Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Save the World! (and Level Up)

Character advancement in classic Pencil and Paper RPGs was a side-effect of accomplishments in the game world—it was not the motivator for accomplishments in the game world. Advancement and story had a symbiotic relationship. The story progressed as the players did more, as the characters did more they became strong so the story could progress further. And so this cycle would continue, one aspect feeding the other, until the characters were killing Gods and destroying elemental planes (or, God forbid, saving the world).

This relationship has been inverted in MMORPGs, and the symbiosis has been broken. The result is a genre that is inherently flawed because it aims to do the impossible with fundamental game mechanics that are aligned for the wrong purposes in the game at large. Players primarily see game mechanics like quests and raids as means of character advancement. This inversion has made it unnecessary to have a story in MMORPGs. “The story” in MMORPGs consists of a series of interchangeable and ultimately marginal parts that provide fuel for the engines of advancement.

MMORPGs destroy the fundamental story-building element of pencil and paper RPGs in the interest of serving large numbers of people without (further) breaking the bank. It’s easy for a dungeon master and six players to control the destiny of a world and actually impact it by their actions, because only six heroes in the whole world have such power. There are seven intelligent beings at a table suspending disbelief and doing meaningful things in the game world once and for all time. In an MMORPG, most of the inhabitants of the world are heroes. This does not make sense and does not work. The metaphor doesn’t hold and the mechanics break down. The real aim of advancement systems, to reward players for changing the world, has disintegrated in favor of advancement being the end. If advancement is the end, then the story is the means. Just as the player will discard the level 6 sword as soon as she finds a level 7 one, players pass by and over the story in MMORPGs because it is simply a tool whose use results in some windfall.

The stories that interest most players these days are not the stories behind the thirtieth fetch quest they’ll do this week, they are the stories that players make as they play. Tales of sieges in Darkfall, political intrigue in EVE, realm vs. realm slugfests and keep sieges in Warhammer, being the first guild to down the new raid boss in World of Warcraft: these are the stories that players find interesting and come to care about. By allowing these stories to become the game’s story (and vice versa), we can make progress towards solving the content problem at which quests have recently proven an ineffective solution.

The players should generate the story as they go, just as they did in primordial pencil and paper RPGs. In this way, we can substantiate character progression and validate storytelling in MMORPGs in general. This means breaking down some of the mechanics we are used to and allowing players to actually change the worlds they inhabit, instead of being forced to spin their wheels by fighting monsters that will simply respawn in five minutes or an hour. Some may object to this as being a “niche” feeling, but this niche has room for everyone. If executed properly, a player-generated story-based MMORPG solves a lot of the problems we have today with much less developer, writer, and designer time needed.

In later posts I’ll elaborate on a possible way to implement what I’ve outlined here.


Psychochild said...

There's also the fact that in paper games, you couldn't necessarily control your advancement. Rewards like experience were given out by the GM. You generally couldn't go ask the GM to run some extra sessions (or go solo some sessions yourself) to get more experience points and therefore a higher level.

An MMO, however, is always available and you can always go out and do something to get more experience. So, the focus shifts from playing a story with friends to getting a higher level. I don't think that paper games would have been immune to this if there had been a way to get xp outside of a scheduled session.

Tesh said...

I've come to believe that MMOs aren't a storytelling medium, at least in the traditional "dev-produced narrative" manner. They are great for letting players tell their own stories and playing with other people (sort of the point of online gaming), but far inferior storytelling vehicles compared to a Final Fantasy or Planescape Torment. (And yes, I think that Bioware is in for a rude awakening when it comes time to see what SWTOR has going for it, especially if they use the subscription model.)

Unknown said...

@ Tesh
"aren't a storytelling medium" is an oxymoron. Mediums are based on communication of messages, stories themselves are messages (each story being a message) that portray a series of events. Medium and stories are one in the same. News articles, are not only stories (they are obviously stories), but they are a form of entertainment that grabs a specific emotion from its audience. Whole human communication is based on telling/relating/etc stories to one another (anything from simple text messages to war/fire warnings are about updating/creating stories that affect our lives), saying MMORPGs are not about storytelling is beyond silly to me.

No. I think you are getting confused with what YOU believe is storytelling. MMORPGs as a medium tell stories differently from books, films or other games. Even though games SHOULD be telling stories different, many developers are blind to interactive medium's storytelling advantages.

What evizaer is trying to say here is that MMORPGs should be doing what their medium/genre is good at (which is community advancing their own story) instead of trying to be something they are not (forced storyline that one cannot change). If I wanted a good linear story, I'd read LOTR, but instead they add sub-par (non-LOTR) linear story into a genre/medium that shouldn't have it.

pixelrevision said...

One of the things lacking in most MMOs is the feeling of choice when it comes to the quest chains. The only level of decision and impact comes to the gear and specializations of your character. Adding in more decisions into the quests that have real impact on what you are able to do and who you are aligned with would go a long way towards giving you a feeling of crafting your own story.

lodestone said...

I wonder if Andrew has learned what oxymoron actually means in the year since he posted that comment.