Saturday, September 3, 2011


Kelly Heckman from Namaste Entertainment has asked me to blog on storybricks. I had considered this several times before, since Psychochild has talked about them on his blog. But back then I had decided against it, because I didn't think that I had a lot of good things to say. Now that I was asked, I decided to add my few cents.

I'd suggest to read articles on the web if you don't know what storybricks are yet. Their home page is a good source. For those of you who just want a quick reminder, here's a quote from Massively.
Storybricks uses this visual programming language to let you create characters as simple or complex as you like and then send them off into the world to lounge about, go on quests, or give tasks to other players. Do you want to create an NPC guard who hates the player on sight until the player proves himself by rescuing the guard's daughter from certain doom? You can do that. Do you want to invent a royal dowager with a secret past or a thief with a heart of gold who's trying to make right some past wrong? You can do that too. Your imagination just became part of the development team.

When you want publicity, the good thing about bloggers is that they are cheap and can easily be convinced to write about something. The bad thing is that they really have no incentive at all to write something positive. Now, considering the nature of my blog, I guess Kelly knows that I generally like to review things by pointing out what I don't like. So, I hope it's not too much of a disappointment that this is what I am going to do with storybricks.

Let's start with the reason they go public now. Frankly, in my opinion they are not so much looking for feedback, as for publicity. Which is perfectly legitimate. It's what I'd do if I wanted to get investors on board and wanted to prove that my concept is able to inspire players. But I doubt that the feedback I give as a blogger can actually be used to improve the concept.

Generally, I am not optimistic about storybricks. First, because they try to solve a problem that doesn't exist the way Namaste assumes. Second, because I doubt they're going to improve games by much. And third, because they point in the wrong direction for MMORPGs (interaction with NPCs, instead of active/passive interaction between players).

If Blizzard or EA wanted to make NPCs that are more consistent with the simulation (=more life-like) they could today, easily. Instead they keep using NPCs that are completely passive and give you quests that you can agree on as fast as possible. Why? Because they haven't yet figured out a way to make them more credible while still benefiting the abstract gameplay as in contrast to the simulation.

NPCs with their own agendas sound great. But, just like a better combat AI, the reason it is not done today is not that it's too hard. The problem is that it doesn't necessarily makes for good gameplay if NPCs wander around. Do you remember trying to find Rexxar for the Onyxia questline? This was borderline terrible. At least that's what a lot of players came to think. I never had that much of a problem with it, but I, too, used the internet to find the exact path he followed. Now consider NPCs that wander around even less predictably.

But even if you ignore movement, are storybricks going to provide high-quality stories? I rather feel they are going to provide lots of more or less consistent short-stories. None of which matter to the player all that much. For storybricks to make a difference they must beat typical NPCs not at the simulation, that's easy. But at the gameplay.
That is, they must not feel frustrating, the journeys they offer must be worth their goals and they need to keep the player's mind busy while he interacts with them. I don't see how storybricks are going to do that. It rather looks like a "let's introduce players fighting for their homes, because that would be cool" kind of idea to me. Storybricks look cool, but they don't seem to promise introducing a better simulation while at least retaining the quality of the gameplay.

When it comes to virtual worlds, better NPCs are among the least of my concerns. It's rather an idea for games like Neverwinter Nights, games that offer highly instanced content. But even there I don't see how storybricks are going to beat hand-crafted characters in player-created campaigns, let alone developer-created campaigns.

For virtual worlds, the philosopher's stone lies in player-generated content, not in player-created content. The difference is that player-created content needs players who act as game designers. While player-generated content makes players play the game and, using a sophisticated set of rules, have their actions influence each other, and thus produce enjoyable content. The most trivial examples are PvP (active) or an auction house (passive). Eve Online is all about player-generated content.

I'd certainly welcome NPCs that are more life-like. But I fear their only place is the background of the game. For example, by following a day-night cycle.

Now, I always welcome a new startup that tries to make a difference. Especially if a fellow blogger is part of it. And I absolutely wish Namaste Entertainment success. It may be possible to succeed at making a useful tool for the industry. Financial success is possible. But I don't think storybricks are going to have much of an effect on virtual worlds.

There's, generally, not a shortage of ideas how to design virtual worlds that are more credible and consistent with the simulation. Even with today's tools it can easily be done. The real challenge is implementing these ideas in a way that doesn't harm the abstract gameplay, or maybe even improves it.


  1. I did talk to Kelly and Brian. There was a moment during the discussion when I suggested something that Brian hadn't thought about before and he found interesting (and I thought it was a good idea myself). Whether it makes it into the future versions I have no idea, even designers on their team won't see all their good ideas adopted.

    So I think you're being perhaps a little too cynical that you have no chance to influence design. As an individual the odds are against you statistically. But will some of the ideas of players and playtesters change the system? Of course.

  2. I agree that player feedback will be important eventually. But it will probably not be very valuable before they have a prototype. The reason they go public now is 95% publicity; and that's perfectly ok.

    The problems I see have little to do with them going public before they have even a preliminary product. I just wanted to point that out. The problem is that I just don't see how story bricks can realistically add to the experience.

    Take their example with the queen and the crown. The system can certainly figure out whether the queen likes you or dislikes you and whether she got the crown and who saw that etc.

    But how is the queen to interact with the player now? She will have to talk, I guess. And she can't just say "Thank you. Now I like you.".
    She will have to start some dialogue and I don't see how this dialogue is created by the AI. But if the dialogue is still to be written by the developer then the entire possibility space would still have to been forseen by the developer. So, what was gained?

    If Namaste has answers to this then I suggest they give out a (much) more detailed example. And if it should change my mind then this very post will make my opinion more valuable, I hope. So, consider this a chance, Namaste Entertainment ;)

  3. From what I read, I agree with what you write, and go even a bit farther: it's a solution looking for a problem.

    At the same time, between something you read here and there and the actual thing, the difference can be enormous, so I'd say "wait and see".

  4. *grins* Nils, you did blog and all about the things you had to say.

    The offer for a demo of the prototype still stands and mostly because I think you're a) missing the prototype-aspect of the demo, and b) there's more to the demo than Storybricks. It's the emotive AI that /I/ think is important.

    If you decide to take me up on it, you know how to reach me.

    And of course we do this for funding! But we are truly doing this for feedback as well. I NEED beta testers because those I have to choose from just aren't enough (we are already in testing, building this with players rather than for them). Our testers come from PAX/Gen Con and so have a bias selection that is hard to overcome.

  5. Ophelea, you certainly have my respect for commenting! I've sent you an email.

  6. I'm at a convention, so I'm a bit tardy to reply; and I must be brief.

    1) The problem is that we're doing something fairly new. No, people aren't falling over themselves asking for better NPCs, but the best things are things that people want that they don't know they want. Were people asking for quest journals and glowing punctuation marks over NPC heads before WoW? No, but it's something people have come to appreciate.

    2) This is something people have been considering for a while. There's been a lot of research on emotive AI. Developers have been considering it for a long time. This isn't coming out of nowhere, but the problem is that it's tough to build a convincing business case to a big company like Blizzard or EA about why they need to do this; their current development method seems to be working just fine for them.

    3) Yeah, we need some publicity. But, we also need feedback as Ophelea (Kelly) said. We considered that we have a solution looking for a problem, but the effusive reaction to our demos at conferences and to bloggers have shown that the idea has some merit. I just had lunch with another blogger who is super-excited about Storybricks even without having seen the demo. So, there's interest out there, and we need to make sure we're making a good tool.

    4) Nils, you're the only person who has posted a negative opinion about Storybricks. Maybe you'll see the demo and still hate it. You probably hate rainbows, too! ;) But, hopefully seeing a demo and getting questions answered will help you understand our mindset more.

    Anyway, need to rush off to another meeting.

  7. Bah, I have been sitting on a Storybricks post for a rainy day, and here you come with one that highlights most of the problems I have with it, conceptually. :P

  8. Psychochild, thanks for the lenghty comment. I'll go through it number for number.

    1) I agree, but I advise you to be careful with your examples. If storybricks turn out to be anything like glowing ! on the head of NPCs ...

    2) I believe you that this is a sophisticated AI project. I don't doubt whether you will succeed on a technical level. I can't, because I don't have the technical expertise.

    3) I'm not surprised that you get a lot of positive feedback - especially before you get into the specific implementation into games. If I announced that I am working on a virtual world with a focus on 'immersion' I'd also get a lot of positive feedback. The challenge is combining this with good gameplay.

    4) I'm the first to say something negative? Then you should be thankful. Nothing makes people as lazy as unreflected love. ;)

    On rainbows: I like to look at them. I'd just be careful about the amount of work I'd put into implementing them into games. I've sent a few questions to Kelly. The effort you people invest has made me curious.

  9. Psychochild, thanks for the lenghty comment.

    Translation: I fail at being brief. :P At least forgive any editing mistakes.

    I agree, but I advise you to be careful with your examples.

    Actually, I chose that example intentionally. There are much worse "innovations" that people have welcomed gladly.

    I'm not surprised that you get a lot of positive feedback - especially before you get into the specific implementation into games.

    We've been pretty open about what we're doing. As I said, I had lunch with a blogger and went into quite a bit of detail about what our plans are. We're being very open about this. Yes, there's a chance we stumble and fall, but is this a greater sin than to seclude ourselves away for a few years then release something nobody cares about because we didn't talk to anyone?

    Then you should be thankful. Nothing makes people as lazy as unreflected love. ;)

    Bah. You can criticize when you have actually seen the demo. :P And, given my travel schedule, I think you can hardly accuse me of being too lazy!

    Have fun.

  10. Azuriel,

    Want a demo, too? Have interview questions for our engineers?

    Contact me at kelly [@] namaste [.] vg

    Feel free to doubt us after. I'm all about it /after/ you give us a chance to strut our stuff.

    *goes back to PvZ*

  11. Just a couple of things

    - I looked at the current state of the art of MMO design and searched places where you could do meaningful innovation over a 5-10 year period. Everything was just a minor innovation over its predecessors and mostly it was not enough to have people switching to a different game.

    AI, on the other hand, offered a lot of potential to offer new types of gameplay that other companies were not looking into (to this day none of the top AI guys is in a senior position in any large game developer).

    Once we started developing the AI system it became clear that no matter how good it was, you want to play games and stories that are relevant to you, so we focused on collaborative storytelling as a core market. AI is the enabling tech under the hood.

    - we do need feedback, as MMO bloggers for us were the early adopters, if you cannot excite them then you should do something else. It was also important from an investor perspective as we are speaking with people who do not necessarily play MMOs and cannot tell if we have something interesting or a stinker so 3rd party opinions counted (we did a lot of 1-1 interviews with our guilds as well). I hate one thing from the MMO industry and it is announcing something and then for 4 years nothing happens. Then you have huge ass betas (which are fake since betas are just PR and buzz pre-release). Just give me something to play with and 5 minutes and I'll tell you if I like it. I am leaning more towards this way of building games

    We got the feedback we wanted and now we are targeting more mainstream press for publicity. The next step will be releasing something that does some basic functions and that you can download and play with it.

    PS But at the end of the day I just wanted to solve a personal problem. You have no idea how hard I nerdraged at WoW when, after killing Yogg-Saron (God of Death) and defeating Algalon (who could have destroyed the entire planet) I was still asked for gold to buy water in Dalaran.


  12. Anything that the MMO industry can do to improve the woeful state of NPCs and how they interact with players is to be applauded.

    MMO writers and bloggers continually clamor for innovation so when it's attempted we should be supportive.

    I look forward to doing my own analysis of Storybricks and writing my own article time permitting.