Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In-game Historians

We’ve spent several posts discussing the way that MMORPGs miserably fail to tell meaningful stories. Theme-park MMOs have story and gameplay as separate and unrelated endeavors. Story may motivate the fluff around gameplay, but games seldom require an understanding of the story. The story amounts to text that players are encouraged to skip.

How do we make story a meaningful part of MMORPGs? A dynamic world is a necessity, of course, but with a dynamic world it’s easy for the state of the world to become difficult to figure out for even veteran players. There needs to be a way for players to easily grok the state of the game world in order to allow players to make intelligent decisions that will have meaningful effects on the world. We can do this by creating a robust system for aggregating in-game history. Let’s see what we need to make this happen.

1. We need people who are willing to perform the roles of historians and journalists.

As EVE Online has shown us, players are willing to write about their endeavors in the game world—some players are willing to spend hours writing about what other players have done. These players are the historians and journalists of the game world, taking accounts of the history of the world as it unfolds through player action.

Games that have static stories and recycled NPC bosses have players willing to perform the role of historian as well, but these players are relegated to becoming meta-game historians. They don’t keep track of events as they happen in relation to the game world, instead they keep track of the happenings of guilds and other player organizations as they accomplish feats that have no effect on the game world, but are notable nonetheless.

We’ve already fulfilled this requirement.

2. We need dynamic game worlds where important events occur often enough to keep historians and journalists interested and engaged. We need a supply of things for journalists to report and historians to write about.

Theme-park MMOs need not apply. Sure, the meta-game will entertain some players enough, but there’s not much effect of what is notable and there’s not much that is notable.

We need a world where it is important that players know the political situation. In a world where player-run factions have very limited power and are basically interchangeable, an effective news gathering force is not particularly important. Player-run factions need to be able to effect the shape of the game world in some radical ways.

EVE basically accomplishes this goal.

3. We need the game to track the facts of historical events in a useful fashion that can be publicly viewed (or viewed only by the privileged historian group).

Player accountability is the fundamental principle here. There should be some degree of a factual, unfalsifiable record of what characters have done in the game world. It doesn’t have to be in gory detail—it can be as simple as “A defeats B” or “Faction A completes constructions of X in city Y, these players were involved” with a timestamp. The game could even generate a barebones wiki to allow this information to be easily viewed. Historians can then put details of the event and the significance of the event on the pre-generated wiki pages. Each player can have their own wiki page with their accomplishments, as well—everyone loves a good way to brag and a relatively permanent place to keep track of their achievements in the game.

Managing who can edit what pages in the wiki is a little bit of a challenge, but should not be difficult considering you can easily hold players accountable for edits (because they’ve got their edits associated with their account information). It’s not difficult to track how different players participate and ban griefers while promoting the good writers and experts to moderator or moderator-like status (they would be the historians of the game world).

Meaningful in-game history engages many different kinds of players and is a natural extension of a dynamic game world. I would love to see a game where I can click on a “more info” link next to a city in the game and see a history of the people who have controlled it, what they have done, and what’s going on now. Did someone just gank me? I can look him up and see where he hangs out, who he hangs out with, and what he does. Such transparency emphasizes player accountability and has the opportunity to give significant added meaning to the elements of the game world.


motstandet said...

I think it is interesting that players will always inject player-history into games even where this is difficult to do. Look at the raid progression thread on any WoW Realm forum; there is history there and players like writing/reading it.

There is a fine line to dance between providing world information to the player and negating intelligence gathering efforts during wartime. I think it can be done though.

Borror0 said...

"Managing who can edit what pages in the wiki is a little bit of a challenge, but should not be difficult considering you can easily hold players accountable for edits (because they’ve got their edits associated with their account information)."

Have you ever taken a look at the LOTRO Lorebook or the DDO Compendium? Those are wikis that Turbine created to publish their official game information, and then they let the playerbase add more to it at the bottom of the page.

While the DDO Compendium fails miserably at its intended goal (I'm not sure about the Lorebook but it seems to be better at it), I think the tech Turbine is using for those might be a good solution to completely eliminate the problem you're describing - that is, if I'm reading you well.

evizaer said...

Huh? What problem would wikis with game mechanic and backstory information solve? This is about recording player-generated stories in dynamic world games, not recording basic game mechanic information that the player should have at their disposal anyway.

Borror0 said...

The Compendium and the Lorebook extracts data from the game itself (ie to modify it, you have to change the in-game data) and display it on a wiki interface. Players can edit the page, but the official data is untouchable.

If the game is designed to record certain events in the game (A defeats B, etc.), then the system used by Turbine's wikis can provide the "factual, unfalsifiable record of what characters have done in the game world" that you were asking for while also solving the problem of who can edit what page.

PassingS said...

Great idea Ev. However, there are a few things which might stop a system like this working.

The first is simply that too much transparency is a bad thing. Using the example of being able to see about a player that ganked you, you would be affording them the same right. This in minor cases will lead to the "top" players being chased around the game world with each player looking for the next kill. Although this would not be hugely problematic, it would pretty much instantly ruin even the most hardcore of PK's day when they are ganked for the 40th time in an hour. (Although this might force them to learn and not be as hardcore, they are likely to just quit.)

I think the best solution to having seperating that fine line that motstandet is talking about would be easy - time. If the "official history" is say, only ever at best 7 days behind, it will not only encourage players to seek out others to find out what is going on, but would allow propaganda to still have some effect.

Which actually bring me to the last thing I'd like to see different if a system like this was implemented - allow more then one "history" to be presented. To stop the inevitable confusion when a completely new player sees to explanations for the same point, allow users to rate/downrate the particular history, and when a history either reaches a certain variable of likes ahead of the other history, or conversly a history recieves enough downrates that it fades into time. (for mecanical purposes, it gets archieved and removed from the "timeline")

All in all got me thinking. As always, thanks for the inspiring post.