters rather than a predefined plot that my players were bound to deviate from anyway. Done well, it could be the best answer yet to the insatiable content devouring hordes. The main problem I see is that while it should provide a near limitless QUANTITY of story content, it’s never going to match hand-generated content for QUALITY (especially of dialogue, but also presentation with cutscenes etc.) And again, I suspect the majority of players aren’t that fazed by the shortage of content, which is a brief distraction from progressing via loot pinatas.
    So I suspect Storybricks, although a really cool concept and something that would make a game I’d personally love to play, was a solution to things that the vast paying public don’t really see as problems. The one ray of hope is that with the current resurgence of tabletop RPGs, we may get more of an audience looking for a game that doesn’t just offer a hack and slash experience, and this is exactly the technology needed for an AI dungeon master. Hmmm, given the way investors are throwing money at anything with the AI label at the moment, now may be the time…

    Comment by Tremayne — 21 August, 2018 @ 10:41 AM

  3. Storybricks Redux

    “Emergent stories can’t ever be as good as human-authored stories” was always the biggest knock against Storybricks.

    Let’s say that’s true. What if emergent stories can be almost as good. How close do they have to be?

    I think of the fundamental structure of story as Characters in Roles with Motivations taking Actions to achieve Goals. When 2+ characters seek the same zero-sum goal, you get conflict; the process of resolving that conflict dramatizes a story.

    None of those are things that can’t be created algorithmically. Storybricks did several of them.

    OK, then what’s the difference between a story and a good story? Well, how about engaging characters who change (maybe growth, maybe justice, depends on the plot) through the surprising but plausible resolution of an emotionally meaningful conflict?

    If that’s an acceptable distinction, why is it necessarily something that can’t be programmed in a way that, even if it’s not deathless literature, is at least as good as genre fiction?

    Genre fiction doesn’t have to be schlock. My wife and I love watching kdramas. They are made of tropes: the Birth Secret; the Eavesdrop; the Jerk Who Humanizes; the Nice-But-Hapless Romantic Rival; and many, many more… and yet we keep watching because it’s fun to see how these quirky people will resolve their show’s unique combination of the typical challenges. Why isn’t this an acceptable goal for emergent stories?

    I can’t think of any inherent impediment to algorithmically generating not just short-term local conflicts based on the Storybricks systems Brian described, but large-scale, multi-character arcs that stage appropriate event trope possibilities at points along one of the typical kinds of plot (see Polti as a starting point). A story like this would emerge naturally when characters with the right qualities are available. Maybe they happen in many places all the time!

    I’m not saying this would be easy. I’m saying I see no reason to believe it’s impossible. And I definitely still think it’s worth trying.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 21 August, 2018 @ 11:54 AM

  4. Our initial focus for Storybricks was on emergent narrative and storytelling. The original Storybricks demo had no combat in it at all, quite by design. We wanted to play around with the emotional aspects for storytelling. The problem was that we were showing a development tool to a player audience, which was hard to make a sell. There are some reasons I could go into why we did that, but perhaps later.

    Tremayne:
    [Storybricks] was a solution to things that the vast paying public don’t really see as problems.

    Well, you’re right. But if we only sit around and do things that people have complained about, we would only endlessly copy WoW. Which is kind of what the industry has done repeatedly. We wanted to do something else, but it took more than we could demonstrate to convince people. I’ll publish a bit more about Storybricks to give a bit more of a glimpse behind the scenes.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 August, 2018 @ 9:58 PM

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