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BadSpock's Logical Conclusions.

My random thoughts about MMORPGs. A bit of critique, suggestion, debate, and insanity. Enjoy.

Author: BadSpock

A new way forward - Some ideas for future generation MMOs - Part 1: Story

Posted by BadSpock Monday March 21 2011 at 10:57AM
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*Warning* This is going to be a really long post. I am going to try and divide it into sections and color-highlight for easier skimming. This will be the first in a series so they are not too ridiculously long.
If you read the entire series, I earnestly applaud you!
As always, please leave your comments! Always happy to debate/discuss with my fellow forumites!
Everyone believes they could be a developer. We all think we have these amazing and impressive ideas, and if only the real developers would listen to us, they'd have a sure fire hit on their hands.
This is likely false. Most of the time, we create ideas that we'd personally love to see implemented, but for a variety of reasons would not actually work in a "real" game or would not be as cool and popular as we may day dream it to be.
It’s technologically impossible, not economically viable, or just plain bad-design; these types of posts are more often than not an exercise in futility.
So why do it?
Boredom, free time... no just kidding (kind of) for the most part, it is ALWAYS good to share ideas and have discussions in order to really expand on what could possibly be achieved in a video game.
This is our cocktail napkin, our white board, and our sketch pad... many great games start as an idea scribbled frantically on a note pad or recorded from a half-remembered dream.
These are my mad ranting’s, the whims of a man who has played far too many MMO titles for far too many years.
Please read and if you so desire, leave a comment!
I was going to write up a lot of basic MMO stuff, but honestly, if ya’ll are here reading this you probably already know this information – so instead I’m going to touch in the various parts of a MMO that I feel really are in need of improvement and innovation and offer my own hair-brained ideas as to possible ways to do so that I’d like to see implemented somehow, somewhere, in my magical dream world :) and today we’ll start the first post in this series with Story.
1. Story
The Problem-
Story, in various forms, has been tied to the very core of the MMO experience for the entirety of this genre’s life span. Story is a core tenant of the RPG model and why? It’s an essential part of the Hero’s Journey story-telling mechanic at the very heart of all great RPG stories.
In many ways we are limited in how we can represent this journey, this rise to power and glory in the medium of video games. This is a very key point. Story can be used as a vessel for this journey, and is used most industriously in single player RPG titles.
But how can that apply to MMO titles? You cannot create a wholly unique story for tens of thousands, if not millions of unique players. Generalization and repetition are required, plain and simple. With enough resources and time, you can create great variety within these stories, as Bioware is attempting (and will likely succeed) at doing with SW: TOR, but a totally personalized and unique story, hand crafted by the developers, for each individual player in a MMO is impossible.
So we thus see the great flaw in using Story is a pillar of MMO progression – no matter what you do, how much variety and customization you bring, a developer crafted story will never be truly unique.
To some, it’s easy to brush of the ridiculousness of this story and simply go about their play, enjoying what the developers have offered them. But to some of us, we want more. We feel the genre deserves more, that this is NOT at all MMO and is far too RPG.
The Solution-
MMOs need to completely abandon this idea that every player is a special and unique hero.
It’s something that I believe it completely tied to the Western / American “everyone is special and a winner” mentality. There already exists a volume of games dedicated to making you, the player the star of the show. Every single-player game, campaigns of FPS titles, pretty much every non-multiplayer related game activity.
I think that gives people PLENTY of good gaming choices for taking on the role of the hero/savior/champion.
The player in a MMO needs to be a cog in the great machine, a part of the story of the world but not the sole focus of it.
As such, quests in their current form need to disappear completely. Why were quests added to MMOs in the first place? To mask the progression grind by giving players something to do, something to read, something to speed up their journey from lowly novice to experienced veteran.
Now, after more than six years of quest driven game play in a multitude of titles, the quests themselves have become the grind due to their complete and total lack of unique story and impact on our characters and the game world.
Guild Wars 2 is trying, offering instead hundreds of events for players to participate in that are chained together with different possible branching paths to have an impact on the world. As great as they sound, at the end of the day, they are still sequential events with a predictable and repeatable effect on the game world. A step in the right direction? Yes, definitely. Truly dynamic? Not even close.
The only way to do a truly unique and dynamic story in a MMO is by creating intelligent enemy and friendly factions, run by a kind of “Overlord” Artificial Intelligence capable of limited decision making based upon the conditions of the game world.
Does this Overlord AI sound like science fiction? It’s really not. There already are games like the Left for Dead series that use an intelligent overlord AI (I believe they call it “The Director”) to change the conditions of the game play dynamically, on the fly, in response to player actions including what path(s) they take and how skillfully they are performing.
Tabula Rasa and Rift had/have very limited Overlord AI functionality. In TR, the enemy faction of the Bane would attack outposts controlled by friendly NPC factions/players in order to take control of them.
In Rift, the number and severity of Rift spawns as well as invasions, including their targets of attack, is based upon player population in a given area.
While this is all well and good, and creates some level of dynamic story and content, these systems are still only part of the experience that was/is unfortunately coupled with static, developer written, linear quest-driven story lines with no impact on the world.
The first step is to apply a Overlord AI to both enemy and friendly factions, coupled with a TR/UO factions style territorial control system, in order to have the NPCs and monsters active participants in the everchanging story of the game world.
This war between NPC factions should be able to run completely without any input or interaction from players or developers. NPC factions choosing to attack and defend various points in the game world all on their own by analyzing the data available to their decision making engines.
However, forever in a perpetual stale mate with no side ever truly dominating the other without the interaction and involvement of the player population to tip the balance. Like the systems in Rift and L4D, these AI would automatically adjust their tactics and responses based upon player population, involvement, and skill in a particular region.
But that’s still not enough. An every changing, ever shifting war for control of the game world between players and their NPC allies and the ever present threat from an enemy faction is a good start, but it still creates a system where players have to then go out and find the action with little to no guidance from the game to say “hey, something cool happening over here, you should go check it out!” which is essentially what standard MMO quests do in the first place.
So the AI needs to be able to create quests/missions on the fly for players to undertake based upon the current conditions in the game world.
What kind of quests do we see in MMOs? Go kill that, go collect this, go here and talk to X, escort Y, go explore/travel to Z. That’s about it.
But wouldn’t it be more interesting if the assignments of these quests actually had some relevance and an impact on the world? And if they are not just totally randomized Mission Generators like we see in some MMOs.
Only way I can really describe what I’m thinking it with examples.
Enemy faction AI decides that a nearby outpost of the Friendly faction AI is high on its list of priorities to launch an attack to capture control of. Enemy faction AI sends out a NPC scouting group to assess enemy strength in the area in order to provide more information for the decision making engine to calculate.
Friendly faction AI sends out a NPC scouting patrol to an area of the game world where its decision making engine tells it that there are likely units from the enemy faction present.
You can cheat a bit here. The AIs would know what each other is doing in order to artificially create scenarios in which to get players involved.
Two sides of NPCs meet up and start fighting each other.
Friendly faction AI creates quests to “assist units under fire” and transmits notification to players in the area. Mission request kind of thing. Either the AI can “push” this quest down to players nearby for them to choose to accept or not, or players can request a mission and the AI will have this objective queued up for them.
Outcome dependent, if enough players agree to quest and head out, have to be time sensitive, rush out and defeat the enemy faction and save the friendly forces then enemy faction responds by sending out a stronger assault force via drop ship or something to try and accomplish its objective.
Failure again and this storyline ends for the moment. Enemy defeats players and friendly AI, enemy sends more troops.
If victory for players, storyline ends with friendly forces saved. If loss, new quest created by friendly AI to “eliminate enemy force that wiped out one of our units” etc.
Players don’t choose to help out, or those that do accept fail to save the friendly forces, friendly force is eliminated, friendly AI creates quest to “investigate why our squad isn’t checking in – last known coordinates are” etc.
See where I am going with this?
Is it possible? I am not sure. At all.
Individual quests pushed out and/or made available to players based off the current conditions of the area they are in. Population dependent, either solo or cooperative efforts without restriction.
Ad hoc grouping, meaningful interaction with the game world. The same types of limited quest objectives that our technology and game play currently allows for, but with actual impact on the game world and created dynamically for players on the fly based on real in-game conditions.

What do you think?
Imagine the possibilities for a moment.
Massive raid encounters created dynamically on the fly for nearby players. Sieges / defensive stands created for players in response to over-arching territorial control objectives.
Would work both ways too – group of players begin assault on enemy fortification, friendly AI sends in support NPC units and such to assist their efforts. Enemy AI calls in reinforcements to try and stop their base from falling etc.
Scouting / exploration missions created on the fly that know where you haven’t been yet, knows what’s there waiting for you, and strings into additional objectives for not only you but for everyone on the server in the area.
Assault/defend/patrol/capture etc. quest objectives that actually change the game world. A lasting impact by you, the players. Truly ad hoc grouping / cooperative mechanics as quests will be pushed out/made available to varied number of players based on acceptance rates, population, with AI responding to player involvement with appropriate strength for challenge and fun.
This type of system would have to be paired with a character system that didn’t limit players to specific roles or archetypes thus requiring certain roles for proper group cohesion. “Bring the player not the class” if you will.
Also would require a very limited progression curve so that players weren’t divided and segregated into “high level” and “low level” zones etc.
Would require a combat system focused on situational awareness and tactics, ad hoc on-the-fly cooperation and coordination, not damage meters and the holy trinity in rigid group roles performing choreographed danced routines.
But, details on all that to follow in the next entries in the series…