Sunday, January 31, 2010

Storytelling in Castle Crashers

I picked up Castle Crashers the other day. It's a well-made brawler with RPG and collection elements.

While various reviews mention Castle Crashers' simple story, the storytelling is well done. For example, at the beginning of the Marsh level:

You walk into the marsh and see that skeletons have killed a peasant. As you begin to fight the skeletons, two other peasants peek out from behind the terrain and watch your fight. They look at one another and nod, then leap out from the terrain and begin to assist you.

The designers could have just dropped in some NPC assistants; instead, they chose to tell a story that gave meaning to the NPCs' behavior - the peasants help you because you avenged the death of their friend. The game is full of little visual and gestural details that help the player understand what's going on - the sort of storytelling details that Scott McCloud writes about.

The game is also a good teacher - here's how you are introduced to sandwiches:

You reach a door that you cannot break open. Enemies run onto the screen intermittently, but steadily. Each time you kill one, it yields a sandwich that goes into your usable-item inventory. In fact, the unbreakable door itself is shaped like a sandwich. Everything points to the inevitable conclusion: try out one of those sandwiches, and see if you can't get the door open.

There are many good game design lessons to be learned from Castle Crashers. I recommend it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Maintaining the Joy of Altruism in MMOs

Designers often rely on players' enjoyment of helping others when guiding them through their first steps in the game. New players may not yet understand XP or the advantages of leveling, but they do understand that the people around them need their help. First quests in MMOs often illustrate how the world is in danger; they give players the opportunity to assist while teaching them the basic mechanics of the game.

As players' time in the game wears on, they see more and more violent events. Many quests ask players to kill NPC animals or people. Art props in the game world often include bones and corpses, and less commonly, wounded NPCs.

My suspicion is that after a while, some players become inured to the violence around them, and become less likely to respond to pleas for help from the NPCs. At the same time, players learn more about how the game works, and discover how to direct their play experience towards the improvement of their characters. Some players become more likely to pick up a quest for its XP, gold, or gear than for the emotional reward of assisting the NPC.

If the joy of altruism could be maintained throughout a player's in-game career, it ought to provide for a more engaging experience. Briefly, here are a couple of methods that may help with this goal -
  • Let the player see that they've changed the world around them for the better. Admittedly, this is easier to do, and more commonly found, in single-player games than in MMOs - but even a wave and a smile from an NPC can help them seem more human and less like XP vendors.
  • Tell the story in a way that players understand. If a quest is too wordy, it won't get read, and if the story is too complicated, players will ignore it. Many games succeed by relaying the narrative with the help of the world itself.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.