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The MMO with a Thousand Faces
by Joao Beraldo on 04/19/11 05:13:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


People love to argue about story in MMOs. Is it possible? Is it not? Well, I will keep on to my belief: there is story in MMOs, but it is not a story told by the developers (like in single-player games), but one crafted by the players based on the tools provided by the developers.

The thing is that MMOs are a new thing. While single-player games have had time to evolve in the last few decades, MMOs had far less time and, arguably, evolved comparatively less, maybe for the lack of (actual) competition.

There is a reason why technology evolves during war. One side is always trying to beat the other. There is a war brewing in the MMO world, but one that has been too cold for a long time. It has been more like today’s market: the Chinese are known to copy products created on other countries and sell them cheaper. In the end it’s just that: a copy. It’s safer this way. Unless war is declared, there won’t be an evolution.

But evolution does not necessarily mean revolutionary technology. It needs only new (or should I say old) concepts. Take for instance Non-player characters.

Look at any single-player game, movie or novel. How many characters are there aside from the protagonists? Now look at MMOs.

Is there really the need for that many NPCs? What is their role in the game? What is their role in the story of that game?

You might come say “hey, but that quest giver has an awesome story. It’s almost like a novel!” and I’ll begin my reply by saying that it SHOULDN’T be a novel because quest stories (as they are right now) are often just background. You, the main character of the game, is hardly ever the main character of the story been told. In that way, it’s not like been the novel’s main character, but the reader. And, really, if I wanted to read a book, I’d pick any of the ones I got here. When I play games I want to be part of the story.

Now I ask you: do we need all these characters? How many of them do we remember later on? How deep are they? How useful are they? Couldn’t we replace all these thousands of characters for fewer, deeper characters players can relate to?

Consider this: As the player begins play in this new MMO, he is encounters a character responsible for recruiting soldiers for the war effort. Initially, he treats you as just another nameless recruit who will probably not last long. You complete a few quests for him, either returning to him or talking remotely to you (like in Star Trek Online, for instance) and ends up sent to another region and a new NPC (effectively out of the starter area).

As the game goes on, you ‘hear’ from other characters, level design placement or item description bits about that first character that explain why he is like this. Then, he contacts you again and now he treats you slightly differently, because you are not a nameless recruit anymore.

All along your experience in this game, you learn more and more about this (and other) NPCs, get to know them and get to care about them. You may even become their hero, because your actions make a difference (even if just in a personal level). And, if you care about the NPCs you interact with, you are bound to care more about the world you are playing in and, therefore, the game you are in.

Using traditional MMO design structuring, each Hub may have a few ‘main’ NPCs and a few (or many?) minor NPCs whose roles are flavor and information (RPGs often have these nameless NPCs who bark information when you click or approach them). The player may move from hub to hub and even come back to meet again an old friend.  

Imagine an MMO in which, at the tutorial stage, you meet several minor NPCs and, later on the game, you meet each one individually, in different situations. That rookie brat may have become a respected officer while the sleazy bastard who bullied you during the tutorial is now in danger and needs your rescue.

“Wow, wow, wait!” you say. “This sounds too single-player for my taste!”

It does, but it doesn’t have to. It would fit perfectly in the narrative form of games like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and Old Republic. But I’ve been preaching that this is not how stories should be told in MMOs. Am I going against my ‘beliefs’?

Not at all, really. Quests and NPCs with personality and complexity are important for any game because they not only guide the player, but allow them to understand the world they are becoming a part of. The key to create a community dedicated to an MMO is providing tools for then, and background is another (important) tool. As I have said before, the way Eve Online evolved (which was heavily based on community wishes as any niche game should) made so that their complex background lost space (pun intended) against player creations.

It is not that they are wrong but, as the world of Eve was not properly presented to players as the game grew, players created their own culture in the game. If the world they have become part of had fed them information during gameplay (I’m not talking about a cutscene or a wall of text to choose your race), it may have been different. It’s like the dreaded exposition in novels: you can’t block out a page or two exposing background and lore in a novel because it feels dull and unnatural. You do it by bits and pieces, by adding details everywhere.

The (not so) recent addition of the factional war may have helped, but, in that sense, it was a late addition. Eve is its own world now, with its own story. Again, it is not wrong, but it means few people care about the lore (and, therefore, the game system and content decisions) made for the game.

Why is this relevant to this article? The fact is that MMOs are about players. THEY should be the thousand faces and not that of meaningless NPCs. If you keep a small number of complex, memorable NPCs to introduce the players to the game early on, players will feel connected to the world they are joining so that, when they are ‘free to roam’ on their own, they will be predisposed to play ‘their’ game with the lore they were presented to. They will call themselves Minmatar, or Alliance or Empire because they want to. They will wage war against one another because they believe on cause of the Defiants and not because of a character generation option.

Why am I so sure of this concept? I ask you: why do people choose to be heroes or villains in DC Universe? Why are there already so many guilds for the Republic or the Sith Empire for Old Republic? People have been presented to these backgrounds before making their choices. They know what to expect.

Then why don’t games present their lore before making players choose factions? (if they have to choose factions at all). Is pre-launch marketing enough? It’s a start, but it’s not the solution. There is, of course, no single magic trick. There is, though, a situation that must be approached so that MMOs may evolve into the next level.

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Scott Tengelin
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The word you're looking for is "being", not "been".

More to the point of the article though, I agree with the idea that less is more in terms of NPC involvement and familiarity. Asheron's Call (way back in the 20th Century) did this to good effect. It too was a game largely about the NPCs, but they were few and far between, so it was hardly noticable.

WoW does this somewhat too, but the few memorable NPCs are backed up with a plethora of "extras" wandering in the background. Rift, by contrast, is rather guilty of a cast of thousands, though it could be argued that the players take more of an active role as heroes.

Owain abArawn
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Actually, I prefer the model for NPCs in Ultima Online. They were shopkeepers or guards in cities, wandering healers outside of cities, and not much else. You didn't play the game to interact with the NPCs, you played it to interact with other players, which is why once you figured out where reliable player vendors were located, you usually didn't bother with town vendors except for things that couldn't be player crafted, such as spell reagents. There was a back story for Ultima Online, but it was VERY basic. Player groups didn't pay all that much attention to it because they were to busy inventing their own stories.

WoW and other recent games have taught MMO players to be too dependent on ubiquitous NPCs with glowy question marks or other quest icons over their heads, which has killed the real source of imagination to these worlds, the players themselves.

Quests and such have their place I suppose, and if you are a casual gamer with low expectations, they are a harmless way to pass the time, but in games today, the ride-the-quest-rails makes up about 100% of the game content, and it's all so overdone and predictable.

The sand box MMO is a niche market, to be sure, but perhaps game companies could design their games to meet the needs of the sand box player as well. Games already have PvE servers, role playing servers, PvP servers, and so forth. Why not try one server where the free spirits can go, with no quest nonsense and a minimal NPC population that only provides those services that players absolutely cannot provide themselves? If the game is designed properly, they should only be confined to the newbie areas to help new players learn game mechanics. Everywhere else, get out of the players way, and let us make our own stories.

Jeremy Springfield
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I feel like minecraft really missed an opportunity to become a platform which can allow players to make their own games instead of being a game itself. Some additional communication tools would allow the players to become the NPC's in a world they create. Fortunately this leaves the door open for other designers to flesh out that opportunity. Doubly fortunate that Markuss seems to be the kind of person that would actively encourage another designer to walk through that door.

David Lindsay
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This article interests me somewhat, as I've thought over and over about this same thing... technical considerations with having NPCs that evolve with the players.

You suggest the NPC you met earlier on now a magistrate in the city guard or some such. So does this NPC move to a new location -is the original model still standing in the "beginners play pen"? What about the quest you completed for NPC Billy which now makes him sell extra XYZs? Does he or his shop change in any way because of this? And does one NPC pit you against another in a story that is irrevocable and ultimately leads you out one of many story endings for that NPC? This screams of instancing the entire game world per player -in other words a single player experience, anyway.

The reason that doesn't work is that all the instances exist simultaneously. Like in LotRO, the player instantly knows "Player B over here didn't kill Billy in his instance, so I'll get him to buy the XYZs in his instance and then he can give them to me." Reality check? Whatever emersion or story experience you're going for is broken.

The problem with in-depth story and fewer NPCs like you said is not that you have to instance per player. It's that EVERY instance for every player does exist simultaneously. The player just has easier access to some instances, such as those of his friends and guild members. So, all possible endings of every quest or story experience are rather inconsequential in the greater scheme of an MMO.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop scheming and dreaming and thinking of ways to make it work, heh heh. :-)

Todd Boyd
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This sort of methodology laughs in the face of the current structure of MMOs, and even most multi- (and even single-) player games on the whole. Everything is in sort of a suspended state of disbelief in which everything that will exist and has existed all exists at once--your perception is only limited by your location in the world or your step in a series of steps/levels/quest objectives. I agree that it would be incredibly awesome if the NPC you met early on LITERALLY grew up into a bad ass and his former self was no longer waiting around to help newbies kill boars, but that's going to take some serious paradigm-shifting mechanics to happen. There really can't be quests in the traditional sense--or at least not quests that stay there for everyone. If you gave this guy 6 apples and that's all he needed to make a pie for his girlfriend, why would he continue to stand there asking other players for 6 apples? What's this asshole's deal, anyway?!

Joao Beraldo
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Why do we need to complete quests in which the NPC needs 6 apples to bake a pie? Thats the core of the situation.

As a matter of context, if quests were multiplayer in how they are presented, it would already make a difference. Maybe the baker NPC is alway in need of apples to prepare the rations for the army. A basic idea that could also be an officer needing adventurers to keep killing goblins to reduce their numbers in the nearby woods.

And, no, context doesn't fix everything. The mission above could be a cyclic event. We all know there are thousands of kill x in games. What if the x would varie in a cycle? An NPC offers a quest to kill wolves because there ARE excessive wolves on the woods. After the number is reduced, a new cycle begins, with other context, quest and creep.

Now consider this very basic idea as the basis for everything. That is why I say GW2 did right with dynamic events, but went the completelly 'wrong' way with personal quests.

What if you had two NPCs offering missions to deal with the same situation in different ways, but, as players help NPC A instead of B, the world changes (for everyone) to show NPC A in a better position. In fact, both NPCs could treat each player differently depending on if they helped him or not. And, just like GW2's dynamic events it could eventually cycle back