What you just played was an exceptionally well-designed game that's winning awards left and right. It's essentially a supremely well-written Choose your own Adventure book, wrapped around a very simple set of game mechanics and hosted online 24/7. While CCP's made it clear the intension for the WoD MMO is going to be minimally focused on developer-made content, and way more on what players do with one another (admittedly, the opposite of what FL does) I did attend a panel during The Grand Masquerade 2010 in which Eddy Webb let slip a reference to it, and how complex stories could emerge from a random storyline mechanic and player choices. So, since it's been a bit slow on the news feed lately (at least for those who can't decipher Twitter feeds), let's talk about how CCP might be using something like this to encourage player interactions.
It all starts with your Inbox
Fallen London has a mechanic called your Opportunity Deck (which you all know, of course, because you tried out this game. Seriously). For our purposes, let's call it your Inbox. Your character wakes up in her Haven and checks her email. There're messages from other players, of course, as well as one randomly-assigned message from an NPC (read: the game). She reads over it, as it tells her a bit of back-story, and of an opportunity available to her. If she completes the tasks appointed, she stands to gain... something. Maybe It's specified. Maybe it's not. Either way, she can delete it and forget about it, or click "Reply" and add it to a probably-limited Quest Log. That's where the fun begins.
Progressively More Challenging Tasks
The simplest tasks would likely be things every player could do. Go spend ten minutes talking with other players in Elysium. Go beat up a wimpy goon in the Theme Park/PvE part of town. Go talk to an NPC in a diner. Nothing complicated, just routine stuff. You could ask another player to do it for you if you don't have the time, or if you're about to log off, but it would be the equivalent of asking another person to pick up your dry cleaning.
As tasks get more complex, they might start to challenge players' abilities or tax her resources. Beat up a gang of thugs. Research something obscure in the library. Steal something from another player's Haven. Give an NPC a quantity of your blood as payment for A Thing. Convince another player to do something for you in another Quest. It might even ask you to do something your character isn't specialized to do. Perhaps you're a bruiser and have been called-upon to do something that requires more finesse. Perhaps it's something that requires (or all but requires) a certain Discipline to do. Erase someone's memories. Retrieve a parcel resting on a ledge only reachable as a bat. Help someone move a three-ton couch. Whatever. That's where other players come in. You'll need to convince another player to do the things you can't, or at least don't want to risk. Further down the chain, there might even be Quests that outright require you to get someone else to do it for whatever story-reasons. That's where having friends (or at least working partners) in Elysium will be invaluable. You'll need to build relationships with people who can help you directly, as well as knowing people who know people who know people... for a price.
Degrees of Complexity
Many games start off with simple challenges and scale the difficulty in a linear manner. Most RPG's, for instance, have players start off with the worst weapons in the game, and set them to fighting weak monsters to match. As the player progresses, she gets better gear, and learns more powerful abilities, which she uses to overcome monsters with more hit points, harsher attacks and/or more options in combat as well. Play follows a pretty straight progression.
Other games (especially things you'll find on FaceBook, for instance) take a much more complex route. They'll start you off having you harvest radishes, then move you on to other vegetables, then put a time limit on it, then ask you to harvest them while wearing a yellow dress, and so forth. The player continues to follow quest chain, meeting the quest requirements as they come up.
Same story here. As mentioned, a certain task may require a player to have another player perform the task for you (in which case the real task is to convince another player). Another might require a certain time-frame, perhaps even asking you to do something while another player does something else across town (ie, one of you creates a diversion, et c). Maybe more than one player got the same email, and it's a race to see who can complete the tasks first and collects the prize. (For instance, a new territory has opened up, and players rush to seize control over it before others do). Maybe the task is to to talk another player out of following a certain task, or to offer to help, then betray her instead. Perhaps you need another player to accomplish something before you're able to complete your own task, or need her to try and fail before you have the opportunity to make your own attempt. The possibilities are more or less endless.
Locking and Unlocking Content
One important element of Fallen London is the way the story progresses. As you complete quests and tasks, your character's traits change. Her skills grow, she gains new characteristics, and her rating in certain storylines increases. As your ratings change, it unlocks new content, and gradually locks older, less relevant stuff so you don't see it any longer. Technically, the whole story is happening all at once, but you only see the parts that pertain to your story. Your deck of Opportunity Cards will give you different things to do as the story progresses, based on what you're already done.
In our case, the emails you'd get from NPC's could depend on certain character traits. Perhaps you need certain Contacts or Allies to unlock certain email Quests. Perhaps you'll only get that email about beating up the gang of hoodlums if you've already done the task where you had to beat up only one of them (perhaps they want revenge), or you'll only have a chance to get that email if your combat traits are up to snuff. Alternately, maybe you can only get that email if your combat skills *aren't* strong enough to likely defeat them on your own, hence giving you a strong motivation to seek out another player for help. Maybe the game starts out with your character, as a mortal, getting a worried message from a friend (an NPC with a randomly-generated name) asking your help investigating some of the things in the shadows of the city, then progressively getting you more intertwined with the players who're already Kindred, hopefully leading to your Embrace, at which point the emails you could have gotten as a mortal become locked (or, possibly, instead of helping with your friend's investigation, you now have to end it...). Surely, being a member of a certain Clan might unlock certain email possibilities, as might holding a certain office, claiming a certain territorial asset in town, and so forth.
So isn't that just like every other MMO?
What sets Fallen London from darned near every other online RPG out there (other than its simply incredible setting & writing) is its use of player choice and random selection to create an emergent story. Yes, you're reading developer-written content, but you're doing so in a way that I all but guarantee another player hasn't done exactly before you. Your story will take twists and turns, and develops differently than other players have done. Even if you manage to encounter all the content they've written (something I think to be almost impossible), you'll have gone through through a different series of events, creating a story all your own.
As a counter-point, most MMO's tend to offer players a chain of quests to follow, often a main story, with a small collection of optional side-quests along the way. Players are asked to accomplish certain PvE goals, asking other players to help them with the fighting, when needed. Everyone who plays a Warlock does the quest where there's a special tome that's been lost for ages that needs to be found before she can learn to summon a what-the-hell-ever. You're all reading the same story for the most part, making no decisions other than whether to follow the quest or not, and players help one another out pretty much because for experience points & loot, for social nice-guy points, or simply for the sake of having nothing better to do. There's nothing wrong with this model, by the way, other than being very focused on developers building content, possibly less quickly than players can consume it.
Under the ridiculous assumption that CCP has something like what I've written above in mind, players in World of Darkness will each essentially have a unique story of their own, due to the random element introduced here. The story would develop as content locked or unlocked along the way. Most importantly, while the tasks may often ask players to do things to the game environment and its non-player elements, it will do so in a way that strongly encourages significant interaction with other players beyond simply typing "Lvl 14 healar LFG." Players will trade favors and blood for the help they need, and some times, they'll betray one another, creating stories and conflicts that no game designer could have programmed
Samantha and Felix were surrounded. The tip that the shipment would be unguarded turned out to be wrong, and now half a dozen Brujah circled around them, smiling fiercely.
"Any suggestions, Sam?" asked Felix.
"Just one. Don't cross Alice ever again," Samantha replied before turning on Felix herself.
With Felix lying on the ground, beaten to a pulp and slipping into Torpor, Samantha stood over him and whispered, "Alice asked me to tell you that this makes you two square. I ought to let you know, though, she's only getting started. That's a favor you owe me now, by the way. I expect you to pay me for it in full when we meet again."And with that, she logged out for the night.
Scalability: How this Grows
I've hit the content boundary in Fallen London a number of times. The writers make content and we play through it, like the Dozers and the Fraggles, respectively. When that happens, there are usually enough things I can do to grind for currency or connections or what-not to keep me happy with a reduced level of game play for a while, yet. Then new content comes out, and my friends and I go back into hard-core mode, and the great cycle of life continues.
But awesome though it is, Fallen London is missing one thing: a dynamic way to interact with other players. In an MMO, when you've reached the edge of developer content, you can always help other players explore it as well. By merging the two, something special might just emerge: Since there was probably content you couldn't have seen for one reason or another, interacting with other players might be the only way to see things in the game you wouldn't have otherwise. Further, as every player will have had different opportunities, the kind of agenda each will be pursuing will be different, so I would imagine even without fresh, new NPC-emails coming in, players will still have enough to do with one another until the next batch comes out (if at all). So what if you've gotten the "Someone left the back door of the blood bank unlocked again" email for the fifth time? You know the best ways in and out, and could use the Blood Points for another project you're working on, anyway. You're helping a friend get her last dot in Allies: (Financial), and you'd rather not spend the blood if you don't have a plan to recover it again.
And finally, designing more NPC email-quests would be a potentially straight-forward process. There'd be no new levels to build and render, few if any NPC bad guys to design, no new treasures to play test for balance; just a couple of tasks set for the players, whatever reward seems appropriate, some reasonable the conditions for locking & unlocking, and whatever kind of flavor text they feel like including in the body of the email. These could be written one at a time, as their people have a chance, and would then gradually show up in people's inboxes in the days and months that follow, seemingly organically. (There could even be an online form for players to submit their own suggestions for emails, for instance, if CCP really wanted to do the "power to the Players" thing). There'd be no hard release dates needed, just players having enough time to check their in-game inboxes often enough to notice some new content to try out, in the midst of all the other things they're doing with and to one another.
Wow, that was longer than I'd planned... Anyway, thanks for reading, everyone. As I mentioned before, this is nearly entirely conjecture. I don't really expect CCP to do something at all like this. It's just a way it could work. Maybe. It's a pretty clunky model I've put up here, and they'd no doubt need to polish it considerably (and set rules like "your inbox can only hold a certain number of NPC Emails, lest players who log out for a while come back with a mountain to sort out. Like in Real Life.") Still, it was an interesting thought experiment, and very much in line with my mission of writing about game structures and how they can influence the way players play a game. Cheers!
363 days ago
I think this is very close to what CCP and White Wolf have in mind, with one very important difference: They are expecting players to generate all the quests and quest content, putting less of a burden on themselves. If the quests kicks off with you getting an email, that email is going to come from another player account. If you're asked to steal something, it's going to be stolen from another player. If you need to retrieve a package on a ledge only reachable in bat from, you better have Protean or bribe a Gangrel into nabbing the package for you - and furthermore, making it worth their while so they don't steal whatever's in the package and go flying off into the night. I'm just wondering WHY a player in the WODMMO would so such a thing. I'm tempted to just make up bullshit quests for newbies just to get the ball rolling, something I did once or twice in other MMOs I've played, so that the newbies feel like there's something to do, with a person on the other end who cares.
362 days ago
Yeah, I hear what you're saying here, Rick. (And, again, this was just one way it could have worked). Thing is, somewhere down the line, someone needs to be able to accomplish something. Clearly other players will be able to send you a message (a stable of MMO's, to be sure), but they're going to need a reason to do so. If a player asks you to steal some item from another, the first will need to have some reason to do so, something to gain from it. If they're subcontracting you to steal it, the party that asked them to have you do it needs to have a reason. I'm all for player-driven content, but I do believe it's possible to take the empty room school of sand boxing too far. (Example: most of the chat-based games in which I've played) That's my two cents, and you're entitled to your opinion on this one.