Storybricks: breathing life into NPCs

Jaina Proudmoore, powerful sorceress of the Kirin Tor. We first met her in Theramore Isle, doing her bidding in a series of quests, before she buggered off to save the world from the Burning Legion, following Medivh, falling in love with Arthas Menethil. Last we saw her, she had changed – “she’s become too whiny”, some said, her mind addled with the quest to save beloved Arthas, until she finally succumbs to reality during the Halls of Reflection scenario in the Wrath of the Lich King.

Remember Jaina? I’m sure you do.

Sheddle Glossgleam of Dalaran is a special little gnome. He resides in the Threads of Fate shop, just above Paldesse whom the clothwearers among you must surely know, so many times have you stood at her side and browsed her wares. I’ve talked about Sheddle in the past and why he stands out in a crowd of anonymous, faceless NPCs out there. I hope since then you’ve paid him a visit or two. Did you know that he has a secret thing for Paldesse? I wonder how they manage to maintain such problematic a relationship…

The truth is, it’s hard to remember much about most NPCs that co-exist with us in MMOs and frankly, it’s a crying shame. Unless a developer decides to promote a special character to hero status, we rarely remember the face or story of the innumerable characters we meet on our travels or visit frequently. If they even have a story. Our virtual worlds are flooded with characters of every size and color – they populate our towns and cities, they work in our shops providing the most crucial services, they hand us our very first quest as we begin to explore the new world.

Yet, we have no idea who they are. In fact, most of the time we don’t even stop to have a look around as we enter a new town or quest hub, let alone talk to every NPC or listen to what it has to say. Mostly because none of them have much to say, anyway – and so we click our way through loot and service windows, counting on nothing out of the ordinary to happen. And usually we are quite right about that.

MMO developers have a long way to go when it comes to creating more plausible NPCs in their games, characters that actually deserve notice and justify our attention over more than potential rewards alone. Why does such an omnipresent aspect of gameplay remain game “furniture” – at best making for an escort quest or popular quest-giver, more frequently serving as a shell for your average service window? Why do NPCs get so little impact on a world they co-inhabit?

Introducing Storybricks: more than just dialogues with NPCs

Namaste Entertainment intend to change the oversight that has been NPCs in videogames these past years. With Storybricks, a project in progress, they want to breathe life into non-player characters (and the entire world from there) and to make them a more engaging, fun and fundamental part of online gaming experiences. And not just that: they want you to invent your own NPCs and scenarios with them!

After having been invited to see a demo on Storybricks, I’d like to try and summarize for you what it’s all about in few simplified words: Storybricks is an ingame tool-set that will enable players to create their own stories about and with NPCs, allowing them to write complete scenarios in quest-like fashion by defining an NPC’s pre-determinants/history, basic attributes and behavior towards other players, down to more complex relationships, adding setting and even NPC inter-relations. That means you will not just set a stage and invent a story for other players to experience, but each NPC is being attributed his own, individual AI, whereby it reacts hostile or friendly towards you and will change and adjust its behavior long-term, depending on your actions. Not enough with that, your choices and actions might not only influence your reputation with one NPC, but other NPCs associated with it. There is no accounting for what consequences your actions might have!

Namaste intend for their Storybricks system to be an easy to approach, self-explanatory tool where the player/creator can choose between building a more simple scenario with help of a vast variety of pre-defined functions and actions, or defining every step down the road himself for a more unique experience. On an UI level, this means you will be working with so-called “bricks” that allow for an unlimited number of combinations for each NPC. It’s really up to you how far you decide to go.

When it comes to how such player-generated content could be implemented and made available for others to play, Namaste are still in the phase of evaluation. Technically there are many options: allow players to write scenarios for existing NPCs they enjoy, let players create NPCs and stories from scratch that can then be offered like a “module” – similar to downloading apps from an app-store.

There is great potential here in terms of tapping a player-base’s creativity and making for unique, non-repetitive questing experiences; if developers cannot put much time and effort into creating interesting NPCs and ongoing lore, why not make your player-base solve the issue for you?

There are concerns too of course – on the surface: dynamic implementation, choice-impact relation and realization, balance, polish and including the multi-player aspect. Also, regulating potentially conflicting NPC stories. However, Namaste are aware of these pitfalls and they have time to find just the right answers over the course of many months to come. The more feedback they are receiving at this stage, the better they can work out solutions.

Worried? It ain’t “all or nothing”!

Now, from a more classic MMO-driven point of view, you might have some justified doubts. Do you really care to know that much about NPCs? Are MMOs not much more about interacting with real people, rather than NPCs in Fable or Dragon Age Origins -manner? And what if you simply do not enjoy story writing and inventing characters?

The answer to concerns such as these are very simple: first off, Storybricks is entirely optional a feature. If you’re not one for creating content yourself, it simply means more quests and more interesting NPCs will be available for you to interact with. Or not. But if the successes of games such as Little Big Planet or Forza-I tell us anything, then a great many gamers actually love to add to their favorite games, to create content and share it with others. Think about it: just how much time do players already spend every day interacting with NPCs – daily quest givers, service providers? The number must be enormous.

Why not exchange that experience for a more unique one? Why not play new, player-created content all the time, instead of dailies and other repeatables? Assuming the content is dynamic, meaningful and well-implemented? It’s not all or nothing from here: Storybricks has the potential to add considerably to any type of MMO. It remains up to individual players how much they want to get out of it.

Everyone wins – A big palette of potential

For developers the advantages of Storybricks seem evident: get customers to add unique content to your game, in an area where you cannot necessarily spare the resources or focus in equal amounts. Provide for a long-lasting, almost unlimited source of new adventures, rather than adding more and more repeatable content, boring your players to death as they wait for the next expansion or patch. By this, make your world flow more naturally, feeling more alive, dynamic and exciting.

For the online player, it is an unprecedented opportunity to direct his own MMO experiences and to unleash his creativity and hidden talents. Once more, players become creators rather than mere consumers in their virtual home. The complexity of Storybricks, the far-reaching NPC relations add elements such as meaning of choice, impact and consequence to gameplay, making for an altogether more immersive experience. Add to that an unebbing flow of new quest scenarios to play through.

I fully endorse a project with the potential to add that much depth to MMOs and bringing players back to the table. It feels like we have finally reached the “post-WoW era”, with future online games needing to set themselves apart, improving and innovating in areas very lackluster so far. We can all feel a turning point in this exhausted industry – refreshing concepts such as Storybricks are exactly what we need.

What the team at Namaste needs from you to help them on their journey, is feedback: ideas, suggestions, critique. They have been reaching out to a variety of bloggers and gaming networks these past weeks and they want more, as many suggestions as they can possibly get this early into development. So, if you have any time to spare, are interested in demo testing and want your NPCs to become a more exciting and memorable part of online adventures, check out their website and get in touch. I for one, will definitely keep a very close eye on Storybricks from here!

6 comments

  1. Thanks for your kind words! Your elegant writing makes this sound better than I think I could, and I’m working on it! :)

    It’s been really great to see the positive reactions to our work. Gives us extra motivation to make this rock even more.

  2. You’re very welcome. :)
    and you know how it is, for every positive vocal reaction, you have another hundred silent readers who are just as supportive and excited to see you continue.

    The way you started off is impressive considering there’s still so much time ahead. I hope all the current exposure will help Storybricks to gather the input and people you guys need.

  3. I think in massive MMO worlds like WoW, even heroic characters are forgotten soon enough. For instance, do you remember the name of the elf that you interact with to gain entrance into the Molten Core. Or the last boss of BRD?

    There is so much lore, so much fantastorical background to indulge in with a game that has been running for near 7 years that I think a lot of us may have ‘NPC fatigue’.

  4. @Bronte
    There’s definitely a lot of fatigue in many areas which makes room for new approaches.

    And you’re quite right that I don’t recall the name of these two NPCs, they are still way too non-descriptive in WoW to stick. I’d only ever name Jaina, Thrall or Sylvanas hero characters of WoW although there are no doubt plenty more heroes to be found ingame and in the lore. as an alliance player, I’d probably add Varian and Magni, but the list soon ends there.

  5. Now this is the first post, outside of Mana Obscura, that has picked up on this new technology in production. Especially focusing around, and relating to, WoW. Your right. It doesn’t take very much to move on and forget the almighty village you just saved in a perfectly sculpted quest chain, when the quest-giver has very little words to reflect a virtual conciousness. Heck, sometimes I have forgotten who I am trying to save and for what reason half way through a quest. All of which could be ultimately brought to life, when you know your actions will change the reaction of such NPCs.

    Your right in saying that NPCs just form part of the ‘furniture’ over time.

    I can already know for certain, at least for me, that this could quite possibly be the next big ‘break-through’ in the MMO/Gaming world. Raising the bar and progressing the genre. I would certainly jump at the chance to become immersed even further into the world I play in, especially the Warcraft world. Blizzard please look into this, pretty please. Not so much having players create the content/NPCs, but seeing blizzard use this when implementing new ones and EVEN reworking existing ones (though I could see the gigantic task that could create).

    I can’t express how this would bring the game, any game, to life. Quite literally compared to the current ‘stale’ robots we see today.

    Comment, turned to post, by,

    – Jamin

  6. @Jamin

    It is very exciting indeed! It’s great to see new concepts that aim higher and want to move away from the scripted, repetitive experience most MMOs still offer today.

    I thought it was important to make the link to WoW or another MMO we can all relate to – while SB makes for a great standalone game already and can certainly be used in all sorts of games and software (also thinking educational), what obviously interests me the most is how it could be implemented in classic, mainstream MMOs and how that would change them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available