Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
 
The neverending story

While I don’t mention it very often, I’m still regularly playing pen & paper roleplaying games, one evening every two weeks, for the last 10 years or so. That makes a bit less than 100 hours of roleplaying per year. In comparison to that I once added up the /played time of all my World of Warcraft characters, divided it by the number of years I’m playing WoW, and ended up at around 1,000 hours per year; ten times more than the comparable pen & paper roleplaying activity. Why does that matter? Have a look at the post from Chris at Game by Night on Bioware thinking that quests in current MMORPGs “have no point”, or the discussion in the last open Sunday thread on quests, with Pangoria’s follow-up post on how quests should be. We all want games with a great story and quests “that matter”, but how can you make a story which is both engaging and several thousand hours long?

A MMORPG is longer than War and Peace (whether as book or as movie), longer than the Harry Potter series, longer than Lost, and longer than any other form of entertainment with a coherent story. A MMORPG is much longer than any single-player game with a story, for example Mass Effect 2 can be played through completely with all side-quests in 40 hours, and even Japanese RPGs don’t last much longer than 100 hours. Thus, as Chris says, if every quest of Star Wars: The Old Republic would be part of the main narrative, the overall story would be unbearably long-winding and convoluted. MMORPGs are designed to be neverending, while a story needs a beginning, evolution, and an end. I like the approach on Pangoria to make the game a series of independent short stories of different lengths, but that is already the best we can hope for.

And even if the quests are interesting the first time you play them, they become less so if you play through the same quests again with an alt. Even if, as in a game like Dragon Age, you can solve some quests in different ways, the result still is somewhat repetitive. Ultimately MMORPGs are by necessity repetitive games. There is no limit to the number of hours which you can play Pong, or Tetris, or Space Invaders, or even complex games like Civilization, because they consist of a repetition with variations of the same game principles over and over. In a MMORPG running the same dungeon again with a different group is more interesting than doing the same quest twice solo. Even doing a quest in a MMORPG just once often already has repetitive elements, because you need to repeat the same fight against the same type of monster several times to solve the quest.

So why do we have quests at all? Because experience shows that without quests, MMORPGs become even *more* repetitive. If you don’t have quests sending you into the different corners of a zone to kill different monsters, players have a tendency to simply select one spot and kill monsters there until they level up. That is how the original Everquest worked. That sort of grind is even worse than doing quests with uninteresting stories.

To make a better MMORPG, developers need to answer the fundamental question of what players are supposed to do for those 1,000 hours a year. Good luck trying to fill all that time with pre-written stories that never repeat and never resemble each other. I think the Guild Wars 2 promised approach of making the game world more dynamic, so that the stories aren’t so much told than developing from the state the world is in, is better than trying to hire an army of people to create fixed dialogue with voice-overs. How many hours of voice-overs can you possibly pack into a game? Probably far less than what even an average player will consume.

The final nail in the coffin of pre-packed stories in MMORPGs is that many players don’t even care. If on opening Icecrown Citadel Blizzard had made a website with two links, one promising to reveal the grand finale of the story around Arthas the Lich King, while the other link would lead to his loot tables in the various modes, which link do you think most players would have clicked on first? If MMORPGs wanted to improve their story-telling, they would be well advised to improve the way in which each character’s personal story and development is told, because their own characters is what players really care about. The NPC for whom we just did half a dozen quests and who on clicking on him still greets us like a stranger is far less interesting. Why would we care about his story, when whatever we do doesn’t have any lasting influence on him anyway?

I think that unless you have an unlimited budget, developers’ time is better spent designing gameplay elements that hold up well to thousands of hours of repetition than writing stories and dialogue. Give us a dynamic, living world, with a consistent lore, and then let us discover the story of that lore while we experience the more important to us story of how our character grows in that world. Leave the overarching narrative to the single-player role-playing games and pen & paper RPGs, because a story of a thousand hours is no story at all.

[EDIT: Between the time I wrote this and the time it got published, a relevant post on the same subject appeared on the Common Sense Gamer blog.]
Comments:
"I think that unless you have an unlimited budget, developers’ time is better spent designing gameplay elements that hold up well to thousands of hours of repetition than writing stories and dialogue. Give us a dynamic, living world, with a consistent lore, and then let us discover the story of that lore while we experience the more important to us story of how our character grows in that world. Leave the overarching narrative to the single-player role-playing games and pen & paper RPGs, because a story of a thousand hours is no story at all."

I can't say I agree with that. Well, I do agree that no MMO should aim to make a thousand hours worth of story. But I think that aiming for a similar amount of story as in single player games would be a good thing.

Of course it would only consist of 10% of your total playtime per year, but that's not a bad thing really. It gives your character a purpose in the world. A purpose to achieve the next level. Without some kind of story, I find it meaningless to progress my character. For what reason do I want to become stronger? I think developers should give us the reason. "To get blue dragon sword +1" just doesn't cut it for me. If by becoming stronger I can "save the world", then that's enough purpose for me. I just want a meaning for my existence in the game world.

FFXI already does what you described- short stories that have a beginning, middle and an end. They all last through one expansion, so they're longer than usually, but they all also have a satisfactory ending. The important thing is to make it so the stories come together at some point, and they're not meaningless in the game world. Like with the 2 first expansion packs for XI, which linked the vanilla game's story together and once you were able to complete all 3 storylines which seemingly had not much in common with each other, a "final mission" type quest was introduced which tied all these stories together in a final epic "showdown".

Of course the game didn't end there, and the story was more complicated than that as we later found out- but at the time, it felt like a satisfactory ending- in an MMORPG!

100 hours of story is better than no story at all. That's what I think. The story in FFXI gave me a reason to progress further. It's also why I can't last long in other MMO's such as WoW and EVE. They don't give me a (good enough) reason to progress. Bigger ship or stronger sword just doesn't cut it.
 
And to add- if MMO's could give me similar quality of gameplay as in single player games with no story, I would not mind no story at all.

But right now, it doesn't seem possible to achieve such thing, so I think story is still important to make up for the lack of quality in gameplay.

It also brings people together, if you can't just down the bosses alone. Nothing better than having a static group that progresses the story weekly and clears it together- if it's long enough, of course. Once you get to the end it's really satisfying feeling- something you can't get anywhere else.
 
I like the idea and i am positiev that it can be realized.

I am still generally pessimistic about Bioware. What they say about MMOs just doesn't show a lot of .. experience. Before they started this MMO they should have told all employees to read the MMO blogosphere for a year, in my opinion ;)
 
The fair way to judge the amount of content an mmo has is probably to do a dedicated run for the 'lore master' achievement and then do each raid once. I wonder how much time that would add up to for a game like WoW and if it really is that much more than how much time is spent playing something like Disgaea.
 
I agree - it's not about the story any more.

Makes me sad. But then again - I have so gotten used to pressing those action buttons ;-) That's why I only pvp - lots of button mashing, absolutely no story.
 
Translation: WoW is good and TOR will suck! :D

Joking apart I think you are right in light of current development practices and how MMO's seem to be ran.

If TOR is narrative based then they would have to keep a constant stream of high quality content and for that they would need trucks of money.

However is still early to make assumptions for we don't know the technology behind TOR or the subscription model that will be used.

Perhaps Bioware will manage to pull off a framework that allows designers to create content quickly with predefined "tile sets" freeing the developers to work only on gameplay or perhaps the model will be a lower subscription with payed updates which will be like story lines.

One can only guess but I do hope they succeed big time. Not that I want to play TOR (never quite liked the SW mythos anyway) but I feel Blizzard (or rather it's customers) could benefit from some form of competition. At the moment there is none.
 
Doesn't this really apply to "non-sandbox" games? If the MMO is about killing the LK or unmaking the ring, then it is a traditional story with beginning, climax and denouement. And quests need to support that, albeit there may be considerable dead foozle filler.

But say you had your "EVE if implemented by Activision" . The developers define the items and "physics" of the world. The quests define the organization: be it East vs West/ Horde vs Alliance/ Greek vs Trojan. Or it could be more like the old board game diplomacy: several states. There is no climax that the quest have to shepherd people to. New gear can be added; new conflicts (e.g. colonies, invaders) but there is no end, as long as the subscriptions remain high enough of course.

A virtual story like WoW is about as good as the developers can make. The downside is the virtual world can seem much more spartan than a scripted story. But it could be far richer since there are far more player hours being put into the world than developer hours.

Theoretically, i think the sandbox should be better. Practically, I think WoW has set the bar high enough (even unimaginative WoW clones are expensive to produce) that they have "sucked the oxygen" from the MMO space for quite some time.
 
Stories are great in single player games. But I'd never replay an adventure game and so far I haven't replayed any single player rpgs. The fun in these games is the story.

As for WoW? I've levelled five characters to lvl 70 or above. I usually don't even read the quests. The story doesn't matter to me.

Why WoW works is because of the great combat mechanics. Grinding mobs is fun! Doing instances is fun! In other words, the game mechanics are fun.

So it's probably better to indeed concentrate on those and less on the story. As for the Bioware mmorpg? We'll see.
 
I'm not entirely sure how this ties together, but this reminds me of a frequent beef I have with many "indie" roleplaying gamers.

They contend that the story is the most important thing in pen and paper roleplaying.

I don't see how it can be. Roleplaying games, like life, don't produce stories. They produce experiences. Those experiences may subsequently be re-parsed by the players into a told story, but the nature of a pen-and-paper RPG is that it is designed to give the impression of being another character, in present time - another life. And as anyone who makes their living telling stories will tell you, life != story.

The only reason an MMO needs a pre-canned story is because there's no GM there to develop the character experience live.
 
I agree with Nidaime_2.

In my perfect MMORPG, it would have deep storyline that would be the way to level up (thus avoiding stupid fetch quests and grinding) while the gameplay element (raid raid raid) would be the way to gain gear. By doing that, there will still be quality story, but it will also be endless.

And even if the quests are interesting the first time you play them, they become less so if you play through the same quests again with an alt.

This is irrelevant IMO. Sure the story becomes less interesting if you play through the same quests with an alt. But by playing an alt, everything is already less interesting. You might play a different race or class, but you're essentially doing the same thing (killing the same monsters, going through the same zones, doing the same raids, etc).

I think that unless you have an unlimited budget, developers’ time is better spent designing gameplay elements that hold up well to thousands of hours of repetition than writing stories and dialogue.

From developer's point of view, I agree that it's time better spent on designing gameplay element because it's the more cost efficient.

However, I don't see why it's impossible to have both good story and good gameplay. If WoW has an improved better story than what it has now, would WoW become worse MMORPG because of that?

Blizzard is probably as close as it gets for MMORPG developer to be having unlimited budget. Should they try creating better storyline to complement their great gameplay in their next MMORPG?
 
I just think you can do so much in an MMORPG gameplay wise.

It can't hold the candle to the single player game's gameplay as it is right now.

But you can still fill that gap by adding an interesting story to follow. It has worked before with single player games too; if the gameplay is not that spectacular, a good story can make up for it (much like how Lost Odyssey received such good reviews years ago; story made up for the boring gameplay).

I think it is what MMO's need, but in a similar scale with single player games; no need for 1000 hours of story, as long as the 100 hours are filled with quality.
 
With a dynamic world of exciting lore, even if PvP is not allowed, the game will become a griefing fest. Players do not engage in behaviors that build and develop continuity--most often players maximize reward. In a dynamic world that means they'll maximize short-term reward and completely destroy the game world or otherwise render it unplayable in no more than a month or two.

If you're going to ask for a dynamic world, it has to be locked down and not open in order for it to be sustainable. And usually when you take that step, people start to doubt if your game is an MMO at all.
 

If you're going to ask for a dynamic world, it has to be locked down and not open in order for it to be sustainable. And usually when you take that step, people start to doubt if your game is an MMO at all.


Well certain limits and rules has to be in place, moreover the rules should be such that promote creation instead of destruction


You think the "lock down"= instance. And that indeed what makes MMO not mmo at all

I think more in terms of separating dynamics from power. Fundamental problem with failed designs so far (shadowbane for example) even beyond purely horrible technical execution is that they promoted crushing of your opponent.

DaoC made first tiny baby step in right direction by having combat zone separated from conflict zone.

next logical step would be expanding that idea and building on it .Not instancing it (which wow did)

Eve did kinda right thing in that direction except they never actually made gameplay itself accessible and pleasant (but ironically that part wow did right)


2 things needs to be combined - dynamic gameplay without instances, and accessibility (fun gameplay in 10 minutes)

Until then we will have 2 separate camps -meaningless gear pinata treadmill themparks (WoW) and extremely boring timesinks (EvE)
 
This is a near-perfect analysis, Max. Only thing I'd say is that EVE is not a "boring time sink", but rather suffers from bad core gameplay. The repetetive things that you do within the (any) conext of an MMO must not be unfun.

Moving your character in WoW and fighting are fun. In EVE it is.. hard to like.
 
I think that LK was the completion of the Forsaken Storyline and Human Storylines. Cataclysm, will be a story line focusing on most likely Orcs, and maybe night elves.

Even though all races get something, usually the focus is more on one or the other.

The forsaken storyline culminating in the Wrath Gate was an important and amazing event for those who have played through the forsaken quest-lines and seen the Royal Apothecary Society as the weird evil that it was.

There is a storyline hidden in there but it is very subtle, with bits at a time, resulting in a poorer over-all narrative regardless of how epic the story is.

That poor step by step narrative is what we need fixed in our MMOs, and I don't think it would take that much (certainly not what ToR is doing).
 
Completely agree, I think that the comments about Tetris and Civilization are spot on. For those games you can play them indefinitely since you start out doing the same thing but the way that play develops makes each run through a unique experience.

For example in DAoC I barely ever did quests and what I liked the best was wandering around the wilderness with a group seeing the world, killing the foozles that we couldn't kill and avoiding the ones we couldn't while looking for safe spots to rest up between fights.

If that sort of activity is fun for a very long time (and in DAoC there is really a limit to how much you can be entertained by doing that) you don't need things like quests that people can complete.

With games that are designed to be played for an indefinite amount of time trying to set up scripted "stories" is a sucker's game since, as Tobold says, there's just no way to produce 1,000 hours of scripted "stories" a year. It would be better to have activities that turn out differently each time you try them (like Tetris or Civilization) so that you can keep on doing the same things without it getting repetitive.
 
With games that are designed to be played for an indefinite amount of time trying to set up scripted "stories" is a sucker's game since, as Tobold says, there's just no way to produce 1,000 hours of scripted "stories" a year.

I still don't get why some people think that it's either good gameplay or good story. It's not impossible to get both good gameplay and good story.

On an unrelated note, I wonder how many people still play Tetris these days and how often they do that. I know I haven't played Tetris for probably 15+ years. I'm not even sure I've spent a total of 1,000 hours playing Tetris either.
 
It's not impossible to get good gameplay and good story. However with a game like a MMORPG you just CAN'T make enough good pre-scripted stories to keep people satisfied, its just logistically impossible.

As far as Tetris goes it was also slightly less difficult to program than a MMORPG and just a general example that setting things up so they're fun to do over and over again because the exact details differ every time you play it makes more sense for a MMORPG than pre-scripting stuff CRPG style. In a lot of ways I think that MMORPGs emulate CRPGs far too much, since so many things that work well in a single player CRPG just don't work well in a MMORPG.
 
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