reporters and players alike have been talking about stories in MMOs. Big names
are coming out to light saying they have the solution for this paradoxical
dilemma. If the player is always special, how can every player be special in an
everyone has some answer to that, ranging from “they can’t” to some miraculous
set of features, I come up with my own.
I am João Marcelo Beraldo, novelist and currently the Lead Content Designer of
the upcoming MMO Taikodom, and I'm here to tell you about meta-story.
What is meta-story?
does adding a fancy name before 'story' solves the problem? Well, it doesn't.
But it serves to make a point on the difference between a game's story and the
player's story. Allow me to explain.
have found memories of the time when I led the Brazilian civilization to world
domination in Call to Power 2, and how does pesky Australians had managed to
survive for years hidden in underwater cities, as I had no technology to reach
them. In X-Com: UFO Defense, how could I forget Rookie John Bryant, younger
brother of hero Colonel Sigourney Bryant, as, on his first mission, he was the
last man standing in what was supposed to be a simple recon mission, running
back to the Skyranger, dragging two fallen soldiers as hordes of Chrysalis
chased him. I actually made the soldier dialogues in my mind!
what (other than showing my insanity) does mentioning all that does for game
narrative? Call to Power has no story other than what both AI and player choice
leads to. While X-Com has a rich story, what happens depends on some degree of
randomness and a lot of player choice.
forms between the player experience and the gameplay is what I'm calling
I implying a game does not need a story, but just a background story and player
options? Not exactly. I love a good game story. Interactive narrative is an
important thing for me, both as a player and as a designer and I've loved every
second of story-driven games like KotOR, Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect. What
is important here is understanding that game story is not completely dependent
on what the writer or designer created for the game. It depends on the tools
given players by these guys. Which leads us to MMOs.
have always felt there was something missing on MMOs: story. But wait a minute!
Didn't I just say meta-story is what matters? Well, it is. But I also mentioned
the need to give tools to the players so this meta-story be easily achievable.
MMOs are designed with a single-player concept of story. While there is often
cooperative aspects (battlegrounds, raids, etc) or even competitive aspects
(Realm vs Realm or, in the least, a fight to see who gets to collect items
first), basic game concept is still too much trapped in the single-player
experience. Nowadays, each MMOs has it’s own take on storytelling, each trapped
(sometimes on purpose) to single-playerness.
remember a discussion a while back with a fellow game designer who defended the
idea that the player had to feel special and, so, the tutorial had to enforce
the concept of how the player was the best, the elite. Yes, everyone wants to
be a hero (or a villain!) and that's what games are all about. But when you
enter the MMO world, you must thread this path with some caution. How many
players can be the chosen one, branded by the Gods, rescued as the slaver ship
where he/she was trapped in sunk? And how important do you feel when you boast
about how you've defeated a powerful super-villain trying to destroy the city
just to hear half a dozen other heroes saying they did that thrice a month or
so ago? At a excellent talk at GDC 2009, WoW's lead quest designer Jeffrey
Kaplam said a powerful sentence which I later used several times during game
development: “You are not writing a fucking book!”
I believe Kaplan was mostly talking about the infamous walls of texts, I saw it
in a different perspective. Aside from the fact that games are an interactive
and visual media (which in itself affects greatly how a story is told), books
are a linear experience centered on one or a few characters. And while many
writers talk about how some characters become alive and lead the stories
themselves (I know it happened often with me), its far from the same as having
each of these characters (main, secondary or just extras) take them own actions
and choose their own paths.
Scott Card wrote a novel series about character Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin. He is
the hero, even if there are other important characters around him. Several
years after the first book, Ender's Game, Scott Card wrote Ender's Shadow. It
was basically the same story, the same moment, but told through the eyes of a
secondary character, Bean.
imagine if these series setting was an MMO. Ender is a player's character, but
so is Bean. Both were heroes on their own accord, even if people who read
Ender's side of the story never knew how much Bean was important to the whole
plot. To Bean, he was a hero too and had his own adventure. What if Scott Card
had also written books telling the perspective of other secondary characters?
What new adventures might come out of the same story?
love listening to players talk about their multiplayer experiences. At work
there is the obligatory WoW players group who often talk excitedly about what
happened in game. No, they are not talking about a particular quest's lore.
While prizes must be given to Wraith of the Lich King's quests and cutscenes,
at the end what stays on players' memories are player interactions. Yes, they
mentioned how hard this one quest was or how cool it was to mount on a Red
Drake to beat Malygos. But stories that remain are the ones about how they
ganked some poor newbie, or how they ninjaed the raid's epic loot. In fact, one
guy mentioned once he was grinding quests, delivering them all over when the
game suddenly locked up. As he frantically hit Esc, he realized it was the
beginning of a cutscene. He was not happy by that interruption.
WoW is not the only one. It happens all over. There is the story of one time in
Star Wars Galaxies, as imperial players led an assault against a rebel player
base. Midway into the battle, Darth Vader himself (or at least a Game Master
impersonating him) informed the imperials help was on the way. After the
spawning of stormtroopers and rebel soldiers here and there, an AT-AT show up.
It was the first time any of these players had seen an AT-AT in the game. The
battle came to a stop for a few seconds as they looked at it, eyes wide, mouth
agap. And, while this friend told me this story several times, never has he
mentioned who won that battle. Really, it didn't matter.
is, of course, the opposite direction. Staying completely away from the story
aspect of the game and leaving players the job of creating it may be a worse
sin, as many players end up feeling left out. Lets talk about Eve.
sandboxness is one of its greatest prizes. The game was designed to allow
players to create not only their own stories, but to mold the game's overall
story. Economy, wars, alliances. Everything is under the players' control.
there is a problem to it: Eve has a rich backstory, with factions and elements
that might give players a lot of tools to develop this fictional universe. But
most of it is ignored by the majority of the player base because it serves them
only to define ship and avatar looks. What of all these corporations, all these
NPCs or the story behind the conflict between the four player races or the
other NPC ones?
made an interesting move as they created the militia concept on their Empyrian
Age expansion. In a way, it gave reason for story-driven conflict. But it is still
a very small part of it. Meanwhile, many new players enter the game just to hit
a hard wall, where they feel left alone, invading someone else game. After all,
what chance do you have threading your own path in a game where huge alliances
already control the universe? While player-created story is a big part of what
Eve is (and it keeps hitting the news on bank fraud, treason and such), it is
still not something for everyone. I wonder if this is the reason why CCP has
been investing on creating more story-driven quests for Eve.
is it possible to reach a middle ground on MMO narrative?
Next Generation MMOs?
I said earlier, many companies have announced the solution to MMO stories.
SW:tOR, Secret World, Heroes of Tellara and many others promises to go one step
further and really bring stories into the world of MMOs.
how many of these next generation MMOs really look into the matter in the right
perspective? How much of these efforts will really take into mind the fact that
MMOs are not single-player games?
then, can an MMO have a story? Players must do quests! So is the solution
having an automatic quest generator? No. At least not as a solution to MMO
they need are stories from different perspectives. A player becomes part of the
story if his actions matter. He feels special if what he does makes a
difference. There is a reason why you can't all be Neo in the Matrix. But you
can each be a member of the resistance. And, while your story does not become a
blockbuster Hollywood trilogy, it should fell like it for you. Because you were
there facing the hordes of invading robots, fight side by side with several
other players. And, maybe, at some point, you and some others (friends and
unknowns) managed to force your way to the enemy commander, causing the enemy
to retreat. While your part was very important, so was Neo's back in the
Matrix, or many others who defeated other bosses, built Zion's defenses, kept
the guys on mechas supplied with ammo and armor parts, etc. And each one of
this guys will remember his story and will tell his friends how much fun they
had. And THAT is what matters.
are events so much fun? And why do they have to be just events?
the core of the MMO is being multiplayer, why cannot it's story also be
the answer to our prayers be right next door, waiting to come out?
I know it is.