Monday, May 31, 2010

The neverending story

While I don’t mention it very often, I’m still regularly playing pen & paper roleplaying games, one evening every two weeks, for the last 10 years or so. That makes a bit less than 100 hours of roleplaying per year. In comparison to that I once added up the /played time of all my World of Warcraft characters, divided it by the number of years I’m playing WoW, and ended up at around 1,000 hours per year; ten times more than the comparable pen & paper roleplaying activity. Why does that matter? Have a look at the post from Chris at Game by Night on Bioware thinking that quests in current MMORPGs “have no point”, or the discussion in the last open Sunday thread on quests, with Pangoria’s follow-up post on how quests should be. We all want games with a great story and quests “that matter”, but how can you make a story which is both engaging and several thousand hours long?

A MMORPG is longer than War and Peace (whether as book or as movie), longer than the Harry Potter series, longer than Lost, and longer than any other form of entertainment with a coherent story. A MMORPG is much longer than any single-player game with a story, for example Mass Effect 2 can be played through completely with all side-quests in 40 hours, and even Japanese RPGs don’t last much longer than 100 hours. Thus, as Chris says, if every quest of Star Wars: The Old Republic would be part of the main narrative, the overall story would be unbearably long-winding and convoluted. MMORPGs are designed to be neverending, while a story needs a beginning, evolution, and an end. I like the approach on Pangoria to make the game a series of independent short stories of different lengths, but that is already the best we can hope for.

And even if the quests are interesting the first time you play them, they become less so if you play through the same quests again with an alt. Even if, as in a game like Dragon Age, you can solve some quests in different ways, the result still is somewhat repetitive. Ultimately MMORPGs are by necessity repetitive games. There is no limit to the number of hours which you can play Pong, or Tetris, or Space Invaders, or even complex games like Civilization, because they consist of a repetition with variations of the same game principles over and over. In a MMORPG running the same dungeon again with a different group is more interesting than doing the same quest twice solo. Even doing a quest in a MMORPG just once often already has repetitive elements, because you need to repeat the same fight against the same type of monster several times to solve the quest.

So why do we have quests at all? Because experience shows that without quests, MMORPGs become even *more* repetitive. If you don’t have quests sending you into the different corners of a zone to kill different monsters, players have a tendency to simply select one spot and kill monsters there until they level up. That is how the original Everquest worked. That sort of grind is even worse than doing quests with uninteresting stories.

To make a better MMORPG, developers need to answer the fundamental question of what players are supposed to do for those 1,000 hours a year. Good luck trying to fill all that time with pre-written stories that never repeat and never resemble each other. I think the Guild Wars 2 promised approach of making the game world more dynamic, so that the stories aren’t so much told than developing from the state the world is in, is better than trying to hire an army of people to create fixed dialogue with voice-overs. How many hours of voice-overs can you possibly pack into a game? Probably far less than what even an average player will consume.

The final nail in the coffin of pre-packed stories in MMORPGs is that many players don’t even care. If on opening Icecrown Citadel Blizzard had made a website with two links, one promising to reveal the grand finale of the story around Arthas the Lich King, while the other link would lead to his loot tables in the various modes, which link do you think most players would have clicked on first? If MMORPGs wanted to improve their story-telling, they would be well advised to improve the way in which each character’s personal story and development is told, because their own characters is what players really care about. The NPC for whom we just did half a dozen quests and who on clicking on him still greets us like a stranger is far less interesting. Why would we care about his story, when whatever we do doesn’t have any lasting influence on him anyway?

I think that unless you have an unlimited budget, developers’ time is better spent designing gameplay elements that hold up well to thousands of hours of repetition than writing stories and dialogue. Give us a dynamic, living world, with a consistent lore, and then let us discover the story of that lore while we experience the more important to us story of how our character grows in that world. Leave the overarching narrative to the single-player role-playing games and pen & paper RPGs, because a story of a thousand hours is no story at all.

[EDIT: Between the time I wrote this and the time it got published, a relevant post on the same subject appeared on the Common Sense Gamer blog.]

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