Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

17 thoughts on “Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

  1. I never found the Frodo/Sam story arc all that interesting either; even in the movies I’d always sort of switch off and wait ’till Aragorn and his merry band appeared and/or the parts about Gondor/Rohan as nations.

    In fact, as a rule I find the nations and cultures in stories far more interesting than the characters. I’m the person who’ll look up every passing mention of a place in a book, just so I know what it is. I get especially annoyed and frustrated with a book if the characters are terribly dull and the setting is amazing but not expanded upon all that much.

    As for WoW: I’m actually quite interested in the whole Hyjal thing, but I’m not interested in doing yet more dailies.

    I am, however, enjoying EVE for the moment. Hmmm.

  2. Quest structure can be really restrictive to following a story sometimes, either you have to be a certain level or you need to do a series of boring tasks before you get to the interesting stuff. WoW has gotten particularly bad with linearity, and I still think ‘phasing’ is an evolutionary dead end in progressing story-telling in MMOs, splitting up both the population and the story.

    I like the sound of GW2 events more and more because of that, the story plays out whether the player participates or not, if it doesn’t look interesting I can always do something else, maybe come back later and see how it’s developed, but at least I should be able to see what’s the story about at a glance. Though I do tend to favour more bitesized adventures than ‘epic’ questlines.

  3. “Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer. ”

    In a way I feel sorry for Blizzard; they just don’t get that they should not and cannot do everything and for everyone – because a lot of the good stuff that keeps us hooked to MMOs longterm is generated by us.

    they’re under the belief and by now immense pressure to “deliver” absolutely everything, in every respect, create all content and create more of it faster. they’re creating a monster and they’re not only taking things away from the player that would ultimately benefit them, but they’re creating a “delivery-vs- consumer” mindset that prove to be their own demise. like a heavy whale suffocating itself once washed ashore.

    • I agree (and I really liked your blog post today btw.) See, the real story behind raiding is not the dungeons and bosses, it’s the story of the raid groups themselves: how they formed, how they grow/ die, how they manage the good and bad nights, etc etc.

      Single player games can be treated much more like books in terms of consumption, although the interactivity of a game does make for a different type of experience.

      • Absolutely! It’s the cooperation and sharing that make the playing experience bigger in MMOs; just think of how much the enjoyment of a bosskill is doubled when you achieve it with a group of comrades and that moment is shared among you. the “before” and “after” are as much a part of the whole as the actual kill. it’s also what creates a story.
        For the same reason (and lack thereof) many players consider the 5man runs generated by LFG “soul-less” – there’s no sharing and hence no narrative, no story to be told.
        Only the players can generate that story; and all the goodies and shinies in the world can’t make up for it.

        Glad you enjoyed my post!

  4. I would like to see the Koltira/Thassarian bromance rekindle. :p

    At the same exact time, I really am, all in all, becoming less and less interested in WoW’s story, PERIOD, regardless of race, character, or whatnot. I just don’t find a whole lot going on interesting anymore. They somehow managed to make it so I stopped caring. Then again, I started to stop caring awhile ago since the Kael’thas incident. I’ve come to the conclusion that since any character in the game can become a raid boss out of desperation, there’s just no point in actually becoming attached.

    they KINDA made me sorta interested in the blue dragon questline, since I like Kalecgos and I don’t think Blizzard are that stupid to make TWO blue aspects go batshit(famous last words), but that’s about it. The Thrall questline? Nice to just ditch Jaina and just invent some new character whom I don’t know, never knew in all the years of WC the RTS and World of Warcraft, and sandwich them into the plot. (I don’t mind new characters, but they really do have to be managed decently.) If they stuff that abomination Me’dan into the game I officially will have lost every shred of hope I have left.

    Heh, I guess in trying to ignore the story I STILL end up facepalming. I guess part of me WANTS to be able to be interested but they are making it very, very difficult.

  5. Blizzard need to decide if they’re offering a progression game or a story game.

    If it’s a progression game, then no – not all players get to see all the content. There’s a difficulty curve, and not everyone is going to reach the top of it – in fact, a good progression game needs something at the top that very few will ever reach, because that gives all of the players something to keep striving for.

    If you’ve got a story-based game though, then you DO want to let players see all of the content, because that’s what they’re paying for. A story-based game is more of an interactive novel… and I can’t imagine buying a novel if I was told that only 5% of readers will be allowed to read the last couple of chapters.

    The problem Blizzard have is they’re trying to mix the two. That either means you have frustrated “story” players who don’t get to see how it all turns out, or you water down the difficulty and piss off the achievement players.

    LotRO handles this split a lot better, in my opinion – the epic story line doesn’t involve the raid content and can be done solo these days by any player who is at least moderately competent.

    • Totally agree about LOTRO, I think the epic books are going to be remembered (at least by me) as one of the high points of MMO gaming. I particularly enjoyed how they worked the skimishes into the Mirkwood book, that was a nice piece of design imo.

      I quite like the story quests in Rift too, they’ve been pretty cool.

  6. Richard Bartle broke down story telling in MMOs in a talk 2 years ago:

    Click to access IMGDC2009.pdf

    His perspective was that a game like SWTOR is simply a different style of game to a game like Eve. In SWTOR you sit back and are told a story. In Eve players go out there and make a story.

    He is somewhat biased towards what actually happened (“I fell off Weathertop”) over narrative arranged by designers (“quests to help the fellowship of the Ring”) but nonetheless the saliant point is that they’re simply different styles. Acting is not intrinisically better than watching a film. We could all choose to go do amateur dramatics this week if we wanted to, I suspect most of us won’t and will watch a film.

    What is interesting about WoW is that it started out split between the two: “I fell into the lava at BRM” and “we saved the world from Ragnaros” are both memorable but now WoW has become much less memorable. The outstanding events are gear upgrades but are those genuinely memorable?

    At Gamasutra Greg McLanahan has argued recently that the psychological weight of gear upgrades has decreased in WoW as they’ve become more frequent.

    I think we’ve seen memorable moments sacrificed for sensation delivery. It’s nice to play WoW because there are lots of “cool! a new shiny!” moments without there being as much distinctive and memorable content.

  7. Oh and another thing.

    I’ve thought all along that viewing SWTOR as a game to be played will be a less enjoyable approach than viewing it as a film you can interact with.

    • I guess what I’m talking about here is that even film-style MMOs are likely to have multiple open ended plot threads (to allow for future developments), so what happens when you as the player are really really interested in one thread but not the others. In that sense it’s quite different from a film where you’ll get some kind of forward momentum and eventual closure (unless it’s a weird arty kind of film, I guess).

  8. The Forsaken story line was deliberatly left open, and they are pushing the Sylvannus/Garrosh hatred hard core. They have spent many quest hours setting up for a titanic battle royale between the two, its not a matter of if they will, but when they will. The writting as they say… is on the wall, its gonna come to war and this time…. im not gonna just invade UnderCity, im gonna wipe it off the face of Azeroth.

  9. This is actually why I am hopeful SWTOR will be the kind of MMO I can enjoy again. When I started playing WoW six years ago, my lifestyle afforded me the spare time to play a LOT, raid a LOT, and meet the kind of schedule that let me see almost all the content a progression based game has to offer. Fast forward six years and I have a one-year old son and am heading back to graduate school. I don’t have that kind of time anymore. So a more story driven game will (in theory) allow a player like me to still experience most of what the game has to offer without requiring the kind of time commitment that many progression based games end up demanding.

  10. I agree with you, Spinks. Especially about 4.2. It turns out that Hyjal and the elemental lords are one of my favorite aspects of WoW lore, so I got back into the game and raiding so I could hit Firelands and do the Molten Front dailies. If it had been something else (like Trial of the Crusader, for instance), I’d have ignored it completely because I just can’t care about it. On top of that, I hate dailies, so it had to be something that I cared about.

    That’s what I’m hoping SW:TOR does well. I love pretty much everything about Star Wars, but I care considerably less about the Bounty Hunters and stuff like that, the military angle. If they can make sure to emphasize the Jedi/Sith and spiritual side of the universe enough instead of falling into The Force just being there and taken for granted, I’ll fall hard for that game for the particular storytelling aspect.

  11. Island Forge is an indie MMORPG that’s all about player-created content (stories and islands). The storytelling engine allows players to create dynamic, branching plots across their NPCs.

    The result is a world of ever-expanding content, where there is always potentially somewhere new to explore. The design lends itself to smaller, creative stories/quests/plots to follow.

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