Please don't fall over in shock, Dear Reader. I know it is strange to see two posts in as many days. And I know it'll be late when I post this, but it is still today and not tomorrow. Hopefully, this will become more commonplace. I did promise more thoughts on the subject of StoryBricks, as partially inspired by Spinks' post about NPC realism and interactivity.
In the old days--of the 1970s and 80s--young people would gather around a table with dice and stat sheets and weave a tale of adventure with an element of chance. Each player would assume a role and pretend to be that character. The key to this adventure was the player known as the Dungeon Master. I say player, because I believe the DM was as big a player as anyone else, in addition to being the chief storyteller and referee. Sometimes the scenarios were taken from "canned" adventure books; other times DMs made it up themselves. I never actually got to play D&D or other PnP RPGs when I was younger--or older for that matter--so my knowledge of them is limited to having read several AD&D sourcebooks and novels, as well as conversations with PnP gamers. As I understand it, the DM was responsible for planning the scenario that the other players would participate in, as well as controlling the Non-Player Characters, both friendly and hostile. The friendly NPCs (and occasionally the hostiles) helped round out the story of the players' adventure, providing the motivation to go out on epic quests, or just letting folks know about the treasure to be had in yon dungeon.
Multi-User Dungeons were designed soon after D&D came out, and became popular among college students and others with network access in the 80s and early 90s. Many of these followed the emphasis on Hack and Slash violence that tended to occur in D&D. Because of its similarity in gameplay to D&D the DikuMUD became a popular flavor of MUD and was the main influence of Graphical RPGs such as Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft.
Omigosh, I just totally digressed. My point was that with the advent of computerized RPGs, the Dungeon Master no longer had to be actively engaged in the moment-to-moment play of the game. Through a script, the DM could describe the setting and action for the player or players. At first this was textual, but eventually much of the environment and action could be visualized instead of described. Now the DM was a group of video game developers. So how were they going to convey the impetus for going on adventures? To potentially millions of players across the planet? At once?
Most current MMOs have dialogue boxes where the the player can read the necessary information before heading out to kill the ten rats. As Spinks mentions, NPCs are just "person shaped lumps" that players can interact with to get quests or goods. There are many who decry this method of interactivity as non-immersive. Is this any less immersive than a live DM sitting at the table voicing 10 different characters? I think maybe some people just don't like to read.
My point is that the Dungeon Master duties have been taken over by computer software, not that this is a bad thing. It means that I--who have never had a chance to sit around a table and roleplay with friends--can sit at my computer and roleplay with friends from halfway around the world, all from the comfort of my bedroom or living room. Or hotel room. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you've probably figured out that I don't put much stock in the assertion of some gamers that "themepark" MMOs are inferior to "sandbox" games. They each have their place, I suppose. But, at least one other blog I read a while back pointed out that, oftentimes, if you could do absolutely anything in a game, you end up not doing anything. You have no direction. Questing and other related content give structure and goals to a game, just as the PnP games that are the ancestors of modern MMOs had structure provided by the DM.
OK, so BioWare announces that the quests or missions in Star Wars: The Old Republic will be fully voiced, something that to my knowledge has never been done. So the quest givers will tell you verbally what you need to do. Start Trek Online has a few Featured Episodes that are at least partially voiced, but they still have the readable dialogue boxes. I hope SWTOR still has a quest log where I can read what I need to be doing. Otherwise I will forget everything I am supposed to be doing.
But even full audio interactivity is not good enough for some who want even more "immersion." "SWTOR will be more of the same old "on-rails" questing we see in WoW," they say (which I think is exaggerated). Maybe the new StoryBricks concept will catch on, where NPCs will have "motivations" and "desires" that PCs will able to satisfy. I can see how the system will make it easier to design content, but I am not sure how it will change the actual gameplay. I am looking forward to seeing that in action. But I don't know if the detractors of the current crop of MMOs will be satisfied.