While most stories within games have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end; we see this structure break down when certain genres become services reaching out to larger integrated audiences like in the case of MMOs. Simply put, this break down occurs because of 2 key factors: not being able to narrate and build your story around a character whose motives you control and not having a clear end date for when the viewer leaves your fictional universe forever. Now, these aren’t exactly factors that are aligned against you as a developer. Quite the contrary, these factors are what often give many MMO games their charm and allow for developers to establish close relations with their client base as both sides work together in fleshing out and bringing life to the virtual world.
Every journey has its start
As when creating the fiction for any game, you first need to establish a baseline of where the game is going to be playing out and what history it has that is relevant to the current lay of the land. This is especially important in MMO games that have no direct main character because the player themselves will be essentially creating their own story. Players need to be able to answer basic questions such as, “Who am I and what’s my culture?”, and, “What event, if any, has spurred me to become a player in this world?” This is an important time to setup basic short-term and long-term motivations for the player.
That said, there needs to be an understanding that the player will not fulfill or necessarily be interested in pursuing those motivations because there is no meaningful way to force them to. With a large audience of participants coming and going all the time, you can’t “stop the bus” until every player has had the shared experience of slaughtering a camp of orcs for gold. The show must go on and each player will need to handle their own personal role in the world while you ensure that the majority has enough tools to actually knowledgeably create said role.
Thankfully, one of the best ways you can provide the players examples of these basic motivations is by creating characters in this world that have already answered these questions: Non Playable Characters (NPCs).
A True Role Model
NPCs are a great way to give players examples of what is right and natural in your world and what is not. For example, by creating an alcoholic dwarf character in your game who dual wields axes and fights giants all day, you establish to the player that things such as drinking alcohol and loving fighting are “normal” and, depending on how other NPCs react to this character, common things for any dwarven individual to do. It allows players to see that, “Hey, as a dwarf, are you unsure what you do in this world? Well, feel free to look up to this guy and let him be your guiding light.” In this way, they act as good tokens of knowledge for your fan base to use when discussing your world and creating a sense of an enclosed community without necessarily creating inconsistency in any given player’s narrative. Players will understand other players of a common mind and/or background when they overhear talk admiring the awesome, knee chopping skills of Mr Drunk Dwarf, lowering the barrier for any newcomer to join their conversation and become a part of the crowd.
Keep in mind though, while NPCs are as a close to the “main story characters” as developers are going to get and so these guys will be the most likely characters to introduce new elements to the game, it is important to remember they are not the main characters and you should not treat them as such. NPCs are there to provide guidance and new paths for the players to take, not necessarily take those paths for the player. You want to give the player options, but understand that while you can provide lots of motivation for players to do certain tasks, you can never guarantee what their motives are and if those motives will actually compel them to take that path.
Players: An Army of Immortal God Slaying Mercenaries for Hire
The hardest part for any MMO story writer will eventually be the players. In a story that seemingly never stops and will attempt to have some threat to compel action from the players, almost nothing will be able to stop players from pillaging every tomb and raising every dungeon. Because you don’t want NPCs to “steal all the fun” for players and, due to the basic mob intelligence of a large group of players; players will always be the most powerful entities in their own world. While normally players being immortal god slaying heroes of legend isn’t that bad in single player games where obviously the player is simply either chosen by fate or is truly unique in the world, it becomes much harder to rationalize this in MMO games where a player population can easily begin to outnumber the number of NPCs in your world.
However, this unique problem isn’t without solutions. First, if you create a game that isn’t focused around combat or even plain linear power progression, you can definitely bring players more in line with the expected capabilities of any given NPC. If that isn’t a possibility due to linear power progression being a popular and understandable mechanic for the majority of players out there, play it up as the players truly being something unique in the world. Have them be chosen avatars of the planet to fight off eldritch horrors from beyond or magically imbued demi-gods created to solve age old problems. While things can easily become slightly over the top when embellishing story elements like that, it doesn’t hurt to borrow comic book style elements if you give the occasional wink to the player and let them know you are in on the joke. After all, who among us growing up wasn’t exposed to one toy franchise or another who built entire fictional universes on the idea of adding new content for us, the consumers, to buy later? Which really, that’s what many of these games boil down to: creating a fun enough sandbox for players to play in while keeping the playground fresh with new toys.
New Content, New Bugs, New Stories
Which brings us to the biggest strength and most important fact about story writing in MMOs: you are breathing life into a dynamic and living world. Whether it is by giving players the tools to create their own new content or delivering new content to them one patch at a time, your game is a service for your audience and so will and should always be alive and changing. Growing with audience and taking their reaction to your NPCs and new content into mind is vital.
While that doesn’t mean you don’t have any control over a long term plan, the biggest strength you have for writing any sort of story in these types of games is the basic improv relation you have with your audience. You and your audience are basically stuck in a room together until the game gets its plug pulled, let them shout out some ideas and weave them into the narrative. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try and guide them to shouting out certain things over others, but don’t feel bad shifting paths if your audience throws out a genuinely good idea. You get the advantage of using that good idea while they get the satisfaction of feeling like it is truly their world and their opinions do matter. Bounce things off of each other and have fun while it lasts! Cause sadly, like life, it won’t last forever.
May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest
Which brings us to the sad but inevitable conclusion when it comes to writing for an MMO story: you are never going to end on a high note. When your game is a service, it will live until your audience can no longer support it. As long as the audience can support it, it will keep going. You can write all the story arcs you want introducing new toys to play with, but it won’t end until the majority of the audience leaves the room. Usually for reasons that are less than flattering and often because they simply want something different. Something you can’t provide them without potentially pissing off the rest of your audience. Now sure, things could end for your game while you are largely popular, but at that point you are walking out on an audience craving more. That is bound not to be a joyous event for your audience and probably not considered a high note. To use a fairly well known movie quote, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
So, be careful about trying to commit to any solid long terms plans when creating narrative in your MMOs and try to stick to smaller story arcs if possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t hint at bigger and better stuff, but just make sure to avoid promises if possible. Again, have fun with the audience and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
I’m sad I couldn’t cover everything here and there is still a great amount of discussion to be had about story writing in MMOs, but I hope any readers out there found these basics to be informative and at the very least solid reminders or good discussion points. As more and more games launch relying on Freemium models in the mobile and MMO sectors and become “services” rather than traditional games, we must ensure that we remember how different this can change the relationship between developer and audience. There are many unique challenges to be tackled with these games and they can be a very emotional ride for audience and developer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the speed bumps along the way and have a wild wonderful journey together.