Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Tome of Knowledge

In the same way that everyone on the Warhammer team seems to be suffused with passion for the game, Tome of Knowledge lead Carrie Gouskos couldn't help but pass on information about one of the game's most innovative features. Equal parts achievement system, quest log, faction-tracker and storybook, the Tome of Knowledge is unlike anything seen in other MMO titles but will be immediately familiar to players of games like Lord of the Rings Online ... or even Xbox Live fans.

If you're unfamiliar with the Tome, Carrie has a lengthy explanation on the official website. That resource should be able to fill in your need for information and (of course) we'll have more context for you on the concept later. For today, Carrie offers up a fascinating insight into the emotional connection that the Tome can create between player and avatar. She also explains (vociferously) why Xbox Live achievements lead directly into the Tome's development. Gamerscore junkies and lore hounds, read on for your fix.

It was mentioned in one of the production podcasts that you'd had a gentleman down from one of the other EA studios, and he'd been very impressed with the Tome of Knowledge. He talked about forming an emotional bond to his character through it, and we thought that was very interesting.

I'm really glad to talk about that. It was always our intention to make this compelling beyond the statistical value of it. I feel like we still have a ways to go, but the intent with the Tome is that as you're playing through, as you're discovering things, you really feel that it's further enriching your character. In my opinion I think what makes MMOs particularly compelling is the player's relationship and investment in their character. I think what a lot of games don't do enough of is allow them to really make their character unique. We try to do that with a lot of different things; we can talk about the trophy system or the dyes or the customization.

With all those things you say "okay, I have formed an initial attachment to my character by customizing what he or she looks like. I have built that by leveling my character and customizing the abilities I give him or her. I continued to develop that by getting certain kinds of armor and all that stuff. That's all fairly fundamental. What I think games do that's interesting is allowing a level beyond that. Every game has abilities and statistics and all this stuff, but there are varying levels of that. Pushing as far on that as possible allows you to really say "this is me." It allows you to say, "I don't care that there happens to be another guy that happens to have the same armor on and happened to dye it the same color ... that's just going to happen. But this is who I am because of all these Tome facts about me.

I think one of the things he was talking about specifically was ... you start to get the initial Tome unlocks. I've started this Empire character in the beginning zone, and I've gotten one of the initial Tome unlocks. I've encountered a member of the Empire, these are sort of the fundamental elements. As you're playing the game, you're going to get very basic ones. By killing monsters you're going to get monster kills by doing quests you're going to get quest complete unlocks.

The intention is just to keep adding layers. By doing that you're forming experiences and memories about where you are and who you are. Just as an example this is the beginning of the first chapter for Empire. I don't know if people know this ... I've seen people in here before ... but you can go into this building. I think there's a quest that sends you in here, but you may not get it or want it. There's not a lot to do in here ... except there's a couple of tome unlocks. You get one just by going to the bar, and then you go upstairs like this and you can get an unlock from this book.

This is hard for me to do, but the intention is, "Okay, pretend you're a player. You walk into this room, and you're the inquisitive type." What are you going to do? You're probably going to go behind the bar, to see if there's anything interesting back there, and then you're going to go up the stairs to the end of the walkway. In a lot of games you go to the end and there's nothing here. There was no reason to.

Obviously we can't do this for every location, or we'd have Tome unlocks all over the game. But just the same, we want to reward that experience. "Oh, I found this, that's so cool." And now this story, this information, is in this guy's Tome. Not only that but there's a list of checkmarks and he has two of ten. You want your character to have all this information, you want him to be the kind of guy that has this all filled in. I care about my character and what he's doing and who he is; I enrich him by engaging in this activity.

Now, I'm a self-professed non-reader, I don't read this stuff. I just want to have it. I don't care what it is, I don't even know what this one says. Thankfully, we have someone else working on the lore. They do all the fun lore-y Games Workshop kind of stuff. There are a couple great ones I have read that are pretty funny. There's one about a skeleton of a dead Greenskin. He's hanging out of the skeleton of a dead whale. It's the story of a goblin convincing an Orc to attach himself to a rope an jump in the water. It's playing upon the relationship of the characters, the world, and the history of the franchise.

Because of these kinds of things, when I go to play this game, my character has everything I can provide for him. It becomes a sort of dialogue between you and the character. The other night I was playing, and I was participating in a Public Quest, and at that point I'd already gotten all the rewards I could have. But I kept playing because I really wanted my bar to be full. I just wanted my character to have all his public quest bars full. It's sort of compulsive. I think that compulsive nature that people have is a way people form an emotional attachment. Your Tome unlocks prove you have an investment in the character.

We're sort of winking at you, you know? We're saying "oh, we know what you're going to do." You're going to run around in this corner and find these hidden spots. If you ever see something in the game that looks like text on a scroll, a lot of times you can get close and zoom in and really read what's there. Little things like that - we want you to have fun. We can't do that with everything, but I think it's the sort of thing that brings a lot of joy to the play experience.

See, this is an example. There's this scroll on the door here, but it's one you can't read. For the kind of person that comes over to investigate, though, there's a Tome unlock. If you look at the unlock's text, it says what's written on the scroll. It's a notice about a plague. That's the kind of player I am, I'm the kind of player that runs in circles and searches out hidden passages and all that stuff. We built the game with that in mind, and there are all sorts of elements like that throughout the game.

That's the emotional element for me. I really want people to love it and connect with it, and every time that notice pops up they really feel good about it. "Oh, that's really cool. I didn't even know I was finding something."

One of the major philosophies has been that it's equal parts people seeking out unlocks, and parts of unlocks just happening to players. With stuff like the bestiary section of the Tome, we don't show it all right away. It's revealed over time. The first time you encounter a Rat Ogre you kill it and you get the first reward, but you'll also see that there are more things to do. You know you're going to get something for killing 25 Rat Ogres ... looks like it's a Tactic. Then you'll get something for killing 100 Rat Ogres, if they want to do that.

Then there's the achievement section. There's a whole section about Guild gameplay, teamwork. And here's an example: kill 10 guild leaders, kill 100 guild leaders. The idea is that you don't know it's coming. You can look it up on a website someday, and I'm fine with that. There will be people that look them up and seek them out, and that's totally okay. But there are going to be people who don't want to know. You're going to be killing people in RvR and this guild leader unlock will pop up and you'll go, "Whoa! I didn't even know I was doing that!"

I think we have a good balance between these two styles. Whether you choose to seek out objectives or just go out and do it, that's up to you. We're making some of these goals impossibly hard ... killing 10,000 guild leaders? I have no idea how long it would take you to do that. I don't even know how long it would take to reach 100.

As long as you're getting another level of enjoyment out of the game, we don't begrudge you either playstyle.

That kill 10 guild leaders one is pretty funny. I don't think anyone's ever seen that one before. There's another one ... I mentioned this one in Paris, but I don't know if it's made it back to the US press. There's a Tome unlock for completing a PQ with no clothes on. You can use your weapons and your accessories, but as long as you don't wear armor you'll get an unlock.

From a broad perspective, what are some of the inspirations for the Tome? What lead you to this concept?

The original concept came from Mark Jacobs, but I was a natural fit for developing the Tome of Knowledge because of my utter obsession with Xbox Live achievement points. I was part of a race with a couple of my friends, and as of a year ago I was at the 30,000 point mark. To me it became this obsessive thing, and I wrote a paper about it, about the Xbox Live achievements. I talked about which ones are good and which ones are bad, which ones are interesting.

Take a game like Madden, where you can get all of the Achievements in one go. That's actually really interesting because I bought it and got all of them in one game. I just picked Madden are random, sorry, not trying to pimp out EA games. I would never have touched Madden if it were not for that, if I had known the points were easy.

There are other games that I didn't like, that were really hard to get achievements in. But still, I played them for like 70 hours just because I had to have all the points. Other games I never would have played - games based on kids movies, mind numbingly dull. But I needed the points. Then there were the games that did the points really really well.

Take Dead Rising. It had this great approach, because the achievements force you to play in different ways. At the end of the day I realized I'd played through Dead Rising eight times. The reason was, every time I played through it differently. One time I was playing to save every person in the mall, one time I was using all the weapons in the mall ... the way they had established these goals not only lead me to play the game over and over again, but it compelled me to play in different ways.

It just seems to go hand-in-hand with an MMO. You're obviously not beating the game and starting over, but you do seek other things to do. Too often we ask players to create those things for themselves. How much more fun is it to give players something to do, "go, have fun, do this." That's the goal of the game, to have fun in different ways.

Thanks so much, Ms. Gouskos.

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