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Story vs Gameplay

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In this brief span of time that games have been around, I think we've come a long way in developing gameplay mechanics. As I've always seen it, there are two overarching aspects to a game:

1. The Gameplay
From football, to chess, to puzzles, to the MMO, a game is primarily just that; a game. It has rules, and the players work within those rules to progress and achieve victory. Often these rules allow for various strategies, and often reward players for knowing the rules better, for being flexible, and for thinking of the best strategy.

2. The Story
When I think about it, the most compelling story elements to a game I've seen are in the scripted parts; the hard coded cut-scenes and dialogue. I get the impression that games are not nearly as far developed on presenting a story, than presenting the gameplay.

So, here is my question

What do you think about how to use the interactive elements of a game more effectively to tell a story? I say interactive, to mean the parts of a game unlike a film. Do you have any thoughts on how to exploit the interactivity of a game, in ways you couldn't simply achieve in a movie?

I've got some opinions too, but I'd like to hear some of yours first.

[Edited by - Humble Hobo on December 29, 2010 11:52:04 PM]

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I reread your post several times and I was contemplating to post or not. I was about to leave this post and check out other on the forum, but then What I was thinking I wanted to post and leaving and then left I would of not remembered of what to have said.

My point is this.

It all depends on the story or game mechanics you the player just went through.
I has seen some games where during cut scenes, you can move about the room or area and look around while the NPC was talking about the story from the beginning and the stuff you have just acquired or the area you the player or character are about to enter.

Most cut scenes are short movies so there was no need to do anything in the sequence anyways.

The only opinion that comes to mind. Or situation that would be interesting enough would be moving something for the next area or looking at a book in a library for looking at lab chemicals in a laboratory or accessing the in-game computer console to gather new information about the story line bosses or sub bosses or material shipments or looking at maps?

The other thing is this:

Destroying the next main boss. 50 out of 50 games allow you to destroy the boss
with or with out cut scene movie like quality goodness.

Edit: You destroy the boss = no cut scene after that final slice of the blade or final shot with a firearm.

You destroy the boss = the last final slice of your blade becomes a cut scene Hollywood studio short film. After the destruction and the Ooh's and Aw"s from massive kill scene and all of the players (or viewers) watching the character destroy the beast the cut scene ends and then you are allowed to move your character around the screen.

In any other situation I can not think of any movement required to do during a cut scene. It just becomes a game with no cut scenes and the story continues.

These are the only things that come to my mind. Would like to hear some of your ideas.

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Games (especially MMOs) are rather notorious for shallow stories. The difference between a game and a movie, is the interactivity (you actually get to take part and BE the character. You make decisions and involve yourself in the world).

I suppose my questions is, how can we utilize this better (take advantage of the capacity to actually interact with the world, instead of just watch it happen)?

Design Side
One thing I was thinking about, was a plot level for an RPG. For example, the main, overarching plot is set in place by the developers, but it has multiple branches. What if the player actually leveled up the plot in an area, and depending on what branches they focused on, the whole game would travel along different plot lines. Discovering new areas/people/items would open up new plot branches, or smaller branches.

There could be event points along each branch, possibly unlocking new branches. These event are what drive the story along, and they would have to be 'unlocked' by the player.

Even more, you could make it possible that NPCs are also pushing plot streams forward. Perhaps the main plot is in conflict (the forces of good want to take it one direction, the forces of evil want to take it the other), and you as the player try to push that balance over the edge one way or the other.

Not nearly a complete idea, but just one of the things I thought about using to create a more interactive story. Dynamic story is something that suits a dynamic media like games.

Dynamic Persistence
If we can make the story matter more to the player, it will be more enjoyable. I recently replayed levels 1-10 of WoW, twice. I tried a different mindset each time. If I was in it for the level grind (get to 10 as fast as possible), I didn't care one bit about the 'quests' I was on. I felt kind of like a mindless drone/errand boy. But the second time through I was in it for the story. I read all the dialogues, and I found myself caring a little more about what I was doing. It meant something to me. In fact, it was jarring to see my quests reset so that others could do them after me.

That's why single player RPGs are generally more rich in story than MMORPGs. MMOs are persistent, but unchanged by anything you do, so it's harder to care. I think the more meaningful the player's actions, the more he/she will care about the story/what is happening. So give them the dynamic tools to have an impact and see the influence right away.

In this case, the story's not really any different, it just means more to the player. Using interaction to improve how we view the story in games.

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I think it's much easier to make a linear, scripted story compelling than it is to make an interactive story compelling. So if compelling is what you really want, an interactive story is probably not what you want. Interactivity makes a story powerful in a different way, by making it personally relevant and allowing the player to choose what type of story they want to experience, what role they want to play within a fictional society or relationship, etc. An interactive story is typically less intense per amount of time, but allows the player over time to invest themselves much more deeply into the game, the avatar, the world.

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Yes actually. That pretty much sums up my second post; a tug-of-war plot line with multiple ropes.

But on a tangent - what has been the best/ a great experience you've had with story in a game? Have you ever played a game that really got you into a good story? Was it the story itself that was compelling, and were there mechanics in the game that you think helped add to this effect?

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Hmm, multiple ropes... that's similar to what I normally think of as multiple meters (for relationships/alignment as well as things like level in a profession or class). This approach works well for a dating-sim/RPG sort of game. The Harvest Moon series is my usual example. I keep wishing someone would make a grown-up version of this which is like an interactive science fiction or fantasy romance novel. The kind of thing where part of the game is learning to work within with some alien or fantasy culture.

There's really not that many interactive story games in existence though, particularly if you don't know Japanese. I could make a list of games I've played which created the most powerful story experiences, but they would all be linear or with a token attempt at interactivity, and they would almost all be adventure games (of the type which actually have NPCs, not the myst-type ones) or RPGs.

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I think this topic has two ultimate lines. The Final Fantasy saga and The Sims. Final Fantasies have always been kind of "technologically advanced" to support the story telling elements.

Final Fantasy VI proved that with SNES you could do somethings most people ever could not have thought of by that state of game history (many very personal characters, playing a role in "back then realistic opera", and overall very well written story line, at least when compared to the history of RPG's so far)

Final Fantasy VII was the very first game that portraied that the future of (RPG) games could be in very movie-like story telling, but in-my-opinnion Final Fantasy XIII did the exact opposite, I played the game through only because it seemed like a good movie, the game mechanics were very boring (well what can you expect from the Final Fantasy X-2 creator team...).

The Sims, you ultimately make what your character becomes of, no deep story telling, but the ultimate game mechanichs on what comes to story telling.

I think these two game series very well portray the very opposite aspects of game mechanics and the story line.



I would like to bring up another point, which I feel is very very important. How you tell the story affects very much how easy it is to relate to it and how effective the story telling is. Why many people didn't relate to the Baldurs Gate/Never Winter Nigths story-line as strongly as for the Final Fantasies of the era. Because textual story telling is much less effective than animated one. All of the Wizards of the Coast RPG's would have been great if everyone would have read what every NPC has to say, but no one did read it all...

This get's down to the script writing, the more freedom you add, the more you have to write, the more you have to write, the worse quality you will be able to make.

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Agree with Morri.

Maybe it is theoretically feasible to make a game full of action-results, yet developers have to add immense contents into a single game. As the growth of branches, the game content have to exponentially expand in order to complete the story. The storyline will like a binary tree, which is too hard to control and it will cost unimaginably plenty of time to accomplish the story.

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Quote:
Original post by Nofootbird
Agree with Morri.

Maybe it is theoretically feasible to make a game full of action-results, yet developers have to add immense contents into a single game. As the growth of branches, the game content have to exponentially expand in order to complete the story. The storyline will like a binary tree, which is too hard to control and it will cost unimaginably plenty of time to accomplish the story.


It does not have to be a tree-structure. A better plan is modules and checks. Modules: the player makes some choice, the game reacts, but after the immediate reaction it has no effect on availability of future choices. It might increment a meter. Checks: Part of the player's data is a checklist of what the player has done in the game. A binary checklist is tiny, in terms of data storage. The game can check the list to see if the player has or hasn't done something, and use this data to personalize a communication to the player. Again, this has no effect on future choices.

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Quote:
Original post by Nofootbird
Agree with Morri.

Maybe it is theoretically feasible to make a game full of action-results, yet developers have to add immense contents into a single game. As the growth of branches, the game content have to exponentially expand in order to complete the story. The storyline will like a binary tree, which is too hard to control and it will cost unimaginably plenty of time to accomplish the story.

I think it is possible. Back in the 80's you had PacMan. The player made choices and the game reacted. If you turned left at an intesection the game would react one way and if you turned right (or forwards, or backwards) it would react another way.

Now, the desigener didn't code in each reaction to every dsecision the player could make, that would have been impossible for the technology back then (even today it would be difficult). What they did was to create rules as to how the ghosts would react, not to a specific decision, but in general (iirc: One would head towards the next intersection the player would be at, one would head to where the player was last at, etc).

These simple rules created a situation where a great depth of gameplay emerged.

Now, if we could create a simple (although necesarily more complex than PacMan) set of rules that agents could impliment to drive a stroy then we could create games with dynamic stroies.

The way to visialise this is as a landscape and we need to create a pathfinding algorithm to traverse it. What we do is work out where the player is in this landscape (based on their interactions - as in what sunandshadow is taking about) and then find a path to where the designers what the game to go. Then the game (and NPCs) can take the necesary actions to drive the stroy along that path.

An example is that if the designers want the princess to be kidnaped, but the player never goes to the castle, then they can never find out (let alone feel the need to ) the quest to rescue the princess.

However, if the game can path find, then maybe some other NPC can be kidnaped, or maybe the kidnapers can become some other threat (it would depend on the landscape the designers want), or maybe the event waits and give the player a reason to visit the castle or get involved with the princess (maybe she tried to run away and become an adventureer and one of the player's party members is her).

Because certain things don't need to be resolved until they become important to the player (eg: if an NPC has a secret identity or not), these can be left unresolved in the plot until they become important. Like with pPacMan, it is unimportant about an intersection where noboty is, so the game does not try to compute any decision for that.

It is the same principal, just that we need more data and a more complex landscape than in PacMan.

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Quote:
Original post by Edtharan
The way to visialise this is as a landscape and we need to create a pathfinding algorithm to traverse it. What we do is work out where the player is in this landscape (based on their interactions - as in what sunandshadow is taking about) and then find a path to where the designers what the game to go. Then the game (and NPCs) can take the necesary actions to drive the stroy along that path.

An example is that if the designers want the princess to be kidnaped, but the player never goes to the castle, then they can never find out (let alone feel the need to ) the quest to rescue the princess.

However, if the game can path find, then maybe some other NPC can be kidnaped, or maybe the kidnapers can become some other threat (it would depend on the landscape the designers want), or maybe the event waits and give the player a reason to visit the castle or get involved with the princess (maybe she tried to run away and become an adventureer and one of the player's party members is her).

It is the same principal, just that we need more data and a more complex landscape than in PacMan.


Thanks Edtharan! That's very much the direction I was thinking of, but I couldn't find a good way to explain/visualize it.

An NPC has some sort of problem or conflict, so he creates a plot path (much like physical pathfinding) to create the easiest path of action. An Empire notices that there is a lot of traffic across a river by ferry, which is very painstaking and costly, so they decide to build a public bridge at the site of high-traffic.

You're definitely right though, it's far more complex than PacMan. But I think it should be possible with that method. Now if you put it in an MMO (complexity x1000), you'd probably need some kind of plot balancing engine/editor, that automatically creates events to balance out the flow of story (i.e. the new race you just created is stronger than you thought, so the engine applies balance automatically). But that's just pie in the sky at this point... I'll stick to a simple RPG for my plot-engine.

Any other thoughts on how to add more depth/ use mechanics to make story mean more?

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Quote:
Original post by Humble Hobo
Any other thoughts on how to add more depth/ use mechanics to make story mean more?

The short answer is: to give the player agency over the story.

What I mean by this is one can creaate an elaborate backstory and spend a lot of time working out a complex plot, but in the end, the story the player experiences is the one they make themselves, regardless of the effort you put into it. Your work can, at best, only act as a guid for the player and as a starting point. Beyond that, it is their actions in the game that create their story.

As an example: take the game "Sword of the Samurai" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_the_Samurai_%28computer_game%29 ).

In this, the player takes on the role of a Samurai and head of a family and works their way up to Shogun of Japan (and might take several generations to do so).

This is a game where there is strong role playing as the player has to take on the persona of a Samurai and act as if they were one. they have to make decisions that affect their families standing, and might even lead to their current character's death (althoguh if you have children you will take over them if your main character dies - but if you don't, then it is game over).

In this game, althoguh not usually classified as an RPG, I feel that there is deeper role playing more similar to pen and paper role playing and in traditional computer based RPGs.

When I though about this, I realised it is because the player has control over their story. The game's plot is set (the Samurai becoming Shogun of Japan) and doesn't change thoguh the game. It is the journy that the player takes their characters on to get there is the story, and it is the player who controles it. They have agency over the story (but not the plot).

I think by looking at games like Sword of the Samurai, we can gain a much better understanding of how to increase the deapth of role play in games and how to create greater deapth to them.

It also make it more meaningfull to the player. With a preset story eg: (Neverwinter Nights), the designer has to trick the player into taking on the stroy, and this usually ends up with cliches or just fails miserably (occasionally there is something that works - but once done it will be repeated and become cliche). When it does work, it usually only appleas to a small subset of players interested in that type of story.

I think this is why developed have not attempted to create true roleplaying and have just gone for the hack and slash "role playing" designes. It is not a simple thing to achieve, it is complex and there hasn't been a good theory to use to develop games like that. But the fact is these kind of games do exist, so it is posible to achieve player agency over the story. We just have to figure out how to do it.

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Quote:
Original post by Edtharan

The short answer is: to give the player agency over the story.

When I though about this, I realised it is because the player has control over their story. The game's plot is set (the Samurai becoming Shogun of Japan) and doesn't change thoguh the game. It is the journy that the player takes their characters on to get there is the story, and it is the player who controles it. They have agency over the story (but not the plot).


You know, I think that's partly the reason why MMO stories are so shallow over simple RPGs. MMOs are primarily level-based, with the players all racing to get to the 'end-game'. The journey is almost completely lost, because all that matters is the end-game. And since the worlds generally cannot be altered, the quests just become a means to an end (leveling), they have no other significance.

Giving players some measure of control over a dynamic story might be a good next step in improving MMO stories. Actually making the system would be a real challenge.

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I don't really see why it's important for the player to be able to change the world in an MMO. There have been many great novels written where the main character does not change the world, only himself and/or his immediate surroundings. I'd rather see an MMO where it's the character who changes (not by leveling up), and the world reacts to the character in ways that recognize these changes. I want to play a game with much greater development of relationships between the player's character and factions and also relationships with individual NPCs.

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That's a good point sunandshadow. I'm not saying I'm opposed to a linear storyline. There are plenty of ways of going about telling a story, and both novels and movies are entirely linear. They still make excellent stories and can convey deep character progression.

But I guess what I'm getting at, is that it feels to me like a waste not to exploit the dynamic properties of a game. Because it's a game, it has the potential to change the plot according to the player's actions, and I'm trying to think of/research about ways to do so better. I keep bringing up MMOs because I feel like this would be a great stage to push such mechanics, and it's the stage where the story needs the most improvement.

It just seems to me like the way we make MMO stories is shallow. As if you had 'developers' and 'players' on WIkipedia, where only an expert team of 20 developers could change any of the content, and thousands and thousands of players simply experience it. There's too much content for just 20 people to handle, and that limits how much quality/quantity of content we can stuff in an MMO.

That said, there's nothing inherently wrong about the way game stories are currently made, but I wonder if there's a mechanic (such as the plot engine we've been discussing) that could bring a more interactive story experience to the player.

Whether or not such a mechanic would actually be any more fun or meaningful still needs to be tested.

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Original post by sunandshadow
I don't really see why it's important for the player to be able to change the world in an MMO. There have been many great novels written where the main character does not change the world, only himself and/or his immediate surroundings.


There have also been many novels in which they do change the world. The scale doesn't seem to matter much, but big scale is more interesting to me personally.

Nonetheless, you have a great point. I'm not saying I'm opposed to a linear storyline (or a 'reactionary' one). There are plenty of ways of going about telling a story, and both novels and movies are entirely linear. They still make excellent stories and can convey deep character progression.

But I guess what I'm getting at, is that it feels to me like a waste not to exploit the dynamic properties of a game. I want to use the capability that games have, that movies and books cannot: interactivity. Because it's a game, it has the potential to change the plot according to the player's actions, and I'm trying to think of/research about ways to do so better. I keep bringing up MMOs because I feel like this would be a great stage to push such mechanics, and it's the stage where the story needs the most improvement.

It just seems to me like the way we make MMO stories is shallow. As if you had 'developers' and 'players' on WIkipedia, where only an expert team of 20 developers could change any of the content, and thousands and thousands of players simply experience it. There's too much content for just 20 people to handle, and that limits how much quality/quantity of content we can stuff in an MMO.

That said, there's nothing inherently wrong about the way game stories are currently made, but I wonder if there's a mechanic (such as the plot engine we've been discussing) that could bring a more interactive story experience to the player.

Whether or not such a mechanic would actually be any more fun or meaningful still needs to be tested.


Quote:
Original post by sunandshadow
I want to play a game with much greater development of relationships between the player's character and factions and also relationships with individual NPCs.


Most of us do. And though I think a dynamic story might be capable of improving relationships, it's hardly necessary. I also think that that kind of relationship building might be developed outside of the story itself. Relationships alone provide a kind of side-story anyways (and depending on the setting might be the entire story). If that's the case, then relationships are all the dynamic story you'll need.

I want to play a game with a story that I can influence the direction of, not just the reactions the world has to me. But that's simply a matter of preference. People want different things.

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Oh, I completely agree that current MMO stories are mostly shallow, and MMOs seem like a great place to try to get some more interactive story gameplay going on. I just don't think the world plot of the MMO is the place to try to build that dynamicness in. I think it would produce a much more enjoyable result to work on the smaller-scale plot which is personal to each avatar. You could let the player answer some multiple-choice questions to create the character's background. You could have NPC dialogue and the avatar's in-game actions test the avatar's personality, then the game use this information to address the player in a personalized way. Some MMOs already have some interesting racial and faction philosophies that the player can choose to live up to or not, but a lot more could be done with these. And MMOs currently entirely lack dating sim-like interactive NPCs, as far as I know.

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Yes, MMO NPCs are probably some of the shallowest AIs in gaming history. They're basically just waypoints/checkpoints with a skin. A binary checklist of which of 2 things to say to you. (quest accepted text vs. quest completed text).

I'm trying to think of ways to solve too many problems at once. MMO scale of complexity is definitely not the best place to start, but it is my eventual goal. Were I to get out of design document stage, I'd definitely start with a very very simple RPG that could eventually scale a little bigger. But the story principles still apply on all scales, I think.

For example, if NPCs were the agents of a dynamic story, then they would have to be much more complex: They would have to have goals, and use some path finding to decide on what to do to accomplish their goals. They have priorities, and emotional states to determine their actions. They would very much be reactionary to you as well, but still not in that deep, complex way that you're looking for.

That's why I think the dynamic story could help NPCs intractability, but it's not necessary to do so.

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I was thinking more along the lines of giving each NPC more/better writing, not AI. When NPCs are doing their own thing in a game instead of existing for players to interact with it can easily become more annoying than fun. NPCs which do something as minor as walk around within the game world sometimes annoy the crap out of me. Rather than trying to emulate a realistic world, games should try to be like The Truman Show where everything exists to be there where and when create the best story around the avatar's actions and speech.

My opinion is that the average MMO has way too many NPCs and hardly any of them have any kind of personal interaction with the player. I'd like to reverse that - slash the number of NPCs by as much as 90% resulting in 10x as much dialogue per NPC, and give the player a relationship meter or checklist with each one. Help the player build a history with these individuals rather than making them throwaway questgivers whose names the player probably doesn't bother to learn.

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Oh definitely. In order to have a quality experience with an NPC it can't be a one-time one use identity. And better writing does add depth.

Unfortunately computers are really bad at writing. Humans do an infinitely better job when it comes to creativity, computers can only iterate what they already know, an can only approximate real creation. But with a lot of content to be made, I wish that procedural generation could assist more, take some of the time/work off of the developers.

Alright, so how about we open a new can of worms?

What do you think of players being able to create story elements? Other than just interacting and influencing using their character, do you think if you give the tools of editing, that there would be those responsible enough to make quality content? Obviously you'd have to review the stories + lore and things, but it would sure be easier than the development team creating every scrap themselves.

Of course they could still rely on players to contribute story/lore/suggestions outside of the game. But what do you think about in-game contribution? How could we get players to add something to the story that others could experience?

In a few games, I've heard of journals/notes that players can write and leave as physical objects in the world. That's pretty interesting! It could even expand to books/stories that could be crafted/printed and sold/bought. Not direct story, but it would add a lot of backstory/lore.

Edit: Just realized that question seemed to imply lore/passive story. I'd like to ask it about the actual plot/physical content as well.

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Quote:
Original post by CadetUmfer
Narrative Mechanics

Good vedio.

This is actually what I was getting at with my post. We can use mechanics to deliver a story to the player.

In Missile Command, the plot is fixed, the world is fixed and even the end is fixed. However, what the player has is agency over how they get there. They have to make these decisions about whether to save a city or to sacrifice it to save one of their military bases.

Of course, the role is not deep as an RPG would have, but the same principals are there of giveing the player the ability to decide their story.

You don't need a dynamic world or even a dynamic plot, but you need to give the player the ability to own their story and to direct it how they want.

For agency to occur, you need to feel possesion, as this is the first step to becomeing involved with it. Once the player feels ownership, they can be made to feel deeper emotions through either advancement or threat of loss.

Threat of loss is easy, just give the player some risk, but advancment is harder. Most RPGs attempt this by allowing the player character to level up. This sort of works with some players, however it doesn't work for all players.

I think Minecraft does a good job of advancement. Because the players build their "house" and this takes work to do, this gives them both a sense of ownership and advancement at the same time (and this is one way to do it well).

It is through their efforts that they advance their house, but it is because they made it and designed it that they own it. By tieing them up together so well, Minecraft has given the player an agency.

Listen to people when they describe their Minecraft experiences. they tend to do so as a story rather than a set of achievements. Think of WoW, where players tend to talk about what level they are, what gear they have and so on. But in Minecraft, the players talk about how they had near misses, how they had to block up a leak they didn't know they had in their defenses.

Instead of talking aobut "things" or what goals they have achieved, the players of Minecraft talk about the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. they talk in narative rather than facts. This is becasue they have agency over the story.

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Thanks for that video link, that really blew me away.

I browsed through their other videos and they make some excellent points about game design.

And think about just how much less effort it took for one person to create minecraft than a massive crack team of veterans to create World of Warcraft.

Sunandshadow brought up a post about plant raising/farming a little while ago. Players of MMOs often jump at the chance to own their own land, or house, or farm. They'll even settle for instanced houses, just so that they can call something their own.

I can see how there can be other ways of 'owning' the story other than a dynamic world. That link kind of wrapped up my initial question about mechanics telling a story.

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