Monday, June 16, 2008

AoC and the future of story-telling in MMORPGs

I finally had a bit more time to play this weekend, and thus leveled my Age of Conan Herald of Xotl to level 30. I was looking forward to that, because the destiny quest which stopped at level 20 in Tortage continues at level 30. A friend of mine had the problem that his quest journal was full or something, and his level 30 destiny quest got bugged, so he is without destiny. So I deleted all quests from my quest journal before talking with the NPC for the level 30 destiny quest. All went well, he sends me to talk to some other NPC, then I'm sent into a small solo dungeon, where I need to collect some items, then first kill a mini-boss before killing the final boss. Fun, but short. I go back to the destiny quest NPC for my reward and the next quest, and am told that the next quest I can only accept at level 50. I log off, go to the account management site, and cancel my subscription for Age of Conan. Really, the destiny quest was the only thing that kept me going in that game. Even Funcom admits that content in the level 30s is thin at the moment and promises to add more later, so I don't think I'll grind to level 40 just to have a slow ride on a mammoth. I started another new character to see another angle of the destiny quest in Tortage, but that'll go quick, and I don't feel like playing Age of Conan any longer after that.

In addition to lack of interest in AoC, I'll also be on holiday for 3 weeks in July, and AoC won't run on my laptop. I'd rather go back to WoW or play some beta, or even some non MMO game. Maybe I'll buy Mass Effect, which just came out for the PC. I read a review which said that the main story of Mass Effect was great, even if the side quests were weak in comparison, and there were a couple of bugs. I couldn't help but think "oh, just like Age of Conan", only that in Mass Effect the main story doesn't end at one quarter of the level cap and then continues in tiny bits every 20 levels.

World of Warcraft doesn't really have a main story, but I never really missed one in that game, because the whole world, every quest, every zone, is of such high quality that you simply forget that there is not much purpose to killing another 10 foozles, except for gaining some xp and reward. Lord of the Rings Online has a main story, and it is certainly the best part of the game. I always liked the main story line with the cut scenes in FFXI. And in the pen & paper roleplaying campaigns and single-player computer or console RPGs I played, the story is usually of utmost importance. Just look at games like the Final Fantasy series, which manage to elevate themselves from a mass of console RPGs with similar gameplay by their superior story-telling.

And so I'm wondering if this is the future of MMORPGs: better stories, better story-telling, a main quest that leads you from level 1 to the level cap. Having a solo main quest doesn't mean that there would be no multiplayer interaction, there could always be group-only side quests or dungeons like in WoW. The quest system in WoW already does a good job of guiding people from one zone to the next, but it does so with a series of totally unrelated single quests and short quest chains. A coherent main quest line would perform the same guidance job, but be more engaging due to better story-telling, and more motivating because you follow a single epic quest to the level cap. There could even be real choices, leading to forks in the story path, providing replayability. And of course ideally there would be various main quests for the various classes or races.

Such a move wouldn't be historically unprecedented. The first D&D modules were simple hack and slash dungeon crawls with little story, but the pen & paper roleplaying genre evolved into something which is nowadays heavy on story-telling, often with an epic story-line spanning a campaign over years. Even in cinema the first movies were without a story, just a collection of scenes, where the fascination derived from the novelty of having moving pictures. It is quite possible that the MMORPG genre will evolve in the same way: the novelty of living in a virtual world will wear off, and the producers are forced to introduce stronger motivation to stick to the game, in the form of better stories.

And Age of Conan actually proves that telling a good story in a MMORPG is quite possible, I really liked the destiny quest from level 1 to 20. If that quest line would continue without huge gaps up to level 80, I'd still be playing AoC. It would be a lot easier for a new MMO to stand out from the competition with a unique and better coherent story, than to create a better virtual environment. And the AoC example of Tortage even shows how a well staged story can give the players the illusion that they actually had an impact, changed something in the virtual world, even if real change remains elusive due to the multi-player aspect of virtual worlds. Epic stories and better story-telling could really be the "next generation" of MMORPGs.

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