Thursday, 14 May 2009

MMO Gamer Interviews Simultronics CEO David Whatley

Another bit of news today. Though it's about two weeks old I just noticed (thanks to a post on the forums) an interview with Simutronics CEO David Whatley on HeroEngine (which is used to power Star Wars: The Old Republic).

It's a quite interesting read, giving a little more insight into the engine. Though it also talks a bit about the game they're developing with it themselves, namely Hero's Journey, even that can be an interesting reference to see some of the things that can be done with it.

Here's an excerpt:
The MMO Gamer: So, you mentioned storytelling in that last answer, and to drag you off topic a bit here, that’s a subject very near and dear to my heart, being a writer.

Storytelling, from my vantage point, is something sorely lacking in MMOs these days. What does HeroEngine bring to the writer and designer to allow them to tell a story within an MMO framework?

David Whatley: Well, we’ve worked really hard in our Hero’s Journey design to create a method for developing unique storylines that are personalized to your character. One of the ways we do that is first we have quests that feature elaborate branching story lines, so there are always decisions to be made.

Do I go left? Do I go right? Do I give the item, do I not give the item? That kind of thing, rather than just following what you’re told to do. And whether you do something, or don’t something, or one of three or five different choices, they’re all valid. Or as I like to say, failure is an option.

It’s okay to fail a quest because that just leads down a different road. Now, the problem with that is that that creates a need to develop way more content than if you just have a linear quest line. Or two or three linear quest lines. Because every branch means that you now need to develop that branch.

To get around that we built a way of branching quests that tie back into themselves. And HeroEngine gave us the tools to be able to do this sort of thing. On top of that, we layered a special system which we call “quest tokens” it’s kind of an inventory system but you never see these items.

They are things that are recorded on your character that have influence later quests. One good example of that is the “nemesis quest token.” What happens is in some point of your life you’re going to come across a boss creature, and you’ll start fighting it, and there will be some randomness about it but it will decide that guy is your nemesis.

From this point on, you’re gonna be seeing him over and over again. And what’ll happen is later on there’ll be a quest that says “Insert Nemesis Here, if he has Nemesis Token” and what’ll happen is he’ll show up in that quest, and every time he’s more powerful than he was the last time, and he’ll be calling you out and stuff like that, and he’ll always make this grand escape right before you kill him.

Then, somewhere near the end of the end game you’ll get an opportunity to take him down or not in the final confrontation. That’s just one example of the things we do with the quest tokens.

It also does Fable-like stuff where you know, it’s keeping track of characters’ predispositions towards you and can cause quests to branch one way or the other.

I think there’s a fair amount of innovation in this system but really its the gestalt that matters, the gestalt of all these things that makes it interesting.

The HeroEngine is really great at allowing for this kind of innovation because as a tool set it allows you to develop specialized tool for your game and your game only, and what we did with Hero’s Journey is we created a very elaborate quest system that lets designers go in and specify stuff at this level of detail, all parametrically with dialog and drop down boxes and never have to get their hands into scripting, because it can all be done with very elaborate specifications.
When he talks in this bit about how they're using the HeroEngine to tell their stories he's talking about things specific to Hero's Journey. But it sounds like things that I can most definitely see BioWare doing, and some of their comments hint at just that (such as their comment that when you have to make choices there isn't a save button to be able to go back to and change your mind later). And when he says a little further down the line that "I know that some of our licensees have duplicated some aspects of it when they are designing their own system. In fact, we allow licensees to use Hero’s Journey as a reference implementation." it wouldn't surprise me if he's referring to BioWare as one of those licensees.

Of course, the question is how do you teach people that they don't just have to do what they're told, how to let them know that it's alright to fail? I know that in Age of Conan whenever you turn in a quest that has you collect certain items you get a pop-up asking you whether you want to turn them in or not. That always confused me, because I wouldn't even consider not turning them in (and don't think I've ever even tried in close to a year now; in part because I fully expect the dialog to just end and reset back to the beginning offering me again the next time I try).

There is also the risk that if people fail and they can't try again because the story moved on then they'll be left dissatisfied. In Age of Conan, again, there was one quest where you had to talk to a couple of guys. I hadn't even read the quest description (as I never needed to in the previous hundreds of quests and they're not that compelling). But when talking to the first guy (just clicking through the dialog) I suddenly got a message that the quest had failed... and I couldn't pick it up to try again. That left me very upset. Though in fairness in Age of Conan the story didn't continue after that. Even so, for failure to mean something it needs to be a bad thing, which in turn is not likely to make people happy. Do people really want to struggle to undo their earlier errors, making things harder as a consequence, or do they just want to try again?

As such it's quite possible that BioWare won't take branching storylines to quite that level and will, instead, approach it more in the same way as we're used from them in their previous games. I'd expect more cases where they clearly present to you that you're making a choice where the options are all roughly equally valid (even if the distinction would just be between good and evil). We will see.

There are a few other interesting comments in the article as well, such as the one that suggests that MMOs are all very similar these days because of WoW's success and, in the light of that, investors being less willing to accept more risky designs (even if such a thing is probably needed to truly have a chance of rising above WoW's success). People tend to prefer things with higher certainty over things with a chance of a higher reward.

Anyway, can recommend reading the interview and gain a little insight into the engine behind BioWare's MMO.

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