Archive for the 'MMO' Category

45% of European Broadband Users Watch TV Shows on Computers

This Motorola study surprised me. (And I’m not often surprised by this stuff.) I had always thought that long form content would not work that well on the Internet. How we watch TV or a movie — relaxed, leaning back, settled — seemed perfect for settling in for a while. Computers had more of the feel of jumping around and being busy.

Not so! As the article notes:

The results further strengthen the business models of startups such as Joost, that seek to target a massive potential audience through the use of streamed content over a P2P network, but with the safeguards of DRM and imposed advertising delivery built in.

Just the other day I was at a Kinkos doing some work and I saw a woman waiting for her husband at one of the computer work station cubicles. She had her laptop out and was watching The Scorpian King.

Now, again, I don’t exactly get this. I was watching over her shoulder for a few minutes (I always like to try to guess a movie in as few number of images as possible), and the panoramic shots of the city being sieged lack all sense of scope. At first I couldn’t exactly tell what was happening!

Now, clearly people make the same arguments of moving Film down to the scale of TV. A shot of a horizon in a John Ford western is going to be much more effective in a movie theater than on TV. But you can still see what’s happening.

What happens when you move that down to a streaming video player? Or this: I saw a kid watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an iPod. Could he even see the details of the movie? What did an establishing shot of a ship sailing the horizon at night look like to him? Was he watching it for the first time (where a lot of details would have to be lost), or was he watching it again — an on this reviewing certain shots “triggered” memories and facts he knew from previous viewings? (My guess is the latter.)

Clearly, no matter what, I’m an old fogy on this issue. I’ve watched episodes of Heroes on the NBC site that I had missed — but only so I would be up to date to watch the next episode with friends. But I wouldn’t make it a habit. But it will become a habit.

The question on my mind is only this: what sort of content will work best on a computer screen. TV didn’t just port the cinematic style of Film and shrink it down. It built it’s own “language” of storytelling, which depended far more on close-ups and dialogue than Film. The three-camera sit-com is a wonderful invention for TV, but would be dull in a movie.

I expect while people will continue to watch TV and movies via broadband — and in greater numbers — content that is designed to work well and specifically for computer screens will grow alongside it and become dominant. What that dominant content will be — first person video storytelling, Alternate Reality Games, Massive Multiplayer Online games, things we haven’t even thought of yet — who knows?

Stories, Moral Choice, and Resource Management

In a game there are choices.

A player playing a game of Chess can choose to sacrifice a pawn to take a queen, or lose a bishop to protect a rook.

All good games are like this: Whether it’s Monopoly or Tag or Baseball (do I take this pitch or not? Do I run, or not?)

A well-designed video game has choices as well. If I’m playing a First Person Shooter, and I see a health back under a machine gun nest that might save my character during a gun battle, I could choose to go to get it despite the bullets, or I can stick it out and keep shooting, hoping I take out the bad guys before I do. It’s a resource management choice, because those are the sorts of choices that matter for a game.

Now, stories have choices, too. The characters make moral and emotional choices. Take a look at the first minute of this YouTube video. Tony Soprano answers his daughter Meadow when she asks him if he’s in the mob. (After the first minute it becomes a YouTube Soprano’s Highlight Mashup!)

Clearly he’s embarassed by the question. And just as clearly he’s trying to protect her from the very thing that pays for their home and is going to let her go to college. (They’re driving to a college campus for an interview for Meadow.)

King Oedipus has to choose whether to pursue the truth even if it will cost him his comfortable life, Hamlet must decide to pursue murder at the word of a supernatural spirit, Ripley in Aliens must decide if she will risk her life for a little girl she only recently met, and so on.

By the way, I’m not saying all audience members are paying attention to this in an intellectual manner. I am saying that people respond to stories where characters make emotionally and morally engaging choices. The audience doesn’t have to be thinking about this stuff — but they do respond.

Here’s the thing: a game can be designed so that it is only about resource management. But it can also be designed to be about moral choices.

The kind of game where this is most explicit is in MMOs… because there is no “story” the players must follow. Thus, the choices are live choices. What a player does is open-ended and will affect other, actual human beings.

Let’s say that a game is set up where you can choose to have your character be very loyal to the state. You get certain bonuses for serving the state of one kind or another. (And let us say you could have your character be an enemy of the state — and get bonuses in turn for being a rebel. But that’s not how you chose to build your character.)

And let us assume further your character is very loyal to his family. This is a world with extended families, and there are mechanical and practical bonuses to having strong ties to your family.

And let us say finally that the game world shifts and your character’s father is declared a traitor by the state. Suddenly your character has a choice: to defend his father, or side with state against him. That’s an engaging choice because it taps all sorts of moral and emotional buttons in all of us.

An MMO could be rigged with a large matrix set of options about where to put one’s alliances and loyalties. And over time alliances between players and between players and NPCs could shift back and forth. As the player made choice for his or her character, more and more dramatic moments would arise — moments that would be strongly remembered by the player.

Now, one would have to make sure you didn’t derail the MMO with too many options. But it seems to me that this kind of design would allow players to plug directly into the stuff of dramatic action and epic tales. Certainly it seems possible to take the stuff of dramatic narrative and plug it into mechanics of resource management to offer up more color, drama and meaning.

“Pen & Paper” RPGs, MMOs and Distribution of Narrative Authority

I’ve spent time writing, designing and playing “pen & paper” role-playing games. I learned a lot working on them, both about story and games. (This is where I began focusing on how some things that work in one medium might not work in another medium! A play is not a novel is not an RPG is not a movie!)

Delving deep into MMOs, I’ve discovered they’ve shed a lot of the assumptions that many paper RPG publishers and players had, and break free of some of the “culture” of RPGs:

For such a fun, innovative way of building a narrative through group effort, the players usually don’t have much input.

In traditional games the Players make the “characters” and the GM makes the “story”. The trick is this: the whole point of a character in a story is to make decisions. That’s what drives a story and that’s how real character is revealed — what does a person choose to do.

Now, often in role-playing circles (and other circles as well), people confuse characteristics with character. Character is the choices a person (or character) makes. That’s what we used to mean by the word “character” when talking about people, and it’s still a standard wrench in a writer’s tool-kit.

But most RPGs didn’t know what to do with that because the GM had already built the “story.” (Scare quote on purpose, but with apologies… For reasons to be revealed.)

If the GM already knows that a series of events might lead a character to one specific end, the Players really have little control over the choices their character can make.

If we’re playing a Space Opera and my PC is a farm-boy from a backwater world battling a horrible Villain, and the GM whips out the reveal at the table that the Villain is actually my characters’ father — it’s a thrilling moment, because WHO KNOWS WHICH WAY MY CHARACCTER IS GOING TO JUMP?

But if the GM has already decided that my character and the badguy will be fighting side by side against the rest of the Player Characters there CAN’T be a choice. More importantly, the GM will sort of shoehorn me with subtle signals (often involving unspoken rewards or punishments) to have my guy side with the Villain — because that’s the cool scene he had in his head. But it might not be what I consider a cool scene.

So, what do we consider “role playing” in such a game? Basically, people play the CHARACTERISTICS of the PC. The GM says, “Here’s such and such a situation, and basically I know how it’s going to lead into the next scene, but what you’re going to do is play out the behaviors of your characters,” (not real, meaningful choices that can drive the narrative in unexpected directions, but simply the behaviors.)

This is where we get the focus on “talking in character,” the funny voices, only knowing what you know in character — because it limits the Player’s input into what actually change the shape of the tale.

But, again, if the Players are playing the characters they’re being robbed of one of the most important elements of creating a character — “What does the character do when the hammer comes down? When the tough choices have to be made, does Sheriff Brody cave to the will of the townspeople in Jaws, or does he take action to go public? Does Ripley flee when the space marines are getting chewed up, or does she put herself in harm’s way to save them?” And so on.

Note that the GM’s attitude often is, “Of course the player will put her character in harm’s way to save the space marines” when “plotting” and RPG adventure.

But what about when the character doesn’t want to? We all seen it happen a gazillion times. The responses vary — but they contain:

  • The GM’s brain shutting down for five minutes as he tries to re-jigger the plot;
  • the GM politely asking the Player to play along;
  • the GM sort of bullies the Player with back-handed logic (“Well, your character would go save them, you know”)
  • the GM has the aliens attack the PC anyway, no matter what ridiculous lengths the Player has the PC go through to get away;
  • anger sometimes erupts at the table;
  • sometimes there’s hours of post-game angst over the phone and emails.

comic_lotr3.jpg

[Please do check out Shamus Young’s fabulous DM of the Rings.]

Note that the key issue her is all about the Player simply not being allowed to make a vital choice for the character for fear it will ruin the game or the story. After all, we know what a character “should” do — right?

Well, no. Again, what a character chooses to do is what reveals the character. Should Michael Carleone have become a crime lord in his father’s footsteps? Should Ripley have stopped Dallas from bringing an infected Kane onto the Nostromo? And so on.

Characters make decisions, flip flop. There are consequences to their actions and then, in light of those consequences, they make new choices..

In this way, a role-playing game session would be more of a lively game of “what the hell is going to happen next?” The Players make choices for the PCs. The GM tosses out the next set of hard decisions on the fly. And when it’s all over we have a story we could not have guessed at.

Of course this blows “The Party” model of play right out of the water. But why should the party have to stay together. Only one person at the table can ever speak at one time anyway! Whether their fictional characters are in the same imagined space or not doesn’t change that. You still have to rotate around the table.

In fact, a whole bunch of assumptions have to get shattered — the key one being: “This wouldn’t work.”

The questions show up fast, “How can there be a story if the GM doesn’t have a story?” “What if one of the Players has her PC run off to China?” “You could do this, but you would need ‘advanced’ Players.”

The truth is, No.

It works just fine. It works fine for beginners. The games are a blast. Here’s a list of some small games that have been thought through packed with rules and techniques to do exactly what we’re talking about:

Sorcerer
Dogs in the Vineyard
The Mountain Witch
The Burning Wheel

InSpectres
The Riddle of Steel
HeroQuest

There are more.

There’s no way to summarize all these games, of course. So I’ll just say this:

The players in these games write down what is important to THEM. The GM still creates the world and backstory and the PCs with secrets. But the GM is also responsible for utilizing the narrative elements the Players create during character creation. For example, in Sorcerer, there’s a thing called a Kicker. If I’m creating a Player Character I might say, “My character kicked my son out of the house 20 years ago when he suspect my character murdered my wife (which, in fact, he did). On the day the story starts, my son comes home asking forgiveness.”

The first question to be asked is, “Does my guy let the son into the house?”

But after that there are more questions: Does the son have an agenda? Is he really he for forgiveness or vengeance? Is my wife’s ghost going to start talking to my son if he comes in the house? Given the genre and the other back story information created by the players and the GM, the GM gets to make up LOTS of stuff. He just isn’t making up the plot.

He’s simply making up material to let the Players make tough choices with emotional and thematic impact. You know, like a story.

But, of course, this means a new distribution of power among the players. The GM isn’t building a channel to dive the characters through toward a certain kind of ending. For all we know, in the Space Opera, Luke does end up fighting his friends because of his desperate love for his father. (In this kind of game play these kinds of choices are valued. It’s not a betrayal of the party. It’s a love of the story.)

The GM can’t give little clues about what is supposed to happen, because he has NO IDEA of where the story will be in three hours.

There’s a tradition of RPGs that says you simply don’t play that way. And that’s great for folks who want it. But other people are very excited about pushing more power amongst the players and having a great time doing it.

ss0931.jpg

Now, back to MMOs…

In a game like World of Warcraft, the game’s designers have established “quests” for your character, but a lot of how you go about doing it is your business. You can try it alone, you can gather a party, you can be loyal all the way through the quest, you can abandon your fellow adventurers along the way. You can retreat when you want, turn down a quest if you want. You can set your own goals if you want.

This is a lot more freedom than a lot of players got when they sat down the a GM to “play a story.” In fact, a lot of RPG sessions play pretty much like the story in a First Person Shooter or Survival Game and many RPG games: the player is led from one cut scene to the next, needing to defeat a bunch of bad guys, and then watching the next cut-scene. In this way, the players are being told a story, but they’re not really participating in it since they have no impact on it.

Not so in an MMO, where the players pick their actions and goals without needing to please anyone but themselves. They don’t have to stay in a group, they don’t have to follow “the story.” They don’t have to do anything, really. But… because they are interacting with other, real people, their choices carry consequences. Doing a good deed might be rewarded later. Being an ass-hat might mean trouble later.

01n.jpg

Eve Online carries this even further. Set in a future world of space travel, commerce, mercenaries and exploration, the players are let loose without any preplanned agendas at all. There is an environment (computer controlled characters, asteroids to mine, planet-sized economies to run or ruin) and there are the other players. What a player decides to in Eve is his or her own business.

Unlike World of Warcraft, there are no pre-planned quests for the characters to pursue. Players are absolutely left to their own devices to figure out what to accomplish and how to go about doing it. This can take a toll on new players, who are left without any guidance. But it also means almost unparalleled freedom when it comes to the player choosing what actions his character will take, and so what kind of story the player will “tell” with the character.

The Genius of MMOs, Part 1

So, Dramatic Narrative is about choice in conflicting situations. The engine underlying Theater, Television and Films is characters in one kind of conflict or another having to make choices. Antigone has to decide if she’s going to put her life at risk to bury her dead brother; Ripley in Aliens has to decide if she’ll put her life at risk for a stranger; Tony Soprano needs to make life and death decisions about how to protect himself and his family — knowing his decisions are costing him more and more of his soul. Each form has other issues at hand about how to present these choices — theater uses primarily dialogue to convey the drama, TV depends on a mix of close up and dialogue, and Film depends more on image than dialogue. (TV in recent years has become much more involved with conveying narrative with Film’s cinematic techniques — in shows like The X-Files, The Shield, Heroes and many others.)

Anyway — MMOs… (Massive Multi-player Online games)

So, I was playing my second night of World of Warcraft. I was playing an Orc Warrior, running down a road on my way to a quest. Off to the right of the road I saw a shaman battling a creature in the wilderness. I passed my cursor over the creature and the shaman and saw that the shaman was getting his ass kicked.

So, suddenly, I had a choice:

I could continue on my way, or I could wander off the road, putting myself at more risk and try to help the shaman.

I chose to help the shaman. We beat down the creature. The player playing the shaman typed out the word, “Thanks!” — which appeared in a little word balloon above his head.

He then ran off onto his next bit of business, but stopped, turned, and cast a healing spell upon my orc.

Now, a couple of things here:

The incident stuck in my head for a while, but I couldn’t, at first, figure out why. And then I remembered all the stuff I think about in terms of dramatic choice. If you take apart a movie or play or really great TV show you will discover that the characters are being pressed into making active choices moment by moment that define what sort of person they are.

And that’s exactly what happened with me. I wasn’t watching a character, I was playing a character. But I still had a choice to make.

And it was a familiar choice. In fact, it was a familiar story: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a very simple story, but it remains in our lives because the decision to help or not help a stranger along the road is one we face time and time again in one form or another every day.

Now, clearly the consequences of the choice are light in an MMO.  I wasn’t going to really die, faced no real risk to my flesh.  But if my character died, I would lose time, maybe lose resources I had accumulated.  There would be consequence.  And since we grant that consequences to characters in a dramatic narrative matter — even thought those consequences  have no actual impact us — I suggest that the choices in an MMO, if they actually touch on the themes of morality — matter as well.

Was this a story?  No, though a little tale, maybe.  Some piece of a fairy tale. But it was definitely a “story moment.”  Do most people think of their gaming experience this way?  Maybe not.  But I would argue that it is these moments of choice — recognized or not — that make the MMO experience feel very “live” and valuable.  Such decisions, after all, really are the stuff of life and stories.

And the genius of the MMO?  Well, no one was around to engineer this!  It was simply two characters interacting with a computer-controlled beast.  But the shaman and I created our own set of choices simply on our own.  That to me is astounding: that Blizzard (the creators of World of Warcraft), created a rich environment that simply exists to help create choices for players.

It’s as simple as helping a stranger on the road.

The thrust of building more complex MMOs might have much less to do with imposing “a story” on the players, but offering them more at stake in terms of their story choices.  By laying out the options and letting the players make the tough choices, we’ll still get compelling stories.  We’ll just have to let the players invest as much into the story as they want.