Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 25, 2011
Story-telling in MMORPGs

A reader wrote me about how much he enjoyed the post-Shattering Forsaken story-line:
I wanted to share with you the most fun I've had questing in WoW the past five years. The new Forsaken storyline is truly stellar! From the starter zone in Tirisfal Glades through Silverpine Forest, Hillsbrad Foothills and finally in Western Plaguelands, the questing here has reminded me why I love this game so much. This past week I leveled a new undead character through those zones after hearing about how incredible the new Forsaken storyline is from other players (and wanting to experience the conclusion of the the awesome Worgen storyline started with the Alliance faction). I started to hear so much about it became too difficult to avoid being spoiled before I experienced it myself, so I just forgot about my Alliance main character and spent a week -- a gloriously fun week -- being a new Forsaken in the Horde.

Drama, comedy (oh, the comedy!), intrigue -- it's all there, just like in a movie, and this is a five-star movie to be sure. I highly recommend leveling a new undead character to experience it. Do ALL the quests in each of the zones I mentioned to experience the whole story.

There's even a short series of quests making fun of silly players (who some would call M&S) and their silly behaviors in game. I'll leave it to you to find and experience that comedic quest on your own. Have fun!
There is no doubt that the quality of story-telling in World of Warcraft has improved over the years. I played through various newbie zones myself after patch 4.0, and through the Worgen and Goblin areas after Cataclysm, and the new player experience with regard to story has improved by leaps and bounds. Okay, not everybody will like the kind of bling comedy story of the goblins, but it is hard to argue that the way the story is told hasn't improved.

At the other end of the spectrum, story is either absent, or is simply ignored. It is safe to assume that when you are on the 10th wipe of your 12th raid to the same dungeon, you don't care what the bloody story of that place is. Gevlon, who unexpectedly enjoys the early game story-telling, compares that early experience to passively watching TV, because you don't have to put any effort into playing well to experience it. In the end game of heroics and raids the pace becomes considerably more frantic and hectic, and simply doesn't allow for the time to enjoy any story-telling (nor socializing, but that is a different subject). Most raiders complained about the story-telling finale of Icecrown, because they were interested in the fight itself, the achievement, and the loot, not the story of the Lich King. Cut-scenes before and after the fight only get into the way of "serious" raiding.

But even in the early game, gameplay considerations get into the way of story-telling. As much as story-telling has improved since 2004, there is still a major element missing: Player decisions. In Hyjal there is one quest where you can decide whether to kill or release a prisoner, but the decision has no consequences for you or the story. And that is as good as it gets, all the other quests don't give you any choice at all. Actually you have LESS choice in Cataclysm than in previous expansions, because previously you could skip quests you didn't like. But the level 80 to 85 zones are mostly linear, so that if you refuse to do the early quests, you will never get the option to do the quests of the rest of the zone.

So, funnily enough, the browser game I'm currently playing, Echo Bazaar, offers better story-telling for a fraction of the budget that World of Warcraft has. In Echo Bazaar I can often freely decide in which direction I want to send the story, and my decision has consequences in opening up other branches of the story-line. WoW doesn't offer anything like that. And as much as they like to hype their "fourth pillar", I'm not yet convinced that Bioware will let me make really important decisions in Star Wars: The Old Republic; I'm afraid they will fob me off with fake decisions which don't have consequences for more than the immediate quest instance that I am in.

So the scripted nature of quests in MMORPGs and the preference of players for a fast-paced "challenging" action game both get into the way of good story-telling. So more and more I'm asking myself whether the unholy marriage of two very different games in World of Warcraft, the "leveling game" and the "end game" is really a good idea. Wouldn't it be better to have one virtual world full of stories, player decisions, consequences, and lore, and a completely different game of challenging cooperative multiplayer PvE encounters? A player who currently is mostly interested in the end game is rushing through the leveling game, with all the story-telling being perceived more as an obstacle than as a source of entertainment. It seems to be difficult to create a game where players care about the story while at the same time worrying about how much damage per second they can put out.
Your thoughts go along the same rail as mine. In addition to the story being a bit more open for choices and decisions there could be an inbuilt part which would guide the player to proper grouping and social playing, too.

Especially the freedom of choice and more options than just the binary YES/NO would be great to have, especially when the NO always ends up being the one for which you do not get any reward for.

All along the lines I've been writing over the last few weeks.

C out
I'm really really hoping GW2 will play out along those lines. Forget levels altogether and have opportunities based on a player's previous decisions.
Depends what your expectations of "story-telling" are. I can't speak for the new WoW storylines, not having played them. but the very best MMO storylines I have ever played through rarely reach the basic standards of genre fiction. It's a low bar but the form struggles to reach it.

The quality of prose in quests is genrally quite poor even by genre fiction standards, although there are exceptions. Dialog is much better, generally, but even then it's an exceptional quest that offers dialog on a par with even a moderate sitcom or tv drama.

After many, many years of playing both CRPGs and MMORPGs I remain to be convinced that either is a good medium for storytelling. I feel that their strength lies in offering the player an opportunity to create and tell their own stories, not to follow stories pre-written for them.

I don't think it's impossible to use the MMO form to deliver deep, sophisticated narrative, but I do think it's one of the least satisfactory ways to go about doing that. It's hard to imagine any would-be writer of talent actively preferring to write game quests or plots in preference to writing novels or movies or plays.

Rather, we get tend to get stories told by people whose ambition is to work in gaming. Or people who are working in gaming already for whom writing story is a step in a career path. We'll only get true storytelling in MMOs if and when writers who have the talent to be successful in traditional storytelling media choose MMOs as their first and preferred outlet for that talent.

I won't hold my breath.
EVE Online leaves all sorts of important decisions to the players, as it is the players who decide the shape of the galaxy. Today this is Legion's of xxXXDeathXXxx system, tomorrow it's the return of IT Alliance. Once a choice is made the world starts spinning.

Truth is that in RL you barely have a choice of higher magnitude. Who to marry, which school to go to, what skills to learn, what job to apply to. These things shape the your world. In WoW it's which guild to join.

The player related choicec in game do change your world. You can join one guild or aother, you can choose to learn to play good ar not and these are the meaningful decisions. It's the samae in EVE, only in EVE questing isn't really meant to be engaging, so noone has a problem with that. NPCs are not capsuleers, so you don't really have the option to fully interact with them, but it is storywise congruent. In WoW however NPCs pretend to be exactly like players, but in reality they are nothing like'em and are not affected by anything the players do to them. The same with NPC 'factions' - they have unmovable borders, canot be fought, at least not in the sense of defeating the whole faction, instead just a countless groups of it's minions.

On this blog methinks I read once an idea of adding a 'invasion' mechanic, with orcs appearing in certain regions of the world and players being forced to clear the invasion by eradicating orc camps. It was partially similiar to what WaR was about, and reminded me mildly of the then approaching EVE Incursion. Battling for cities in WoW and the cities chaging theme from Alliance to Horde would be a cool, world affecting feature.

You say a lot about giving the player a choice that will affect the world, but I don't know what kind of effect you want to see in the world exactly?
I think you're confusing the term "storytelling" a bit here. I thought Gevlon's comparison to TV is dead on. Levelling in wow really is "press any key to continue".

Saying that the player does not have any input does NOT mean that the game does a poor job at storytelling. They are simply two different concepts. Books and TV excell at telling stories, and they have zero user input. Now, you can argue that this kind of passive storytelling is a bad *game*, and I'd agree. Even my favorite game-with-a-story, Mass Effect 2, let's you have nearly zero effect on the story through the action sequences, only through dialog options. And even that is limited to the small details.

I'm not sure if I think "good storytelling" should even be a goal for an MMO. My old idea of an mmo (before I started playing myself) was of a persistent world where your character simply existed and could do fun stuff. Stories would be exceptional stuff that happened, not something told by the game designers.
I think maybe MMOs are better at creating big worlds and letting us tell our own small stories in them. Epic stories require lots of direction and just turn us into some writer's idea of who and what our character should be. As a result our characters become central to a story, but we as players are no longer central to our character.

Story telling requires passive story observing. I want active game playing. I just don't think you can tell a big story in an MMO without getting in the way of fun game playing.
"Most raiders complained about the story-telling finale of Icecrown, because they were interested in the fight itself, the achievement, and the loot, not the story of the Lich King."

I don't think that's true at all. I'd argue that most people enjoyed the story aspect of the encounter the first time.

When you're on 10th wipe of the night on the Lich King, after 3 nights of wiping on the Lich King, and maybe one day thinking about a week of wiping on the heroic Lich King 10-15 times a night, the story *is* in the way. There should have been a way to bypass the story event once it was seen once, as they added to Halls of Reflection.
I think the problem is in the structure. You first play 200 straight hours of soloing/story/questing, which comes to an abrupt stop at the end. Only then can you start the multiplayer game (at which point the first game is non-existent).

Now, I want to play both of these games, and I can accomplish this through alts. However, I can see that someone who prefers the multiplayer game would want to rush to that. The dungeon finder makes this better, but the perception is still that you need to get to level cap before you can really start on that game.

If the "story" element of the game wasn't a direct obstacle to the multiplayer game, I think players might not treat it as such.
>the decision has no consequences for you or the story

Do you really, honestly expect this is possible in an MMO?

If I do a quest and destroy a building and am standing on the ruins, and you do the quest and not destroy the building, do I get disconnected from server and have to petition a GM because I am stuck in a building which I thought to have destroyed but you kept?

Or will there be 1 phase for every character in the game, which will truly make it a single player game, where you will almost never see another player, because they made 1 different decision and are in a different phase of the world?

Or how about only small things change? You save a prisoner in a cage, she becomes an NPC at the near camp, and only you and others who save her can see her and get her quests and buy her wares? But then she can't offer anything significant otherwise everyone who did not do their research will QQ day and night that they can't just play the game, because now they are missing quests and opportunities that they didn't know they could have.

Or possibly only tiny-tiny things you want to change? Like you still have to get 10 goblin swords, but warriors may get them via disarming goblins, and rogues can pickpocket them and mages can polymorph and walk up and just take them...?

Tobold, I am sitting on your floor, head tilted, eyes wide. Tell me how you would change the WoW storytelling to allow more decision making without disrupting other peoples' gameplay.
Xax, the solution is to make it so that nobody's access to content for advancement is dependent on others. If the princess doesn't have to be there for everyone so everyone can use her rescue to level up, it's okay that not everyone can rescue her. Not that I'm sure Wow's design can allow such a thing, but other games certainly are knocking the notion about
Why does scripting get in the way of storytelling? Stories are highly scripted.

What you want is to be able to create your own stories, which is fine. I just think there's a distinction to be made here.

I lean towards scripted storytelling if I'm questing. For stories I want to create, I want a sandbox world.
I would like to second Bezier's comment.

If you want story-telling in MMORPGs, then it's an absolutely must that the majority of such telling is left to the players themselves, with the developers providing a minimal context and direction.

WoW doesn't do this, and nor do I think would it be to its benefit if it did. As much as there is an audience for the "your actions affect the world!" type of game, there's a bigger audience for people who want to be taken for a ride and not be lost as to what to do, or be negatively affected by other players actions.

I should point out that Echo Bazaar is not an MMO, even though it does have social aspects to it, which is pretty much why it's so easy it to do a choose-your-own adventure type game. Hell, there are billions of choose your own adventure books that came before it (which Echo Bazaar is essentially).
For those that enjoy storytelling, they should play the Final Fantasy series. It is incredibly fun and like WoW, the story is also very linear.
"I feel that their strength lies in offering the player an opportunity to create and tell their own stories, not to follow stories pre-written for them."

What Bhagpuss said. Games in general *as a medium* are about player agency, not watching a movie. (This coming from a guy who got a degree in movie-making computer animation and now works in games.) Even those Final Fantasy games are just movies interspersed with story-irrelevant gameplay.

MMOs especially would benefit from being a stage on which players tell their own stories.

As for the "endgame" and "leveling game", I've argued for a while now that the two should be separated. If someone just wants to play the endgame treadmill, and doesn't like the leveling game, let them skip ahead. Or design a game that's entirely the "endgame" as we now know it; no levels, no grand storyline questing, just endless raiding.
I think that the problem is viewing story in a traditional way such as it is in movies or books. Games are different, they have a different story-telling potential than to play through a sequence of events that the player stars in.

I think a major problem in a game (especially and mmo) is having a story that focuses on the character you play and not the world surrounding the character. I don't want to be told who I am by the game and I don't want to go through scripted choices to say who I am in a contrived way.

I think that leaving the story in the lives of the npcs and the details of the world itself is a better option for an open-world mmorpg.

Players can make choices without going through dialogue trees or using text, but through what they do and how they play: do they fight as a wizard in the great mage-queen's army, do they train as an apprentice of a swordsman in order to defend their village, are they a protector to escort tradesmen between nations, are they an assassin or a bounty hunter...

As for a focused story: the great mage-queen has a fascinating story, an intricate history, and a lot of personality, and as someone under her authority, the wizard has a unique relationship to her demands, missions and quests as well as a unique perspective on her actions within the larger world narrative. Long live the great mage-queen!

It is a lot like real life actually: we are very rarely the main characters of the interesting world narrative. We get sucked into it by association, empathy, viewing other stories and experiencing things vicariously in movies or books, we do it automatically. We don't just feel what the main character feels, we feel what they all do. The young actress is smiling a lot and is nervous during the interview, she seems very nice I hope she doesn't get flustered with all of the question, now when she's smiling I'm suddenly smiling and I get flustered when she does, she laughed, now I smile like crazy WHY IN THE WORLD AM I SMILING...
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