Telling Stories in an MMO – Final Form!!!


Okay, so in our first part of this series, we talked about types of content and how they relate on the Bartle scale.  Last time we talked about lore, narrative, and sand box gameplay and how hard it is to make that work right.

Today I could talk about how you manage the story of the world versus the story of the players in that world.  It’s important to set up your world to work in a way that provides players with a means to create their own stories using your world, while providing a developer the means to progress the story of the game world.  The trick is to do it in such a way the two end up complimenting as opposed to competing with each other.  But that was described better in this post, and that’s still only one component worth discussing.

I could also talk to how choose your own adventure games play into the branching paths that players look for to help customize their story and provide them a means to feel like they have choices in your game world.  This is a great post on how those games can be set up and also worth a full article in it’s own right.

I’d like to talk about how you take the mechanics of the various forms of content that we discussed back in that first post and manipulate your content updates such that you get as much bang for your buck when doing content updates.  We could compare content types and how to marry those mechanics with lore in such a way that they compliment each other without detracting or leaving a group of your players to die on the vine, waiting for content that never arrives.  Maybe another time.

Ouuu, and let’s not forget the various forms and equations usable to determine how much content can be produced in how long and how to actually get it all out.

Instead though, we need to talk about something else first.  The secret sauce.  How do you make content that makes players want to invest in your world, makes them want to play in it, and stay there?

It’s worth separating out the game programmers who write logic and vectors and hook everything together to allow for players to play and the game designers who write the lore and build the scenarios and create the content for the game.  Often I’ve conflated the two and that’s not appropriate.  Especially when I start talking bad about programmers.

Because you see, programmers, in general, are terrible game designers.  And if your game is being led by programmers than I really only have one question for you before I try your game out.  And it’s the question that all this has led to.

Have your programmers ever run a D&D campaign?

tumblr_no9pakqRk11utxrkto1_1280To be fair, it’s the same question I’d ask game designers as well.  If the answer is no, then our conversation is over and I’m just going to skip your game.  If the answer is yes, then we can go deeper.

Being a good game master involves so many similar skills as being a good game designer.  You need to be able to construct a scene the way a movie director does so that the scenarios and action unfold in your game logically.  You need to be able to communicate effectively so that your players can understand the goals you want them to go towards and the means they have to do so.  You need empathy with your players so that you can anticipate their wants and desires and build content that meets those desires.

Notice how none of those skills require debugging nested C function calls or interpreting the Java stack?

One more skill that’s important to both good DM’s and good game designers, is the ability to tell a compelling story.  It sounds obvious but too often in video games (not just MMO’s), the content I’m given to play is a collection of go here, do this, beat that, connect the dots to and do it all over again.  Have you done a connect the dots game, since you were a little kid?  Kinda loses it’s charm after the first time.  But content is king and it’s got to be filled up.  Keep the players busy, don’t let them stop and notice the wires holding up the puppets.  The one thing we can’t ask is why.  Why do any of this?  Without a compelling reason, the disassociation starts to set in.   It’s not enough to fill your game with actions and goals and consequences.  You have to hook them into something that the player values.  What’s your big idea that ties it all together?

Branden Vance, the writer who I linked to last week, talks about this at length.  He’s using old dead German philosophers to make his point, but it’s all about the idea.  What idea are you trying to convey?  What universal truth is behind the story you’re telling.  Is it about love?  Honor?  Sacrifice?  The avarice of man?  The kindness of strangers?  The possibilities are endless.  Sadly, in the rush to get the content out, this level of detail is just not there.  And that’s the problem.

Because it’s this conveyance of a big idea, that will drive your players into your game and keep them there.  We all seek universal truths and shared experiences.  These are not hard stories to write for.  Most of them already exist.  Adapt them for your game.  You steal source code off the internet like it’s no tomorrow, why aren’t you stealing story ideas too?  Worried about plagarism?  Ahhhh, this is because we don’t have very good skills when it comes to breaking a story down to it’s base elements, understanding what parts of it makes us itch, makes us want to read more, to do more, to see more.  Most of us would rather debug the Java stack than have to figure out WHY we liked a particular story.

If we can’t figure this out on our own, maybe we should invest more in professional writers.

Nahhh, next you’ll tell us community managers are important too.

But you can take these ideas, big or small, and work them into your game.  You can write scenarios about the cosmically bad luck an NPC has over a weekend and the lengths a player has to go through to keep them going.  All the fetch quests and collections you want.  You can write a different story about the crazed sociopathic villain who threatens the whole world with armageddon.  Both of those stories are about being a hero.  One to just a single person, and the other to the whole world.  But they’re the same story.  Show how.  Often it’s just a simple line of dialogue tying them both together.  It’s really not that hard.  If your stories have no idea behind them, they’re empty shells.  Content made to fill the time and nothing else.  It’s time to remember that stories fill up our souls and without them, without that experience, we’re just wasting time.

So be a good game master when you’re designing your game.  Give your players content that means something.  Even if you think it only matters to you, your players will surprise you.  Human experience has that shared quality.  And your players will appreciate it so much more over empty content.  Start there.  The rest is just details.


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