Questus Interruptus

So, how much detail do you remember about questlines that you did a few months ago? Me too. I can remember vague details and whether a particular quest was fun or not but subtle characterisation, lore and storytelling tweaks? I wouldn’t bet on my memory for those.

I find this to be a real problem with MMO pacing. You spend a few weeks immersed in quests and lore, exploring the world, learning about all the various factions and engaging in awesome story heroics. Then you reach the end of the quest-story and … it’s off to do whatever repetitive thing you do at end game. The learning side isn’t over, of course. You can always learn new tricks or tweaks to help improve your character and how you play it, especially in harder instances, PvP, or raids. But the questing side is done.

It isn’t just that endgame is so different from levelling. It’s also that in a few months there will be some new patch with extra content that will continue from where the quests left off. Because the story never finished.

In Wrath, we will presumably eventually forge into Icecrown and face Arthas mano-a-mano. When we do, the writers might well decide to pick up some of those story pieces and tell us more about what happened with theĀ  plot threads that never got picked up and questions that were never answered. And by that time, we simply won’t remember them as vividly as when we’d just done the quests.

Dealing with episodic content

We have lots of examples in other media about how to furnish a waiting audience with episodic content. (My sister is downstairs downloading Battlestar Galactica at the moment, for example). Episodic TV shows have conventions such as ending on cliffhangers, summing up the story so far, and the simple fact that you can record them to watch again if you wanted to check some details.

Books also have the basic advantage that you can reread the older ones before the next one in the series comes out. Writers have learned how to smoothly pick up the story and remind people of the characters and situations, knowing that readers may have read the previous installment some months ago.

But MMOs haven’t really embraced serialism well. There have been some strides in self-contained or even optional extra content (I never played it but I remember EQ2 let you micropay for content that way). And isn’t that odd that we don’t really support MMO serials, when the patching mechanism for delivering information is so well established?

You could imagine each patch, mostly self contained, having some extra lore and quests to update the game world and the characters, add extra content for raiders/ PvP as needed, and actually act like an ongoing story. The details of the ongoing story could even be dependent on actions that players have or have not taken (I seem to remember there was at least one game that did this, was it Star Wars?)

It may be that LOTRO, of all the games, takes the best stab at this. Because they have the advantage on being based on a drawn out and ongoing story that everyone knows. Lord of the Rings is also a travelogue, so it makes sense to include new areas and quests with each patch. The addition of new book questlines to each patch also extends the main storyline of the expansion.

But how well will you really remember chapter 1 or 2 when you are working on chapter 15 in a year’s time?

But also endemic to the idea of episodes is that new players can pick up the series at any time and get quickly up to date. I think Blizzard at least is working with this side of things. They understand now that established players won’t be interested in running old content to gear up newer players so they have to provide alternatives.

When I play a game, I do want to see the end of the story or at least a good cliffhanger. I do want to see story elements picked up and extended and not just dropped like bricks (ie. what did the forsaken actually do after Wrathgate, aside from vanish from Northrend?). I wouldn’t subscribe just for the story, but I do think a more robust and engaging episodic form of storytelling would add a lot more value to the sub.

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5 thoughts on “Questus Interruptus

  1. Turbine seem to be one of the few of the “major” games companies who do this. They did it with Asheron’s Call, and now they do it with LOTRO. Granted, Asheron’s Call didn’t see major major story updates every month, but a few times a year you’d get a doozy, like an entire town destroyed and left as a smoking crater, or — a few years later — that town in the process of being rebuilt (and other towns destroyed).

    I miss that. :|

  2. Pingback: Hope feeds nostalgia « Stylish Corpse

  3. I’d take that in a different direction and look at the Guild Wars storytelling. In other words, monetize it by “chapter” rather than by sub, and tell strong stories that actually end (or at least, chapters that end). Like the L5R card game, player actions can even drive the future storytelling.

    Thing is, that’s not really what I’ve ever turned to MMOs for; that’s more the province of single player RPGs. I’ve always just thought of MMOs as giant worlds that allow for players to tell their own stories.

    • I would definitely be up for a chapter type format.

      And I do think storytelling in MMOs is being put front and centre by a lot of the big AAA games at the moment. I mean, that’s what long quest chains are really all about. It’s storytelling, JRPG style. Part of the reason for the huge success of Wrath is due to the stronger use of story in both the big questchains and the phasing.

      Trouble is, strong use of story as defined by MMOs right now are still pretty weak writing by any other definition. And it’s being an uphill struggle to force players into strong storylines because the conventions of books and film just don’t work well in interactive fiction. The games don’t exist (yet) which encourage players to pick options based on what would make the best story.

      I feel that I’m being jumbled because I’m fascinated by storytelling and I do want to write more about it.

      But in another sense, players will always make their own stories in MMOs. It’s just that they may not be very interesting stories and that’s the rub. (ie. I started at low level, I explored the world and did some quests, then I joined a guild, then there was some awesome guild drama but it totally wasn’t my fault, and we got this great kill on boss X this one time where it was almost a wipe but … etc etc).

      How can you guarantee a good narrative experience without forcing people into railroaded quests (or providing a human storyteller)?

  4. I’m not sure you can, actually. In my mind, MMOs are best for creating places where people can tell their own stories, especially with other people. Rich lore and periodic events can serve as a great backdrop for that, but strong storylines often just get in the way, at least if they take precedence over player experience.

    Interactive stories (games) really aren’t built to handle the huge decision matrix that an MMO can produce. They can work in single player games, but in an MMO, the most that can really work is to have some sort of world event like the WoW zombie invasion, and let players bounce off of it.

    To that end, the player’s story is more about *their reaction* to world events. That’s viable and fun, but it doesn’t give the same sense of *altering* or *driving* world events that the best single player games give to players.

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