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.