Single Player Stories in MMOs
Tobold says that implementing a single-player RPG like storyline into an MMO would be a huge mistake and predicts that Bioware are running straight into that trap with their upcoming The Old Republic MMO. The main difference, or so he says, between a single player game and an MMO is that single player games end while MMOs don’t. But that isn’t really true for story, is it now?
Admittedly, story is added to the game in patches and or expansions in MMOs, but the same happens in single player games, books, movies, etc. Assuming therefore the state of an MMO as it is without taking into account further expansions, we can easily see that there is a limited amount of story in the game and usually a definite ending to it. Once Arthas is dead, the story of Wrath of the Lich King is at an end just as Dragon Age: Origins ends with the death of the archdemon.
No, the issue with story in MMORPGs isn’t the lack of an ending to the game. Alas, there are quite a few other issues to overcome. One is that MMOs are built to keep the player actively playing for much longer than single player games and telling a single story over such an extended amount of time is almost impossible. Even when we look at single player RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 we can see that their main story isn’t very long. The depth of those games comes from the small interlude missions in between the fragments of the main story. This is how MMOs could approach the whole problem as well, and some try to do just that, in fact. The story of the Lich King follows World of Warcraft players throughout the latest expansion – in bits and pieces, filled by unrelated missions.
Those filler missions suck though, as does the presentation of the main storyline. Most missions you’ll find in modern MMORPGs can be completed within minutes. They contain one simple task that has to be performed, i.e. killing a certain amount of enemies or transporting an item somewhere else. This doesn’t make for exciting storytelling at all. There are some well done, enjoyable, quests in MMORPGs, but those are far and in between. Remove the unnecessary dribble and add more of the good stuff and you could get a decent story structure into MMOs.
But, you say, companies can’t possibly create that many good quests! Look at Dragon Age: Origins, they used pretty much every clichéd fantasy story there is and that game had way fewer quests than, say, WoW. The thing here is, that there really is no need for there to be that many quests in an MMO if the few quests you have are well done instead. Why does the hunt for a famous ogre’s head have to be a matter of slaughtering your way into a cave for ten minutes, roflstomping the poor ogre, and leaving again? If well done, this could be an exciting, two hour long adventure. With good quest design like that, you could easily slash a zero off of your number of quests without losing any playtime at all. That in return means that designers will have ten times the amount of time available to them to actually make those quests. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that could greatly increase the gaming experience without actually costing a lot more money to make.
Another big issue with MMO quests that somehow ties into this one is that of accepting multiple quests at a time. You all know the process of visiting a new quest hub, collecting all available quests, then circling around the hub completing all quests and turning them back in. It is no wonder that this style of gameplay doesn’t lend itself to good storytelling. Who can keep up with ten storylines at once? What does it do to immersion when the quest text urges me t save someone’s daughter from great peril but I decide to go and pick a rare flower first in order to min-max my travel time? I’m not proposing to limit players to one quest at a time, but rather to steer the story in such a way that players never get into that situation in the first place. If I get into a new town there should be one single problem that needs taking care of at first. The player might then be approached by an NPC that overheard where you’re going and asked to take care of some errand or another on the way, but there shouldn’t be a ton of disconnected quests available all at once.
One last thing I’ll address today is the delivery of the story. Quest text is a terrible solution and needs to be purged from the world of gaming sooner better than later. Nobody reads quest text. Don’t give us long monologues either, even if they use voice-over and video. No, make all the dialogue into actual dialogue where NPCs say something and players actually answer. Players will read/listen to short bits of dialogue that require their response or are at least far more likely to do so than to read the walls of text MMOs throw at us. This ties into the better quest design I asked for above. Don’t have some intern cranking out twenty quests a day; instead put some work into making fewer quests so good that players will actually care for their story.
All this doesn’t mean that it will be easy to make an MMO with single-player quality storytelling, but I don’t think it’s as impossible or foolish as Tobold wants us to believe. Please don’t disappoint me Bioware. Please.