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.