Some thoughts on story in MMOs

This came up in the comments of a thread that Brent Breaux started earlier. We started discussing the manner in which story is going to be told in SWTOR.

Storytelling is usually a way to communicate what happened in one place to someone who was in a different place. The storyteller is the mediator of this narrative. In a game, this changes a little bit. Instead, the listener pretends to be a participator in the story and they craft that story themselves through the choices they make in the game.

This works particularly well in RPGs. A single player is able to see a character (sometimes many) and a world shift before his eyes as he makes changes that are meaningful. Some of the most powerful stories told in games earn much of that power through the agency they give to their players.

Story in an MMO has up to this point been quite different. As an MMO player, one enters a world that is much like our own. There are many stories happening, many characters and players, and many places to explore. Each place may have its own story and sometimes we happen upon stories we didn’t expect. In most cases, these are told through quest text, a somewhat tedious element of the game which many players skip.

I have often heard MMO players complain that their actions in the world don’t make a bigger difference.

“If I kill a big dragon, shouldn’t he stay dead? Shouldn’t the people stop complaining about him in the main town?”

SWTOR attempts to solve the problem of players feeling powerless to affect their world by engaging them in an RPG-style story. They have dialog choices which guide their character’s experience through the story. Even when a player is with a group of other players in some instanced area, there are dialog choices to be made.

I’m not sure that’s what people really want though. Some of the most popular events are world events in MMOs – large-scale events that either the devs or GMs plan. These don’t center on any particular players and usually happen because of things the players had nothing to do with. Perhaps a new enemy surfaces or the earth breaks or a main (non-player) character disappears. Perhaps some artifact is uncovered and factions must fight over it unexpectedly. These immerse players in the world and engage them in the story without centering the world on any individual player. They work with a world that involves many living participants, just like our own. In these kinds of events (when done well), the players who participate feel that they have had an impact on the world. The event was one-of-a-kind, it will never happen again, and they engaged collectively to save the world (or whatever).

In SWTOR, players affecting the world happens on a different scale, often only individually. As they level up, their character engages in an RPG-style experience of dialogue choices and character development. When in a group though, the player also engages with NPC characters, but this same interaction can happen many, many times because an MMO world has repetitive content. You may feel that you are having a meaningful conversation with an NPC the first time, but by the 10th time, you likely do not.

Is the first time the only time that matters? If so, it shouldn’t matter that a dragon isn’t dead forever. If the first kill was meaningful, who cares if it’s there again. But that’s not how players feel.

If a company wants to create a meaningful and individual story experience throughout their entire encounter with their MMO while also having instanced areas of play, I think they need to change their delivery of that story.

There are few examples of story done well (without a heavy reliance on text) in MMOs so far. I’ve chosen two examples from personal experience which I think present a strategy for storytelling which differs from that of traditional RPGs.

World of Warcraft’s expansion Wrath of the Lich King told part of the story of Arthas, the fallen prince. Throughout a character’s journey from 70-80 (the levels of this expansion), they encounter the Lich King in a variety of quests. He appears before them either to speak to them directly or to an NPC with whom they are interacting. Not only this, but much of the world involves lich creatures invading areas of habitation. The main city floats in the air in a protected valley near the front lines of a war against the Lich King’s citadel, the most famous landmark on all of Northrend. Blizzard introduced its phasing technology which adjusts the visible layer of the world dependent on what the player has done, allowing the player to see changes he has effected in the world. Problematic as this technology is sometimes pragmatically, it served to communicate the pressing reality of war. This was the questing and world environment layer.

Raids, however, also told the tale of the Lich King. The first tier went into Naxxrammas, a famous necrocitadel of Arthas’ lieutenants. Although players cleared that instance dozens of times, the repetition didn’t serve to diminish the presence of the Lich King, but rather helped to supplant the notion of a lich invasion as the biggest threat in Azeroth. Although the second tier of raids took a detour to explore the presence of the old gods in Northrend (one can perhaps guess how this may relate to the Lich King), the third tier returned to the theme. Players entered the grounds of the Argent Dawn tournament, conveniently located just outside the war fields of the Lich King’s citadel. The fourth and final tier took the players directly inside the Citadel and at last, allowed them to kill Arthas himself.

None of this required reading. You could certainly understand more of the story if you read the text, but you never needed to. The story was a presence. The story was the world itself. They were inextricably combined and this was why the story of Northrend was so successful.

My second example is a smaller one but one which works from the same strategy. In the first Defiant zone of RIFT, players encounter a villain named Jakub. Although there are many quests which detail his background and history, players don’t need to read anything to understand who he is and what he is doing. From their earliest foray into the zone, Jakub and his minions of death are visible. The zone broadcasts messages of his invasions (these are in text but are a large colored font in the center of the screen that only appear momentarily). Sometimes he wins battles, sometimes the players of Freemarch triumph. Sometimes Alsbeth accompanies him, cheers him on. When he attacks, the zone turns dark. The landscape is rapidly infested with creatures from death rifts. It isn’t very safe unless you are with a band of fellow adventurers.

No one needed to read any quest text to know this part of the story. Again, the world and the story were combined.

Now, this is not to say I’m not a fan of reading. Because I am. But I am also a fan of storytelling and I think that storytelling purely through text is something the game medium does not do particularly well because it has other strengths. In an RPG, dialog and character development is very important to the ability of the player to successfully transport himself into the story. In an MMO, however, the story of the world is what is I think most important for capturing a player’s wonder and imagination. An MMO allows a player to exist in another world, free to engage in whatever they like whenever they like – combat, society, economy, crafting, exploration, etc. The world is what gives them the story they need to thrive. A story that focuses on the individual instead of the world at large is in danger of ignoring the persistent environment in which it exists and losing the inhabitants of that world.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pasmith
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 19:53:02

    Nicely put.

    There’s another kind of story to be found in MMOs, too, and those are the stories that the players “write” themselves. I think these are the best kind of stories. I still have vivid memories of the time I was killed in UO and the band of brigands started to kill my horse. One of thugs could speak to the dead and I desperately tried to talk them out of killing my innocent horse (and eventually did). Another time, I had to broker a peace treaty with a group of PK’ers who build a house near our guild hall.

    These events happened what? 15 years ago? I still remember them.

    In EQ1, a friend of mine needed to traverse the world in order to get materials to learn blacksmithing. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember the zone names (we were in Halas and I think we needed to go to High Hold Pass???). We were low level and the trip was dangerous and death meant losing hard-earned progress, but a bunch of us banded together to get our friend there. As early as Blackburrow one of our group fell, and along the way we were whittled down, many of us dying heroically to save the rest of the group (by acting as bait). It was a glorious journey, and it was 10+ years ago, but I still have fond memories.

    Compared to those tails, I can barely remember the baked-in stories from games I played 2 months ago.

    And I haven’t experienced any stories like those in many many years, mostly because our MMO’s have become so streamlined and de-fanged that there’s never really any meaningful adversity any more.

    Reply

    • Adarel
      Jul 29, 2011 @ 20:33:45

      Oh, absolutely. I think one of the best ways to encourage these “emergent” stories is to have a vibrant world. Guided storylines for your character are probably going to do more to limit one’s ability to make their own stories than encourage it.

      I think too though that there are tools devs could give players to foster more emergent narrative (it’s one of the reasons I’m writing the dissertation I’m writing). I think story can be thought of as a kind of jigsaw puzzle with many solutions. If there are pieces of story available, players could use them to create their own narratives. Dialogue options are a very simplistic and limited way of doing this – MMOs should have much more freedom I think.

      Reply

  2. Longasc
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 20:27:23

    Very well said! You know which game I expect to do this and I still owe you a castle! :)

    Reply

  3. Carrie A. Cole
    Aug 01, 2011 @ 20:25:35

    You might officially be my hero. I started playing MMOs and platform games nearly a decade ago and quickly realized how differently I was playing the two. I am huge into storylines in platform games (sucker for Final Fantasy series) and do not enjoy playing games that turn me into a robot. You know, talk to an NPC, do what the NPC wants me to do, report back to the NPC. Repeat. Forever. But, in MMOs that is really all I have ever encountered. Maybe it is because I go toward the free to play games (hello, college student!) but for me, the most memorable moments in MMOs always involve me playing with friends and using Skype while we play.

    It is something about the immediate response I get from my friends that is a lot more engaging than reading text from an NPC (who really is not real). Usually, I think we kind of make up our own storyline? Or we make fun of the NPCs? Without them, I would not play as much.

    A few weeks ago a friend and I were trying to figure out a way that an MMO could hold our attention more. We are both guilty of skipping through text dialogue, but whenever there is a cut screen available we watch it. We came to the conclusion that if NPCs talked to us in cut screens we might be more immersed in the story, but the cut screen could not last more than a minute. Additionally, I got upset when I saw his character in the cut screen video and not mine. =[ (we were in a party playing Dragon Nest).

    I am looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

    Reply

  4. Elementalistly
    Aug 02, 2011 @ 14:31:19

    Great commentary. The SWToR story issue still has me worried.

    I am calling it a Massively Single Player RPG.

    This is what will end up happening. With Companions, Hurry up and Wait gaming with others (“please click ok on your damn story”) and so many other problems (PvP again to be tacked on, which will tick off that audience) will persist.

    Don’t get me wrong…ToR will do well. But, I feel it will not be a GOOD game.

    Just an ok story, with MMO pinings.

    I am with pasmith. My best stories in MMO’s are the ones I remember spending with my friends in game.

    Reply

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