Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Laying Down The Lore

[Game Design]

So I was reading Aggro Me, like the hardcore Everquest fan that I am (ha!) when I came across this post. Quick summary: the author talks about ways of conveying lore in game design, and comes to (in my opinion) largely the wrong conclusions.

It's a growing problem. You've built a MMOG, or a large scale RPG, or somesuch, and you've gone to the trouble of fleshing out an unbelievably detailed backstory for the world. You've got history, you've got economy, you've got political boundaries, important figures, well-known works of art, myths, folktales, idioms, and in-jokes. And do your players care? No, they want to know exactly what the drop rate is on the Tier 3 armour in Big Evil Demon's Lair.

Where there's a problem, of course, there'll be an attempted solution, and big name MMOGs have them by the truckload. We've got the whole gamut of creativity and intelligence, including:
* unskippable cutscenes
* quest text in a tiny font that you skip as quickly as possible
* uninspiring bonus NPC dialogue that you have no incentive to read through
* random utterances from speaking enemies
* badly written in game books
* ancient writings engraved on half-buried stones
* the 40 page booklet packaged with the game

In short, no one's really trying. The industry appears to have collectively analysed the problem and thrown its hands up in defeat.

Which is a shame, because it's really not all that hard. Players will quite happily imbibe lore - yes, not just those hardcore ones who cosplay your MMOG in real life. You just have to know how to sell it. And the trick is: pull, don't push.

Don't try to get people to read buckets of annoying flavour text at the same time as you're offering them a new quest. People want the instant gratification of accepting the quest - they're not going to read. Same thing when giving out quest rewards. Gee - do I want to read this long annoying speech, or would I rather press the green button and get my new Sword of Reaping? (Guild Wars, I'm specifically looking at you.)

Stop trying to jam the lore down their throats. It doesn't seem relevant, the player doesn't have to know it, and so they won't - they'll move on without it. Instead, give the player a reason to seek the lore.

Have a broken down ruin, inhabited by a single respawning named enemy ghost that drops no loot. You'll instantly have a conversation topic throughout the zone that has no end - "What's the deal with this ruin?" Players who know the story will tell it; you start a tradition of oral lore that may encourage storytelling around other events. Don't add a reward around it - if you add a way to "solve" or "beat" it, it trivialises the content. Your dungeons are beatable - this is just here for the story.

Have a zone where part of the scenery is the bones of giant creatures - and have a really good story ready to go with those bones when people ask. Use it to hint at future content - people love lore that they can use to guess what might be coming down the pipeline. World of Warcraft has several zones with such big bones - but the story of the bones is never very engaging, and is often related to a nearby quest. You finish the quest, and then you feel like you're "done" with the bones.

Good lore isn't solvable. It's not something you hear about, and then finish. It's an ongoing dialogue with the world. It's what's still out there and relevant when you've finished every quest. It's the mysteries that lurk on the edges of your game. Ashbringer was good lore for World of Warcraft because you couldn't find the sword. I suspect it will be very disappointing when the sword is finally added. Gwen worked in Guild Wars because she didn't do anything useful -you interact with her, she follows you around, but you can't solve her.

Players look for reasons. They want to know why. But it's not a deep why. Why is there a mad brooding wizard at the top of the tower? Because you have to kill him to get the Armour of Unobtainium. A gameplay reason will be accepted more readily than a plot reason. If you want plot to become meaningful, it must happen (in at least some instances) in the absence of gameplay.

In short, don't take the lore to the player - bring the player to the lore. Give them a reason to ask why, wait for them to ask, and have your answers ready when they do. And remember, just like life, not every mystery can be solved with a sharp sword and a swift spell.


Corvus said...

Pull, don't push. Show, don't tell. Too many games implement their backstory like a textual veneer over the playable content of the game.

I worked at a Renaissance Festival for 10 years. Many new performers would draft lengthy (and dull) backstories and expect to regurgitate them endlessly to the patrons. *yawn*

Not only that, but when faced with an improvisational opportunity with a fellow performer, their history typically precluded creating a good scene, as some point of honor or the other would open the door to.... a recitation of their character history. *double yawn*

History and Lore should be born of the state of the world and integrated in subtle and sublime fashion.

Good post.

Jason O said...

Isn't part of the problem the nature of MMO's and their obsession with grinding?

You'd have to undo that long and expected tradition in order to get players to care about lore. Why are they going to go anywhere or do anything if it doesn't have some kind of benefit to them?

There has become such an obsession with levelling that there is no real functional conflict other than how many times do I have to kill the bunny to get to level 2. This is why I don't play MMO's. My time is limited. I want to get the story moving. This is also my frustration with many Japanese RPG's because at some point you must grind so you can level-up so the end bosses don't tear you to shreds on round 1.

It's so anti-climatic. "And then before the big battle, the team went around the land searching for random encounters to get battle experience"

When you've got to spend any significant portion of the game, MMO or not, just to spend time doing repetitive tasks, any attempt at story just becomes something you want to get past as quickly as possible. The game design itself becomes an obstacle to storytelling.

SIm said...

I play on a RP NWN server based in Brisbane.
I've helped the guys with content to help build the story for newer players, who don't have the time to sit through several hundred forum posts.
Just by writing brief histories, 200 words or so, and creating books in game that people can pickup and read menat that the players who wanted to learn about the history could, and those who were cool with just living the now weren't bogged down. It also meant that players who had been on the server for awhile could pile the books on noobs if then decided to run with a "I'm a historian" line.

GregT said...

To address specifically Jason (but thanks everyone!), I don't think you can expect to "fix the players". This is where conventional tabletop RPGs have been going wrong. If you have a system wherein you have some several thousand people behaving in an undesirable fashion, you don't have broken people, you have a broken system.

Now, I'd love to see a non-grind oriented MMOG. But I think there will always be a place for the grind game. People enjoy it. And just because you have grind, doesn't mean you can't also have story (and backstory). It just means you have to be a little flexible about how you deliver it.

Jason O said...

sim's idea has a lot of merit though. That's a place I'd even be interested in checking out.

Sim said...

Greg: Grindless MMOG - Uru Live.
the server is up and running again, and I've had alot of fun jumping around.

Jason: the game I did the content for ended last year, and they re-launched in a Ravenloft setting last holloween. That is to say, if you know ravenloft inside out, it is way cool to wander around. If you don't, like me, the game is still very enjoyable. There are limited books in game that are mostly copy-pastes from the source books. The website is www.aussienwn.com, which you'll need to visit to get the haks, and you will need the latest CEP too.

GregT said...

Ick, Myst. Bad memories of the series. I think I'd have to watch someone play Uru before I could be convinved to touch it myself. (Gorgeous art and so forth, but the gameplay left something to be desired, and the coding in the first one was so sloppy. It ran in a modified Quicktime window, from memory!)

Sim said...

considering it was done in the early 90's, I'd say it works well.
Uru is more FPS-like, with a 3D environment, rather than a slide-show. Uses the Plasma engine. Graphics still shiney, and environments still firendly.

GregT said...

Still "pull switch on island A, backtrack five miles to view result on island B"? Because that got old real fast.