Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
The Open Source Canon

Chris Dahlen | 31 Jul 2007 12:28
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In MMOGs, this proves much harder. You can copy The Matrix Online and hire full-time event implementers- but that's an expensive way to make most of your players feel like they'll never really get a chance to meet Morpheus. Of course, it's also fair to say that in a large-scale game, players should make their own fun, regardless of whether or not the developers pay attention. Whether it's the roleplaying guilds of City of Heroes/Villains or the completely player-driven drama of EVE Online, MMOG players don't need a story from the home office to keep themselves entertained. But that's not the same as sharing authorship. In the vast majority of MMOGs, players are tourists, not participants. And this is even more common when a well-defined property defines the game.

So let's take a hypothetical. Imagine if LucasArts had followed Star Wars: Attack of the Clones with a massively-multiplayer strategy game that invited the fans to fight the Clone Wars. Players could take any side and make their way up the ranks depending on participation, creativity and skill. Aside from setting up the scenario, the folks at LucasArts would stand back and watch. The players' clashes would decide which planets saw the worst fighting and which battles became the turning points. The top-ranking players would enjoy meet-and-greets with the primary characters; maybe they could even kill a couple of them. Everything in the game would dictate the script of the next film. Revenge of the Sith would be the same at its core, but everything else would follow the game. Hey, it couldn't have been any worse than the real RotS.

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The game would serve several purposes: a marketing exercise, a test to gauge which themes and characters drew the most attention, and a collaborative storytelling outlet that would reward creative players. Whether you spent half an hour a week or every waking moment in the game, you'd be a test subject, the co-author of a blockbuster Hollywood film and one of the most committed Star Wars geeks in history.

There are also plenty of challenges to this new form of collaborative storytelling. Gaming is not usually a creative act; we usually do as we're told with very few avenues of personal expression, and the skills and habits that drive, say, the leader of a major World of Warcraft guild don't necessarily include writing or even roleplaying. And legendary stories - Dark Phoenix committing suicide, Gollum chomping Frodo's finger, etc. - usually come from one author, not a crowd of players. But stories are also full of non-key moments, and third-tier characters sometimes turn out to be the most engaging members of the cast. The whole point of transmedia storytelling is to build a world full of stories, instead of rehashing the same key plots.

The real problem is professional writers aren't ready to share authorship, or even carve out areas where players can add something meaningful - and permanent. In all of the talk about how consumers are becoming participants, there's still a stark line between the decisions that shape the story and all those fans who have to wait for what happens next. Sure, the little people can write their fan fiction, wear their costumes, send their Mary Sues to Hogwarts or roll their Frodo clones in Lord of the Rings Online. But their contributions don't count; they're still sitting at the kids' table. But in the next generation of interactive, transmedia properties, it's hard to believe they'll stay there.

Chris Dahlen also writes about technology and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, where he is games editor.

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