Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

The Death of Story, Part I


I have noted in the MMO industry (as well as films and, to a lesser extent in fantasy literature) a decline in the quality of storytelling. It seems that designers are generally more eager to make an easy-money sequel rather than create something new that is truly powerful. I suppose the good news is that games seem to pull it off better sequels than movies, yet this doesn’t avoid a stagnation of creativity. The same old thing gets regurgitated again and again.

The importance of story stems from MMOs being the natural offspring of the single player RPGs. True, there are many players that are drawn to the game by other factors such as the head-to-head combat FPSer, the burgeoning diplomat, or the fantasy world mercantilist (not to mention the plethora of scammers and gold farmers trying to make a real world buck). Fundamentally, however, an MMO is an RPG where thousands of stories are being told at once.

When you look at MMO stories, they come in two varieties that exist simultaneously. The first is the global or world story and the second is the personal one (as in the story that each gamer creates for themselves as they play). We’ll spend this article by beginning our look at the global story and continue from there.

Any given game that hits the shelves has a well developed back story. Some of these are written in fairly broad strokes, such as EVE, while others draw upon years and years of previous IP development like Star Wars Galaxies and the Warhammer Online. But what happens once an MMO goes live? Almost unilaterally, the world freezes at a particular moment in its chronology. If world events progress at all, it is only very slowly. Consider WoW, which built off of its previous real-time strategy games and set its MMO in the relatively calm détente following the end of Warcraft III. The only real advances in the global climate of Azeroth have occurred through the releases of their two expansions over a period of four years (including the forthcoming Wrath of the Lich King).

Essentially, MMO worlds are stagnant. They have cardboard cutout monsters and NPCs that stand in their assigned space or walk a predesignated path. Players come by and knock the monsters down like a fantastical shooting range, but after a few minutes, the pulleys whir, the monsters stand up, and the world reverts. On a micro level where thousands of players are sharing the same game space, this is to be expected. The problem is that it also exists at a macro level and constantly echoes in the background, “This world is not real… this world is not real…”

Of course the world isn’t real, but just like movies and books, the game needs to feel real while it is being experienced. Consider from this perspective: The real world is constantly in motion. On a daily basis, the changes are often unnoticeable. Many of us wake at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast before heading to our usual 8 hour workday, clocking in and out like clockwork. But behind the sameness of our lives, things are happening. You’d have to have your head in the sand to not know of the war in Iraq. Few of us have gone there, but you may know someone who has, perhaps even someone who has died. You may or may not be registered to vote, but you know there is a presidential election in full swing. You may not be a sports nut, but you are aware that the baseball season is drawing to a close while football is just hitting its stride.

With few exceptions, none of this sensation of reality exists in MMOs. The world rarely changes and, when it does, it is in an instantaneous spurt between one log-in and another. Some games have taken this problem more seriously than others. Ironically, the nine-year old Asheron’s Call provides the best positive example. Each month a new patch was released and, if I remember correctly, when it went live the designers had about seven years worth of monthly events already pre-planned. Sure, most players weren’t able to actively participate in a lot of them, but there was always a feeling of things happening. Everyone who played will remember when all the water in the world changed to blood. You couldn’t escape the sense of things happening when the global messages warned of an impending by Bael’Zharon’s shadow servants. The system has its shortcomings. It is a dev developed timeline, after all, and the only real impact players have is trying to be the first on each server to uncover some new tidbit, or get that one-time drop (like the nexus armor), or trigger a new event to begin. Players jump through hoops set forth by designers and don’t have the power to deviate on their own path.

Lord of the Rings Online has taken the approach of storytelling through Tolkien’s novels. But this has even less illusion of player impact. LOTRO is bound by the novels. Nothing any player does makes one ounce of difference as to whether or not Frodo succeeds in his quest. As Moria is released this fall, gamers are looking forward to the new region with its graphics enhancements, additional character classes, and expanded crafting systems. But the story of Moria has already been told. Everyone knows that Frodo and Company make it through the mines at the terrible cost of losing Gandalf. Nothing any player does in Moria will make the journey any easier or harder for that beleaguered band. It’s entirely illusion. This is the great vulnerability of using existing IP. LOTRO is the fullest example, but every other game which builds off of an already used world is constrained by the limits already set.

The reason games pull from popular IP is obvious. It’s just like the sequels of the movie industry. A popular world and popular story are sure to get sales as soon as they hit the shelf. But this kills the story. Since the MMO is but one piece of a marketing empire, how much can that game truly evolve a life of its own? Developers might be able to add some small changes, so long as they fall in line with everything else also using that IP, but players have no chance of truly impacting their world. Imagine if players were given greater power over their own destinies and a sudden peace was forged between the high elves and dark elves of Warhammer. That would rock, not only the MMO world, but the RPG and miniature gaming worlds as well. Games Workshop wouldn’t stand for it. In other words, unless it is sanctioned by the devs, it is not only unlikely, but impossible. When existing IP is used, the overall world plot, as developed by the powers that be, cannot be disrupted by player actions. Under such constraints, no player can ever believe they have a chance to “change the fate of the world.” They just live in a developer designed sandbox with cardboard cutout allies and villains that move according on preordained strings.

So can a world have a true living story? Yes, but first and foremost it must be a world that is changeable. Players need to be able to see and feel that change. Additionally, to be truly successful on this point, players need to be able to cause change themselves in a visible permanent or semi-permanent way. Asheron’s Call met the first, but not the second criteria.

Newer games have explored player impact on the focused front of PvP combat. WoW has its battlegrounds and the Eastern Plaguelands, LOTRO has its fights over the Delving of Fror. Age of Conan allows the building and besieging of castles and from what I understand, Warhammer Online has a complex system for this as well. While I applaud all of these advances, I wonder about the large number of players who don’t care for PvP. For that matter, what about all players, regardless of gaming style, in those regions of the world that aren’t PvP focused? After a long fight in the Plaguelands, a WoW player may return to Stormwind and there they’ll find the same unchanging cardboard cutouts. A successful world story must incorporate not just PvP in selected zones, but all types of gamers everywhere.

I’m out of room in this installment, so next time we’ll explore this possibility further. Some games have begun to tap player influences on a broader spectrum, but they’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. We’ll look at ways to push this further and then move on to the similarly afflicted player story.

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