Is it a Sandbox MMO? Is it a narrative toolset? Join Gazimoff as he interviews some of the development team and goes hands-on in search of answers.
Storybricks is a game that defies being categorized. In the struggle to describe it, Namaste Entertainment's debut game has been compared to NeverWinter Nights, Minecraft, The Sims and a whole range of other popular titles. Yet none of these come close to creating an accurate picture of what Storybricks is or what Namaste hope to offer to us.
To help me in my quest to find the right words for this game, I sat down with Namaste's MMO architect Brian "Psychochild" Green and community manager Kelly Heckman. As we walked through the early alpha build of Storybricks, I discovered what drove the team to create this unusual title and why they've turned to KickStarter for help to develop it further.
The House of Bricks
Storybricks encourages you to create your own adventures. It will be instantly familiar to those who’ve played table-top or live-action role-playing games, but it can be a bit of a puzzle to those of us who stick to MMOs or videogame RPGs. Just like castle or landscape building in Minecraft, a large part of the fun is creating epic adventures for your friends to experience.
As a result, Storybricks is a game with two modes. The first is an editor, providing you with all the tools needed to populate the world and set your tale in motion. The second mode allows you to take on the role of the player and experience the story for yourself. A handy URL-sharing feature also ensures that you can invite others to try your creation once you’re finished.
The real meat of Storybricks comes from the way NPCs interact, both with their friends and with the player. Green described it as “communication of emotion”, where a particular feeling is passed from one NPC to another. But presenting this phenomenon visually can be tricky:
“If you’re in a good mood, and you go into a room full of people, your mood is contagious. But moods are really hard to show. So we created this zombie - think of ‘zombie’ as a mood here – and as they interact with other people they pass the mood along.”
It’s like sharing a good joke with your friends, only the punch line is zombie.
Building the Team
Since we last checked in on Storybricks, some new names have appeared on the team roster. Legendary MMO designer and academic Richard Bartle has leapt on-board to advise on MMO and creative issues. Veteran Artist-Animation team Don Bluth and Gary Goldman are helping to ensure that the characters can express a range of motions. Obsidian Entertainment’s Chris Avellone is advising on game development. Green chimed in:
“We wanted people with large amounts of experience. So, obviously Richard has the most experience with online games of just about anybody. We wanted to do storytelling games so we got Chris Avellone, who did Planescape Torment. Since we were doing a lot with emotion, we figure that animation would be an important part of the game. So we got Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, two old school Disney animators. Everyone that we got involved was a missing piece, an element that we wanted to focus on in order to do this properly. “
Having the expertise to create Storybricks is one team, but building a community of interested player-creators is also a vital part of the game’s on-going development. As Green explained, it’s not just about the money.
“It essentially boils down to one thing: we want support. We want people to find out about Storybricks, and then say 'Hey, this is the coolest idea ever, I want to support it!' And obviously the monetary support is nice. But I think that the other thing is getting people aware. We had a really hard time trying to communicate this. As we show it to more people, they get it, they understand it.
“From a business point of view that helps us, because we are then able to turn around to investors and say ‘hey, this isn’t some crazy idea, we have x thousand players that are interested, chomping at the bit, eager to get this.’ “
Launching the browser-based alpha test has already increased the amount of interest, with players rushing in to create their own stories and share them. Green said that releasing the alpha was partly to let potential backers try out the concept. After spending six months developing the backend and testing the desktop client internally, the browser based version was put together in a week. Green explained that “We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what Storybricks is or isn’t, but people diving in and playing with it, I think, gives a better idea of what we can do”
I asked if launching the Kickstarter campaign has caused them problems. Were they suffering from being seen as a ‘me too’ generic MMO concept? Heckman explained that what they’ve been experiencing is far from it. “In fact we have the opposite problem; people don’t seem to understand it at all”. She then went on to explain that the Alpha brought its own set of difficulties.
“We thought dropping people into the story and letting them play would be the greatest way to introduce this tool, except none of them have been able to figure out that you can create stories as well. [..] But if we drop them into the tool without having done anything, it’s like dropping into Minecraft for the first time and not realizing there’re Wikis out there. No matter what we do, we have a problem.”
Although Storybricks is currently a single-player experience, multiplayer is being implemented as the project moves into beta. Green affirmed that the end goal is to build an MMO, although this is likely to be more on the scale of Lord of the Rings Online than World of Warcraft. Liz Danforth and Don Bluth are also looking to add a range of female characters to the (currently) all male cast.
The team is also working to allow creators to customize their worlds using land tiles, permitting the setting to be built block by block just like the stories. Green also added that they’re looking at guilds being able to control areas of the world, customize their area with merchants and add unique resources. Players could then take on the role of traders or diplomats, gaining a guild’s approval in order to access resources.
There might also be an emerging market for adventure writers. Although the current business model for Storybricks involves players being able to rent hosting for stories beyond a starting number, Green mentioned that the team might implement a story marketplace in the future. This would allow creators to sell their stories to other players and earn a fee for doing so. He also added that a lot of their business decisions depend on player demand and feedback
As for that question about a name, the best I could come up with was StoryBox MMORPG – a cross between the freeform creativity that Sandbox MMOs are known for and the Storytelling Adventure RPGs we’re familiar with. In the meantime, check out the Kickstarter page, try out the browser-based alpha and try to come up with your own term to describe Storybricks.
Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer, Staff Writer