Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

3 August, 2018

Why MMOs get story wrong
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:21 PM

Yesterday we talked about how they get story wrong, but why do they get it wrong? Although the favorite answer may be “because developers are stupid”, there are actually some very good reasons why developers create the type of stories I pointed out yesterday.

Let’s take a look at some development realities when creating stories for MMOs.

Content is expensive

One of the early observations MMO developers made was that content was expensive and players will devour content quickly. Some people called players “content locusts” that would consume content faster than developers could produce it. Content was necessary for a game, but it was expensive to make for players. In non-story content developers started creating repeatable content. Daily quests are a great example of this, where you log on, grind through stuff for a few hours, then log off until the next day. You keep playing and paying your subscription.

Story content is significantly less repeatable. One you’ve played a story or plot once, it’s not as interesting to do it again. Even the best books have parts that aren’t as exciting or interesting as other parts. But to be forced to play thorugh a repeated story… well, that was the problem with the FFXIV MSQ pointed out yesterday.

But it’s going to be expensive to create a bunch of alternate storylines to let people keep playing story. And creating branches is expensive because you have to create content the average player won’t even see if they only play through things once. And then considering the explosion of costs for voice acting, it’s even more costly. So, we have the single, central storyline because that’s not as expensive.

Shared experiences are important

One thing that helps bind people together is shared experiences. This works for gameplay: every EQ1 veteran remembers the infamous “hell levels” that seemed to last FOREVER because of a quirk in the level mechanics. As much as it sucked, it was a common bonding point for everyone. “Oh, you’re in the hell level, you poor bastard.” It was a common point that people could relate to. Same with many other elements in a game: a particular difficult dungeon, a tricky mechanic that people have to “discover”, such things like this.

And story becomes another shared experience in the game. Mention the name “Haurchefant” to an FFXIV player and they’ll have a reaction most likely if they followed the story. It becomes a bonding point for players to know this name, know the NPC, and why it’s important in the story. There are many other elements like this in a story, things people can share. The more the story can diverge from a single pattern, then less useful it is as a shared experience. We see this in tabletop RPGs with the stereotype of the “boring” person talking about their character. It’s not interesting to hear about that other person’s level 60 Bard/Paladin/Monk/Assassin because there’s not as much shared experience. If you played in the same campaign with that character, then you might be a lot more interested because of the shared experienced.

Interactive stories are hard

The first problem is that we only really have linear storytelling to rely on and give us guidance. We see the novel, the movie, the TV series and see linear media that tells us how to tell a story. The closest we get to an interactive story is oral tradition. But that fails because how do we tell a story with multiple participants who are also creating their own stories? You could point to LARP, but that’s still a niche interest. So it’s not much surprise that our MMO stories tend to be big, linear things because that’s what most writers know and understand. Games have some techniques we can use, like “environmental storytelling” that lets the game world and intentionality of design tell a story, but that’s still pretty hard to do in most cases.

And, to put it simply: it’s just fucking hard. Chris Crawford is a well-known game designer who spent his entire life trying to tackle the beast of interactive storytelling. He wrote books about it, talked about it, and even created games and software about it. Chris recently gave up on working on it, a career’s worth of work that has had little impact, unfortunately. I’ve met Chris Crawford, talked to him, he’s a smart guy. He is insanely dedicated to the idea of interactive storytelling. If he can’t do it, then it’s obviously really hard for the rest of us mere mortals to handle.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at some ways we could improve storytelling in MMOs.

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  1. I think part of the problem with interactive storytelling is the spectrum of player expectation on what the stories are that are being told and what the form of storytelling happens is amazingly broad, so it’s practically impossible to create forms of interactive stories that truly please a large segment of players. MMO projects typically have tried to reach wide audiences, which is in direct conflict with this design challenge. If you look at the interesting interactive storytelling games from the last couple years (like Her Story; That Dragon, Cancer; Papers, Please; What Remains of Edith Finch, many others) they’re all very focused on their storytelling and very much not mainstream products. On the MMO side probably the most interesting storytelling experience I can recall was A Tale in the Desert, which also is very much not a mainstream game.

    Comment by Sulka Haro — 4 August, 2018 @ 12:07 AM

  2. When thinking about WoW right now, I just recently quit, “Worldquests” have become the new dailies: A few pop up on the map, from a set of premade quests. Do the ones you like and which offer the reward you desire, which is often also randomized either resources, this item, that item etc.. Do 3-4 to unlock a special reward chest which might contain a mount or this or that. These quests work within the raw framework of the story but don’t progress it or add anything to it. The story is indeed linear and there is no choice, or only fake choice that doesn’t matter much.

    People are currently upset about the warchief of the Horde going genocidal and it rubs the wrong way that they have to follow suit. But besides a lot of rage on Twitter etc. I think people will just truck on. The “Haurchefants” of WoW are rare these days, the ages old gnoll “Hogger” doesn’t exist in its memorable form anymore, but its still mentioned now and then.

    Assassin’s Creed Odyssey promises more choice in terms of story and what happens, quite a change to the credo of the series of reliving someone’s memories. Now we rather make them up or shape them, doesn’t sit well with some AC lore fans. I wonder if it will matter much if the end result is now and then different. Most games allow you variation of choices and effects, but in the end they return back to a rather linear development. Even Dragon Age Origins, the first one of the series, which had very interesting development depending on your choices and answers, was a bit like that. No later game of the series managed to give you that many outcomes and choices and different character developments. In the end we just followed just more complex premade paths.

    MMOs are mostly single player these days, people still have to randomly team up now and then for harder mobs, quickly easy via mouse click to form a random group, or more difficult when you have to meet the requirements of a human raid leader to get invited to a PUG raid.

    I don’t know what the future will bring for MMOs. I am not sure if improved storytelling will make people more interested in playing them. I think video streaming and ebook downloads provide a lot of story. Games must give people something to do. Assassin’s Creed Origins worked nicely, despite rather sub-par boring story compared to Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. A cool story is a plus, but players must have enough to do besides or within the story, otherwise its not keeping people hooked.

    Comment by Longasc — 4 August, 2018 @ 1:45 AM

  3. I have not seen the phrase “content locusts” in years. From a player perspective, the more content the better. Tell me stories. Let me live those stories. Let there be choices. If you drag people along “on a rail” as they used to say, then don’t you think they consume your content more quickly, because it’s all reaction and no thought is required.

    Think of ways to allow the story to challenge the player that isn’t just a gear grind. “Do this impossible thing and I’ll give you a hat that makes you powerful enough to get a new hat tomorrow.”

    Comment by Atheren — 4 August, 2018 @ 8:32 AM

  4. When something is inherently hard, I don’t think we should look on failing to do it as well as might be (naively) hoped as “getting it wrong”.

    In tennis they talk about “unforced errors”. That always makes me wonder: Is there any such thing as a “forced error”? If your opponent’s shot was just damn hard for anyone to be able to return, is it not just kudos to them rather than an error on your part? Only an unforced error deserves to be called an error at all!

    I don’t see why we should expect making MMO stories to be different than doing it in any other medium. Many stories are made in books, movies, TV, not all of them are great. And while it takes the writers years or months to create the good ones, readers can devour them in days or weeks.

    From a consumer’s POV, there is no problem, you just read lots of writers, or watch a lot of different shows. Or, like many people, when you’re done with the latest story in your MMO, go play another one, or spend time on other hobbies.

    If as an MMO-maker you want people to stick around between new stories, you need to make sure there are other compelling and satisfying things to do as well.

    Comment by Pasduil — 4 August, 2018 @ 10:03 AM

  5. Timothy Lochner replied on Twitter:

    Some wood to toss onto the fire: I’ve been enthralled with WoW’s recent story developments. I never played WoW, but played the RTS games growing up. Seeing the characters I had developed an attachment to continue to grow was powerful to me.

    When I think about the game I’ve dedicated the most time to over the years, (Guild Wars) and comparing it to WoW’s recent story, it makes me wonder if GW2 missed a powerful opportunity by jumping 250 years and developing whole new characters.

    Like, I’ve never really played WoW, but o remember seeing Jaina’s father die in WC3. I remember playing Sylvanas’ story. It’s tapping a deep memory for me to watch the recent Warbringers shorts. I’ve even taken to watching WoW lore vids just to catch up.

    And, again, I don’t even play WoW.

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 August, 2018 @ 12:08 AM

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