Experiment 2: Dynamic Plot Generator
The Quest is the Quest!
Quests are a common feature in most every MMORPG. While some games use quests almost exclusively as a means of advancement, and others for acquisition of fame and treasures, the fact remains that these are an indispensable part of in interesting game world.
The main defining feature of quests is the concept of giving the player something to do. Quests offer a short-term goal to temper the long-term progressions in game play. Most games build quests into the areas in which they are found, creating what has been called a “theme park” feel, where central hubs of quest-giving NPCs offer tasks to be completed in the surrounding regions. The quests found here are of varying sizes, and can require anything from the slaying of a certain number of creatures, to a chain of several related quests describing an intricate and planned plot.
The major drawback of these quest hubs is the eventual deterioration of an area of play. As quests are completed, the total number available in the region diminishes until there are none left, or the character has outgrown them. Static quests go away, and as they tend to be the defining feature of a surrounding region, that area becomes a place that is seldom revisited.
Some other games have created random quest systems, usually involving pregenerated instanced environments filled with random creatures, or in some cases, the spawning of a creature in an open world zone. In general, these quests remain simplistic and repetitious, restricting variables mainly to game mechanics and eschewing any semblance of a storyline beyond a possible brief summary. This can spoil the entire idea of random content, as the basis behind the system is, presumably, to extend the enjoyment of the same content by offering several iterations of content through random variation.
Unfortunately, replacing goblins with wolves, and then wolves with orcs does not extend the concept long enough to justify many of these systems. The limited pattern of the overall structure of these quests becomes the repetitious element, dwarfing the appeal of the randomized content.
The Challenge: Create the best of both methods defined above. Design a system with the ability to generate random content containing an immersive and unique story that feels hand-crafted.
Dynamic Plot Generator Autopsy
This description is not intended to represent a complete system. The major part of the generator would be in the conception and application of a great number of variables that require something greater than speculative summary. The key phrase here is Imagine If...
For this experiment, I will be relying on a text that has become indispensable to creators and critics of stories. This book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, has spawned a slew of derivative works and concepts, and the plot generator continues in this vein.
For those of you unfamiliar with Campbell, he was a great mover and shaker in several academic disciplines throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, and is famous in literary circles for his exploration and identification of what he labeled the “monmyth.”
The idea behind the monmyth is that there is only a single story in all of human experience, which is retold eternally in different guises. While this may seem a strange and even impossible concept at first, the theory has such a solid foundation that it has become a standard base for most every tale told in the last half century. Screenplays, for example, tend to follow plot breakdowns based on Campbell's theories as a rule, and you can even find extremely specific page counts defining where certain events must happen within a screenplay for it to be acceptable.
Regardless of whether one completely agrees with Campbell's ideas or not, the point is that he created a powerful tool in the identification and structure of plot. He has constructed a sort of latticework to support nearly any concept, turning it into a complete story. While the best stories crafted with this method tend to be ones adept at concealing the individual sections beneath layers of character and story elements, for the purposes of the plot generator we'll want to keep it pretty bare-bones.
Slice and Dice
Now to tackle the individual sections. Stripped down, the pieces of the hero's journey, as identified by Campbell, include several specific divisions: Introduction, The Call, Reluctance, Voice of Wisdom, The Threshold, Tests and Allies/Enemies, Journey into the Innermost Cave, The Ordeal, Seizing the Sword, The Road Home, Resurrection, and the Return.
I won't get into descriptions of these divisions, as the streamlined groupings below are more pertinent to the discussion.
As you can see, most quests (especially randomized ones) in MMOs tend to fall quite a bit short of an actual plot. Hopefully the dynamic plot system will offer a solution to this. First, we need to adapt the concept of a full plot, from introduction to the return, to fit a persistent world. The player is already familiar with the world and the hero prior to the quest, for example, so the introduction would be a little unnecessary.
The concept of reluctance is a bit more difficult to deal with. According to theory, it is an imperative part of a plot, because the character must make a choice to take up the mantle, and just going with the flow and doing as you're told is not as much a heroic choice as it is apathetic. This, at its core, is actually a role playing point, so I feel any attempt at creating a mechanic for it would not only be awkward, but in the end impede game enjoyment. A player's character is a sort of sacred ground, and the game should never tell players how their representatives in the game world act or feel. Besides, the plot to be employed in the quest can be seen as simply a smaller piece of a much larger epic, and as such, the reluctance may have occurred somewhere in the character's past.
This still leaves us with several steps to deal with, all of which are pretty solid for integration into a virtual environment.
5: Innermost Cave
7: Seizing the Sword
8: Road Home
Now that we have the framework, we need to define what is going on with each step.
The Call: Here the character receives the quest, and decides whether or not to accept it. As randomly generated quests would be in response to a series of parameters decided upon before the actual creation of the quest, the player has some idea of the difficulty level and type of adventure that will be created. Because of this, the call can be nice and simplistic, speaking in less mechanical terms and allowing for the use of standardized conversation templates.
Advice: This is where the character receives more specific details about the journey to be undertaken. Where The Call would be the village chief telling the character that the children of the village have all been kidnapped by raiders, The Advice would be an old hermit explaining where the raiders operate out of, and possibly even why they do it.
Threshold: This is where the character steps from one world to another, moving from safety and security to danger and the unknown. Here, possibly, the character's exploration of the raider's camp leads him to encounter the leader, a dark priest who turns out to be far too powerful, subduing the character who is then taken to another place and imprisoned to be interrogated later.
Tests/Allies and Enemies: Here is the main buildup. In plot terms, this is where the character overcomes obstacles and meets allies, all of which teaches the lessons that will be needed to confront the final enemy later, in The Ordeal. Here the character befriends a guard who is suffering from a crisis of conscience, and convinces him to unlock the door. Together they work their way out of the dungeon. Once outside, after much fighting, the character realizes that the prison in which he was kept is in the crumbling basement of an ancient building on the outskirts of a ruined city, in the center of which is an ancient black temple that still stands, oozing with some dark miasma.
The character pursues and overcomes the captain of the guard, who is identified by the character's new companion. After defeating the captain, he gives the skinny on the fact that the leader of the raiders is the high priest of some dark and ancient god, and that he intends to sacrifice all the captured children in exchange for the favor of his deity. The character also learns that the priest's great power comes from a holy relic he wears around his neck.
Innermost Cave: In this section, the character delves into the lion's den, so to speak. Continuing the example, the character enters the black temple and makes his way past all the obstacles and minions, to the altar where the priest is about to begin his sacrifices.
Ordeal: The great challenge to be overcome. This is the big test. In game terms, the boss fight (if there is one) goes here. It could just as easily be another trial. In the Lord of the Rings series, Frodo's final struggle to release the ring is his Ordeal. In the example plot, the guard-turned-ally rushes forward and takes the brunt of the priest's mystic assault, sundering the holy relic before falling to the ground dead. The guard's sacrifice has evened the field of play for combat, and the character overcomes the enemy and wins the prize.
Seizing the Sword: The character learns the critical secret, retrieves the stolen item, or obtains the sacred heirloom armor that was the original point of the quest. In the example plot, the character frees the captured children. This is normally where most quests end in MMOs, but there is much more to a plot than simply overcoming the arch-villain.
Road Home: Vengeful forces seek the character. He may have overcome the great challenge, but there is still danger in the world, and it must be dealt with. Great escape, chase scenes, and hacking through an army of angry minions are all possibilities for the road home. In the example plot, the character's defeat of the priest has displeased his god, whose anger manifests as an earthquake that begins to collapse the temple. The character must escape in time or be crushed.
Return: The final leg of the journey, where the character returns triumphant, with greater knowledge and experience. Rewards are received and props are given. Nachos are enjoyed by all.
Each step aids in defining variables that would be necessary to plug into standardized texts. Quests become sort of mad-libbed statements, with NPCs altering their responses and actions depending on the current mission. In the example plot, the system would have happened to come up with:
Goal: Children (Kidnapped) (Retrieve)
Advisor: Old Hermit
Enemy Type: Raider Faction (Camp X)
Cave: Dark Temple (Collapse)
Ordeal: High Priest (Dark God)
Secret: Holy Relic (Destroy) (Secret)
Tests: Prison Escape, Guard Captain (Secret)
Ally: Guard (Enemy Becomes Friend) (Free) (Sacrifice)
Aftermath: Earthquake (Environment Destruction) (Dark God) (Race Against Time)
While this is obviously an incredibly simplistic sampling of the variables included in plot generation, and nowhere near what would be required to plug it into an actual system within an MMO, I think it gets the basic point across.
Integration: This system is by no means meant to replace static quests. Rather, it is intended as a method to keep content alive and interesting for much longer than is normally possible. With the extreme number of variations in plot, the adaptability of dynamically-generated content to every style of play, and the ease with which new content can be added into the system, the plot generator becomes an optimal choice as an addition to any MMORPG without stepping on the toes of static quests.
Application: This system would take quite a bit of effort to tweak and iron out. Every game region and NPC involved would probably have to be given their own personal flourishes to avoid generic repetition of phrases, and while basic associative qualities would make most awkward quest variable combinations impossible, there would still be the odd silly quest result to be rooted out.
Despite the extreme effort that would be necessary to actually make a system like this one function, it is also important to weigh work against the amount of content created. If the plot generator requires the same effort as the creation of, say, five theme-park style zones and 1,000 related quests, then it is well worth the effort, because the system is infinitely more malleable than any number of zones, and would be hard pressed to actually run out of unique quests. A system like this is inherently more adaptable to new added content as well, and can just as easily be used by developers to produce static quests in a much quicker fashion by manually selecting variables, and then altering specifics to fit their needs.
Mechanics: Instanced areas would probably be the best choice for the divisions beyond the Threshold step. This would require standard terrain sets that would be encountered multiple times, but I believe the existence of a plot and the extreme variance in goals and required activities would rectify the problems normally associated with repetition of environment.
All in all, I think that this possibility is a solid direction for any quest system. While static quests are fine, one must keep in mind that a plot generation system offers a much greater range and variety. The major problem with current random quest systems is their impersonal nature and emphasis on extremely simplistic steps and tasks for completion. With a plot-based generator, random quests turn into full stories that grant a sense of accomplishment rather than resulting in a day spent shopping for animal parts direct from the source.
Next Entry: Experiment 3--Shifting Terrain