Experience Points: Storytelling With Revival

Will the upcoming MMORPG, Revival, finally let players impact the world?

Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and commentator to bear in Experience Points.This week he examines the upcoming game, Revival, and MMO storytelling.

One of the big news drops this week was the announcement of Revival, the upcoming MMORPG from Illfonic. There is a lot to be excited about, but what most caught my eye was the studio's plan to let players impact and shape the game world. To hear the creative director describe it, everything from sacking towns to infuriating gods is possible. Game masters will run regular live events which react to our choices as players and, more importantly, have lasting consequences. It is a game that embraces player freedom and polices it with a tight karma system. We all know that sandboxes make for incredible stories, but here the potential is even more palpable. Will Revival bring us into the next age of storytelling? I think that it's possible and here's why.

Bad Storyteller! Bad!

MMORPGs aren't very good at telling stories. Sorry to say so, but it's true. As single-player technology has ratcheted forward, the incredible gap between what could be and what is is more apparent than ever. The simple fact is that to play online with millions of other players, developers have been forced to scrap tools used in other parts of the video game industry. Mouths don't move right. Animations are canned and repetitive. Very little, if any, advanced narration occurs outside of instances. These are things we've come to live with and, up until the last few years, didn't seem all that bad.

Then Star Wars: The Old Republic came along and reminded us what terrible virtual lives we lead. Without full voicing, BioWare said, without conversation options and cutscenes and moral choices, quests were pretty much yesterday's trash. Now, they didn't put it quite like that, but the implication was there. Ironically, their own “fourth pillar” had critical flaws of its own but the fact remains: they had a point. The current quest system just wasn't very good.

How much can a quest actually mean when it only takes you five minutes to do it? Why is a quest worth reading when it's written in a 500 character limit? The answer for most players is that it's not. Quest text gets skipped and the only story that matters is what is experienced by the player. Now, friends, you're reading an MMO article, so it's probably a safe bet that you’ve also read a quest here or there. If you're like me, you might just read all of them. But it’s time we admit that going from actively playing a game to passively reading a game doesn't make much sense. That's why what BioWare said rang true, and it's why the industry is hot on cutscenes and full voicing. (Ironically, it's also why WildStar is shortening quests even further).

These limits are the core reason why the most memorable stories usually occur in sandboxes. Sure, we all have great stories of almost-failed raids and seeing big stories come to a close, but what do those events have in common? Other players. While NPCs and characters like Arthas might be momentarily interesting, other players never revert back to staring at empty space and hailing the next adventurer. They are unexpected and motivated, entirely dynamic and easier to relate to. Sandboxes create the best stories because people create the best stories.

Enter Revival...

Revival embraces its players as the lifeblood they are. In a very real way, Illfonic is providing the stage and props for players to enjoy the game just as they like. Players can, for example, take over entire NPC towns, slaughter villagers and kill anyone who crosses their borders and loot their corpse. They can also take the other approach and use a town for its resources. If they're peaceful and keep the townsfolk safe, more guards will appear and blessings can be granted across the region.

Every action in Revival is gated through the karma system. If you do good things and don't hurt others, your alignment turns blue. If you're a bandit and make your living carving rivers of blood, it turns red. You can otherwise be a neutral little fence-sitter but we'd kindly ask you to be more decisive, thank you very much. Karma bleeds over to towns and NPCs, too. If you violently sack the village above, its alignment shifts red and becomes open to others on a murderous bent. If you chose to be peaceful, the guards and buffs are a sign that it’s turning blue.

What's more, the inhabitants of the world react to your alignment. When I first started playing World of Warcraft, I wanted nothing more than to betray my faction and become a rogue agent for the Alliance. But, because of the faction system, that was impossible. Here, your relationship with the world is entirely up to you. If you're good-aligned and walk into a wraith's den, she'll see you as a threat and attack. If you're neutral, a conversation might occur where she tests your loyalties. Red players... well, you may just have a new love interest (or at least a quest). See, I don't want to be a cookie-cutter good guy. I don't want to be the shadowy villain either. That Illfonic is giving me the choice, whenever I want to make it, is captivating.

Live Storytelling

Revival is planned to be completely non-linear and dependent on these systems. If a quest is inside a city taken over by players, that quest might just disappear. Neglect that city and the entire thing might disappear. Speaking to William Murphy at MMORPG.com, the studio elaborates:

“Town’s will completely go into the gutter and eventually vanish if players don’t pay attention to the city. It is possible to do economic warfare in Revival. If you want a city removed for whatever reason (maybe an enemy guild, you don’t like it, whatever), you can ruin the city’s economy and force it to collapse on itself, without ever lifting a finger for combat.”

In an interview with Massively, the game's Creative Director, Kedhrin Gonzalez, describes a live storytelling system where game masters run in-game events for players:

The live storytelling aspect is like playing Skyrim, but imagine someone is playing as the dungeon master, opening and closing things all over the place... [S]o there are no useless quests. You won't encounter something that's not really worth your time as a character. Sure, we may have some bland quests like the "kill x for me please" quests, but that's filler, and it's good to have those. Most of our quests will have serious sit-down-and-think scenarios.

In the days of MUDs and EverQuest, you would see GM run events often, but they've all but disappeared in the wake of soaring player numbers. Gonzalez's description reminds me of those, but even more of a good game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Later in the MMORPG.com interview, he takes GM events to a different scale:

“If there is a quest about stopping someone from building an army – if you do not stop that person, that army will be built, and that army will attack in full force. If you do not stop the army from being built, whatever it was that they’re attacking could be destroyed forever.”

I find this acceptance, this willingness to both destroy and create new content, fascinating. Gonzalez describes it almost in passing, as if to say “yes, of course we're doing this, what of it?” when other MMO studios terrified of empowering players. We want too much, too fast, they say. They can't deliver.

Maybe the problem was with what they're delivering.

We Need a Revival!

Video games have a problem: they're too expensive and they fail easily. All across the industry, publishers have heard the call of massive investments and massive, Acti-Blizzard returns, except the call has proven to be a siren song. Illfonic is taking a different approach and it's about damn time. I'm tired of seeing games come out and layoffs announced; families uprooted and people hurt because some team of stock-watchers still thinks throwing money at the problem is a good idea. It's not working and MMOs are one of the worst offenders.

Illfonic may be striking gold. It's real people that make the most memorable stories, so what better place to put an employee than telling those stories? It may not be feasible if there are hundreds of thousands of players, but I have to wonder if a game like Revival would have hundreds of thousands of players. More to the point, I see Revival as a niche game to justify niche games. Everyone won't enjoy its blend of sharp-edged, sandboxy gameplay, and that's okay. The message I hope it sends is simply this: niche MMOs can work and they're worth creating. Innovation will not come from boards of directors and frightened investors. It will come from games just like Revival and small studios willing to take risks and try new ideas. That's why Illfonic is worth watching.

Chris "Syeric" Coke

Follow him on Twitter: @gamebynight

Comments

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Real people make lousy stories
# Aug 01 2013 at 10:22 PM Rating: Decent
Scholar
35 posts
Let's be honest, real people don't make the best stories, professional storytellers make the best stories. Also there have been plenty of great stories outside of sandbox games, in fact a lot more than you will find in sandbox games. The difference is simply whether or not you had an impact in those stories.

And if you are going to be honest, the bigger a game gets the more players playing, if everybody can impact the world, the individual impact becomes very small, similar to the real world. The fundamental problem is that people want to be able to have a significant impact on the world, which individually is not possible. Logging on to find that other players collectively did something to impact the world isn't much different from logging on to find the world was updated in a patch. What people really want is for themselves to log on and do something that has a significant, substantial and visible impact on the world.

In a small niche game it is feasible. And that is where the nostalgia comes from, a day when games where smaller and this type of thing was possible. A GM feeding quests to a small number of people like in D&D is awesome, but the more people you add to the equation something has to give, either only a very small % of the community sees the quests or the content becomes impersonal and generic.

If you don't want to see layoffs, hope that they keep expectations realistic and keep the game small and in it's niche, where it can provide a polished package to a very specific kind of player.
Real people make lousy stories
# Aug 02 2013 at 9:43 AM Rating: Excellent
9 posts
You make excellent points. I actually planned on addressing your first one in the article but couldn't fit everything in. There are two types of stories: the carefully curated and the spur of the moment. Both have a place, without doubt. In MMOs, however, I believe that it's the spur of the moment ones where we play a personal role that last in our memory. MMOs as a genre just aren't very good a delivering that carefully curated experience seen in other parts of the industry. There are just too many technical limitations, and, of course, the fact that every player needs to be the hero.

You other points are spot on, too. I will be very interested to see what Revival is able to do as a small niche game like you describe. There are still huge, unanswered questions that I will very soon be trying to get answers for. For example, how sustainable is it to have content disappearing because players forcibly render it inaccessible? How quickly can content be created to sustain the kind of turnaround their "temporary quest" system demands? How much power will GMs have -- will they be curating every group or just running server events? They're not small questions

My enthusiasm is based in the ideas they're talking about. We're not in the early 2000s anymore and there are fundamental hurdles which need to be overcome to make any of it work. But responding to ideas is what helps the creators, on this project and others, know what's resonating with consumers. I'm all about this stuff, so I thought I would share why :-)

Thanks for commenting!

Edited, Aug 2nd 2013 11:44am by Syeric
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