Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 August, 2018

How MMOs get story wrong
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:25 PM

Most of the recent MMOs have had a strong story component, a central narrative told by the developers. FFXVI has it’s Main Scenario Quests (MSQ) that gate progress through the game as a quite obvious example. WoW has story told through quests, environment, and dungeons. GW2 has story that is the main focus of your progression through the world as well.

But these games tend to get the stories wrong. Let’s take a look at how these go wrong.

I’ll focus on FFXIV since I know that story the best.

Repetitive nature

The main problem with a strong central story is that it gets repetitive. If for some reason you decide to roll an alt, you have to go through it all again. And since the story is the same for everyone who plays it, you have to endure the same story every time. Talk to the same NPCs about the same story elements and do the same fetch quests and travel back and forth across the continent just like before. There are some quality bits of story, but then there are the infamous marathon of “patch quests” added after the 2.0 A Realm Reborn reboot of the game before the 3.0 introduction of the Heavensward expansion pack.

The developers have, of course, helpfully offered to let you skip these quests and jump to the latest expansion pack with “story skip” items. This feels like a bandaid for a problem. While clearing the MSQ once is kind of neat on a character, each time you have to do it after feels like a chore. This seems like a trivial issue in a game where one character can do it all, but this ignores issues like role-players who want access to more zones. The MSQ controls where you can go, and if you can even access expansion content.

Lack of agency

The other problem is that writing a universal story means that you can’t allow the player much agency. You rarely get to decide what your character does, it’s often a few choices with little consequence. Again, we look at FFXIV here where the character gets thrust into the role of the Warrior of Light (WoL). You can’t choose to play as another type of character in the game story-wise, and as you do your WoL things you are limited in the options presented to you. Any choices in the dialog present a very small branch in the text presented. You’re going to be moving forward with the story no matter what.

So, even your character has a lack of agency. This is best seen in the Stormblood MSQ, the most recent expansion for FFXVI.

Spoilers for the Stormblood MSQ begin here.

You fight this antagonist Zenos, a powerful member of the Garlean empire, a continual thorn in the side of Eorzea. You meet him early in the MSQ, and you’re required to fight him. You barely damage him, despite being a hero who might have even helped to conquer Bahamut in a previous cycle of the story. But you must perservere and “lose” the fight (but actually being defeated makes you repeat the instance). Later you fight him again, able to move his health bar, but still can’t defeat him and have to spend a lot of time moving around avoiding attacks. When you finally face him at the end of the original expansion storyline, Zenos kills himself rather than letting the Warrior of Light get the final blow, depriving the character of a solid victory over the foe hounding them for the stoyrline.

End spoilers

The problem here is that the storyline doesn’t allow the player to make any choices. They are essentially along for the ride, and the pre-determined narrative dictates what happens, not the player nor the character. This is frustrating and yet another reason why playing through the story more than once can be really boring.

Other MMOs do the same thing. The Secret World had no speaking lines for your character, something that was commented on in a quest. And GW2 has the player be an assistant in the main questline from the base game, doing the dirty work but not getting to make any of the hard decisions nor getting much of the recognition.

The story doesn’t make sense in the game

This is a common problem in many games that try to paint the player as “the chosen one” in a game that is full of chosen ones. The WoL in FFXIV is a unique position, but yet everyone in the game must do the MSQ. But then you have mechanics where a party is needed to fight a primal, a demigod who can turn mortals into thralls with a gaze. But the WoL is immune… and so must be everyone else who joins them on a quest!

What’s interesting is that the FFXIV role-playing community essentially forbids people from playing as the “Warrior of Light” since it’s supposed to be a singularly unique role. Even playing with an ability the WoL has “the Echo” seems fraught with peril in RP circles.

So the story goes against some basic mechanics of the game. A conflict between narrative and gameplay, a ludonarrative dissonance as one friend puts it, that rests on much of the story and the game.

The focus should be on player stories

The world and the stories are important to the game, don’t get me wrong. But the ultimate goal should be to let the player tell the stories they want. For example, the Heavensward expansion gave the lizard-like Au Ra race with two clains: the Xaela and the Raen. The Stormblood expansion gave more context to them: the Raen were peaceful dwellers in a city under the sea, while the Xaela were nomadic tribes that lived on the Steppes similar to the Mongols. This bit of information proved to be fertile ground for people to pick up on it.

So, RPers dug into the Xaela clans and started role-playing them. Haughty Oronirs, diplomatic Kha, meek Mols, even horse-tending Goros. (Note: in the lore Goros marry their horses… leading to the expected jokes.) But this information created a flourish of activity, giving structure to let people tell their own stories. The Oronir traveling far from home doesn’t have to save the world to have an interesting tale. They might met a tribe of Miqo’te to befriend, or find a rivalry with a Dotharl, or lots of other things that are kind of mundane day-to-day things that are important to the character.

And this is the beauty of RP, letting players tell their own stories, something I wanted to do with Storybricks.

So, I’ll talk about why story is done wrong tomorrow!


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5 Comments »

  1. I think the main reason stories in MMOs are structured the way they are is that the great majority of players don’t want “agency”. They want to run their character(s) through a pre-determined set of events to get good loot and increase skills or levels. There’s a very vocal minority that does want to make meaningful choices and have real freedom of action but there are nowhere near enough of them to pay the bills. MMOs that attempt to meet that demand stay firmly in the minor leagues.

    Comment by Bhagpuss — 3 August, 2018 @ 9:54 AM

  2. Even though I think I understand this criticism, this still makes me want to try out FFXIV because what you described is not too far off of what I’ve read in the past about this topic for this game. I sadly can’t compare at it to other games which I have played, but my understanding is that they still do it a lot better than e.g. WoW does it where you run exactly the same content every time you level an alt and also have zero agency.

    I think SWTOR did it right, the player story lines are *really* distinct, with just a few references to each other (e.g. one of my Republic Jedi Consular companions mentioning on of the Empire’s Bounty Hunter companions as an acquaintance). Sure, the rest is as repetitive, but for 8 classes and 2 choices of Dark Side and Light Side there’s a ton of exclusive content.

    One more remark, I am probably not the only one who was bitten a little by game developers’ lack of signalling in the past and thus shies away from systems with heavy consequences. Let me try to give an example that might sound convoluted, but it’s the best I can construct now. When I play Mass Effect, the choice of Paragon vs Renegade is for _this one single player game_ – sure, might be 20h or 100h, but in my thinking it is a finite entity, maybe with a sequel. In an MMO though, I feel my choice is permanent, and sometimes “important” fwiw. I think the first example was WoW’s TBC expansion where you had to decide between the Aldor and Scryers faction – with certain rewards. They were not game-changing, but at the time I felt it an important decision. And iirc it was not communicated 100% clearly ingame, I was just reading a lot of fansites and out of game materials to make an informed choice. I simply don’t like taking the “wrong choice” because I was not investing hours of research. This is a real-life thing for me. Doing research to avoid bad decisions. It’s not something that is fun, so it has no place in my games.

    Comment by Nogamara — 4 August, 2018 @ 3:54 AM

  3. Regarding story, it’s probably worth dipping briefly into an ongoing debate on story in the P&P RPG community, namely the question of whether players play to create story, or story emerges from players playing.

    Most of the MMORGP storytelling I’ve seen sort of focuses on the first extreme. No, the two modes don’t transfer seamlessly. But it’s “sort of” the first extreme in the sense that the only times when players move the story along, it’s through explicitly designed story moments.

    If you take the other point of view, letting players play and having story emerge from it, well… that is also happening, but it’s not supported by the game much. No NPC recounts an amazing encounter you and your friends might have had, there’s no permanence to decision making, etc. Some things could be done, but perhaps that requires this mindset first that story is what emerges, not what you think of beforehand.

    Comment by unwesen — 4 August, 2018 @ 4:40 AM

  4. As far as I can tell the majority of MMO players do very little RP. I’ve dabbled but overall it’s not a very good fit for playing casually. It seems to work best when done with a regular group of people who can be counted on to be there most every session, much like a lot of traditional group content.

    But let’s not forget the “stories” we generate as solo players and groups about our experiences playing the game. Memories of fun times and achievements are just as important as any narrative the game provides.

    Comment by Pasduil — 4 August, 2018 @ 9:47 AM

  5. You’ll probably touch on this in your next blog post, but I don’t think it’s story done wrong so much as done out of necessity. The testing combinatorics of a non-linear story is bananas and beyond even the biggest studios (heck, look at the absolute sheer number of bugs any Bethesda game has, and they’re some of the best in the business at big budget non-linear single player games), and add to that online and massively where players might all have different and potentially conflicting states and you get a test matrix nightmare that’s beyond our current level of technology and design.

    Also, the fact that most MMOs seem hellbent on leveling system means often you’re stuck build a mostly linear story to meet a linear power increase. Granted, Guild Wars 2 did level scaling to combat that (as does ESO), but that mostly just makes power levels seem inconsequential and unnecessary in practice imho. I’d rather do away with levels entirely if that’s the route a game wants to take.

    The more sandbox a game is, the more player stories can take precedence, but I think it’s difficult to tell a bigger cohesive story without the sorts of tools, training, and freedom a good GM for a TTRPG would have. But even then, I think it’s outside the realm of current testing techniques and technology. Until we solve that development question, I don’t think we’ll get much beyond where we’re at for storytelling.

    Comment by Talarian — 4 August, 2018 @ 11:21 AM

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