[MUD-Dev] Storytelling and Professionals (was: RE: )

Kathleen Foley obsidian at psychochild.org
Tue Nov 27 18:20:04 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

Lee Sheldon wrote:
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Dave Rickey
>> No storied online game has ever reached 1/100th the numbers of
>> the non-storied.  No attempt to inject story into the existing
>> games, however many resources were committed to it, has ever
>> gotten much response beyond "So what?" and "Go away."

Lots of people say you can't make a strong, working economy in an
online RPG, but that didn't stop Mr. Rickey from trying (and to some
extent succeeding according to preliminary accounts).  Just a
thought. :)
> No storied online game has ever reached 1/100th of the numbers of
> the non-storied because:
>   a) There AREN'T any "storied" online games among the major
>   commercial offerings.  There are games that flirt with story,
>   then shy away like schoolgirls at their first dance, but there
>   aren't any "storied" games.

This is unfortunately quite true.

If you look at the traditional game industry, you see a similar
pattern.  Back in the days of Pong, the game was all about the
gameplay and mechanics.  Two columns of pixels batting a ball back
and forth? Who cared if it didn't make sense, let's see who can get
the highest score.

Very few people even thought about story, I imagine.  Even if people
did, it would have been greeted by a large chorus of voices
trumpeting out that "Story cannot and shall not be introduced into
video games!" Those cut scenes in the Pac-Man games were barely cute
enough to be tolerated.

But, then something amazing happened.  Some Japanese guy sat down
and gave a bit of personality to blob of pixels running around
girders trying to save this pink blob of pixels kidnapped by this
huge ape. That ape was known as "Donkey Kong", and that little
plumber, I think Mario was his name, went on to start a whole huge
franchise still with us today.  Shigeru Miyamoto went on to become a
hero in the industry.

Fast forward to day, and we have games trying to tell real
stories. I've just started playing a bit of Metal Gear Solid 2.  I
should say watching intro movies. :) But, it's pretty obvious
there's a lot of story in that game.  Sure, it's not "my" story, but
I'm certainly helping to tell it.  Even the previous Metal Gear
Solid game told an interesting story.  Ask anyone back in the
Pac-Man days of gaming and they would have laughed at you if you
would have said that electronic gaming would tell stories one day.

I think we're seeing the same problems with the online medium.
We've got our Pong equivalent of online gaming, and now we're trying
for Pac-Man.  Maybe you could consider Asheron's Call our Donkey
Kong, the game trying to change it all.  It's not easy, though.  I'm
sure there are large groups of people that could have cared less
about Donkey Kong's "story".  But any serious developer with a good
knowledge of history can't deny that things definitely started to
change at that point.
>   b) The attempts were made by non-professional storytellers.  If
>   you had the level of programming in the major commercial MMOs
>   equal to their level of writing customers wouldn't even be able
>   to log in.  If the graphics were equal to that level of writing
>   your Hero would be a stick figure fighting a squiggle.

Bad news, Lee.  Sometimes the code IS written by
non-professionals. Usually not the critical things like logging in
or charging a credit card.  Just things like combat, or character
advancement.  (Yeah, I'm talking about you, Damion!)

One qualification to this statement I'd add is that people can
learn. Not everyone sprung forth fully-formed and able to entertain
audiences with tales of adventure.  I'm not talking about playing
other games, either, I'm talking about serious study of literature
and storytelling. Even this poor tech geek managed to get a degree
in literature.  I agree that the attitude of "It just can't be
done!" sounds silly coming from those that are not professional (or
even trained) storytellers.

>   c) The customers say "So what?" and "Go away." because THE
>   STORIES ARE SO BAD.  If AC's lack of impact can be traced at
>   least partly to story, and I think it can, it isn't because it
>   tried story.  It's because the story was cliched and
>   uninvolving.  The play of AC was unaffected by it.  The players
>   were unaffected.  The market was unaffected.

I think you're being a little harsh here, Lee.  Admittedly, my own
AC experiences didn't involve story in any meaningful way; I was
always too low of a level to interact with the "story" by the time I
tried to play extensively.  But, I don't think it's just that the
story was "bad", I think it's more that the story didn't fit with
the medium.  I'll explain more below.

(And, I don't mean to pick on the AC people, either.  I've met lots
of them and they're great people with bright ideas.  Plus, I was
just as guilty of creating a story unfit for the medium when I
worked on Meridian 59.)

>> People don't want the games to tell them stories, they want them
>> to be stories.
> And since we've never had a single valid professional attempt at a
> "storied" game, then this is of course the obvious conclusion.
> The MMO industry (what's left of it) wants it to be true.  The MMO
> industry (what's left of it) needs it to be true.  Because the MMO
> industry (what's left of it) doesn't know how to deliver anything
> else.

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes.
Mr.  Rickey is espousing one of those extremes, unfortunately.

Non-storied games have traditionally sold okay in most mediums.  But
as the medium matures games have always included more and more
story. Let's look specifically at computer RPGs for a moment.

In the beginning, we had games such as Akalabeth and Wizardry.
Build a party, twiddle with stats, and go out and kill things and
take their stuff.  Gain experience and get more stats to twiddle.
Pretty straight-forward.

But, Akalabeth eventually became the Ultima series.  Try to separate
out the story from Ultima 4.  I dare you.  The Quest of the Avatar
makes the game so much more interesting.  It's not just about going
around and killing monsters.  It's not just about going over the
next hill to fight tougher monsters.  It's about completing the
quest and saving the world!

And so story became much more important in RPGs.  Heck, RPGs without
a good story get responses out of players such as "So what?" and "Go
away."  Look at the acceptance of the heavily story-based Baldur's
Gate series and the complete apathy over new "Pools of Radiance"
game. Baldur's Gate is *still* a widely respected game, even though
Pools of Radiance boosts better graphics and a more modern D&D
ruleset.  Horrific technical issues aside, the new Pools of Radiance
just isn't as interesting to play BECAUSE there's no story there.

This example is especially interesting, because most of us are
trying to create online RPGs last I checked.

> Maybe SW:G will will be the first.  Sims Online sure won't.  But
> one of these days an attempt at a real "storied" game will be made
> by a crew with a somewhat less insular vision, shall we say, and
> it will leave all the others in the dust.

I don't hold much hope up for SW:G in this respect. (Sorry, Raph.) 
Given what I know about the Star Wars universe and all, I don't see
much room left for players to do interesting things with within it.
There's also the issue of licensed properties, something that Raph
has already spoken out about (greatest boon... biggest albatross).
The pre-conceived notions players will bring into the game will
hinder chances for participatory storytelling.  (On the other hand,
if anyone can do it, I'd be Raph.  I'm willing to eat my words for
his sake. ;)
>> They want it so badly, they're willing to forgive the brain-dead
>> AI and artifical rules, because even if the story that is their
>> play of the game is boring and repetitive, it's *theirs*.
[snip ranting]
> The truth is so much simpler.  People LOVE to tell their own
> stories, AND they love to have stories told to them.
> AND. AND. AND.  For the first time in modern entertainment we have
> an industry with the theoretical capability to provide both in a
> single mass media product.  But it hasn't done it yet.

And, this is what I think is the truth.  Storytelling in our medium
has to be participatory.

At one extreme, you have Mr. Rickey's main hypothesis, that you
cannot do story, don't bother, let the players do it.  This can only
end in tragedy as expectations collide.  My story about a
rough-and-tumble dwarf that swears up a storm (and just told you he
had to log off in five minutes) might conflict with your story about
your wistful high elf who survived the slaughter of his entire
family to become the dandelion-eating pansy he is today.  (Damn, too
much DAoC.)

You need look no further than the discussions about the RP servers
on DAoC.  I don't play those servers because I don't like
role-playing facists.  While I cringe every time I see someone named
something like "Begmefa Somemercy" or "Patrick Duffy", I'd cringe
even harder every time somebody yelled at me for not misusing
Elizabethan pronouns.  Am I some kind of ogre that doesn't like
story?  No, but I am not particularly interested in interacting with
some player who feels the need to enforce his view of the world
(always drawn from sources outside the game) on other players.  The
furor about DAoC's Elves unable to be Druids brings this to amazing
clarity.  (But, Elves can Druids in EQ and AD&D!)

On the other hand, you can't have a monolithic story written by the
developers that people can't interact with meaningfully.  This is
Asheron's Call's failing, IMHO.  The story "affected" the world, but
the players couldn't do much to affect the story!

It was the same way when we tried to tell the "story" of the Duke's
death in Meridian 59.  We had this great plot planned out, and we
would tell this wonderful story!  Sure, lots of people logged on for
the story, but without a meaningful part in the story, most players
got bored and started acting out.

Yet, finding the center of this spectrum isn't easy.  There are
professionals that know how to write stories, like Lee does.  We've
also seen how to create a sandbox for people to play in; we've also
seen what that leads to (think early UO).  So, how do you create a
well-written, original story that allows people to interact and
dynamically change it?  I have my theories and I know Lee has his.
It's not an easy answer, though, especially given the current

> Apparently this industry hasn't the imagination to do it.  So it
> says it can't be done, and even worse, that the hundreds of
> millions of people who have responded to stories told to them over
> the centuries don't want it either.  It is to weep.

Again, I think you're being a bit harsh, Lee.  Personally, I think
we're too busy worrying about other things to sweat the story.  I
think most of the people at Mythic wake up in the middle fo the
night in a cold sweat shouting "How the HELL do these people create
so many customer service issues!!!"  Probably involves a lot more
swearing, actually. They're also busy probably creating new ways of
saying, "It's not a nerf."

Plus, the game industry is always adverse to risk, especially in
times of economic slowdown.  Expect a lot more EverQuest clones,
even from games that originally wanted to be something else.  The
people with money want a sure bet, not some risky venture involving
this "story" thing that we'll have to rely on expensive
professionals to provide!

>> It seems far more promising to me to do a better job of equipping
>> the players to *live* stories.
> Just like it seemed promising to let PvP alone solve the high
> level game?  I'll give you an example from the game I'm currently
> playing, and therefore most interested in: DAoC.  People on the
> whine boards sort of just shrug off the lack of content in DAoC
> because they really didn't expect much more.  They'd much rather
> complain about class nerfs because they realize that some action
> might be taken.  They're under no illusions that the content will
> improve.  And these are the very same customers who are already
> attracted to the level and loot treadmill.

Two things I will bring to defend DAoC:

  1) It's been said in public that the game was intended to be
  evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  This boils down into "We
  wanted to make a better EQ/AC/UO" for those of us not speaking
  from an official position.  Therefore, you can't fault them for
  not including large amounts of story content since this wasn't
  exactly in the game plan. Whether this is a good goal to have is
  an entirely different story.

  2) There are some interesting nuggets of story if you know where
  to look.  The "epic" quest for my class has some interesting bits
  of story in there.  On the other hand, I've seen enough people
  wander by the smith near the forge in Jordheim asking about
  "Thane's Blood" (the theoretical target of my quest) enough times
  while crafting to know I'm hardly the first person on this great,
  expansive quest. :)

> I have yet to meet a single player in DAoC who is not a refugee
> from EQ or AC or UO, or is playing multiple games.  Not one.

Present and accounted for. :) My previous online game careers were
amazingly short (didn't have weeks of my time to dedicate to the
game before), and I didn't hop from another game straight into DAoC.
In fact, I'm mostly doing it out of professional curiosity to see
how they handle things in the game.

Actually, about 90% of the players in my mid-sized guild on DAoC are
EQ refugees.  The last few are people that got sucked into what
their friends were doing.  So, there are a few people new to it all.
I'd be willing to agree that I'm a statistical anomaly, however. ;)

> Many are already looking beyond to Shadowbane, another game that
> seems aimed at exactly the same niche.  They're all sucking at the
> same MMO teat, and at some point the milk will run dry.

I disagree, Chicken Little.  People said the market couldn't support
another fantasy game when DAoC was announced. It's gone on to sell
an amazing amount of units in a small amount of time.  True, it'll
take some time to see if those people stay, if it's cannabalizing
from other games, and if that pace can carry them to the top of the
heap.  But, the fact that it didn't fall flat on its face out of the
gate proved a great many people wrong.

While I agree that story-based games will be a natural progression
for the medium and well eventually become the de facto standard, I
don't think we're in any danger of running out of customers right
now.  I could be wrong about the running out of customers thing,
though. :)

"And I now wait / to shake the hand of fate...."  -"Defender", Manowar
     Brian Green, brian at psychochild.org  aka  Psychochild
       |\      _,,,---,,_      *=* Morpheus, my kitten, says "Hi!" *=*
 ZZzz  /,`.-'`'    -.  ;-;;,_   "They're not bugs, they're 'place-
      |,4-  ) )-,_..;\ (  `'-'    holders for code that works.'"
     '---''(_/--'  `-'\_)         - Andrew Kirmse, Meridian 59 creator
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