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.
I like the sandbox/themepark analogy and agree that the storytelling in a game like WoW is not memorable or lasting. I question, however, how many people that play WoW are really interested in those aspects of an MMO? It seems to me that many people play WoW as an escape from RL. The ability to go home and “ride the rail,” knowing that you are progressing to some end goal is what I believe motivates the majority of subscribers. Add to that the ability to interact with others (especially friends) and you have a large chunk of the recipe for why WoW has been so successful.
While dissapointing and inexplicable to those who are “sandbox” type people, I tend to believe that the “theme-parkers” constitute the majority of any market. Is it because most people tend to simply “ride the rail” in RL and don’t know the joys of playing in a sandbox without rules? I don’t think that’s the answer in this case. I think most people want to know definitively what the “next step” is along the rails when they log on. Instead of a multitude of options with no clearly defined direction or “right answer,” they just want to sit back, feel good about what they were able to amass in a couple of hours of playtime (or more in most cases) and know they are a little closer to being the ultimate hero (which very few ever feel like they achieve in RL). I think most people just look at their RL and think (at least in their mind) about how they’ve been marginalized to a small corner of the RL sandbox and have no desire to plop down money they’ve made in that small corner only to see it happen again in some online world.
I like the analogy, but I prefer to think of it as a spectrum rather than an either/or situation. WoW is on rails, but it’s certainly more sandbox like than a Half Life or Halo game where the rail is very clearly defined. WoW tends to offer lots of different rails for you to choose from that all more or less take you along a similar progression.
That being said, I think rails are popular for a few reasons 1) they simplify the experience and make it difficult to get lost and 2) its less subject to griefing. The more open-ended and impactful a game, the more subject it is to someone else being an ass and disrupting your enjoyment. It’s like building a sandcastle in your sandbox and the playground bully comes over and stomps on it.
Also, I would argue that a “sandbox” doesn’t really have a storyline. A storyline by its very nature provides rails in order to tell the story. Any story in a true sandbox environment is more of a calendar of real-time events or landmarks. It can certainly be immersive, but it’s not really a story. A story in the traditional sense has a start-to-finish plot and climax. A true sandbox by contrast has no beginning or end.
Thanks for linking, syncaine! :)
I enjoy both “theme park” games and sandbox games, though at this point in time I am firmly of the opinion that a 100% sandbox is a recipe for failure, or at least constrained to a smaller niche market.
I’m big on exploring, I love doing my own thing and going off the beaten path. But I’m not always in the mood for it, sometimes I’d rather just click an NPC with a bright ! over his head and do a quest. I think a large virtual world that had *both* pre-written quests or adventures *and* purely player-driven content would be a blockbuster success.
SWG was the biggest-name sandbox I played, and there are still moments my friends and I talk about, all of them player-driven. But SWG also had some of the most gods-awful boring times as well when I just didn’t know what I wanted to do and there was zero guidance to do anything dev-created either. It’s not fun when I feel like being logged in at all is a waste of time.