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Storytelling in MMOs – What went wrong?

When I look at the MMOs I play, I see games with rich lore and epic storylines that we help to develop. Since many of these games try to simulate virtual worlds, there’s a lot of potential for some truly memorable moments in our gaming lives. Yet, when it comes to memories directly related to my place in the story, I find myself lacking. As a writer, I ask myself: why? At our hands, we should have the perfect medium to not only enjoy seeing these plotlines develop but to actually experience them. Let’s look at the two ways we take these narratives in.


The first and most common way of giving players story is through quest text. We’ve all taken the time to read a quest or two, and we’ve all probably skipped more than that. Quest text, theoretically, gives the perfect medium for storytelling.  Bite sized bits of dialogue and then you, the player, move events forward.

So what went wrong? The biggest problem, I think, is that the written word doesn’t have much place in the modern day MMO. Honestly. You spend the vast majority of your time doing, so when you’re asked to read, it acts as a roadblock in the way of your action. Some will read, but most will simply check the objectives in get right back into the portion of the game they enjoy the most: combat.

The problem with questing is compounded by the fact that a “kill ten rats” objective, probably the most common type, totally devalues whatever narration precedes it. Frankly, when it all comes down to “kill 10 of X to save the village!” the reasons mean pretty much squat. You can write 50 fantastic novels but if each one ends in exactly the same way, people will stop reading them. MMO designers run into an issue, however, of how to make 1,500 quests “great” at release without falling into the “majority rat hunt” design flaw. We must have a means to level, after all.

A better way is the SW:TOR approach, fully voicing each quest giver. MMOs have more in common with television than books anyways, so removing the 250 characters of quest text in exchange for real voice acting can only be a good thing. The downside, of course, is that such projects are huge, costly, and slow to develop. I still think SW:TOR will have exceptionally long periods between expansions as they work on recording the thousands of lines of speech. Time will tell if the trade-off works but, as far as story is concerned, the only way it couldn’t help is if the voice talk like Ben Stein.

The Bigger Picture

Questing and our place in MMOs all comes down to the “bigger picture” of events. In WoW, it’s taking down Arthas. In LotRO, it’s destroying Sauron’s forces and getting rid of the One Ring. This perspective allows for a much more robust sequence of events to unfold as, usually, it’s not dependent on much of anything the players do. Even if a single person never kills Arthas in WoW, the story will go on. Like Wolfshead pointed out in a recent article, what players do really doesn’t matter.

More often than not, this storyline is the pristine and calculated image designed by a clever group of writers. It’s the “overall” where quests are the “he said, she said” background content of a much bigger novel.

The downside, of course, is that players don’t really make a difference. As a casual, I can get as much satisfaction from watching a CGI trailer on YouTube than actually seeing the “ultimate villain” fall in the context of a dungeon. I mean, really, whatever raid instance is used to show us the story only proves that we really don’t matter. Every day, the bad guy dies and revives, dies and revives, until what really matters are those CGI videos that gives us something that will actually last.

But I digress. This is the MMO industry. Everyone wants to see “it” happen and should have a chance at it. Simply put, raid dungeons do nothing to serve the purposes of narration.

A better option

Is to combine the two. Weave in The Bigger Picture with the nuts and bolts questing. Use phasing and bring the Big Baddie to us as often as possible. Players can be intrinsically involved in the story, and that involvement can be meaningful and exist alongside “kill ten rats.”

WoW recently did this with Wrath of the Lich King. I was always impressed at how often mundane questing tied in with bigger monsters in the game. You see Loken very early in Howling Fjord and then kill him later on at 80. LotRO is also amazing with this, through their Epic Book chains and instanced story quests. Yet, I think it can go even further.

The opening of AQ

The opening of AQ

Here’s another idea, make events on each server depend on players conquering some goal. Like the opening of the gate of AQ in vanilla WoW. If you make players work for something, they take ownership of the reward. In this case, that’s the event in the story. What better way to make what’s happening in your game matter to the player?

In Conclusion

I may sound like a cynic but I think we’ve been giving our MMOs a pass for too long. We accept poor launches and unfinished games because that’s “the nature of the beast.” Well, no. That’s complacency. And in that same way, there’s no reason why MMOs can’t push things a little further and move beyond that standard, read quest, kill mob, mentality.

Maybe it’s just that the industry is new. Or maybe investors are scared to lose money by taking risks (one more reason why niche games are the future). Either way, I’m glad we now have swaths of new games coming in to make the innovations that are sorely needed. It might be another 10 years before MMOs come on par with the narration of console games and, if so, I’ll be one sad panda. But, as long as we’re getting there, that’s something.

Until next time!

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