c.e. taillefer

September 5, 2011

Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.


What if every time you kited a Fel Reaver to Shattrath, the Shattrath Guards start to remember your face? What if you had to navigate the father-son relationship between Varian and Anduin Wrynn via a series of complicated, spiraling quests that adapted to your solutions? What if you were able to bring Mankrik back his wife’s bones?

Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.
You poor orc.

As a World of Warcraft player for over five years now, I’ve pretty much come to terms with the idea that there are just too many big damn heroes in the game. You solve all sorts of problems for NPCs from the hugely heroic (“Please stop this Old God from subsuming the entire planet in a waking nightmare.”) to the incredibly mundane (“Please deliver this message to Jolene Draenei standing just over there.”) And yet, no matter what you do, there’s very little change in either the world or your relationships with the NPCs. Blizzard has made some headway with the former, when they introduced phasing to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and even threw a bone to the latter: if you encounter Gryan Stoutmantle in Grizzly Hills after completing the Defias chain for him in Westfall back in your teens and twenties, he’s flagged to recognize that – but nothing specific.

<name>! I hardly recognized you in your new outfit. Still have that tunic… or did you take the chausses… or was it the staff? I can’t recall, it was so long ago.. Well, I’m glad you are here to help out again. We could use all the help we can get. <name>, if you perform the way you did back in Westfall with the People’s Militia, we have a chance. These are dire times, if we don’t win this battle, there may not be a Westfall to return to.

It’s like the need is recognized, that people want to connect with their games, but no one is quite sure how to accomplish it.

Except of course, the game developers at Namaste who are aiming to do just that with their new Storybricks toolset. Frustrated with the lack of character development and progression in traditional MMOs, Storybricks was born out of a desire to have an evolving sense of story and relationship in gaming. I was lucky enough to chat with community manager Kelly Heckman as she walked me through a demo of the toolset and answered some of my questions. The team brought Storybricks to GenCon after just 10 weeks of development, but what they were able to demo there is already impressive. Kelly built a small tableau for me with a citizen, a guard and a brigand.

 Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.

 From left to right: Citizen, player, guard, brigand.

With just three NPCs, there’s already a number of conflicts here. The emotive AI of Storybricks allows the NPCs wants, needs and motivations. For example, the city guard wants peace and order; the brigand, on the other hand, want chaos, presumably to aid him in his devilish pursuits. This puts the guard and brigand into conflict before the player character even arrives on the scene.

 Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.

Behind the scenes of the same tableau as above.

The summary of the scene is this: The guard and the brigand already have predisposed feelings towards the player character. The brigand is unfriendly to the player character – maybe not attack on sight unfriendly, but not predisposed to making things easy for the player either. The guard, on the other hand, is friendly towards the PC. Because of the presence of the brigand on his patrol, though, he’s also unhappy. He wants the player’s help, but like the brigand, because of his needs and motivations, he might need some coaxing to become peppy and helpful. This leaves the completion of the quest – to get the Gorgon heart for the guard – entirely up to the player. You could kill the brigand and take the Gorgon’s heart: will the guard be grateful to you you got him the item he wanted, and also removed an annoyance from his patrol? Or will he be annoyed that murder has caused further chaos in his desire for peace and quiet? If you try and steal from the brigand and fail, now you’ve potentially got a very unfriendly bad guy on your back, as well as an annoyed guard who might not be feeling so friendly towards you.

Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.

A more complicated scenario. Note how the different motivations are coded to be easily recognizable.

But even as the toolset allows the developers to create more and more detailed character maps, the toolset remains refreshingly understandable to my untrained eye. I’ve toyed with the Neverwinter Nights Aurora toolset before and come away totally frustrated. Storybricks, on the other hand, is both colour- and symbol-coded to make building the character personalities simple. Which makes sense, because their intention is, as Kelly puts it, “building a toolset with the players, rather than for the players.” Their reason for including both symbol codes, as well as colour coding the toolset? To be inclusive of those with colour-blindness, which affects a large percentage of the population. Another exciting feature of the accessibility of Storybricks is that users will be able to run the client on both Mac and Windows OS, as well as being compatible with Android’s SWYPE feature, allowing them to build on the go.

The people at Namaste really want this program to be user-friendly, so the gaming community feels comfortable in creating their own content. However, the plan is for something that is more Dragon Age mods than Second Life.

Legos AND Writing? Storybricks is a toolset after my heart.
Thank god.

Namaste isn’t interested in players creating a universe to play in, so much as allowing players to add to the already-existing game Namaste will be making. Think of it as in-game fanfiction you can play.

As a writer, I had particular interest in this element of Storybricks. I asked Kelly if she could answer a couple of questions about the ways in which the toolset will affect gaming, from both a story developer POV as well as a player’s:

CT: I read that Storybricks was born out of a frustration with your standard MMORPG format as found in, say World of Warcraft, and it seems like the other games (Aion, Rift) that are trying to unseat WoW still suffer from the same kinds of grindy, linear gameplay. Do you think Storybricks will lead to the breath of fresh air MMORPG players are looking for?

KH: We took our prototype to Gen Con and later PAX trying to answer that question. Do we have something players want? Or at least think they want? Storybricks is a newer, better solution to a problem that’s been solved poorly in the past – allowing players to create their own stories in the worlds they love. NeverwinterNights did it; City of Heroes and Star Trek Online have done it. But the tools have been onerous and the content limited to a few with specialized skills and a lot of time. While we expected the answer to, “Is this is a toolset you’d like to use?” to be yes, it is the implications of the emotive AI and what it does to the game experience that required feedback. The type of game we are attempting to make is difficult to describe because there’s no real comparison; we can only describe what it isn’t. It’s not combat-focused; it’s not level-centric. But it is about stories and the relationships one develops between players and NPCs so that one’s actions in the world affect those relationships.
CT: How do you think this toolset will help game story developers and writers? Storybricks personally appeals to me because of how, as a writer, you spend so much time and energy devoted to world building – character motivations, faith systems, magic, fighting skills, etc. – and sometimes it feels that so little of it ends up in the game or story proper. This seems like a great way to have all of that work pay off in a genuine reaction between an NPC and a PC.
KH: Storybricks does a lot of the work of designing characters for the writer “under the hood” so to speak. For example, a guard may be an NPC who is defined by the traits honor and duty, but what does that mean? Honor and duty become the primary drives for the NPC guard; this allows for what we call Moods, or the types of relationships that are open to this NPC. These Moods might be neutral, caring, inflexible, lazy or solemn – ways the guard might feel in particular situations or between other players/NPCs. Then each mood allows for particular interactions. Inflexible interactions might be denounce, stonewall and calm down; yet if the guard is “feeling” lazy it might only dismiss. All of this is done for the player and the developer. This creates deeper characters.

And this only defines the NPC guard – a generic guard. If you wanted to make a particular guard you could give him drives of love, riches and fame on top of honor and duty and it would be a truly interesting NPC!

CT: Another aspect that affects writers quite a bit is the lore and media that occur outside the game – Ubisoft has recently put out an extensive encyclopedia for their Assassin’s Creed games, and Blizzard has books released regularly detailing events that happen in the Warcraft universe. On the other hand, both franchises have rich fanfiction bases as well. Do you think Storybricks will enhance one side of the coin, or the other? Will player-created content have the kind of feeling of fanfiction (fun when you don’t want the story to end, but no big deal) or something more like player created Neverwinter Nights toolsets or Dragon Age mods, that have become crucial to the main game for a lot of players?

KH: We hope that it will affect both! But we realize that most storytellers are not writers in the strictest sense of the word. They don’t create worlds out of thin air. However, once a person knows enough about a subject he/she can tell a story about it. We suspect that most Storybricks stories will be of the fan fiction-type which opens up a world of possibilities. We envision a marketplace like Apple’s app store for stories where players can rate a la Netflix the stories they play. Players that don’t develop stories of their own can still purchase pieces of dialogue or campaigns developed by others and place those into their own game. Those stories that fit the lore and are highly rated and played frequently would be those we would work with the player to make a permanent part of the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, there will be players who simply want to use our game’s assets and toolset to create their own stories that have nothing to do with the gameworld and that’s just as fantastic. Whatever we need to do to allow players to tell the stories they want to do is what we’re aiming for.

CT: Open-ended games where you can achieve different endings aren’t new – I remember trying to get all the endings to Crono Trigger back when I was a kid. But when your in-game decisions affect someone as small as a farmer or a city guard, it seems like it fogs up the idea of game endings. How will the fluid storytelling of a game created with the Storybricks toolset affect the endings of a game?
KH: Well, if you can achieve different endings they aren’t really open-ended games, just games with multiple endings. In our game, because of the nature of the relationships you’ll have with NPCs, the “stories” never really end. You may get the Queen’s necklace for her and she may be grateful – for a time, but because you’ve saved that other King’s daughter from the monster she is now angry with you and if you care how she feels about you, you’ll need to determine a way to get back in her favor. What’s more, it may not be something you can do directly but require you to work on a relationship four degrees away, which may anger somebody else…
CT: How do you think this will change player attitudes towards NPCs? Everyone who’s played Warcraft probably remembers or has heard about ganking poor Gamon in Orgrimmar (before he became a massively powerful elite, anyway) But it seems likely that if kiting Gamon out to the auction house steps and killing him results in the NPC being accosted by or turned away from, say, an important vendor because she was Gamon’s sister, that might cause them to re-evaluate certain kinds of griefing. Or, I suppose, play as an utter sociopath.
KH: NPCs will no longer be simple quest givers. The quest “Kill Ten Rats and bring me Ten Rat Tails” simply doesn’t exist in our world so skipping all of the flavor text to find those words won’t work. If by chance you had an “I need ten rat tails” quest, then you would want to pay close attention to the mood of the NPC – how is she emoting? what interactions are available? – and really read whatever text is available. How you get those ten rat tails (kill ten rats, steal them, barter, buy then, persuade for them, etc.) becomes important when your actions can affect your relationship with the original quest giver.
CT: Exactly. Will there also be NPCs who will be the object of quests that can affect your relationship with them as well as the quest givers? Say you get the quest for the rat tails, and you kill ten rats to get them. Would this affect the PCs relationship with the local rat guy because you’ve suddenly killed all his pets?
KH: This is why you have to pay attention to everything you do.

According to Kelly, the delivery on Storybricks continues at a breakneck pace; they’re hoping to start betas within the next 30 days, and have the tool complete within 4-6 months. It’s a lot of work to build a new toolset in order to create the game Namaste wants to make, but she told me “Sometimes you have to build the hammer before you start work on the house.”

If you’re interested in more information on Namaste and Storybricks, be sure to check out Mana Obscura’s excellent look at the tool as well.


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