3 August, 2018
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.