Implementing Stories in Massively Multiplayer Games
September 16, 2002 Page 3 of 3
The Benefits of Telling Stories in a MMOG
An Audience that stays tuned in. There isn't a single customer of a MMORPG game that wasn't raised on TV. We're bred to understand that every Monday night at 10 or every Thursday night at 8 there's gonna be a new episode of our favorite show. We're wired this way. TV advertising execs know this very well, because whenever a show goes on break, or delays episodes because of the Olympics or sweeps month, the networks go out of their way to tell their viewers "Hey! We know you've gotten tired of the re-runs. Well, guess what? Blah Blah shows has new New NEW episodes starting next week." Why do they have to blare that stuff as loud as they do? Because they know that you've probably gotten out of the habit of watching your favorite show due to all the reruns lately, and they have to capture your attention span back. Now, with TiVo and all the other services, this habit forming nature of the TV business might change, but I doubt it will change demonstrably anytime soon. So, our/their audience expects to get regular updates to their stories and be told well in advance in a very loud voice when this update is going to happen. Our audience is ready and willing to go along with us on that ride; we just have to let them know we're gonna go there. So, if we deliver changing content that wraps itself in conflict, and do so on a regularly scheduled basis, we're playing to our audience's expectations.
Advertising campaigns. Advertising can be centered around game-world events. Okay, so after a MMORPG ships, how do marketing gurus build a successful campaign to increase market share? I mean, with typical box product, the campaign is all about targeting that first month a product is on the shelf, because we all know in this business that at the end of that first month, the ultimate success of the product is gonna be pretty well known. However, if the game's story is changing every month, and those changes really mean something, and they are dramatic enough that gamers will care about those changes, then marketing can advertise them just like TV shows ("Join us when the Romulans try to take back 61 Cygni! Will Kirk be able to stop them this time?") And, now the kicker: in an interactive gaming environment, marketing can add this to the pot: "Will you help Kirk or hinder him? Come play with us this Friday 9pm Eastern Time when the Romulan offensive begins." Now, that could be leveraged only in a gaming environment and one where players cared about the story.
Emotional content. When you start doing stories in games like this, you begin to work off of a story model known very well to advertisers: The Soap Opera. The Soap Opera works like this: you establish characters viewers care about, and then you add a tablespoon full of villains who oppose those characters, and you reveal a little of the story every day, gradually hooking the audience into ‘needing' to watch to see what is happening to their ‘friends' in this factional place. The Soap Opera formula works well, and has worked for a long time. Fiction serials in magazines used the same formula. A current best-selling fantasy series heading into its ninth or tenth novel uses this exact model to facilitate its success. One key to the Soap Opera model is getting the audience to care about the characters, and then manipulating the hell out of that audience (taking them for that emotional roller coaster ride) which is exactly what they want you to do. Attention, game publishers: notice the word ‘emotional' in the sentence above. To engage people emotionally, you must present them with content that stirs their emotions. All this depends on delivering emotional content. Games need to get up to speed on delivering emotional content, because many people in the game biz don't know how to do this; we tend to avoid the issues of emotion in games. But that's a different article.
Long-term audience retention. Once you've hooked the audience emtionally, if you know how to manipulate them in the right way, you can keep and grow that audience for a long time. And, creating long-term subscribers is what this business model is all about. Again, look at Soap Operas.
Opening up the marketplace. The gaming business has long talked about attracting non-gamers (alternately described as getting ‘normal' people interested in games). The typical TV watcher and/or movie-goer wants to go for an emotional ride. That means putting emotional content into the product so non-gamers can see what is in it for them. Everyone understands story. Only gamers really understand games. Story is a way to bridge that gap.
Soften the hard edge of gaming. To attract these new audience members, we have to present a face of gaming that isn't so competitive. There are many 40-ish potential gamers who don't think that battling against 15-year old joystick jockeys is a fruitful use of an evening. But if the game was less threatening, they might be interesting in joining in. Story isn't as threatening as combat is.
Making the Story Work in MMORPGs
How do we start marking the story work in MMORPGs? First, by treating the script like it was a movie or a TV show. Aim for high quality. Write the script before you design all the systems. Use story as the glue to hold everything together. Design systems that support that story, instead of writing a story that somehow acts as the glue that justifies and holds together disparate game systems. This process is ultimately cheaper, because a script is very inexpensive to develop as opposed to a game prototype.
Hire real writers. The game industry seems to define writers as "the people you bring in to write dialogue for characters and stories that the game designer has created." If you try and deliver emotional content (see above), well, that's what writers are trained to do, so maybe we can learn something from them. Writers don't need to understand the game business if they are paired up with a talented designer to act as their guide. They add a great deal to the overall project. Just bring them in early. Hire good ones. The really smart ones are beginning to understand interactive more and more. Yes, for a development environment that isn't used to that financial line item, they might look expensive. But, do you want a game that just sits there like a pancake or do you want a game that people care about? If you want the latter, hire a good writer.
Budget for a talented live team. Assuming you now understand that telling a story in a MMORPG live environment is worth doing, take a different look at the composition and role of your live team. Remember, from points raised above, you're going to need to deliver a changing world that uses dramatic structure to deliver conflict to the players. Instead of looking at the live team as a stable of second-class designers, programmers and artists (because, after all, the first-class team members have already moved onto other projects as leads, right? Who wants to work on the live team, after all?) treat them instead as if they were first-class talent in a broadcast environment. Ultimately, I believe the success of any MMORPG will be based on how well the live team reacts to and treats the audience. That means keeping your stars on board for a while after you go live. And these people need to really be talent: writers, actors, designers, programmers, artists: people who understand broadcast entertainment delivery. Because that's what you're doing, broadcasting to an audience.
Design tools that serve the live process, not just the build process. The toolset used to create static games isn't necessarily what you need for ongoing changing story. You need to track the game's bible (what's been told in the story, what hasn't, who talked about it, what art assets were used, what changed, how the players reacted to it etc.). You need someone with broadcast experience to begin to create this kind of toolset.
In 10 years, we will be in the same space competing for the same time and dollars as TV. Either they will move into our space or we will move into theirs. Whoever makes the move first and with conviction will dominate the following decade of broadcast entertainment. Games can do it, but we have to take ourselves as story tellers seriously. Let's start today.
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