Telling Stories in an MMO – Part 2

Last time we looked at what should be called content creation when you’re making or consuming things in an MMO.  The explicit promise of an MMORPG is that you’re inhabiting a character that lives in a world.  There are “real” events and things that are happening within that world that your character can take part in and engage with and make their own.  MMO ROLE PLAYING GAME after all.  Sadly, this hasn’t panned out quite as well as we may have hoped.

Last week we looked at the Bartle scale and how content creation may be tailored to appeal to a given type.  One thing that we may just not be measuring very well, but seemed to be coming to in our discussions was how little game lore seemed to matter in terms of content that would appeal to our various Bartle types.  So do players care about the story of the game and the game world?  A lot of energy is devoted to it.  There isn’t a lot of research around game lore and content.  This informal forum poll was all I could come up with while I was looking and while the questions are clearly biased towards lore, it would seem that in this sample at least, at least 75% of all players surveyed have strong feelings about game lore.


Good game lore seems to be almost universally underappreciated and disregarded.  When it’s good, however, it’s often the hook that will bring new players into your game, enticing them to try living life in your world for a while.  Launch is one of those few places in a game where good or bad game lore can make or break it for the masses you’re trying to attract.  Good game lore can also help smooth the experience of achievers and explorers and help to give them a reason to do what they do beyond just the badge or the experience, though it’s not quite as critical.  It’s interesting how stories with good game lore tend to hang on despite a lackluster game.  DCUO and Star Wars The Old Republic come to mind, as two games that are far from outstanding, but continue to have a regular following in terms of both players and updates to their games.  Clearly, the lore of those two properties is helping to preserve them maybe even longer than they deserve to be.  You know who else has good game lore?  World of Warcraft.  The game is actually the 4th sequel in a series of RTS games that Blizzard made their name on.  That kind of continuity and direct continuation of their franchise has led to huge success and helped maintain their momentum.  It’s no accident that their other games, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, capitalize on the lore of their earlier games to help keep them popular.

Incidentally, bad game lore can ruin the experience for a player and slowly destroy your game.  Nothing takes players out of the moment more than a bad bit of lore or terribly written dialogue to remind them that they’re in a fake world.  The less believable the fake world is the more they start to look around and see what else is wrong with the game.  It also seems to be a warning sign as well.  If the lore is bad, odds are the rest of the game is bad too.  I’ve found that developers that won’t take the time to get good writing done, tend not to take the time for a lot of other things as well.

But it’s not just that it’s a good or bad story in the game.  It’s also how that story affects the player.  The chief complaint I’ve seen over the years with MMO content is always that it’s happening around and not really to a character.  There are always NPC’s who the story is really about.  Players are the window dressing, just there to push some buttons, fill in some space, and go along with it.  Trials and villains are the flavor of the patch and exist solely in the context of that patch.  Rarely are they seen or used outside of it.  It gets repetitive.  It gets rote.  It gets insulting.  Nevermind when story is badly done and ends up contradicting earlier content.  This can take us out of the experience completely.

These feelings may be related to how we play other video games.  In single player games, we take on the role of the story’s protagonist and this allows game developers to construct a narrative around the player.  But MMO’s allow us to be anyone we want (theoretically).  Suddenly, crafting stories for an unknown and unknowable protagonist becomes much more difficult, as a game designer.  When it’s done poorly, the result amounts to a single player story in a multi-player game, which isolates players generates that single player in an MMO feel.  Fixing this problem is central to fixing the problem of players feeling like side characters in MMO’s, but it’s not the only one.

Instead of focusing the narrative too tightly, some developers have tried to go in the opposite direction.  These are sandbox games and I’ve found that largely, I hate them.  It’s so bad now I won’t play a game from Bethesda anymore.  Brendan Vance on Twitter summarized my feelings on sandbox games with a series of short tweets, I’ve recreated here:

Brendan Vance ‏@4xisblack

  • Open world games are a Zizek impersonator’s wet dream.
  • You are free to do anything, which of course means there is nothing to do.
  • Your progress is measured by a bizarre Big Other surveillance presence.
  • The game’s attempt to make you feel more powerful broadens the symbolic plane to the point of incoherence; all you can do is exchange junk.
  • The utter deluge of consequences for many hundreds of actions of course makes the game consequence free
  • The game’s storyworld, immersion in which is supposed to be the entire point of the game, is somehow completely external to it……as every open world from middle earth to mad max somehow manages to be exactly the same
  • You say you want an open world, but my god, don’t you actually want it’s opposite?

I don’t think I need to say anything else about that.

So far, we’ve broadened our definition of content creation significantly, as well as laid out some of the problems with lore and story as primary vectors for content creation in a game.  Easy to point out the problems, but where’s the solution?  Next time we’ll talk to how to engage our player types and the content they desire holistically while also trying to come up with how to solve the problems that lore and story creation have in an MMO game space.  The answer is, maybe surprisingly, found behind the GM’s screen.

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2 Responses to Telling Stories in an MMO – Part 2

  1. LockOn says:

    So, no sooner do I post this than I discover on Brendan Vance’s blog a much bigger and more thorough explanation of his post. In it he talks about who Zizek was and expands on his thesis as mentioned above.

    Go read it. It’s excellent:

  2. Pingback: Link Dead Radio: Wandering and Worries - Healing the Masses

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