MMO devs: Stop going big with your stories. Go small instead.

MMORPGs as a storytelling delivery system are an interesting beast. Unlike movies and novels, they aren’t concentrated and focused upon a single, unbroken tale that’s experienced from start to finish. Unlike many other games, they are vastly longer and have a lot more filler and other diversions that take players away from whatever grand story is being told.

Without drawing this thesis out — which is exactly what MMOs do — I’ll just say that these big, huge, sprawling, super-epic mega-stories don’t really fit with the MMORPG format. For one thing, it’s too easy to lose track of what’s going on when it’s been perhaps days between stages or the devs are spinning their narrative wheels to keep players from getting through it too quickly.

For another thing, these massive tales (and I’m speaking primarily from my own experience and anecdotally through others’ who have said something along this line) don’t connect as well to the player or their character’s journey. We get fatigued at the “every new story has to be bigger than the one before.” We roll our eyes at the notion that our character is the greatest hero the world has ever seen. We stop being in awe of every gargantuan boss that comes along that has to be an order of magnitude bigger than the one before it.

The writers for these games keep escalating things way too much, and over a long enough timeline, it gets ridiculous for the game, especially when my hero’s status is juxtaposed with a new village asking me to collect eggs and fight off bandits to prove my worth for the 100th time.

So here’s my thought for the day: Stop, just stop trying to go bigger with these stories — and go smaller instead. You know what quests and story arcs really resonate with me as a player? Shorter, unbroken ones that are focused on crafting a really strong adventure that uses the strengths of the genre and features a beginning, middle, and end.

Games like RuneScape, Secret World, and Dungeons and Dragons Online specialize in these types of quests, and they are the stronger for them. When I can wrap my head around an entire tale — even if it’s a short story rather than a Game of Thrones-sized novel in length — and experience the whole thing in a single session, my chances of being able to remember it and resonate with it increase. Sometimes the best stories that games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online told aren’t the headlining expansion arcs but the two or three-quest chains that feature clear protagonists, antagonists, situations, conflict, and resolution.

I guess it’s the “resolution” that I am asking for, because when you think of it, that’s so very rare in MMOs. So often we get the start of a quest (the quest text) and the middle of it (the character’s adventure itself), but the conclusion is barely a line or two of acknowledgement if that. These aren’t stories, they’re busy work. I’d rather have fewer quests that focus more on immersive storytelling that takes us through the whole process rather than 3/4ths of it.

Anyway, that’s my plea to devs today. Go smaller and populate the world with many great stories instead of one unwieldy monster that we don’t care about by the time we’ve finished with it.

9 thoughts on “MMO devs: Stop going big with your stories. Go small instead.

  1. rickjm540 May 8, 2020 / 9:18 am

    I agree – but maybe include a long story arc that you touch now and then (like the Fellowship in LOTRO or the main arc in ESO) to keep an backbone of continuity.

  2. Redbeard May 8, 2020 / 10:34 am

    I’ve been complaining about this for years. And when you think about it, Vanilla WoW was not only good at having these smaller arcs but also on the big ones (and there are about 3-4 in there) when you reach the raid part you’re not “one of the best heroes in Azeroth” but merely one cog in the army (represented in game by 40 person raids).

    It’s only once BC gets going does WoW begin that treadmill that leads to what retail is today: a world populated by the greatest heroes in the universe and no room for anybody else, such as the “normal” people who populate a world and do things such as raise crops or make everyday items that form a society.

  3. Sylow May 8, 2020 / 11:16 am

    In terms of the size of content i think we need both. And both old TSW and ESO are good examples, where either was or is present.

    In TSW there was the big arc of going from one zone to another, uraveling the bigger plot and mysteries. While doing that, many missions were small stories by themselves. They came with starting and ending cutscene. Some had follow ups, in which case they continued telling the story around the place you just were.

    For ESO it’s similar. You have the big arc, which takes you through all the zones. But plenty of missions which also have their voiced conversations. While the conversations up to recently were not lipsynced and the animations were very wooden, they still did a much better job than in many other games. (Sidenote: i say “up to recently”. I lately played the Greymoor introduction quest and had to notice that the quality of the conversations with NPCs was vastly increased in those. Lipsync was not perfect, but it was in place and the NPCs were better positioned and displayed, instead of relying on the old system of “standard pose, then exacute an emote when the corresponding line of conversation comes up”. I hope they can keep up the new level of quality. )

    That being said, ESO also lacks one key element of TSW: the strict limitation of missions. In TSW you only had the one big story arc, one main and up to three side missions at maximum. You could drop the main mission or side missions to pick up another one, but the limitation stayed in place. In ESO you can drag around up to 25 missions or so.

    Being able to just grab all the missions of some location results in players handling them just like they did in WoW: pick them all up, look at the map, work them off based on how you move along the map. Even WoW had some good stories hidden in between their quests. But by being torn up like that, almost nobody ever spotted them, they just were worked off, lost and forgotten.

    The same can happen in ESO. Some of my guild members work that, which means that they get the XP and reward, but can’t really connect the dots of the story any more.

    Ironically that was also one of the things many people complained about when TSW was new: that they had to do each mission individually, instead of being able to work them off in bulk. While i think it’s one of the most excellent design decission they did: it makes sure that the story is presented properly.

    As a sidenote, when i read the title of the article i actually thought about some other thing: too many stories are all about “save the world yet once again”. I very much think that always going for the biggest stakes is old and overused.

    Looking at ESO again, for me the most enjoyable DLC story was the Thieves Guild. There was nothing about saving the world, preventing the downfall of a nation, rescuing a god or stuff like that. It was all about a group of friends, who just made their living by doing non-legal good transfers and got into problems. In the very end the thing got a bit political, but it still remained at a low level. I found that this was much more relatable than many “you are the chosen hero, protector of the world, champion of the gods and whatever else” plotlines out there.

    So it might be just me, but i do believe that a smaller scope and thus better focus on the things happening really improves things.

  4. Yeebo May 8, 2020 / 11:55 am

    Great post, I agree! SWTOR does a really good job with this too, but only if you know to do all of the optional side quests. In the 1-50 game you have one long narrative (class stories), shorter planetary arcs that play out over the course of a few evenings, and a ton of smaller self contained stories. However, they have rejiggered the game to encourage you to completely ignore everything but the two longer story arcs.

    Of course all that goes completely out the window in the KoT… expansions, which is one reason I really dislike them that I didn’t fully realize until reading this post.

    I also apparently need to try Runescape. I never would have guessed.

  5. Minimalistway May 8, 2020 / 12:33 pm

    I said this to a friend after he complained about fetch the crystal missions in FFXIV, i said “In most MMOs you are part-time savior of the world, full-time errand boy”.

    I like big stories but after many of them get so big and convoluted i’m tired of them, can’t i be a farmer who have local level adventure? in some games our characters are called “adventurer” and this is perfect, give me an adventure, a full story in this one zone.

  6. Silverangel May 9, 2020 / 12:56 am

    Good post. I was criticizing this issue in LotRO like 10 years ago. Need to remind the player. Weeping Warrior, anyone? How long has it been since Dale? Also, likeable characters. Also, your own character feeling relevant somehow.

  7. Chordian May 9, 2020 / 6:56 am

    Congratulations player, you are #85619 to be declared “The Chosen One” – the one to save us all! (With all these chosen one’s we can’t possibly lose.)

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