Thursday, September 13, 2007

AGC: Evan Skolnick

Ok, so back to AGC reflections.

Evan Skolnick used the original Star Trek series to hammer home a lot of theory that experienced writers should have already been exercising. That's good, because we all need reminders; and concrete examples help to clarify design theory. He made it enjoyable, too.

Some of the writing theory he covered was to look for clich├Ęs and spin them, to externalize internal conversations through characters and events (the Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy combo is an example of this), to be aware of classic story patterns (like the monomyth) while avoiding copying them exactly, to hook the audience quickly at the story's onset, to show and not tell, and to ensure the protagonist has some personal stake in the conflict. His main point is to avoid making the story completely predictable; to use the audience's expectations against them, though also keeping everythinig believeable.

Like I said, experienced writers should already know this stuff, though knowing and practicing are certainly different.

Now, here's a thought I had in response to his presentation.

"When everyone's special, no one is." -- The Incredibles
Many, if not most, MMOs fall into the trap that Pixar was describing in The Incredibles. The game portrays every player as a one-of-a-kind hero in quests and dialogue, while simultaneously undermining the player's every heroic action by negating any impact the player momentarily seemed to have ("Hurray! You've slain the dragon Smag! Oh, wait. There he is! Please, save us from the dragon Smag!"). In short, MMOs fail miserably at making anyone feel like a hero, though they try so very hard!

But we should try to make every player feel like the greatest hero ever to grace the story setting, right? Skolnick repeated the common philosophy that "Everyone wants to be Captain Kirk."

I'm not buying it. A decade's worth of MMOs have demonstrated that a large portion of players prefer support roles to lead roles in combat. Healers and trappers/buffers/debuffers epitomize this preference, but it extends to many more players who rarely lead or make the tactical decisions for their adventure groups. In fact, to force players into the tactical lead position would frustrate them.

Yeah, but that's just combat, right?

First, gameplay and story are not separate in a good RPG. Each battle is an important part of the story. Imagine if all the battle scenes in Star Trek were merely implied, behind the camera. Combat was a significant part of Kirk's life and fleshed out his character. In a game, everything the player's character does is part of his or her story.

Second, I believe many players would prefer support roles even in non-combat situations. Even in our extremely individualistic American culture, many people don't want to lead, and others imagine they want to lead but step back when the opportunity's presented to them (because they find leading undesirable, not because they lack courage).

Many gamers want to play Captain Kirk, but others want to play Dr. McCoy or Scotty or Spock. Most good stories succeed by different personalities coming together to augment each other, even as they conflict (Dr. McCoy was usually yelling at Spock, but they were a good team). Likewise, game stories succeed by allowing different types of characters, including the players' characters, to augment and conflict with each other. The humanity players bring into the game with them supplies much of this, but the gameplay must also incorporate it.

Current MMOs often offer quests which are designed exclusively for one class (type of character). A good MMO doesn't design all content so that any one player can experience it directly. A good MMO ensures that the actions and experiences of one player affect other players; like Spock's ultimate sacrifice saved the lives of his crewmates, or as Scotty was always able to contribute to the group's goals without being in their immediate presence.

Skolnick also got me wondering about the function of story villains, but I'll save that for another day.

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