So in my newest *recurring feature, Shameless Plug, I’ll be outlining my own little conceptual project. I call it Scalable, Persistent, Interactive Narrative (SPIN). These four letters might just give the MMO industry a little creative spark, so let’s dive right on in!

An adventurer wanders into the unknown…

Part I: Persistence - Done. All we need is a reliable server and boom! Persistence. The game world remains even when you log off. Only three letters left… this might be a short article! Or perhaps not…

Part II: Scalable Persistent Interaction - This one’s just a bit trickier. We want a ‘massive’ amount of concurrent players, all hammering on things and influencing the world in meaningful ways. But there aren’t enough game developers on earth to produce content faster than players can consume it. Ta da! Introducing the sandbox MMO! It has two possible routes: procedurally-generated (LOVE), or player-created content (Minecraft, EVE Online).

There’s a wealth of articles about sandbox MMO design, detailing how to make infinite worlds where you’ll never run out of content. However, we’re not stopping there. You see, players aren’t naturally skilled at entertaining themselves without some structure or purpose. There’s always stuff happening, but the events in a sandbox are more like news rather than cohesive stories.

Part III: Narrative - Piece of cake. Make a linear game bursting with cinematic cutscenes, and ‘experience’ a single story from start to finish from the hero’s point of view. Much like a book or film, where the story is completely in the hands of the writers. But if that’s the case, you might as well write a book. It doesn’t really take advantage of the full potential of interaction, does it? It seems we’ve taken two steps forward, one step back.

Part IV: Interactive Narrative - Good so far? Well here’s another curveball. The difficulty of this proposition just shot up faster than EVE’s learning curve. How do you make a cohesive story that can be altered by players and still have the quality of a book or film? The closest thing are branching storylines, which act like a choose-your-own-adventure book — pre-written stories split apart or merge back together. Despite adding replay value, it takes a tremendous amount of effort for the developers to author all that content. It’s a waste of the paths not taken.

Or you could let each player influence the story, and simply instance out that “timeline” into some other alternate branching reality… but then we’re back to a single player game. One step back.

Might I suggest another medium that has worked in the past? Pen and paper RPGs. Now we’ve got a “developer” who’s constantly watching over the story and pumping out hand-tailored content. The players impact the custom story, and it reacts to them. This model actually holds up well if the digital counterpart is complex enough. However it requires a creative (and hopefully benign) dungeon master at all times, and is limited to small groups

Part V: Scalable Persistent Interactive Narrative - Ok, now we’re out of our league. Not only do I ask for a cohesive dynamic story, but I want those changes to be permanent, and introduce thousands of simultaneous agents of chaos (players) into the mix. A choose-your-own-adventure book is already insufficient for Part IV, now imagine 10,000 simultaneous readers of the same book. And for a pen and paper RPG, you’d need a proportional ratio (scalable) of dungeon masters to players, dedicated 24/7 (persistent). That’s just insane.

So once again, the avenues remaining are (1) AI dungeon masters (procedural), and/or (2) Players who are given limited dungeon master tools. Both have a long way to go before they become compelling.

So that was a very lengthy setup of the problem. In the coming posts, I’ll illustrate some ideas for fusing these two paths together to achieve SPIN. But don’t get comfortable, I still need your voice of reason! We’ll either create something beautiful, or an abomination that defies natural design. Tune in next time on “Shameless Plug” to find out!

Meditatively,

-Machination

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