Implementing Stories in Massively Multiplayer Games
September 16, 2002 Page 2 of 3
Everquest approximates the tried and true three-act stucture: in Act I (the newbie game) we are not told what in the heck the conflict is, so our actions in the world have no context; we don’t know what the stakes are. In Act II, we still don’t know what the stakes are. There are lots of conflicts, changing locales, epic adventuring, but Act II in Everquest lasts forever, as there really is no Act III. None. In Everquest, the world doesn’t change at all, and certainly the world doesn’t change as a result of the players’ actions. There is no payoff, no enjoying the fruits of victory; the carrot keeps dangling just beyond your reach.
If they could just deliver a satisfying climax to their audience, they’d have players hooked for life. But MMOG games don’t offer easy endings, and the carrot always stays just out of reach.
Whether the designers of the games create a satisfying ending themselves, or whether they let the players do it, they have to understand that we all seek closure to any extended activity we engage in, we all seek Act III's in our lives. If the MMORPG designers want to give the players simply a sandbox and let players have at it, they must give the players the tools to create dramatic structure for themselves, or else players will feel empty at the end of the day.
Adding Structure to an Open-ended Game Design
To build an engaging story in an open-ended game, you need to write the story content early in the game design process, making it an integral part of the game design process. And, I don’t mean here ‘story as backdrop’ or ‘story as fiction to explain why the game system works the way it does’. In a MMOG, the story is the way in which universe changes after the game goes live. Think of the game as if it was a TV series, with episodes and seasons, and story arcs and subplots. Isn’t that the kind of game world everyone would want to play in?
Game companies, for the most part, aren’t used to thinking script first (for goodness’ sake -- they aren’t used to thinking of the script at all!). For this to change, the game design process has to respect and allow for the story weaving process a little more than it does now.
The game designers have to be willing to make systemic decisions that support the needs of the story. Right now, story tends to be the blacktop that is laid down last to cover all the potholes the game system has left in its wake. This lends itself to the creation of stories that don’t make much sense. And remember, since every moving image a player sees tells story, if the script is done last, after the artwork, the odds are even better that the game system will tell one story and the artwork will tell a different story and the poor writer will be pulling their hair out trying to make it all fit together.
Sandbox theorists assume that stories created by the players will be as entertaining and compelling as stories created by designers, and if you could dynamically edit out 90 percent of the boring stuff that happens in these worlds that might be true. If you gave the players story telling tools (in essence, AI-driven Gamesmaster tools), they might as well. But, until these two needs are met, designers and writers are still going to do a better job of economically delivering compelling story content in on line worlds. Players want to be players. I think this is the biggest reason that ultimately, until the tool and technology get better, audiences want us to entertain them.
System as Story
I have often heard that game system changes made after MMORPGs go live have more of a story impact than any story that the designers are telling. There is an idea that games consist of ‘story' (often defined in a limited way as what the NPC dialogues say) and a ‘game system', and they are somehow separate. This is absolutely false. Every single thing the player experiences as he plays the game goes through the big sifter in his head and comes out as the game universe. System is Story. To use this fact, game designers have to be willing to make systemic decisions that are aware of and support the story, as well as the story being used to support the game system. Right now, story tends to be the blacktop that is laid down last to cover all the potholes the game system has left in its wake. This encourages the creation of stories that don't make much sense. And remember, since every moving image a player sees and every system a player interacts with tells story, if the script is done last, after the artwork, the odds are even greater that the game system will tell one story and the artwork will tell a different story and the poor designer/writer will be pulling their hair out trying to make it all fit together.
Page 2 of 3