Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Why do we play? - Storytelling
When World of Warcraft came out in 2004, every time you clicked on a quest giver, the quest text appeared slowly, word for word. One of the earliest macros floating around in the WoW community was for immediate quest display, then there were addons to do that, and finally Blizzard built the option for immediate quest text into the client. People simply couldn't be bothered to read the quest text, and often general chat was full with people asking where to find some location, in spite of there being a pretty good description in the quest text. Later addons like Questhelper appeared, which would automatically mark your quest locations on the map. Newer MMORPGs, like Warhammer Online, already released with that as a game feature. And in the upcoming patch 3.2 World of Warcraft will get a Questhelper-like feature in the regular client. Click quest, read only the short description of "Kill 10 foozles", get the location of the foozles marked on your map, and off you go. The whole boring story of how the foozles are threatening the farmers livelihood including the text description of how to find the foozles at the second bend of the river north of the village becomes obsolete. There is a definitive trend away from storytelling.
But Bioware announced that storytelling is the "fourth pillar" of MMORPGs, and are promising increased storytelling with complete voice-overs for Star Wars: The Old Republic. That gives us two competing theories: Either players love storytelling, and only clicked through text quests fast because the stories were so lame and badly presented. Or players don't care about storytelling at all, and Bioware will be forced to include some way to quickly bypass the voice-over quest descriptions, and just mark the 10 foozles on the map like everybody else does.
There is no doubt that that the stories in pretty much every existing MMORPG are rather bad, and badly told. That isn't actually much of a surprise. The game company hires some guy, who is not a renowned author in the first place, and then asks him to come up with thousands of quest texts of maximum 511 characters each, each giving a different story of why the player should go out and kill 10 foozles. Even Tolkien himself would have had problems to make each of these ultra-short stories engaging. Unless the game uses advanced techniques like phasing, the player is also painfully aware that the 10 foozles will respawn 5 minutes later, and the same farmer will ask the next adventurer to kill them. Often the NPC for whom you just did a big favor also completely fails to remember you. The virtual reality you see around you has no relation to the quest text, making the story uninteresting.
Beyond quest texts, there aren't many means to tell the lore of the virtual world, and not much reason to be interested in it. You don't need to know what exactly the relationship between Kel'Thuzad and the Lich King is, you only need to know the tactics how to beat him, and maybe his loot drop table. Again the experienced realities, Kel'Thuzad being always in the same location, always using the same tactics, there being as many copies of Kel'Thuzad as there are raid groups, and him being back next week after you just killed him, conspire against any meaningful storytelling.
Star Wars: The Old Republic will have to fight with the very same problems. "I am your father, Luke!" makes for great cinema, but "I am your father, all 25 of you in the raid group!" repeated to every group, and every week, has little or no impact. If we play for the story, we want to be an important part of that story, and that fails if we see everybody else being equally important. The only way to motivate players with storytelling is to make the story more believable, by having the virtual world around the player be visibly impacted in a way that is consistent with the story. That might be possible with heavy use of instancing, but ultimately it creates a massively parallel single-player game, and not a massively multiplayer game. If you allow players to have a real impact on the world, affecting all other players, you'll end up with a model like EVE Online: It can create great stories, but the number of actors in these stories is tiny compared to the total number of players. For every players who pulls of a great bank scam, or topples an alliance, there are many thousands who lead a rather boring and mundane life in which nothing special happens. Nobody has found a way yet in which everybody can have an impact, because as the villain in The Incredibles says, "If everybody is special, then no one is".
If we look at the function of storytelling in MMORPGs, or even all role-playing games, it is clearly mostly a means to disguise the fact that it is in the nature of a game to be repetitive. A RPG is basically a game which consists of a series of combats, which all run along roughly similar lines, with minor variations, and the story serves to bind these combats together. Quests encourage you to first kill 10 green foozles, then go back to the quest NPC for a reward, and being sent to kill 10 blue foozles. That is an improvement over killing 20 green foozles, even if the blue foozles just look different. The quest adds movement from the quest giver to the first kind of monster, back to the quest giver, and then on to the second kind of monster, thus breaking up the monotony. But is it the story that is being told by the quest that motivates the players to act that way, or the quest reward? Observation of player behavior points towards the latter: At the level cap in World of Warcraft most players appear to prefer repeatable daily quests that still give some reputation reward to quests that offer new stories but no reward besides gold. For a few faction points players rather do the same quest over and over, having to deal with other players camping the same spots, instead of doing quests with new stories.
But while it appears clear that storytelling is not a major part of the answer of why we play MMORPGs, that doesn't mean Bioware isn't onto something. SWTOR doesn't have to rely on telling its lore through quest texts with voice-overs. Most of the players will already have an idea of the lore of the Star Wars universe before they even start playing. Nobody needs to explain us what a jedi is, or a storm trooper. SWTOR profits from the same brand (and lore) awareness that Lord of the Rings Online has. Everybody who played LotRO probably noticed that doing a stupid Fedex quest in the Shire as a hobbit was somehow more fun than doing a similar quest in a game whose lore you didn't know or care much about. Storytelling might just be window dressing, the cherry on top of the game, but that can still make the game overall more fun, and influence a decision to buy, or to keep playing. We don't play just because of the story, but telling better stories in better ways might be a viable path to improve the genre. We'll see for ourselves when SWTOR comes out whether we follow the stories, or keep our fingers on whatever key is used to skip the quest dialogues.