c.e. taillefer

October 6, 2016

Words words words: sharing ideas as a non-artist in a visual world

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Here’s my terrible secret. I can’t draw.

oh right, this was never a secret

oh right, this was never a secret

So how does someone who can’t do art communicate ideas in a clear, brief, visual way? Enter the Pixar Pitch: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Let’s try it with Dragon Age 2:

Once upon a time, the Hawke family escaped a plague known as the Blight, leaving their homeland to find refuge across the sea.  Every day, they struggled to gain entrance into the city of Kirkwall, along with hundreds of other refugees from the Blight. One day, Hawke accepted an offer of work from a smuggler in exchange for getting her family into the city. Because of that, Hawke joins a treasure-hunting expedition to fund her family’s rise from the slums, where she finds an idol made of strange material. Because of that, Hawke, along with her companions, gains power in Kirkwall, despite increasing instability in the leader of the templar and mage forces, caused by the mysterious idol. Until finally, Hawke’s companion blows up the Chantry to force a war between the mages and templars that will require people to choose sides.

Not very elegant, but hopefully hits the major beats of the game. It’s complicated by the fact that unlike a Pixar film, Dragon Age 2 features a number of branching pathways a player can take. There are a few other major plot points the player must achieve not covered by this framework: the death/loss of Hawke’s family members, one by one; the Qunari invasion and defeat by Hawke. But all of these relate back either to Hawke’s rise in influence and power due to the sucessful expedition, or the insanity plaguing the leaders of the city, due to the idol, also from the expedition.

But it still doesn’t tell us much about the look and feel of the game, does it?  Someone reading this could surmise that it’s fairly dark in terms of material, between a world ending plague and terrorists blowing up buildings full of innocent people, or that there are narrative elements that can’t be avoided no matter which path the player chooses for Hawke. But is it realistic? Semi-abstract? What’s the music like? How do people play it?  The Pixar pitch is good for brainstorming, but there’s not enough information in it to fully realize a games vision.

Thoughts? How do you explain stuff to people when you don’t do art?

September 22, 2016

So Hyped for the Destruction of Humanity: One year of Undertale

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I can’t believe Undertale has been out for a full year!  But it must be so; Toby Fox said it and I definitely remember getting my brain simultaneously busted wide open starting the game design program at the same time as my first play-though.

Spoilers for all routes of the game beneath the jump!

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March 18, 2016

Just Star-Do It: a Stardew Valley post

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Unlike most who played Stardew Valley right from launch day, I hadn’t been following it’s progression over the past four years at all.  It came up in my Steam queue as a suggested title, and I bought it on a whim.  Looks cute, has farming, supports indie development? Sure, why not.

200 hours later:

what is sleep? what is food?

There’s a few reasons why SDV sucked me, and so many others (it’s currently 3rd on the Steam top seller list) in.  One major one for me is I don’t know when to quit sometimes and SDV capitalizes on that – not in a malicious way, but the mechanics of saving are tied directly to going to bed at the end of the day.  You fall into your little pixel bed at the end of a long day, get a progress update on your farm’s productivity, and the game saves.  Before logging out, however, the cheery 6AM music entices you to just check your mail.  Maybe see if that chicken hatched? All of the sudden it’s 10PM in-game, and another hour of your life is gone.

The simple tasks – farming, brewing, raising livestock, mining for ore and treasures, fishing – are compelling enough to keep players on their own.  But it wasn’t until I started investing in the community that the game really got its hooks into my tender heart.

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November 22, 2015

Officially For Real – The BGNLab is Launched!

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Laurier Brantford professor Scott Nicholson wants to help his students change the world — one game at a time.

Nicholson is leading the university’s innovative Game Design and Development program, unique to the province, which debuted this year at the campus.

Friday marked the official opening of new Brantford Games Network Lab, known as the BGNlab, located on the main floor of the university’s Grand River Hall on Colborne Street.

The former credit union building has been transformed into a gamers’ paradise.

Students wearing white lab coats welcomed dozens of guests into the lab outfitted with computers, white boards, screens, game tables and a huge collection of board games. It’s here that students will work on their gaming projects.

A lounge area, equipped with plug-and-play screens, will be used by students to test games. In an area called the Zone, students will mostly have fun with various gaming consoles and high-end PCs.

The goal of the lab, said Nicholson, is to spark engagement and collaboration between Laurier students, community organizations and local game enthusiasts to develop “made-in-Brantford” solutions to improve lives through games and play.

Read the whole article at the Expositor here.

As you can surmise, the past four months has been something of a blur with starting a new program, full-time work, raising a puppy (yes, he’s still here. More on that later!), house work and frivolous stuff like sleeping and eating.  It also occurred to me at the Friday launch event that as a part-time student, I’ll be part of four or five different cohorts of students, which is a shame because I really like the ones I’m with now.  I know I’m in the right place though, because half of my insomnia lately has been on account of having Too Many Ideas, which is a good problem for a creative type person to have.  It was the same when I was starting Paucity, and we all know how well that’s been going.  That’s not even sarcasm, it’s been going pretty well!

I also want to re-iterate again what a friendly program GDD is to mature students; because it’s not solely about programming, or AAA games, I genuinely feel anyone, of any age, with an interest in games and social change, would do very well here.  Hint, hint, pretty much all of my twitter friends.

October 30, 2014

#GameOverGate

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Gamergate* is dead.  Indeed, it’s been dead in the water since it began.  I’m not going to cover the genesis, or the long arc of harassment and continued misunderstandings about what words like “ethics“, “games” or “journalism” mean. That, as you can see, has already been extensively covered.

But like a rapidly transmitted virus – say, the flu – the reach of Gamergate went far beyond the borders of the nation of ManCavelandia to find coverage in the mainstream media from the likes of NPR, PBS or the New York Post.  In no particular order, the death of Gamergate:

1) Actually…

No one actually buys the ethics in games journalism defence.  It was a slapdash bandaid applied to a bitter ex’s angry blog rant about a claim of collusion that is provably false. More than a few minutes spent in any of the forums for pro-GG posters show that a) they’re primarily concerned with punishing women who critique the game industry status quo and b) they have no fucking idea what ethics in journalism actually means, since they feel like games coverage shouldn’t be critical or negative of a product when that company also advertises with you.  No, really.

gamergate-memes-actuallyethics-04

The smokescreen of ethics probably makes the next point so infuriating.

2) Mainstream media coverage:

In a setting where “fair and balanced” coverage means giving both sides of the story equal play, even if one side is completely ridiculous (looking at you, climate change “debates”), the MSM has been unequivocally critical of Gamergate. New York Times coverage focuses on GG as a movement devoted to silencing feminist critics of games, Forbes ran an article criticizing Intel’s decision in pulling advertising based on the campaign, and big name stations like CNN and the BBC covered the Utah State massacre threats because, well, obviously.

In fact, the only thing GG appears to have been remotely successful at with regards to mainstream media is getting Anita Sarkeesian interviewed on everything, including the Colbert report:

(In a cute piece of irony Alanis would love, most GGers seem to believe this is a coop for the movement because Stephen Colbert argues for boobies in video games.)

3)  Everyone knows it’s about hating women.

Chris Kluwe took basically an enormous verbal dump on Gamergate hydra-like head, and nothing happened. (He made a few people cry, maybe.) Nerd idols like Joss Whedon, Wil Wheaton and Greg Rucka have all spoken against the toxic nature of the movement.  And yet, it’s Anita Sarkeesian, Felicia Day, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu – all relative small potatoes, until they got national attention for being targets, anyway – were the ones threatened.  Those threats were widely reported on, which led to a number of reporters looking into men who have criticized GG, and why they weren’t threatened.  Considering this is the media that was hesitant to talk about the Isla Vista shooter’s misogyny, don’t you think that’s a little telling?

4) Games are changing.

Anita covers it a bit in her talk, but the truth is that interdisciplinary programs are gaining ground in universities and colleges, and many media labs and incubators have computer scientists who are artists as well, visual artists who can code, writers who can market.  This isn’t just meant to double-dip and save money, but rather reflect the flexibility and diversity of the world in the people who make games, so that games can grow beyond the linear narrative structures and kill-to-win models that dominate a lot of major game studios’ portfolios.  Sandbox games like Animal Crossing, Tomodachi Life, the Sims, and Fantasy Life are immensely popular, entertaining and fun.  You can’t beat them them.  The only way to win is the satisfaction of enjoying the game while playing it.

Same.

Olaf gets it.

What’s more, you get games like Fold it, where the satisfaction and enjoyment from the game can also be derived from the sense of purpose that succeeding has applicable, real-life benefits.  Check out the latest puzzle, for example, where players need to find a way to bypass a cap on the ebola virus that prevents a cure from binding before the virus can bind to a human host. Terrified of ebola? Be the actual change here.

Gamification has gotten a bad rap because it’s used so poorly in most cases. rewards based systems only work so long as the reward is high enough value for you to press through doing your homework, or chores, or job.  But gamification done well broadens the scope and arena of gaming to be pretty much limitless, which is terrifying for Gamergate.  How can it be a special club if everyone enjoys it?

*not to be confused with gamergates, or reproductively viable worker ants.

April 3, 2014

Goat Simulator is So Important

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I want to take a sec and thank everyone on Facebook, Twitter and here for their support during the aftermath of Gary’s death.  It hit both me and Chris really hard, and even people from around the globe who’d gotten used to me posting his mug all over the place were saddened by the loss. Even a month later, I’m still really struggling to cope, but I can mostly write about it without crying now, so if you want or need to talk to someone about their first experience with losing a beloved pet, I’m your gal.

But the past month wasn’t all bad.  You know what I’m talking about. Goat. Simulator.

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November 2, 2013

Down the Video Game Rabbit Hole: A Silence in Three Parts

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(Don’t hurt me, ronan wills!!)

I’d love to update y’all saying my life has been SOOOO busy with my cool new dog, and how I went jetskiing in Cuba, and then maybe saved a whole bunch of babies and kittens from a fire, but the sad truth is, I’ve just been sucked into a bunch of video games, which has leeched my brain power just so that doing normal things like cooking or updating a blog has been tough.  But who am I, if not someone who has learned since kindergarten that sharing is caring?  In order of time suck, here’s what’s been occupying my life:

#3 – Tie between Pokemon Soul Silver and Flight Rising:

This one is weird, because they’re really only tied as a result of being my last-resort games, depending on location. Flight Rising has limited registration, I’m assuming to reduce the load on its burdened servers, but most of what you can accomplish in FR is limited to daily-type efforts – gathering, breeding, trading, etc. are all for the most part limited to daily, or hourly events.  Once you’re done for the day/hour, there’s not much you can do.  With one exception: the coliseum:

coliseum flight rising

The Coliseum isn’t limited by anything other than the breadth of your patience for a laggy, clunky, turn-based combat system. Leveling is incredibly slow (for example, I play it fairly regularly, and my dragons are only level 17), often crashes or hangs up, and actions don’t play through when you’re tabbed into another tab. (HINT from a friend: it WILL if you’ve moved the coliseum to its own window, though since your monsters have no auto-attack abilities, that doesn’t mean much in the end.) Why bother at all? It’s one of the only consistent ways to get treasure that aren’t limited by the daily/hourly limits mentioned above, and also one of the only places to get familiars for your dragons without paying for them. For a perfectionist collector type like me, this presents a problem.  But the tedious nature means it’s limited to playing only while waiting for something better, like a queue to pop.

Pokemon is my Flight Rising for when I’m already in bed.  This is especially a problem because I just reached Goldenrod City, which means:

voltorb flip

Even worse than the Coliseum because it a) requires counting and b) the Pokemon you can buy with the coins gathered from playing Voltorb Flip are otherwise difficult ones to catch in the wild. Then of course, I saw a picture of a Dratini and there I go, counting and muttering to myself.  There are, of course, online calculators you can use to determine locations of payouts, but as I’m usually playing in bed, I’m at the mercy of my own dubious math skills.  We’ll see if I change my tune when it comes to getting the items worth tens of thousands of coins.

My interest in Pokemon lies pretty much in two things: I like cute monsters, and all my friends were playing Pokemon X/Y, and I felt left out.  I own… three Pokemon games, none of which have I progressed beyond beating most of the gyms.  On the other hand, you can pretty much pick up any Pokemon game much later and still have a reasonable idea of what you’re doing!

I also really resent the kidnapping scam the day care dude and lady are running.  “Hey, let us watch your Pokemon for you, we love those lil darlings. Oh, you want your slowpoke back? That’ll be 1080 gil/gold/key thingies, thanks.” Elderly scammers :C

#2: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn:

I joined the beta with friends back in the early summer when it was open, and enjoyed the pretty graphics a lot. As a lifelong gnome irl, I am totally in love with the Lalafell:

Finally, when I found out that the backstory to FFXIV: ARR was the absolute failure of the initial FFXIV game, as told via the in-game NPCs, I had to have it.  It was well-timed; as much as Mists of Pandaria was pretty and compelling, it had maybe too much going on.  Leveling alts became almost impossible, and that was one of my favourite ways to while away the end of an expansion; there was simply too much to DO on my main character.  FFXIV takes this inclination and builds it into your character – she can be any of the jobs and classes in the game all on her own, simply by changing her weapon.  So my thaumaturge is carrying around a scepter, a bow (for Archer), a spinning wheel (weaver), a hatchet (botanist), a fishing rod (fisher) and a skillet (culinarian).  That’s not including the classes I haven’t yet even dabbled in!  Because it’s all on one character, it doesn’t feel super overwhelming – if I need some stat food made, I just equip my skillet and add it myself.

Bank alts are built into the system – at a certain point in the story, you’re granted the opportunity to hire retainers, which hold your excess items and allow you to post things on the Market Board (aka the Auction House).  You can even design them to look any way you wish, and in the future (I think), you’ll be able to dress them too.  The retainer system can be a little clunky, because you have to be in a major city to access them, but once you get used to it, it’s not so bad.  The only other downside is in order to access gil you’ve made from selling items, you also have to go to your retainer.  (Buying items from the Market Board puts the items directly into your bags.)  This can be a problem when you accidentally spend 20K gil on fishing lures.

Did I mention the game is really pretty??

ffxiv_09182013_203801

 

There are also some small cosmetic changes that are so glaringly simple, you wonder why WoW doesn’t have it already – for example, when marking creatures in dungeons, your choices are 1, 2, 3 etc. Normally not a problem in WoW, save that I’ve been in raids where skull actually meant DO NOT ATTACK rather than ATTACK ME FIRST and that did not go well for me. Similarly, monsters out in the world are labelled with letters, so that you can similarly note which target to attack first if need be (say, in a FATE).  I’ve not seen the latter done before, but it’s an option, which is handy.

Bag space: not only do you have your bags, you also have an armoury chest, where items you can equip go automatically, a key items bag where quest items go automatically (and which opens automatically when handing in a quest), and a crystals bag, where your crystals for crafting go. Your retainers have 9 bags apiece, in addition to a crystals bag of their own.  This is good because there are a lot of items. The one potential downside to being all things in one character is you keep everything in case you need it for some class, somewhere. The major complaint I have about all this bag space is that there’s no search feature, and keeping your bags organized can be a hellish chore.

#1 Tied (for now) Hearthstone and Puzzle and Dragons:

I only received my Hearthstone beta key a week ago, so it’s hard to tell at the moment whether my fascination is novelty, or if it has staying power compared to PAD.  But for someone who’s never played a TCG before, Hearthstone is surprisingly accessible, easy to learn and hard to master, and an interesting soundtrack.  Beta is a great time to try weird and daring things since everything will be wiped come release day.  My main concern so far has been in the versus competitions, it seems like the most common/viable strategy is to just place as many minions as you can and overwhelm the other player – which doesn’t seem very fun to me when you have cards like Flare, Blade Flurry and Angry Chicken to play with!

angry chicken

The nice thing about Hearthstone is that there are no chatrooms.  You can only communicate with your opponent via a small group of pre-set sayings, like Greetings, Thank you and I’m sorry. You can also disenchant cards you don’t want and use the subsequent reagent to build the cards you do, taking out the card bloat that can plague TCG.

The bad thing about Hearthstone is it’s very easy to want to play a few games and earn a little gold towards a new card pack, and suddenly realize it’s four hours later.

See also: Puzzle and Dragon, albeit with a caveat.

PAD is a f2p/microtransaction game that is essentially Bejeweled meets Pokemon.  It hits all my weak spots: cute monsters! deceptively simple game play! semi-hard “time to quit now” limits! gambling!

bastet

 

The tutorial walks you through most of the how-tos, so I won’t bore you here, since you’ll clearly be downloading it after this post.  Basically, you enter dungeons, doing damage or healing by matching 3 or more orbs.  Damage can be multiplied through multiple combos or monster abilities. While there’s an in-app transaction mode, you can progress quite well through the game without ever purchasing the currency, with a little luck and perseverance.

My first game, I started with an Archangel. The auto-heal ability was good, but there came a point in the game progression where I got stuck.  I recommend any new player start a game, move forward with whatever they get at first and see how they like it.  If they luck out with a good starter, they can keep going. If not, you can do what I did, and re-start the game.  In the Android version, this requires going into the task manager, deleting the game data, and starting over.  THIS IS EXTREMELY TEDIOUS so I don’t recommend a new player go through with this unless they’re sure they’d like to keep playing, either for free or with game purchases.  Keep running the tutorial and using your five free stones at the rare egg machine until you roll something truly excellent, like one of these:

kushinada lucifer kirin horus

 

(From top: Kushinada, Archangel Lucifer, Kirin, Horus)

 

There are others worth starting with too, especially since some of these (like Horus and Kirin) require making multiple combos each match, which can be challenging for a new player.  My two accounts (shh) started with Haku and Artemis, and both have served me very well.  Besides, LOOK AT HOW CUTE.

If you do start playing, and have a facebook account, I highly recommend joining “Puzzles and Dragons Global” They have very useful FAQs for beginners and more advanced players, are extremely active (great for when you want to know when a new event is starting!) and excellent rules. (“Avoid using offensive racial/ethnic slurs or terminology relating to sexual orientation/acts.” “No harassment towards other members.”)

All set? Good, I guess we’ll see each other in a few months.

June 28, 2013

Sorry Not Sorry 3: I Play Animal Crossing

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Okay, this is kind of a cheater entry into the SNS series because in terms of problematic content, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has very few, barring the lack of customization for skin colour. (And many other writers than me have already tackled it.)

But being absorbed so thoroughly into a game (I’ve logged 131 hours since June 9th!) has left me a mostly-unresponsive meat envelope, intent on getting that perfect fruit, or completing that furniture set, or getting as many bells as I can to stuff into Tom Nook’s greedy pockets – which can be a problem.  I described ACNL to someone as “easy to learn, but difficult to master”. Mastery, unlike a lot of other games, doesn’t come so much from skill, but from time invested.  Many of the projects you want to complete only occur in real time – if you want to upgrade your house, work isn’t complete till the next day.  If you finish paying off a public works project, it won’t be built till the next day. Everything happens in real-time in the game, unlike other sim games where time is accelerated.

I missed a date with Flurry and that makes me the Worst Mayor.

I missed a date with Flurry and that makes me the Worst Mayor.

It’s also like a very slow-paced MMO – your town gates can be opened so your friends can visit, look around your town, shop the wares on Main Street, trample your flowers and scare your villagers.  Alternately, they can open their town gates, and you can go visit them.  You can trade furniture with one another, send letters to them or their townspeople, or have really intense conversations:

This dude knows the way to my heart.

This dude knows the way to my heart.

Hans, let's lay around and read comics all day.

Hans, let’s lay around and read comics all day.

H-hans-senpai...

H-hans-senpai…

This I think is the killer crux of the game – the possibilities are pretty much limitless.  No matter if you’ve maxed out your house expansions – you can always change the exterior, or completely redo a room.  Clothing designs in the shops seem blah? Design your own! Share them online.  Keep talking to your villagers to unlock new projects to build, and shopping at your stores to expand their wares and selection.  Holidays and festivals have special events and items.  Try and get horrible villagers to move, or keep ones you like in your town forever.  Save all the bells and get achievements and rewards.  Try and max out your bug collection, or your fish one.   Collect (genuine) art for your museum.

Same.

Same.

Alternately, if you’re not a perfectionst with an addictive personality, Animal Crossing is a great game to pick up and play for a few minutes a day. Of course, if you’re susceptible to emotional manipulation, your villagers tend to get sad about your lack of presence, and your town gets covered in weeds.  But there’s nothing stopping you from just playing the turnip market once a week, or checking now and then to water your flowers and check your mail.

Plus who could forget this video?

So yeah, I play animal crossing.  And I’m only sorry because sometimes I have to push Gary off my stomach so I can catch a rare golden stag.  I’m sorry little buddy.

Gary: "Same, weird frog guy."

Gary: “Same, weird frog guy.”

March 8, 2013

Tropes versus Women – Damsel in Distress 1

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Hey, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released the very first episode of her long-awaited kickstarter Tropes versus Women project. Check it out if you have a chance, the history on certain video games (Super Mario Bros 2 was new to me and really interesting!) I’m looking forward to part 2 of damsels in distress, as well as the other topics she’s planning on covering.

September 5, 2011

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

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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.