Zubon many times has reminded MMO players that in “their” epic story to become a hero, well… you aren’t. This position is debatable (and has been debated). Regardless, we can assume for the sake of this post that making the player feel like a unique hero in a game-spanning story is quite difficult. What if the player was not actually supposed to be the hero in the first place? Could the writers create a story, where the player was merely a cog in the grand workings of the world AND also make the story meaningful? My position is that “yes, with skilled writers this is possible.”
Ethan Skemp, my favorite pen-n-paper roleplaying game developer (avatar of Werewolf, Changeling and others), wrote a great poston White Wof’s blog about the design goals for their storytelling based roleplaying games. Skemp posits that White Wolf’s storytelling roleplaying games were different from the dungeon crawling affairs because there is no true “happily ever after.” There is always something bigger. The storytelling games must have another way to “win” since beating the game is not an option. Skemp says that the best stories are a mixture of personal, significant, and difficult (amalgamated to “persignifficult”).
MMOs are very similar to roleplaying games, and especially storytelling roleplaying games because there is also no true happily ever after. When the player destroys the ancient evil below the Barrow Downs, the wights and corruption remain. In order for other players, and the same player to return to the gameplay the world can not change. Even Guild Wars with the instanced story does not truly give the feeling that the player has met some end point, and the world has changed. Even with the ability to go through backwards phasing and jump between a Barrow Downs of peace and tranquility and a Barrow Downs of corruption, the actions of the player is cheapened as the role of the hero.
Many sandbox style MMOs have persignifficult stories in every day of gameplay. Syncaine at Hardcore Casual believes that this is why games like EVE and Darkfall can create some of the most entertaining stories. I wholeheartedly agree. My time in A Tale in the Desert was fraught with very persignifficult stories. Everything in all my guilds, my accomplishments, and even simple trades were very persignifficult. The game created an environment were it made more sense for guild leaders to go on an in-game honeymoon, or for a player to spend a whole day running from camp to camp to meet people. The stories created by the developers were horrible in comparison (and honestly, usually horrible on their own).
It’s the MMOs that have created stories as a feature(some are colloquially known as theme park MMOs) that have the problem with permsignifficulty. I don’t have the answer (if I did I would be working at a game company), but I can make suggestions:
Difficult is often the hardest because MMO players don’t want to make decisions that would effectively bar content. An interesting example of a decent attempt at meeting “difficult” is Guild Wars Factions where guilds and alliances had to decide whether to be Luxon or Kurzick. Once you took in to account guild guesting, there was absolutely no barred content. However, for some guild it was an incredibly difficult decision, and more importantly once the decision was made players began to identify themselves as being loyal to one faction or the other. Once players felt that loyalty, they actually had stake in the ongoing story whether it was ArenaNet created or the currently shifting battle lines. Difficult does not mean make it so only hardcore raiders get the final piece of the story puzzle (which they don’t care about anyway).
Next in line of difficulty I would say is making the story personal. In story-driven MMOs, every player’s character is replaceable. So writers and developers have to use other tricks to make the story personal. Instancing and phasing are good starts. Turbine did a great job when the player entered Moria with the dwarves. Even though everybody else had to do the same instance, which was not really epic to begin with, I think the whole Mines of Moria prologue tried to tie the players to the dwarves. When further issues came up, the dwarves needed that player’s help. The character, and hopefully the player, was personally tied to the success of the dwarves. Another good way is to break the fourth wall, but this is also more risky. Things like having a constant NPC harass the players or an NPC (Sarah Oakheart) constantly agro everything in sight. The actual player develops feelings of love or hate so that when the story resolves personal feelings evolve.
Finally, there is the aforementioned issue of significance. Things don’t usually change. MMO players want to go back and redo the content. Guild Wars originally tried a really significant event. They destroyed the players tutorial home and never allowed players to return. Players hated it. There are tribes of people that refuse to ever leave Pre-Searing. I think phasing and instancing are good ways, but the best would be an event system that changes the world for some amount of time. Public quests that evolve in to further public quests rather than just resetting after five minutes. Another suggestion is the issue of sacrifice, which makes the decision really significant. But, like I said, most MMO players don’t like being barred from content.
Right now many story-driven MMOs can handle a one or rarely two at a time, but I have yet to find one that consistently hammers all three across the whole story. Until that time I guess I will be content reading Syncaine’s Darkfall stories.
i have to, he wrote me this way