Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Whose story?

Following some comments of readers on my The Sims Medieval review, saying that TMS had received "mixed reviews", I checked out Metacritic. Currently The Sims Medieval has a Metacritic score of 82, thus very similar to for example Rift at 83, and the same as Dragon Age II. Metacritic calls that "good" reviews, the "mixed" review category starts at 70 and below. But what was certainly "mixed" about the The Sims Medieval reviews was that when you cast your net wider, you will find everything from "worst game ever" to "absolutely fabulous". And, as already remarked earlier, it is usually The Sims fansites who give the less good reviews. People who come from role-playing or online role-playing games usually give The Sims Medieval better grades.

The German print magazine with PC reviews I'm subscribed to gives The Sims Medieval a mediocre 74 score, and complains about the quests restricting gameplay too much, and the mini-games for the crafting getting boring. At that point I realized that while the reviewer might have a point, the reason why MMORPG players tend to like The Sims Medieval is that in a MMORPG the quests are a lot *more* restrictive, and crafting without a mini-game is even more boring than with one.

So while browsing reviews I stumbled upon a review of a completely different game, the Gamespy review of Homefront. Quote: "Homefront is a modern (by which I mean "oppressively linear and highly scripted") FPS stripped of all pretense." So role-playing games aren't the only genre suffering from being oppressively linear and highly scripted. But for me this shows that the famous fourth pillar of storytelling risks overwhelming some games or even whole genres.

The problem is that the stories being told aren't mine any more. The more a game is linear and scripted, the less control I have over the story, and the more it feels like me passively watching a pre-packed story I couldn't care less about. I don't bloody care why exactly NPC Farmer Brown wants me to go into the forest and kill ten foozles, so even voice-acting won't make me any more interested in that story. What I want is my own story.

But that doesn't mean I want a completely empty slate. I certainly don't want something like Second Life. In games where the players are given all sorts of freedom to create whatever they want, the developers are forced to discuss concepts like Time To Penis (TTP) which describes how long it takes for the editor to be used to create something obscene. In MMORPGs where players are given freedom and PvP, they end up organizing ganking events.

Thus the art of a good game is to create an environment which offers sufficient freedom for players to create their own stories in, but with sufficient guidance to avoid them just wandering around completely lost, or so bored that they start annoying each other. Neither a pure themepark, nor a pure sandbox, but something in between. The Sims Medieval is certainly somewhere in between, which is why I like it, but unfortunately it isn't a MMORPG. WoW/AoC/Rift/LotRO are all too much on the themepark side for me. And A Tale in the Desert too far on the sandbox side. The previews of Guild Wars 2 are looking good, but I've long ago learned to not cheer for a MMORPG before I actually played it.

It all comes down to replayability and entertainment value. Highly scripted linear stories can be good, but at best only once. A game with total freedom and no goals at all gets boring fast, there is a reason why adults don't play in real sandboxes any more. But if a game can create an interesting environment where your decisions lead to the story being different every time you play through it, there is the potential for endless fun.
About "the fourth pillar ruins gameplay", I agree wholeheartedly. I think Cataclysm levelling really put a damper on my enthusiasm for Star Wars - Bioware at least need to work really hard on getting "storytelling in mmorpg" beyond the "click to continue" model of cataclysm.

But then again Bioware did manage that in Mass Effect 2 IMO: I loved the story on my first playthrough, liked how I could vary small things on my second playthrough - but I'm now on my sixth or so playthrough, and that's because I like the *game*. (I'm skipping as much dialogue as I can now.)
Huh, I noticed that too. I come from an MMO background, not a sims one, and I really enjoy sims medieval more than any other sims game...
There seems to be a sempiternal synchronicity between Tobold and SynCaine that defies reason.

On this topic it seems you both agree and I agree with both of you. I'm interested in my characters, their stories and the world they live in. I don't find computer games to be a very good way to experience storiesd other people have created. I think books and movies do a much better job of that. I'm not, therefore, very excited by the "fourth pillar".

Just make us some vibrant, coherent, convincing worlds in which things constantly ocur that requir our characters to act, react and interact. We'll make our own stories.
Homefront? Don't get me started. ...Again. (I wrote a review:
tl;dr version: If you're over 25, you probably remember Freedom Fighters. Same plot, worse execution. If you have the choice between spending your money on Homefront or an equivalent value of McDonalds meals, buy the McDonalds meals. You get more longevity, enjoyment, entertainment and intellectual stimulation out of the maccas.

On the sandbox theme: has anyone ever tried that game Beau Hindman's always going on about? Wurm. Apparently it's a sort of proto-minecraft MMO.

I started to try it, but cataclysm was almost about to release and I barely made it past the tutorial. From everything I've read, however, it seems like that might scratch your itch?

I would investigate it more closely, but I'm still too tied up in RIFT's giant invasion event running this week.
Bhagpuss said it all. It seems the entire blogosphere agrees that to make MMORPGs more like TV shows doesn't make any sense.
Story lines are meant to give you direction, which is good in an RPG. A sandbox/RPG would be interesting, but it would also be expensive I think. You would have to program hundreds of reactions into hundreds or thousands of NPC's. I have a feeling that developing such a game would be time-consuming and very expensive in the end. Even in Sims 3, the choices were not limitless.

I mainly go to Amazon to read reviews and most of the poor reviews are from Sims fans. They don't like the restrictive outfit choices, or the restrictive building choices. But I think that would be more true of the medieval period. It's not like your average medieval citizen would be running out to Wal-mart to shop or hiring a contracter to add an extension to their home.
I guess this is just like the old P&P roleplaying discussion about railroading vs. freeform. Most players will want to have at least some kind of story hook to prod them into action, but then they also want to have the freedom to decide what to do with it. If your DM is too restrictive and tries to reduce you to an actor in his own personal novel, you can argue about it or leave. With PC games the only thing you can do is just not buy the game in the first place, which requires more than a fair amount of foresight.
This is why I am playing 360 games more and MMO's less. In Mass Effect or Dragon Age (1 not 2) I feel like I am living an adventure instead of being told a story. If I am in the mood to be told a story then non MMO's do it so much better anyway.

Lately in MMO's I feel like I am constantly playing to get somewhere else or working so I can do something fun later.
I'm going to be the sole dissenters here and state that I'm all in it for the story. I don't play single-player games, so ultimately in an MMO I am looking for a single-player quality, directed experience that I can share on-world with my friends.

If I wanted to make my own story, I'd play a PnP game around my kitchen table (and I do that, too).
Hmm, it still seems like EVE though is the embodiment of what you would like. The meat of the story seems to be created by the players, while stays theme-parky enough for those who don't like to purely sandbox. I

I remember you have stated your reasons in the past, but I'm currently hard-pressed to find them.
I think Zarkil hit it pretty well. James Ohlen, who had a hand in Dragon Age, and Mass Effect (as well as working on a future MMO) recently had an interview with Massively at Pax East. "He believes that the first step for a developer is to make sure that the player feels he has his own personal story, 'because without that, people just aren't going to be attached to the overall story.'"

I can think of two excellent reasons to stay away from EVE.

A) The 'casual' player will end up as either a penniless drifter unable to venture out of the Empire space (because there's no money to be made there, meaning you can't afford the ships that you WILL lose to griefers/pirates) or a cog in someone else's corporate machine, begging for PVP table-scraps or hauling someone's ore.

If you want all the empire-building, politics, and the 'rise to power' experience that is so prominently advertised, EVE demands a heavy investment of your time (not to mention multiple accounts if you're being serious) and does not apologize for it. Otherwise you're just running missions or mining, which is something akin to repeatedly running solo dungeons or dailies in WoW.

B) It is cut-throat and ruthlessly competitive. It is PVP-focussed. If you do not want to swim with sharks, do not swim in the ocean of EVE. Because that is where the sharks live and have dominance. Anything you do is because they allow it. Brutal. Merciless. Unforgiving. The only spirit of cooperation that exists is in banding together against others. If you dislike PVP, then there is pretty much sod all else left for you in EVE. You can play Spreadsheets Online in Empire space or AFK mine veldspar, but you'll never actually progress til you leave Empire for the bounties of 0.0.

For some people those are actually pros, and the entire reason to play. For others, they are anathema and the best reason to avoid wasting their time.
@Pzychotix and disagreeing with @ME: yes sandboxes may be a bit more effort to get started but then they are so efficient; the content evolves from player interactions.

Yes EVE has so many things, if not right, at least better than any other MMO. Single shard, no phasing, few roller-coaster linear quests, sophisticated crafting with goal of all/as much as possible being player created, you can make a difference, ...

The UI is pretty unsophisticated but the fatal flaw is one of its draws: it is designed to appeal to sociopaths in space.
@Hagu: I understand how a Sandbox works, but if someone wants an RPG mixed with a sandbox, that is different. I think even those who want this design do want a "storyline" of some sort. They just want more choices of how they might react to that storyline. The Sims series is considered sandbox by many, but it has many rpg elements. You pick the ways your sim may react and based on that reaction you may get more options afterwards or less. But yet I still don't consider it an RPG.
And my point on the expensiveness was more about who is likely to develop this. It seems most of the larger names in the business only want to stick with what they know works and not take any chances.
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