Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 August, 2018

How MMOs can do stories better
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:30 PM

The past two days I’ve talked about how MMOs do stories wrong, and why they do stories wrong. And there have been some great comments I’ll reply to soon.

So, let’s talk some solutions to the problems I’ve brought up the last few days. How can we go from stories that feel like more of a chore or a diversion to stories that are a meaningful to the player?

Put less focus on a central story as part of gameplay

Looking at FFXIV and GW2, one of the main features was a story that guided you through the game. In both games the story guided you on a path through the game, eventually leading you to the higher end zones. In GW2 the main story was the only real “quest”, where you did events and filled “hearts” in the zone to gain experience otherwise. In FFXIV, the MSQ is the way to level up your main class in addition to dungeons. The game offers plenty of side quests, but these are often seen as ways to get experience for additional classes, or to unlock things in the game like flying in later areas.

I think the focus on this main story is one of the reasons why story falls so flat in these games. It’s repetitive (especially for alts), there’s no agency because it has to be linear, and the “you’re the big hero” storyline often doesn’t make sense in a game full of everyone else playing the same story.

WoW managed to do this pretty well with quests part of an overall storyline but there not being a big central quest. To be fair, the game moved you along with quest hubs and breadcrumb trails rather than an explicit story quest that drags you around.

More focus on story that explains the world

So if we don’t have a central storyline, what do we do? FFXIV has certain side quests in most zones that form a chain that tell more of a story. For example, in the Yanxia zone in the Stormblood expansion, you have the tale of Kurobana the Lupin who lives in Yanxia. These quests give you a little more insight into the Lupin creatures and how other villagers see them, and what’s necessary in the day-to-day lives of such a village in a fantasy world.

There are plenty of these types of quests in other zones, usually displaying a picture under the quest name when picking them up to set them aside from other fire-and-forget type quests. Since they are usually optional they don’t feel as laborious as the MSQ does. These type of quests give more of a look at the world than the MSQ dragging you around does.

The other great thing about these quests is that they tend to be more limited in scope. Instead of the fate of the world hanging in the balance!, these are quests that fit the idea of the player character as someone who helps other people out. In fact, it might seem a bit silly for a hero who saves the world to be worrying about the fate of a Lupin in some remote village!

Facilitate player stories

Instead of focusing on developer-written stories, let the players create their own stories. Some of them will seem boring, “We went into the dungeon, killed the boss, got loot!” Some of them might be more involved, “My friends and I decided to see if we could do all healers on this run to get the loot!” And some of them will look like actual stories, “And then my Au Ra met his former tribemate and a rival, but after a round of drinking they all became good friends!”

You can use gameplay to accomplish what needs to be done: repeatable content and shared experiences have been part of MMOs before we had MSQs. By using quests and stories to flesh out more of the world, we can give players the framework for their stories. By chopping MSQ into smaller pieces we can share more of the world setting to let players experience stories that are meaningful to them.

So what do you think? Do you like MSQs and central stories like that? Or do you think there’s a better way?

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  1. Another interesting thought is how story can exist outside of the game. The recent cinematics for WoW for the latest expansion have stirred a lot of interest. As the comment from Timothy Lochner yesterday said, even people who have some interest in the Warcraft universe are interested in the story even if they don’t play WoW.

    I didn’t include that above as I haven’t really seen them, although I have seen a lot of people talking about them.

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 August, 2018 @ 12:24 AM

  2. I think the interest and importance of story to players in MMORPGs is hugely overrated. As can be seen from the current furore in WoW, what players respond to is lore and lore is very different from story. In GW2, which you mention, the story is entirely optional and largely irrelevant. I’ve played GW2 since launch. I have three accounts, 17 max level characters and somewhere north of 6000 played hours. I have never finished the Personal Story on a single character. Most of my characters haven’t even got as far as the end of the first part (which has many variations, making it a different experience for each alt).

    Latterly ANet made the error of tying certain gameplay functions to story completion, which means I have had to finish the expansion and Living Story sections. Most people do this as fast as possible to get it out of the way and since it needs to be done only once to unlock the various utilities (gliders, mounts, zone access) for the whole account they never do it again. The number of people who care about the story itself is small, as can easily be seen by the absence of conversation about it in game in open or guild channels and the paucity of posts about it on the official forums and reddit.

    The idea of player-created stories, however, is pure wishful thinking and post hoc rationalization. Descriptions of what players happened to do in a game session is not “story” in the sense that constructed narrative is a story. At best it’s bigraphy or memoir. What MMOs need is skilled, professional writers creating deep and broad lore to provide texture and context for player actions. If skilled players then want to use that background and their own experiences to create stories they can (and will) do so in fan fiction, either in text or visual form. Most players will just kill the monster, get the loot and move on.

    Comment by Bhagpuss — 5 August, 2018 @ 1:01 AM

  3. @Bhagpuss, see this is where I seem to play GW2 totally differently. I loved the Personal Story on my first character, and on at least one more character which “boost-leveled” up with Tomes, I always just boosted to the 10,20,30,40… level, did the story line and then continued boosting 5 levels, and so on. Sure, after *some* point that’s probably also too much – but I at least wanted to see a few story paths, with the 3 “factions” (Priory, etc) especially.

    I do agree it should not be mandatory per character, that is totally bogus for how some people play. I’m also not really advocating to make it mandatory per account, but I do think it’s ok if they see it as core part of the game. It’s still less work than e.g. attunements in vanilla WoW

    Comment by Nogamara — 5 August, 2018 @ 4:35 AM

  4. I think of interesting stories as what happens when 2+ people effectively pursue conflicting goals that matter to them.

    MMORPGs, because they’re worlds (places + mechanics + lore) filled with people (human and NPC), ought to be fantastic at setting up situations that allow stories — as I’ve defined story above — to emerge. Instead, “story” is hardcoded as a fixed sequence of events that a writer decided would be fun to march people through.

    What a missed opportunity!

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 5 August, 2018 @ 11:49 PM

  5. Allow me to disagree *slightly*. I dont believe the issue lies in the MMORPG genre itself (as your wording seemingly suggest). I believe the issue lies in the contraints of the Living Story’s narrative design. When you want the outcome to be the same across the board for all players’ experiences, then yes, by design you are extremely limited in how you can contruct the personality of the PC.

    But, if instead players were given the option to meaningfully express *their* character through branching dialogue options (which also aren’t just on the checklist for an achievement that forces you through all dialogue options),then perhaps players would be more invested in the roleplaying aspect of that particular MMORPG.

    Comment by Lisbeth Deroir — 6 August, 2018 @ 12:04 AM

  6. Bhagpuss wrote:
    The idea of player-created stories, however, is pure wishful thinking and post hoc rationalization.

    I don’t agree. I think the player does create a story, but it’s just not interesting most of the time, sometimes not even to the player who lived it. But I have fond memories of stilly things I did in D&D campaigns, and in games playing with friends. Yet I notice these “Hey, do you remember when…” stories seem to happen less and less with newer games.

    Bart Stewart wrote:
    I think of interesting stories as what happens when 2+ people effectively pursue conflicting goals that matter to them.

    Conflict is the root of drama, and I agree. But you need to be careful because too much competition creates rifts. If things are zero-sum, it can cause a lot of problems as we’ve seen in many game mechanics. But this is a good way for player stories to happen!

    Lisbeth Deroir wrote:
    Allow me to disagree *slightly*.

    I don’t think there’s that much disagreement, if you meant with my post. I think MMOs are just a part of interactive stories, which I said before are difficult things almost inherently. I agree that GW2′s living story (and FFXIV’s MSQ) are both constrained because it has to be a singular story, a shared experience as I said before.

    I don’t think that branching dialog options would solve much. FFXIV offers dialog options, but they don’t change the story much. Creating different branches requires a lot more content to be created which most players would never even see.

    Perhaps a better solution would be to have story bits that could fit in any order to tell a story. The game writer Lee Sheldon talked about this a lot in the past, but I can’t find any of his articles. The idea is to write a lot of content but don’t force the player to experience it linearly. That allows players some freedom, but also lets them see parts of the story and interpret it differently based on what order you see information.

    Interesting discussion, though. Thanks all!

    Comment by Psychochild — 6 August, 2018 @ 10:50 PM

  7. While I agree with Lisbeth that centralized storylines are not an inherent part of the MMORPG genre, I don’t agree that the answer is branching dialogue (which has its own issues related to resources and costs). Several years ago, I posted my own take on this question ( ), falling firmly alongside Psychochild’s opinion. I believe it is a mistake for MMOs to treat the player character as the One True Hero, and I didn’t feel that way when I first started playing WoW 12 years ago. In single-player RPGs, like Mass Effect and Skyrim, it’s fine. But it seems kind of silly to have a million “The Warrior of Light”s running around.

    Comment by rowanblaze — 7 August, 2018 @ 4:53 PM

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