Telling Stories

Ha! And you all probably thought I forgot about this site!

Honestly, I have been super busy for practically a year. My son joined Cub Scouts and I got roped into being his Den Leader. This involved me doing a lot of stuff I normally wouldn’t have been caught dead doing (spending a night on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for one). In addition, at work we were working on something SUPER secret and I didn’t want to risk giving out any inadvertent hints to what we were working on in my blog. I like my job.

DC "legitimized" years of contradictory stories told by their writers in one fell swoop.

What I wanted to discuss today was the story lines of an MMO, and how things work as your game grows older. For City of Heroes, much of the background was crafted by two gentlemen, and we, the mission writers, would mine the enemy groups’ background stories for interesting stories to tell, figure out with Production what the major beats were, and what level to reveal secrets about the group or the game world to the player (this is level-based story advancement, where the world grows and changes  as your character levels up).

I have to tell you, while this was fun, it sure as heck wasn’t creative. The mission writers were beholden to those backgrounds as gospel, no deviation, no improving them, and only occassionally being able to add our own ideas and characters to a storyline. After launch, we found ourselves wanting to tell new stories, inventing new enemies and groups, and having more of a “say” in the story of the game. This sparked tons of creativity. New NPCs showed up that better fit the world (since we knew what the world was, we’d been writing for it for so long), new enemy groups appeared with backgrounds tied into the game world, etc.

Time moved forward. People moved on.

I soon noticed that new writers were becoming as beholden to the established game world as we were when we first started working off of the Background write-ups. There was so much game lore in the world that they were very much restrained in the stories they could tell, and the people who established these stories didn’t even work on the game any more. This caused me to take a different tact. I was Lead Designer at the time, and I let the writers be creative. I let them “bend” the established lore to fit the stories they were interested in telling. I let them “retcon

” certain aspects if it made for a more dynamic and fun experience. The only thing I asked was that they avoid doing so when it directly contradicted something that was already in the game. If it was buried in a background doc it could totally be changed, though. That’s not to say the writers didn’t occasionally rewrite history, but the idea was that they had a story they wanted to tell.

I think I can put it in these terms for a City of Heroes player. After you’ve played through the game on a character, you know most of the stories of the game. You can now make a new character that has a background that meshes perfectly with the game world… but where is the creativity in that? CoH characters are specifically generic so that your imagination can run wild with them. You have the creative license to introduce your own background into the CoH world at this point. You would probably take care to make sure it didn’t contradict any established lore, but if you did have a great idea that you absolutely wanted to run with you wouldn’t let that lore get in your way.

Since I am Lead Designer, and I was part of writing for the game back before the game launched, I am often a voice of reason, and a sounding board for ideas. I will bring up things that have been misunderstood by the players (like Back Alley Brawler being a member of the Freedom Phalanx. That little gem was buried so deep that I hadn’t even been aware that several designers in the interim assumed he was and threw references to the fact into the game). I can also be a good resource as to why a character acts a certain way or an enemy group has a certain look. If I am not around, designers can look up what the players “know” on the internet on various wikis. (But in the case of Back Alley Brawler, this can lead to mistakes as well). That said, if a designer comes to me with a completely new take on a character, one that enables them to tell amazing stories, what kind of a boss would I be if I said “no”?

As your MMO grows, people will leave the project and/or the company. They will leave behind a legacy of content that they have created. New people will be hired on, and likely hired on their own creativity. What cool stories can they tell? Should they be restricted to only tweaking the playground that was built before they arrived? Or should they be allowed to add-on to the playground, altering things to make their amazing, new, ideas a reality? I say give them the latitude to tell amazing stories. Don’t stifle them.

9 Responses to “Telling Stories”

  1. Samuraiko says:

    *falls out of her chair in surprise*

    OMG, you’re back… and you’re back with a post about one of my favorite topics about COH. (The two gentlemen from Ver… uh… Mountain View, would they happen to be Sean Fish and Jack Emmert?) My single favorite thing about COH is the richness of its story lore, and how there is just so much THERE to be delved into, to be investigated and debated and interpreted.

    Nice to see you touch on the BAB debate as well (but for God’s sake, just make the man a Reserve member of the FP and be done with it – he deserves it)! Now you just have to figure out where it was implied/intended for Numina to be in the FP, and the books will be balanced… mostly. :D

    Personally, I’d love to know just how far-reaching some of your intended storylines go… and whether they are subject to player popularity. For example, I always got the impression that Cimerora was intended to be so much MORE than what it was… but after I-12 and I-13, it just sort of got… forgotten, especially in light of the focus on Praetoria. Did it have more, and it just got shelved due to player response? (Same for the Shadow Shard and a lot of the Hazard Zones…) Granted, Praetoria was introduced in the very first issue of COH, so God knows it took THAT long enough to come to fruition, but still…

    At any rate, please, more posts like this? :D

  2. Golden Girl says:

    The storytelling in Issue 21 is awesome – it’s still firmly based on things we already knew about, like the Shivans, the Coming Storm, Arahcnos, Hellions, Skulls, Praetorians and so on – but it does creative things with those elements, and adds new stuff that could be future plot hooks, especially in the ongoing training missions.

  3. Cende says:

    The problem with retconning established lore is that then you have a royal mess on your hands when things you’ve established… become unestablished, and your long-term players are left feeling like you’re leaving them on shifting sands. This is not so much because you’re necessarily removing things they see; you’ve already said you’re trying not to. This is because everything you’ve already built is based on a certain amount of groundwork, and when that groundwork is removed, the things its built on are no longer stable. Each time you do that, every set of stories becomes more and more unstable, and you’re left with a rapidly deteriorating game world narrative. Yeah the individual stories may be great, but they don’t hang together as an overarching whole.

    There is a concept in novel writing called rich world environment. This is particularly important in sci-fi & fantasy writing, where you’re not working with the established world-as-we-know-it, and have to build the new world from the ground up. Tolkien is an example of rich-world environment and just the one I can pull off the top of my head that’s had a lot of the source material published. Most (and I’d go out onto a limb to say all) of the shared-world novels are based on the concept of RWE; the idea is to have the base concepts firmly fleshed out in such a way that the world can be expanded upon sanely but creatively. Bending the world may happen at times – especially for parts that haven’t been seen yet – but retconning just doesn’t happen, because it’s not needed.

    I see so much possibility for a RWE in CoH – except that you’ve already let the lore get conflicted (the comics and novels should never have been released without being canon); you’ve got the problem of loose groundwork; you’ve done the retconnoning; you don’t have anyone really, consistently checking your loose threads; and frankly, the overall impression that’s given out is that each new writing team really doesn’t give a damn of what’s come before. The stories are getting better – sometimes impressively better. The game is getting prettier every issue. But the lore and the overriding narrative is a mess, and the overall impression I get is that nobody there really cares – and I’m about to the point that I don’t care, either.

  4. I’m usually a proponent of keeping things within cannon. I hate when stories get rewritten just for the sake of making them interesting and fresh. Look at the sequels to all those slasher flicks back in the 80’s. Seriously, did we need Jason on a space station? Give me a break! I mean, it would be like finding out in the 5th novel that Dumbledore or Professor Snape was Harry Potter’s father. You would have to admit that it would be an interesting and creative twist, but would that be necessary? Not really. In fact, I think it would even cheapen the sacrifices that his parents made to protect him.

    When Going Rogue was announced, I was a little disheartened to find out that Praetoria was now going to be this utopian society founded by “Emperor Marcus Cole”. To me, Praetorian Cole was supposed to be this Anti-Statesman called Tyrant, and Praetoria simply existed as a mirror world of our own. At the time, I was very happy with having such a narrow-minded perspective.

    Why would you want to change a decent story that already was in place? Why change something that wasn’t broken, especially when there was so much that already needed fixing? My thinking at the time was that by introducing these new “grey” storylines, the developers were destroying the very continuity that I expected to find in the game. I liked logging in each time and knowing that my hero was a hero. And I like that my wise-cracking villain would always be a villain. But suddenly MY Tyrant is this fake Emperor Cole person—the hero of the people of Praetoria. He is a tyrant only because he had to be to protect those that followed him, not because he was plain evil. Of course this upset me.

    What’s next, I thought. Will there be no more heroes or villains? Would we only find selfish, glory hounds in their place? Or would my hero suddenly be smitten with Ghost Widow because of her tragic origins and turn a blind eye to her deeds? Would my villain group suddenly become the cast of Leverage, because we had a “change of heart”? To me, it was like suddenly picking up a modern day comic book after only being exposed to nothing but Golden Age comics all your life.

    But I suppose even I eventually accepted the changes that were made. It was that or quit the game. So I started to familiarize myself with the new storylines, comparing it to the stuff I was already used to. I even started calling the Praetorians by their Praetor titles instead of the usual Marauder, Mother Mayhem, and Dominatrix, etc. Ultimately, the story alterations and additions really forced me to rethink what motivates a hero and a villain. It made me look back at some of the history that I that I already knew (some of which I apparently had forgotten). And it made me appreciate what the developers were trying to do. Not so much change the history of the game, but rather how I perceived it.

    It kindled a new spark within me. Last night was the first time I had an opportunity to look at some of the new content in Issue 21. I started out the afternoon by exploring the First Ward by myself. I read all the exploration badge descriptions and looked at various things within the zone. I was very intrigued with what I saw. I then participated in one of my friends low level arcs and took the opportunity to learn more about the new enemies.

    Later that evening, I joined the incarnate underground trial. I really liked the cut scene at the end with “Dez”. I loved what you did with the story there. I’m looking forward to seeing what is next. I ended the evening by doing the “Death from Below” trial. It was a rather nice way of creating new content while respecting the past. Hehe. I almost forgot what it was like to fear a Hellion.

    Oh…and just go right ahead and keep on changing my perspective of things.

  5. Slickriptide says:

    This is the second time you’ve touched on the “What kind of a boss would I be if I never let anyone develop their own ideas?” topic. I can’t fault that philosophy. When I read that on the forum, I thought about it a second and decided that it made perfect sense. Jack and Rick and lots Sean and lots of other people aren’t around any more. They may have set a direction for the lore but it doesn’t mean that their direction was sacrosanct.

    My only beef is that with that flexibility there’s a danger that what gets communicated to the staff at the bottom of the food chain is “The past doesn’t matter. Whatever you want to say is okay.”

    I’m not talking about deliberate retcons like Praetoria. I mean the little stuff. Like, for instance, BaB being in the Freedom Phalanx. More recently, it’s things like Skulls “changing” from wearing masks made from actual human skills to being gangsters wearing face paint. That’s where the whole debate about whether Dillo is an alien or a roleplayer came from. A remark by Grym that, in retrospect, seems to be about this newfound love of facepaint on the part of the Skulls. It’s things like Twinshot’s arc referring to Ms. Liberty as Miss Liberty – Not just Twinshot herself, but everything in the arc that mentions her. I’m sure you guys sometimes rue the day that you ever made a game with a Miss Liberty and a Ms. Liberty, but you DID make it and you’ve even expanded on the lore of both of those characters. The difference ought to be ingrained into the development team. If it’s not, then as a player I have to wonder what that says about the people writing the new history of the game.

    Little things like this add up to something big eventually. I’ll be honest – I thought the Ms. Liberty/Miss Liberty thing last night and I didn’t have time to login to Live and check out whether it had been fixed or not. I became certain of something, though – If I found it was still broken, my initial reaction would be to terminate my subscription.

    Yeah, that sounds stupid and extreme, but that’s how it felt – Not as a ragequit, but as a statement that someone has to finally make a stand and say that “Enough is enough”. A single straw is a small thing but enough of them piled up will eventually break your camel’s back.

    The point I’m making is this: It’s fine and dandy to encourage your staff to have original ideas and expand on the game and take the lore in new directions. While doing that, though, we players need for the staff to respect the existing canon. We need a foundation that we can depend. After seven or eight or ten years, we know it well and we are attached to our favorite parts of it. Why do you think there was such an outcry about the whole Atlas retcon thing when the Council came in? You should remind your people of that incident when they think “oh, changing this little thing is no big deal; nobody will even notice”. Like, for instance, face-painted Skulls.

    I’ve bitched plenty about how the lore is so smegging hard to even find in the game, so I won’t go off on a tangent on that (aside from this sentence, heh).

    Respect – that’s what’s important. You can write the future while still respecting the past.

  6. Samuraiko says:

    I’ll be honest – I thought the Ms. Liberty/Miss Liberty thing last night and I didn’t have time to login to Live and check out whether it had been fixed or not. I became certain of something, though – If I found it was still broken, my initial reaction would be to terminate my subscription.

    Yes, it’s still broken. And I wanted desperately to reach through the connection and slap someone for it. (I settled for facepalming so hard I nearly cried.) QA should not just be about checking UIs and code and numbers crunching. QA should also include spelling, grammar, and FFS, story continuity. Because to have such a great game tarnished by such STUPID inane mistakes like this is a disservice to everyone – the devs, the players, and the game itself.

  7. Scooby_Dont says:

    I am so loving the who thing. the new stories, the new graphic make-over, the whole damn game. I was away for a while. And while I never let my subscription lapse I was a bit jaded for a while. 21 is a magic number for COH. You guys have done a terrific job. I want to gush more but i have to go back and play. Kudos, a whole bushel of golden kudos!

  8. Gangrel says:

    To be honest, i never noticed the difference… then again showing Miss Liberty means that they are not married, whereas the Ms. was used if you were not sure about their marital status…

    Can we take this as official confirmation that Miss Liberty is actually not attached and available..?

  9. Samuel Tow says:

    Ret-conning is bad. Simple as that. There’s never anything wrong with bringing new creative twists into existing stories, but this doesn’t have to happen at the cost of disembowelling the existing ones. If a new writer feels “constrained” working with someone else’s canon and staying true to someone else’s vision… Fine. Let that writer write a brand new story with brand new characters that don’t have canon written for them. Hell, go ahead and fit that into the existing storyline.

    You say you try to make sure things don’t contradict previously-established stories… Yet new stories routinely do just that. To this day, Timmothy Raymond is trying to stop a second Rikti Invasion that already happened, just as an idle example. Praetoria is another good example. I have nothing against having a parallel world which was a superficially perfect but internally rotten utopia, but why did that have to be Praetoria? Why couldn’t it have been an entirely new world that didn’t need retconning an entire fictional universe?

    Ret-cons cannot and should not be used freely. They should be an absolute last resort to fix a severe continuity problem when a writer writes himself into a corner. They should not be handed out willy-nilly because someone didn’t like the Rikti – characters who don’t even have mouths – not being constant chatterboxes. All ret-cons do is erase previously very good canon fiction and replace it with, quite frankly, rather inferior fiction, instead. There’s no need to ruin good stories to tell new stories. As there is always room for more player characters without deleting existing ones, so there is room for more canon characters without defiling existing ones.

    City of Heroes needs to be held to the standards of an actual world where events don’t change “off-screen” because a writer didn’t like how a previous story was written. Once you start doing that, you simply remove any semblance of a larger persistent world, because nothing we know about it is ever persistent. If someone didn’t like the Malta Group wearing cowboy hats and decided to put them in Egyptian headgear, then that would still be “canon,” because when ret-cons are a matter of course, there is no “canon.” If changes to existing fiction happen, be they outright ret-cons or just alterations in representation, then these need to happen ON-SCREEN and have justification for that. If the Rikti HAD to transition from being always silent to being chatterboxes, including actually SAYING “…” (dot dot dot), then we need to know why it happened.

    Keep your lore consistent and innovate where there’s room to innovate, or you risk breaking your own story and losing what was good about it in the first place.

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