Sunday, June 25, 2006

MMNG: Global Narrative, Part One

A lot of people think that the problem with user-generated content is that most of it is very poor. This isn't the problem at all: most internet-distributed games are very poor. But you rarely hear about the bad ones because there's an entire infrastructure dedicated to sorting them.

The problem that people are really talking about is that the games don't have any such infrastructure.

Anyway, even that isn't the real problem. The real problem is, however, somewhat related.

The real problem is that there is no shared narrative in games with heavy user-generated content.

In most games, such as WoW or even A Tale in the Desert, there's a shared experience, a shared language. You and some other player can do that old skit: "Hey, remember when we did that thing with the doojigie?" "Yeah, and then that girl said that stuff?" "Yeah!" (Both laugh.)

This is important - it ties the fan base together.

Players will talk about all the global narratives that crop up. This includes "metagame" global narratives, such as nerfing the paladins or how irritating a particular subculture is.

Sometimes, in a game like SecondLife, you'll get a tide of content of one variety, and suddenly you have a player-created global narrative. For example, the recent increase in the number of crackers taking down servers: everyone talks about it. It's a global narrative that is player-generated.

The problem being, of course, that everyone playing the game despises it. They can't do anything about it. They can't learn the deep secrets, or play with it. That's because SecondLife doesn't have a framework to support global narratives in a constructive way. In order to have a global narrative, it essentially has to be outside of the game, leading to culture wars and hackers.

Eve Online and A Tale in the Desert both have some global support framework. While very difficult, players can have a functionally global effect in these worlds, because players can directly and distinctly affect the well-being of other players. This gives people a vested interest in one another - something which is lacking from nearly all MMORPGs, including SecondLife and WoW.

It's no surprise that both Eve and aTitD have a huge amount of politics, co-op, and PvP (Eve has more PvP, aTitD has more politics). Those are the two basic types of interaction - in-game-engine interaction, out-of-game-engine interaction, and both simultaneously (co-op). Their framework doesn't offer any other kind of interaction, so the options are rather limited.

"What other options are there?"

Well, there's emotional and narrative systems, in theory. The problem is that any given player isn't reliable in any way, so these systems can be abused.

Any given player isn't reliable...

But all players taken as a group are.

This is how Eve Online and aTitD work. aTitD uses a heavy-churn method. The designers introduce a large number of designer global challenges and let players compete. If a player flakes out, no big deal, he doesn't succeed. Someone else does.

If a player grabs power and then flakes out, aTitD adapts by eventually restarting the whole universe. Not exactly ideal, but such is life. A slacking powerful character will also be eventually replaced by an upstart, even if the powerful character completed a global challenge and the upstart did not: the upstart simply works hard and/or completes a different global challenge.

Eve takes the opposite approach, with a minimum of designer global challenges. Instead, they have an unforgiving economic engine. If a corporate head flakes out after rising to the top, then the rest of the corporation will either flee to more agile corporations or replace the slacking corporate head.

Neither of these approaches is particularly friendly to the casual or new player. In fact, both universes are hugely unfriendly to a newb. Not the players: the universe. There is a steep learning curve, mostly related to the fact that the social terrain of the game is built on the fly by the players, rather than being carefully engineered by the designers.

So, here's the question:

Is there a method for allowing this kind of player-affected (if not player-driven) global narrative content without destroying the experience for a casual player or newbie? Also, the global narrative content can't be the only narrative content - players all still have to have unique experiences.

Can you think of a way to do it that doesn't revolve around statistical power? IE, no economics, no +10 sword, no climbing the battle ranking ladder.

How would you do it?

(As you might have noticed, this is part one. In part two, I'll throw out some of my ideas.)


Patrick Dugan said...

The massive space really isn't my thing, at least not yet, so I don't have a solution to offer. What I can say is that this problem has a brother in the real world, and its a profound problem of politics and society. How do you ensure that the designs of the powerful don't impede on the rights of the little people?

If you could solve that in the virtual space, you'd have a pocket utopia.

GregT said...

I'm still not clear on exactly what sort of narrative we're discussing. Are you talking about the ability of the characters to define the overall story of the world/universe, or simply the ability of characters to tell meaningful unique stories?

I maintain that the heart of a story is the unique case; the exception to the rule, and the more dramatic the exception the better. The key to story generation in a MMOG is, rather than having a locked down, strictly balanced world, to have a world that allows for extreme fluctuations - for players to achieve the outrageous. At least, that's what I feel.

Craig Perko said...

Greg: but how do you do that without losing the newbs and casuals?

What sort of narrative freedom I'm discussing? Any kind. Anything. At all. It's all mising from today's MMOGs.

GregT said...

I think extremist gameplay isn't a problem for newbs so much as it is for hardcores. Newbs aren't worried by balance - the ridiculous is just part of the flavour of the world. You just have to take steps to protect them from its worst excesses for their first hours of gameplay until they know how to surf the wave themselves.

Extremist gameplay hurts those who have the most invested in a game, because it's the sort of thing that can cause tables to turn quickly. Casuals shouldn't be too bothered by it either.

There was a great article on this by the guys who did the Game of Thrones CCG. They were getting a lot of flack about a couple of cards being unbalanced and too good (the dragons). Their response was, "They're SUPPOSED to be unbalanced, but in a discrete way. They are, at what they do, superlatively good, such that players will talk to other players and show their dragon card and say 'Someday if you're lucky you'll own one of THESE'. But they're a one trick pony; you can only use them with one strategy, and if they become too predominant there's a metagame counter to them where people will start building dragon-hate decks."

And in that context, and that game, they were right. The game MAY have been marginally more balanced with weaker dragons, but it wouldn't have been a BETTER game.

And for the next half-year, you couldn't talk to a player of the game without hearing the story about the time they got all three of their dragons out...

Craig Perko said...

Greg: Hardcore players are irritated by sudden shiftsin power they don't see coming.

Casual and new players are irritated when they can't integrate into the world properly.

The two problems are totally separate. They happen to be caused by a single issue in this case.

Again, these problems are only problems if you try to apply a standard game design to the new concepts. Of course you'll have problems if you say, "it's just like Everquest except fundamentally different." The game architecture isn't built for the new designs.

Chill said...

I'm not totally sure whether I grok the problem here, but what I gather is that in player affected global narratives you have few players having a lot of narrative power, a group of players with some narrative power, and the rest with little to no narrative power made of casual and newbs. Upper, Middle, Lower classes of narrative power. The problem being the climb from Lower to Middle or Upper class is a very difficult one, much like the real world.

My first instinct says to do what Futurama did. Make "robots" the lower class so all the humans are happy (happier in any case, some people will never be happy) Sadly any application I can think of seems entirely impractical however it reminds me that players don't play games to do bitch work, we should have robots/NPCs/agents do all the crappy work.

The key I figure is make sure casuals and newbs still feel useful to a narrative, and be able to affect it in some way, though odds may be totally against it.

One thing that needs to happen is that the game will have to favor small agile groups over large organizations. Not a hard limit, like MaxGuildSize = 30, but more like, the larger the group the more resources it takes to hold it together.

Then you allow some crazy shit to happen to small groups. I'm thinking something like "Outlaw Star" here. Sometimes an artifact/badass ship/doohickey ends up in the strangest hands. There are tons of good stories about the unlikely hero(s).

Now here's the thing. You can use this Random Crazy Shit, to link groups that would normally not have anything to do with each other and hopefully create some cool narratives in the process.

Well, real life calls but I'll think more on this later...

(btw word verify: "igrew" hilarious)

Craig Perko said...

Chill: That's some fairly solid thinking. I disagree with some of it, but we're on the same wavelength for most of it.

MY word is "ckrseexg"