Video games have been moving towards greater player involvement for a while now. Users are now faced with tough moral choices, the outcomes of which can have an effect on their surroundings, and on how other in-game characters perceive them. But Storybricks, which started a Kickstarter campaign this week, wants to take that one step further, with an engine that lets gamers not only play within a certain set of pre-scripted options, but also create their own, potentially offering limitless depth to massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
The concept isn’t an easy one to convey, Storybricks co-founder Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green admitted in an interview with BetaKit. The product is ambitious, to say the least, and it flirts with artificial intelligence territory as well as programming, which means it can become an intimidating and dense topic of conversation with investors pretty quickly, Green said. But in practice, Storybricks is actually elegant and simple, and that’s exactly where its real promise lies.
“Generally, game development’s a very heavy technical thing, so you need to know a programming language. So we were looking at ways to essentially do programming without the programming,” he said. “We came across this language called Scratch created by MIT Labs, that’s a very visually-oriented scripting language which works with these bricks that you put together. We kind of looked at that and simplified it and said ‘How can we use that to tell a story?'”
There have been other tools that have attempted to involve gamers more heavily in storytelling, including advanced campaign editors for games like Blizzard’s StarCraft that put a lot of simple programming power into the hands of players, and the RPGMaker series, which allowed users to build their own games using pre-made resources. Green said that in the past, however, game creation has either been too complex, or, if simple, not powerful enough to yield truly satisfying results.
In a hands-on demonstration of its alpha product, Storybricks community manager Kelly Heckman showed us how easy it was to configure relationships between in-game characters, program their moods and behavior, and even build simple quests using Storybricks’ simple, point-and-click visual interface. It took literally less than five minutes to program a complex relationship between two characters wherein one dislikes the other, but needs something from them, and the other party admires but also fears the other. The toolset could put that kind of power directly in the hands of gamers, helping them get a lot more out of the exploratory side of MMORPG play, an important aspect of the genre’s long-term appeal. Besides a few standouts like World of Warcraft, MMORPGs tend to have a high player fall-off rate after an initial busy period, and Storybricks’ ability to involve players more deeply in storytelling could counteract that.
Green, who’s worked on MMORPGs as a professional developer in the past, says the engine’s time-saving abilities from a game development perspective are also truly revolutionary. “One of the things I’m really looking forward to, is that generally when you write quests for MMORPGs, they tend to be very fiddly things,” he said. “If you have a player kill ten rats, you have to place the NPC, you have to give him the script that says ‘you have a quest,’ you have to set the parameters of the quest, you have to set up some way to track that, etc.” By contrast, Storybricks provides the option of taking out a lot of that busywork, and giving programmers the choice of having as much input in the process as they want. For the simple, often repetitive side quests that make up a big part of the early stages of any MMORPG, with Storybricks those can virtually write themselves.
The appeal of Storybricks as a developer and scriptwriter tool may be one of the reasons the company has already seen some interests from developers looking to find out more about licensing its technology.
“Our initial assumption was that, as with a lot of the graphics engines like the Quake engine, we kind of assumed that initially we’d have to do our own game with it, [to provide a proof of the tech],” he said. “But we’ve already had some companies approach us about licensing it. No deals inked yet, but it’s promising that people are taking an interest this early on.”
Storybricks, which is already backed by VC funding, is looking at the Kickstarter campaign as a way to help boost its available capital by $250,000, and also demonstrate to potential investors that there is interest and appetite for what they’re offering. Green is optimistic about its ability to achieve both its funding and ancillary goals on the website, and with good reason; Storybricks is a truly innovative idea that could entirely change both the face, and the development of online gaming.