Quests As Kindling

Keen (hopeless EverQuest sentimentalist that he is!) wrote up a nice piece on how quests should inspire player-driven stories.

I think it’s dubious to hold up EQ as a model for how quests should work. While certain of them can be romanticized, long would be the parade of people who quit the game over the very Journeyman’s Boots quest he cites. And it’s just as valid to look at the orc belts and other turn-ins like it as grindy time-killers.

But I do agree with the spirit of what Keen is trying to say: That quests should not be the content of a game; they should be the spark for the true content, which is player interaction.

The original epic quests are a good example. For the most part, their execution was spotty–poorly written, relying on guessing more than logical deduction. But what they did was bring a whole cross-server community together. We were racing other servers to be the first to solve the quests, and class members from rival guilds who wouldn’t ordinarily interact were sharing leads and ideas.

I think the role of the content designer should be to provide compelling hooks for player storytelling. And by compelling, I mean both interesting and well-executed. Players should be drawn in by the quest and incentivized to undertake it, but the quest itself should be mere manipulation to get players interacting. It might be through cooperation, competition, or some kind of symbiotic relationship where both sides benefit in different ways.

I also agree that quests can, and generally should, be simple and straightforward. Designers often fall into the trap of wanting to tell a grand tale, when it’s usually much clearer and more effective to use quests to tell micro-stories that let players draw their own conclusions. Weave these together through consistency, continuity, and quality, and you can create a powerful tableau that tells a much bigger story.

To make those micro-stories work, you need to invest in quality worldbuilding, which I’ll talk about in a future article.

The Right Amount of Story

Sometimes people assume that, because I specialize in narrative design, I think every game needs to be saturated with story. But in fact, I look at it from the opposite point of view: What is the minimum amount of story needed for the game being made?

Excess story is a waste of resources and potentially gets in the way of play. Hey, I’m a gamer too, and I don’t like clicking through needless dialogue or extraneous cut-scenes any more than you do. It’s not that I don’t love well-done dialogue and cut-scenes, because when used correctly, they are powerful tools that can enhance your experience. But I like to focus on finding the most concise path to conveying the most effective story. And often that means doing less, not more.

Of course, some types of games demand a big, sprawling narrative. The Mass Effect series wouldn’t be what it is without complex dialogue trees and detailed cinematics; they’re part and parcel of the experience. But Frogger wouldn’t be any more fun if you understood the protagonist’s childhood or explored the world’s political struggles; it’s enough to know you’re playing a frog who needs to cross roads and rivers to get home. Building games like Minecraft or Landmark are another type that benefits from having a loose narrative at best, allowing the player to imagine as much (or as little) story as they like.

The nature of the sandbox MMO is to eschew formal narrative in favor of free-form play. That doesn’t mean your world shouldn’t have a rich and detailed backstory. On the contrary, I’d argue that sandboxes benefit from deep histories even more than structured narrative games do, because it provides a wealth of story for players to find on their own. Bits of story are embedded in the world awaiting discovery instead of being served up on a quest-journal platter.

But it all comes back to finding the right fit for the game you’re working on. As much as creating the tale itself, the role of a narrative lead is to pare the story down to its minimalist core. Part of being a memorable storyteller is being a judicious editor.

Similar, But Different

When 38 collapsed, I was deeply depressed. In addition to the usual stresses–finding a job, providing for your family, the self-doubt–I was plagued by the nagging sense of work left unfinished. Sure there was a game still in progress, but even more than that was this rich universe of stories that, aside from Reckoning, were going to go untold. Though the story of Amalur was in every way a team effort, I took it personally. It felt like my life’s work was ripped away, utterly out of my control. It still sits on some hard drives in Rhode Island, songs left unsung. And though it still haunts me, I’ve come to terms with it.

Being let go from SOE/Daybreak is a different feeling. Yes, all the usual stresses are there, but at least the project I was on continues. I respect and like the designers still on the project, and I know work I did will see the light of day, even if it ends up being different from how I might have done it. Things are in good hands. And yeah, I regret that I won’t be there in the trenches as those stories come to life, but at least I can point to a body of work (the EQN ebooks we’ve released) as tangible evidence of my contribution. I can make peace with that.

I’m starting the job search again, but I’m in a much more positive, healthy space than I was last time. While looking for work isn’t what I’d call an ideal process, things could be a lot worse. Trust me.

The Too-Familiar Road

Today I was released from Daybreak Game Company, which is to say the entity that was Sony Online Entertainment. I’d been back for about two-and-a-half years following 38 Studios’ collapse, and they were very kind to offer me a position on Landmark and EverQuest Next. I had a great time and worked with fantastic people, and I’m sad to see that come to an end. But the thing about this business is that the connections you make last a lifetime.

Jobs come and go. Some are terrific; others less so. But relationships endure. No matter what line of work you do, if you work hard and support those around you, good things will come your way. It’s proven true across the various careers I’ve had.

I poured my heart into the story for EQN, just as I did for Amalur before it. Norrath is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what Daybreak achieves.

My Favorite Music of 2014

In last year’s post, I admitted that I was finally buying more music digitally than on CD. Unsurprisingly, that trend has only escalated in 2014. I bought digital music exclusively except in three cases: 1) it’s an artist I have a particular fondness for, and I consider their music to be an artifact I wish to own, 2) the CD was cheaper than the digital files, or 3) there was an in-store exclusive version with bonus tracks I desired. That last one is particularly powerful, and Target has proven particularly skilled at grabbing exclusives with a wide variety of artists.

I spent less and less time in record stores, as Amazon has become my shopping destination of choice. What’s more, their Prime Music library is utterly amazing, and well worth the price of Prime in and of itself. While browsing through pages of thumbnails lacks the tactile pleasure of flipping through music bins, I find the thrill of coming across a great old record and adding to my library nearly as satisfying. And it’s not just ancient stuff; they have many releases from 2014 that you can grab and enjoy, including several mentioned in this article.

Anyway, without further ado, my list of favorites from another great year of music: Continue Reading »

That Time of Year

I’ll soon be heading up to Vegas for yet another SOE Live. I’m pretty excited, as we’ve got some great panels on fiction and the content of EQNext.

I’m also terrified, because I’ll be on stage in front of several thousand people to talk during a small portion of the keynote speech. I love doing panels, but standing in the spotlight of the big stage is another thing altogether. It’s early in the morning on Friday, so with any luck I’ll be too tired to be nervous. Sadly, though, Vegas and luck don’t usually go hand in hand for me.

These shows are a ton of work, but seeing the reaction of the fans makes it all worth it. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s actually true. So come say hi if you’re there, I’d love to chat!


Into the Sunset: Eulogy and Tribute

At 6pm PST on July 31, 2014, the servers for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes went dark. I wasn’t on the team that originated the game at Sigil, but I served as its Creative Director for a number of months upon my return to SOE in 2012.

It was a series of unlikely events that led to me working on Vanguard. I’d just spent the last five-and-a-half years on Copernicus, which was built on fresh tech and the best art assets an MMO had ever seen. After four months on the job hunt, I’d accepted a design job at a studio focused on console and mobile titles when I got the call inviting me back to SOE.  Though I was looking forward to trying my hand with other types of games, MMOs are my first love, and the idea of reuniting with old friends in San Diego was a big draw. I knew my ultimate destination would be the EQNext team, but I was asked to first help with an attempt to revitalize Vanguard. After weighing my options, I returned to San Diego determined to do my best for a game with one of the most storied histories in the genre.

Working on Vanguard was never easy. It was an aged title by the time I got to it, and although faster PCs allowed it to run better than it had back at its 2007 release, it was still plagued by technical problems resulting from architectural decisions made early on. Its content was a mess, ranging wildly in quality from inventive to abysmal. There were significant bugs everywhere, many of them years old. And while the design tools put a lot of flexibility into developers’ hands, its many idiosyncrasies intersected with a database awash in the detritus of years of half-finished work. Every bug we fixed seemed to come with an unintended side-effect. Change the name of an item and some unrelated field would get zeroed out. Adjust one stat and other variables would be altered without telling you. Lack of version control meant you had to hunt through screen shots or ask players what an item used to be like before it got unintentionally nerfed. There were a lot of days when I would literally sit with my head in my hands, flummoxed at how some feature or another could possibly have been implemented in such a convoluted way.

And yet, I grew to love the game. Continue Reading »

My Favorite Music of 2013

Back when I worked in record stores, my boss Daryl used to tell me that as long as there was something among Tuesday’s new releases that he could fall in love with, he knew he hadn’t overstayed his time on the job. I can’t say that I find a new record to love every week, but I think there’s enough new stuff to like each year that I still enjoy creating this list of favorites.

This is the first year I bought more music digitally than I did on CD. This is mostly due to having moved away from the East Coast and the excellent Newbury Comics chain, my weekly haven for both music and comics. Even though I live pretty close to the wonderful Lou’s Records in Encinitas, life is busy enough that I don’t make it there too often. The other factor is that I’ve really embraced Amazon’s Cloud Player, which makes it ridiculously easy to access my music across devices.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my favorites for what’s proven to be an excellent year of music. Continue Reading »

Safe Harbor

There were layoffs today at SOE. I was not among them, but it was a shitty day anyway. It’s something that happens way too often in our industry. My personal scars are still fresh, and the events of today have made old wounds ache once more.

Some of the layoffs hit very close to home–many folks had been fixtures at SOE a long time, and were doing great work. I don’t know the logic behind who was let go and who wasn’t–that’s the kind of thing companies don’t go into detail on. It is what it is.

While I’m very glad to still have a job, I can’t help but feel a bit of survivor’s guilt. Why them and not me? I try not to dwell on it, because doing so accomplishes nothing. Better to spend that mental energy trying to help those folks make connections and find a safe place to land. Assuming there’s any safe place, I mean.

I remain in the games industry, even through the heartbreak of days like today, because it’s immensely fulfilling on a creative level and I feel that my best work on MMOs is still ahead of me. Yet events like this make me wish my destiny was more in my own hands and less at the mercy of others.

Sin City Revelation

Later this week I’ll be participating in SOE Live 2013 (the event once known as Fan Faire) in lovely Las Vegas. It’s at Planet Hollywood this year, so it will be interesting to be in a new venue.

This will be the biggest SOE fan gathering in a number of years, no doubt in large part because of the big reveal of EverQuest Next. I’ve been on the EQN team for a number of months now, contributing to narrative and game design. There’s a lot of really cool and different things happening, so I’m excited to see the public’s reaction.

I’ll be participating on two panels: the World of EQN, which is Friday at 5pm, and the Lore of EQN panel on Saturday at 2pm. Be sure to say hello if you’re attending. Even after the reveal I won’t be able to answer every question, but we’ll finally be out of the black box at least.

Buying me drinks won’t get me to say anything I shouldn’t…but you’re welcome to try!