Friday, February 26, 2010

Turning single-player games into MMORPGs

One last question from the open Sunday thread, then I think I answered them all. Void asked: "I would like to see you post about what MMOs could learn from single player games. Specifically, single player RPGs. With the recent release of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age Origins I really feel like MMOs have too much grind and not enough story. But, that is just my opinion. What do you think MMO game devs could learn from single player games?" I think this is a trap. And I think that SWTOR is well on its way to fall into this trap, so we'll be able to see whether my theory is right: You can't use game elements from single-player games with limited duration and turn them successfully into MMORPG games with unlimited duration.

Bioware is good at telling stories in single-player games, there is no doubt about it. But story-telling in a game like KOTOR (or Mass Effect, or Dragon Age Origins) works the same way as story has worked since the beginning of humankind, in a structure which has a beginning, a climax, and an end. But a MMORPG doesn't have an end (except for A Tale in the Desert), and so story-telling falls flat.

In an endless MMORPG, you have the choice of either creating one epic "main" story which develops in parallel to your character level, which is how Lord of the Rings Online does it. Or you provide thousands of short stories, like World of Warcraft. Neither option makes for great story-telling. One of the big draws of a MMORPG is that you can play them for years, for thousands of hours. One main story distributed over thousands of hours ends up being stretched far too thin. Most of the time in LotRO you are NOT advancing the epic main story, the main story ends up being something like an extra award for leveling.

Having recently made the transition from Outlands to Northrend with my paladin, I must say that Blizzard is getting better at telling stories. The WotLK quests are often more fun than the BC and vanilla WoW quests were. And I'm looking forward to Blizzard applying those improved story-telling skills to update the quests of level 1 to 60 in the Cataclysm expansion. But even at its best, storytelling by having a dozen quests or more at all times isn't very engaging. In fact the word "quest" in its original meaning doesn't describe well the quests in a MMORPG, they are more like "errands". Imagine you have a job as secretary or assistant, and your day goes like this "go, fetch me some coffee", "type this letter", "get me a flight to New York", "go for some office supplies"; does that sound like a great story to you? Even if the individual tasks were interesting, they don't combine into a greater whole.

Thus I think that trying to extrapolate story-telling from single-player RPGs into MMORPGs is doomed to failure. I'm hoping for improvement in telling the story of each quest, better grouping of errands into telling the story of one location better, and improved visuals. But that is the best it can get in a MMORPG. From there to the whole game feeling like one big story, like KOTOR or Dragon Age Origins does, there is still a huge gap, and one I don't think that can be bridged.

And therein lies the trap. By trying to learn from single-player games, you risk making a worse MMORPG. Instead of taking the structure of a different game and trying to force it around a MMORPG, game developers should look at the inherent structure of MMORPGs and improve the game around that. For example most players naturally care more about the development of their character than about the artificial story fragments the character went through; thus developers could add more game elements that chronicle the character's development. Instead of the Tome of Knowledge in WAR telling the story of some dwarf you met, in which you aren't interested at all, the chronicle should tell the story of your characters heroic acts in some location, or tell the story of how you found the magical sword of uberness. In a MMORPG the character *is* the story, and any good MMORPG story-telling has to work with that instead of trying to tell a story like a single-player game.

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