Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Laying claim to the 4th pillar

In May there was a funny story where Derek Smart from Alganon plagiarized a press release from Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic, claiming that "Traditionally, massively multiplier online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars - combat, exploration and character progression. In Alganon, in addition to these we've added the fourth pillar to the equation; a story." Meanwhile, in a different corner of the internet, Blizzard had released Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, and it included one special quest series, about the Wrathgate, which had a great cutscene telling a dramatic story, followed by a scripted event where the player contributed in liberating Undercity. Nobody called that a "4th pillar", but everybody agreed that this was one of the highlights of WotLK questing.

Fast forward to December 2010, and given the success of the Wrathgate quest it comes to no surprise that Blizzard used more cutscenes and scripted events in Cataclysm. If you do the 150+ quests of Vashj'ir, you'll be seeing several cutscenes, take part in several scripted events, and take part in a greater story spanning the whole zone and culminating in the Throne of Tides dungeon. Playing through that often feels like great cinema, and later zones continue in the same vein, even allowing you to participate in an Indiana Jones movie. The goblin starting zone has a funny story, the worgen starting zone a more dramatic, Victorian-flavored one. Whether you call it like that or not, the 4th pillar is well and truly implemented in Cataclysm.

I do not believe that this was a strategic move by Blizzard to preempt SWTOR, but whether it was planned like this or not, it might well have this effect. When SWTOR finally arrives and starts telling stories, people won't experience that as something totally new.

But as many people already noticed, the 4th pillar comes with some disadvantages. At least in the Blizzard version the cutscenes and scripted events only exist in one form. Thus the actions of the player don't matter at all for the development of the story. The Bioware version promises more choice, but it will remain to be seen in how far those choices are cosmetic, or whether they can fundamentally change the story being told.

And I can't help but question whether a MMORPG is really the best place to tell stories like that. I played through the Vashj'ir story line, and witnessed Erunak being sucked into the vortex, and held captive mind-controlled in the Throne of Tides. But when I take the portal from Orgrimmar to Vashj'ir, I still see him standing in the cavern where I arrive. I freed Will'hai, but when I swim past his location he is still being held by the same tentacles. By its very multiplayer nature, a MMORPG can not allow a player to really change the world, because other players need to have the opportunity to play through the same story. Playing through a story will always be more believable in a single-player RPG, where the player really *can* change the world.

So I'm wondering whether all this story-telling stuff isn't just the latest fad in MMORPGs, and might not necessarily last. Why pay a monthly subscription to play through a half-assed story, if I could play through a better and more meaningful story in a single-player game with no additional cost? The advantages of a MMORPG are in the interaction of players, and having the players play through phased and instanced stories alone just distances them from the core strengths of the genre. In the end a 5-man dungeon offers vastly superior replayability and interaction than cutscenes and scripted events. Does anyone really want to play through Vashj'ir a second time?

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