With Richard Garriott and Portalarium announcing yesterday The Shroud of the Avatar Kickstarter, we have the man who many credit with the invention of the MMORPG (Ultima Online) returning to the scene. While this in and of itself brings quite a bit of skepticism as well as excitement, there’s reason to believe that Garriott can bring back to the industry a much-needed shot in the arm. Leave aside the whole Tabula Rasa vs. Garriott’s trip to space vs. NCSoft controversy for a moment. This is the guy who literally brought MMO genre to the masses. Yeah, he’s been quiet for a while, and yeah, that last project didn’t work out (under a company who since has become known for torpedoing game projects – Tabula Rasa, City of Heroes, Auto Assault, NetDevil, Dungeon Runners, Dragonica), but Richard Garriott “gets it” when it comes to storytelling in computer games. Here’s why:
He understands the difference between scripted and group storytelling
Garriott comes from a tabletop roleplaying background; he was one of the first players of Dungeons & Dragons when it first arrived back in the 70’s, and so understands that story in a roleplaying game is not the same as a in script or a novel. In a tabletop game, players are typically dropped into a situation or scenario with goals and objectives, but the path they take to reacting to that scenario is completely up to them. If the dragon needs to be slain, there are a million paths in a roleplaying game an adventuring party can take. They could raise an army to defeat it; they could lead it into a trap; they could find the holy artifact that is the dragon’s kryptonite. Heck, they could even decide to join the dragon and try to gain its favor by bringing it loot from villagers in the countryside. In tabletop, players have free will; something that is much harder to simulate in a computer game. But Garriott knows how to do it – he did do it in Ultima Online, by allowing players to become the bad guys as long as they were willing to deal with the consequences.
Which brings me to...
He understands morality and builds in consequence to player actions
The early Ultima games were full of decision making, and indeed, when you first created your character in those games, instead of picking a class, the first thing you did was ask a number of questions. How would you react to a beggar on the road? A man being accosted by brigands? A woman on her death bed? The moral choices led to the type of character you would end up playing – it really was an alter ego that directly led to the type of character you’d like to play in game. In his most recent interview, he discusses how many of the more recent games have forgotten about the element, and so have gone on to become amoral “min/max” where characters will kill, say or do anything in order to advance to the next level, or gain the next set of gear. If it meant wiping out a village of innocents, most players in today’s games would do it without a second thought, were a game ever to get as far as presenting that choice. Which is the point; most modern games would never present such a choice, because they have already created a scripted moral path, which the players must follow if they are to progress.
Moral choice becomes most important when designing the PvP aspects of the game, something all MMO designers have wrestled with. What is the consequence of killing the shopkeeper, or a city guard? What happens when a player “griefs” (kills over and over) another player? Garriott was the first to deal with these questions in UO, and probably has the best understanding of how to work that into gameplay of any designer around. Moral consequences mean that, although players have freedom of action, certain effects will kick in should they choose one path or another.
He understands fragmented storytelling
Another key difference between a script and a tabletop-based story is the idea that a story can be revealed in pieces rather than in linear chunks of exposition. So perhaps one NPC met in one town knows a piece of information, and another NPC in another town knows a little more, and then maybe at the end of a dungeon, you find a book that tells a little bit more. Players can put those pieces together to create the whole story, but until that point, players are just getting teasers and clues. By telling a story in this way, you get players away from going to the questgiver with an exclamation mark over their head to following the arrows to conclusion. The story becomes much more immersive and thought-provoking, and indeed, requires some thinking on the player’s part if they are to solve the story. Moreover, you can hide bits of information and story in any person or object in the game, slowly allowing it to emerge as players explore. It also promotes going off the beaten path, perhaps even eliminates a “beaten path” to begin with.
He understands interactivity and the relationship of objects
He extends that fragmented storytelling idea to objects in the world. The example Garriott presents in his videos is of a locked wooden door, which normally needs a key to unlock. However, the key is not the only way to open the door as in most computer games. Instead, he presents each object as something with defined properties which can be acted upon by other objects. So if there is a spell, or sufficient force that can be brought against the door by another object, it can smash in the door. This can be applied to any number of objects in the game, allowing multiple ways of overcoming obstacles or interacting.
He understands player decisions and their impact on the world
Finally, as the creator of player housing and in-game economies, Garriott knows that people want to see their character change things in the world. He knows some players want to play the game as a crafter, and don’t necessarily want to be known for combat at all. He knows players want to create their own house and have it be seen by other players. It sounds as if the approach he’s taking with the new game, based on the recent interviews, is that the multiplayer space will start with a smaller group of friends that can be expanded as they invite others into their circle. This way, the a social network can expand organically rather than start with a predefined servers with X number of players allotted to each. It sounds as if the social networking experiments he’s dabbled with, may pay off in another way.
So will be keeping a close eye out on this Kickstarter. As of this writing, Portalarium has raised almost half of the $1 million goal in only a day after announcing the game. It’ll be an interesting ride.