Does Lore Matter?
Before I get too far into the value of lore I should probably define it and propose some questions to think about while you dredge through my swamp of a column. When I say lore I don’t mean a backstory, almost every game needs a back story to create a setting or purpose. I’m talking about rich, complex, deep lore the likes of which Mark Jacobs (City State Entertainment President) and Max Porter (CSE writer) excel at creating for Camelot Unchained (CU). Do we need lore about why the CU world is magical or fragmented? Of course! Do we need deep lore about characters that may or may not even be in the game? In a PVP game where many of your players will ignore the lore and treat your game like its a FPS VS match no less? I have no doubt but it wasn’t always so. (que’s dreamy music with blurry fade out)
Back in my less thoughtful youth (aka back when I thought MMOs were only about ganking) I didn’t understand lore. I thought it was a waste of resources. I wasn’t playing MMORPGs to immerse myself, I was playing them to PVP! Besides, in every game I played I imagined some abstract (and usually nonsensical) Star Wars lore revision anyway. “Lore, HAH! That’s for the role play nerds to waste their time on, it’s not for the hardcore gamers like me!” I naively thought to myself...Oh youth.
As I aged I began to expand my fandom to things like books about my MMORPG. Shortly after I started to appreciate the lore a bit more, especially when I realized the depths some studios went to when tying the lore into the game. I was able to read the books then come back to the games and see things I’d seen 100 times in a new way because I understood the relevance and reasoning behind them. Lore was a way to grow a game beyond the box it came in (yes I still prefer boxes because old) and generate some supplemental income. It was cool but I was still sort of casual about it. Did it REALLY matter if a game had rich lore? I didn’t think so. I determined any generic story would suffice.
Upon reading combat designer Ben Pielstick’s class creation process in CU Newsletter #25 that thought was burned to the ground faster than a riverside Arthurian village the day Vikings first arrived. The value I assign to lore will forever be altered because of it.
“Though there have been a lot of changes on the technical side, the process for me as far as design goes still starts off with the lore, backstories, and class visions pieced together by Mark and Max, from which I try to derive a fundamental concept for how the experience of playing a given class should work.”
What I failed to realize before Ben dropped that mic bomb on me was it is in fact the lore that helps define not only the look of the world, but how the characters will play. How mechanics will be designed! I assumed meetings were held and classes A-Z were dreamt up by designers. I assumed they based them on past experiences in other games. I never imagined those classes might be dreamed up based on the setting of the lore then, after being designed, held to the confines of that lore to ensure everything in the game is copacetic. I was naive enough to think everyone just looked at a design doc and magically understood how to design everything to fit within the game’s universe.
Maybe all games don’t do that but after meditating on the subject (drinking beer) I now believe the most immersive ones do. By immersive I mean the ones that have that feel so many of us can recall but can’t articulate. Some of you might be kicking back thinking you still don’t care about immersion or a related game universe, you just want to fight! No problem! Now let’s add shotguns and ninjas to Camelot Unchained because they are cool! Ah, it’s the lore that says hell no. The lore is also the protector of a game’s universe.
Just like a good movie that sucks you in and makes hours feel like minutes, good lore pulls you deeper into combat and adds an intangible that makes some games more memorable than others. I dare say lore can make the mechanical gameplay better because it creates meaning behind your visuals. For example, a simple hammer swing suddenly holds gravity because you are a Viking and not only do Vikings LOVE their hammers but they have a slight bonus to using them because their lore said hammers are a special part of their culture. This resulted in them learning to wield hammers with greater proficiency than other races. Whether you realize it or not the lore is what made it a little extra thrilling to swing your super sweet looking hammer, oh and it’s possibly why it looks super sweet as well-not directly but through the artist it informed and directed.
I often talk about MMORPGs as layer cake (because cake is heaven in edible form). I used to think lore was a few sprinkles tossed on top to catch the eye of role players. Now I realize it isn’t just a thick layer, it’s one of the foundational layers! Once again I find myself assuming too much and being humbled by the journey that is crowd sourced game development. Opinion educated, perspective shifted, appreciation informed.