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GDC Europe Speaker Spotlight: Ernest Adams On Storylike MMOs

In the latest of a series of interviews with speakers from this August's GDC Europe, game designer Ernest Adams discusses why "in most persistent worlds, the player cannot change the world permanently" -- and why that needs to change.

Adams has worked in the game industry since 1989, and has worked as a
game developer, professor, and more. He previously served as an audio
and video producer on the Madden NFL franchise for Electronic Arts, and later worked at Bullfrog Productions as a lead producer on the Dungeon Keeper series.

In addition, Adams has written several books on game development, and is the founder of the International Game Developers' Association.

With his GDC Europe talk, "Making MMOGs More Storylike"
drawing ever closer, Adams discussed the flaws of modern online games,
and explained how they should change to make the game world more
dramatic and believable.

With MMOs and similar online games, players share a single,
persistent world. How does this sort of design hinder a developer's
ability to tell a story?

All stories are about change. Either the protagonist changes the
world, or the world changes the protagonist, or both. But in most
persistent worlds, the player cannot change the world permanently. Any
creature you kill respawns in a few minutes, leaving you wondering why
you bothered. This impairs the dramatic impact of events in the world,
because nothing really changes.

How do you suggest online games change to better accommodate an in-game story?

To feel as if they are really part of a story, players need to be
able to make permanent, meaningful changes to the world they inhabit. I
also feel that they need to drop the "Hero's Journey" story form. It
works well for adventure games and single-player RPGs, but it's a bit
ridiculous when hundreds of thousands of people are all trying to have
the same heroic experience.

Traditional MMOs like World of Warcraft have tried to
improve in-game storytelling through "phasing," where players see
different events and environments based on their progress. Do you think
this sort of system provides a satisfactory solution to storytelling in
online games?

Phasing is only partially successful. It sometimes produces absurdities, as in The Lord of the Rings Online,
in which Strider, an NPC, is in both Bree and Rivendell simultaneously.
If players were prevented from returning to Bree once they had seen him
in Rivendell, the problem would be avoided, but in persistent worlds
players want to be able to move around freely.

Online games tend to focus on social interactions between players
over a game-driven narrative. Why do you think MMOs would benefit from
becoming more story-focused?

Not all of them should become more story-focused. But I feel that those that are
story-focused need to adopt some new techniques to make the experience
feel more storylike. At the moment too many persistent worlds try to do
too much for too many different kinds of players, and the quality of the
story suffers. If you're going to include a story at all, do it well.

How will your GDC Europe talk address storytelling in MMOs, and what do you expect people to take away from it?

I intend to propose a number of specific changes to persistent world
design to make the results more storylike. Among them are to include a
permanently mutable world; smaller numbers of players per server; unique
quests for each player; and a single, overall collective goal for all
the players that will bring the game to an end. I will explain all these
in the context of an educational MMOG that I propose to make called The Blitz Online.
This game will offer the players roles as civil defense workers during
the Blitz, a prolonged air campaign against Britain during World War II.

Additional Info

In the weeks leading up to GDC Europe, organizers of the show will
continue to debut new interviews with some of the event's most notable
speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event's
numerous tracks and Summits.

GDC Europe will take place August 15-17, 2011 at the Cologne
Congress-Centrum Ost, alongside the major gamescom trade show, and will
host lectures and panels with other notable speakers, including keynotes
from Ultima creator Richard Garriott and Wooga founder Jens Begemann, and more.

For more information on GDC Europe, please visit the official GDC Europe website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Europe-specific news page in RSS form, official Twitter page, or official Facebook page. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb, as is this website.

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