A Brief Chat With Eskil Steenberg

By Jim Rossignol on April 27th, 2008 at 10:53 am.


It’s a beautiful, summery Sunday morning. Sunshine is pouring down into in Bath’s hazy valley, and I’m sat by my office window, looking out across the trees, rooftops and rusting gas towers – one of my favourite views anywhere in the world. It takes me a while to notice the chat box that is blinking patiently on my desktop. It’s Eskil Steenberg, the chap who is currently working on his solo-MMO project, Love. At that moment he’s sitting somewhere in a Wifi-field in Tokyo. We talk.

Steenberg: Hi, online?
Rossignol: Hello!
Steenberg: What time is it for you?
Rossignol: 10:28 AM
Steenberg: What time zone are you in?
Rossignol: GMT
Steenberg: Ah, thats okay. It’s 6 28 PM here in Tokyo
Rossignol: How are you enjoying Tokyo?
Steenberg: Very much, you might have seen on my blog that I’ve done some Akihabara shopping.

[We discuss an article I am writing about Steenberg and others. The subject is procedural content generation in games. We namecheck Introversion, Spore, Dwarf Fortress, and then move to discuss Steenberg's work.]

Steenberg: My focus is very much on procedural story creation. That is my goal, and much of the content generation is aimed at reaching that goal.
Rossignol: Are these actual text-driven stories, or sequences of situations?
Steenberg: Rather stories and drama created by the actions of the players, and the reaction of the world. I want to replicate what I’m doing in my head when I write scripts.
Rossignol: So people dealing with emergent situations etc?
Steenberg: Yes, that sort of thing.
Rossignol: It does sound powerful. I think what MMOs are missing are these kinds of dynamic situations. You get it in Eve a bit, but only via player-player interaction.
Steenberg: Just like physics in games have become a natural cause and effect set up, so should your motivations, goals and experiences on a story level be. Eve is very much like that, but it is user created, the game doesn’t create any of the things that make Eve cool, the players do. But I think that Eve is a very interesting game in that direction.
Rossignol: The odd thing for me is it’s almost the only game in that direction, don’t you find that weird?
Steenberg: Yes, I do. Well there are a lot of games that get some of that by accident. My favourite game to accidentally create story is Populous the Third Coming, but even games like Halo3 and CS create those small pockets of events that play out as a story that involves: bravery, revenge, failure and so on, but they are very rudimentary.
Rossignol: So would you say that games, as story-telling devices, should simply facilitate player actions, so that we can tell our own stories? About our own actions?
Steenberg: Well that’s the state we are in now because the games are not proactive, they just say “here is this sand box, do something and maybe you will find it compelling.” The game is not actively doing something itself to create that. So games like Second Life (if that is a game), Spore, Eve, The Sims, and even GTA, create these interesting things because players make them interesting and use them in interesting ways, but that requires a lot out of the player and doesn’t immerse the player into the game, but rather invites the player to find the limits of the game.
Rossignol: So Love will be proactive? What sort of stuff do you want it to do to make players act?
Steenberg: Well that is the plan. Something that I’ve noticed is that building things gives players a lot of pride, and they are emotionally invested in what they build. Now I have given AIs weapons that can destroy buildings, that gives a very big emotional gravitas to what happens in the world. I think by creating AI that does both positive and negative things and that can react to player behaviour, you can get some very interesting gameplay.
Rossignol: So you think that story-telling in MMOs is going to depend on AI making interesting decisions as well as players making them?
Steenberg: Well in part. You need AI that can react and create characters, but I also thing there should be an over arching “Director” who can monitor the overall experience and make macro decisions. Like if the world is too calm, we need some more action, lets introduce a Klingon-style warrior race to the world.
Rossignol: So you want players to be forming “relationships” with AI as well as other people to make Love interesting? Your enemies won’t just be baddies to who attack, but beneficent forces too?
Steenberg: Well the more I’m working on figuring out Love’s AI, the more I think you are going to be able to befriend AI characters. They won’t have to be enemies. If you think: “I’m going to make a computer that can write Shakespeare”, you are going to loose your mind. You just cant get that done. But then you start breaking it down: Let’s take something like Star Wars. You’ve got this droid, that has the plans for the Deathstar. That is in essence a simple door key, problem that you have in Doom and million other games. You need object A to destroy Object B. Simple. Then you say why do we need to destroy B? Well, we’ve got to make B really dangerous, so we make it destroy something the player cares about, say his aunt and uncle. Each of these links are very simple cause and effect links, that strung together can create a story like Star Wars. So you create x, number of keys, and x number of bad things that can destroy x number of good things and you start getting a lot of variation. Obviously if the player fails to find the key making it impossible to destroy the Deathstar we let the game throw in a few different keys, while the players have to deal with the fact that the Empire destroys a lot of things wile they figure out how to stop them. Now imagine you create very many of these links, and the string them together in very long chains, and then dress them up very differently visually, you get a very complex story that just keeps going and going.
Rossignol: And this is made all the more complex by having multiple players, presumably?
Steenberg: My game is going to have multiple players, but ir really doesn’t need multiple players for the system to work. Take a look at all the events in Star Wars, (just to keep using it as an example) they are very simple in gaming terms. You owe someone money, you need a part for you spaceship, a probe finds your hideout, you need to find a master to learn new skills, you need to help your friends… and so on. None of these things are very hard to generate. But together they become this compelling story.
Rossignol: Why do you think that previous MMO designs have tried to do this statically, rather than dynamically, procedurally?
Steenberg: Well, again, the hard part isn’t actually generating the story, but expressing it. You need to be able to destroy the rebel base, build a new one, create cool characters and all that. That is very hard.
Rossignol: I suppose the challenge for you, then, is to create a system in which all this can take place, without seeming too chaotic?
Steenberg: Yes, you need to keep track of what the player does, notices, and can be a part of. I mean what happens if the player sleeps through the briefing telling him where to hit the Deathstar? The game needs to be flexible enough to be able to get out of that situation. Sorry, but I need to run.
Rossignol: Ok, cheers.
Steenberg: Cheers!

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27 Comments »

  1. Schtee says:

    This is a clever man.

  2. Thiefsie says:

    Where is that image from? Reminds me of heavy gear for some reason?!?! lovely

  3. Serjn says:

    The image is a screenshot from Eskil’s not-so-mmo, Love

  4. Nezz says:

    Populous 3?! Now that was an unexpected reference, considering how heavily pre-scripted it was. Too bad Steenberg didn’t elaborate.

  5. Ben Abraham says:

    Hmm. A lot of good ideas in there. I just hope when the plans are analysed that a weakness can be found…

    I mean, not found… hee hee hee

  6. Feet says:

    I am very interested in all the procedurally generated work that is being done right now. I think if it’s done well it will change alot about how games are made.

    Can I ask, is that article being written for RPS, or are you writing it for someone else? I’m looking forward to reading it anyways. :)

  7. Jim Rossignol says:

    It’s for somewhere other than RPS. (I got bills to pay.)

  8. phuzz says:

    The AI Director is what Valve call the, well, AI director in Left 4 Dead, (there’s a bit about it in an interview here).
    Granted that’s only dealing with one part of the game (where, when, and how many zombies are going to spawn), but it sounds like the same idea.

    (it’s not going to be sunny in Bath for much longer, we’ve just had a massive rain storm in Bristol and I think it’s coming your way…)

  9. James G says:

    Interesting. I’ve noticed with sandbox games that I rarely get the feel of a story, it usually just feels like a series of loosely connected events. I noticed many people commented about Oblivion what you could build your own story in the world. But it never felt like that for me, it was just ‘here’s a mudcrab, heres an oblivion gate, now fetch a load of this, now kill that.’ Even with people shouting about the ‘Hero of Kvatch’ I never really felt that I was making a story in the world. Perhaps I lack the right kind of imagination, I don’t know, but I’ve always been wary of people who claim that stories will arise dynamically.

    However it does happen on occasions. I’ve recently been introduced to Dwarf Fortress and find it happens there. Perhaps its a side effect of the spartan interface, or else the fact that the game is very careful to maintain a consistent yet changing world. It makes a save-restore loop tiresome, and discourages it. Thus, when I accidentally flooded half my fortress, I had to work to solve the problem, and the marks show.

    I think Steenberg’s argument for a ‘Director’ is interesting, and his his support for a more dynamic world. If you are procedurally generating your world and the events within it you will naturally loose some of the intricacies of a human developed narrative. However, if you allow for variation, and dramatic changes in the world, you get a payoff, as it then becomes possible to see changes that just wouldn’t be possible if a human was behind the controls. These changes are also what will allow what would otherwise be a series of loosely connected events to weave themselves into a narrative.

  10. terry says:

    It sounds like drawball in an MMOG but if it looks that beautiful, I ain’t complaining.

  11. Morte says:

    Well as an RPG fan I hope it works and it’s a bit hit and round about 2011 everybody is doing it.

    It would be nice to see games where you make decisions and they change the plot. Lately games either seem to have one strong story where you’re mostly a spectator between fights, e.g. KotOR/NWN2, or they’re sandboxes like Oblivion where the story aspect is minor and unmemorable. The last time I felt like there was a strong story *and* I had a real hand in it was Fallout 1.

    Anybody remember the Bladerunner game from the 80s, which had multiple answers to “who’s the replicant?”, and multiple endings? It changed every time you played it, or even after a reload. Gimme games that act like that, writ larger by procedures.

  12. Yhancik says:

    The Blade Runner game from the 80s released in 1997 ? :p
    (well that one had multiple endings and always-different replicants)

  13. Morte says:

    It seems Yhancik is right and I got confused over the date, though maybe I should pretend Ozzie is.

    {edit} Where the hell is my copy? I want to try it again now…

    {edit 2} I wonder if the 1997 version is a CDROM re-release, I could swear I played it on floppies somewhat earlier.

  14. James G says:

    I doubt it, the 1997 CD rom release comes on four discs. That would have been a hell of a lot of floppies.

  15. Morte says:

    Ah, that was it. I remember four discs right, but it was CDs.

    I am not completely mad then, just 75%…

  16. Lars Balker Rasmussen says:

    The 80s Blade Runner game wasn’t based on the movie, and clearly didn’t use the voxel-graphics of the mid 90s. They claim it was based on the Vangelis soundtrack, because they couldn’t get the movie rights. It was a right stinker too…

    (Like everything else I know, I got this from Zzap!64)

  17. Joonas says:

    I’ve been waiting for something like this to emerge for so long now. I’m really looking forward to Steenberg’s game.

    I’ve tried MMORPGs, but find the static world and endlessly repeating events far too off-putting. Steenberg’s approach sounds like just the cure.

    It doesn’t really matter how successful Love will be. If the core ideas work, I suspect they’ll find their way to mainstream gaming as well.

  18. Nallen says:

    It’s a pretty huge leap from a string of compelling events to a compelling story, for instance what about the ‘I am your father’ moments?

    Even if it can generate ‘twists’ how does it know when is the right time or place, how do you make that relevant to multiple players and not just your player?

    Will be fascinating to see how this develops.

  19. jph wacheski says:

    The more I hear about LOVE the more i want to play it,. How about a tinny demo ver. or an open beta ? much of this sounds interesting,.I just want to get a look at those sketchy graphics in motion,. stills are often deceptive,.

    “compelling Story” is a loosely defined concept,. and likely quite different to different people. I suppose some events will hold little compeling to some, while others will be find them interesting,. the people in the game will still be ‘generating’ much of the story by playing with each other,. building stuff and destroying other peoples stuff,. .

  20. essell says:

    Jim, I’d be really keen to see you try and get hold of Chris Crawford for an interview about his ongoing efforts with Interactive Storytelling and Storytron.

  21. rektide says:

    less game, more proceedural content.

  22. Andrew Doull says:

    Feet: You can read this to sate yourself in the mean time.

  23. Michaël Samyn says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned Façade when talking about an “AI Director”. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern did a lot of sophisticated work on story generation with their “Drama Manager” system.

  24. jayvee f. says:

    clever! this guy obviously has the vision, plus being a one man team beats all the creative red tape.

  25. littlewilly91 says:

    Very cool. Seems to be some confusion over what defines a “story though”. All video games are kind of procedural- every bit of interaction in theory puts you in a new position for the game to roll out in, so in a dungeon crawler you can run closer to either wall etc. When they talk about procedural content and emergent gameplay, It’s really refering to those games when you can sort out your own personal little memory. In GTA when you choose to go on a timed rampage against your mate seeing who can kill the most people by taking their cars and running them over with ‘em… just made up by yourself. And if your being hunted by the police and you get up onto a roof, you could do it to get any kind of vantage point, the police could be in any position… It’s a “i got right down this road, onto that rood then the swat team from the helicopter got me” sort of, active, environment that starts to matter. And developers feel like they are on the eve of making games that are going to jump emergent gameplay to a whole other level… I’d add car keys to GTA and make it so you can steal them, throw them and the owners will have to go and get them, but they don’t know you’ve left an alligator in that bush too- think of the possibilities!- And have proper systems like a post office, that you can intefere with, and track people down like in the Bourne stories. – the game of which was an utter travesty. They should have had emergent gameplay and simulated large areas of city. Should have got the Far Cry or Chronicles of Riddick people on it.

    To surmise, it’s not the rules of Blackjack that matter, it’s the action that emerges. And in videogames, it’s not the assets that matter, it’s the emerging action again.

    Partly anyway- videogames can be a way of taking us through a linear story and be culturally important in the same way movies are.- But it’s the interactive part I am referring too.

  26. littlewilly91 says:

    sorry if i sound like peter molyneux by the way (vomit vomit vomit). I just got this overactive mind see. gna be a vid game designer see. shutup. I know; alligators in GTA… it just example though. now i go let mind rest