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Building Foundations

The purpose of this blog is to provide an outlet for my perspectives and musings on MMORPGs and the industry.

Author: GeekDadMan

Story in an MMO

Posted by GeekDadMan Tuesday December 29 2009 at 4:15PM
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Everyone loves a good story. For many gamers, the story is what drew us in to RPGs. For others, the mechanics of the game hooked us; maybe it was the overall presentation. I think I can say with confidence, though, that the story has and always will be the crux of an RPG, especially in the area of MMOs.

Over the years, I've enjoyed engrossing myself in the lore of games. The story, to me, is the focal point, whether I'm following an arc or coming up with my own. The story gives me reason for doing what I do. That being said, I've taken the time to consider how critical the story in to an individual MMO and found that it revolves around several other factors.

The Focus of the MMO

Depending on what the game is designed for, the story may take a back seat in some MMOs, only being used to justify (sometimes weakly, at that) events or mechanics that appear within the game. Sometimes you don't need story to lure the player along. PvP games come to mind when I think of this. When all is said and done, you don't really need much justification to bash someone over the head with a mace aside from base desires (bragging rights, loot, etc.).

Although PvP is one element that can take the place of story as the focal point of the MMO, others can as well; even PvE (instanced raids, for example) can also detract from the story element if given the primary focus. Is this justified? Should others game elements be placed in the forefront to overshadow that upon which it is based? Personally, I say no.

The Story is King

I don't remember the developer who said this, but I'll paraphrase and say that the story is king when it comes to MMOs. The story and lore around it justifies the world in which we play. Everything else, I think, is secondary. Combat (PvE and PvP), crafting, exploration, NPCs, races and cultures, all hinge upon the solidity of the story.

Now, some of you may disagree with me for different reasons. I realize that others prefer more direct styles of game play, not caring or unwilling to endure lines of justifying text that fill out the context of the game world. To this I say that all other aspects of an MMO are important, especially to fulfill those short-term needs and desires you have when playing a game of this magnitude. The story though, if you haven't already guessed from my writing, holds a place that transcends game mechanics. It encompasses everything and fills in the spaces between game mechanics and gives them the fluffiness they need.

To give an analogy, think of a multi-layer cake. Each layer is solid and represents a polished aspect of the game. Combat, content, crafting, economy, exploration, housing, and many other layers comprise this cake, but these layers are just cake; there's no icing. The story of an MMO is like the icing. It's everywhere, filling in the space between the layers, containing different flavors according to where it is, and even giving that fancy filigree on top that makes you look at the entire thing and go, "Mmm, that's one good-looking cake."

Now that analogy isn't perfect, but I think it expresses how I feel about MMO story. Without the icing, you just have dry pieces of cake. To go one step further, you could say the icing holds the moisture inside the cake, keeping it fresh. I could go on and on, but you should have the idea.

Read Between the Layers

Some games out there have really cool features. Some have good PvP, others PvE, etc... After you engage in these nifty areas for a bit, the same content gets old. This is where story plays a second role just as important as the first. After laying down the groundwork and lore for the player to justify their role in the world, changes in the story give rise to the development of new content. It breaths new life into old areas, and gives the player the effect of being in a changing world.

This effect, in fact, is something I find as being a barrier that many MMO companies face. From what I have seen, most expansions simply add new areas and content that spreads out and away from the original world, leaving it to stagnate for the most part. If any readers could fill me in on MMOs that don't follow this trend, please let me know. The one obvious MMO breaking this mold is WoW with its Cataclysm expansion that claims will remake the old world. We'll see if the story matches up to the level of change it brings.

Cirros writes:

I think that the development and exposition of a story (or plot, if you'd prefer to call it that) is where a great number of MMOs most deviate from their RPG roots and from Dungeons & Dragons moreso. In a single-player RPG, the story was entirely necessary to the game and the very best ones had the power to cause stimulate a physical reaction from a player - good stories literally have the power to move people. I remember reading an article, long ago, in Electronic Gaming Monthly where one of the editors confessed to crying because of a particular moment in a game (one of the Final Fantasy games, if memory serves.)

Having something of a passion for fiction myself, I feel as though MMOs too often waste their potential for incredible storytelling. I think that an MMO can elicit, through its storytelling, the same profound feeling as an RPG or Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but with greater capacity for being shared with others. If an MMO can create a special storyline for an individual player, as Guild Wars 2 and SW: ToR promise to do, it can help involve the player more deeply with the world but also connect that player with whatever community he or she is part of. In games where storytelling isn't even the primary focus, players within guilds/clans/organizations/etc. already share stories about their favorite moments in the game - they may be of a particularly good bout of PvP, of overcoming a particularly difficult monster in the world, of crafting something after investing a great deal of time and effort. How much more connected, then, will a community be if they feel connected to the game-world itself and not merely the mechanics that exist within it?

Tue Dec 29 2009 11:05PM Report writes:
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