Game design experts and psychologists tell us that what keeps games from becoming boring is our brains feeling like there’s something else to work out, some other way to improve or a facet we haven’t yet fully understood. Long time MMO junkies will know the pain of slogging through New Player Island, our brains know this tune and we can hum along without thinking. It’s an unfortunate necessity, one that often serves as a harbinger as well as an obstacle.
As the medium matures and technology improves we’re seeing some strategies come into vogue in an effort to, ahem, combat this. Reactive, action based combat is a system designed to keep us engaged. When there’s no way to execute perfectly there’s always room to improve, and while many will lose interest as their skill plateaus some will stick around aiming for new heights. This is one reason MOBA games like Dota and twitch shooters like Counter Strike are endlessly replayable,
Traditionally, MMOs haven’t been able to compete with mechanical skill based games, and have used social systems to create stickiness. MMO veterans will be quick to remind you that this is the real draw of the persistent virtual world, and people are a puzzle that never gets boring. Browse any MMO forum for confirmation of this, adjectives abound to describe the feelings they evoke, but ‘bored’ wouldn’t be one of them.
We often see calls for ‘player skill’ to matter in combat, forgetting that social skills and emotional intelligence were the cornerstones of creating the groups that made those early virtual worlds so compelling and enduring.
With that in mind, are social MMOs making the most of their privileged position as vehicles for social experiences? I would argue no, especially in a world assimilated by social media. Our experiences in virtual spaces are informed by how we want to be perceived, our interactions designed to reinforce that projection.
A game that does not ask us to solve puzzles or skillfully navigate a complex environment, Siboot feels like an extension of our natural social behaviour, a game where our goal is almost machiavellian influence, our skill is social and our understanding comes from our empathic intuition.
The idea behind the technology is to weave interaction and gameplay together, where negotiating the terms of a mission with an NPC is as much a part of the gameplay as the mission itself.
If you’re sufficiently intrigued, you can find out more about how the technology is being used to create a truly interactive experience on the Siboot Kickstarter page. Yes, there is a Kickstarter, this is exactly the kind of project that Kickstarter is for. It’s a difficult concept to sell, and one that has no guarantees of a return. However, if you’ve ever lamented the lack of innovation in game design, or have any interest in the future of interactive storytelling, this is a proof of concept that could have far reaching implications.
Yes, I’m a backer, obviously. Yes, I want this project to succeed and that’s part of the reason for this article. Yes, this level of disclosure is patronizing and unnecessary, but that’s the world you get when you don’t stand up to brats who don’t understand ethics.
The technology, and the game it’s being used to build, are the work of legendary designer Chris Crawford, a man who was building deeper and more interactive digital experiences 30 years ago than almost any game since. Siboot is the descendant and namesake of the 1987 sim Trust and Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot, a game where your relationships and ability to influence agents in the game was the only way to win. A simulation of a Cold War situation, where trust was currency that could buy betrayal.
Chris was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the tech behind Siboot as I fought to suppress the game design nerd tears streaming down my face. When I asked him about the possible applications for persistent multiplayer games, he told me that the linguistic technology could be used to create immersive multiplayer environments where players communicate in the same language as the NPCs. This means NPCs can ‘hear’ and react to everything being said, with no need for parsing technology. The linguistic style also allows for unambiguous intention, and every word can affect every NPC in a different way, even allowing for this context.
I realise this is a lot of talk with little to hold onto, the truth is that systems like these are difficult to explain or visualise without experiencing them first hand, which is why I gave the designer of a different system with a similar goal a call.
Stéphane Bura was the lead designer for Storybricks, an AI system designed to create emergent, story driven content through NPC agents reacting to their environment and trying to enforce their will onto it. Stéphane is even more enthusiastic about Siboot than I am, as Chris Crawford’s career has directly influenced his own work.
He told me that one thing he found really exciting about the Siboot system is that it allows NPCs to be wrong, and for other agents in the game to be able to generate that false belief. This means that, as players, we can lie to other agents in the game. This elevates the level of interaction possible to an entirely new level, as we have no way to tell for sure what is true and what isn’t, or know the true motivations of the teller.
In the same way we carefully curate our online personas, we can do the same in our virtual worlds, where how we present ourselves and our (visible) actions shape how individuals see us.
That is essentially the crux of why this tech is so exciting to me; it has the potential to really put the RPG into the MMO to an extent that has never even been attempted before. So far, our interaction with MMOs has been locked at the action level; we often have little agency when it comes to forming our goals, and the concept of forming an intention that is communicable is completely alien.
Increasing the layers of possible interaction while weaving communication into the game environment is the future of interactive storytelling. Beyond the emergent ‘storytelling’ of a purely player driven environment, systems like this are the next step in creating rich, unpredictable environments that are directly affected by the actions and even projected intentions of players.
Again, if you’ve ever been exasperated with the lack of innovation in games or wished for a game environment that was dynamic and reactive, this is an opportunity to directly support that goal.