Friday, January 21, 2011

CCP: the Dungeon Masters of EVE

I just finished listening to the fourth episode of the Lost in Conversation podcast. They were having an interesting discussion about Incursion. Jayne mentioned an interview he and Jade did with CCP Soundwave in an earlier podcast. They'd asked Soundwave what CCP had planned for the future with the Incursions and those game mechanics. Soundwave gave a response along the lines that they would wait to see how the players reacted and where they took the content. The discussion on Lost in Conversation turned to the organic nature of EVE and CCP's approach to the game. They mentioned how the positive view of this is that CCP does approach the game organically, and we, the players, have a real impact on how the game develops and where CCP takes it in the future. The negative view on this, by the "bitter vets," is that CCP doesn't know what they're doing or where they're going.

I've heard similar statements before, and every time I've had the same thought: CCP's approach to this game reminds me very much of my experiences as a Dungeon Master and Storyteller in tabletop roleplaying games. The bitter vets who think CCP don't know where they're going with EVE because they take this organic approach either don't understand this or choose to ignore it. Tabletop roleplaying games are becoming a thing of the past, unfortunately, and it's occurred to me that some of my readers may have little to no experience with them. Even if you have had experience with tabletop RPG's, it's really the experience as a Storyteller, or referee, of the game that enlightens one to this point.

I've run tabletop RPG's for many years. The games I've run include various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D 2nd ed, D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5), two versions of the Star Wars RPG (Westend Games version and the D20 version), and White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming and Vampire: the Masquerade. Though these games are all different in content and genre, the experience of being a Dungeon Master/Game Master/Storyteller is the same in all of them.

Designing and running an RPG adventure is not an easy task--it's an art. I also write novels, and although there are a lot of similarities between writing a novel and writing an RPG story, there are some distinct differences. Actually running an RPG game is a combination of acting and directing and storytelling. When I write a novel, I am in a lot of ways what is called a "discovery writer." That is to say, I make a rough outline of where I think the plot will go, and then I create detailed characters that are as multidimensional and "real" as I can make them. Then I start telling the story. As the story unfolds, the characters come to life and develop even more.

There always comes a point where the story I'm writing diverges from the story I started out thinking I was going to write. This is because, as the characters become more developed and "come alive" in my imagination, they start to speak to me. I must be true to my characters, and inevitably I get to a point where the character just won't do what the original outline says he would. At that point, I forget the outline and follow the characters. This is what writers mean by discovery writing--I'm discovering the story as I write it, and I don't know how it will come out until I'm done writing it. Each character is reacting to the situations and one another organically, and the story is in a lot of ways "writing itself."

Anyone who has done anything creative, whether writing a story, creating a painting or drawing, sculpting, or composing a piece of music, will understand what I'm talking about here. It's what we call true inspiration--when the work just flows from you without any seeming conscious thought. Some people have believed or believe this is inspiration from a muse or god or some other outside force. I think it's just the creative mind operating at full capacity. Like writing or performing music, all creation is a blending of the left hemisphere analytical mind and the right hemisphere creative mind, working together as one.

Writing an RPG adventure is similar to discovery writing, but it takes it a step further. When I'm writing a novel, the actions and thoughts of my characters can sometimes surprise me, but ultimately, they're my characters--they come from my own mind. So I can usually predict at least broadly what they're going to do.

An RPG is very different. When I run a Changeling: the Dreaming game, for instance, I play a lot of the characters. But a few of the characters are played by the other players. Now, these other people are my friends, and I know them pretty well, so I may think, when I'm designing the next week's session, that I can predict what they're going to do. Experience has shown me, however, that 9 out of 10 times I'll be wrong. It's such a rule of storytelling that it's a cliche--if you come up with 5 possible ways the players could solve a problem you present them with, then they'll come up with a sixth way that you never thought of.

As I said, running an RPG is an art. You have to walk a fine line between not being prepared for the night's adventure, and over-preparing. On the one side, you have to prepare. You have to know the environment and the characters your players will likely encounter. You have to prepare for any contingencies that you can think of, so if the players do take that path, you have some idea how to react. However, you don't want to over prepare. For one thing, you don't want to go too in depth planning all those contingencies, because it could end up being a lot of wasted effort. I can't count how many buildings I've detailed, characters I've created, plans of action I've anticipated, only to have the players go a totally different way, and then all that material goes unused. (Of course, a good storyteller learns to recycle such material and find a use for it at some other point in the future.)

The second way you don't want to over prepare is in your plotting. Yes, a good RPG adventure has a plot, but that plot must be flexible to the players' actions and decisions. Many a storyteller has made the mistake of trying to force their players to follow the plot he's created. The result is always dissatisfied players. A big part of the fun of an RPG is the feeling that you can do anything. As soon as the storyteller starts steering you too obviously through his plot by limiting your choices and using the infamous words "you can't do that," this feeling of freedom evaporates. Players get very angry when you do this, and if they feel you're trying to control them, they'll start actively defying you. This isn't fun for anyone involved.

So the magic of storytelling an RPG is the art of walking this line. You're prepared enough that most contingencies are anticipated. You have enough material to creatively and spontaneoulsy react with what the players do. But, just like the players, you don't know how the story is going to end because you haven't written an ending. As a storyteller you present the setting and the surrounding characters. You give them with a scenario, a situation. But there is no ending written. Instead, the players and the storyteller discover the plot and ending together as the gaming session unfolds. When done masterfully, the players always feel the story is in their hands, and they could swear you're just making it all up as you go. Only the detail of your story will clue in the more perceptive players to the fact that somehow you were able to plan ahead, even though it's all spontaneous.

I believe this is exactly what CCP is doing with EVE. It's not that they don't know what they're doing. It's not that they have no vision for the game or where it's going. They have created a unique gaming environment by giving the players more control over the world than they would have in many other MMO's. Just like an RPG storyteller, they are leaving the outcome open-ended enough so that they can follow the game where the players take it. Why plan for years of encounters using the Incursion mechanics when they don't even know how the players are going to react to it? Maybe the Incursions will be a hit, and they will bring players together in a way that has never happened before. If so, then you can count on lots of similar content in the future. Maybe the Incursions will be a flop, seeing little real game play after the first weeks of newness wear off. If so, CCP can let them fall to the wayside, unremarked, as they focus on other areas.

Some players quite vocally worry about the upcoming Incarna expansion. Because CCP has given us so little to go on, such players assume (again) that CCP doesn't know what they're doing, that they don't know what they're going to do with Incarna. Again, I argue that CCP knows exactly what they're doing. They're going to give us Incarna, bit by bit, so they can constantly gauge player reaction and adapt their game to focus on what the players most enjoy and let fall to the wayside what the players don't grab on to.

It is a truism in all arts that mastery looks effortless. Watching a master trumpeter play, watching a master sculptor sculpt, watching a fighter pilot fly, we come away with the impression that "it looks so easy." But when we try to do those things ourselves, we find it's anything but easy. It just looks easy in the hands of a master because to him, it is.

The future isn't written in EVE, and because of that, the possibilities are endless.

Fly smart.