Persignifficult (A Reminder Revisited)

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

4 thoughts on “Persignifficult (A Reminder Revisited)”

  1. Warhammer does well what White Wolf does well: making a compelling place for players who are not The Hero. It never sets any expectation like that, even though it is still your story. You are a soldier, a neonate, one of a pack. This works very well in the context of a game: many little stories, each significant to you, with larger themes and events all your personal stories unite around.

    What I dislike about the Shadows of Angmar™ is a failure to do this. You are going through the motions, but the epic quest line is not your epic quest. It is someone else’s story, and you watch and run errands. Hence, “visual novel.” It is a fine story, but it is a lousy way to run a game.

    PvP games can have their stories in an entirely different way.

    Superhero games have a good chance for these kinds of stories. Batman does not save the world. He saves his city. Daredevil can have great stories without needing the entire universe to be about him. Superman, yeah, that needs to be all about him, so much so that there are occasional stories about why he is not solving everything himself.

    You could have a Dragonlance game without having the players overshadowed by the book characters. There is an entire rest of the world for the players, and their paths can even intersect with Raistlin and the rest. That is essentially what Shadows of Angmar™ does, but with the key failing of going on to make it about some other set of NPCs rather than our heroes. I want my story, even if I am not the one saving the world.

  2. I held off playing LOTRO for a long while exactly because it’s someone else’s tale and one that I knew too well. I also assumed (incorrectly) that Turbine couldn’t do Middle-Earth well enough to my tastes.

    I prefer not being The Hero, but simple A Hero, or maybe even not play a heroic character at all.

    When I RP, I tend to play opportunists, just because that form of escapism is more fun to me than the heroic types.

    I’m really enjoying LOTRO overall, but while I hear so many others say that the Epic questline is the heart of the game, it’s the lesser part of the game for my enjoyment.

  3. Re: the pre-searing thing in Guild Wars

    a) The vast majority of players do NOT choose to stay in pre-searing

    b) The ones that do, do it because

    i pre-searing is pretty to look at. It’s not that they didn’t like the story telling tool, it’s that they just wanted nicer scenery. If the reverse happened (wasteland converted into plush scenery), these people wouldn’t hang around

    ii they like to have high level characters in a part of the game that you usually wouldn’t become so high level, because it’s something few players have (since most of them move on), because they like to help new players out, etc

    c) It is possible to have one character stay in pre-searing, and still leave with any new characters that you make. I seriously doubt there is a single player in the entire game who has a high level pre-searing character and only plays that character, without having any high level characters beyond pre-searing.

    d) I liked this story-telling tactic in general, and wouldn’t mind seeing more of it. Others may not have. To say something general like “players hated it” is wildly unfounded.

    e) To offer something constructive, I think that the idea could be extended so that the game remembers where you were at through particular bubbles of time. e.g. if my max level character wants to go back to pre-searing to help some friends level up or simply re-experience content again, he should be whisked back in time and have the levels/skills/items that he had back then. The only drawback is you can’t go and beat on level 2 boars with your level 99 uber-char, but that seems a pretty small price to pay. Good solution, no?

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