I wrote this essay in response to a lecture Chris Klug gave at the ETC regarding the Stargate MMO he was helping to design. The MMO has since been canceled due to lack of funding.
Gameplay-Driven Storytelling in MMOs
Developing content for MMORPGS (listed as MMOs in this essay) is a topic that has intrigued me ever since I interviewed with Cryptic for a design position working on City of Heroes a couple years ago. One of the questions that I was asked during the day-long interview/testing process revolved around creating missions and stories that would appeal to the hardcore MMO players who generally play MMOs to level up as quickly as possible and gain the most loot. One of the designers said that somewhere around 80% of their playerbase never read the mission description outside of the specific tasks they needed to complete. This problem of creating meaningful stories for these types of players, who often represent the majority of an MMO’s playerbase, is difficult and I think most MMO developers have not found an adequate solution to this problem.
Many developers seem content to continue to create missions that include detailed textual information about a story or supplementary information on the MMO’s virtual world and most players end up ignoring this information. I feel that many developers have not been able to implement a system that elegantly delivers a great story to all different player-types or, in a worst case scenario, they simply do not view this as a problem at all. However, I think that if a developer was able to make their players, or at least the majority of them, care about the story of their MMO, they would maintain a higher subscription/retention rate because players would naturally become more invested in the game. Assuming the story and world of their MMO is actually interesting and well-told, I think it is also natural to assume players would be more engaged in their MMO and, generally, have more fun playing the game if the story mattered to them.
Chris Klug’s recent lecture about storytelling in an MMO was focused on how to effectively tell stories in an MMO through gameplay and his approach tries to address these issues that I feel so many other developers are unable to solve. Although I think he is making great strides in this regard, I still think that his solution doesn’t fully address the problem since his solution seems to be more focused on framing MMO content in a novel manner rather than changing some crucial problems inherent to the structure of almost all modern MMOs.
Chris has helped design the Stargate MMO, Stargate Worlds, to focus on delivering the story of the game, and the background information of the MMO, through players’ actions rather than through a steady stream of text they are forced to read. He even expanded this design philosophy to include storytelling in videogames of all forms as it is mainly through taking actions that a player interacts with a videogame and, subsequently, advances the plot/story. In many respects, requiring the player to read text on the screen is making poor use of the medium itself and its unique attributes. He further explained how videogame stories should be structured more like a television show or a movie rather than a book or piece of literature as games/movies/television shows are more concerned with actions rather than descriptions.
I agree wholeheartedly with Chris’ thoughts on storytelling in videogames. Not only will the story resonate more strongly with the player as the player is the one making the actions in the game, but it also leverages the defining attribute of the medium (player interaction) as the primary storytelling device. I think that all videogame stories, or at least the videogames where a player’s desire to experience a specific story or explore a particular world is sufficiently important, should be crafted with this goal of tying interaction and story as tightly together as possible. It helps creates a more immersive and meaningful experience for the user on many levels and I think that Chris’ approach to designing the story for Stargate Worlds helps to solve one piece of the puzzle.
Chris’ approach boldly acknowledges the fact that most people do not read mission details that are not specifically related to a specific task the player is supposed to achieve. The only text that a player sees in regards to their current mission relates to exactly the action they need to take. The player is notified that they need to, for example, “take object A to position B” or “go to section C and kill X number of mobs”. If the player wants more details on the mission, they have to click into a different window to read about that mission. I think this is a great approach to tackling the problem, and makes certain headway in this area by concentrating the player’s attention on their actions and making it the focal point for their experience. However, hiding this additional story information from the player does not solve the problem unless the actions the players take are unique and visually descriptive to such an extent that the player is able to derive a fitting story on their own.
The danger inherent to utilizing this story methodology rests with a problem all MMOs face at one point or another: missions inevitably become repetitive. The majority of MMO missions involve the player traveling to certain locations, retrieving materials, killing a number of creatures, defeating a boss, or some combination of these actions. Although this is a slight oversimplification of all MMO missions, many, if not most, missions revolve around actions needed to complete these basic “hunt” or “fetch quest” missions. I think there is a great danger that the story the player will experience will be bland and generic if these are the main types of actions that a player is asked to complete.
I asked Chris about this danger in class and while he acknowledged it as a problem, the only idea he mentioned concerning ways in which the team is combating this danger is to force players to experience short cut-scenes at different moments in the game. While the cut-scenes are better storytelling devices than forcing a player to read text, they ultimately fail at delivering story through interaction as they are wholly passive experiences. In my mind, the only way to truly create meaningful story through actions is to make the actions the player undertakes as unique and meaningful as possible.
Although I readily admit this is much easier to do in an offline game that does not require a subscription fee (and, hence, a large amount of replayability), I still think that MMOs could greatly benefit from a more diverse set of missions that players are allowed to accomplish. Throughout Chris’ talk he did not mention any examples of these missions and we did not get a chance to talk about the game’s specific missions in great length so I can’t truly judge whether or not this is something he is focusing on. However, the missions he did mention in passing were grounded in common mission types most MMOs employ and I was surprised that he did not talk about the importance of creating interesting/unique actions for the players to take.
In my mind, creating an MMO where players can complete missions that involve specific tasks that break out of the traditional MMO mission format is of the utmost importance to tying gameplay and story together. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, although rife with these bland types of missions, has made some headway with their newest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Players complete certain missions where they are riding mythical creatures or changing the entire appearance of the landscape. Their actions and the changes that happen within the context of the virtual world are meaningful because they are different, unique, and actual seem to make a difference.
I believe that while it is difficult to think of missions or actions that break this tradition, it is a worthwhile task that all MMO designers need to take seriously. I feel that the answer lies in utilizing all of the elements available to the videogame medium. Most MMOs simply require people to make a few button clicks to take some type of action within the game. If more of these actions required contextually relevant motion controls (IE moving the mouse in a rhythmic motion to play an instrument, or even clicking and dragging the mouse downwards to pull a lever) I think that it would help the player become more immersed in the world. Thinking about innovative mission structures within MMOs is not only of paramount importance to designers of these worlds, but it is also a great exercise for any game designer to undertake given the difficulty of working within these constraints. In my own thoughts on the matter, I have found that attempting to utilize many different aspects inherent to the videogame medium helps me brainstorm better actions or missions for an MMO.
For example, players could be sent into an endless desert maze where they had to rely on sound to figure their way out (IE a certain song or sound could increase in volume the closer they moved towards their ultimate destination). This maze could be procedurally generated so that it was different for most players and this example is just one way in which designers could focus on generating story through interesting sound design. Even creating a more nuanced “kill a specific number of creatures” mission could help bring story and gameplay closer together. Instead of asking players to go into a hallway and kill some guards, they could be asked to kill them in such a way that makes their blood run down all of the walls to break a wizard’s spell or create some other interesting completion requirement. In many ways, it is also equally important to make sure that the visual elements of each mission offer something new or unique to a player. Optimally, the control mechanisms, audio, and visual elements of a story would work together to create varying gameplay that does not become repetitive and allows the player to easily create his own understanding of the story without the need of text or cut scenes.
Designing missions with actions that are distinct and unique enough to convey a good story (or at least one that isn’t generic) is still a major difficulty and hurdle MMO developers face. I would love to see MMO developers publicly address this problem in as many venues as possible (interviews, previews, conference papers, tutorials, etc.) because, although I think it is a greater problem in the MMO genre due to its economic reliance on replayability, it is an issue all videogame developers face at one time or another. It is definitely a concept I will continue to pursue for many years as I feel that it is not only a fascinating design problem but also an issue that MMO developers will probably face for a long time.