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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Richard Garriott and Story in Computer Games

Posted by Ortwig Saturday March 9 2013 at 11:14AM
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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.

Choosing an MMO

Posted by Ortwig Saturday March 2 2013 at 12:37PM
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Not too long ago, there were only a few MMORPGs on the landscape; the genre was relatively new.  The big names started with Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, then EverQuest  and EverQuest 2, and finally, the ultimate behemoth, World of Warcraft (yep, I know your other favorite was in there somewhere as well), but those are the biggies.  Since that time, the genre has literally exploded; currently, there are almost 600 active MMORPG’s available, from every genre imaginable, with emphasis on one feature over another, browser-based, to mobile, and even some targeting consoles.  How the heck do you choose?  I say this because to many folks, an MMO is a long-term commitment; many are looking for a game home that will provide off-hours recreation for a good many years; many solid friendships and even marriages have come from people met in-game, so finding that right mix is essential.  Keep in mind that as you ask yourselves these questions, there is no right or wrong answer; everyone has their own preferences for play, just be honest with yourself.

It pays to narrow down the options, so let’s start with…

The Basics: How will I be playing?

The way you access the game alone will have a huge impact on your options, and some folks choose to buy or upgrade their system or devices simply to give themselves more of those options. Will you be playing on a mobile device?  Do you want to play on multiple computers and devices?  Do you want full wall-shaking stereo sound, or are you planning on headphones?  And if you will be playing with friends, will you be doing any sort voiceover IP, or do you plan to do your communication by typing?

Devices, devices…

What kind of device do you have?  Desktop computer or laptop is the most common, but even within that category there are a number of choices.  PC or Mac?  High end graphical system, or basic home computer?  How much RAM, processor and graphics card power do you have?   Or are you most comfortable on your Apple, Windows or Android pad or phone?  Then, given how you'll be accessing the game, what’s the best software platform?

Many MMOs have installable downloads, but with browser-based games coming into the picture, there are some great options for those who want to play on multiple devices or platforms.  Browser gaming pretty much means playable anywhere.  If you are playing on a pads or smartphone, you also have the installable app option.  That said, if top-of-the-line graphics and full stereo are your cup of tea, you’re probably going to want to set up a high-end desktop or laptop at home.

What genre are you interested in?

For many MMO players, the game home they choose is the most important aspect, and so knowing your preferred genre is key.  But this part is probably easier than narrowing down all those niggly computer options!  You know what motivates you, so you probably have good idea what you are really after in your game.  Fantasy, science fiction, horror, post-apocalypse, historical, modern warfare are all options of course.  But even within those categories, think about what style you like within them:  epic swords and sorcery or low, gritty thieves and back alleys?  Zombies or vampires?  Space opera or hard science fiction?  Westerns, colonial exploration, World War II or black ops?  You don’t need to be exact, but it helps to have a good idea of the world you’d like to explore and spend some time in – it may help to just pick the genres to you don’t like!

Themepark, Sandbox or Hybrid?

Okay, now we start moving into the MMO-specific stuff.  So a themepark is a game where you are unable to have a lasting impact on the world you are playing in.  It typically has many pre-made adventures or quests, and is pretty easy to play solo.  There are many adventure packs and expansions released by the company, and you will wind your way through those storyline, occasionally grouping up with friends or other people online to dungeons or group adventures.  It is a much more packaged experience than a sandbox, which is more of an open world and set of systems.  In a pure sandbox, there are very few pre-made quests; instead you create your own adventures by world building – crafting items, building homesteads or villages or cartels, and defending against other players who would steal from you and try to invade your village (player-vs-player).  The world is simply a playground for you and other online players to create your own stories.  Finally, a hybrid is a mixture of both styles – themepark elements for those who like going through quests or storylines, but also systems that allow you do world building and fighting with other players.

Okay, now for the niggly details…

Here’s where we get down into the fine details, and where many of the differentiators will be in picking a particular MMO.  Think about these carefully, because it’s here where you’ll find those huge differentiators between each game.

New vs. old-school

Do you have any issues with playing an older title, or do you want the latest and greatest graphics and systems?  Older games tend to have steeper learning curves, more difficult content and systems (that people either love or hate).  Newer systems are geared a bit more to newbie players, often have tutorials and guides, as well as the slickest graphical acrobatics.  Do you long for the “good old days” of gaming, or do prefer to play the latest and “greatest?”

Character customization

How important is it to craft your perfect toon?  What are the character creation options you’d like – just the basics with a pick from a few options, or the ability to pick your voice, height, girth?  How finely do you want to be able to control your facial characteristics?  How many options should the game have for customizing your clothes or gear?  Do you want the game to give your character a backstory, and how many options should it have to do so?

Open world vs. instanced

Does it help your immersion if the world is broken into separate pieces or instances, or do you prefer a seamless walk or ride or flight from one area to another?  Especially with many interconnected areas, an open world can feel more open and vast, but instancing makes sense as well if the adventuring areas are far apart or vastly different in atmosphere or feel.

Community

You can tell a lot about a game by the type of community it has.  What are the characteristics you are looking for in the group?  Competitive?  Friendly and casual?  Achievement oriented and harcore?  Is roleplaying something you grew up with and would like in your online game?  Or maybe you’d like a mix of everything?

Group vs. solo play

What are the options for group play?  Is grouping encouraged, and how easy is it to group up?  Are you expecting tools that pair you with groups for dungeon or raids, or do you prefer striking up conversation in game chat and forming friendships that way?  Is solo questing something you enjoy, or do you prefer little or no solo content?  Or do you want the complete smorgasbord, and say “all of the above please?”

Crafting and Economy

Lots of people pick games simply for the crafting system, even going so far as to make it the primary thing they do in game.  How much crafting do you plan to do?  Do you like complex crafting systems, or do you prefer it as a sideline activity, quick and done?   Do you prefer an open player-driven market or an easy-to-use automated auction house? 

Player-vs-player

Is PvP something you like as an option on the side, or is it your primary focus?  Almost all MMOs have some form of PvP, but the implementation can be quite different.  Open world, permanent-death and looting is one end of the spectrum, while the other end is no PvP at all.  In between, you have lots of options (but fewer of them if you want permadeth and looting): segregated open world PvP servers; opt-in, flagged PvP in the open world; segregated PvP battlegrounds and arenas; dueling areas or ability to issue challenges.   If all you want to do in-game is PvP, you have more options these days as well, with several games offering PvP as the central feature.

Atmosphere, storyline and “lore”

In general (but not always), story tends to be a more central feature of themepark games than sandpark, since it plays heavily in the questing features.  All MMOs have a background setting and atmosphere, but how heavily the story elements are woven into the game can vary greatly.  Stories can also be heavily or lightly scripted, so how you feel about the gameplay of these elements can have a huge impact on your enjoyment of the game.  How do you feel about cutscenes – should they be eradicated from the face of gaming, or do you like an occasional movie that enhances the story?  Should little story elements be sprinkled about for you to discover on your own, or would you prefer making your own stories in game, through roleplaying and/or raids on your enemies keeps?  Do you wish for tools that would allow you to create your own adventures and dungeons?

Endgame vs. Horizontal Progression

This one applies again to themeparks more than sandboxes, but it’s always a question worth asking yourself as you start out a new game.  Do you plan to spend most of your game time enjoying the journey, or are you interested in the most difficult content in the game?  Will you speed through content and bypass as much as possible to get to the “endgame’s” challenging content (usually raids or some equivalent)?  Or do you despise the idea of “endgame” altogether and look for games where horizontal progression (crafting, economy, player-generated content, pvp and variety in progression rather than pure gear progression) is favored?  Also, do you prefer slow, hard leveling, or easy, speed-to-the-end experience systems?  Do you like to grind?—that is, do repetitive tasks such as farm monsters, or do daily quests to slowly make your way through the game and earn things like reputation or gear?  How focused are you on gear as reward for your efforts, or are you fine without pure power rewards?  Do you prefer level-based progression systems or more skill based systems?

Payment Model

Finally, which payment model best suits you?  Traditionally, MMOs have been subscription-based, but today more options than ever are available.  “Buy-to-play” asks you to purchase the initial game, but forgoes monthly payments in favor of optional cash shop micro-transactions, and “free-to-play” charges nothing to get started, but is a bit more aggressive in goading you to purchase items from the game’s cash shop.  Can you live with any form of cash shop?  Most of these payment models have options to purchase subscriptions that unlock premium features.  How important is the overall cost of the game to you?

Whew, that’s a lot of stuff to consider!  But getting it all down beforehand will make your search for the perfect game a lot easier.  Once you know what you want, you can go down your checklist and see which things are ticked off, and narrow your choices to the few games that seem mostly likely to fit.  Remember, too that your perfect game may not yet exist, or be a game that is still in development.  Be sure to check out some of the big game sites such as Massively.com or mmorpg.com to see what’s in the pipeline and seems the most promising to you.  Also, here’s a handy game list to help you on your search.  Best of luck in finding your perfect MMO home!