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GDC09: User generated stories in shardless worlds

James Egan

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Massively checked out an interesting session at GDC 2009 titled "User Generated Story: The Promise of Unsharded Worlds" by James Portnow, CEO and Creative Director of Divide by Zero. His talk was part of the Worlds in Motion Summit, and focused on how single worlds and their shared space can also give rise to shared stories. Portnow discussed ways that game designers can encourage and enable players to tell their own stories within the virtual space.


The storylines we've seen thus far in MMOs aren't yet tapping the potential of massively multiplayer online games, Portnow relates, largely because they're not capitalizing on an MMOs greatest asset -- its players. Portnow says, "We haven't achieved stories that really rely upon the core of our media, the playerbase that a MMO environment environment gives us. We haven't achieved player-driven stories really directed by players themselves. And lastly we haven't achieved meaningful stories."

Why do people skip the quest text? It's because they have no stake in it. Unlike the experience they get from single player games, their actions don't affect the the world they play in. Story, then, doesn't add to immersion and thus players don't feel engaged by quests. The solution then is to unshard worlds and give agency back to the players, with real choices, real consequences, and less restrictions.

Gallery: GDC09: The Promise of Unsharded Worlds panel | 42 Photos

Technological limits aside, what does it mean to unshard?

Interactors participate in a shared story space, not necessarily a shared world space, where "massive choice events" can fundamentally alter a game's world. It is these massive choice events which should really matter to players. Speaking on what developers can do to foster this, Portnow says, "You should allow universal participation. Everyone should be involved in your massive choice event. If you allow your lowliest player to feel like they're touching a living world, feel like they're making the tiniest difference in a grander story[...] it gives them that exciting campfire story. That moment later on where they encounter something that changed and they can relate 'I was there. Here's what I did then..."

Massive choice events need to be tied to mechanics on a grand scale, allowing for that universal participation that allows a player to have a more active game experience. There need to be simple entry points for complex interactions, where players are directed in their actions but not forced. Once you give players the ability to determine what they do, how their own stories move forward, you give rise to activities that really tie players into the setting.

Player politics is an excellent example of what can happen when players are free create their own stories. Portnow cites EVE Online as an example of how a shardless world can incentivize player politics. Continuing on with this theme, Portnow stresses that it's important for players to choose sides, although this might seem counterintuitive -- limiting choice to open new horizons in gameplay? Developers should give players something to identify with in terms of factions of groups, Pornow says, a reason to side with one faction over another. Common enemies bring groups together and mix up the political landscape.

Portnow's discussion of player politics leads to world shaping, such as town building, which he uses to further elaborate upon his views that players need to feel they have control over the worlds they populate. Towns should be easy to build, but the real challenges and rewards come from controlling and properly managing these towns. More than that, it has to be fun, not a chore.

Finally, on the topic of creating an open system where some modicum of control is given to the players, there is always the concern that the gamers will find a way to break the systems and game mechanics. A valid concern. "If you're developing a procedurally-generated MMORPG... the players are smarter than any system you could possibly build," Portnow says. "But if you can limit the amount of time players can break your system it's actually *not* a disadvantage. Players will be excited about the fact that rather than exploiting, they found something creative to do in this landscape."

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