Friday, August 1, 2014

Storium Beta: Thoughts So Far

It's been a month now since I took the plunge and donated $40 to the Storium beta (which will give me a year's full subscription and access to all of the author-created Worlds once the game goes public in November), so I thought I'd check-in and let you know how I'm finding it so far.

It was a bit of a rough start with not a lot happening in the games I joined for the first week, but after that, things got rolling and I've really been enjoying the games I'm in so far. As of now, I'm in four games as a player, and I'm preparing to narrate one sometime later in August.

Please bear in mind that the site is still in beta at present, so some of the features will likely change and certain issues with the site will be fixed between now and then.

First of all the user interface is simple and easy to navigate. The main page has banner buttons for your active games, a sidebar with links to a Youtube video introducing you to the site and to a brief, step-by-step guide on how to narrate and play Storium games with a list of update notifications below, buttons for creating your own game, browsing other games on the site, and favourites (games you're following, but not playing in). Finally, there are links at the top of the page to visit the forums and view/update your profile. All of it is well-organised, so it won't take you long to get the hang of how the site works.
However, the game browsing section could be better organised, with filters for genre in addition to the filters already provided and looking for players should be an option for all filters. It could also could benefit from the inclusion of a search function. The favourites page is also a bit lacking, being a simple notifications list for updates to games you've marked as favourites; it should include banner buttons for the games you've favourited, just like the main page does for the games you're involved in personally.

Game System
Games in Storium use a card-based system to determine outcomes of conflicts in the game. The Narrator will set a challenge in the form of a character or obstacle at the start of the scene (and may add additional challenges as the scene progresses), which have a set challenge rating, description of the challenge they represent and give written tips of how to write the end result depending on whether the outcome achieved is Strong or Weak. Players can contribute to completing these challenges by spending cards which represent Strengths (e.g. ) or Weaknesses (e.g. ) they possess, as well as cards representing their personal motivations know as Subplots (e.g. ). They can also pick up additional cards in play known as Assets (which represent equipment or other benefits they earn in the course of their adventure) and Goals (which represent story goals they agree to take on, such as '______').

Strengths contribute positively towards challenges and push things towards a Strong outcome, whereas Weaknesses push things towards a Weak outcome. Assets, Subplots and Goals all have neutral values, so all they do is add a point towards completion of the goal, but the benefit of spending your Subplot and Goal cards is that for every stack of five you play, you gain a bonus 'wild' Strength card to play on another challenge.

Once you've played all of your Strengths and Weaknesses, you get to refresh them and pick new ones to replace them with if you wish. Subplots also refresh after you've played through a stack. I haven't yet played through a whole set of Strengths/Weaknesses or Subplots, so I haven't seen how the refreshing works myself.

I really like the card mechanic, as it basically gives players mini-prompts to guide them in writing 'moves' (as individual posts are called in the game) within the story. My only issue with it is that you're limited to having three of the same Strength and Weakness cards at the start of play, which limits the range of options available to your character. The wild cards help add a bit of flexibility, and you get to pick new Strengths and Weaknesses during the refreshes, but it's a bit limiting to start off with. I understand why it's set up like this - to allow your character some growth as the game progresses - but it still feels a bit awkward to me. The card system also doesn't really account for situations where players are acting in opposition to each other. Not that I'm particularly interested in PvP in my roleplaying, but there will others who are, and they'll find it lacking from the system in its current incarnation.

Games are split into scenes comprising a series of moves, which can further be broken up into chapters. This is one of the things I really like about Storium, compared to regular PbP forums. It's a much better way of organising game content than having massive forum threads full of pages to sort through. Even if you were to split a forum-based game up by making a new thread for each chapter, it's still a mess to navigate. Storium's much friendlier to read through by comparison. It might be friendlier if they could add a 'contents page', so you can find specific scenes or chapters faster than the first/forward/back/last buttons allow.

Within the game pages, there's a sidebar for out-of-character chat, which is also a lot more convenient than normal PbP, where you have to flick back and forth between different threads for in-character and out-of-character posts. With Storium, all you have to do to keep up with the out-of-character chat is glance to the side of the screen, and you'll still be able to refer to the main game as you do so (provided you're on the page for the current scene, that is). The notification system is also quite handy for keeping track of game activity. Not only do you get e-mail notifications about new moves or new OOC discussions (set at a default of 'instant notification'), but if necessary there are also 'poke' buttons for nudging the narrator or other players if things are slowing down which, presumably, send them an e-mail telling them to post already.
The internal social network of Storium does still need a bit more work though. There should be some facility for send PMs between players, either in the same game or out of game, and also a buddy list so that you can keep track of players/narrators you enjoy playing with and see what they're up to.

One last niggle I have with Storium itself is the 'Speed' classification system for games. Games are rated for speed in terms of number of scenes per week, but that doesn't feel like a good indicator of posting speed to me. Scenes can vary in length from game to game, or even from scene to scene. A more accurate indicator of speed would be the number of moves per week/day.

Again, a lot of the issues I've mentioned are things that the developers are aware of and are working to resolve, so hopefully by the time it goes live in November they'll have been able to address them and improve the service.

All that aside, I'm really enjoying my time on Storium so far and the only other issue is that same old issue that plagues PbP gaming in general: games are much slower than in-person/chat-based gaming and can have a tendancy to stall. Certain features of Storium go some way to encouraging more regular play, such as the constant notifications and 'poke' buttons mentioned, not to mention the fact that it's a paid service, meaning that people are more likely to use it since they've invested money in it. As such, games have been running, for the most part, at a much better pace than my previous experiences with PbP. It's still an issue, but not to the extent that I'll get fed up and just quit, as I have in previous PbP games.

I'll probably write up a proper review of Storium in December to let you know what the finished product is like. For now, I've got to get my teen detective out of a Puella Magi Madoka Magica-style monster's lair. Bye!

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