Scott over at Pumping Irony (great name btw) has a post about storytelling in MMOs and why they generally fail. He breaks down the current problems, mostly that character development is really just attribute development, which I fully agree with. Even many of today’s single player RPGs fall into this mold, The Witcher being the last memorable exception to this, and even then not all agree.
MMOs currently come in two distinct varieties, the sandbox and the theme park. Sandbox games are open, theme park’s are on rails which follow a set path. WoW is the best example of a theme park, while EVE is very much a sandbox. In my opinion, a theme park is very limited in its ability to tell a story with any real meaning or lasting value. No matter the lore behind it, the major problem with a theme park is that all participants follow the same relative path, meaning everyone is the hero. This path has to be safe, accessible, and overall positive, as it has to cater to the majority, leaving little room for artistic freedom. Even if we get past this hurdle, you still end up with a bunch of maxed out ‘heroes’ all having gone through the same story, which makes recalling adventures a bit pointless. When you talking about raiding Onyxia, everyone knows how the raid went if it was a success. You ran in, beat on her, she flew into the air, you beat on her some more, she used fear and whelps a bunch of times, and eventually she died, leaving behind a forged Qual’Serrar and some other ‘epic’ loot. It’s a fun experience, no doubt, but it does not make for a good story or anything truly memorable. If anything, an epic wipe makes for a much better story most of the time.
In my opinion and experience, the greatest MMO stories come from games which allow their players to have a meaningful impact; sandbox games. When players talk of UO, most stories revolve around other player characters, not NPC’s. That time you got ganked, or got revenge on said ganker. Or when you finally sold that crafted GM armor set off your vendor and bought a house from another player, only to get scammed. The countless EVE stories about bank heists, Corp scams, epic alliance conflicts, not one mentions NPC’s in a mission or some pre-set challenge designed by CCP (other than the lag monster that is).
Think back on what you remember most from earlier games, what really stands out to you as a memorable moment. My guess is most of those memories involve other players, and are likely unrelated to any lore whatever game we are talking about presented, at least directly. The more games limit the actions of their players, holding us on to the rails tighter and tighter, the less likely we are to have such memorable moments, moments that provide far more storyline than anything a developer could create.
I believe lore should go so far as to set the table for the players, giving us a reason why we are in whatever world we are in. The real story should begin on day one of the servers going live, driven by player action. The role of the developer should be not to provide storylines and events, but rather to give the players tools to use as they see fit, and allow the story to evolve as the players embrace those tools. When things go stale, throw in more tools to create a spark or mix things up. Above all, heroes must be forged from the player community, rather than being defined during character creation. This would allow old players to retire and be remember, while letting those new to the game the opportunity to rise up and eventually take up that spot. The ‘greatness’ of the hero will not be determined by stats or level, but rather the impact on others and the memories they leave behind.
Edit: Cameron also has two solid pieces about stories in MMOs, and his posts further reinforce my point, that NPCs are not memorable and are unable to convey a great story. He points out that with most NPCs, we simply listen to them and then agree, go kill whatever needs killing, and come back to again listen to them before they hand us a reward. While a great vehicle for player rewards, it does little for storylines or interaction.
Compare that to say joining a player guild, one which asks you first to prove you are serious about joining by making you a recruit before they give you full membership. The ‘quest’ is that process, and the end result is completely decided by your actions and those of other players. If you decide to ignore the ‘quests’ given by senior members, say by coming to a raid unprepared, you are very likely to fail that ‘quest’. Being able to repeat it and try again is not guaranteed either, like it is with NPCs.
Which really comes back to why we originally found MMOs so appealing, and that is player interaction. Simple tasks like killing rats seem new and fresh when you bring in others to share in your adventure, and the more we are allowed to shape and share those adventures, the greater the story will become.