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StoryNexus Developer Diary #1: ‘Worlds exist’

By Failbetter, June 29, 2012 · Failbetter Narrative Tagged with , ,

[StoryNexus is currently in closed beta – we’ll be widening the beta soon. Sign up at www.storynexus.com]

The first item in the StoryNexus spec, back when it was still codenamed ‘Falstaff’, was ‘worlds exist’. All content in StoryNexus exists in its own world: every world owner is the king of their own infinite space. Fallen London is one world. Cabinet Noir, our first new StoryNexus game, is another. Every player-built game will be its own world.

The tools we’re providing for world-building are the same tools we’ve been using for years to build and maintain Fallen London and the other Failbetter projects. We haven’t released them to the beta participants yet because (i) they’ve barely known the gentle touch of a designer’s hand, and we need to give them a shave and a haircut first[1]; (ii) we need to lock off some power features and cross-world stuff to avoid laboratory accidents. But we’re thinking July.

What lives in worlds?

Storylets, qualities, areas, settings and characters. If you’ve played Fallen London, you know what most of these are – but we’ll talk about them in other blog posts. (‘Settings’ are super-areas that usually contain other areas and are more significant divisions. In FL, London is a setting and Veilgarden, Ladybones Road and so forth are areas.)

How big is a world?

We’re assuming that the vast majority of worlds will be much smaller than FL. That is, they won’t be the size of seven large novels. Though there’s nothing to stop you building something that big (except sanity).

The basic assumption of StoryNexus is that worlds will be sporadic-paced, i.e., you play a bit, go away, play some more. But you could build an experimental or proof-of-concept or single-session world of a dozen storylets, sure.

What makes the world go round?

Ah yes, virtual currency. We were going to use Fate as a cross-world virtual currency, but we realised how much loose Fate was sloshing around Fallen London and how much we still give away, and we didn’t want to invent a giant virtual liability for ourselves. So at some point soon, we’ll stop selling Fate and start selling a new currency, Nex. Fate will still be usable in Fallen London (and only Fallen London). Nex will be usable in any world.

User-built worlds will be able to charge Nex for content access, but we’re wary about this. The nightmare scenario is the ruffian who charges 50 Fate for a story which claims to be a hundred storylets and turns out to be [UNDER CONSTRUCTION], and who then doesn’t answer their mail. So we’re planning to limit arbitrary billing to creators who achieve some sort of accreditation. In the meantime, every storylet will have a ‘Tip’ button that allows players to drop a couple of Nex in the jar if they like the story or want to donate. Because Nex is a cross-world currency, people will generally have some loose virtual change. (And we’ll take a small cut of that, of course.)

What lives in the void between worlds?

You have the same user account in every world, but one character in every world you play (and only one character; but you could create another user account and get an extra character; but worlds being smaller than Fallen London means this won’t usually be necessary or desirable.) When you reach the end of a world, you’ll be able to start over with a new character.

Most qualities are limited to a single world – but we’re marking some qualities as ‘non-world-locked’, i.e. available for use by anyone. This is for creator convenience, and also as a nudge towards the kind of approaches we like. Anyone can create a quality for their own world, but non-world-locked qualities are up to Failbetter to provide. They include this sort of thing:

Luck – which gets tested for those ‘a matter of luck!’ tests

The Key of Dreams – a quality used to lock off content that isn’t ready for public view

A Stranger – a generic quality that says ‘this character is new to this world’

Note that non-world-locked qualities still apply per character. Your character in a world you’ve created will probably have the Key of Dreams. Your character in Fallen London certainly won’t! However…

How about space travel?

There’s no provision for characters to travel between worlds. Characters are mostly bundles of qualities, and in order to make this meaningful you’d have to allow qualities to travel with them. Then we’d have to decide which qualities were allowed to travel, and how much, or allow people to set up customs post and manage their own limits… it’s a fun thought, but an alarming one.

But some larger stories may need more than one world to tell, some players may want to co-operate without sharing world ownership, some achievements might be universal. So we’re introducing what are currently called metaqualities – qualities that live on your user, not your character. Metaqualities don’t unlock storylets – they only unlock personas, bundles of starting qualities.

An example. You’re playing a game of expat ennui on a remote Pacific island between the world wars. At its conclusion, your character poisons the gin slings of the other residents. You acquire the quality ‘Expat Ennui: A Cocktail Apocalypse’.

The creator’s built another world, set in London three years later. Perhaps they have an alternate persona unlocked by the Cocktail Apocalypse metaquality. That persona may make the starting conditions of the world different – the character you’re playing is unrelated, but your government department is still reeling from the scandal. Or it may suggest that you’re playing the same character in this game – you’ve unlocked the Gin Sling Murderer for play (although it won’t attempt to track all the state information you brought across).

Note that a different ending to the island game might give you ‘Expat Ennui: A New Hope’, where you established an ideal society based on the extirpation of gin. If you play the game twice and get both endings, your user account can have both metaqualities. This means you can experiment with different continuities – you’ve unlocked the right to try a different path, rather than locking yourself into it.

In other words, we’re allowing loose, impressionistic continuity between worlds. We don’t want endings to feel trivial or impermanent, because persistence is exciting. But we don’t want to encourage people to track the outcome of every possible choice, because that gets ugly very fast. And we don’t want people to have to replay earlier worlds to switch back to different options, or panic about locking themselves out of alternatives across the whole of StoryNexus. It’s quite a novel approach, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it’ll work.

We’ll be following Postel’s Law – ‘be conservative in what you send, liberal in what you accept’. In other words, handing out metaqualities is in the gift of Failbetter, and we’ll supply a limited number on a case by case basis to creators. We don’t expect to see (or use ourselves) more than a couple given out per world, and then only for worlds with an established audience. But any world can respond to metaqualities. If we decide to give out a ‘Fallen London: O Villainous!’ metaquality, creators can allow their worlds to respond to that to unlock their own starting choices.

The night sky

StoryNexus is a platform, not a publisher. The moment you populate a world, you’ll have a shareable URL that you can send round. If we can avoid a moderation delay, we will. (We reserve the right to take stuff down, of course, especially if a creator infringes on someone else’s copyright.)

But given the nature of the Internet, most worlds will be unfinished, and many worlds will not be great. (I mean yours will, obviously, it’s just those other dilettante creators.) So we’ll promote only the worlds that impress us, and we think fit with our vision. But – and it’s a big but – there’s no reason you can’t create a world meant for an audience of ten people, or as a birthday present, or something else small-scale and delightful. If you build a world for an audience of thousands, good for you! But it’s part of the vision of StoryNexus that we’d love to see a million experiments.

[1] I meant the tools! the TOOLS! not the beta-testers!

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Jennifer morin Sep 13, 11:52pm

This stuff is awesome! I stumbled across "Fallen London" while looking up something and got totally hooked :) its nice to still have games that rely on wit and imagination when so many just rely on visual effects and little substance. Thank you Story Nexus <3

Ratatosk Jul 13, 11:06pm

John Evans of Chaoseed commenting here! That is a blast from the past. I still have a shirt: "Octoberstorm Winner 2008". Good to see you're still poking around the interesting bits of the internet.

Vael Victus Jul 9, 5:31pm

This is really interesting. I didn't realize you were going for this "worlds" kind of feel. I hope this all works out wonderfully. I can't wait to see the finished product!

Alexis Jul 9, 1:47pm

>will this be offering a lot of customization of icons and design To start with, we're allowing customisation of backgrounds, logo and area, and selection of icons. It's looking like different-styled versions of the same core deck of icons. So considerable customisation, but not down to the level of custom CSS just now.

Huw Dawson Jul 8, 6:08pm

I'll get writing, then. This sounds like a great way to write a story! One thing - will this be offering a lot of customization of icons and design? Because obviously if I'm doing a happy story about double rainbows and bunny rabbits then I'd want a bright palette, whereas if I'm doing a space opera I might want a more metallic design.

Julia Jul 3, 12:43am

This is AWESOME! Just what I waited for (and these three impatient story ideas in my upper drawer). Hugs and kisses and exceptional roses for all of you!

Alexis Jun 30, 12:26am

John: That will be 800 Fate.

John Evans Jun 29, 11:17pm

I could use a shave and a haircut, if you're offering.