For Freedom!

(This is a first draft.)

Within all computer games exists an eternal struggle: how much freedom should you give to players, at the sacrifice of a storyline? Both freedom and a good storyline are extremely valuable traits for a game, but exactly why are they mutually exclusive, and what implications does this pose for mmoe?

First, we have to get a grasp on what I mean by a story, and what I mean by freedom.

A few examples. Tetris does not have a story at all, since the only point of it is to stack up blocks in lines. The earlier incarnations of Mario Brothers has a very rudimentary story (rescue Princess Peach, etc), which you achieved by jumping on top of things, and such. Dragon’s Lair, that classic CDi interactive cartoon game, had a typical Disney-esque story with one-button interaction. Final Fantasy games (any of the PS versions) have very involved stories. I don’t want to give the illusion that there is some kind of chronological progression in story complexity though – some of the early text and graphical adventures had very involving stories, but the latest Civilization 3 game has no story.

At the same time, games vary quite considerably in the freedom they offer to players. Now, the question of game freedom is difficult to handle. I think there are two ways to measure game freedom; you could say that it is defined by the number of different actions the player can make, or you could say that it is the proportion of actions that the player can make relative to the total number that should be feasible within the game environment.

What on earth is that supposed to mean? Let’s use a few examples (again).

Tetris. The game environment is a load of blocks in a column. You only have four actions – move a block left, right, down, or rotate. A pitiful number of actions, right? However, within the game environment, that is all that you are supposed to do! So at once, you have hardly any freedom, and complete freedom.

Mario Brothers. You can move left, right, and jump (well, you could climb in a few, I guess). Only three actions. But the game environment wasn’t realistic, let’s face it, so we have pretty much the same situation as Tetris.

Quake. You have much more physical freedom here, you can move in 360� on the horizontal plane, walk, run, jump, crouch, climb and shoot. It doesn’t get much better than this, at least in first person shooters (FPS). A staggering amount of freedom, really, and this is magnified by the increased number of effects actions can have on the environment. However. Quake, and most other first person shooters, have a game environment that is supposed to mimic that of the real world. But it’s inconsistent. You’re given these actions, running and shooting, that can affect the world in some ways but not others. You can shoot through windows, but you can’t blow holes in walls. You can strafe across a room, but you can’t fling yourself to the ground and roll sideways. You don’t really have that much freedom after all, do you? (actually, Quake isn’t a very good example, since it doesn’t have a story except for ‘blow up everything that moves’)

The same occurs with Final Fantasy; despite the fantastical settings of the games, they still bear a great deal of resemblance to the real world, magic and spaceships notwithstanding. Yet you can’t really do that much, other than wander around, pick stuff up and start fights against monsters. A friend remarked to me, “Final Fantasy is just like Dragon’s Lair, except you have to press more buttons to get the story to move along.” Haven’t you ever wondered in these games, why can’t I do x? Why do I have to walk all the way over to this other country, why can’t I jump on a horse? Why is it that no matter how I play the game, the evil lord Zarquon kills my character’s best friend?

Clearly the amount of freedom, measured proportionally, in a game is dependent on two factors; the richness of the game environment, and amount of resources the game developers have. If you have a simple game environment, it’s not too difficult to put in 100% freedom. The richer the environment, the more difficult it is to cater for all the possible actions of the player and accommodate them into the storyline.

You have to be careful when you talk about game environments though. A lot of this depends on the expectations of the players, which are in turn set up by the game designers. In Mario, players don’t really expect the world to obey proper physics – it’s only 2D, after all! What’s more, the designers certainly don’t pretend that it’s realistic – I mean, flying bullets and Italian plumbers riding dinosaurs? No-one expects much from a game like that. So you have a good illusion of freedom.

Same for a first person shooter like Max Payne. Sure, you might not be able to shoot at a gas pipe and see it blow up, or set explosives to destroy doors and entire rooms at every point in the game, but at least you get to do both sometimes. Again, there’s the illusion of freedom, and you also have a relatively interesting story – and the illusion is provided by the fundamentally linear nature of the game. If you want to get to the next level, you must hit this switch and collect that object; there are no two ways about it.

Well, in Deus Ex, another FPS, there are actually three ways about it. In every level, you can take one of three pathway to complete the required objectives – you can go in all guns blazing, you can use tools or you can use stealth. There is more freedom, but it has to be designed in. Presumably, if you wanted to give the player nine unique pathways, you’d need to put in three times the work. Obviously, the clever game designer will try to figure out a way to save time, by using the same environments and just giving the player different choices of combinations of actions. Indeed, the holy grail would be to produce some sort of game environment in which any conceivable action, within the rules of the environment, is possible. That way, you have a huge amount of freedom.

But is freedom fun? Not always. Games such as Deus Ex rely on set pieces, carefully designed and scripted events that really set the pulse racing, such as trucks smashing through walls or aliens suddenly bursting through the floor. Pre-planned elements constrain freedom, which presents game designers with the dilemma of finding the perfect balance between freedom and constraints.

Sweeping statement alert!

The more true freedom you provide, the less story you can have.

Corrolary 1: When you have total freedom, if you have created a rich enough environment and setting, your players can create their own personal stories that can surpass anything you might have written. Artificial intelligence is extremely important here.

Example: Civilization 3. There are no stories, multiple objectives (conquest, space, diplomatic, domination, cultural and histograph), each of which can be accomplished in a myriad number of ways and unorthodox methods. There are no scripted events, and each new game is completely different. The artificial intelligence is excellent, and when you play, you create your own story based on the actions of the other civilizations. There are some excellent stories at Apolyton.

Still, the fact is that not everyone has the inclination or imagination to bother making up their own stories – it does take a bit of thinking. Also, a really well written story is going to beat anything a player can make up him/herself retrospectively.

Corrolary 2: Giving the illusion of freedom is almost as good as giving true freedom; hence, you can design in a literally captivating story without making your players feel constrained. Remember though – the more bored your players become, the quicker they’ll see through the illusion.

Example: First Person Shooters like Max Payne and Halo. You feel like you have a great deal of freedom in wandering around and shooting things, but let’s face it, nothing you do can alter the storyline one bit. It’s predetermined.

How does this all tie in with massively multiplayer games, which after all is supposed to be the point of this weblog?

I believe that massively multiplayer online entertainment can be broadly and usefully defined by the amount of freedom it provides to the user. Traditional profit-making mmoe games such as Everquest and Ultima Online offer practically limitless freedom within the confines of the game universe. Particularly in Ultima Online, you have hundreds of players doing mind-numbling boring tasks such as fishing or baking bread all day – although (hopefully) the players who do this are actually having fun. In these games, what matters is not any kind of designer-controlled storyline but the setting and environment of the game; and in any case, how can the game designers ensure that any story they introduce to the game will satisfy and involve all players?

So my personal belief is that it’s not really possible to have strong storylines in these games.

I’ve often wondered whether it’s possible to have both freedom and a strong storyline in an mmoe. I’m not really sure if it is, and it certainly hasn’t been done yet. The Microsoft AI web publicity campaign had an astonishingly strong storyline – which of course was completely predetermined, and this alone limits player freedom. However, the illusion of freedom in this entertainment is unsurpassed, and that’s all done to one thing – it was conducted in real time. The designers would often put puzzles online, and suddenly the players would do something unexpected. In a non-real-time game, there’s nothing you can do about this and the whole thing would break. In a real-time game, the designers can actively incorporate the players’ actions into the game.

There are of course limits to this, which become more apparent as the game becomes increasing real-time. For example, a real life event was held with a couple of actors in three cities in the US; it went relatively well, until someone followed one of the actors to a restaurant after the end of the event and cornered him. There wasn’t much the actor could do – he simply wasn’t fully briefed about the game.

Getting back to the original question, if pressed, I would have to say that it is not possible to have both complete freedom and a strong storyline in an mmoe, unless it’s a radically different mmoe to anything I can imagine – or unless the story was written in real-time. And unfortunately, the best stories are never written in real-time by some kind of game designed ‘god’, they are always predetermined. No, if you want both things, then the players will have to make their own story…

Gamespot (2002). Immersive, Visceral, Destructible (on freedom within games).

Lee, E (2002). Presentation at the Game Developer’s Conference by the designer of the Microsoft AI online publicity campaign.

Koster, R (2002). The design process of Star Wars Galaxies.

8 Replies to “For Freedom!”

  1. Couple of points…. nothing major….

    Technically quake did have a storyline – it was something about a secret government research into teleportation technology called slipgates – suddenly goes wrong… you are on a mission when demons come through the gates to your base and kill everyone. You return find everyone dead…. go on revenge…. though there was no effect on gameplay… maybe this is a point that a storyline cannot really be so called unless it actually provides a bearing on the players experiences. E.g. if in quake you found out that demons had captured some fellow marines then you went and rescued them etc rather than simply providing a back story that has no bearing on gameplay.

    Also a good example to bring in would be Red Faction with the geo-mod technology – where you could blow huge holes in the wall and floor but this was heavily limited in single player but not in multiplayer. (I’ll explain in person)

    Also there is some way of combining false freedom with storyline more effectively. THe medal of honour approach – instead of stopping players wandering off by putting locked doors in the way it is better to try to pull them the way you want them to go by making it the most interesting way to go e.g. put an enemy tank at one end of a town etc…

    Also to the best of my memory Halo doesn’t use scipted events it uses AI and just places the enemies in start positions..


  2. This is very similar to the dilemma in traditional sitting-around-the-table RPGs. In those, the solution is to have a pre-written large-scale story with notes on contingency plans which the human gamesmaster then improvises around. Perhaps something similar would work in a multiplayer online game – the creative team would first outline the story in some detail but it would be driven not by fixed events but by them controlling key powerful characters in the world. For example, a plot could be based around a war between two kingdoms, and the NPCs (non-player characters, i.e. those controlled by the creative team behind the game) would be the kings and generals and great wizards and the PCs (player characters) would be everyone else. The PCs could then either do their own thing against the backdrop of the war or else get involved in things in a small-scale way by going on missions as agents or mercenaries of the NPCs. If the key NPCs driving the story are too powerful for the PCs to band together to kill then I think that there would be a very nice balance between macroplot, microplot and PC freedom.

  3. I think there’s a difference between the story you planned to tell and the story you end up tell. Can the story survive contact with the players? Does that matter? If you have the capacity to adapt the story as you go (as in online things) then I would say that it shouldn’t.

    One thing that’s stuck in my mind in various discussions on this idea is the comments of an acquaintance who says that if she got to design a game (it was originally in reference to Baldurs Gate or something similar) it would be a game where you could take your shoes off and go wading in the fountains if you wanted. But does that have to mean a sacrifice in plot? I don’t see why.

  4. The only difference that ultimately matters in the end between a predetermined story and one that is changed on the fly is quality. Of course, I’m making a false distinction here since I imagine the most realistic scenario is to have a story sketched out in advance (you have to make the setting and characters and so on), and then adapted, as Claire says.

    I definitely like Rich’s idea of having actors in the games, and I wonder why this hasn’t been taken seriously by current games designers – perhaps manpower problems.

    Physical freedom within a game shouldn’t mean a sacrifice of plot, but what about other types of freedom? For example, let’s say we’re in Rich’s game scenario and you want to go and kill a vitally important NPC by sniping at them from the roof of a house. Should you be allowed to do that?

    There are a few ways the designers could handle this. They could make the NPC unkillable, like Lord British is in Ultima Online. Not much freedom there, but the writers are saved from extra work. Alternatively, they could give him some sort of shield or super hit-points, so it’s conceivable that you could kill him. Finally, they could make the NPC just like any normal player, but presumably if this guy is so important he’ll have a load of guards and it’ll be difficult to kill him – but if you can, and you do kill him, the storyline takes a big swing.

    This isn’t so much of a problem if you only get one NPC killed, but what happens if a bunch of players decide to spoil things and go on a rampage, playing out of character? How do you stop them?

    I digress, but this remind me of a thought I had in reading a preview of a new mmorpg game (I’ll link to it later). Most if not all mmorpg games have ‘safe’ areas where you can’t get killed – it’s just not physically possible. It helps new players and stops general mayhem from breaking out. Yet I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more elegant solution – for example, wouldn’t a more realistic situation involve having guards in towns, or making players deposit their weapons at the town gates?

    Or let them take their weapons in, but if they kill someone, they become an outlaw and not only can anyone apprehend them, but if they are apprehended, the murderer loses all of their possessions (or as much as their apprehender wants to take)?

  5. The big problem is people playing out of character, in the scenario of a large scale war the problem of killing important NPC’s would probably only arise if someone on the NPC’s own side killed them, a truely important story leading character is unlikely to ever let ‘regular grunts’ who the players would represent get close enough. It would be someone simply wanting to try and kill everyone regardless of plot who would be the problem, e.g. by killing the people on their own sides. How you deal with this is problematic, do you reduce the contact between the NPCs and the PC’s (in which case you reduce the amount they can lead the story) or could you simply do something like making them invulnerable to attacks from their own side. My personal preference would be to try to come to some sort of ‘realistic’ balance, so if for example you were doing a WWII game then the generals would be in their own command posts surrounded by very high security and large numbers of guards. If you made the guards NPC’s and made them suitably tough (and this could be achieved without cheating – i.e. put lot’s of machine gun posts about, double locked doors etc.) then it would be impossible for one ‘rogue’ player to kill them. If however a team of rogue players ganged up and attempted it, then this in itself would be a worthy development of the story line, although it would have to be adapted on the fly. However the very process of the rogue players banding together and working hard enough to penetrate the defences would probably mean that they would not be ‘rogue’ any more, and that a story could develop about a team of traitors.

    Just an idea.

  6. Excellent first draft, Adrian, but you either intentionally omitted or inadvertently overlooked one key variable in the whole “freedom vs. storyline” equation, that variable being the intended overall time-FRAME of the game (which is not quite the same as saying whether or not the PLAYABILITY of the game is intended to be set in continuous real-time or according to some more artificial regular-update schedule). I think MMPORGS like the Beast, which are intended by the gamemasters to definitively end at some set point, must necessarily come down strongly on the side of “strong storyline” at the expense of PC freedom. The storyline, however discursive, must eventually be compressed into a finite stopping point, and in order for this to be accomplished with a minimum of chaos the relative freedoms of playyer characters must be severely curtailed. (This is often accomplished, as you recognize, by strictly defining player “tasks” to puzzles which have essentially binary “either-or” solutions, and making the major thrust of interactivity revolve around the successful completion of such puzzles. In this sense, the game becomes much less of an alternate reality, much more of an elaborate clue-hunt — cf. the Plexata Complex).

    On the other hand, games with no intended set “ending point”, such as Ultima Online, can stretch out at their leisure to encompass all manner of player distractions and role-play interactivity, whether related to the core “plot/quest” or not, since players are never racing against the clock to get their quests completed. I do disagree slightly with your contention that it is not POSSIBLE to have a strong storyline in games such as this; I just think that the “strong” storyline must not become the “sole” storyline. The Beast and, to an even greater extent, the Lockjaw game, have so far managed to preserve a core “quest text,” but also allowed themselves a certain flexibility of design so as to accommodate for player idiosyncrasies within such core “text”. Classic example, as you note, was the “Belle of the Ball” Metro Homes competition within the Beast, but an even better example would be the fact that the AI world was sufficiently realized as to allow the creation of a “metasite” like Shipbrook.

    The ideal answer lies somewhere in the middle, but my personal biases fall on the side of advocating longer, more leisurely games. Empirically, what has been shown is that those games will attract the best of BOTH worlds — both the “puzzle solvers”, who have limited time to expend on a game at any point during a day and who may very well drop away once the quality and difficulty of puzzles no longer succeeds in stimulating them, and the “world builders”, who will work to build a community, often times complementary to but by no means exclusively consumed with the core “quest text”.

    This phenomenon is not limited to mmoe’s, either. A classic phenomenon of television fan fiction such as the Twin Peaks phenomenon, the Cult of Buffy, etc., is passive watchers’ availaibility and willingess to interject themselves into a non-terminable world of someone else’s design. Sometimes the level of fan fervor is so strong it may outlast the arbitrary termination point set by the creators of the imaginary “world” by years, even decades…ever hear of a little thing called “Star Trek”, anyone.

    Still, some thought-provoking arguments. Great job on the new site!

  7. Just this discussion which explores the point of plot vs freedom pretty thoroughly I think.

    Suffice it to say I agree with you. The two are mutually exclusive. People are compelled by stories, not by real life. The difference is plot.

    The disadvantage of, say, a novel is that there is only one storyline, one path. The advantage is that it can be made ‘tight’. The drama is compressed, satisfying results are selected.

    The disadvantage of real life is that most of the possible actions, however brilliant or inspired, lead to nothing happening. The advantage is that you aren’t constantly bumping into the walls (you can’t go there, you can’t do that because the game designers never thought of it). You can be brilliant and inspired. The satisfaction comes from the interaction with other real-life players. Now, most of the time, they are going to be insipid and boring, but occasionally they CAN be brilliant and inspired too. And that’s exhilarating. No AI can do that today, and not for any depth of foreseeable future, either.

    The joy of the mmoe is that the environment is not some artificial, constrained world like Ultima Online, where you can’t wade in the fountains, but the true real-world. Where the possibilities are endless. Where everybody knows the rules (kindof). Where you don’t have to worry about players “breaking character” because there is no character to break, just revelations on who that character really is.

    But its ‘entertainment’. It is to ‘escape’. You must impose on this world the advantage of plot — drama compressed with a satisfying result. Real life sadly does not guarantee this and so is not entertainment, but tragedy (well, tragicomedy). And the only end is far from satisfying.

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