My Vision of a “Living Story”

Inspired by phoenixShadow’s post about the vision of the future of games, I wanted to outline an idea that I would personally love to see realized. It’s a bit crazy, but hear me out. This is an outline for a Massively Multiplayer “Living Story”. What that means, is (1) that there are thousands or millions of players in the same game, (2) that their actions directly influence the story of the game, and that (3) that story doesn’t suck. Impossible? Probably, but would you want to see what it would look like? Let’s jump right in…

This idea has four parts. Scalability, Persistence, Interactivity, and good Narrative. Scalability means that the game is fun whether you are entirely alone in the whole game world, playing with a small group of friends, or even in a thousand-player army. Persistence means that the world is shared with every other player (not just playing in your own “copy” of the world). Interactivity means that what you do as a player matters, and that other players can see the effects of your actions. Narrative is, well, a great story that doesn’t suck.

Part I: Persistence – Done. All we need is a reliable server and boom! Persistence. The game world remains even when you log off. Only three parts left… this might be a short article! Or perhaps not…

Part II: Scalable Persistent Interaction – This one’s just a bit trickier. We want a ‘massive’ amount of concurrent players, all hammering on things and influencing the world in meaningful ways. But there aren’t enough game developers on earth to produce content faster than players can consume it. I call this the “all-you-can-eat problem”, and I’ll be talking about it in great detail later. Anyways, game developers already found one way around this problem: Ta da! Introducing the “sandbox” game! It has two possible routes: procedurally-generated (Dwarf Fortress, Terraria), or player-created content (Minecraft, EVE Online).

There’s a wealth of articles about sandbox MMO design, detailing how to make infinite worlds where you’ll never run out of content. However, we’re not stopping there. You see, players aren’t naturally skilled at entertaining themselves without some structure or purpose. There’s always stuff happening, but the events in a sandbox are more like news rather than cohesive stories.

Part III: Narrative – Piece of cake. Make a linear game bursting with cinematic cutscenes, and ‘experience’ a single story from start to finish from the hero’s point of view. Much like a book or film, where the story is completely in the hands of the writers. But if that’s the case, you might as well write a book. It doesn’t really take advantage of the full potential of interaction, does it? It seems we’ve taken two steps forward, one step back.

Part IV: Interactive Narrative – Good so far? Well here’s another curveball. The difficulty of this proposition just shot up faster than EVE’s learning curve. How do you make a cohesive story that can be altered by players and still have the quality of a book or film? The closest thing are branching storylines, which act like a choose-your-own-adventure book — pre-written stories split apart or merge back together. Despite adding replay value, it takes a tremendous amount of effort for the developers to author all that content. It’s a waste of the paths not taken.

Or you could let each player influence the story, and simply instance out that “timeline” into some other alternate branching reality… but then we’re back to a single player game. One step back.

Might I suggest another medium that has worked in the past? Pen-and-paper-RPGs. Now we’ve got a “game master” who’s constantly watching over the story and making sure that it always stays coherent and interesting. The players impact the story, and the game master reacts to them. This model actually holds up well if the digital counterpart is complex enough. However it requires a creative (and hopefully benign) game master at all times, and is limited to small groups

Part V: Scalable Persistent Interactive Narrative Ok, now we’re out of our league. Not only do I ask for a cohesive dynamic story, but I want those changes to be permanent, and introduce thousands of simultaneous agents of chaos (players) into the mix. A choose-your-own-adventure book is already insufficient for Part IV, now imagine 10,000 simultaneous readers of the same book. And for a pen and paper RPG, you’d need a proportional ratio (scalable) of game masters to players, available 24/7 (persistent). That’s just insane.

So once again, the avenues remaining are (1) Artificial Intelligence game masters (procedural), and/or (2) Players who are given limited game master tools. Both have a long way to go before they become compelling.

So that was a very lengthy setup of the problem. In the coming posts, I’ll illustrate some ideas for fusing these two paths together. It’ll either be something beautiful, or an abomination that defies natural design. Tune in next time to find out!



8 thoughts on “My Vision of a “Living Story”

  1. Part 3 will increase your costs ten times
    Part 4 and 5 are so prone to design mistakes and anything pre written get skipped or spacebared like in swtor
    And good game masters are already making their games for themselves or will cost you

    I see another 38 studios in your business plan

    • Indeed, this is totally a “pie in the sky” vision of the future in 50 years, etc.

      Is it possible? Definitely not feasible right now, or even in the near future. But if I were given a couple trillion dollars and a strike team of 2000 of the industry’s top talent, how would we go about it, and how close would we get? That’s the thought that I’m posing.

      The idea behind 4 and 5 is that there is virtually no story pre-written by the developers. The developers only write the main “general” world story, but everything else is up to the players + the game masters. Not possible today, but perhaps someday in the distant future.

      Consider a pen-and-paper-RPG where the ‘developers’ create the world, but the players+game masters actually create the story, and what is happening in it. The MMOLivingStory would be the same thing, except instead of a party of 6-10 players, you’d have thousands of GMs covering thousands of groups of players, all in the same exact world. That’s still a pretty insane idea, but I hope that gives some context.

  2. I can see why we should shoot for this, but by no stretch of the imagination will it be easy.
    One of the biggest problems I think will be with quests. If we want to make a players actions matter, it makes sense that once a player finishes a quest-like event, no one else can do it because the problem has already been solved. Quests are the main opportunity for an mmo’s narrative to shine, but we can’t make a player’s action really matter unless the content is exclusive. There may not be a solution to that problem, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind.

    • That would be the problem in Part II: Scalable Persistent Interaction. How do you have interaction (actions matter), in the same context as everyone else (persistence). If you burn down a building, it stays burned down unless someone builds another one. What about the guy behind you who also wanted to burn it down? You have to think outside of the MMO mindset which says that everyone MUST experience the exact same content or it’s not fair.

      Instead of a contrived ‘quest’ structure, we could use things akin to ‘Public Quests’ ala Warhammer Online or Guild Wars 2. If there’s something in an area that needs doing, then anyone can do it. Rewards are collected automatically, without having to ‘turn it in’ to a specific NPC.

      Pen-and-paper campaigns already solve this problem completely. Just because you do a ‘quest’ doesn’t mean that another player runs out of things to do (just like real life). There’s always some new story that could happen to you. And because there’s a dedicated author creating content as you go, you can have “infinite content”. You can never truly run out of great stories, only “miss out” on certain opportunities.

      But again, totally “pie-in-the-sky” dream right now. It’s just a vision for now.

  3. I think it’s a vision of a better world. And by outlining the problem, as you’ve done here, you can begin to see where problems might arise. Put aside costs for a minute, put aside current technology; what is theoretically possible? When you’ve got that, it becomes a question of finding how close can we approximate this ideal and what is holding us back.

    I think the answer to Persistent Interactions is in Scalability. Yes, a player has burned down one goblin hovel, but there are several. It’s not that the player has no impact on the village; she does and that hovel stays burned. But scalability says that we don’t cluster a group of 4 huts and call that a village. This is a kind of shorthand that WoW uses all the time.

    So I and my group can assault the wall in one place, but the wall is large and there are plenty of other opportunities. We can press the attack to a defensible strongpoint, but unless other players are taking and holding their parts of the wall as well, we’ll eventually be cut off…

    This just feels different to me than rescuing a trooper from an escape pod, and then having someone come along 2 minutes later and rescue that same trooper because the escape pod sealed up and turned blue again.

  4. I was just thinking about this the other day. It seems clear that you’d need to have many possible unique quests for players to go on that they can come across as they explore the world. This would be crazy difficult, and it would help to have developed some kind of creative AI assistance. Ideally, players could pick and choose which quests to take, and their characters could be at least partially defined by the quests they take. Perhaps it could effect the skills, equipment, titles, and relationships a player’s character acquires.

    – Zen

    • Zen, you’ve hinted at that magic blend of content and freedom that I like to call, “Objective-Driven”. The game master (whether it’s an AI or a human) incorporates whatever important actions you take into the story itself, thus allowing for infinite content. The best pen-and-paper-RPG game masters will incorporate your character’s backstory, recent history, and previous actions into some of the future plots (thus your player’s “story” as you play is completely unique to you, even though you share some context with 1,000,000 other players). If you have a key in your possession, then the GM knows that (when appropriate) it could create a door which the key “happens” to unlock, thus building upon what you have.

      But what if you really don’t want to go on an epic journey right now, and you just want to fish or mine some ore for a bit? Well, what you said is a fantastic idea, “players could pick and choose”. The game master might constantly provide little “story hooks”, such as a shady figure disappearing into an alleyway, or the sense that you’re being watched, or a scream for help, or an overheard conversation. The player can choose to ignore these hooks if they really aren’t up for any kind of plot, but they’re free to accept the hooks whenever they’re ready to start an interesting story again.

  5. Pingback: A World Without End | Mysterious Artifact

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