We love telling stories...
We love being told a good story...
Ever since people first gathered around their campfires and began sharing stories we have always loved a good story.
It's a large part of why we play games. Many of the great games, the ones we hold dear, were great not just because they offered a great game experience or had compelling game-play, but because they grabbed us with their story and we just had to know how it ended...
There has been a lot of talk of late about how the ability to tie good storytelling into MMOs might be lacking. A lot had been made about the quotes from Bioware about how MMOs haven't had a good single player narrative to them as yet. Now while I think that in itself is a little contradictory (MMO's haven't had a good single player narrative to them because they inherently aren't single player titles despite sharing many elements), it did get me thinking about something I had been meaning to write a post on for some time, the beauty of story-telling in an MMO, and it also prompted me to want to point out that while MMOs may indeed lack some of the traditional elements of a single player story, the 'hero story' as it is being a complicated challenge for MMO design (more on that in a bit!), they offer a far more powerful element of story telling and that is you, the player.
It is definitely true that few MMOs have offered the same type of individual narrative drive that you see in any of Bioware's previous single player titles, or even your favorite best told stories down the years, whether that is Half-Life, Deus-Ex, System Shock, Bioshock, the Fallout series, Monkey Island, The Longest Journey, or any other of the games down the years that have told fantastic stories.
That might be true...
...but to me MMOs are capable of telling stories that are even more compelling than any of those industry milestones mentioned above. What's more, they already do so every day.
Let me tell you a story of my own as a means of making a point...
Into the Dragon's Lair
Early on in World of Warcraft, my guild had finally gotten everyone together to raid the dragon Onyxia, everyone had done the required quests to get inside her lair and we were good to go. (This is of course in the bygone days of early wow when it was a big deal and yes, they did make us do a long quest chain to get the chance to take her on, anyway, I digress...). As we prepared for the fight and sat around buffing at the entrance one of the members of the guild asked a question in raid chat:
'So who knows why we are here?'
...the answers rather typically went something like this:
'I want my sword!'
'The part for my Hunter epic quest'
'A Paladin drop would be nice but it won't happen'
That resulted in a chat *sigh* from the person who asked the question, 'No guys, why are we here to fight the dragon? What's the reason?'
'Didn't we just say that...'
'I don't think he means loot'
'I meant the quest, you know, the several hours of game-play you just spent earning access to this lair? The story you just played through? Did anyone even notice?'
'...hmmm...a dragonkin thing spawned in Stormwind or something, wasn't really paying attention'
Longer story short, next to no-one on the raid had even paid attention to the story, regardless of how well it was told. So I am telling you MMO players don't always pay attention to quest text, cut-scenes or dialog windows?
Yes, I can hear the collective 'well D'UH!' from here, thank you very much.
That much anyone who has played an MMO for more than a few minutes already knows. However that wasn't the point I wanted to make, the interesting part is what happened after that conversation. The interesting part is the story we created for ourselves once we started fighting the dragon.
We are the storytellers!
I still remember much of those encounters because of the great characters, wonderful dialog, the challenges, the disasters, the recoveries and the eventual victories. A fantastic story with a great script...a script that was written by us, as gamers, as we played.
I might not remember the dialog or characters in the quest lines I had to complete to get there, but I sure as hell remember the dialog between my guild mates, and the characters within the guild, and the community at large on my server. That goes for every MMO I have played going all the way back to Meridian 59 and Ultima Online. The players themselves are capable of providing a compelling and engaging narrative all on their own.
The characters and stories that the players bring with them is a key part of the fabric of an MMO, and should never be forgotten when considering why people like these games in the first place. Sure, we have progression, levels, skills, items and loot, and for some that is appealing in and of itself (see Farmville or Mafia Wars for proof of that!), but the thing that sets an MMO apart is how you interact with others around you. Whether that interaction is positive or negative doesn't really matter, it means we are all making a story for ourselves (and others) as we go along.
That story might be small (like a wipe in a pick-up-group) or it might be huge and effect many thousand of gamers (like a scam or major corporate collapse in EVE), it might be a personal story, like the first time you reached a certain area or level, or it might be a shared story like a guild racing for a server first kill, but it is a story. You can't really deny that. You might forget it, dismiss it, or take it for granted, but I'd wager your game experience would be far poorer without it.
For every quest text you might skip, there is a funny character you met while playing, a strange situation you found yourself in, an inglorious failure, or a heroic recovery from certain doom. Even when playing alone in an MMO, you are still surrounded by other players. You still share those stories. Think about it..how many of the MMO stories you chose to share with your friends are purely about what happened while you were soling a quest, and how many involve the antics, heroics or stupidity of a friend or another player?
Again, I'd wager it's far more likely to be the latter on any given occasion...
...it is also what sets an MMO apart from a single player game. Our experiences in MMOs often resonate with us more, or for longer, because they are inherently a shared experience...
...so while it might be quite right to say that MMOs have yet to develop mechanics capable of delivering the same narrative drive for the individual as a good single player game, it is doing the genre a disservice to forget about the elements unique to the MMO environment that allow for all the great stories we, as players, create for ourselves.
Now, that said, let me also state that I personally think story is possibly one of the most important things in creating an MMO...just maybe not in the way you think. Yes, you need good game-play, solid and meaningful progression, great experiences, systems and encounters for players to enjoy, all those things are vital...
...but to me it is also essential that, your world, your setting, this place that you are going to ask players to effectively live in, for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours, that place, that place has to be believable and immersive, and that is all down to telling a story. A story of this world that you want players to be engaged in.
For me the setting is one of the most important parts of an MMO. It has to be engaging, it has to be well thought through and deep, it has to have believable lore, it has to make the world that you playing in interesting. That is no easy thing. So when I say that an MMO needs great story, I don't necessarily mean that it has to have some kind of dynamic, single player orientated quest-line, or the best voice-over, or killer cinematic sequences (although all those things are cool and great tools for telling parts of your story), they help sure, but they are tools for us to tell parts of the story of our world. In an MMO I don't just want the player engaged in only their story, ideally I want the player engaged in the story of the world, and aware of all the other stories going on around them, in addition to their personal path.
The best MMO worlds are those that you can believe in. That might be because they have a great license that is well treated, or it might be they are well developed and have a specific style or setting that is compelling. It isn't just down to art design or quest storylines, it can often just be about the background and the setting. For example I find the world of EVE online very believable, well established and reasonably well established in game (if you care to notice it), even in a game built up from the start to be purely the proverbial sandbox for players. Being a sandbox and having a great story are also not things that are mutually exclusive of each other!
I fell in love with a certain planet, called Rubi-Ka, years ago that lead me to end up here, doing this job. If it hadn't been for the fact that the world my predecessors had built for Anarchy Online was the realization of a teams great imagination I probably wouldn't be here today. I believed in that world. In the virtual sense at least it was very real. I could relate to it, science fiction or otherwise, it had it's own history, it's own politics, it's own geography, someone, somewhere had made it come to life for me, and many other players to explore.
Little touches like having the different languages in the original Everquest, all those things that exist in order to sell the world to us as players.
'Story' isn't just about quests, quest mechanics, dialog options or cut-scenes. A world can tell a story, because it can provide a rich tapestry against the backdrop of which players can forge their own adventures. All those things are important
So what about me? I wanna be the hero dammit!
It doesn't have to only be about the 'Hero Story'. The narrative of a single player game has but one primary protagonist to consider, the player. There being literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of 'heroes' in an MMO is a tremendous challenge. In fact I could easily believe that we will be better off when we try to find the best way to avoid having to shoehorn single player narrative elements where they don't fit, and concentrate on where, and how, they might work in the multi-player setting. We should definitely take the ones that do fit, and try to build the best quest mechanics we can to try and build both personal and shared narratives. That has been on-going for many years as the genre has evolved.
Whereas many people play a single player MMO largely to experience and enjoy a fantastic story, people play an MMO for many different reasons, but that also doesn't mean the two things are mutually exclusive in any way. In a single player RPG it is one of the main elements a user expects to have going into the experience, although rarely at the expense of good game-play. If a game is said to have poor game-play or lacks a good user experience, having a great story rarely tends to save it's sales figures. So the game-play is still the most important thing, and it is the same for an MMO. The story is a very close second, but it is second.
The evolution game...
...now don't get me wrong. This isn't a partisan debate. I am all for the development of the genre, and do not for a minute advocate being satisfied with the status quo. People can, and will, find new ways to move the genre along. It will evolve, and that includes in finding ways to smoothly integrate the more traditional RPG 'Hero story' elements mentioned above, without compromising the community elements. It will happen in many areas, and it will be challenging in many areas. Just as I hope people put imagination and devotion into creating their setting, I likewise hope that we, as a genre, continue to evolve and find new ways to tell stories.
Likewise it is not a 'sandbox' versus 'theme park' debate either, as I have mentioned before I am kind of loathe to use those terms as I believe games can be either, or both, and any combination can work depending on the game and the approach. The best MMO titles have elements of both. You can have an interesting back story and game-world regardless of your chosen style of game-play. You can have interesting stories there whether the quests are integral to a progression of some kind, or part of an open-world dynamic event. We will make better and longer lasting improvements to the genre when we find the ways to incorporate both types of approach into our games.
I am really looking forward to seeing how Bioware, with all their experience at telling single player stories, approach all the challenges I have mentioned here. Likewise games like Guild Wars 2, and our own The Secret World, will also have their own take on how to integrate more storytelling elements. Some of these approaches will succeed, some will fail, some will inspire others in the future, they will be stepping stones and the genre will continue to evolve. One thing I am sure off though, it won't evolve without the input of the players themselves...
The main thing is that the genre will adapt to that need from it's players. This isn't a discussion about absolute opposites or mutually exclusive elements. As explored above I don't feel it's fair to say that the story elements used to tell a great narrative, or create an immersive setting, are something that haven't worked yet in an MMO setting. You can see from the examples above there are already many great examples. While it is true that not many MMOs have focused on the central 'hero story' that drives most single player RPG games, it is also true that they have created stories all of their own, in a variety of different ways.
That is why story is very much one of the most important parts of any MMO game. It is not because we would want to be good single player RPGs, but that we would of like to take the power of a good storytelling and weave it into the fabric of the communal experience found in an MMO environment. Then a good narrative can introduce yet another compelling element for the community to bind together around and share stories about.
As I said at the top, since the days when the earliest people shared myth, legend and stories around a campfire, stories are inherently designed to be shared. Working on an MMO offers a fairly unique opportunity for developers to craft a truly shared experience that relies not just on the storyteller (in this case the developers) but allows for a degree of the drama to come from the actions of the audience itself (the players). To forget that is to lose sight a little of one of the true strengths of the MMO medium.
We will be at our best when we try and do both rather than looking at these elements as separate things that somehow have to compromised to work in an online setting.
That is because in many ways the true power of making an MMO title isn't that we get the opportunity to tell you a wonderful story, in interesting and memorable settings, but more that we give you, the player, the opportunity to share these wonderful stories that we have put effort into creating, and that you, our audience, even get to advance them in ways we never thought possible...