A World Without End

Expanding on last week’s outline of a vision for a “Massively Multiplayer Living Story”, I’d like to focus on the fundamental ingredient — Interactive Narrative.

What is a Living Story? It’s not a sandbox, simulation, or choose-your-own-adventure-book. It isn’t just experiencing a story someone else wrote, no matter how many alternate endings or moral choices there may be. It’s writing your own story into theirs in unexpected ways. It’s a collaboration between author and reader to publish something that is perpetually evolving and interesting. The players backstory, history, and actions become incorporated into the story, which makes each player’s experience unique (even though they share the same world as 1,000,000 other players).  This is what games can accomplish that books and film cannot. This is how to make a truly “endless game” rather than an “endgame”.

*climbs down from soapbox*

Now before you grab your notebooks to brainstorm with me, take a moment to remember something. This concept is still somewhere in the upper stratosphere of “Theoryland” and it’ll be quite a while until it comes crashing down to earth with hard-coded implementations. This is purely a “What If” question right now. Hopes crushed? Good, let’s crack on then. We’ve got work to do.

Our imagination takes seconds to build what would take a developer weeks

Consider the classic pen and paper campaign – A Game Master (GM) dynamically adapts to your actions to make a challenging, engaging story within an existing world. The problem of “Interactive Narrative” is totally solved through pen-and-paper-RPGs. So what would a digital version of that look like? Perhaps you could spend time within an ‘editor’ creating your campaign, and then you become the game master guiding players through it. Some problems with that, and a few thoughts…

Problems with going digital – Imagine you are a human game master, and your group of player adventurers are in a city, and decide to go into an old derelict building. You haven’t actually developed what’s inside that building yet, and you can’t edit the whole interior in real-time as they enter it. In the classic pen and paper model, you just briefly describe it, and the details are filled in by the players’ imagination. In 3D space, you need to place the objects as fast as you describe them.

The fact is, there’s a lot more work required to make a digital world than to simply describe an imaginary one, and human GMs can’t do it all in real-time. However, there’s still some options. We could use complex programs to take what the GM has created so far, and then fill in all the background details with procedurally generated stuff. Computer-generated buildings, “filler” NPCs (like a large crowd in a marketplace), or very small mini-plots could fill the gaps in what they’ve already made. But then we’ve taken control away from the GM so that they can’t fully alter the world in real-time like they could in imagination-land. We might have to limit the powers of a human GM so that it matches what humans can actually do in real-time. Perhaps we could have tools to “guide” the story in a good direction and keep it interesting, rather than “control every aspect of everything through omnipotence”.

Problems with going big (scalability) – Pen-and-paper games are limited to small groups of players at a time (about 10 players at most, or else the logistics start to fall apart). Think of the GM as a “window” to the fictional world. They describe everything that’s going on to the players (“You have come to a large river”). The players decide what to do and say (“I decide to swim across”, “Me too”, “I’ll stay on the other side and watch for danger”), and the GM decides what the consequences are (“There’s an alligator in the water that begins to attack!”). The reason you can’t have many more than 10 players, is because everyone is sharing that “window” to the fictional world. It gets crowded.

Now for a different way of thinking about it: What if every single player had their own personal game master? In a digital video game, the computer is basically serving as that “window” between you and the fictional world. You already have a different window (computer) for each player, why not assign a completely separate GM for each player too?The idea of multiple-GM campaigns has been around for a while. Consider a whole bunch Artificial Intelligence GMs who cooperate with limited-power-human-GMs to make sure everyone’s story stays interesting.

What happens when two different players have stories that collide? If my goal is to kill some Duke, and another player’s goal is simply to talk to him, and yet another’s goal is to kidnap him, then we have a problem. How do we resolve story conflicts when multiple players are involved? This is by far the most difficult part of a massive Living Story, and I’ll be talking about these “collisions” in future posts. To be honest, fixing “collisions” is probably the biggest obstacle to making scalable Living Stories a reality.

Problems with going online (persistence) – There’s also the casual nature of an online game. What happens if players join your campaign but disconnects halfway through? What about if the human GM leaves? These online campaigns would need to be designed in such a way that people can join or leave freely, and request a new GM if yours leaves. But then you lose story consistency whenever there’s a big turnover in players or GMs.

Unfortunately, there are also a handful of malicious users out there, and the lure of online anonymity would certainly bring them out of the woodwork. Too many player GMs might take pleasure in running campaigns just to torment players online, or make exploitive missions that just give “easy rewards” to their friends. We’ve seen this happen in Star Trek Online’s quest creator, “The Foundry“, and it’s very easy to remedy.

But verily, this verbiage veers most verbose. For now, know that online digital campaigns have many issues that need fixing before they become a reality. It might even be impossible to simply copy D&D directly into the digital realm without seriously altering the mechanics and attitudes of the players.

But when you can’t win, you have to change the way the game is played. In my next article, I’ll look in-depth at human GMs, multiple GM campaigns, and Artificial Intelligence GMs in a way that might help solve the problems of going digital, big and online. Tune in next time to find out!



9 thoughts on “A World Without End

  1. Pingback: My Vision of a “Living Story” | Mysterious Artifact

  2. Pingback: Link Dead Radio: Exploits, End Game, and Newbie Lovin | Healing the masses

  3. Have you ever heard of Storybricks? It sounds similar to what you are describing. Storybricks was an engine designed where every NPC and their reactions to you could change depending on situation and intent, essentially a limited AI for NPCs. It failed in it’s Kickstarter attempt, but was actually picked up for use in EverQuest Next. I’m not sure how it will be implemented, EQN being described as mostly sandbox, we may see a new Living Story yet.

    • I’ve talked once via email with the Storybricks guy. It seems deeply intriguing, and I’m interested how exactly they’re planning on integrating it with EQN (most likely a Foundry-like quest or dungeon creator). There’s a lot of potential there for human DMs to come in and edit stories using the storybricks format. Certainly a project to follow for the human-DM aspect, although it probably needs to be easier to use in order for that to happen.

  4. I really dig your idea of each player using their own window, with their own AI GM, this meshed to a meta AI GM and maybe human GM.

    The interaction of player’s GM’s would contribute to the story out, a very interesting output to players.

    Player ‘A’ gets a message from GM ‘A’ and player ‘B’ another message from GM ‘B’, both messages present different view on what the GM ‘meta’ is presenting. The GM’s for A and B are filtering and choosing how their respective player would ‘see it’ keeping them in character and preventing them from gaining information they do not have,

    • I like what you said about “gaining information they do not have”

      It also can work the other direction (for character-specific info like “sensing” imminent danger). Your character might see some sort of warning sign and you’d have to warn your team-mates whose senses are not as keen, etc…

      If you’re playing a cop, you’d already have a sense for suspicious behavior, and your AI DM would simply present to you such behavior in a more obvious way. If you know elvish, the DM would subtitle all visual elvish with english on your screen, etc…

      Cool idea, tsuhelm. It has lots of fun applications in a character-driven living story.

  5. So would these AI GMs mediate player-player interactions as well? Would the GM ever assign a quest/task that involved, say, stopping an assassination attempt by another player or knocking off another player? Also, are the GMs completely neutral, or do they manifest human characteristics as well (i.e. can they lie to players to throw them into compromising situations, etc.)?

    • You’re asking all the right questions, and the answers are somewhat subjective.

      In a multiplayer living story, you would likely need a GM for each player, mediating the crossing of each other’s story threads. If some player blows up the building next to you, that’s obviously within your story’s context, but if they simply walk in front of you in a crowded marketplace, it’s less important. The GMs need to collaborate, perhaps with a larger, more abstract GM Director who oversees a particular area or major events. If it would screw up a lot of people’s stories, the Director might alter the outcomes to stop your example assassination attempt, but hopefully in a way that is still fun for the would-be assassin.

      To make a multi-player living story scalable, not everyone can “save the world.” In order to influence the world in a big way, or change the city’s or world’s plot direction, you’d need the collective efforts of dozens, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of players.

      In regards to neutrality, absolutely not 🙂 They might certainly mislead or hide information in order to pull off a plot twist, but in a way that is pleasantly surprising and scores a net plus to player’s overall story experience.

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