Mirjam Eladhari has an interesting talk up on her blog that considers what she calls “the Holy Grail” for MMORPGs: making stories meaningful for thousands of players.
The talk isn’t about events, it’s about shaping a given player’s path through the game in meaningful ways, to reveal true character. The eye-catching idea is to use personality assessment early in the character creation process, and then set the traits invisibly on the avatar. Then the traits can be used as inputs into the game systems.
Leaving aside the critiques of personality trait systems that are out there, it’s still an interesting idea that echoes stuff like the Gypsy in the Ultima series. That merely defined a class, but a class itself is also a strong shaping of a journey though a gamespace, so there’s clearly something to that notion. Interestingly, I think players these days would be very resistant to the Gypsy, because class (like character race and gender) is more of a Rorchasch test for playstyle these days.
When working on the Love Story Challenge, I was trying hard to capture actual story, as opposed to plot coupons. The algorithm for the romance novel generator is therefore dependent on ascribing personality characteristics to the players. I used a heck of a lot more than 5 traits, too:
- Not ready to settle down
- Overly dependent
- Too proud to accept help
- A social snob
- Thinks they want adventure
- Scared of the world
- Rigidly conservative
- …and dozens more
Each of these was then broken out into a typical character arc, so that each character was round, rather than flat. These arcs were based on basic storytelling theory patterns: some stage-setting, an epiphany, a reversal, a denouement, etc.
- Not ready to settle down
- Evidence of past refusals to settle
- Realization of need to settle
- Attempted settling but flees
- Evidence of past codependency
- Anger at self over inability to take action independently
- Fail miserably at trying to take independent action
- Forced to take independent action and it works
The rest of the alrogithm involved interleaving story incidents that fit each character with the skeleton plot of a typical romance novel. The algorithm proved surprisingly good: you could get it to spit out entirely plausible romance novel outlines with arbitrary numbers of characters.
But as a tool for generating quests in MMORPGs it wasn’t very useful, because you can’t assign traits to players as they enter the game. Rather, you have to detect traits they are expressing.
Perhaps the idea of sticking a personality assessment in quests in the newbie portion of the game is a partial answer to this. Perhaps it could be made part of a character creation process. (“Tell us about your character’s childhood. Was she afraid of spiders, the dark, and slimy things?”)
Either way, if, as Bartle argues in Designing Virtual Worlds, virtual worlds are about a player’s exploration of self, then we ought to be finding ways to aid in that design goal. The games these days don’t seem to take that as a design goal at all, replacing it instead with other forms of self-actualization (power, as discussed previously, but also group identity). The narrative, including the personal narrative, isn’t explicitly supported very much outside of a few badge systems, an optional character description, and maybe a roleplay forum or two.
And yet, the prevalence of alt-play suggests that multiple narratives of self is something that players deeply value (hardly surprising, it’s something that people tend to crave in the real world as well).
There’s also market pressures that push against having things like reversals in our player’s narratives. Reversals, after all, are unpleasant…
So, is this the Holy Grail? How many players want to learn about themselves as they play, versus the players who would rather not think at all, and instead take a break from the real world?