Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meaningful Freedom (Part 3)

I discussed sandboxes the other day and I may have come across a little harshly in my assessment that they struggle to deliver a good story. My point was more that they deliver a story less successfully than non-sandbox games (hence the renaming of a few posts for those observant enough to notice). The thing is, this isn't actually a problem, as they're not necessarily designed to do so. They're meant to give you the feeling of a broad and "realistic" world, and not everything is connected in a real world. If it was, then the world would actually reveal itself more clearly as an artificial creation filled with more coincidences than you could poke a stick at. That said, what what if a sandbox could deliver a really great narrative?  What if you could have the freedom and the means to interact meaningfully with an enormous and vibrant game world?

I'm going to suggest that perhaps the only real viable avenue for this would be an MMO, as this would provide both the necessary revenue to fund the project (through the lucrative market of ongoing players), and the scope to provide deeper interaction through a continually expanding game world.  Of course, if we're then including choice and consequence, we have to deal with the problem of mutually exclusive realities to players in the same group - what if in an early quest, one player in a party spared an NPC, but the other killed them? Whose reality takes preference?

To kill or not to... cmon, it's a bad guy in front of a giant window!

More importantly, designers must face the unenviable task of making plot an integral part of the MMO gaming experience. Many (if not most) players are so focused on the challenge of the next encounter/quest or the promise of obtaining new items that the associated stories of quests fall by the wayside. As someone who played World of Warcraft for about 4 months (pre-Burning Crusade), I remember very little about the quests I was assigned. As I approached/reached level 60, I even *gasp* skipped dialogue - merely checking to see what I had to do in order to accomplish my goal so that I could get my reward or gain access to a new raid. This includes me skipping the final dialogue in the Onyxia attunement quest chain, because so much had been skipped while I was grouped with other players, and I had to be ready for the impending guild raid on her lair.

To this day, I have no clue what actually happened because the chain was so long. There was something about her arranging for the kidnapping of the king, being in league with some low level bandits you killed in an early instance, someone you helped with a summoning in a jungle near her lair, then she turned out to be the King's Advisor in disguise... I remember you ended up taking an item to someone on a high ledge after defeating a bunch of ice drakes and that person roundhouse kicked you across a continent into the middle of the plaguelands. Yes, I'm more than a little sketchy on the details, but I imagine there was ultimately an interesting tale in there.

Story? What story? Who cares anyway, we've got a dragon to slay!

This is coming from someone who read every single Codex/Journal entry in Dragon Age and Mass Effect 1 & 2, and gives every RPG exactly the same treatment. Yes, even The Witcher, which I'm not actually liking that much, I'm still reading everything. Actually, reading those descriptions is actually enjoyable - they're at least well written and give me the impression I'm in an interesting game world, even if I find the game itself somewhat tedious. Yes, that's how much I care about story and lore in my games.

So I'm not proud of my obsession level during my WoW days, but it proves that even the most ardent proponent of story and an interesting game world can be undone by the desire for "the next thing". I would love to see an MMORPG that actually is able to deliver story in a meaningful and important way in an RPG. I have hopes that The Old Republic may deliver in this regard. However, I do realise that content is quite expensive when it comes to making a game, and that I appreciate a backstory and lore more than most. I'm possibly asking for something that might not be commercially viable, but I'd like to think that such a game would gain a large and dedicated fanbase.

P.S. I'd happily issue an apology to Blizzard's writers for neglecting their writing efforts, and once again call for the plots of games to be written out in full in some place on the Internet. Seriously, this might be a sidetrack for this post, but I'd really love to have a website like that. Heck, I'd contribute to it if I thought others would appreciate it too.


  1. Good topic but regards to the opening remarks:

    I can't belive MMOs and meaninful choices/story are being brought up in the same sentence. How could anything have less meaningful choices and have less story when the world goes year without changing and everything you kill pops back up 15 minutes later. The plot never advances, the choices never matter (if they did players would quit when they found our their 3 year old character took a bad turn at the fork last week and be outraged). It's a treadmill, and frankly I'm a little disturbed how RPGs were the first target for a game that couldn't have less of an adventure experience if it tried.

  2. It hasn't been done. That's not to say that it can't be done, and that's the entire point of this post. Many RPGs have lots of combat that revolves around random encounters - why is that any less realistic than respawning boars in an MMO? I'd also argue the point that MMO worlds don't change. In the four months that I played WoW, there were some fairly significant events that occurred within the game world. Heck, the server I was on changed dramatically when a guild opened up a new raid area that caused major settlements around the world to be under attack for several days. And the new expansion Cataclysm promises to make major changes to existing areas. The world can't remain static in an MMO, else people wouldn't keep paying their money to play.

    As for someone quitting because they find their 3 year old character "took a bad turn" - it's not about making "wrong" choices, it's about making different choices. I'm going to go back to Alpha Protocol here, because that is something the game did very well. There were no "bad" choices - only different outcomes based on your decisions. For any one decision, you could see different benefits/drawbacks at different times within the game.

    I'm talking about pushing boundaries here and trying something different. Is it possible to entirely remove the concept of respawning boss raids? Maybe not. But imagine if you could have a MMO where your experience evolved and everyone's story turned out just a little bit differently. Just because it hasn't been done yet doesn't mean that an MMO can't offer this kind of experience.

    And remember, people's definition of what makes an RPG varies greatly... after all, some people's ideal RPG is in the style of Diablo.

  3. The amount of quests it takes to get to level 60 is so high it's almost impossible to care for any of the dialogue and story of the quests. It becomes more about vacuuming up every single quest you can find in hope of finally getting that carrot dangling in front of you. Only to have it replaced by another, more alluring, carrot. The leveling and the story that carries it would be more interesting if it was more condensed to perhaps 30% of what it is now. Most players spend the majority of their game time at max level anyway, the leveling shouldn't really serve as anything other than an introduction to the world and its mechanics. The writers (and the designers) can't really blame anyone for not paying attention to their quests. It seems they are very aware of this as well, as one of their quest-priorities in BC was to reduce the text. Leveling min-max length is always one of my concerns when setting my eyes on a new MMORPG (something I haven't done since WoW, as the majority of them haven't been anywhere near as good). The leveling tends to be outright garbage, an awful trite which just delays the "real" game. There's a limit to how many time you can disguise a kill/gather/message quest and keep it interesting, regardless of how many hours of voice acting you throw at it.

    Wrath of the Lich King utilized phasing a lot for its zones, a feature that will be even more important in Cataclysm. Phasing, to me, is an acceptable compromise between instancing and static worlds.