15 Aug 2011

Storybricks: Questions & Answers

Following on from my recent first look at StoryBricks, I also got the chance to put some questions directly to Phil Carlisle, Namaste’s AI CTO. Phil’s probably best known for his work on the classic Worms series.

Read on to find out more about what kind of game the team are looking to create with the technology, and be sure to check out my first look at StoryBricks for more background info!

MO: What was the spark that ignited the idea? When did StoryBricks start – was it playing a game and thinking “Hang on a minute, this could be so much better”, or was it based on feedback you were hearing from other players?

Phil: It really came from Rodolfo Rosini the CEO, getting tired of the same old gameplay in World of Warcraft. He felt like there was something missing. He felt like what was missing was probably something to do with the characters in the game and how you interacted with them. He went out and found a team that felt the same way and here we all are today.

MO: What is it you’re trying to build with StoryBricks? Is it a game – an end of itself, or is it likely to become a toolset that you embed in other games or offer to other developers? What would you like to see it become?

Phil: StoryBricks is really a toolset to let us all explore the potential for characters and stories in games. If you make a game, it might be a hit or a miss. If you make a toolset, then it isn’t just one person’s view of what might be possible. But in order to prove that the toolset is at least capable of making something worthwhile, we have to make something worthwhile with the tools. So in essence it is a bit of both. Fundamentally though, we want everyone to come with us on a journey as we all figure out what it means to have these living story worlds that we can create and play together.

MO: Are there other uses you’re thinking of for the technology – educational uses such as programming, AI design, language learning etc? Simulation uses such as behavioural analysis, crowd modelling and so on?

Phil: It has been suggested a number of times that education would love these tools. It is actually less about programming and AI as it happens and is much more about social dynamics, relationships and emotions. I can easily see a case where it will be used to help kids with autism to understand emotions. Because a lot of the work we have done builds on research in psychology, social psychology and crowd-modeling it would make sense for there to be uses there too.

MO: How do you see user created NPCs fitting in to an MMO world? Do you think that there’ll be pockets of player-made content bolted on to an established framework, or are you looking at a completely customisable world? Will players be able to build their own worlds and run their own campaigns?

Phil: Right now, we are working to solidify where we go with this question. It seems clear that people want to both have intense and personal story experiences with a close group of friends, which suggests small instances with custom content. But they also want to have a larger shared experience with a central narrative that is partly controlled by us and partly player driven. We built the technology to work across those two cases, but we still need to discuss it more before we really decide if it’s an either/or answer.

MO: How do you see players splitting their time up? Do you think that it’ll mostly be people creating content, people playing through content, or an even split of both?

Phil: The general case you see with user created content is that perhaps 1% of players actually want to create something and 99% want to consume it. It was funny reading recently that the guys who make little big planet saw the exact opposite of that. They had 100% of people who played the game making a new level. Clearly not all of those levels would be any good, but it shows that people are driven to be creative if the toolset is inviting and the act of building is rewarding enough. Truth be told, we expect that most people will want to play through the content created by the best authors.

The toolset itself will likely be pretty clunky when we first release it, that is something we expect to iterate once people start using it. But it suggests that we might get people changing over time from content consumers to content creators and vice versa. The key thing is that people can discover the best stories, that the people who create the best stories are rewarded and encouraged and that we continue to work on making the experience better for both sides.

MO: Is it possible to shape the game-world as well as NPCs? Can creators re-shape the world landscape, building choice and layout, etc?

Phil: Right now we want people to concentrate on stories. There are plenty of tools already available for those other kinds of tasks and they are part of the problem for many really creative people. A lot of the feedback we got at Gen Con was that people were interested in the story but were intimidated by traditional games. So for now the focus is on making those story tools really work for everyone. Further down the road, it seems pretty likely that people will want the things you mention and we obviously want to enable as much creativity as possible.

MO: Are you moving away from the hack’n’slash of current MMO faire and towards more puzzle based or logic based ones, even where multiple solutions are possible? Do you see challenges becoming less time-bound (killing the dire wolf before it kills me) and more option-bound (working out a way of trapping/killing the dire wolf safely)?

Phil: I think the biggest thing here is that we are moving away from the narrow focus that has started to define MMORPG gameplay. At one point in time MMO’s were quite diverse, but everything seems to have narrowed towards this levelling/collecting/achievement based system. We have far more in common with roleplaying in its traditional form. We want you to feel like the world has life beyond you, because then the actions you do have far more meaning. But it really isn’t puzzle or logic based either. It’s social in nature, because a lot of the ways you interact with characters and things will have context and history.

Our early example was that you had a task to obtain a crown for a queen who had left the crown at the home of her lover. She needed the crown back and asked you to obtain it for her, but told you that she would be in very big trouble if the king found out about her affair. At the same time, the king had set a spy on to the queen because he suspected her affair and the gameplay involved you figuring out a way to get the crown back safely to the queen without the spy being able to uncover the affair. So one route might have been to slip a sleeping draft to the spy and then go recover the crown. Another might be let the spy discover the crown and wait in ambush for him when he tried to take it to the king. Another might have been to simply persuade the spy that the queen was actually involved with someone else, using misdirection to help you achieve your goal. I suppose you could think of that as a puzzle, but it is more about thinking up an inventive way to tackle a social situation.

MO: How scaleable is the technology – is it possible to have an entire campaign of NPCs all loaded into the game and available for interaction?

Phil: The technology is very scalable, so yes it can scale out to that size. All MMO’s really have to be able to perform well in the worst case scenario, which is that you have one player for every NPC so all the NPC’s have to be at full fidelity. But you can mitigate some of that with the way you design your world and how well you architect the solution to scale. We have taken care to scale “out” rather than “up”. What that means is that instead of buying a single beefy server, you can apply a number of lesser servers to the same task. It’s essentially how Google and Twitter and all those big companies achieve the scale they do.

MO: Could you see the technology being used elsewhere e.g. text-based or simple interaction games, either for less-abled gamers or for portable devices/handhelds?

Phil: Portables are definitely part of our plans. It seems obvious to us that the Storybrick toolset would work great on a tablet for instance. We have to really consider what is the best approach for each platform; though, but yes, we will work with other platforms to allow people to create content.

MO: Is it possible to edit things “on the fly”? Say your players seem to be interested in an NPC more than you expected – could you go in and build more into that character by describing more about them?

Phil: Well, fundamentally you are changing the character on the fly when you interact with them. As an author, you have control over the bricks, which have control over the character. We envision that most authoring will involve setting the original “plot” of the story world rather than trying to micromanage individual relationships. But you will have tools for those kind of things. You can certainly flesh out a character more if you feel that they are key to the story. But doing it on the fly as an author is kind of hard.

MO: What have been the big challenges so far with developing StoryBricks? I imagine the AI must be fairly complex in order to manage all the relationships between the NPCs and each player character. How is working with a geographically diverse team going?

Phil: Actually, the biggest problem we face is to convince people that there is something beyond simple achievement-based gameplay. We all are pretty experienced game players and we know that there is something missing in terms of online games and especially MMORPG’s. But if you ask gamers what they want, they say they want something more than what they currently have. They want a deeper and richer experience. But as you drill down, it becomes “more of the same” or “the same, but bigger”. So trying to convince players and as importantly investors that there is a different kind of gameplay to be had and an audience for it is our biggest challenge.

Working wise, timezones do present a bit of a problem sometimes. It means that one side or the other has to be flexible to hook up. But it normally works out ok.

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