In Which I Invoke Robert Johnson to Talk About Storybricks
Let's get the cliches out of the way. With the failure of 38 Studios, and the, well, mixed success would be a polite way of describing Star Wars: The Old Republic, it's clear that the MMO world is at a bit of a crossroads. (This is where Robert Johnson, he who learned to play guitar when he met the Devil at the crossroads, comes in). These failures are very, very different, but still, it gets you wondering whether MMO's have any future at all.
Here's stuff that I know to be true: People like adventuring and computer gaming. That's still true. People also like doing it together.
I see two big issues with the MMO model. First is the lack of social contract between players.
In any tabletop game, there is a social contract. The players and GM will agree to meet at certain times, to play with certain rules, and often, on what the focus of the group will be within the world of the setting, be it home-brew or store-bought. There was also some agreement as to decorum and language. I'm not just talking about coarse language, but also about homophobia, or political commentary, and so on. What sort of things are talked about in OOC, and in what way...
Not all groups start this way, but any good tabletop game ends up with a sense of shared mission among the players. MMO's completely lacked this. Small groups could recreate this, and the raiding game could give a guild this. The lack of social contract in the population of an MMO at large has been highly corrosive to the public aspect of these games, which is why pick-up groups have become such a problem. The best pickup group these days just pounds through an instance at top speed, saying almost nothing to each other.
The second problem with MMO's is their persistent nature. Player characters can defeat great evils and destroy threats, and they will respawn in 15 minutes, so that the next group of PC's can defeat them.
The drive to have an impact has shown up in such things as appearance gear and house (and guild hall) decoration. Players absolutely loved these features in EQ2, who did them better than anything else I've seen, though I'm by no means a sampler of all things MMO.
I think the drive to have an impact on the world is also what drives people to grief. Developmental psychologists will tell you that children will repeat whatever behavior got them the most attention, regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative. There's also a bit of regression involved as well - since most gamers these days, even though they are now adults, started gaming when they were children, they continue to behave as children while they are gaming. But that's back to the social contract issue.
In single-player games like Skyrim or Mass Effect (I, II, and III) the player's choices have consequences to the world. You get to decide whether the Stormcloaks win or the Empire wins. It's not prejudged for you either, there's no obvious "good guy". In ME, what you do will have consequences later on, consequences which you might not have been able to foresee.
You can't have this experience in most MMO's. Of course, the one exception to all this is EVE Online. You can build space stations in EVE, and you can blow them up. You can build ships, and you can destroy them. When you mine out an asteroid field it's gone, although another one will pop up soon. However, since there are a large, but limited number of spaces for space stations and mining and so on, it is absolutely necessary that EVE be PVP, and that the game mechanics not preclude players blowing up other players stuff.
Which means that EVE has a social contract, of sorts. The contract is roughly a lowest-common-denominator contract - anything goes, as long as you're not hacking the game system itself. Lie, cheat, steal, ambush - go for it. If you're ok with that as a social contract within the game, then EVE offers you the possibility of doing things that impact everyone. Things like Jita Burns.
However, if that's not the social contract you're interested in, there isn't much out there for you.
So, those are the problems that we face today. However, there are some things that are still true.
- People like to play computer games.
- People like to play those games with other people sometimes.
- People like to have adventures.
- People like to express themselves.
I think that to go where I want to go, then, will require more participation by non-paid GM's, and worlds (servers you could call them) that have smaller populations. And those GM's are going to need lots of tools to help them create interesting worlds for their friends to play in.
And that's where Storybricks comes in. The point is to build tools that will let non-professionals populate a world with characters that do things that seem human and reasonable and not simply "one-path" amusement park rides. It's an interesting approach.
After getting walked through the tool by Kelly Heckman and Brian "Psychochild" Green, I spent some time last week (while on vacation) playing with their demo toy.
Before I tell you my reaction to it, I want to tell you a story from my mundane software development days. Another guy in my group took over a parallel-C programming language product about the time I started work. We had a parallel FORTRAN project that was very popular. He found that there were very few customer reported bugs, but as he worked on it, he found a lot of problems on his own and fixed them. With a new release, the customer-reported bug rate went way, way up.
At first this disappointed him, until he realized that what it all meant is that before his work, everyone had written off the product, and weren't trying to use it at all. Now, they were encouraged enough to file bug reports. They cared.
With regard to Storybricks, I found that I had several frustrations with the demo, but on reflection, all those frustrations mean one thing, I want to use this tool more, and I want it to be better, so that I can do more with it. And that's a good thing.
The 3D browser package Unity3D isn't very stable. I had several crashes and freezes, which were frustrating. Currently the only models available in the game are male, and this was an issue for me. I wanted to be able to name the characters myself. I wanted to be able to create new objects. I had problems with the program not saving the dialog I typed into certain boxes. I want to create a character named Toldain with fabulous red hair, you know I do!
With my software developer hat on, I understand all of these problems. It's a demo, not even an alpha. And my frustration means, among other things, that I want to use this more.
My personal efforts, in my spare time, are to push tabletop gaming into the cloud more - to go turn-based, social, and maybe even mobile, to exploit what computers can do to make things simpler for users and GM's. I would preserve the "live" GM, if for no other reason than I want players to be able to pick up a fork at the dinner table and stab someone with it. In a programmed world, forks are for eating and swords are for stabbing. Bridging the gap is a deep, deep AI problem, which as far as I know has been outstanding for 30 years. So my approach is "keep the GM and give them tools to make their life easier".
Storybricks is working on the same problem, but from another direction. They are trying to push MMO's in the direction of tabletop RPG's. Or as the phrase is in the MMO world, towards more "user generated content". It's a welcome approach to me, and I support it. The world is full of very creative people who do really cool stuff in their spare time. If you don't believe me, cruise YouTube some time. So let's give some of those creative people the ability to create multiplayer online roleplaying experiences.
Anyway, I'm pledging to their Kickstarter campaign, and so should you. As I write this, there's about 25 hours left. Show some support.