Hey, since it’s just you and me here, can I ask you a personal question? When is the last time a MMO story moved you in some way? I mean, really moved you to where you felt genuine emotion over the story (not just the gameplay) — anger, laughter, sorrow, regret, shame, joy?
Yeah, me neither.
I love me some MMORPGs, that’s for sure, but if I want moving, involving examples of storytelling in video games, that is not the genre for me. Especially in light of some of the excellent tales told in adventure games (The Longest Journey, Grim Fandango) and single-player RPGs (Planescape Torment, KOTOR). I’m an absolute sucker for a good story — forget loot and skill points, I’d rather be rewarded with a terrific yarn nine times out of ten in a game, as long as that story was compelling and moving.
And yet, we all know that not to be the case in MMOs. Part of the problem is that story writers in MMOs are limited by the game mechanics — instead of writing a grand epic, they’re providing countless cover stories for same-old fetch/kill/escort quests. And by the time we get to any epic tales, we’ve become desensitized to reading any actual quest text so that it doesn’t matter.
And why the fetch/kill/escorts? Apparently, devs have deduced over time that players don’t want stories, they want quick achievement. Thus began a chain of simplifying quest design to a preschool level, just to feed the appetites of instant gratification/power gamer lovers. While this may be feeding the base needs of a majority of players, these are the same players who grow to hate the game they’re stuck playing, because it became nothing more than hitting six buttons and watching bad guys fall over and over without any larger context. Well, other than “I shore hope he gives me the loots!”
For all of the supposed stories and quests in MMOs, only an infinitesimal amount of them stick in the minds of players, from testimonials and personal experience. We remember Gwen from Guild Wars, Mankirk from Azeroth, um… that one guy from that thing that time, but really, it’s the exception rather than the rule. We don’t play the game for the story; we suffer the story to get to the game. And that is just so terribly wrong.
This is one reason why I’m holding onto hope that BioWare makes good on its promise of upholding story as the “fourth pillar” of The Old Republic, because I’m tired of not caring about the game world I’m involved with. LOTRO does a good job, sometimes excellent (especially with their Book quest lines), but still has too much “filler” stories that I have a hard time keeping up with it all.
I have a proposal for a MMO that has yet to be made, and that proposal is this: separate tedious quests from story. Sure, still include the staples of kill/fetch/escort quests, but cut out the story from them entirely — just have players go to a bounty hunter NPC or mission vendor to pick up one of these odd jobs to fill some time. Then pledge to make all quests have a real story, a unique path, and a satisfying — perhaps persistent — conclusion. Forget MMOs that boast of 14,000 quests on the back of their box; I’d rather play a game with 50 meaningful, moving, exciting quests than 14,000 dull, trite and tired ones. Put a long timer on these quests once you complete them, and when the timer is up, offer players the chance to revisit them if they so wish.
Going a different direction from the previous paragraph would be to have all the quests you like, but have each one contribute to a certain overarching story. During or at the conclusion of the quest, a part of that story is revealed, and an in-game journal plugs it into that story’s page. So you start with a blank page for that story, and like a jigsaw puzzle, you completing quests fills in the page, a sentence at a time, until the full dealio is revealed. Then, if you have completed the story, you would unlock a special cutscene that perhaps includes video or pictures from your journey along with narration. A recap, in other words, to remind us of where we’ve been and why. You can never have too much hand-holding when it comes to lore, in my opinion. What’s obvious to game devs is often buried in a mountain of details to players.
Part of a great story, too, is that it infiltrates all aspects of life. MMOs are infamous for cutting a storyline dead the second you complete the final quest, but I assure devs that players would grab on to reminders of that quest, characters that sought them out in a tavern months later to buy them a drink over their deeds, some visual mark on the world (phasing, perhaps) that would serve to say to the player that their efforts weren’t wasted, but had a real and lasting impact (even if that is a simulated impact).
What will the future hold for the attempt of MMOs to tell stories without losing player interest? Perhaps its as simple as cutscenes and in game scripting (which, not as simple as blocks of text, is at least pretty possible today). Perhaps there’s another solution we’re just not seeing yet.