As the Lead Writer for an MMO, I used to secretly envy those lucky people that got to write for single-player games. They have it so easy, I thought to myself. They've only got one player in their game, and they can make the whole game world revolve around that player. Good luck trying to make a player feel like the main character of the story when there are dozens of other main characters of the story all standing around the same quest giver, merchant or respawn point. Even better, those single-player game writers can immerse their players completely in the setting. You won't see a lot of characters with names like "King Smackahoe" or "UncleOwenzjoo" or "D33znutz" spoiling the mood in your game of Final Fantasy XIII or Mass Effect 2.
But you know, writing for an MMO isn't really so bad. In fact, there are challenges and rewards that are utterly unique to the genre.
WAR! What is it good for? MMOs!
It's no coincidence that so many MMOs focus on large-scale factional conflicts. War means armies, and armies provide a very logical (and convenient) way to organize massive groups of players. This is why so many of the backstories in today's crop of MMOs include some kind of major conflict as a kicking-off point.
These kinds of conflicts also supply the writer with a ready enemy and lots of material to turn into quests and missions. Sure, you might not feel like much of a hero when you're asked to deliver supplies out to a besieged outpost or to patrol for enemy foot soldiers, but at least these activities fit the context. Context is good, because it builds immersion, and immersion is that elusive prize that every game writer (and every kind of developer, for that matter) is trying to win. Creating a world and a story compelling and believable enough to make the player want to come back again and again is really the ultimate goal of the MMO writer, and in this sense, we're not that different a breed from our single-player game counterparts.
As most modern MMOs are based on some form of linear character progression, a war against a large and powerful enemy faction provides a ready supply of increasingly difficult bad guys to fight. In the beginning, when the player characters are less powerful, you can create stories that pit them against the front-line grunts of the opposing force. As the characters grow in ability and prestige, they can do battle with the mid-level commanders or special forces. When the heroes have reached the pinnacle of their powers, they might even go head-to-head with the enemy leader in a climactic battle (hopefully with some really good loot!)
Of course, not every MMO has taken this approach. Some games have done just fine without it, but in terms of creating a story structure and believable premise for a massively multiplayer game, an epic war is tough to beat.
The Massively Single-player Online Game
So, you've got a story framework that can logically and believably explain the presence of vast numbers of heroic players. Good job. Unfortunately, that was the easy part. The hard part is what comes next.
You see, even though you have thousands, or maybe tens of thousands, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of players inhabiting your world, all of them still experience the game from a single point of view. It will probably come as no surprise to you that every one of these players wants to feel special and important.
Here's an analogy that any Community Manager can probably appreciate. Imagine an impossibly vast nursery, filled with half a million cribs. Within each one is a small child who really needs a hug and a bottle of warm milk and their favorite stuffed animal. Now imagine that it's your job, and yours alone, to make sure that every one of the tots is cared for, loved and fed. How do you manage such a daunting task? Well, you pick up each child in turn, give them a squeeze, and tell them that they're the best and most special child of all. It's what we writers call a conceit, and in the MMO space, a little conceit goes a long way.
It is this conceit that allows the writer to achieve the difficult balance of making each individual player an important part of the story, despite being surrounded by so many other players. Sure, you belong to an army of thousands, but YOU are the chosen one. YOU are the Hero of Destiny. And of course, this also means that YOU are the one who has to do all the work. Every quest you undertake requires YOU (and maybe a few of your closest friends) to defeat some vile nemesis, counter some insidious threat, and basically save the day (again). The good news? YOU also get to claim all of the rewards for those herculean labors.
As your character levels up, the tasks get tougher. First, you were the only one who could save the town. Now you're the only one who can save the entire kingdom! But wait a sec... can't we just throw this entire army of ten thousand players at Sauron? Can't we just get all seven hundred and eighty-one Jedi on the server to go and take on Darth Vader at the same time?
Because YOU have to do it. Because YOU are the special and unique Hero of Destiny.
Just like everyone else.