Friday, February 25, 2011

Story-telling in MMORPGs

A reader wrote me about how much he enjoyed the post-Shattering Forsaken story-line:
I wanted to share with you the most fun I've had questing in WoW the past five years. The new Forsaken storyline is truly stellar! From the starter zone in Tirisfal Glades through Silverpine Forest, Hillsbrad Foothills and finally in Western Plaguelands, the questing here has reminded me why I love this game so much. This past week I leveled a new undead character through those zones after hearing about how incredible the new Forsaken storyline is from other players (and wanting to experience the conclusion of the the awesome Worgen storyline started with the Alliance faction). I started to hear so much about it became too difficult to avoid being spoiled before I experienced it myself, so I just forgot about my Alliance main character and spent a week -- a gloriously fun week -- being a new Forsaken in the Horde.

Drama, comedy (oh, the comedy!), intrigue -- it's all there, just like in a movie, and this is a five-star movie to be sure. I highly recommend leveling a new undead character to experience it. Do ALL the quests in each of the zones I mentioned to experience the whole story.

There's even a short series of quests making fun of silly players (who some would call M&S) and their silly behaviors in game. I'll leave it to you to find and experience that comedic quest on your own. Have fun!
There is no doubt that the quality of story-telling in World of Warcraft has improved over the years. I played through various newbie zones myself after patch 4.0, and through the Worgen and Goblin areas after Cataclysm, and the new player experience with regard to story has improved by leaps and bounds. Okay, not everybody will like the kind of bling comedy story of the goblins, but it is hard to argue that the way the story is told hasn't improved.

At the other end of the spectrum, story is either absent, or is simply ignored. It is safe to assume that when you are on the 10th wipe of your 12th raid to the same dungeon, you don't care what the bloody story of that place is. Gevlon, who unexpectedly enjoys the early game story-telling, compares that early experience to passively watching TV, because you don't have to put any effort into playing well to experience it. In the end game of heroics and raids the pace becomes considerably more frantic and hectic, and simply doesn't allow for the time to enjoy any story-telling (nor socializing, but that is a different subject). Most raiders complained about the story-telling finale of Icecrown, because they were interested in the fight itself, the achievement, and the loot, not the story of the Lich King. Cut-scenes before and after the fight only get into the way of "serious" raiding.

But even in the early game, gameplay considerations get into the way of story-telling. As much as story-telling has improved since 2004, there is still a major element missing: Player decisions. In Hyjal there is one quest where you can decide whether to kill or release a prisoner, but the decision has no consequences for you or the story. And that is as good as it gets, all the other quests don't give you any choice at all. Actually you have LESS choice in Cataclysm than in previous expansions, because previously you could skip quests you didn't like. But the level 80 to 85 zones are mostly linear, so that if you refuse to do the early quests, you will never get the option to do the quests of the rest of the zone.

So, funnily enough, the browser game I'm currently playing, Echo Bazaar, offers better story-telling for a fraction of the budget that World of Warcraft has. In Echo Bazaar I can often freely decide in which direction I want to send the story, and my decision has consequences in opening up other branches of the story-line. WoW doesn't offer anything like that. And as much as they like to hype their "fourth pillar", I'm not yet convinced that Bioware will let me make really important decisions in Star Wars: The Old Republic; I'm afraid they will fob me off with fake decisions which don't have consequences for more than the immediate quest instance that I am in.

So the scripted nature of quests in MMORPGs and the preference of players for a fast-paced "challenging" action game both get into the way of good story-telling. So more and more I'm asking myself whether the unholy marriage of two very different games in World of Warcraft, the "leveling game" and the "end game" is really a good idea. Wouldn't it be better to have one virtual world full of stories, player decisions, consequences, and lore, and a completely different game of challenging cooperative multiplayer PvE encounters? A player who currently is mostly interested in the end game is rushing through the leveling game, with all the story-telling being perceived more as an obstacle than as a source of entertainment. It seems to be difficult to create a game where players care about the story while at the same time worrying about how much damage per second they can put out.

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