Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Themepark vs Sandbox? How about DM?

Raph Koster wrote about an interview that GameSetWatch had with some of the developers of Red 5 on their up and coming MMO, which I guess has the dubious aim of rivaling WoW (they've got something like $20M in venture capital backing them). The interview is mostly about Red 5's aim of creating a world that changes based on how the players act and behave. The popular metaphor they toss around was "save the village, and it'll stay saved". I think that's a rather bad metaphor for a good way of having a world where you can have an impact, but it does sort of get the idea across.

The feeling I get from Raph is that he's rather skeptical about just how far Red 5 is going to go, and about how effective they will be. And obviously the guys in the interview are extremely optimistic about what they're talking about.

I have to say, I like what they have to say, particularly the way they liken it to being DM in D&D rather than being a writer. Of course, Raph has his point in that at the end of the day, you have to find some way to actually implement your plan. He lists a couple of examples of attempts at creating processes that imitate dynamism:

"There’s a zillion things that have been tried along these lines.

  • Spawners that grow in power and overrun stuff.
  • Spawning spawners.
  • Player cities and housing, which are persistent elements affecting the landscape.
  • NPC factions with tilts based on user actions
  • Keystone quests that affect regions of the game, spawns, or large-scale events
  • Territory control games.

These things all create emergent narrative as users change things."

Some of those sound like some pretty interesting ideas. I wonder how many were really tried, and how successful they were. Being rather inexperienced with MMOs in general (I unfortunately, only played WoW, and have no intention of starting to play anything so time intensive right now), I really don't know what has been given a good chance at success. Especially since there are many games out there that have brilliant ideas, but poor execution, which often sentences those brilliant ideas to languish in purgatory until someone finds them.

The thing I'm noticing with these is that they seem... piecemeal. Maybe I'm being overcritical, but either way it's a good excuse to talk about it.

Several items on that list are simply slightly more abstract versions of processes that already exist. Spawning spawners, or growing spawners? More clever than simple spawners, but still predictable. NPC factions and territory control? Better, but basically just a tug-of-war, and king of the hill. Player housing is basically just player-generated content that no one else cares about.

Now, "keystone quests" that affect regions of the game, along with another example he gave of spawning complex quests that actually change the region around them. Those both sound more interesting, though they still have issues in my mind. One, quests that affect regions have the issue of not benefiting very many players. The spawning of more complex quests was not implemented; it sounds like that was because it was a bit too complex to implement on a reasonable budget. In other words, one doesn't have enough "payoff" in how many players get to play it, and the other has too much of a "cost" to implement.

But I still like those two better, because they try to combine more dynamic processes with narrative.

I would say that right now, WoW is probably the best at implementing narrative sorts of things in MMOs. Their quest system in WotLK is finely tuned, and combined with phasing, makes individual players feel special. And obviously their raiding game is top notch, also containing excellent "procedural" content.

The downside to their methods is that it's all based on illusion. The entire world is ultimately static. The least static part would probably be the Lake Wintergrasp zone, but the way it's set up is designed so that almost every battle that takes place there results in the attackers winning, creating a cycle of conquer-reconquer that results in an overall static situation.

The irony here is that against this procedurally static backdrop, there is the extremely dynamic social scene. Guilds forming and reforming, groups and raids running dungeons, friends being made and rivalries forming. In other words, the people playing this game are engaging in social activities that are largely unstable and very dynamic. Communities tend to spring up around every aspect of the game.

So, what if the game world only existed because of those dynamic communities? You'd probably get Eve. What if instead, the game world changed a little to reflect the activities of those dynamic communities?

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