Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I’m going to raise a bunch of issues here. Fair warning, I won’t be providing the solutions by the end of the article… or all at once. But there are a number of intertwined problems in basing next-generation MMOs on current-generation MMOs, and I need to dump those all on the table before I get around to figuring out where we need to go next.

First, the angry bit

It hasn’t been a good week for quests. First, Justin Achilli proposed we get rid of NPCs and questing. Then, Guild Wars 2 announced that they’re going to get rid of quests entirely.

As a professional content designer, whose livelihood at times depends on MMOs having quests, I have to say… I agree.

If you allow for the fact that a lot of people want to play World of Warcraft, and that I don’t want to take World of Warcraft away from them, then I’m 100% on board with getting rid of quest-giving NPCs.

Quests are a useful game mechanic that most games use to add a little bit of context to standard play activities. When you log in to kill things and take their stuff, the quest suggests which things you should kill, and offers you a little bit of extra stuff for taking the suggestion.

Since, for some reason, it’s not okay for our genocidal medieval combat squads to get their orders directly from God, we have quest-givers. These handily-marked1 NPCs provide a front end for the quest system, and attempt to put a friendly face on it.

Way back when, with EverQuest (and to a lesser extent, Ultima Online), quests were there mainly to help you find your way at the start of the game. Then you made friends and started doing your grinding with them, exploring new regions and killing new things and taking new stuff.

I have no real objection to quest-givers as the video game equivalents of the guy at a Ren Fest who tells you that you should really try the Drench-a-Wench. Where they fall down is when they become the custodians of Story.


Now, all of a sudden, it isn’t just a guy telling you he wishes you’d roust the underserved minorities off his farm and offering you a pair of boots in exchange. It’s about Heroism and Lore and the story the developers want to tell you.

And the story the developers want to tell you is about a bunch of NPCs and their Epic Conflict (which, even though the NPCs never do anything about it, is Epic, trust us). Usually, this involves WAR! and 15,000 years of backstory. And probably some shit about gods. Especially dark gods. MMO devs really fucking love Zoroastrianism.

You know what this story isn’t about? You. It’s not about your little guy, the one you spent so much time finding a name that wasn’t already taken for. If you’re playing the nicer sort of MMO, he might get called a hero from time to time, but nobody’s going to throw a party for him or do anything to make his life easier.

No, instead they’re going to cram more Story at you and tell you it’s vitally important to the fate of These War-Sundered Lands that he march up a hill and ride Pirates of the Carribean.

I mean, can you imagine if actual theme parks were like that? If you walked into Disney and every costumed character was jumping up and down waving a glowstick telling you how vitally important it was that you preserve DisneyWorld’s Forty Years of Magic by going on their particular ride right now?

Sure, the rides are fun. They’re great. I like the really old ones about the future, especially. But at Disney, they give you a little brochure and let you wander around the park yourself.

Funny thing is, though, they don’t abandon you. Walk around Epcot. The design of the space tells you where you should and shouldn’t go, suggests possible activities, and so on. And you absorb a lot of narrative as you navigate the space. Discrete plaques and displays tell you little factoids about the history of the park and the various countries it alleges to represent.

The Story, in other words, is embedded in the navigational experience. Seems to me we had a word for that the other day… oh, yeah, environmental narrative.

If there’s a war on (and it’s an MMO, so of course there’s a war on), you should be able to see it. And if you can see it, it shouldn’t be necessary to present fake reasons to get involved.

What if they gave a war, and nobody came?

Mm, yes, that’s a problem. Because for all the talk of Epic War and A World on the Edge of Total Darkness that MMO developers are so very, very precious about, most of the actual warfare comes down to watered-down PvP systems which largely don’t affect the rest of the game. I can at least say in EVE Online, players send their characters to war for reasons that matter to them, and that have a defining effect on the game’s landscape.

Which is great except that very few people actually like Epic War and grand strategy and military logistics, and most of them already play EVE Online. We’re not going to redefine the genre by cloning EVE anymore than anybody’s doing it by cloning WoW.

And that’s when the war is a real conflict, fought over definable resources, with long-term effects on gameplay. In most games, it’s just a couple of catapults and some instanced capture the flag.

Where next?

The thing about an environmental narrative designed for a couple thousand people is that it has very little to say about your individual choices. Even when the landscape’s a dynamic place of exploding spaceships and scarce resources, the little guy tends to get lost. And the rule of MMOs is that, statistically speaking, you will be the little guy. Or rather, your little guy will be the little guy. Or something.

But that’s okay. Because when I next visit this topic, we’re going to talk about an important component of  MMO narrative… and surprise, surprise, it’s not about quests at all. It’s about something… smaller.


  1. No, not marking them doesn’t improve things. It just makes the same old thing less convenient.

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