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GDC Europe Speaker Spotlight: Ernest Adams On Storylike MMOs

In the latest interview with GDC Europe speakers, game designer Ernest Adams discusses why "in most persistent worlds, the player cannot change the world permanently" -- and why that needs to change.
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 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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