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.