Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

The Death of Story, Part II


Last time we began our look at how stories are dying in games. Stories occur on two levels in MMOs, the global and personal. I began our investigation of the global story by arriving at two conclusions about what’s necessary for players to feel like they are the part of such a tale. First, players must be able to see and feel changes occur around them. Second, players need to be a source of permanent and long term change. The only aspect of gaming that currently is exploring this concept is PvP. While advances in PvP are promising so far, this focus has neglected the numerous other aspects of MMO gaming. If “war is the continuation of politics by other means” doesn’t that suggest deeper potential actions behind the current pre-arranged conflicts? If “the pen is mightier than the sword” then why are players only able to use swords? The answer is that the devs won’t let go of the pen.

In establishing a world story, game developers have four roads open to them. The most common is to neglect it altogether, beyond the establishment of a back-story. A second method, as championed by AC and discussed last time, is to have a strong story but have it strictly controlled by the devs. The opposite decision, as employed by EVE is to have no running story at all and leave everything in the hands of the players. This is a courageous choice, because who knows what players are capable of, yet it is still only a thin veil hiding the reality that this is just another means of ignoring a world story. I say this because even EVE can’t escape the need for NPCs (albeit in limited roles). Nor do they give full control over to the players in the sense that someone who starts as an Amarr cannot defect from the Amarr Empire and join the Gallente Federation. Nor can the Caldari as a people align with the Amarr or the Brutor tribe rise up against the remainder of Minmater. In a world of true player control, all of these would be possible.

This leads to the final model: a hybrid of shared player and developer control over a living storyline. The story starts with the devs (they created the world history after all), but the events that unfold in the game are not locked in a prearranged sequence. Instead, the chapters ahead are unknown and players can influence what unfolds, even on the highest level. So how can players feel they are gaming in a dynamic world and how can they influence the story of that world? It can occur in many ways, on many levels of complexity and depth.

Remember last time when I referred to events taking place in our real world and our awareness of them, even if we aren’t directly involved? This basic concept remains missing from most MMOs. Take, for example, WoW’s PvP arena matches. Not being a big PvPer myself, I haven’t been directly involved in them. I’m only aware of it when I hear players spamming global chat for partners in the competition. In a way, this is the “sport” of an MMO world. Wouldn’t it make sense that there would be billboards in the major cities that could advertise the lead contestants? Why do the NPCs that wander the streets of Stormwind only regurgitate the same meaningless blather over and over when they could serve a more practical and realistic role by saying such things as “Did you see the fight between so-and-so and so-and-so? That troll was butchered like a murloc!” Not only would this put actual game events into the mouths of NPCs, it’s also a way to give recognition to the contestants that do well.

Assuming you actually have a game that changes over time, this concept could be expanded. AC used town criers to advertise new events. That worked for dev changes and was a good idea. It should work for player changes too. To use another WoW example, why don’t the NPCs at Refugee Point talk about who is winning on the Arathi Basin battleground? Warhammer Online uses a slide bar to show regional Realm control. While practical, it isn’t particularly immersive. Couldn’t NPC dialogue be driven in part by who is winning?

Another level of reality can be gained by adding geographical locations that emphasize the changing face of the world. Most games do this to some degree already. In WoW, I got a kick out of visiting Grom Hellscream’s Tomb not to mention dozens of other scenes of destruction from the previous three RTS games. LOTRO has its stone trolls, the famous Prancing Pony Inn, along with a myriad of other sites from Tolkien’s novels. These are nice touches, but again I’ve got to say that AC has the best examples. This isn’t because of some obsession with AC, but rather because it is a prime example of a game that has no previous IP. The reason for this potency in the storytelling sense is that the locations you encounter in AC you don’t necessarily understand. If you’ve played the previous Warcraft games, you don’t wonder who Grom Hellscream was. Nor do you wonder why the three stone trolls in LOTRO are standing in the forest near the road to Rivendell. But when you wander past the long straight line of statues in the middle of the AC desert near Tufa, you wonder what they are, how they got there, and why they were built. When you see the thousands of skeletons lying around the Hill of Pines, you wonder what battle happened there. These aren’t just encounters with history, but with the unknown and that makes the world real and mysterious. Games which build off of old IP will have a much harder time achieving the sense that there are new things for players to discover.

A big area of storytelling that is already being explored as a subset of PvP is city building. This is a great idea, but so far is only scratching the surface. Why can’t there be buildings in non-conflicted regions? Of course with building schemes, a measure of control is necessary. Housing on Star Wars Galaxies is a prime example of a real-estate market gone crazy. On AC, even though housing was developer controlled, it still went bonkers. Within a year, you could hardly run five feet without crashing into a housing settlement. But players should be able to influence and even partake in controlled building projects. Take, for example, the Arathi Plains in WoW. As a predominantly Alliance player, I’m annoyed that I have to run all the way to Menethil or Southshore to find an inn or a mailbox. Why shouldn’t I be able to get a group of people and/or guilds together and petition an NPC stoneworking guild at Ironforge (aka dev oversight) for building permits? Of course there may be a hefty outpouring of gold for the project, players may be required to perform some serious resource collecting, and it wouldn’t happen overnight, but in the end a community effort could result in a new inn.

This leads to my final and largest example of ways for world stories to exist and for players to influence them: the use of NPCs and factions. In most MMOs, players have no expectation of being the ruler of a realm, the general of an army, or the leader of a faction (not that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for any of these to be possible). The highest a person can generally aspire to is leadership of a guild or the highest rank in PvP. The role of king and general and chancellor are held by NPCs and in those MMOs with world stories, the plot generally evolves around these figures. In games without a story, if these roles exist they serve no purpose at all. Similarly, many games have NPC factions for whom players can earn a reputation but not true membership. Why not?

The closest influence I’ve ever seen for players on world events occurred a few years into the AC storyline. A certain NPC by the name of Nuhmudira had been dabbling in ancient dark magic and was caught and put on trial. Players could complete a small dungeon and at the end were levers. Pull one to vote that she should be forgiven; pull another to have her executed. Gamers actually got to decide on what happened next. This is a brilliant idea. Players should be involved in NPC factions and influence what that faction is going to do in the future. In a broad sense, the devs can steer a storyline through the use of powerful NPCs while the players can influence the outcome through the collaborative (and combative) use of factions. The current Realms idea is a good building block for this, but the roles and rivalries are too set in stone. In WoW, why must the Blood Elves and Tauren always be allied? Can’t they have a falling out and one side become independent or chose to join the Alliance? Or looking within a single race, why can’t Stormwind and Theramore go to war? Even existing factions seem to be de facto realm based. Those who are not are always outsiders who help or hate both equally. Why can’t the neutral factions actually have members from both warring realms? That’s how the real world works: history is replete with people that follow money and power and play both sides against each other, even if it conflicts with their own national loyalties. Players and/or guilds could influence faction behavior through earning “shares” in the faction and then voting for certain alignments and behaviors for the faction to take, either independently or in response to unfolding story events.

Pretty much any action could be possible for player-influenced factions, but probably the biggest lure would be things that contribute to individual gameplay. Factions are already a source of less expensive or rare items but they could be so much more. Most non-aligned factions seem to be based around money-raising ventures, though it would be logical that most (if not all) of the profits were not spent by individual players on individual equipment like in the standard auction house, but rather on bigger world undertakings such as the aforementioned building projects, or campaigns against other factions, bribery, hiring NPC mercenaries, etc. For that matter, wouldn’t it be cool if factions could offer bounties to players to kill PvE or PvP opponents, collect certain resources, or perform other tasks. SWG dabbled with the bounty idea and I’m sorry to see it hasn’t gone further.

By definition, an MMO is a community game and not just a bunch of players who happen to be playing their own single-player RPG in a shared geographical space. As such, wouldn’t it make sense for the community to feel like the world they play in is alive and changing and that they can garner some influence over what transpires? This would allow MMOs to tap into the power of fantasy and sci-fi that served as a major source of their inspiration.

Next time we’ll look at the second half of the tale: the individual story.

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