The first challenge any writer faces is creating a believable hero. Creating a storyline is certainly difficult; however, if the main character fails to be convincing or interesting, the storyline goes to waste. In the ever-evolving world of an MMO, it can be hard enough to build an exciting plot for players to follow, but when every player also plays the role of hero, the challenge to make main characters exciting is even harder. Players also face some interesting theoretical obstacles in their journey – willing or unwilling – to become heroes.
What type of heroes they become, however, is perhaps even more curious, as we take a starring role matched in no other form of modern entertainment.
It's obvious our characters are made purposefully for acts of heroism; we are driven to create them to do mighty deeds and heroics. The job of being a simple citizen, an average farmer or soldier or scholar, belongs to NPCs. However, authors create their main characters with the intent to make them heroes as well. It's a matter of whether these would-be heroes are born great in their background, or become great through their deeds. Many MMORPGs take the former approach: characters are spawned into a world where their name is known and they come from a legendary destiny (such as is found in AIKA). Here it is not so much the character, but rather the player, who must come into their own. The character already has the training necessary; it's the player who must learn to fill the greatness demanded of them. Others pit the character as a lowly peasant, serf, or soldier who rises through the ranks through their deeds via quests. It is rare that our characters begin as full-blown heroes, expected to do heroic things from the start.
So, what are these heroic deeds? In most media and cultures, these deeds represent a task that fulfills a few special criteria. It must be something that has either never been done before and will never be done again (slaying the mighty dragon), or something that is done on rare and momentous occasion. The mission must be given for the good of all, not the benefit of a few; often a mission of world impact rather than simply helping a local family. Finally, the mission must be nigh-impossible at its end: it must be a challenge so stupendous, the hero-to-be must be prepared for certain doom.
Alas, our individual heroes are not so well challenged by feats. While some tasks are rarely done, and therefore have some tone of heroism to them, they are not unique in the world. We may return weekly to slay the mighty dragon (when the instance resets), and as we exit the bandit's hideout, still wiping the blood off our sword, another hero is charging in to gut the leader (since he'll respawn soon enough). Often, our missions are also only of local importance; they hold relevance to the zone or a kingdom they encompass. While the world is certainly in danger from some great threat, there's little connection from the starting moment when we kill a few diseased forest animals to the time we walk into the throne room of a dark lord. The world is more filled with side quests than a main, epic storyline.
This, perhaps, is more a problem with building villainy: Our villains are removed, rarely connected to the small problems we're tasked with to build our experience as a hero. As for the challenge of facing the impossible, we all wait and long for those quests that truly feel challenging, not simply a “go fetch!” mechanic that drives us plodding forward. If villains are so cruel and dangerous, our heroes should feel their dark reach stretch its tendrils even to the farthest and most peaceful areas of the world; not only within a few miles.
A hero is not simply made of the tasks they embark on, however: attitude remains the key component. A hero is expected to act selflessly, without concern for reward; to act with virtue, honor, integrity; and to act with humility in accepting any praise for their deeds. Except, why do we do anything in game but for the rewards? We don't topple an evil empire out of the goodness of our hearts, but because it gives us an upgrade to the ring we've been wearing for the past 10 levels. We don't root out the banditry plaguing a kingdom because it's the right thing to do. We do it to get the mighty mace of smiting so we can deal more damage to the next thing that gets in our way. Plus, sometimes we get a shiny achievement we can boast about to our friends.
A hero, too, gains notoriety for their deeds from the population of the world. If a champion defeats the ignoble minotaur king and frees the kingdom, news travels fast. People from the next town over may have a general idea of who they are from the gossip at the local tavern, mill, brothel or what have you. With the disjointed nature of most zones in an MMO, however, what happens in one place stays in that one place. It does make sense, to a certain degree. If a game spans multiple continents, what one does on one may not echo to the others. However, if you're the savior of a hamlet, shouldn't the town to its south (which, of course, has its own share of problems we need to work on) at least welcome us instead of distrusting newcomers?
Therein lies the problem with most persistent MMORPGs. Players are supposed to be heroes, but our actions hardly seem thus. We're in it for the loot. We do it for the fame (or achievement points, those work too!). There's nothing we can do that can't be done by someone else. A lot of times, when we try and save the world, the world gets messed up anyway. Nothing is impossible, since content is designed to be cleared. We're simply mercenaries when the world around us expects us to be heroes. To be fair, that's a pretty nice life too.