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..the progression conundrum...

This post might end up rambling over a few loosely linked areas, or at the very least be prone to some occasional digressing...you have been warned! There is however an important thought behind this one...what motivates us to play, and progress in our games? How does it effect MMO gameplay?

More importantly how does that impact the way we design content for the genre? Then perhaps more ominously, how does it impact our ability to innovate and improve upon the genre? Can we both entertain players with better stories and techniques while still not forgetting what drives players forward in these games in the first place...

Progression vs Entertainment

When you are playing through a game there are different motivations at play. Even within the same game different motivations can make us want, or not want, to do different aspects of any given gameplay experience.

We also, as players, also bring with us different motivations and desires based on the type of game activity we wish to experience.

So what motivates us as players of an MMO?
  • Sometimes we want to progress, we just want to get those +1s to whatever, be it exp, gear or any other rewards that are available.
  • Sometimes we want to achieve something or beat something because it is there, we don't always need to know why.
  • Sometimes we want to explore
  • Sometimes we want to fight
  • Sometimes we want to socialize
  • Sometimes we want to discover a story, or background elements
  • Sometimes we want to be told a story
MMOs by design, have so far been very progression focused, and I don't mean quest or linear progression focused. I mean just progression based in general. Whether your game is considered a 'theme park' or a 'sandbox', or anything in between. The inherent factor tying it all together in an MMO has generally been that your character is progressing, and getting 'better' (in whichever way the game in question defines 'better')

Progression, and the need for it is a bedrock of the expected player experience.

We also don't just progress in one way. You can see from the list above we have different motivations at different times.

Just as we do with console and single player titles we have different desires at different times. Sometimes we might want to be enthralled by a story of the designers creation that is well told with great cut-scenes and great voice acting, like playing through a game like Enslaved, or any other well told story, we are motivated to find out what happens next.

Then sometimes the gameplay and the progression motivates us, even if the task is mundane, or maybe more likely repetitive, we sometimes just want to get that next level / spell / combo / shiny or achievement.

When we have that motivation, being dragged in the first type of experience can often be frustrating. The best cut-scene in the world won't help if the player really wants to be hitting something with a stick when you decide to show it to them...

Sometimes these multiple motivations don't get acknowledged, when in fact they can be what makes a great game great.

...lets take a concrete recent example...

Personally I got completely wrapped up in the inane mini-games in the last Fable game (Fable II that is, I guess very soon that won't be the last Fable game!), by the time I had finished the story campaign I had probably spend twice as much time chopping wood and serving drinks in the mini-games (especially serving those cursed drinks!), as I had playing through the rest of the finely crafted, well paced, and interesting game-play provided by the main storyline. Why? Because at different points in the experience I had different motivations for progression.

Sometimes I was happy proceeding with the story, and focused on that.

Sometimes I just messed around and explored side quests

Sometimes I was happy enough to kill some time with the mini-games

The game allowed me the pleasure of all three due to the way it was set up, due to the way it established its rules, and was consistent throughout. Good games do that, even if we don't notice. They realize that different motivations drive different parts of gameplay...I enjoy it though when I have the choice. If the game had, for example, forced me to do mini-games at a certain point, or made progression depend or gated by something like that, I could easily come to resent it rather than enjoy it.

...so how is this relevant to MMOs? (or when are you going to get to the point Craig?? I did warn you this one rambled)

Mainly in the areas of how we try and make our games more compelling and how we try and introduce more story elements...

Progression vs Story

This can also explain why people have reservations about placing more 'story' in an MMO. People comment on it all the time, in particular now, with the heavy hitter that is The Old Republic pitching it as so integral to their experience.

Why was a 'skip quest text' the first GUI modification to be written for World of Warcraft for example?

At a fundamental level many designers and game writers bemoan this facet of players behavior, blame on the culture of immediacy and short attention spans prevalent more and more modern gaming society, and try to come up with ways to forcible change players behavior. I am not sure that we often enough ask why the players behave like that...at least seriously, rather than trying to dismiss it as some recent laziness inspired lack of interest on behalf of all the players out there.

generalization like that rarely help us get to a better understanding.

Other genres demonstrate quite ably that players are more than willing to enjoy and appreciate exposition and a good story. They even require it for a game to be elevated to the ranks of those titles considered 'classics'.

The reason why players might choose to do things like skip quest text in an MMO may be very simple, and not necessarily linked to any inherent impatience in modern culture - when users are motivated by progression for their current activity, they don't want to be 'held up' by things that prevent them reaching their specific goal at any given time. It can become a frustration because at the time it is delivered it is not the focus of the users intentions.

In effect we haven't yet found the best way to tell stories in an MMO that doesn't clash in some way with the way in which players prefer to experience the content we produce.

Now though, comes the rub...

...this doesn't mean an MMO player can't appreciate a good story element...

...likewise it doesn't mean that story can't be an important factor in the entertainment provided by a quest or encounter in an MMO...

What it does mean, is that we, as designers, have to very carefully consider where and when to introduce these elements so that they function as an entertaining element of the experience, rather than as something the players sees as 'getting in the way' of their enjoyment.

Progression vs Designers

So what do I mean by that? Essentially I think we have to think about the points I mentioned earlier about progression and the game experience, about what is motivating a player at different times in the gameplay experience, and assess how we can incorporate the elements we want to add, in order to make a game a more dynamic and interesting experience, into our MMO gameplay designs.

In many ways we have to accept the genre expectations, and work with them, but do so with an open mind so that we can find the best possible avenues for introducing more exciting and dynamic storytelling elements, but in a way that won't annoy users by interfering with the motivations of progression.

So the key is really in presenting these elements in ways, or at junctures, that won't be deemed as intrusive by the player. Finding ways and means that can be used to draw the player into the experience in the way every designer aspires to achieve.

Importantly though that also means accepting that you might have to change things up a little in order to make it work in context, and that there might be some good ways to do it and some bad ways.

Sometimes a player just wants to progress, and they will be frustrated if you don't help make that experience smooth.

Likewise sometimes players want, dare I say need, to be given some more dynamic and interesting experiences as well. It just has to be at the right moment...

...so let's take some examples...

What is important is that you don't disrupt the flow of gameplay unnecessary and place your exposition elements at places that make sense to the player.

So for example I really like the sequences in Aion, or the World of Warcraft expansions where you got cut-scenes or intros to an area the first time you visit it. Those are good examples of smart use of that kind of sequence. It helps establish a reason for the players journey, it might introduce points of interest, or give the players some helpful hints on where to travel next, or it might deliver some suitably dramatic introduction to the villain of an area, and none of those generally grate on players, because their appearance is part of a natural flow. So introduce these elements at times when the player has not yet entered that 'progression' state of mind, and they actually start to serve you well in creating a more interesting experience.

Likewise a sequence at the end of quest-line or event is great, because again, the players has completed their goal and has a lull in that progression motivation.

Those lulls in the progression motivation are the perfect point at which to energise the experience with better cut-scenes or voice work.

Even the best voice-over or cut-scene in the world won't help you if they come too quick and end up frustrating the player who wants to be spending a sustained period progressing their character. Even worse if the player can't anticipate those interruptions and

Likewise you could also remove other elements to help with the process. Move away from the traditional model and don't award exp or progression linked rewards along the way, make the rewards appear less often, but be larger at the end of an experience (as you find to an extent in a game like Dungeons and Dragons online). Then your progression becomes about completing whatever the task at hand is, and suddenly the progression motivation differs.

As a designer you want to try and make the experience as compelling as possible, most often through exposing story elements and provided meaning and context to the progression that provides the player's motivation, but you should also be careful to avoid doing it in a manner that will feel to the player like you are 'getting in the way' of their progression.

A practical example...

So lets imagine a game, a hypothetical MMO. Lets take this hypothetical MMO and see how we might add some content to it. In my imagination it shall be a wonderfully obtuse steampunk western world...because I always dream of making a game in such a setting and will probably never be allowed to craft one...anyway, I digress...back to the example. In our hypothetical MMO there is an area that we would like to populate with twenty quests...and let's be good to ourselves (since the wonderful thing about a hypothetical MMO is that it's budget is also hypothetical!) and say that we have the ability to do a decent amount of voice-work and cut-scenes in this area. How do we best make this content flow?

We have a few options here, we could either do twenty separate one-step quests, or do one really long single quest line, or several chains of different lengths, or a combination.

First up, One really long quest chain is usually a bad idea at that length. Twenty quests gives you room to make several decently sized chains, so lets say we go with that. Nice length, without being too long and drawn out.

Now you have a choice, you have to decide where and how to add the spice of the cut-scenes and voice work. Just because we could do everything, doesn't mean we should, remember what we have bee talking about in terms of progression and the players motivations, so lets look at two possible scenarios for how you could approach your twenty quests that are split into four quest chains of five quests.

Scenario One: The stop / start problem...

You could choose to voice everything, at each stage of these chains. Let's take a traditional approach and between each quest the player visits the quest-giver who speaks to them in voice-over. Your first instinct is always that this sounds great and must add quality. However you will run into a issue here. Given the length of your average quest in a MMO, this means that the players progression will be 'interrupted' by you, as a designer, imposing these dialogues on the experience when the primary motivation for the players, once they start a chain of events, is to see them through to their conclusion. If you are not careful you run the risk of disrupting the flow of the players enjoyment, of their progression, so what about looking at it a different way...

Scenario Two: A better path...

So we have our four quests chains. Each with five steps. Now to me, I want the player to be engaged in the quest, and once they are on it, I want to 'interfere' with it as little as possible. I want the player to feel that sense of progression, but first I want to give them that entertaining purpose and cool moment...so I am going to effectively 'top' and 'tail' the quests.

So first you make one of the cut scenes and introduction to the area, when the player first arrives. Pan around the location, do a nice tracking shot of the area, give a sense of scale, maybe introduce the protagonist that the player will face in that area...set the stage for what is to come.

Then the very start of a quest chain, or the entrance into the area, can be a good point for a cut-scene or some more expansive exposition. You can put more focus here, a little longer dialogue, put a little more effort into a cut scene. Likewise you can use the final 'hand-in' to close out the quest in a satisfying manner. As with the examples in the previous section, I firmly believe that players are not only ok with this, but enjoy it, as long as they know that each of these sequences is a prelude (or closure) to an uninterrupted passage of efficient game-play.

If you manage to set the player expectation, then you can use your available resources in a much smarter way. Maybe even a way that provide an even greater impact.

Then when players are actually on the quest chain, not every step has to be fully voiced. There are numerous other, more intuitive ways to provide exposition of plot of story alongside game-play. Text pop-ups, item descriptions, brief cut-scenes or boss quotes..a designer has a lot of options here. Don't make the player run back and forth between NPCs purely for a stage of the quests update, don't be afraid to have the quest unfold before the player and have them propel it forward (we do after all want our players to feel like heroes, and it has always struck me as slightly counter intuitive to that goal, that we have traditionally sent the players back to another character, on order for that character to tell them what to do! As if the player, a hero after all, isn't capable of such weighty decisions...of course it might make sense for some stories for that to be the case, but not all of them as we see nowadays..anyway...digressing again...)

An MMO might be a much more enjoyable experience if rather than having those traditional twenty diverse, unrelated sets of quests from a given location, you two ten step quest sequences that were 'topped' and 'tailed' with really good cut-scenes or dialogues that provided a context for what was happening, and then used less intrusive methods to update you on progress throughout the actual game-play, and not just sent you back and forth for instruction.

If you follow that principle consistently and effectively create a format that the player can become comfortable with then it might just be possible that you can fulfill both your storytelling desires as a designer, and not fall foul of the mentality that drives a player to want to skip quest text and the like. Don't just view the players choices as errant behavior that has to be corrected, try and understand the underlying motivations and work with that to create the best experience possible.

So while these suggestion use exactly the same mechanics, you should be able to organise ad present them in such a way that allows us, as designers, to craft a more compelling experience, while not disturbing the flow of a players game session in ways they might not appreciate.

The more traditional approach...

Lastly you could of course just do all twenty quests alone, and voice the whole thing, each and every quest gets the full voice experience, and all are independent of each other. Sounds great no? Lots of quests with great voice work, has to be good!

..or does it...

This means you go the more traditional route and had each of the twenty independent (and probably more 'filler' or standard) parts of the quest individually voiced with just an explanation of why they want you to kill x of y, fetch z, or speak to a certain NPC....sound familiar?

...is it really any better just because you voiced the NPC?

...see where I am going with this?

Again, given the length of the average quest in an MMO you will end up falling foul of the 'stop / start' problem again. Then it runs the risk of just ending up feeling a little hollow despite the mechanics being almost identical, and falls foul of the progression challenge.

Quite simply you end up interrupting the payer too often during their experience. You haven't used the potential of voice and cut-scenes to actually drive the player experience. You have just used it to fill into the traditional model in a way that your players might not even appreciate.

To compound matters, from a resource point of view, this last option might even cost far more in voice-over!

More isn't always better, the smart use of resources can often actually create a more compelling game-play experience...

...something I think that will play out a lot more as the genre continues to develop and evolve...

In Closing...

This is something that I really think designers and developers will have to really tackle as the MMO genre develops. I am not saying that my observations are the only point of view (far from it, as always), but I think it is a very interesting discussion, and one that we have all the time in development studios (often without realising we are actually talking about this issue!)

The desire of the designer to entertain and lead a player on a journey will always be slightly at odds with some of the motivations that players find in MMO gameplay. We will design better games when we acknowledge and embrace that, remembering that as a medium, these games rely on the input of the user, and in that respect it is uniquely different from a passive medium like a book or a movie. In essence we have to respect the fact that our audience interacts with our creations dynamically, and that the progression we provide has to be balanced, and be on their terms as well as ours!

I also think that ultimately our players want us to do this. They really wish we could get this right. Maybe I am wrong, and feel free to suitably scold me in the comments for speaking for the players voice, but I have always believed that players genuinely do not have anything against story being more important, or an MMO having better, more dynamic events, even if they can't happen all the time, but they also want us, as developers, to let them get on and play on occasion as well. Players want us to find that balance as well.

All too often I hear designers say 'I want the player to do...' when what we should be saying is 'I want the player to want to do...', that's a difference worth bearing in mind!


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Post a Comment

20 comments

Blinker said...

wow, long read! Some interesting points and I think I get what you are talking about. Designers should never force their will on players in my opinion. I like that quote at the end :)

Dale Lewis said...

I don't think you are wrong. Blizzard have perfected the 'MMO with high production values' and I think TOR are barking up the wrong tree with the focus on a traditionally built game with extra voice and cut scene when what the market really wants is some kind of gameplay innovation with a little of that Blizzard level of polish

Of course the irony for everyone seeking to oust Blizzard, will probably be that Blizzards still secret 'next big thing' will probably be that innovation we all desire.

Kompany said...

I think what you say doesn't equate to what anyone in the industry, your own games included, have even tried to achieve. You are all totally caught up in the 'must be like WoW' mindset. With any luck all the failures over the last two year - AoC, WAR, CO, STO, FFXIV and even games like LOTRO having to go free to get customers will teach you all that we players want something new.

It is one thing to talk about - how about some doing?

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head: Progression vs. Entertainment. However there is one aspect of progression that you don't seem to expand on: Pure player experience and mastering of their character.
Take 2 identical characters in a MMO, whether they are in a PVE situation or PVP one, they will react differently. There's a lot of human factors involved of course but experience at the long will differentiate the better one of the two. Some of us like the learning curve, as long as the designers don't mess with it if you see what I mean. If a player simply gains an advantage because they've spent countless hours grinding for better equipment and features, this can totally obliterate that 'learning curve' advantage. As for group dynamics in a MMO, I think this is the most fundamental aspect one needs to master, but how many games out there really take this into account?

Driller said...

You should get that Steampunk Western MMO made! I would play it, screw the marketing guys that say it isn't fashionable or won't sell. I really hope games like RDR succeeding means we might see more styles of game appear, and maybe someone will let you make a steampunk western MMO!

Adam said...

An enjoyable read Craig, I've respected your take on game development since you took over in AO.

I'm curious how AoC fits into all of this, though. I went back to the game just before RoTG hit and fell in love after I had sworn it off for years post-launch. Then RoTG happened, and it was as though the entire expansion left behind the interesting storytelling and engaging encounters from the core game in favor of bland repeatable quests and gated content revolving around the token farming that drove me away from WoW and into trying AoC again in the first place.

Systems like these just never struck me as very interesting progression.

Craig Morrison said...

@Adam I think my standard disclaimer applies there - the thoughts on this blog, being my personal one, won't always reflect all (or any) of the games I have worked on specifically, as I'm not the only person involved, and thus they won't always be unqiue to any specific opinion I hold. These are my thoughts on more generic elements of game design for MMOs.

...I do though think that the team managed to infuse RoTG with a lot of good storytelling and that the encounters in particular are very engaging (in fact I think the dungeon encounters in RoTG stand up very well, and are by and large interesting and dynamic content)...as always with an MMO though, the challenge is indeed in the repetition...not everything that is fun the first time is fun the fourth, fifth, tenth or twentieth time you do...I think RoTG can actually elaborate on some of the successes and failures of the issue I mention above.

I don't agree the quests are bland, I think overall they are very engaging, tell of an interesting world, and when taken in context of the over-arching story of Khitai, as the team intended, they all fit together nicely. However when taken in the context of purely being seen as 'gates' to the next avenue of progression that sullies the players feeling for that encounter or experience.

It is one of the major challenges we face in the MMO space. Most people love the content the first time, but that wanes on repeat plays of course, but if there also aren't longer term goals (that in our genre require some repetition) then you end up being accused of being 'content lite'..and inversely once you have longer term goals that invariably have some repetitive elements, then you are cast as having too much 'grind'...it's close to a 'no-win scenario' at least with the current generation of technology which means we couldn't keep pace with a fully 'everything is always new' stream of content (i.e. we have to rely on repeat play in some form)

Older games start to hear this less and less, probably after the four year mark, as the amount of content added in at that stage starts to mitigate the original shortfall and means new players have a suitable stream of content for their average life-span in a game. That is also why newer games struggle to match up content wise when 'the bar' is set by five, six or ten year old games...something everyone in the genre struggles with.

..so yes, and this answer ended up a little longer that it started out...mostly I am speaking generically on the blog, but there will always be some elements of my opinions that are of course formed from what we have learnt on our own games...my personal opinions just don't always reflect what we end up doing...like I said...I'd love to make that Steampunk Western MMO at some stage...doesn't necessarily mean it will happen ;)

Adam said...

Thanks for responding, Craig. I completely understand that the blog doesn't reflect AO or AoC directly, but I couldn't help but ask considering the subject and my personal feelings on it ^^

I agree that the actual encounters in Khitai, at least those I experienced, were all very enjoyable - perhaps much more so than equivalent content in other games. I still recall Pillars of Heaven in particular as one of the most amazing experiences not only for the design of the encounters, but the visuals and music as well. Granted I never found AoC to be anything but stellar in those regards, but Pillars of Heaven was particularly overwhelming to the senses and deserves special praise.

You're probably right that there are some very stellar quests and storylines in Godslayer that I just never experienced. The few major advancements I recall making were enjoyable, but I feel that the issue for me was less about the repetition in the content, and more about the pacing.

Obviously I'm speaking solely about my playstyle here, but I happen to be someone who can tolerate a fair amount of redundancy. I'm not going to bother e-peening and listing achievements of time spent grinding and hitting max levels ahead of the rest of my servers or anything, but suffice to say I'm not at all unfamiliar with the actual process of repeating content for the sake of the carrot on the stick (and in some cases, even when its just to satisfy my personal goals). The problem for me comes when the redundancy isn't tempered well enough with other elements of the game.

FFXIV is a recent example of this; for all of the negative reviews out there, I actually happen to be one of the people who enjoys the core game mechanics and can get over the quality of life issues plaguing the UI. The problem comes with the levequests. Not in their redundancy (although that's obviously a contributing factor), but in how dull they are in that redundancy. I've literally been drawing from the same pool of maybe 11 or 12 different levequests for nearly a month now. I wouldn't mind it so much, if not for the fact that a) I've barely advanced two levels in all that time, and b) I haven't actually done anything new. I'm not seeing any new places, I'm not earning any new skills, I'm not even working towards some arbitrary amount of tokens needed to purchase a new piece of gear. It's redundancy for the sake of redundancy, and that doesn't fly with me.

AoC was better in that regard, but I still felt like the pacing was off and I wasn't really being rewarded appropriately for the time invested. I'm not a fan of instant gratification and I don't think 2 weeks of grinding out tokens should reward a full set of gear, but I also don't think that if it isn't hidden behind fresh or interesting concepts, there isn't an excuse not to pace it in a way that the redundancy doesn't wear on the player.

I'm curious, what are your thoughts on user generated content or the viability of AO's randomly generated mission system with today's technology? Heck, even EQ2's housing system helps break up the monotony of normal gameplay for me, although I can understand how that might not be everyone's cup of tea.

Looks like I ended up a bit wordy myself, but ah well, length begets length I suppose!

Anonymous said...

Great read Craig. But as far as Western Steampunk? Read Cherie Priests Boneshaker and Dreadnaught. Steampunk, alternate history, and zombies! Great stuff that would make one fun and UNIQUE MMO with unlimited potential. Anyone that thinks steampunk wouldn't work should just look at this list of GREAT games with a steampunk setting:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_steampunk_works#In_video_games

Jens said...

A very intresting read as usual.

As much as I agree about your point on different motivations for playing a MMO and the fact that a game ideally shouldn't ever 'force' a player to a particular type of content I think it's important to wonder why many players are often in the pure 'progression' mood and want to skip the story / consider some elements being 'in the way'.

In almost all titels I played so far a player with more 'progression' is better in 'killing' stuff (or supporting others in doing so) and you need a certain amount of progression to keep up with your co-players / enjoy content with them. And than there is that common mindset that the real game is about the 'end game content' and people want to get there as fast as possible - hence the whole storyline part that is usually linked with the questing part is 'in the way' and people don't appriciate all the work that has been done in the questing zones along with intresting storyline arcs.
As far as I am concerned it would be a huge leap forward for MMO's to integrate people with different levels of progressions better and giving alternate ways to progress / enjoy content that is not focused on the ability of the character 'to kill stuff'.

Kami said...

I was bumped here from Eurogamer which commented on it, and whilst I agree that the player must want to do something, I believe there is far more to storytelling than dialogue and quests.

The world needs to tell a story - you want to walk into an area and experience something. A forest that is overrun with spiders, where people are trapped, wrapped in silk and crying for help where applicable. That is telling a story - it's not another forest where you find a quest giver who tells you "Oh woe is me, we've got a spider problem!" - you've seen it, so the quest text could be changed to "I taked it you've noticed the spiders... they're causing us problems." The environment, the dungeons and raids where applicable, tell a story far more effectively. Panning over the area isn't necessary - it detracts from a player experiencing the story on their own. They can see, touch and should be able to interect in some way with that environment.

As a big MMO fan (I've largely played every major MMO out there at some point) I don't like to be walked around. Sometimes a story can be told better without words or dialogue - images can have a far more profound impact than a few lines of text. You can describe better in text rather than tell the player there is a problem. "The dark, damp forest is deathly silent save the creaking of wood, as the trees are pulled together by strands of sticky silk..." is better than "You walk into a dark forest and see many spiders webs".

Imagination is a key to storytelling. That is not to say that such aspects cannot work on their own - most MMOs I have played do one thing and they do it very well, but in that something else falls flat. Aion, it's a beautiful world that tells a story but the NPCs and quest text often lacks a truly personal flair. On the flip side, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King has excelled in terms of making key figures take the forefront and given us strong, identifiable characters - but Northrend and the raids (Naxxramas, The Trials of the Crusader and Icrcrown Citadel) have been a bit... well. Dull. Only Ulduar managed to convey a story just in terms of the environment. Both games can survive on their individual strengths, but you do wonder how amazing something would be if it just combined the two together into one mind-blowing whole. Maybe the sheer awesome of such a thing would be a bad thing, but it is nice to want something, right?

You'll always have to interrupt us with quest givers and dialogue but ultimately, less can be so much more. Be clever and let us, the players, fill in the gaps - because our imaginations can be far more effective than the majority of written dialogue anyone can write.

I wish you luck in the future. You seem to have a great grasp on the subject, so I hope I haven't bored you too much. It does feel like stating the obvious... but sometimes the obvious isn't as obtainable when you've been sitting at a desk or talking to dozens of people for ten hours of a day. Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt...

A great article though that does at least raise some very good questions. Thank you.

Craig Morrison said...

@Kami - I agree with almost all of that! In fact I have written about just that before here on the blog, MMos present some very special options for the types of stories that can be told (http://usuallyfine.blogspot.com/2010/06/let-me-tell-you-story.html) and we certainly haven't explored them all yet!

Geoff said...

I was expecting a little more TOR bashing based on the intro from Eurogamer! They tricked me into reading a reasoned and well thought out analysis of an interesting game development element, those guys at Eurogamer are evil tricksters I tell you.

In all seriousness, if you dare answer, do you think that TOR will succeed?

Craig Morrison said...

@Geoff

Personally I think they [Bioware] have a lot of very talented and very smart people on board (and probably more who have good strong MMO knowledge than people realise) and that TOR will almost certainly be worth playing..and that it is a reasonably safe bet that it will sell a lot of copies.

I would guess, and it's just my personal take, that they will sell millions of copies and have a chance to end up as the second most successful mainstream MMO behind World of Warcraft, but whether that means they have XXX thousands of subscribers, a million subscribers or several million after a few months will depend on the final quality and quantity of their gameplay and how the market takes to their game.

As I have mentioned before here, whether you want to call that a success for failure seems largely subjective these days! (and of course depends how much they spend making it) I think they have all the right things in place to be a success and, as always, it will ultimately come down to how well they execute.

Chris said...

That was a great read.

The drive to progress (against your fellow players) in MMO’s definitely feels like it is the biggest impediment to storytelling.

EVE’s real time training queues at least partially address this urgency to rush through content but at what cost? Would it be possible to apply a similar system to a fantasy, theme park style title? Would throttling everyone’s leveling ability lead to a more relaxed enjoyment of content or just put people off?

I’d be interested to know whether AoC’s move to make gear more important reduced the players bases attention to story in that game. Clearly it was part of the successful push to increase subscriber numbers, but did the popularity of certain quests drop off? Did people try to level quicker? Did people start to rush through quest text more?

I think at least part of the solution must be to accept that some individuals are more interested in complex story telling then others and that their interest is not consistent over time. The perceived success of the game is determined by the player base, and can be influenced by cultural shifts outside of the game, as well as the public perception of the game. In that sense I think you can be as story driven as you wish provided that you set expectations clearly (and your business model is based on realistic assumptions on numbers]. Once the player base has been established it is probably difficult to do anything more than tinker with your model for story telling without significant adverse reactions.

alaskandesign said...

I wanted to comment on this yesterday, but I am finally getting around to it ;). Hopefully it isn't too long winded.

I think you hit a nail on the head with progression taking precedence over the storyline. After reading this, I began to think about the times that I have chosen to read the dialog and story and times that I have chosen to skip it.

I know you aren't trying to be specific to any particular game, but of course my most recent experiences are with AoC, so most of what I will say draws from that.

To give you an idea of the kind of player I am and what my goals are...I consider myself a team-oriented progression driven player. I like accomplishing goals with others. End game raiding is sorta my 'thing'. However, that isn't the only thing I like to do, and sometimes just enjoy casual solo play as well. These are my two different approaches and affect what my goals are at the time, and from what I find enjoyment in that particular instance.

Firstly, while leveling...
I usually make two characters--one main, one alt. The goal with the main is to get past all the leveling, as levels are 'in the way' of the end game content. I am less likely to read through the story, as my time is valuable. This will be especially true if I am grouped with others while questing. I must not keep others waiting.

The alt character is something I create after my main has reached max level. It gives me something casual to do in between progressing with the main. It doesn't matter how quickly this character reaches max level (if I do not expect it to be vital to the raid's success). Since it is not important for the raid, I can take my time with it and take the time to absorb the dialogue. Often times, I will get the story with this character that I missed the first time through.

Also, you talked about the voice acting. I found on my second play through (by this time, voice acting had been added to later parts of the game), that the voice acting let me know to which storylines I ought to take take the time and really listen. It was a little cue: "Hey, this storyline is important. Pay attention!"

alaskandesign said...

And with endgame content...
I think with the Khitai questing, I haven't felt a sense of urgency to rush through the content. In fact, I still haven't reached Rank 4 with any faction. I suppose solo progression does not appeal to me as much as team progression. I treat this time as I would leveling an alt. It's very casual. Even though many quests end up being repetitive after a while, I take my time with the dialogue the first time through. I'm not in a rush. I want to say there is some absolutely amazing dialogue in RotG. I've enjoyed Cai's inane dialogue. The quest with the Laughing Man made my stomach churn just a bit. And I've had other NPCs make me laugh aloud. I think it's important to know which quests are central to the story, and which are filler (you can't deny that some quests are just that--they always exist). For example, with the main storyline involving Conan, I know it's the main story line versus some quest I grabbed from a poster. You can't expect every quest to be an epic tale. I think sometimes you need to make sure it's obvious to the player if something is important versus a 'go kill 10 rats' quest.

I think the absolute worst place to try to insert lore is in the middle of a dungeon, especially if it is long winded. Again, drawing from AoC for an example: in Celestial Necropolis, there is a quest requiring the player to interact with glowing orbs. Each orb pops up a multi-paragraph section of a story about the Yag-Kosha. I wanted to read it. I really did. But am I going to make my group wait? No. That would be selfish on my part. However, the tablets at the beginning of the dungeon, I've read more than once, and so have others. Why? This is where we are gathered while waiting for people to arrive.

So, I definitely agree with the progression and immediate goals being a large determining factor in whether or not people take time to read. I think you also need to keep in mind how goals differ whether a person is soloing or in a group.

And I think there is one more thing to consider. Less is more! Thanks for the benefit of the doubt about people skipping text because there were more pressing matters and not because we are an ADHD society. However, we still are and ADHD society! Sometimes the story will stand out better if we don't have to go through pages and pages to read it. Time is everything in an MMO.

Anonymous said...

Very good read and I agree mostly. Sometimes one can jump to wrong conclusions though.

As someone who played WoW from day 1 of EU closed beta let me address WoW's "Skip Quest Text" for example. I can only speak for myself of course but my reasons for enabling this feature as soon as possible were purely practical and had nothing to do with avoiding a wall of text or not wanting to get immersed in a story:
1) On a PvP server reading the quest text was plain suicidal.
2) On crowded servers you had to be fast in accepting quests and/or handing them in - otherwise the NPC was busy (sometimes on a long patrol quest) and you had to wait.

These were the reasons that taught me to be fast and get rid of the story flavor a.s.a.p.
I'm not sure but maybe WoW even trained this behaviour onto me and made me lose interest in its storyline. When playing LotRO I always read each quest's text, even though most quests (apart from the great epic story quests) are pretty standard (as in boring).

So WoW should probably not have combined reading quests with the danger of being killed or having your quest NPC be "ninja'ed" by other players. Instancing quest givers in a subtle way (without loading screens and thus breaking the immersion of an open, seamless world) seems to be a viable solution.

modus

PS: The first 20 levels on Tortage (AoC) are still my favourite gaming moments due to amazing story telling and immersively voiced characters. After leaving Tortage the world seemed dead (silent), and the sudden lack of a continuous epic storyline made playing the game meaningless for me.

Liam said...

Fantastic read. I am just starting out as a junior at one of your competitors (one of those drafted in to keep an old game going when the seniors are moved along to the next big game). It is great that some of the older heads in the industry are willing to have these kinds of discussions.

I think the reasoning presented here is sound, and that we all have to find ways for these things to be accomplished as best as we can within the confines of our particular game. Old tech generations can really restrict us however, and it is good to have someone to challenge you to do it regardless of the limitations of a tech platform.

Sean Wilkerson said...

It seems that the DEV's and director's worst enemy is distraction. Trying to do nineteen things that are meh fixes and not really addressing things that would take the game from good to great is contagious. This would be the equivalent of a car designer concentrating on a new concept bumper design when clearly the brakes are failing. AOC is my game of choice (for the moment) and really has come a long way. The game could be entirely better though. If you are going to be a one trick pony, make sure that you do that one trick better than anyone else. This isn't one of the trolls from the boards, this is coming from one of the supporters of the game. I don't know the back end dealings of getting things done as a dev or director but it seems like it takes an act of congress to get things changed.

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