I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Pretty much every big game on deck over the next year or more is promoting itself as having a tremendous story to go along with all the other MMORPG trappings. Star Wars is doing it, The Secret World is doing it, and even Guild Wars 2 is focusing a lot on voice and unique presentation. Heck, 38 Studios hired one of the most well-known and revered fantasy authors of our time to create the world and shape the lore for its game. It seems like everybody and their mother jumped on the ship once BioWare claimed that story was the piece of the puzzle missing from MMORPGs. But here’s the question: do we really need stories in our worlds? Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who make the stories?
On one hand, I think we really should be focusing on stories in our MMORPGs.
My reasoning is pretty simple. I do consider myself a fan of player-made content, but I’d much rather see it made in the form of Dungeon Masters than a bunch of people organizing a get together in a town square. I like to be part of a story, and I feel that’s better achieved in a game when there’s more to the story than reading a quest, clicking accept and going off to kill ten diseased deer for the hippies of the local village. Adding in full voiceover work, more meaningful quest mechanics and goals, and playing up the drama of a situation will do a whole hell of a lot more for story than running from hub to hub clicking exclamation marks.
I also want to care about my character, but also the characters around me. It’s really hard to do this if all I ever do to interact with NPCs is click their face and scroll through some text. Having a company pay attention to detail and go to the trouble of animations, voices, and stories can really add a very nice layer of immersion to a game. I’ll feel a whole lot better about helping those hippies mentioned previously for example…if that hippy comes to me with a tear in their eye and Tommy Chong’s voice.
On the other hand, I’m not 100% convinced that we need more story in our MMORPGs.
The flipside of the coin is that we as players should be creating and driving the content in our virtual worlds. Maybe it’s a matter of theme-park versus sandbox, but in “ye olden days” of Ultima Online the stories were created and told by the players through events run on a nightly basis. The adventures, the people, the whole world was all about what we did as a whole. We didn’t need our hands held, plates of cookies laid out with warm milk before bedtime. We just made things happen ourselves. Part of me longs for those days to come back, but then I remember that I’m lucky to get ten hours a week to play any game at all. And then I’m glad that someone out there is making an MMORPG with a distinct and wide-ranging story for me to fall into on my own time.
In the end, I can’t come to a conclusion on whether we need stories to be the focal point of MMORPGs or not. I think what I can resolutely say though is that the stories we’ve seen so far have been subpar in most cases, and the future of motion-capture, voiceover, and sweeping arcs is something I can get behind. But once I’ve played through all those tales, you’d better still have another reason for me to keep playing or I’m off to the next “playable novel”.