I’ve finally found a little time (due to insomnia, of course) to put together a little post on the dynamic content weekend challenge over at Psychochild’s blog. The comments on that post so far have already been top-notch, covering quite a bit of ground, so I’m just going to kibbitz a little, see where it goes.
The challenges involved in having a dynamic world are pretty daunting. First off, players have a variety of interests and a voracious appetite for content: simply creating a single set of challenges with enough content to fill hundreds (even thousands) of hours of /played time is an incredible task. Creating that magnitude of content on an individual basis for each and every player… 😯
There are several interesting suggestions for creating elements of dynamic content over in Psychochild’s thread. The thing that strikes me about many of them, however, is how quickly they could become rather ridiculous as a story. The “kidnapped princess” concept: does this lass eventually get to re-decorate her dungeon cell? I mean, she’s going to be spending about half of her life there… squatter’s rights should come into play at some point. Is her nickname “Ping”, short for “ping pong ball”?
Obviously, there are ways to implement similar content without creating the potentially absurd situation possible above. Instead of a princess, the target of choice is an artifact of power, or a blessed relic, or some such. Instances of kidnapped royalty could happen as well, but not as a cyclic event, rather as a sporadic, planned special event. There are options along those lines that could work very well, it just requires a little extra thought about what might happen in the extreme cases to avoid the ridiculous.
Systems like AO and SWG (and CoH to an extent), which use a less “personalized” mission-based paradigm that seems like a step toward dynamic content, quickly fill some of the gaps by using templated mission locations and “fill-in-the-blanks” type tasks, i.e. “Defeat [number] [type of mob], and take [number][specific drop] to [NPC]”, or “Retrieve [random item] from [villain group] located at [random door in zone] (use random office block elements to construct instance map).
At present, these can quickly become repetitive, even boring, as the patterns generally become obvious fairly quickly. Also, there is also no sense of a truly dynamic nature to such things: “so I recovered the whirligig from the whatchamacallit tribe… so what?” In other words, there are no consequences.
Adding consequences to missions/quests/what-have-you creates it’s own problems, of course. As Psychochild points out, players can get cranky about planned and pre-announced changes… changes imposed seemingly at a whim and without warning by the actions (or inaction) of other players are going to go down better? Not retrieving the whirligig in time starts a fungal blight that kills off most plants in the area, including the easiest source of the ingredients for the best healing potion? Linkages and follow-on effects like that are the spice that dynamic content offers… but it can be a very sour, even rancid, taste that it brings. Finding ways to have consequences for each players actions, without creating an inconvenience to any other player, is the type of Sisyphean task that eventually brings the nice men in white uniforms with the odd white coat with buckles on the end of each arm (i.e. “straitjacket”) to your door…
And obviously, players can be rather intolerant of inconveniences. For example, EQ2 recently decided to remove any weight associated with coinage. Why? Because characters were collecting so much coin during their activities that they were being weighted/slowed down, and were destroying the low value copper and complaining about the loss of wealth/progress that represented. An inconvenience, intolerable, and thus removed. I quite understand the impulse to be a “treasure vacuum” as a player, believe me… but coming at it from the design side, it indicates problematic design philosophy constraints that impact other things, such as dynamic content.
(As an aside: I think my own choice on the EQ2 situation would have been to change the types of treasure dropped to far less coin, far more relatively low weight, stackable, decent value consumables/components… but that creates it’s own set of follow-on issues…)
Perhaps more precisely, players are intolerant of inconveniences that they don’t recognize as being part of the gameplay. It’s rather inconvenient to lose in combat, after all… but it’s accepted as part of the game (at least, as long as it doesn’t happen too often.) So perhaps the real challenge is finding ways to make the player base truly understand the consequences of dynamic content as part of the game?
My own prescription for adding dynamic content falls into implementing three robust subsystems:
- an extensive NPC “relationships” model
- sizable world (with several design elements to help concentrate players)
- activity (including combat) systems that do not require “killing” to earn rewards
The idea is to create most dynamicism (is that a word?) at the “personal” level. Your character’s personal situation will change regularly: who likes you, who hates you; the people you know live, die, become rich, go broke, become sick, etc. In contrast, the world at large will not change very often, and generally quite slowly. I see the request for a dynamic world to be mainly a plea for some kind of personalized “story”: the items above are an attempt to create the tools necessary to at least start trying to create such a thing within gameplay itself.
Of course, one of the big challenges in such an endeavor is to create connections to NPCs, groups, or minor institutions that the player actually cares about. Part of that is having a way to measure, track, and adjust existing connections (it’s difficult to react to or influence something that you know nothing about.) The NPC relationship model tracks who the character knows, who knows the character, and how all these people “feel” about each other. Faction, but on the level of the individual NPC, I suppose you could call it.
The sizable world is an attempt to allow consequences to occur while avoiding insurmountable inconveniences to all other players. A blight in one area simply means people need to go to other areas to find their potion ingredients. Village A was destroyed by the invading orcs, but most of the townspeople scattered to other locations, and can still be found and interacted with. That kind of thing.
Activities, even combat, which reward people for end results other than killing, create opportunities for rivalries, enmities, etc. Not many solid stories, let alone series, go very far without having a personal antagonist or two… instead of assigning them on the fly, let the players effectively “create their own” during play.
Obviously, some very high level, nascent concepts there, but I think they could be explored to some significant effect with effort.
Well, that’s what I’ve got for the moment. Sorry about the rambling nature of it… hopefully there is something in there that will spark an idea or two, anyway. For my part, I think it would be nice to see some of the ideas in Psychochild’s post and comment thread implemented some day… it would go a bit beyond “kill [random number] vermin”, at least.