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On Bioware and MMOs Having “No Point”

In a recent article in The Escapist, SW:TOR designer and writing director Daniel Erickson states that he thinks most MMOs out now have no point; that they lack a story to define our actions and, thereby, amount to a series of errands on the checklist of some faceless NPC.

This comment disturbs me.

Have Bioware been paying attention *at all* to MMOs other than their own? Almost every major MMO out there has a coherent story that they base the major quest lines around. WoW’s narrative evolves with every major patch. LotRO follows the single most well known fantasy story of our time.

It bothers me because they seem to be insinuating that every quest should relate to a larger narrative. Now, in theory, that’s great – if you don’t want that many quests. How exactly do you make every quest in a game relate to the main story? Come on, Mr. Erickson, let’s be real. If every quest in the game contributed to the main narrative, you’d wind up with one of the most diluted and convoluted stories in the history of video games.

Not to mention, people would simply burn through it no matter what. There is a reason for the amount of pointless tasks in modern MMOs: they slow you down and eliminate the need to grind. Yes, you might have a bunch of “kill ten foozles” or “deliver these candies” quests, but they are a necessary evil.

Okay, this really has nothing to do with the post, but, as a former computer science major, it amuses me.

There is an idealistic mindset that believes we don’t need chores in our games – and it’d certainly be nice if Bioware could create a totally all-encompassing story experience – but the fact is, without “chores” you have grinding or a breeze to the level cap; you get a content light game that will be derided as unfinished.

I’m going to predict right now that SW:TOR will have plenty of staple MMO quests. The only caveat may be that they try to veil them in a thin story veneer… like every other game on the market does. Sorry Bioware, just because you have a good reputation doesn’t mean that you’re perfect. These kinds of statements, while seemingly innocuous, set up an unreasonable expectation. There is no way they’ll live up to the bar they’re setting for themselves.

But, the more important point that these statements underline is this: there is a point to MMOs. MMOs are about character and social progression, plain and simple. They’re about chasing the eternal carrot on an unending adventure within the story-context of the game-world. I mean, the point of an MMO is evidenced in the entirety of the systems that make it up. I think a case could be made that the existing “point of MMOs” is more important than the fourth pillar. A game without a clear cut sense of progression, even at end-game, is a failure.

Will story cut it? Maybe once.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to TOR as much as the next guy, but you have to appreciate the philosophical underpinnings to the statements they make about MMO design. Maybe they’ll hit it out of the park, but, in my opinion, they’re shooting themselves in the foot by proclaiming their utter awesomeness at every turn.

The best thing they could do right now would be to clam up for about two months. Give us nothing. Now, won’t that make us go stir-crazy for your game without actually telling us to?

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  1. Petter Mårtensson

    It’s the typical PR-talk. :) You take something that might have been the staple of the genre at one point, or just exaggerate something that is usually seen as typical of the genre, and then claim that your title will be different. It’s quite typical of game publishers and devs in general, not only Bioware.

  2. Professor Beej

    I’m kind of with Bioware on this one. I’ve played WoW for a long time, and never once have I felt as though my actions through quests mattered. In fact, I’ve never felt like quests mattered, even when they were long chains. The Onyxia quest line? I enjoyed it because it gave around 60k XP in a time when that wasn’t the norm. The Tirion Fording quests, too. But I never felt as though what I was doing was a real story.

    But I don’t like WoW’s storytelling mechanics, either. Here are some quests, read the text, see a cutscene if it deals with Arthas, and then rush into a dungeon/raid to kill some baddies where the only explanation you get comes through a few more boxes of quest text from an NPC telling you to do the same things you’ve done in instances since you were level 15. The part where that sucks is between the lines: the dungeon can be done with or without the quests/narrative and the experience in both instances (no pun intended) results in the same outcome.

    From what I’ve read, LOTRO gets it right with the book quests, though I’ve not done them myself. If Bioware can make it matter that I’m in that instance with dialogue choices that affect the outcome and my character, then that’s an innovation. Right now, DDO has the best narrative structure of an MMO I’ve played because each quest is an instance that may or may not be a Kill Ten Foozles adventure. There are traps and puzzles, too, and not just one way to win: kill the boss. Sometimes there is no boss. It all depends on what the NPC asks for. To me, that’s more of what Bioware is shooting for than what most MMOs currently offer.

    Sure, some of their talk is PR. I mean, WoW said they weren’t going to be having us kill 10 rats at the beginning of the game. And what did they have us do? Kill ten wolves. Or ten low-level kobolds, trolls, moths. But never rats. It’s spin, but from the initial hands-on I read about last year with the choices in the instance with the Sith Warrior and the freighter captain, Bioware is on its way to be a little more innovative. Will they be? We won’t know until they release the game or one of us gets into beta. But their track record with fantastic RPG experiences gets them the benefit of the doubt from me.

  3. hunter

    I have to be with bioware on this one. sure some games continue the narrative, but I don’t think most games have a solid over-arching story, and if they do it stinks or feels drawn out.

    I can name a few games I’ve played recently that clearly had no clear narrative. free-to-play pieces of junk, but still.

    And I don’t think he necessarily meant every quest has to be tied to story, just that if your story stinks, all quests feel like checklists.

    you do have a point though that the point of mmos is more about progression and crazily enough, people.

  4. Jackson

    I think you’re missing the point of biowares statements. Have you ever played a bioware rpg? They are world renowed for their abilities to tell stories. They’re the best I’ve seen – oh, and yes, they’re way better at it than Blizzard. Its really one of their core competencies, and they’re a true leader. Sure, wow & lotr have stories too, but I never really cared about them the way I cared about commander shephard. The differences include skilled writing, emotional involvement, realistic moral dilemmas. And superb voice acting. It makes a huge difference. Whether bioware will be able to create a great MMO is unknown at this point; however, they have every right to criticize the stories of the other mmos out there.

    Also, you’re making a definitive point about what MMOs are, as if the MMO-God appeared to an MMO-Moses thousands of years ago, and defined MMOs once and for all for the benefit of the MMO-Gamer tribe. Did it ever occur to you that bioware are trying to do something *new* in the genre, and, if successful, it could be revolutionary for both the game and the mmo-industry?

    If you wont have a little faith in bioware’s potential excellence at story telling in a MMO, at least give some credit to their track record.

    And dont pretend that your cynical interpretation of Bioware’s PR department is anything more than cynicism.

    1. Chris

      I’ve played several Bioware RPGs, actually, and loved them. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not discrediting Bioware’s amazing track record here– they’re excellent at what they do. The difference, in my opinion, is that an MMO is a much larger scope (see reference to Tobold’s article below) and addresses a different set of needs for the player than the single player RPG.

      You’re right. If it can be done, their focus on story will be nothing short of revolutionary. What bothered me about the statement had more to do with the fact that afterwords, I could help thinking “really, your game won’t have a single ‘filler’ quest? Really?” I simply don’t believe it. If it’s true, then the game will fall far short on longevity. In the MMO market, that’s a big deal.

      Tobold really does an excellent job of clarifying what I’m getting at here. Check out his article, when you check the chance.

  5. Dr. Samurai

    I personally think what he means is what I have been recently myself. There is no individual story. When you play wow and you take out the Lich King, you see a cutscene involving Tyrion Fordring (or whatever) with Arthas and blah blah happens. Do you get mentioned in the final cutscene? No you don’t. In WoW the world evolves you, you don’t evolve it. What you do in the world doesn’t make any impact at all. The quests you follow basically don’t feel like you are progressing the story more that you are doing a quest to find out what happens next. Like someone saying if you go wash the dishes i will give you the next chapter/page in that book your reading. When you do halls of reflection (as horde) is very much Sylanas’s show…you are basically just an extra.

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