Storybricks: Opening the Pandora's box of MMO design

Storybricks pre-alpha
"I could make a better game than this!"

At one point or another, we've all said this, usually in disgust after we've become fed up with another tired MMO trope or lazy quest design. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the good fortune to work for a major game studio and thus will never see our brilliant ideas come to fruition.

Except that this may no longer be true. Enter Namaste Entertainment's Storybricks, a bold and intriguing concept aimed at putting game design in the hands of Joe and Jane Gamer. Namaste is a small startup that began in 2010 when its team members got tired of derivative titles and mechanics in the industry. Storybricks is the team's first project, and while it's still in its infancy, it's already started to capture the imaginations -- and excitement -- of gamers everywhere.

At this past week's GenCon, I caught up with Brian "Psychochild" Green and the rest of the Namaste crew as they publicly demoed Storybricks to the gaming crowd. Hit the jump as we look at why this program may just be the answer to a question you've never fully asked.

Storybricks concept
You are the storyteller

"User-created (and generated) content" is one of the hottest buzzwords in the MMO industry right now, and for good reason. MMO players have shown that they're endlessly creative if given tools and a place to use them, and studios have long sought to harness and direct that creativity in such a way that it will fit within the game world without breaking lore, decency or game mechanics. If a game proves itself capable of handling beneficial user-created content, then its future could be assured, although it needs to be done in such a way that devs can allow players to share in the design process without ruining the experience.

It's nothing new, of course; virtual worlds like Second Life are built on the backbone of user-created content, and MMOs such as Star Trek Online and City of Heroes have included systems that allow players to design their own missions. But what if there were a way to take it further by empowering players to shape the game world, to tell the story they want to share, and to make it all happen without a comprehensive background in computer programming? This is where Storybricks comes into play.

The concept behind Storybricks is right there in the title. "Story" is what the team wants to focus on the most, as in "How do we help players tell the stories they have bubbling in their heads?" And as for "bricks," once you see the modular, almost LEGO-like design of the user interface, it makes sense. Every element in the game is linked to the others by these bricks, with each link representing a relationship, action, or emotion.

Storybricks uses this visual programming language to let you create characters as simple or complex as you like and then send them off into the world to lounge about, go on quests, or give tasks to other players. Do you want to create an NPC guard who hates the player on sight until the player proves himself by rescuing the guard's daughter from certain doom? You can do that. Do you want to invent a royal dowager with a secret past or a thief with a heart of gold who's trying to make right some past wrong? You can do that too. Your imagination just became part of the development team.

Storybricks screenshot
NPCs: Non-Persona Characters

One of the problems that the dev team identified with many MMOs out there is that NPCs are traditionally laughable cardboard cutouts, thick enough to pin a quest or vendor sheet onto but nothing more. After all, how many NPCs do you recall from past games? A handful who got special storytelling treatment, probably.

This is why Storybricks' main focus is in encouraging users to imbue NPCs with true life rather than to treat them as quest connect-the-dots. Each character can sport a relationship with every other character in the world and reacts accordingly. Depending on whether certain triggers or conditions are met, the NPC can be programmed to change his or her behavior and actions. It's the flip side of how we often approach MMO gaming; instead of focusing on just one hero -- us -- Storybricks gives us the keys to the whole kingdom.

Brian Green says that the team has yet to decide whether you'll be shaping part of an interconnected MMO world or merely creating standalone missions in the same setting (similar to BioWare's Neverwinter Nights). What is settled is that the game world will be fantasy-based with a distinct art style that's easy on the eyes. What I saw at GenCon was a very early build of the program, but it still had a cartoony vibe that gelled well. When my character ran up to an NPC, it was easy to tell when that person hated me or loved me based on body language alone.

I was thrilled to meet Liz Danforth at the demo station as well. Danforth is an industry pro whose resume stretches back to include classic PC games like Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Wasteland, and she said she was impressed enough with what Namaste was doing with Storybricks to allow herself to be called out of semi-retirement and back into action. Right now she's providing the team with concept and promotional art.

Storybricks concept
Brick by brick

While showing me the demo, Green pointed out two more fascinating aspects of this toolset. The first is that any actions the player takes with an NPC will persist -- the NPC will remember what the player did to and for him and it will respond accordingly in the future. That right there was enough to sell me on the premise, as I'm forever tired of NPCs acting as if they don't know me after I save their town from certain destruction.

The other major idea that's being built into Storybricks is freedom of choice in relation to quests. Users will be able to set up quest goals and objectives, but players will have a much wider range of options as to how to complete those goals. Do you kill the 10 rats for their tails or charm them? Perhaps you could trade a few herbs to another player for some. Or maybe you find a vendor with a nasty rat-tail speciality. Ideally, the possible solutions will be many instead of one.

Namaste Entertainment
Genius in progress

Don't start looking for Storybricks to usher in an MMO revolution anytime soon; the toolset's only been in development for a few months now and has a ways to go. However, Namaste wanted to start getting player and gamer feedback of all types, including non-MMO gamers (hence why the company made an appearance at GenCon).

Green says that the company will shape Storybricks based on feedback, and he encourages anyone interested in being a possible tester to pop over to the Namaste website and sign up!

We appreciate the time that the Namaste team members spent showing us this demo and discussing the various possibilities for Storybricks. We wish them the best and hope to see good things come out of this project in the future!
This article was originally published on Massively.