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!