Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 26, 2010
 
Turning single-player games into MMORPGs

One last question from the open Sunday thread, then I think I answered them all. Void asked: "I would like to see you post about what MMOs could learn from single player games. Specifically, single player RPGs. With the recent release of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age Origins I really feel like MMOs have too much grind and not enough story. But, that is just my opinion. What do you think MMO game devs could learn from single player games?" I think this is a trap. And I think that SWTOR is well on its way to fall into this trap, so we'll be able to see whether my theory is right: You can't use game elements from single-player games with limited duration and turn them successfully into MMORPG games with unlimited duration.

Bioware is good at telling stories in single-player games, there is no doubt about it. But story-telling in a game like KOTOR (or Mass Effect, or Dragon Age Origins) works the same way as story has worked since the beginning of humankind, in a structure which has a beginning, a climax, and an end. But a MMORPG doesn't have an end (except for A Tale in the Desert), and so story-telling falls flat.

In an endless MMORPG, you have the choice of either creating one epic "main" story which develops in parallel to your character level, which is how Lord of the Rings Online does it. Or you provide thousands of short stories, like World of Warcraft. Neither option makes for great story-telling. One of the big draws of a MMORPG is that you can play them for years, for thousands of hours. One main story distributed over thousands of hours ends up being stretched far too thin. Most of the time in LotRO you are NOT advancing the epic main story, the main story ends up being something like an extra award for leveling.

Having recently made the transition from Outlands to Northrend with my paladin, I must say that Blizzard is getting better at telling stories. The WotLK quests are often more fun than the BC and vanilla WoW quests were. And I'm looking forward to Blizzard applying those improved story-telling skills to update the quests of level 1 to 60 in the Cataclysm expansion. But even at its best, storytelling by having a dozen quests or more at all times isn't very engaging. In fact the word "quest" in its original meaning doesn't describe well the quests in a MMORPG, they are more like "errands". Imagine you have a job as secretary or assistant, and your day goes like this "go, fetch me some coffee", "type this letter", "get me a flight to New York", "go for some office supplies"; does that sound like a great story to you? Even if the individual tasks were interesting, they don't combine into a greater whole.

Thus I think that trying to extrapolate story-telling from single-player RPGs into MMORPGs is doomed to failure. I'm hoping for improvement in telling the story of each quest, better grouping of errands into telling the story of one location better, and improved visuals. But that is the best it can get in a MMORPG. From there to the whole game feeling like one big story, like KOTOR or Dragon Age Origins does, there is still a huge gap, and one I don't think that can be bridged.

And therein lies the trap. By trying to learn from single-player games, you risk making a worse MMORPG. Instead of taking the structure of a different game and trying to force it around a MMORPG, game developers should look at the inherent structure of MMORPGs and improve the game around that. For example most players naturally care more about the development of their character than about the artificial story fragments the character went through; thus developers could add more game elements that chronicle the character's development. Instead of the Tome of Knowledge in WAR telling the story of some dwarf you met, in which you aren't interested at all, the chronicle should tell the story of your characters heroic acts in some location, or tell the story of how you found the magical sword of uberness. In a MMORPG the character *is* the story, and any good MMORPG story-telling has to work with that instead of trying to tell a story like a single-player game.
Comments:
Just give me the tools and flexibility to do so, and I'll write my own story, and will shape the stories of the players around me, as they will shape my story. Give me a chalkboard, and I'll make my mark on it. Give me a world, and I'll write its history.
 
And that is, far clearer said than I could have managed, why I don't expect SWTOR to succeed in a big way.
 
100% agreed.
 
There are plenty of opportunities for storytelling in MMORPGs. It just needs to be done differently. I'm thinking about Ryzom, where storytelling is very important. The story revolves around the world, and not around your character individually. This allows for a story that evolves constantly and even after years of playing, it remains new and interesting.
 
Although only 1% of player base currently experience it, IMO the Quel'Delar quest chain is an excellent example of story-telling in an MMO.

Sadly, the feeling that the experience is 'unique' requires the low drop rate of the original quest item.
 
I defnitely think that SWTOR has a good shot of proving you wrong, Tobold.

The story -structure- you mention will not need to be rigidly adhered to due to the timeframe involved with the setting. This will give them great creative license considering that each and every character class will have its own unique lore to serve as a backdrop for any story telling that will occur as the game unfolds.

If you look at the issue deep enough, you will find that what affects story telling in an MMO are the DIKU elements of progression and the speed at which players are allowed to level through content. Horizontal advancement schemes work well to minimize or lessen this impact.

The Final Fantasy franchise is solid proof that single player games can be successful in the MMO genre, and successful in quite a few countries as well.
 
MMO's can do something single player games cannot. And that is a persistant story that happens in the world whether you play the game or not. For example the scourge invasion or ahn'quirage opening events in WoW. I would like to see more of this kind of story telling, like a soap opera that you can dip in to and even play a small part in. You wouldn't get to be the hero that saves the world, but even playing as a humble grunt in a huge war would seem epic compared to most single player rpgs.
 
I've been wondering about it myself. "TOR is going to be KOTOR 1-6".

Great but I finished KOTOR in what, 50 hours? TOR then has 300 hours of fun. I've spent over 5.000 in WoW.

But it's Bioware. It's the company who just delivered the awesome Dragon Age & Mass Effect 2. If anyone can pull it off it's them.
 
I think you are not very clear when say that LOTRO has an epic story and WoW one thousand of little stories. The way you are speaking, it sounds like the only story in LOTRO is the epic and rest of the game is leveling up grinding. That is false.
The fact is that LOTRO has one epic story AND one thousand of little stories.
 
It's the company who just delivered the awesome Dragon Age & Mass Effect 2. If anyone can pull it off it's them.

Bioware RPGs shine with a very short story and good but limited gameplay.
That's it. A good MMO needs much more than tat. Much more.


You wouldn't get to be the hero that saves the world, but even playing as a humble grunt in a huge war would seem epic compared to most single player rpgs.

I wouldn't say that this always works, but I totally agree that making playing the grunt fun is the way to go.´

This 'everybody is a hero'-crap is for babies - perhaps children. Todays MMOs are for adults. And not only for the stupid ones I hope.
 
I like your thoughts and ideas on this subject Tobold.

I think concentrating on how each player can affect the whole of the story would be the best option. It would require huge databases and a pretty good AI to keep track of all the players actions and to "calculate" how each player effects the story. It would most probably need humans (GMs/DMs) to take the end decisions. By this give each player the feeling of being able to not only be a part of the story, but to tell it and change its paths.

Any way, if you stick to role playing with other players instead of NPCs, instead of doing those quests you will have this feeling. Sadly the role play of small groups does not affect the overall story at all. And there is now way to award players for role playing through mechanics, so by only role playing you will not be able to advance your character and end up godmodding instead.
 
If anyone can expand the definition of the MMORPG genre then it would be Bioware. Who says they have to be anything like the current generation of games? Maybe they don't have to be unbounded at all. Who knows.

I can't wait for a company to go (successfully) in a completely new direction with MMO design. Many are saying that Mass Effect 2 is practically a new genre. Who says they can't do the same with an MMO?
 
Man you have to really imagine instead of theories of what would and wouldn't work. Consider a story released every week like a tv show. Now apply it to a game like WoW. People play the new stuff and keep advancing a cool story like the main narrative of a game. So for every week of Wotlk we would've played about 3 hours of epic missions. having us interact with Arthas in groups and solo and all told through a 52 week story with some breaks. The story should be gripping and people should refresh continuously as if it's the next chapter of a book. MMOs should really have weekly DLC. Even monthly arcs would be good, requiring no huge commitments.
 
I think your last paragraph is mostly spot on. I actually am interrested in what that dwarf's background is, but it should not stop there. It also should not be a laundry list like an achievement.

It should be a well crafted narrative featuring your character, wrapped around actual events. "On this day, Gottfreyd Von Ritter was set upon by (Witch Elf name) and (Chosen name). He prevailed in a hard won fight, all alone and without hope of aid..."
 
Sorry for the double post, but something occurs to me.

While many players do not necessarily Role Play, one of the best uses of an MMO for storytelling is to have a live GM or company employee playing a character and interracting with the players.

What if quest givers were actually GMs with all the flexibility a human actor has?

People talk about theme parks when they talk about WoW, but where is Mickey? Not everything at Disney is a robot.

In fact, go to Star Wars Weekends and see the professional Disney actors in Star Wars garb stay in character as they interact with visitors. And that is with visitors not acting back with them (simmilar to the large number of MMO players that do not act in their game)

It seems to me that maybe the answer is to hire more actors and fewer writers...
 
I am of the opinion that WoW has some awesome stories, because you learn about characters from Warcraft universe that the books don't focus on at all. I like hearing about what peasants are doing or what your average guard is troubled with, or on the Horde side, peons and grunts. I don't always care for huge epic storylines, to me they are not interesting. I like hearing about unimportant people.
 
One might question the underlying assumption that MMOs must, by definition, go on forever. Perhaps a sub game does, but Guild Wars managed to tell stories that ended, notably, with a different business model. Some will disdainfully suggest that GW isn't a "real" MMO, but the acronym is terribly ill-defined and interpreted in so many ways as to be nearly useless.

A "perpetual now" MMO doesn't cooperate with stories that need time to advance. That's not the only way to craft an MMO.
 
Tobold, maybe my problem is having 1000 little stories that vaguely tie together instead of one epic journey that has many components. Or I may be burned out on MMOs at the moment.

I would like to see MMOs move beyond simply using text to tell stories. I want something that will create a greater level of immersion for the player. I don't think a quest log with 25 unrelated (or loosely related) quests is the way to do it.

I don't have a perfect answer for creating more immersion, but I do have some ideas.

I also liked Cliff's idea to have more virtual actors in the game world instead of just NPCs. That has the potential to add a lot of immersion.

I really don't have a solution, but I feel like there is a problem with story in MMOs that needs to be solved.
 
To be honest, in regards to World or Warcraft I care very little about the story. I see the game as a big multiplayer like Call of Duty or Halo or what have you in that It's me and a team of other players trying to take down a diffiicult boss and if not being able to having to gear up on a lesser boss until. I'm a raider i can care less about the story.
 
Tobold,

Did you even play Mass Effect? You talked about playing Dragon Age, but perhaps you have forgotten what the game was like?

1) Your complaint about too many "tasks" ruining the story already applies to both of those games, as it does with every single player RPG now. At one point in Mass Effect you have over 50 quests in your log, probably closer to 100, yet Mass Effect has the best story development in a game in years.

2) What do you mean single player RPGs have an "end?" Were you shocked to find out that they made a Mass Effect 2? Are you going to be equally shocked when Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 come out?
 
Samus, how many hours did it take you to play Mass Effect 1 AND 2? 100? How many hours do you play MMORPGs?
 
I have to disagree, I think MMO players are somewhat programmed that MMO’s can’t be more then what they are today. Interactive story with choice is what Bioware will incorporate into SWTOR not just a deeper story.
In today’s MMO’s we go kill 10 Rats, in tomorrow’s MMO’s we will has a choice to kill the Rats, Save the Rats or find the source of the Rat infestation and the choice we make will impact our game play for the rest of the game…..that’s the innovation that will be SWTOR’s WOW! Factor.
 
Very well put. I am looking forward to the day when MMO's can break the "storytelling" paradigm.

A story by nature is told after the fact. An MMO or single player game is happening in real time for you and your character. Therefore it's not, in fact, a story at all.

Single player games can more easily mimic the story structure which we are so familiar with because you are the only point of view. You may move in and out of various story lines, but you are still the only observer and narrator.

Add the several hundred points of view at various time points of an MMO and any story becomes a bit ridiculous. The story becomes merely a "vehicle" toward achievement, not a meaningful interaction.

Compared with the interactions with other players, the whole "storyline" is just being observed by you, not experienced or in any way impacted by you. And it's very easy to completely ignore it.

An MMO should allow storylines to develop between the players. If I impact something, it's impacted for all. Alliance and Horde are not chosen, it chooses you based on your behavior and who you associate with. Burn down a building or kill an important NPC and going near that town will flag you for PvP.

I'm sure some of this will be possible with the continued advancement of computer technology, but the key is in the creatives re-inventing the way we observe and interact with a virtual world, and how we define a "story".
 
Doesn't it depend on what the MMO uses the story for? Even very story driven MMOs still want your money after the climax and denouement. The other extreme is the story could be used to describe the world, alliances and capabilities but the evolution is driven by the players.

EVE disappoints at the practical level; tiny companies will never have the resources of Activision. And the griefing/nonconsensual mean it will always be a niche. But at a theoretical level, they do some interesting things.

Imagine a WoW where you were doing "stuff" that enhanced you, your guild, and your race and your accomplishments might have benefits to you and might benefit or diminish other guilds/races. Sandboxes require some significant New Player Experience to get people started. But it does address a huge problem for Blizzard; we expect there to be lots of interesting content from level 1 to maxLevel, yet the attitudes of most gamers and Blizzard is that anything less than maxlevel is pretty unimportant.
 
Collaborative Narrative is where it's at. You need to have the player characters create the story of the world in which they live based on their successes and failures.

Here's an excerpt from one such story, written by a player in Faery Tale Online about a battle after the event happened in the game:


Khelek, 82 - Midday, hr 7
It was all a haze..

Suiting up in the armor. The steel leggings she never quite got to fit right over her leather ones. The scale shirt that's just a little long, but otherwise fits well. She'd taken care in fixing it. She liked it. Replacing the leafy circlet with a helm of iron. Her ringlets of violet hair spilling out from under it.

Watching everyone else get ready. Her uncle climbing up the hill with the dagger and pearls. Her other uncle saying what could be his last words to her aunt and his children, finishing with a deep kiss for her aunt. Her cousin fidgeting, nervous. His brother offering him encouraging words. Her father kissing her mother. Her mother kissing the side of her head.

Then it was there.

Shadowy and dark. Growling low from the depths of emptiness. A growl that grows and grows until it's a high-pitched scream. Oh, the scream hurt! How its eyes flashed red! Its snarling mouth. The blackened, jagged fangs. Sludge following him. Sulfurous fumes leaking from the gaping holes in his back. The stench of death. Moving towards her father. Not Papa. He can't have Papa.

The realization moving her forward, circling behind the beast. Holding her pearl high to catch the light and her sword ready. Others doing the same. Prayers to Dyn flying through the air. A glimpse at him to smile, only briefly, as he takes his place next to her. Someone yelling for the younger ones to get inside the city to safety.

The beast simply moving its hideous hand to cast boulders and trees about. To twist and maim without ever touching the target. Spewing acid and leering with vicious satisfaction. Crunching sounds. Screams of pain. Screams of anger. Screams to go away. The light from the pearls hurt it. Dyn's name makes it angry. Yelling, screaming his name at it. Holding the pearls. Flinging them into his sight. Refusing to let him take her father.

Then it moves its grotesque hand towards her. Pain will come. She's sure. She steels herself against it. She's scared, but cannot show it. Never show it...(cont'd)

 
My expectation is that SW:TOR will either

(1) Optimistically have a kick-ass end-game that starts once the "storymode" single player is over

(2) Pessimistically Bioware is just trying to get single-player RPG players to pay MMO subscription fees; getting one game for the price of three.
 
Any comparison with Masseffect 1/2 is stupid.

It took me 28 hours to complete ME2 and I stripped mined enough planets to produce all updates.
I also when to every single planet and visited all hidden bases.

Unless Bioware can produce one Mass Effect 2 every two weeks it is not gonna work.
Thus, it won't.

Besides: The ME2 story was bad. What was very good was the way the was story told.
 
Great post. To me the problem with storytelling in MMOs isn't so much that the game doesn't end, but rather that the stories aren't very credible. It doesn't make sense for thousands of players to be simultaneously saving the world in exactly the same way. Attempts to solve the credibility problem have involved isolating players from one another via instancing and phasing, which tends to make the game feel more like a single-player game and less like an MMO.
 
Samus, how many hours did it take you to play Mass Effect 1 AND 2? 100? How many hours do you play MMORPGs?

How long did it take you to level your first character to 60 in WoW? It took me 300 hours, and I did plenty of side things that made it take longer. Before they started adding more in patches, that was nearly all the content WoW had provided at the time.

If Mass Effect/Dragon Age/KOTOR games are 50 hours of content, SWTOR is supposed to be 6 KOTOR games worth of content. There's your same 300 hours. Of course it won't compare to current WoW, but it will compare to what WoW was at launch.
 
@cliff
There are a few games that actually have active GMs who plays characters to create a real interactive story. These stories are partly scripted and requires a lot of resources to manage, but I think they are well worth it. I have my self both scripted and organized a few events like this for PlaneShift, who do this on a weekly basis. It is fun for the players, fun for the GMs and fun for the scripters. You newer know how such events will end, and that is the beauty of it all. This is the only way players are allowed to directly be able to change the whole of the settings. Though larger games like WoW would just end up with major lag issues as too many players would gather on the same place (unless you do large events with 50 GMs spread over the whole of the server).

Never the less, it is a great way to promote role play, have fun and create a story together with many people.
 
Given the likely quality of the SWTOR story line play,
I wouldn't be surprised if SWTOR had a significantly larger fraction of players its players reach max level/endgame relative to WoW.
I also wouldn't be surprised if the typical SWTOR player ended up with more max level characters than the average player of WoW.
Both of the above add up to more time in game, more time longer time to form social ties, and a higher percentage of players getting to their sticky content.

As for story-telling, you can have an engaging story with multiple meaningful climaxes sufficient to sustain a loyal audience, for example:
Comic books
Soap operas
Mythologies
Serial adventure shows
Pen and Paper RPG's

As it applies to BW games, BW's Mass Effect is supposed to be a serial adventure in 3 parts. BW’s success with ME2 has demonstrated they have capacity to successfully serialize stories in video games, and if the Penny Arcade comic is correct (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/2/8/), they have also managed to do so in such a way that your character can have a fairly unique story (one that you might even want to talk to you friends about) even part way through the game.
 
How long did it take you to level your first character to 60 in WoW? It took me 300 hours, and I did plenty of side things that made it take longer. Before they started adding more in patches, that was nearly all the content WoW had provided at the time.

If Mass Effect/Dragon Age/KOTOR games are 50 hours of content, SWTOR is supposed to be 6 KOTOR games worth of content. There's your same 300 hours. Of course it won't compare to current WoW, but it will compare to what WoW was at launch.


You're comparing apples and oranges. You could (and I know you could because I did it) level at least 4 characters, 2 Alliance, 2 Horde to 60 in WoW at launch without doing the same zone twice. So right there its already 1,200 hours of WoW content at launch, not 300.

Reaching the level cap doesn't end a MMORPG. Reaching the end of a story ends the story. I'm currently at over 5,000 hours of /played in World of Warcraft. Do you think Bioware will be happy if every player unsubscribes after 300 hours, instead of staying for thousands of hours?
 
You're comparing apples and oranges. You could (and I know you could because I did it) level at least 4 characters, 2 Alliance, 2 Horde to 60 in WoW at launch without doing the same zone twice. So right there its already 1,200 hours of WoW content at launch, not 300.

It is clear that all the MMO give you more hours of play than a single player game, subscription model, do you remind? But I wouldn't say that killing 25 mobs to get a rare drop for a stupid quest or running for several minutes to go to a quest location is "content". In this case you are comparing apples and oranges.
 
If Mass Effect/Dragon Age/KOTOR games are 50 hours of content, SWTOR is supposed to be 6 KOTOR games worth of content. There's your same 300 hours. Of course it won't compare to current WoW, but it will compare to what WoW was at launch.

So, going with the very optimistic assumption of 50 hours 'brilliant' story in ME2. (It is 80% very short side quests and together with the grind of planet strip mining it took me 28 hours at 'hard')

Also assuming that Bioware wants to spend 6x the 'content' into the start of their MMO.

Now:
That will make me leave after those 300 hours - something like 3 months if I play casually - 2 weeks if I play hardcore.

And then what? Do they want to create 20 hours per week bug tested, good story telling? That's as unrealistic as it gets.

Unless you have a 500mio(+) player MMO there is no way to have a game designer created story at the quality of ME1/2 or DA:O.
Even then the logistics would make this one of the most complicated projects in the history of mankind.
 
TV has pretty much the same problem. There few TV show you can sit down to watch at episode 1, watch for 12 hours a day every day, and not be done in a month.

Last I heard, that fact hasn't led to the TV industry giving up on trying to make stuff.
 
Nope. I don't exactly think it makes baby murlocs cry, I just have never needed more gold than I have, nor do I possess the disposable income. Besides, I'd be too afraid of getting hacked.
 
loljk. I commented on the wrong post T.T
 
You're comparing apples and oranges. You could (and I know you could because I did it) level at least 4 characters, 2 Alliance, 2 Horde to 60 in WoW at launch without doing the same zone twice. So right there its already 1,200 hours of WoW content at launch, not 300.

This is simply untrue. It only took me 300 hours because I took the time to do all the quests and go through all the content, like go through the instances as I'm sure you did. There was very little I hadn't seen.

WoW at launch had fewer quests, and leveling was slower. You may recall it actually had criticism for the 31-40 and 41-50 ranges because there wasn't enough content to go through those the first time, you had to grind.

And remember, there was no end game at launch past Scholo and Strat. No Raids, no BGs, no arena, all those things were added in patches. I still say 300 hours represents all the content WoW had to offer at launch.

Reaching the level cap doesn't end a MMORPG. Reaching the end of a story ends the story. I'm currently at over 5,000 hours of /played in World of Warcraft. Do you think Bioware will be happy if every player unsubscribes after 300 hours, instead of staying for thousands of hours?

I'm a little surprised this didn't get a response from Syncaine. WoW has 5000 hours of content? Darkfall has 10000 hours of content!

But seriously, the end game and all the grindy stuff that all games, including WoW, make you do at max level isn't what we're talking about. I'm sure SWTOR will have all that crap too, and people will spend thousands of hours playing it.

We're talking about the trip there. Could WoW have had story telling as good as Mass Effect or other high quality single player RPGs from 1-59? I think yes, they could have.
 
So, going with the very optimistic assumption of 50 hours 'brilliant' story in ME2. (It is 80% very short side quests and together with the grind of planet strip mining it took me 28 hours at 'hard')

Exactly. The original argument was that single player RPG stories wouldn't work in MMORPGs because all the side quests would ruin it. As you said, the single player RPGs already have those side quests.

Also assuming that Bioware wants to spend 6x the 'content' into the start of their MMO.

The 6 times number comes from their developers, it's not my personal estimation. Of course they could be lying I guess, but that's what they're claiming.

Unless you have a 500mio(+) player MMO there is no way to have a game designer created story at the quality of ME1/2 or DA:O.
Even then the logistics would make this one of the most complicated projects in the history of mankind.


Yes, you are describing SWTOR. Budget estimates range from $150-300 million. It is almost certainly going to be the most expensive game ever made. 2 million game sales and 1 million average subscribers turns a profit on that in the first year.
 
Thank you for reading and taking the time to reply to my post.

"How long did it take you to level your first character to 60 in WoW?"

I don't remember, it was quite a long time ago. I would guess it was somewhere around 200-300 hours of actual play, but in my case it was spread out. I stopped around level 40 and then finished up maybe a few months later. Other that that, I messed around with few alts, but never got a second character to max. Most of my friends that played had 1 max level character, some had 2, one had 3.

"If Mass Effect/Dragon Age/KOTOR games are 50 hours of content, SWTOR is supposed to be 6 KOTOR games worth of content. There's your same 300 hours."

It's supposed to be "hundreds of hours" of content per class at launch. The number 200 hours per class has popped up more than once. You're also assuming that BW will have weak endgame gameplay.

"You're comparing apples and oranges.... So right there its already 1,200 hours of WoW content at launch, not 300."

I never bothered to access most of WoW's 1200, and most of my friends were the same.

"Reaching the level cap doesn't end a MMORPG."

Yes, but my understanding is most people actually don't get to max level in WoW. I could be wrong, perhaps there are some stats you could point me to.

"Reaching the end of a story ends the story."

Depends on whether it's a serial or not.

"I'm currently at over 5,000 hours of /played in World of Warcraft."

Do you consider yourself representative of the bulk of WoW's subscriber base in terms of your dedication/interest in the game? Perhaps more importantly, if I were a game designer, is your level of interest and drive representative of the group I should focus my development efforts on if I'm concerned with my game being a commercial success?
 
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