Thursday, October 09, 2008
In the 1993 film Groundhog Day Bill Murray plays a weatherman who due to his evil ways is cursed to repeat the same bad day over and over again. That turns out to be an absolute nightmare, because while the character develops over time, the world around him stays always the same, and any attempts to change it remain futile. As the last open Sunday thread revealed, many of you are stuck in the same nightmare: The MMORPGs we play stay always the same, have no end, and there is no way to change the world. The characters develop, but when we go back to the Barrens, Mankrik is still looking for his lost wife, after 4 years and several million players telling him where she is. By moving through a series of static sceneries, an illusion of progress is created. But if you move back, or play again with a different character, you see that nothing ever changes.
Being stuck in the Groundhog Day of a static world not only affects replayability. It also diminishes the motivation to play through some content even for the first time. Because we are limited to a static world with respawns, our quests are mostly limited to "go somewhere and kill some monsters" or "go somewhere and click on something / someone". There are no decisions to be made, no moral choices to be pondered, no roles to be played. The story of our virtual lives is a sequence of unconnected short stories with no consequences, about as interesting as reading through Thottbot, and giving us no more motivation than when we played the laser cannon in Space Invaders.
So how can we escape from Groundhog Day? In all fairness it must be said that developers are trying out some things. A Tale in the Desert has a world that is to some degree changeable by the players, who can even vote on changing game rules. And it has a beginning and an end, being currently in the third "telling". The Lord of the Ring Online has a series of "book" epic quests, telling a story that spans the whole game, and is related to the saga in the Tolkien books. Age of Conan up to level 20 has an interesting system where you can switch back and forth from multiplayer standard quest gameplay to an epic solo destiny quest (AoC would have been a decent game if it had continued that until the level cap). And even World of Warcraft with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion introduces a kind of destiny quest series in several phases for the new Death Knight class. The same area exists in different phases of the story, which allows the environment to appear changed. Of course the change is scripted, because there is only one possible course of action.
And that leads us to the root of the problem: How do we handle change in a multiplayer game? If the first player to tell Mankrik about his dead wife made Mankrik walk off and arrange the funeral, what would there be left to do for the next player who passes? The most change we can have in a multiplayer game is something like the keeps in Warhammer Online, which permanently switch between two possible states, being controlled by one side or the other. When Order controls the keep, there isn't much to do for an Order player, until Destruction decides to launch a raid and tries to capture it. That principle is something that could be used for PvE quests as well, lets say one faction giving people quests to kill the wolves so that the loggers can harvest wood, and another faction asking players to chase off the loggers so that the trees can grow back and the wildlife regenerate. So players can cause a change in the game world, but that change is reversible, and there is still a good chance that when you play the game again the wood is in the same state as it was when you first saw it.
But if changes to the multiplayer game aren't possible, or limited to reversible changes, we might have more success if we sneakily introduce a singleplayer game into our MMORPG. The "Tortage at night" destiny quest in AoC does exactly that, and the Wrath of the Lich King Death Knight starting area works in a similar way. But we could do even better, because virtual worlds are not subject to the same physical laws as the real world. Two people walking through the same door don't necessarily have to come out in the same room. And the same NPC doesn't necessarily have to be in the same situation when talked to by two different players. This allows us to get rid of that horrible concept of having half a dozen NPCs with unrelated quests standing around in the same village, and the player filling his quest journal with too many stories he can't possibly all remember.
So what I propose would be every player having one, individual, epic quest line, with possible sub-quests and branches. Instead of getting quests by clicking on an NPC with a glowing symbol over his head, the player starts the game with a quest that is the start of an epic saga. Whenever he finishes a main quest, he'll get to the next step. But because the next step is individual, and only visible to him, this allows us to introduce both random factors and choices. Basically we end up with a MMORPG version of the Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy books. If you saved the princess the quest line will continue in one way, but if you used the opportunity and stole the dragon's treasure while he was munching on the damsel, the quest line continues in a different way. And unlike the books, we can even further individualize the story: Random or environmental factors could determine how the quest continues. Few people currently hunting wolves in this zone? Lets send the player on a quest part that asks him to hunt those wolves. Or have a random roll determine whether the next step is hunting wolves, bears, or boars. With both choices and random factors influencing the story line, playing another character will never be the same. And the player would only follow one epic main story, with a few limited side-quests clearly marked as such. That will allow grander stories, being more interesting to the player because they involve him much more. To some extent it would even be possible to replace the training of spells and abilities, or the choosing of talents, by a new mechanic in which you receive your spells and abilities as quest rewards (something already done in the Death Knight starting quest series). Instead of choosing a talent tree, you choose a story tree, and by, lets say, deciding to help the tundra people fight the ice giants get access to new fire spells.
On your individual level that plays much like a single-player RPG, but zoom out and overall there is still a multiplayer game behind it. Because that same tundra and the same ice giants that are involved in the fire spell part of the quest tree of some mage could figure in another role in the quest line of another class. He'd be looking for something different, some other reward, but would still be asked to fight the same monsters, so there would still be an interest in grouping up and forming adventuring parties to go somewhere. Who says that everyone in a group must have exactly the same quests to go to some dungeon? They could be looking for different things in there, and some players might join them just for the fun and loot, without having a quest for the place.
Of course designing epic quest trees for every class, with random branches and sub-quests, is a lot of work. But would that really be prohibitive in a MMORPG development project that already has 300 people working on a game for several years, costing $50 million? Compared to creating fancy graphics, creating better stories is relatively cheap. And in my opinion it would be the better investment, because players completely ignore the sparkly spell effects after having seen them once or twice, while epic destiny quest sagas would last them a long time. And you wouldn't need those thousands of short story quests any more. Because players would stop being errand boys doing favors for everyone they meet, but become heroes on an epic journey to a destiny. And yes, that destiny would have an end, somewhere at the level cap. The end wouldn't delete that character, and he could still walk the land as a grizzled veteran and participate in whatever PvE or PvP endgame the MMORPG has. But maybe there would be a lesser percentage of the player base all huddling in the endgame, because making a new character and following a different destiny now sounds more attractive. Expansions could add new destiny quest lines for new character classes in new zones, instead of just adding 10 more levels to the end. And the MMORPG genre could grow up into a medium telling stories, like books or movies do, instead of repeating the same Groundhog Day over and over. Wouldn't that be great?