Oct 092009
 

PCWorld ran an article in three parts on Dragon Age, Bioware’s upcoming RPG, and part three leads by posing the question

Is Bioware’s Dragon Age the last of its kind? A solo-player game absent an integrated online component? Or is it actually the next step in what Spore designer Will Wright calls the “massively single player” experience?

Mike Laidlaw, the lead designer on the game (justly well-known for his writing chops) offers up some interesting and nuanced thoughts.  He leads with the observation (boldface mine) that

I think the glory of stories–and I think this is something computers are only now starting to be able to participate in–is that stories are shared experiences. It’s the shaman telling the tale of whatever around the campfire, the boy scouts with the flashlight under their faces. All these things are primal ways that we as a people communicate, share experiences, and quite often, share wisdom and growth. Before written communication, before the printing press, and before computers certainly. Lore and legends were often wrapped up as fables and parables, for the purposes of sharing experiences.

So to my mind, the most valid story is one that can be experienced but also shared

I couldn’t agree more with this premise! I think the interviewer oversimplified my position on single-player games somewhat, narrowing my point down to “games in which only one person [is] making decisions,” which isn’t quite what I meant. Mike’s response, however (and there’s more of it, go read) adds back in the subtleties. That stories, and narrative experiences, aren’t going away — but that quite a lot of social interaction will be built back into them, bringing them closer to the communal experience they originated with. In fact, Mike mentions they are

…developing something for Dragon Age called the Social Engine that allows you to share the experiences and growth of your characters…

This sort of trend is, of course, the default mode for the burgeoning titles on Facebook (most recent crazy example, Zynga’s Cafe World, which has reached over 8m users in one week). You cannot separate this success from the fact that your gaming is public gaming.

It doesn’t preclude stories, not at all — at least, no more than games already do — but it does change their nature, perhaps bringing them closer to their campfire roots.

Edit: typoed Mike’s name as Marc throughout — because of course, there’s Marc Laidlaw from Valve, too! Oops.

  24 Responses to “Mike Laidlaw on single-player games”

  1. You had me there with the Marc/Mike thing. I came in from the RSS feed thinking, “Laidlaw left Valve? Wow!”

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  3. I wonder if this means we might see a return/popular resurgence of Dungeon Master-controlled content, ala Neverwinter Nights…

    That would seem to be the most ‘shared’ storytelling experience, rather than the very-finely-computer-controlled content we have at the moment (which also often results in some very short main-arc play-through durations…)

  4. To me, the shared experience is something like telling my friends about the awesome thing that happened in a game. How I beat the boss, or how I did things differently, or this totally awesome bug I found. Like in Ultima 9, there was a bug when you come out of the Hythloth dungeon where the sun goes out and you’re left in a world of darkness and wolves and it doesn’t fix itself untill you find your way to Katrina’s house and take a nap in her bed. That sort of thing!

    I remember when I played Okami, I really liked using the Glaive weapon and I was really good at using the slice ability, but later I saw a friend playing and he used the Rosary weapon and liked to use the brush to blind enemies with ink. It was a really different story for each of us in what was actually a very structured game.

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  6. One thing I enjoy about the D&D Online MMO is the occasional DM voice over. “You hear the scrabbling of sharp claws on stone ahead”, etc.

    It would take a lot of work, but it would be interesting to have a game (single or multiplayer) that did much more of this kind of virtual DM who was as much a part of the game as the game’s world and the player.

  7. Some of the most memorable moments I’ve experienced in MMO gaming were back in UO, when the volunteer system allowed a small number of player volunteers to craft adventures for other players. A live “NPC” would wander into a player town or tavern, roll out the background, set an adventuring party off on a quest, and nudge them back on course if they got off track (or rewrite the adventure in mid-stream). Other volunteers would play NPC or monster roles. It was PvP to the same extent that a tabletop DM is doing PvP, that is, the goal of the volunteers was to advance the story, not to win.

    The death of the volunteer system put an end to it, and to be sure there were major limitations. But there was also a measure of magic in having a unique, unscheduled adventure unfold just for whoever was hanging around the tavern at the time (not to mention an incentive to spend some down-time socializing!)

    I’ve seen glimmers of the same dynamic in LOTR’s player-monster system and City of Heroes’ mission architect. But I’m still waiting for an MMO that really lets the dungeonmaster/storyteller shine, both in creating an epic and allowing the DM and/or other actors to inhabit the roles therein.

  8. It would take a lot of work, but it would be interesting to have a game (single or multiplayer) that did much more of this kind of virtual DM who was as much a part of the game as the game’s world and the player.

    Like Planescape: Torment, but with more triggers that go off when you move over a square or trigger an event rather than when you mouse over something? I mean there was a huge amount of fluff text of that nature for clicking on parts of the environment. It wouldn’t have taken much to shift some of that to a more dynamic triggers. At least, not compared to how MUCH of it they put in that game.

  9. I agree. The most valid story is one that can be shared.

    But what if we’ve already heard that story? Or what if we were part of it, too? Why share a story we all know?

    With linear games, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have anything unique to share with a community also playing the same content.

  10. “Most valid” is a meaningless phrase, and most meaningless in this context. Are novels somehow inferior to movies because no one is kicking the back of my seat while I’m reading?

  11. Are novels somehow inferior to movies because no one is kicking the back of my seat while I’m reading?

    I guess you’ve never travelled by plane…

  12. Co-workers and I were discussing the issue of paper and pencil role-playing versus computer based and it came up that one guy didn’t see the value of having that unique experience with a live dungeon master (DM) with one reason being the common context wasn’t there between different group with different DMs. He argued that in a computer game players could talk about how they approached solving it and share that context. (The issue being he’s never played any face-to-face games and doesn’t care for MMO RPGs either.)

    In some ways my co-worker has a point, who hasn’t been bored by someone attempting to recount the actions of someone’s character in a face-to-face RPG. But he also didn’t agree in the value of alternative choices you can have with a face-to-face game that computer games do not have.

    The closest would be to talk about your experience with a specific module. Like everyone seems to have a Tomb of Horror story. But even then each DM would have an individual way of dealing with the module. Possibly something closer would be to talk about what opponents you defeated, which then comes back to combat. And if the interaction is mostly combat then a computer moderated experience is more likely to be consistant between players.

    Our discussion eventually digressed into Gamist vs Narrativist vs Simulationist and the goal of why you play Role Playing Games. But the main point of does it matter how much choice you have when you need to defeat an opponent and do the extra choices really matter to the mass market still stands. Do people care that their MMO quests can be solved in a limited number ways? Would it matter if there are more ways considering how much more expensive the extra content would be to make?

    In MMOs the people on that quest all made the same decision to join it, they aren’t significantly changing the story compared to a player soloing the same quest.

  13. “Do people care that their MMO quests can be solved in a limited number ways?”

    Speaking as a player, I care. It frustrates me to waltz into an ambush like a lamb to the slaughter, even though it’s blatantly obvious that it’s a trap, because there’s no other way to advance the quest. It thwarts my narrative vision of what my character would do in such a situation, and substitutes the designers’ vision of what a generic character should do. If I can’t make meaningful decisions that affect outcomes, it’s less the experience of telling stories around a campfire and more like listening to a tape recording of stories around a campfire.

  14. A non-deterministic game should be subject to entropy. A story isn’t. You can share it as widely as desired but the boy always gets eaten by the wolf. Otherwise, it’s not a story; it’s a framework.

    I’d care if a shared game allowed a player to refresh resources at will, or the ending of a story can be changed by the reader. Both have the emotional satisfaction of children’s make-believe.

    No consequences; no contest… except on Wall Street.

  15. But stories aren’t static. Each teller adds his or her own embellishments and drops other elements from the narrative, up to and including changing plot points or the ending. The stories mutate, but they don’t succumb to entropy, because each storyteller imposes his or her own order on the events. Disney’s “Hercules” isn’t Ovid’s. Johnny Cash’s “Frankie and Johnny” isn’t Mae West’s. But they all hang together as stories.

    I remember one occasion in UO, during a player-run storyline, when one player who was supposed to be kidnapped by the evil forces of darkness (culminating in an epic battle, of course) instead grabbed the MacGuffin and ‘ported out. The fellow who had scripted the encounter was livid; I was in stitches. The player whom he had cast in his mind as a hapless victim had rewritten her part on the fly and become a bold hero instead.

    Much wringing of hands ensued, but eventually the storyline was massaged into a new form, arguably stronger for the unexpected twist of the damsel getting herself quite handily out of distress.

    That flexibility and collaborative approach to storytelling is one of the greatest innovations of the tabletop RPG. Obviously, there are technological limitations to incorporating that into computer RPGs. But just as obviously, it’s a temporary obstacle, and one that is begining to be dismantled.

  16. Speaking as a player, I care. It frustrates me to waltz into an ambush like a lamb to the slaughter, even though it’s blatantly obvious that it’s a trap, because there’s no other way to advance the quest. It thwarts my narrative vision of what my character would do in such a situation, and substitutes the designers’ vision of what a generic character should do. If I can’t make meaningful decisions that affect outcomes, it’s less the experience of telling stories around a campfire and more like listening to a tape recording of stories around a campfire.

    Except that for every person that cares how many are there who do not? Few MMOs allow for multiple solutions to quests and that hasn’t stopped them from gaining market share. I happen to agree with you, but the market doesn’t seem to.

    I think it would be great to have more things like what happened in the UO storyline happen, but how many players would care? Enough to actually support the development cost for something like that?

    I play a lot of Puzzle Pirates and with my flag we have a goal to take an island and change the game state. Or change the economy by attempting to manipulate the market. Or just hang out and defeat computer pirates (which doesn’t change the world) until we are Legendary or Ultimate (which changes everyone’s comparison rankings).

    But is taking an island in Puzzle Pirates really any more meaningful than defeating some instance in WoW? One changes the world and one doesn’t but does anyone really care?

  17. But stories aren’t static.

    As long as they aren’t in a static format (eg, print), that’s true. When a story is retold and modified by the teller, that is a refresh similar to the game player refreshing the db with different values or as you illustrate, the player who seizes control of the situation to the chagrin of others. Sometimes that’s good but like an improvisatorial actor who goes off script live, mileage varies. The creator of Family Guy talking about their process said improvisation played a role but that in the end, the same process that makes Second City work live is terrible for television and that by the time the final product is presented, every line is hammered in stone. The costs will go exponential if the improvisation process is taken too far into the production schedule although this varies by format (eg, extra footage in movies, extra scratch tracks in song recording) and presentation and genre (eg, live comedy vs dramatic theatre).

    Note ‘presentation’ and ‘format’. When an audience is watching, it makes a difference to process. When an actor is ‘participating’, it makes a difference. Is a game with an audience the same presentation as a game without one this side of sports (excluding hockey)?

  18. “Few MMOs allow for multiple solutions to quests and that hasn’t stopped them from gaining market share.”

    I don’t think we can dismiss the potential impact of a flexible, dynamic quest system until somebody deploys one. UO’s broken quest system was so back-burnered that it fell off the stove. Nobody much cared. Then EverQuest exploded onto the scene, and part of the reason for its success was its robust quest system.

    Now, in the age of WoW, the linear quest is so firmly established that it’s hard to imagine a mainstream MMO without such a system. What I’m hoping to see is another EverQuest-style revolution — somebody who takes the static, stagnant quest and shocks it back into life with an infusion of choice and consequence, not because current players are clamoring for it, but because once they play it, they’ll take it as the new standard.

    Then again… it’d probably require a significant investment to develop, and it seems like huge development budgets mitigate against innovation (“We don’t want something fresh! We want WoW in Space!”). So I may be waiting for awhile… until some indy genius does an end run around the dinosaurs.

  19. Len, you raise interesting points. If actors are free to diverge from the script at any point in any direction they see fit, the narrative suffers from actors who are inexperienced, impulsive, opportunistic or actively hostile to the production.

    My leaning would be towards a modular system. The modules would be scripted, but customized on the fly to fit the previous modules as well as the individual or group playing them. The code to choose the next module would take into account not only player actions and choices but the dramatic structure of the quest.

    The outcome of the module string need not be meaningful to the broader game world — the sun will still rise and set whether the tailor’s daughter is rescued or ravished. But it should be meaningful to the player, a story that is uniquely his or hers, and perhaps one with some small consequence any time the player needs a new doublet.

  20. Right. The more I studied the problems of initiative and real time over the years in the IETM world where flexible repair scheduling is fundamental to a changing battlefield (the real ones), the more what we were doing looked on one side like jazz improvisation (loosely structured, finely played, scheduled by gestural systems, uses small sequences that are order-independent (think modal, particularly raga systems)), and on the other side was sound object-oriented programming inside a framework.

    The problem is always ‘say interactive; say programming’ so it becomes necessary to provide a means to add modules adaptively and recode their properties on the fly. It takes a helluva team to grok that and not fall into the traps of either a) over authoring so no non-deterministic branching or b) making is loose to the point that the magic circle or suspension of disbelief is frequently shattered by the need to take off the masks and work on the scripts.

    And of course, someone has to have a real talent for situation design, seeing the tension and release (to musicians, the ADSR paradigm) and being to the game what a composer is to the orchestra: a thematic/action engineer so to speak.

    I’m not a game programmer, but this all looks familiar. Advice? Don’t over rehearse and don’t stick to a setlist if you can avoid t. :-)

  21. It’s a piece of cake — for armchair designers like me who don’t have to deal with the fact that Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations means infinite headaches in design, debugging and balancing :)

  22. Aha. It isn’t infinite. It’s situation-limited. That’s why Star Trek is a tragi-comedy and The Guild is a water shed. ;-)

    How to take the initial constraints that set the gestalt and then figure out how to evolve it to get more seasons without jumping the shark… well that’s the trick ain’t it?

    “I banged your Mother!” I’m still not sure that’s brilliant or just over the top.

  23. [...] October 2009 missed Leave a comment Go to comments Holy crap! That’s my response after I read a post on Raph Koster’s site (I’m playing feed catch-up) which quote from/linked to this [...]

  24. [...] a PC World interview with the lead designer of Dragon Age, a major single-player game from Bioware. Mike Laidlaw on single-player games talks about the idea of creating such games today, when games such as World of Warcraft and even [...]

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