Star-Fired Beef

Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs – Part III

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Finally, we have made it to the last post of what turned out to be a series. In Part I, we discussed how MMO narratives affect immersion for different types of game. In Part II, we looked at the ways sandbox MMOs could introduce direction for players by adopting a top-down narrative structure. Now, we will consider ways that narrative immersion can be implemented in sandboxes from a bottom-up perspective.

Bottom-Up Narratives

These narratives provide immersion by surrounding the player with stories that are playing out around them, that they can dive into or ignore at their whim. The stories are generally short, but can domino into epic quest chains in the right circumstances. They are also generally self-contained, but can have effects on larger-level stories. A reminder that a fail state is a valid resolution to these stories, whether because no players take part in time, or because they avoid the “happy ending” that in themepark quests would be called “completion”. Accepting a contract to assassinate an NPC and then choosing not to, is as much a fail state as allowing the monsters to overrun the village.

Somewhat related to the topic of fail states, are the concepts of exclusivity and concurrency. As these are very small-scale narratives, it is likely that one PC can carry it through to resolution. Thus, many of these “quests” must be exclusive. If you’ve asked one adventurer to deliver this very important basket of muffins to the local captain of the guards, then you obviously won’t be needing to ask others to do it as well. Exclusivity provides immersion by making sure that every player’s experience is markedly different. On the other hand, there are some tasks that NPCs would offer to many PCs. The farmer who wants someone to retrieve his livestock from bandits is not going to sit back and relax just because one PC has trundled off to administer justice in his name. Concurrency means that several players could be on the same quest at the same time. They could be friends travelling in a group, or they could be completely unknown to each other, in which case it turns into a race of sorts. This would provide interaction between players, as there are a myriad of ways things could play out. Will the player rock up to find that the bandits are dead, and livestock are gone? Will they encounter other players on the way and team up, or try to sabotage each other? Will they see someone else already there and quietly slink away, abandoning the quest?

A Secret World

My love for The Secret World is no secret. As far as narrative innovation goes, investigation missions are probably the greatest thing to happen to the themepark MMO space in many years. For those unfamiliar with the game, investigation missions are stories told through the player following clues, which usually require specialist knowledge to solve. Given that TSW has a contemporary setting, it is easy to reference various historical events or knowledge, or require real-world skills like the ability to decipher morse code.

A sandbox MMO that has a fantastical setting has the potential to offer the same kinds of narrative sleuthing, albeit on a more restricted level. For example, clues that require knowledge of obscure or old lore about a region, an item, a country, a prominent family, etc. You would need to find NPCs who either have such knowledge, or can direct you to others who do. Or you could piece the clues together from environmental cues. A piece of heraldry, or a puppet show being performed in a city street, might point the way to the next clue.

Perhaps there could be an in-game skill or profession that deals with obscure knowledge? Historian? Higher competence would mean more information is provided to you by the clue itself.

Don’t Call Me Junior

In a similar vein, successful tomb raiders should be required to have extensive knowledge of the game’s lore. I think there is potential for a deep archaeological system in an MMO. Imagine being able to specialise in a culture, and apply that cultural knowledge to maps or clues. As you gain a reputation for your skills, you could be hired by powerful people to retrieve precious artifacts, or identify items that they have acquired. And as anyone who has watched an Indiana Jones movie knows, there is always a sinister, shadowy faction intent on getting that precious artifact first, or preventing you from obtaining it. Maybe this shadowy faction has hired other players to retrieve it, in direct competition to you?

Guild War…er, Organisational Conflict…er, Club Fight?

There are so many organisations with narrative potential in an MMO world. Religious orders, thieves’ guilds, merchant guilds, professional organisations, military orders, farmer’s groups, gypsy-equivalent groups, mercenary groups, smuggling networks, pirate groups, all sorts of magical organisations, rebel groups, feudal Houses, the list goes on. Having a relationship with each of these groups is an endless source of narrative potential. You can operate as an agent of them, you can incur the wrath of them, you can become indebted to them or have them indebted to you, you can spy on, or for, them…so many ways to make them a major part of your narrative engine.

A Game of Politics

On a more personal level, you can play the political game, where you gain favour or disfavour with individuals or small cliques within an organisation. These can open or close doors to quests depending on your standings with certain NPCs. Greater trust and intimacy with the more powerful individuals can lead to discovering secret information, such as black ops, covered up scandals, hidden histories, and so on. This information, in turn, can lead to other quests.


Bottom-up narratives have the advantage of being immediately relevant to players. They pull players into the world in a direct way, and players can see the changes to the world that they are making, in a concrete fashion. They make the game world feel more alive in ways that top-down narratives might have trouble doing. Unfortunately, they are also very developer-time-intensive. In a really successful implementation, the developers would be constantly – as in, weekly or even daily – monitoring the status of quests and crafting the next chapter of each little story, depending on what happened beforehand. Not to mention, creating new stories. That likely isn’t viable for any MMO, not until AI has progressed far beyond current capabilities and can write and respond to stories on the fly.

The final step in the bottom-up narrative ideal is integrating player quests with the NPCs in game. Imagine that a (PC) mage needs a certain ingredient for research purposes, and puts up a notice seeking players to source that ingredient for them. If that ingredient is mythical in nature, then we come back to players needing to consult NPC sources in game to try to find out more about where that ingredient might be. Plus, a religious order might wish to prevent that particular ingredient ever seeing the light of day (for religious reasons, naturally) and so might try to do something about this search. And so on.

I suspect that I may have ended up rambling incoherently in this post, so don’t be surprised if this is simultaneously bleedingly obvious and highly confusing. Of course, I would love to hear about any other ideas for inserting narrative into sandbox MMOs without restricting player freedom or being too disjointed.

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7 thoughts on “Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs – Part III

    • Thank you! It kind of got away from me in the end. I know that with time I could polish it to be more thorough and have a better layout, but at this stage of my blogging career I think it’s more important to just fkn hit publish on these things.

  1. I really like the idea behind the bottom-up narratives. I think that’s the basis behind GW2’s dynamic events… only, there wasn’t really a fail-state to many of them in the end. Well, aside from maybe a fort being annoyingly occupied by an enemy in such a way that no one wanted to go in there and reverse the situation.

    I’m also am a huge fan of TSW. I remember the first time I realized I needed to go outside of a game to a website to obtain Orochi information. Mind = blown in a very good way!

    • Yes GW2 made the first step in the right direction but never carried through with it. The most common fail state in that is the escort events, but there aren’t any consequences. Sure, the NPC died, and the event failed, but it doesn’t affect anything in the world. Plus, the same event starting up again in a couple of hours, with the same NPCs, destroys any immersion that might have been created.

      My first experience like that in TSW was with that mission too! I remember scouring the website trying to find out as much about this mysterious organisation as I could. It was a perfect way of drawing you into the game world.

  2. Pingback: Only on Star-Fired Beef, “Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs” Parts I-III | Murf Versus

  3. Pingback: Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs – Part II | Star-Fired Beef

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