I am a big fan of story in my games.
In single-player games, or multiplayer co-op or lobby-based games, there is obviously a huge amount of room for titles that have little or no story or lore. World of Tanks, FPS like Doom or Duke Nukem, and RTS like Total Annihilation all provide awesome gameplay experiences with mere lip service to a story. Puzzlers like Bejeweled or SpaceChem, grand strategy like Civ or Europa Universalis, and most sports and racing games rely on their mechanics rather than the supporting background story and lore to provide a lasting impression.
RPGs are heavily reliant on story. And that applies to MMORPGs just as much as single-player ones. Whether we are talking about the most linear of linear themeparks, or the sandboxiest of sandboxes, story matters. The main variable – besides quality of writing, of course – is how much control over the story the developers have. Themeparks normally shepherd you through a very structured, very player-focused story experience. You are The Hero, whether you want to be or not. It is not your story, per se, it is The Hero’s story, and each player takes on that role simultaneously and separately. Players cannot permanently affect the world outside of the scripted storyline events.
Sandboxes, on the other hand, tend to shy away from player-centric storylines. The tales they tell are typically small and self-contained, with little impact on the world at large. They exist to be discovered or sought out, rather than shepherded through on the way to a grand destiny. In themeparks they’d be called “side quests”. They are there to provide flavour, a backdrop for the player-driven activities that the game is built around (PvP, building, survival, etc).
Both these approaches have their pros and cons. The more control over the story the developers have, the better they can tell it. They can make sure that players never miss vital plot points, are always introduced to important characters, and generally deliver the narrative goods as completely and effectively as they are capable of doing. This approach, however, does take agency away from the player, and can be very detrimental to any attempts at creating a “living world”. There are few, if any, consequences of player actions. You are stuck with the story in its current form until the developers progress it, and that story puts you at its centre whilst simultaneously failing to care what you have or have not done.
With less control, comes less structure. You can’t have core content that is also optional or has to be stumbled upon (although that does give me an idea about how one might try to do that…). This means that you can’t have stories that play out over multiple quests or missions, if one stage relies on having completed another in order to make sense. I think the consequence of that is that developers can only control the story at a micro or a macro level. They can put in lots of flavour, lots of worldbuilding tidbits that aren’t necessarily all that important to the game, but bring a kind of backdrop to the player activities at large. They can also place very broad, very general story elements about the game world, that give some context to what the players are doing, but don’t really have any impact on the players or what they are allowed to do. In ArcheAge, for example, this is the role of the opening credits and some of the history that you learn about in the personal story – the discovery of some wellspring of power by a band of mortals that made them into demigods, the falling out of that band of heroes and the subsequent civil war, and the resultant exile into the current game world. In EVE, the Sleeper sites tell a story of an alien civilisation that used to inhabit that portion of the galaxy.
On the other hand, with less control and structure, comes more freedom for players to affect the world in meaningful ways. This is crucial for the feeling of a “living world”. It also means less development time is allocated to story and lore, which can be good for the developers in the sense that they can devote more time to other issues like mechanics, bugs, and art. It can offer greater flexibility to writers when story elements are added, since there are way less existing plot points to work around or incorporate, and less risk of holes or contradictions. Perhaps more importantly, many players have viscerally negative reactions to poor storytelling, which can actually harm your game. I have no investment in Guild Wars 2, for instance, because the lore was not easily accessible to me, and the personal story was both poorly written and extremely badly presented. Avoiding more than a token story can help retain those types of players.
A Story of Immersion
For an MMORPG to be truly successful, it needs to provide immersion. I believe that there are two forms of immersion at work here. In themeparks, where a decent focus is on the story, the goal is for the game to be story-driven, even if it turns out that many players don’t care about it and skip through as much as possible. The quests, the dungeons, the raids, all of these elements are designed to immerse the player in a story – The Hero’s story. A well-written story has the ability to draw and keep players hooked despite bad or mediocre (or just bland) gameplay mechanics. SW:TOR, LOTRO, and TSW all rely very heavily on the story and lore to keep players immersed in their worlds. Without that narrative immersion, I doubt that most players would stay with the game as long as they do.
The sandboxier your MMO, the more you have to rely on a “living world” type of immersion. You have to have the reassurances that your efforts are making an impact on other players, that you have the ability to change the world in meaningful ways, and/or that the world will change around you in unexpected and unusual ways. EVE and Wurm Online are examples of extremely player-driven immersion, where most of what changes is due to other players. I’m really looking forward to what EQNext will bring to a living world model that is more AI-driven, and as AI advances are made I expect to see more and more MMOs become…almost like a tabletop RPG, I guess, with an AI GM overseeing the world and adjusting things on the fly.
For me, obviously, the absolute ideal would be for an MMO to rate very highly on both types of immersion. A kickarse story and deep lore, with plenty of player-driven changes to the world that in turn inspire the developers to modify their story plans to reflect that activity. But for that to happen, we’d need to figure out ways for sandboxes to include immersive stories. How do we do that? I’ll propose some ideas in Part II.
Ultimately, we all want to feel like this in our MMOs, don’t we?