Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Laying claim to the 4th pillar

In May there was a funny story where Derek Smart from Alganon plagiarized a press release from Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic, claiming that "Traditionally, massively multiplier online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars - combat, exploration and character progression. In Alganon, in addition to these we've added the fourth pillar to the equation; a story." Meanwhile, in a different corner of the internet, Blizzard had released Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, and it included one special quest series, about the Wrathgate, which had a great cutscene telling a dramatic story, followed by a scripted event where the player contributed in liberating Undercity. Nobody called that a "4th pillar", but everybody agreed that this was one of the highlights of WotLK questing.

Fast forward to December 2010, and given the success of the Wrathgate quest it comes to no surprise that Blizzard used more cutscenes and scripted events in Cataclysm. If you do the 150+ quests of Vashj'ir, you'll be seeing several cutscenes, take part in several scripted events, and take part in a greater story spanning the whole zone and culminating in the Throne of Tides dungeon. Playing through that often feels like great cinema, and later zones continue in the same vein, even allowing you to participate in an Indiana Jones movie. The goblin starting zone has a funny story, the worgen starting zone a more dramatic, Victorian-flavored one. Whether you call it like that or not, the 4th pillar is well and truly implemented in Cataclysm.

I do not believe that this was a strategic move by Blizzard to preempt SWTOR, but whether it was planned like this or not, it might well have this effect. When SWTOR finally arrives and starts telling stories, people won't experience that as something totally new.

But as many people already noticed, the 4th pillar comes with some disadvantages. At least in the Blizzard version the cutscenes and scripted events only exist in one form. Thus the actions of the player don't matter at all for the development of the story. The Bioware version promises more choice, but it will remain to be seen in how far those choices are cosmetic, or whether they can fundamentally change the story being told.

And I can't help but question whether a MMORPG is really the best place to tell stories like that. I played through the Vashj'ir story line, and witnessed Erunak being sucked into the vortex, and held captive mind-controlled in the Throne of Tides. But when I take the portal from Orgrimmar to Vashj'ir, I still see him standing in the cavern where I arrive. I freed Will'hai, but when I swim past his location he is still being held by the same tentacles. By its very multiplayer nature, a MMORPG can not allow a player to really change the world, because other players need to have the opportunity to play through the same story. Playing through a story will always be more believable in a single-player RPG, where the player really *can* change the world.

So I'm wondering whether all this story-telling stuff isn't just the latest fad in MMORPGs, and might not necessarily last. Why pay a monthly subscription to play through a half-assed story, if I could play through a better and more meaningful story in a single-player game with no additional cost? The advantages of a MMORPG are in the interaction of players, and having the players play through phased and instanced stories alone just distances them from the core strengths of the genre. In the end a 5-man dungeon offers vastly superior replayability and interaction than cutscenes and scripted events. Does anyone really want to play through Vashj'ir a second time?
I entirely agree, and I also posted about the Vashj'ir problems. It seems to me that we're playing the most expensive single player game in history which is now disguising itself as an MMO. If it weren't for the fact that I am in a guild I would have no interaction at all with other players. Rail-roaded gameplay in this fashion leaves the player with no choice and no say in the outcome. MMO's have always been exactly that - about players having choice. I think that Blizzard has put a lot of effort into this expansion but somewhere along the way they lost sight of what the core values of their game were.
Noisy Rogue,

Once, dungeons/raids were too hard. Then they were too easy. Now Blizz is on the backswing again, trying to make them hard... but not as hard as they used to be.

Did you think that they lost sight of their core values when they released WLK? I don't. I just think they're swinging the hammer in a different direction. If the negative feelings of such a streamlined story persist among the masses, there is NO doubt they'll do it differently next time. Maybe to an extreme, but always their pendulum swing will be aiming towards the perfect center.
The only hope that I see for MMORPG storytelling with player impact is procedural quest generation. Guild Wars 2 promises to implement a static version of this, where the world can switch back and forth between preset states.

But what if an entire faction was overseen by an specific AI just like in Left 4 Dead or AI Wars? If the players wipe out outpost A, the AI could outflank them by attacking outpost B and generate quests to defend it. And if the defense goes badly, a quest would be generated to escort survivors to outpost C. And like Twilight Highlands shows, there's ample opportunity for PvP in carefully crafted interlocking quests. If other players can work for the enemy faction, the AI would generate a quest for them to ambush the survivors' convoy.
MMORPGs certainly have problems with story telling. I think infinite respawn is the big one which disrupts the story. They can't just tell you "go kill the orcs," because all the other players will be told to "go kill the orcs" too.

So instead, they tell you "go kill 10 orcs." You kill off 10 orcs, leaving the rest of the orc threat there, and looking back 30 seconds later to see that all the orcs have reappeared like nothing happened. It kills any connection to the story, your actions clearly made zero difference.

With instancing, you could be told to go kill all the orcs, of which there happens to be 10. The only thing which would allow for multiplayer is to rebalance the instance based on group size, as City of Heroes does.

You just have to give up your preconceived notions of what an MMORPG is supposed to be, and blur the lines between solo play and online play.
I completely disagree with the conclusion. "Playing through a story will always be LESS believable in a single-player RPG, EXACTLY BECAUSE the player really *can* change the world."

Do you find it believable that you save the world?

I find it much more believable that I'm one of the countless grunts fighting in the battlefield. I see other players and NPCs doing their part.

I did not complete any zones but Deepholm yet so let me talk about this: The World is saved by the fixing of the pillar. The plan was masterminded by the Earthen Ring, they sent me and others to gain materials, defeat Twilight Hammer enemies trying to stop the reconstruction. They sent me as an envoy to the Therazan faction and I did errands for them to earn their trust so they ally with the Ring. In the final battle the powerful Ring shamans and the huge rock beings (with my little help) defeated the Twilight bunch and fixed the pillar.

Real heroes did NOT change the world. Would WW2 be lost by the allies if any of the allied soldiers would opt out? They did their little part. They are heroes because what is "little" for history is still huge for a single man.
"The advantages of a MMORPG are in the interaction of players, and having the players play through phased and instanced stories alone just distances them from the core strengths of the genre."

I completely agree with your statement above, Tobold. That is the reason why I am not remotely interested in Star Wars the Old Republic.
I partly agree.
Fact is: I liked Cataclysm leveling; especially 80-85.

On the other hand: That is no MMORPG. It is a single player game that is interwoven with a raiding/PvP/achievement game by a (more or less: PvP equip) persistent character.

So far it works, but it is the result of endless, shortsighted iteration and inconsistent management decisions combined with top notch technolgy, graphics and a almost fanatical focus on skill and fairness on an individual player level.

Cataclysm is fun, but the market gap for a AAA polished fantasy MMO virtual world is larger than ever.
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@Hirvox: I suppose that would be nice, but eventually people will get tired of saving the outposts. Then the area will be over run. I'm sure a blogger made a point about it sometime in regards to Rifts.

It really sounds like Cataclysm story telling went too far in that direction.

How much writing would be required to allow for impact in an MMO? Honestly, Blizzard has the money to continuously generate content. The question would then be about quality.
I am waiting for someone to take the Phasing concept further. If they somehow can make it that the world -permanently- change "phase" for my character , then we are getting close to a single player experience are we not?

Yes, it might mean that you will only be able to interact with players that are actually in the same "phase" [much like a lvl 1 is not going to interact with a lvl 80 while they're questing in their respective zones] .

I'd consider that an interesting "reward" by itself, having access to a zone that is in a certain phase that required you to kill a certain boss. Kinda like having Stormwind or Oggrimar actually having different NPCs or even different structures purely based on your character's "phase" .

Obviously it does not have to be applicable for the entire game world.

I recently finished the Booty Bay Phasing event, and while i was in the "siege on booty bay" phase, i saw quite alot of other players in the same phase, and i wondered what would happen if i could "lose" in the phase and then go into a version of Booty Bay that is owned by a different faction of the pirates....and obviously only other losers [or people that fought on the opposing side] will see that applicable "version" of Booty Bay. [this only needs to apply to Booty Bay, not necessarily the entire STV zone]

That alone would imply a LASTING and MEANINGFUL repercussion of your own actions. Maybe a certain quest or NPC or item is only available in a certain phase, and you can't "go back" once you gone down a certain road.

I mean why not? Why should Booty Bay "return to normal" after i completed the phase?
So Blizzard is assimilating LotRO's model, too.
Do you find it believable that you save the world?

It depends on the single player game. If you're playing as a 12 year old brat, then no, I don't find it believable that you save the world. But if you play as a Grey Warden, yes I find it believable that you can save Ferelden.

By its very multiplayer nature, a MMORPG can not allow a player to really change the world, because other players need to have the opportunity to play through the same story.

It depends on the game though. If an MMORPG really wanted to allow the players to change the world, it *can* be done. It's hopefully what SWTOR will be doing.

If the MMORPG doesn't want to allow players to change the world, then we end up with the not-so-believable scenario.
Strange how you use Battle for the Undercity as an example. Don't know if you realize this or not, but this quest chain was removed with the Cataclysm patch.

Ostensibly, because the events were obsolete. Strange how they picked on this one quest chain but left all the other obvious anachronisms untouched.
@Hirvox: I suppose that would be nice, but eventually people will get tired of saving the outposts. Then the area will be over run. I'm sure a blogger made a point about it sometime in regards to Rifts.
If the entire game is about outposts/rifts/whatever, then yes. But the intention is to have plenty of scenario types, all interlinked. After the fates of the outposts have been decided the outpost scenario loses it's strategic relevance and the AI moves on. The ruins themselves would stay there, but they could eventually serve as the backdrop of a different scenario.

Honestly, Blizzard has the money to continuously generate content. The question would then be about quality.
As the Mythical Man-Month showed, these issues are related. You can't just hire new designers and expect the creative process to scale.
Well in the various Bioware games to date, one does usually either save the world or utterly ruin it.

In many cases, I found them to be quite believable, because they were also usually internally consistent. I agree with Gevlon that in the real world, this doesn't happen, but these gameworlds are not exactly like the real world. In Jade Empire, you are the sole remaining Spirit Monk. In KOTOR you are this one unusually powerful Jedi, who, like Luke in the movies, does save the universe. Or doom it utterly. It's all a matter of perspective.

Someone made a connection here to Lotro, which I personally actually liked more than WoW, although new WoW post-Cataclysm is in fact better in Kalimdor than it was before.

I haven't seen the new high level content yet, but if it is anything like what I've seen of the new zones, I think I'll like it.

It's a bit like D&D really where yes, you do start out as a relatively minor character who helps save one village from an Orc Threat or something, but in the end you save the world. That is in fact quite often what Fantasy and SF is about.

As for SW:TOR, I wait with impatience.

And for now, I have to go, real live Baktru has to go do his laundry.
"great cinema"

i lol'd
@Zubon: that's what I was thinking. I do agree that it is awkward in WoW because you can see the person you freed etc. There is some of this in LotRO as well, but very rarely and especially not in the epic quest line (where most cut scenes happen). The NPC's locations are typically moved as you progress through the story and they don't typically move back after the completion (the exception being the fellowship existing in both Rivendell and Lothlorien). In fact, a lot of what I'm seeing implemented in Cataclysm, I first experienced in LotRO.

But you even saw this to some degree in WotLK. The wrathgate was never the same after the event. If you did the Sons of Hodir quest line for rep, the area changed slightly as you progressed.

I don't see how this can ruin SWTOR's story telling. The effect might not be totally new, but having experienced phasing in WoW didn't stop me from enjoying the epic story line and cut scenes in LotRO, regardless of who's came first (for the record, I think Turbine's did).
And one other thing:
"Does anyone really want to play through Vashj'ir a second time?"

I went through the Wrathgate event three times. I could have likely skipped it the third time, but made sure to do the quest line for it. My regret is I didn't level my Tauren fast enough to see the event from the horde perspective.

I've gone through the Balrog quest in Moria in LotRO twice. Now, this is an epic and you almost have to do it, but I love that quest and take constant screen shots the whole way through.

The decision of whether to go through it multiple times depends on how well a person enjoys the resulting cut scenes I suppose.
There is a difference though, in that the Wrathgate is only 10-20 quests long, Vashj'ir is 140ish, instanced and railroaded.

It was an interesting story, and felt heroic, but I looking forward to getting out of the zone 100 quests in.

Add the fact that you are railroaded and have no flexibility in choosing which quests or quest hubs to do in the zone and I dread the 3rd or 4th replay of the zone.

I had 5 70s in BC and 3 80s in Wrath, so 4+ 85s isn't an unreasonable expectation for this expansion. That is a lot of playing in Cata without being able to pick and choose.

Want Deephome dailies? Finish the zone. Want the zone quests (and rewards) for Halls of Origination? Finish the zone.

Uldum was another one I wanted done as soon as I hit the non-stop, scenery chewing, 4th wall breaking, Indiana Jones vs the Nazis joke which took me totally out of being a hero and made me wonder just why I was being forced to play though a Mad Magazine sitcom.
I think where Blizzard may be coming from is the realization that WoW is, in effect, (at least) two games: (1) a leveling game (done via questing) and (2) an end-game at level cap (done via instances, raids, PvP and daily rep grinds.

The phasing/4th pillar is designed, I think, to make the leveling game more appealing and fun, based on how people reacted to the Wrathgate sequence. The phasing leveling game can co-exist well with an end-game experience that has a different focus, of course, but the question is whether the implementation of the leveling/phasing approach to the leveing game actually makes it more appealing and fun.

The "costs" I see of phasing, having played through 3 of the 5 zones in full now and almost all the way through the fourth, are: (1) an extreme railroading, such that all quests in a given phase must be completed in order to progress (taking away player choice substantially), (2) diminished ability to play with others such as family and friends (hard to coordinate phases unless you play together from soup to nuts), (3) glitchiness (especially in Vash, I found quite a few of the instance/phase switches to be clunky and glitchy, and one -- at the end -- required me to relog to unglitch it). These costs are significant, especially the first one. Vash is perhaps the most egregious example of it, because it is so darned linear, but the issue crops up in all the zones, really.
I have the same concerns with the strict storyline of the game. I really have no interest in playing the Vashj'ir storyline a second time. I'm glad that they put in the Hyjal so that there are two parallel storylines that can be done.

One thing that I am really concerned about is the lower level questing and the use of phasing. Right now, my wife and I are playing low level characters who are about level 15. We started in Azshara to see the new stuff, but quickly noticed a quirk where if one of use got slightly ahead of the other on the quest line, the world was phased such that we couldn't see each other. So we're forced to stay at exactly the same point on the questline if we want to have any chance of playing together.
I felt the linear nature of the quest zones to combat a few things I noticed in Wrath:
- The larger quest hubs and side quests made it hard to tell a cohesive story.
- You needed a quest guide/addon or you saw yourself run back to the same area 2x more than you needed to.

When I was leveling in Twilight Highlands, I got a quest achievement for some long quest line I finished, then I got the zone achievement. I was 85 but I still had one more quest which knew would lead to a relatively small chain, and possibly an achievement. I did it solely because I wanted to see what story the chain would tell. I didn't get an achievement for the quest line, and I didn't care.
If it's done right it can probably work. But exactly what this "done right" means I'm not really sure. Yeah I know, very helpful post right? :)
"Does anyone really want to play through Vashj'ir a second time?"

I don't want to play through a first time. Maybe I'm in the minority but I hated the Wrathgate event. The cut-scene was 'okay', but the liberation of the Undercity scripted event was just plain annoying and served no real purpose.

This sort of event really does not belong in an MMO.
I had gotten the impression that Bioware's idea of story was more sense of how you progress your character though the world. A kind of "What is YOUR story" thing. Mostly I get this impression from the way they look like they will be handling dialog and the talk about how making choices, especially moral choices as your character does quests and interacts with npc will have an effect. So I think the idea of Story that they were getting at was something significantly different. Now will they be able to pull this off? Hard to say.

As for the 3 pillars or 4 I am not sure I buy how things are split up. Story as blizzard does it is more a part of exploration. You uncover the story as you play the game and do quests. Story as Bioware might do it as mentioned above would be more under the category of progression or character development. So I am not seeing story as a separate major aspect to the game.

If I were to name some Pillars I would break them out as


Challenge is the non-competitive side of mastering the game. The getting good at combat and the puzzle solving that sometimes shows up as minigames. Crafting minigames fall under this idea as well. Figuring out the bosses is another aspect of this in a group sense.

Competition is closely related to challenge in that mastering the mechanics of the game is often essential to it. Yet it is a separate thing. Obviously PvP falls into this catagory but also, working the market. Getting rich. Being the first to achieve something. Some want to master the ability to make a thing others want to master the ability to make the thing so they can get rich, rich usually being relative to what others have.

Construction is the desire to build something, usually something noticable but not always. This is what drives some guild leaders to have a smoothly running and functional guild as opposed to the guild with the greatest raid progression. This is also what drives some in EVE to build big ships or POSs, for others it show in decorating a house or guildhall in EQ2 or building a perfectly laid out player city in SWG.

I am still trying to decide if construction is truely a separate thing from progression or not but I think some of the difference is found in Construction usually being something that Alters the game world itself at some level. The desire to leave your mark.

Progression on the other hand is about personal/character development. Working up to next height of hurdle. Levels, gear, getting all the recipes in a profession, getting all the achievements done, that sort of thing.

Exploration of course has to do with uncovering the world, both seeing the environment and experiencing the story.

Finally the socialization which could either be the making of friends, the helping of others in general or, on the flip side, the griefing and trolling that some do to get a rise.

These catagories overlap a lot and I am still trying to deside if some (construction and progression) aren't redundant.
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The experiences in the new zones are NOT like the wrathgate. You had to complete chains at three different hubs in Dragonblight, that you could do in any order, that did not involve any phasing of the world. After you did those, the wrathgate chain opened up, culminating in the cinematic and a change in one small corner of the zone.

I've only played Vashj'in so far, but it's much different. You have to the hubs in order. In many cases, the quest-giving NPC's aren't even present in a hub until you finish the previous one. It's very much on rails, and I don't care for it as well.

When I play MMO's I like to think of myself as sort of a wandering do-gooder. Deep storylines are for single player games. The only story I care about in an MMO is the only story that persists: the progression of my character.
Why pay a monthly subscription to play through a half-assed story, if I could play through a better and more meaningful story in a single-player game with no additional cost?

Those are multiple questions that deserve multiple answers, namely:

*Why pay a sub indeed? Not all upcoming story-based MMOs will demand one.

*For a half-assed story: the solution here is either phasing or instancing technology, where SWTOR and GW2 both will be using instancing for their story-based bits where the captain stays dead and the princess stays rescued. The key is to not instance the whole game, and keep the rest of the world very open for MMO-style interaction.

*Why not play a single-player game: why not demand a single-player quality experience in a multiplayer game? I don't play single-player games because they are dead and lonely to me; but that doesn't mean I want to be deprived of good storytelling just because I like to play with friends.
"Playing through a story will always be LESS believable in a single-player RPG, EXACTLY BECAUSE the player really *can* change the world."

what we do always has some amount of impact so I would thing leaving behind the impact of that change would be important for believability. As for saving the world, that is just a matter of degree and it is a story after all.

What is not so believable is that things don't continue to change without you, that the npc's don't have any impact and that other players also don't have any noticeable impact. Of course every player being the savior of the world just makes that worse. I think this is why people often enjoy games where some change and impact is noticeable, at least to a degree. Coming on a player build city in SWG was always very cool to see. Instanced housing is much easier to handle but also considerably more disappointing.

Of course, static NPCs that stand in one spot for 6 years selling apples, is also not very realistic. It would be nice to see some NPCs with some more AI a bit like the Sims some day. Moving about the town, not in a static patrol but with intent, on their way to do things but then how do you deal with the incremental change over time. houses popping up, that pile of wood getting bigger because the logger does his job or getting smaller because the woodworker does his. And what do you do at night to get some food if the cook goes home to sleep. Still, it would be interesting to see some more realistic interaction.
Ok, so Blizzard is trying some different things in this expansion.

If the things they try work well, then Blizzard can use them in the next expansion, or updates to this expansion. If they don't then they won't get used in the future - or will be modified so they work better.

At least they are trying different things. Gotta give them credit for trying.

Do I want to get lead by the nose through the zones again on different characters? Not sure - I don't have very many alts. By the time I switch from my main to level an alt, I would have forgotten most of the content I just blew through.

But, I don't think what they are doing is too different than what people are doing with add-ons - where the add-ons basically tell you the most efficient way of hitting all the quests and leveling. And those add-ons are VERY popular.
I disagree, I think it IS possible to have a world that appears to change in some degrees and looks different to each player. If you rescued so and so, on your comp he should be rescued and on someone else's hw could still be imprisoned, and its ok. Dramatic world changes might require differnet layers but individual character changes are easy to implement and point more to laziness of developers. It would require a simple boolean switch tied to your account's DB entry for each one of these unique accomplishments and nothing more complex.
'it might well have this effect'

Well, whether they plan it or not, it's a pretty strong strategy. Say a hypothetical new game has killer feature 'X', that they are spending massive amounts of time and effort perfecting and are using as a key selling point in their marketing campaign.

No need to worry about losing sales, just implement a terribad version of that feature, actively doing everything possible to make it as problematic and unfun as possible.

Your captive market will then say 'X? that sucks, who would want to play a whole game based around that?'
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Maybe not Vashj'ir a second time, but definitely Uldum. Loved the Harrison Jones quest line.
Totally agree. Vash'jir felt like an instance. The story was great, the environment is incredible, the cut scenes were really nice; but I also wouldn't want to do it again for quite awhile.

I have to give Blizzard kudos, though. They are trying different things.
"So I'm wondering whether all this story-telling stuff isn't just the latest fad in MMORPGs, and might not necessarily last."

It certainly seems unsustainable - even Blizz can't turn out sufficient volumes of content to keep everyone busy.

Danc over at Lost Garden recently made a similar observation:

"Don't build games in order to tell a single story. Build meaningful systems that create an explosion of culture, spread by the players who are absolutely thrilled to share what they've learned."
I'm not sure it's so cut and dry. I'd rather have dungeons than cutscenes, yes. This operates on the assumption that the same people are responsible for both and we must choose either or.

Blizzard could probably expand their teams and pump out a new instance every month, but even if they could, cost aside, they never would.

I don't think you can underestimate the endearment factor. A game that attaches you to its world is one step over the competition in getting your monthly fees, IMO. You may say to yourself, "I really loved this game, I'll re-sub" or "X game was good, I'll try X2." Many preferred FFXI's cutscene storytelling to WoW's bland questing back in 2004. Keep in mind that traditional quests where you get XP as a reward (or any reward at all in most cases) did not exist in FFXI.

As far as separating single player and multiplayer, well, they were fused in 2004. They even required collaboration with other players by having boss fights. BTW, isn't this the same argument that cropped up when WoW came out? "What do you mean, you can solo level? It's an MMO, you're supposed to rely on other people to do everything/anything!"

I would go one step further and say that it's a complete waste to NOT have strong story elements accompanying the vast and epic worlds in MMOs.

In the end, it's all about choice. There may not be any new single player RPGs out. If people want to have this same type of experience in their MMO, let them. For people who want to stay away from this, that's fine too.
"As the Mythical Man-Month showed, these issues are related. You can't just hire new designers and expect the creative process to scale."

The Mythical Man-Month is about adding new people to an existing team working on the same problem, e.g. you can't double the team size and double productivity.

If we imagine new designers working concurrently but independently on DIFFERENT content then it would not apply.
If we imagine new designers working concurrently but independently on DIFFERENT content then it would not apply.
It's still the same product. Even if you divide team 1 to make zones A, B & C and team 2 to make D, E & F, you're still going to need to coordinate shared aspects and integrate those zones into the overall product. Graphics, sound, new game mechanics, itemization, world geometry, story, lore, difficulty, localization and so on.
I think the storytelling is a bit of a fad, mostly because it's poorly done. I wrote a blog post about it, but I'm surprised you haven't mentioned it yourself. It's pretty bad, with cinematics not working right, phasing preventing you from playing with your friends, and scripted encounters requiring that you go to Wowhead to figure out how it works.
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