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 the 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.