So my new posting goals hit a snag pretty quickly, hah. I had my busiest week for ages last week, just so many appointments and meetings, it was tough to find the energy to do any gaming, let alone writing. But then I slipped and ran out of meds, and the two days I was without them was just devastating. I lost all energy, had to drag myself out of bed, all I wanted to do was sleep, body ached everywhere. It was such a sharp crash, it was quite scary to have a demonstration of how much I depend on them in order to function at all. Even now I am just starting to get back to my previous state of mind. Harsh lesson.
I’m now just over halfway through the story cases in L.A. Noire, it continues to be an excellent game, but it is starting to feel a little slow-moving. The meta-story was set up early but despite continuous hints and suggestions during each case, there doesn’t seem to be any advancement of it. I was expecting more moral grey areas, more difficult decisions, facing more corruption than I have encountered thus far. I’m still on track to finish it by the end of the month, though! Despite putting a few hours into FFXIV, all I’ve really done is level my gathering and crafting classes, and stockpile some low level materials. I won a new game on Steamgifts, One Finger Death Punch, and have been having a blast with it. So. Much. Fun. I’d been eyeing it for ages, so I couldn’t help installing it immediately!
As was probably inevitable, I have given up on Wildstar. Although I liked the game, I felt no connection to it, had nothing attracting me back. As time passed without me logging in, and not missing it, I came to accept that it was just not cutting it in competition for my time. So, off to the land of the Deleted it went – joined, to the surprise of no one, by Devilian. I played exactly one session of that, and while it was kind of fun while I played it, as soon as I logged out it ceased to interest me. I always feel vaguely uncomfortable uninstalling games I haven’t played much (but didn’t hate), shades of my completionist past I guess. But with the Steam backlog, FFXIV/LOTRO/TSW occupying my current MMO attention, evergreens like Hearthstone, and a bunch of new MMO titles coming out over the next couple of years, I simply have to face the fact that I have to be choosy. If only I had a TARDIS…
I don’t know why I got into this proto-MMO, Wander. I mean, it wasn’t really even on my radar until a few weeks ago, and that was just a brief flash, a moment of “oh, cool!” that faded into forgetfulness. It certainly wasn’t getting any build-up-to-launch hype, and as such I assigned it to that box of “eventually” that contains my most eagerly awaited MMO’s – Star Citizen, EQ Next, WH40K Eternal Crusade, Crowfall, Shards Online.
Then suddenly, it had a release date. And that release date was a week away. With that impulse control that all great people lack (right? right?!) I decided I must have it, and finally get in on an MMO launch experience for once. And, after all, I had bemoaned the lack of innovation in MMO’s, so how could I not at least give this new idea a fair go?
Don’t go chasing waterfalls…
I think Wander is a very aptly named title. You spend your time exploring a beautifully realised world, discovering the natural wonders and un-natural (i.e. built) sights alike. You begin as an Oren, a treant who wakes up without clear memories of how they got here and where they are. But there is a feeling of familiarity, too. As you explore, you find hints and clues that begin to fill in some gaps. There is no danger, there is no rush, there is no combat, there is no survival, there are no maps, there is no goal but what you make for yourself.
Eventually you will find special places that allow you to shapeshift. There are three forms available to find, to make four total. Each has a unique advantage in being able to explore certain parts of the world. Azertash are aquatic lizards, who are fast and agile swimmers. Hira are human-like beings that can move fairly quickly for long periods, and can skydive. Griffins can fly. And Oren are slow, but can acquire fireflies that allow them to illuminate the darkest of caverns. Sometimes these forms can work together to achieve new experiences. Hira can ride griffins, for example. That means co-operating with other players, who are the only other active beings in the game.
How do you co-operate with others? You can speak to them via an in-game language, Rohzda. But you need to learn the vocabulary of Rohzda by finding marker stones hidden around the world.
A Rohzda stone
The world is beautiful. Even on my crappy old machine, on medium quality, it is beautiful. That isn’t surprising – this is built with CryEngine, after all, and I know what that engine is capable of producing. I’ve played Crysis. I’ve played ArcheAge. It is a great engine with which to create a richly detailed world that is a dream to explore. And the developers have clearly done a lot of research on their rainforests, because running around in Wander feels very familiar to my memories of walks through Australian rainforests. The ambient sounds are spot on as well.
As I said, I know what CryEngine can do. It is clear that it hasn’t been fully utilised in Wander, though. I don’t know how much of it is my machine, and how much is the game, but there are plenty of graphics issues here. Bad, patchy or inconsistent textures, horrific popup issues, collision detection problems, are just the start. Animation is terrible for the Oren and Hira. I remember that one of the things that impressed me the most about ArcheAge was that the movement animations of my character (and mount) were the most natural of all the MMOs I’ve played. It felt right. Movement in Wander doesn’t feel good. It needs a lot of work. As the primary activity in the game, it has to be as near perfect as possible. It has a long way to go before that can be said.
The Rohzda system is a neat little idea, I think. But I also think that I am in the tiniest minority on that point. I foresee so much bitching and whinging about it from the playerbase, that the developers will end up making it obsolete. It won’t happen soon, but I think it will happen eventually. One of the major talking points of the console game Journey, is the ability to somehow connect with other players even though you can’t properly communicate. I have no doubt that the developers of Wander were aiming to capture that feeling again with their Rohzda language and decision to have no in-game chat. But I am not sure that enough people will appreciate it, and many will be actively turned off by it.
I am not sure how the multiplayer aspect of Wander works. When you start the game, you don’t get any choices except for settings. No character creation, no server choice, no starting location, no names, no account registration, nothing. Is everyone on one server instance? Are you randomly assigned a server instance upon first entering? Are you taken to a random server instance each time you log on? Who knows? It may or may not be important for solo play, but for those who want to join friends in game, it is crucial. If you are all on the same server instance, well and good. Voice comms will allow you to eventually meet up using landmarks. But if you aren’t? That will kill a lot of interest.
In a similar vein, I am slightly worried about it from a solo perspective, too. I’ve spent a few hours in game so far, and I have seen maybe four, five other players? Perhaps they are limiting the numbers per server instance to keep a calm, tranquil feeling for players. Perhaps it is the times that I play. But perhaps it is simply that it reflects the interest in the game. I don’t like that last reason, because it bodes ill for the developer.
Finally, we come to the elephant in the room: content. So far, there is not much to talk about. Exploration is cool and all, but there needs to be more to it. Walking, swimming, or flying around an empty world – no matter how beautiful – is a very, very limited entertainment proposition. Certainly not one worth $25. There are some explorers whose only motivation is to see what is out there, to poke their nose into every nook and cranny they can find, but I think they are few and far between. As an explorer, I need a reason. I need a story, or a puzzle, something that will reward me for my time (and money) spent. I’m all for the lack of conflict or danger – after all, a game like A Tale In The Desert pulls that off too – but there needs to be some kind of challenge, some hook to keep me playing. So far I’m not seeing it. I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt for now that they have plans to implement such things, but I hope it doesn’t take them too long or they will lose the rest of their players.
Watchoo lookin’ at?
It really feels like Wander was released way too early. Maybe they were forced into it for funding reasons or maybe they were simply too inexperienced to properly judge how far along they were. In this first weekend since release I have seen plenty of improvements, so I have hope that they will come through with the goods. I will continue to play regularly, at least for the next few weeks, and I hope that I’ll have better news once this launch disaster is well behind us.
I do like Wander. I am not recommending that you avoid it totally. But it is not finished (even by MMO launch standards), so if you are considering playing it then be aware that you are effectively buying into a beta or early access game. Otherwise, wait a few weeks and see how much things have changed.
Do you enjoy mysteries? Do you like putting on your deerhunter cap and pondering the apparently impossible? Or just watching and admiring those who do? If so, Funcom has a treat for you – a new game has started up on The Secret World forums. Anyone can participate, you don’t need to be playing TSW (although some knowledge of the game’s lore will no doubt help).
I’m currently watching the X-Files (for the first time, yes I know you can pick up your jaw now) and just saw an episode which dealt with prognostication. Lots of stuff involving fortune tellers and psychics, but something clicked in my brain when a throwaway reference to prophecy was made.
I started to wonder: how cool would it be if there were real prophecies in an MMO? If you could find some ancient tablet written in a lost language that, when deciphered, told of some future event that was planned to be implemented by developers? If fortune tellers had vague impressions of some foe that the player will encounter, that will be introduced in the next expansion (or the next one after that)? Cryptic references to deaths, births, creation or destruction, of major NPCs and/or things and/or places?
There would, of course, be false prophecies. Rumours that got out of control. Misinterpreted signs. Deliberately false ones created to protect the secret, true ones. NPCs that are simply high on something and are just spouting nonsense.
Maybe these prophecies could just be teasers included for fun, or maybe they could replace patch notes and PTRs with regard to lore. Datamining is a big problem, of course.
It’s probably a pipe dream itself, but I thought it was fun to think about the “what if?”.
Other people – people who have to want to build it, and people who have to want to pay for it and play it – are not you.
*Perhaps when the Singularity happens, and you can copy your personality a sufficient number of times, you – all copies of you – will be able to design, build, and populate your dream MMO. The ultimate in playing with yourself.
I couldn’t help but get caught up in Aywren’s excitement in January, for the Manderville Gold Saucer in FFXIV. The addition of a new area dedicated to entertainment rather than combat or grinding dailies, as the cornerstone of a major patch, was pretty impressive to me. The one thing that got my attention the most, was the chocobo racing. And breeding. It just felt like a serious effort to add a long-lasting, addictive in-and-of-itself activity that deepens the player experience and enjoyment.
Contrast that to WoW’s latest 6.1 patch, which also added racing. At the one area of the game that is supposedly dedicated to entertainment rather than combat or grinding, the Darkmoon Faire. Yet instead of FFXIV’s intricate, in-depth system that pits players against each other in an exciting race to the end of the race, Blizzard has offered…a solo, time-trial experience. With no progression. No competition. No reason to repeat. No investment for the player. The WoW-chocobo mount is not yours to train, all mounts are exactly the same, and there are no rewards that affect future races (afaik).
When I first got wind of Darkmoon Faire racing, I was actually excited. Sure, it was yet another case of Blizzard trying to rip the wind out of another major MMO’s sails by blatantly copying their ideas, but usually there is a unique spin on it that adds value and makes it worthwhile. This, though…this is disappointing in the extreme. To me, it reeks of a major lack of care and commitment to quality from Blizzard. It feels like they are just throwing in whatever hot new thing they read about, with minimal thought and effort, just so they can point to WoW and say “look, we have it too!”.
When MMOs first made a splash with Ultima Online, the graphical experience was similar to that of the great RPGs of the late 1990’s – Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale. Namely, a top-down, isometric viewpoint. Then Everquest and World of Warcraft brought in the over-the-shoulder, third-person view that characterised much of the 3D action games such as Tomb Raider. Ever since the rise of those two MMOs, the genre has settled firmly on their perspective as the standard. Only Runescape has had any real success with the isometric viewpoint.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed that a few MMOs are attempting to break into the market with that isometric design. I’m not including ARPGs like Diablo or Path of Exile here, they are not really MMOs in my books. And I wonder: what can this design bring to the genre to help it stand out?
Shards Online is a good Western-developer example of this. Lost Ark Online is another, Korean-developed one:
I don’t have any answers here, I am merely wondering whether this niggling thought that an isometric MMO could be deeper, bigger, better, has any validity. I guess it stems from the contrast with offline RPGs – for me, listing the great ones has meant almost exclusively listing isometric games. Am I wrong here? I’ve been playing around with Project Zomboid a little (thanks, Eri!), trying to get used to the game, and it struck me just how much more detailed and immersive the experience was, compared to most of the MMOs I’ve played in the last few years.
I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, makes me wonder whether there is more potential in the isometric viewpoint. Some wild thoughts have appeared! Revel in their ignorance!
It seems to me that art demands are less for an isometric game. Would this allow more development resources to be allocated to mechanics, content and lore?
It feels like that the game world could be much, much bigger than in a full 3D game, with less need for load screens or fast travel.
I am unsure whether it would mean a more restricted experience. From all accounts, both UO and Runescape have had huge worlds with full freedom of travel. The video of Lost Ark Online, above, seems to indicate a more Diablo-like restricted path structure.
Do players identify with tiny, somewhat distant avatars as much as WoW-sized avatars? Would that turn players off?
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.
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.
At the end of Part I, I asked: How can we bring more narrative immersion into sandbox worlds, which tend to focus on activity-based and player-interaction immersion? I’m going to look at a few possible ways in this post. The ideas presented are not mutually exclusive, I think it would be cool to have as many different approaches included in the same game as possible, but obviously the more ideas you incorporate the more work it is for the developers, and feature creep is a thing. Also note, that this post is about PvE-generated narrative, which although it may be influenced by PvP interactions, isn’t created by them.
Glory & Consequence
Before we get started on the ideas themselves, I want to address a common foundation that underlies all of these scenarios. I believe that one very, very important distinction separates themepark narratives and sandbox narratives: a fail state. In themepark narratives, the story is already written. You are simply playing through it. If you fail a certain challenge (“boss” fight, finding your way to the next questgiver, locating a lost item, etc) then you simply cannot proceed any further until you go back and do it successfully. You aren’t technically stuck in the game, since you can go and do other MMO-ish things, but most themeparks won’t allow you to access a lot of content without following the story. On the other hand, there is no true fail state either. The story remains there, unchanged, eternally available, until you complete it.
A sandbox narrative will need a fail state. Not only individual storylines, but the grand narrative – the game as a whole – as well. I think the developers (and players too!) need to be willing to see their server world be destroyed or otherwise unplayable. They need to be willing to say, “We’re closing this server down in a week, you lost the game. A new world/server will start in two weeks.” And this fail state needs to be a real possibility, without being too hard to avert. On a smaller scale, individual storylines must be able to end in a fail state, or tragedy, if they are not completed in time or if the player reacts inappropriately. In other words, let that farmer and his family die to the band of roving monsters if nobody helps them. Let the treasure you’re searching for, be found by someone else first if you take too long getting there. If your escort quest fails because your charge dies due to your incompetence, then they stay dead and you reap the consequences of that. None of this “going back and starting again” business that you have in themepark narratives.
My view of sandbox MMOs, of “living worlds”, is that they are defined by glory and consequence. And as far as I am concerned, there can be no glory without consequence. Any narrative structure introduced into such a world must incorporate and reflect that ideal.
There are two main ways that I can see narrative becoming a part of a sandbox world. A top-down approach, and a bottom-up approach. The top-down approach will keep the world- or regional-level events as the focus of developer effort, and players are enabled or restricted in their play by those events. This approach isn’t concerned so much with individual stories, but with grand, sweeping narratives.
The External Threat
One way that sandbox MMOs can add more direction for players is to develop a high-level, existential threat to the game world. This can be done to various degrees of subtlety and visibility, but the end goal is to make players think about their choices in a larger context. The presence of this external threat means that if enough players either ignore it or actively aid it – directly or indirectly by hindering those who are dealing with it – then this threat could become dangerous enough to bring on a fail state (destroy the world, the galaxy, the civilisation, etc).
Firefall has made attempts to implement this kind of external threat to a limited degree. The Chosen are able to push into areas and capture bases which affect players in those areas, and the devs even run events where they take control of some Chosen as part of an invasion. This is a good direction to be heading, but it remains the case that if everyone ignored the Chosen incursions, the game world would not be overrun. There is no fail state at the moment.
An example that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is in EVE. The majority of the narrative there is player-driven, yet there are some small tidbits of lore that are sprinkled throughout the game and in the newsletters. I remember reading a snippet somewhere that mentioned the possibility of the Sleepers being a remnant of a race that originated in another galaxy. What if the Sleepers started to wake, and become active? Rather than sitting passively in their inert bases, only responding to direct intrusion, what if they began to send out recon? Attack player-owned stations (POS)? Intercept fleets? Destroy moon bases and planetary industries? What would that do to the current nullsec balance of power? What if there were hints that this was the prelude to a return of the creators, an invasion that the players are going to have to deal with? It wouldn’t have to be an overwhelmingly powerful force to make major waves in the alliance political scene. And yet, if those alliances went on a backstabbing spree and overextended themselves, they might just let the Sleepers grow into a major threat.
The Internal Conflict
In a different kind of MMO, one where there are established political entities that are in conflict with each other, there is always opportunity for devs to manage an ongoing narrative at a high level. The players cannot be forced into any one faction, but they could choose to ally themselves with, or serve, one or more of them. Warring city-states, or rival countries, or even race-based conflict are easy enough to fit into this mould. Changes to the high-level narrative would affect players in both direct and indirect ways. They may be refused entry to certain towns or areas, they may be attacked on sight by members of another faction, they may be able to earn commendations and other rewards and recognition for acts that are hostile to their faction’s enemies. Indirectly, they may see a shortage of certain goods in markets they frequent, or they may be able to profit from trade routes being closed. If they own property, they may see taxes or rents go up in wartime. All these things can change as the political landscape changes, though. The devs could keep total control over how and when these changes occur, or they could allow players to influence things to a greater or lesser degree.
These top-down narratives are not really supposed to be followed closely. They aren’t detailed, must-read-every-word lore depositories. They are supposed to bring a sense of direction to an otherwise mostly directionless gaming space. The key here is that they reward players for following the narrative attentively, but they don’t punish players for ignoring it. They can be scaled to fit whatever percentage of the game world the developers like, and they can be ended or modified whenever the mood strikes. I like the flexibility of top-down narratives, and of course, they can be supplemented with bottom-up narratives too.
That discussion will have to wait until Part III, unfortunately, as this part is already fairly long. I would love to hear any further ideas for top-down narratives in the comments!
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?