Your quest is not your story

Good morning, MMO designers. Nice day, isn’t it? Well, I hope it is where you are. I’m in Atlanta, where we have “southern charm,” a concept best summed up as “the curse the swamp-witch put on us for choosing to build here.” Or, perhaps, these summers are the ghosts of Sherman’s fires.

Anyhow, it’s great to have you all here and I’d like to talk to you about something important, vital, beautiful even.

The story your player experiences when they play your game.

I realize you’ve got an opening cutscene, and a heavily-scripted tutorial sequence that’s almost like a real game. But in a couple of minutes, you’re going to let those players out into your world1 and they’re going to be experiencing a very different story.

Ah, but you’ve got quests to handle that, right? And voice acting, and instances, and…

…no. No, I’m afraid that’s not going to be the story the player experiences.2 From here on in, they’re experiencing their own story, and it’s going to flit in and out of contact with the ones you’ve prepared.

A minimal quest narrative might go like this:

  1. “Those hobos are creating a nuisance outside of city hall. Kill 10 of them and bring me their bindles.”
  2. “You did a good job killing those hobos, son. But now the hobo king is angry, and you must travel to his instance in the Poor District to defeat him.”
  3. “Those hobos won’t be much trouble without their king. But my friend over in Frostysmooth is having trouble with veterans demanding their benefits. Can you head over and help him?”

However, the typical player won’t experience that narrative directly. He’ll come into the zone to help a guildie get his bindles, get plot point #1, run into a Drunken Fratass spawn and spend a while grinding Alpha Betas, gain a level, alt-tab away to check the message boards, go to the auction house for a better Beat Stick, go farm the hobos, hang out in local chat for a while looking for a group to take down the king for #2.

In most single player games, an individual quest3 is a continuous narrative and gameplay experience. In MMOs, this is almost never true. Rather than being thought of as atomic units of gameplay, quests must be broken down a lot smaller, as I’ve said before.

What I didn’t treat back then is that players don’t experience those units in order. They zigzag through content chunks and through other gameplay systems (trading, open PvE, PvP, etc).

The ramifications for content writing are significant. Each segment of a quest must be self-contained not only on as an objective, but also as a narrative. The player must be able to come back to part 2 days or weeks after completing part 1. Even within parts, they need to be able to quickly get back up to speed on mechanical expectations and narrative context.

The impact on narrative design is even wider. The game’s story cannot be carried entirely by elements that players will walk away from and will only probably come back to. The real story they experience is a product of many systems and many content chunks.

That means that not only does your content have to be able to get players in and out and up to speed effectively, but your other gameplay systems have to carry your game’s story.

If players have to spend hours in the auction house, then a big part of your game’s story is the auction house. That means the auction system should have some narrative gloss, and that other narrative elements should acknowledge and leverage it.

Some elements of EVE are really good at this. The centrality of the player market, for example, is tied in to the setting fiction. If I remember right, we actually put the market window in a storyline trailer.

There’s a lot of room to do better, though. And the first step is to admit that traditional narrative structures don’t quite fit the MMO space. The second is to find narrative structures that do.

I’ll be looking at that soon. But first, we’re going to have to consider what “multiplayer” really means.

Next: Solo doesn’t mean single player

  1. Which, by the way, is now theirs.
  2. And neither is that business with gods and the 15,000 years and the EPIC WAR.
  3. Or mission objective, or however you break it down.

7 thoughts on “Your quest is not your story

  1. You only just touch on this in a footnote, but… I found the payload of backstory in EQ/WoW/probably others to be annoyingly large in scope and difficult to grasp as a new player. It relies heavily on you reading information sources that aren’t a part of actual game play, and it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the game play anyhow. Homework.

    I’d like to see an MMO that delivers big-picture story-world knowledge as a part of the play process itself. Shift the mission structure to be earning nuggets of story info instead of just loot and levels. But maybe the MM part doesn’t lend itself to that?

  2. Andrea definitely says something true about these games — I don’t much like homework in my games. Even though I’m a reader, the last thing I want to do is stop and read in the middle of a game experience.

    — c.

  3. Typical experience

    1: He’ll come into the zone to help a guildie get his bindles
    —–This assumes the player CAN help his guildie get bindles.

    —–Most MMO systems are designed to reward the helped more than the helper. So, for the helped character the reward is often an increase in quality or an increase in frequency to future rewards. Unless the helper can access some common system goal, he/she is generally stuck with a much smaller reward (xp/loot sharing). If a system rewards both players with something completely separate, player impetus becomes the new reward(s) rather than pure charity.

    —–Most MMO systems provide a very concrete set of goals up-front. “Go into the fields and kill 10 wopwamps” is such an example. Players only need to know how to identify the fields, navigate to that area, identify wopwamps and kill them. This makes assisting the questing player very easy.

    The alernative is providing less quest information up-front and more as the quest progresses (many single player and games do this). An example quest might start off with: “Find the entrance to the Wopwamp caves” and progress to “Oh noes, the cave partially collapsed. Defend yourself against the wopwamp survivors” followed by “a glint off to the side captures your attention. Investigate.” terminated by “Find a way to exit the cave, and ask [quest giver] about the trinket you found.” Complex, engaging, and indirect story structures like these should really have a presence in MMOs. Unfortunately, they don’t.

    2: Get plot point #1
    —–This is only possible if both players are able to access, view, accept and complete the exact same quest simultaneously.

    Most MMOs have a set of statically defined that are relatively easy to access. This fact, increases the chance of completing two quest instances simultaneously. However, when quests are statically defined they are also finite. The resulting repetition can breed disinterest.

    A dynamic quest system would minimize or eliminate any disinterest associated with repeated tasks.

    3: Run into a Drunken Fratass spawn
    —-Random and unexpected encounters can add variety and enjoyment to the gameplay experience. Although this typical, I don’t see this detracting from the experience.

    4: Spend a while grinding Alpha Betas
    —-This type of grinding is encouraged by xp and loot rewards. If those were eliminated, players would seek out different experiences.

    5, Gain a level
    —Designers should examine the events that lead up to character progression. Gaining a level is a common reward for players, and designers should identify what players do to achieve this reward. Do you really think players should be sitting in a field killing 400 enemies in order to achieve this goal? The quantity of time and effort required to do this simple task means that a large portion of the player “story” and experience will consist of sitting in a field and killing the same enemy. I might add, that this is not particularly engaging or satisfying.

    6. Alt-tab away to check the message boards
    —-If players leisurely direct their attention elsewhere, they aren’t engaged in the task at hand. Simple.

    7. Go to the auction house for a better Beat Stick
    —-A system that only correlates better character gameplay with better possessions ignores and invalidates the skill and ability of the player.

    If the only way players can be “good” at a game is to possess “good” equipment then the game becomes “get the best equipment.” Instead of “learn, affect, and enjoy.”

    8. Go farm the hobos
    —- Again with the farming.. seriously, who finds this fun or engaging? I’m convinced the only reason these types of quests ever gained popularity was because of the simplicity in programing them.

    9. Hang out in local chat for a while looking for a group to take down the king for #2.
    —- If chat is so all-consuming that people can’t participated while doing something else and instead have to “hang-out,” something is wrong with the communications system. Communicating with other players shouldn’t be a involved task. It especially shouldn’t interfere with the game experience.

    —- Additionally, if players have to stop everything they are doing to “hang-out” hoping they will find someone to assist them with complete task, the mechanics are interfering with the experience. Group experiences should be an improvement on existing single player experiences, not separate from them.

    Hmm.. typed too much today. Have been neglecting my design work. Good work! I await your followup post.

  4. @Andrea
    “You only just touch on this in a footnote, but… I found the payload of backstory in EQ/WoW/probably others to be annoyingly large in scope and difficult to grasp as a new player”

    You’re right, it probably deserves a whole rant. (I touched on it briefly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.)

    I think there are two and a half problems here: first, frontloading story or a requirement for it. Players shouldn’t have to learn your setting’s history to understand gameplay. They certainly shouldn’t have to understand setting and mechanics in advance to create a character, something which is sadly true in EVE.

    Second, not providing the story in game. We can present rich environments, so we should be. The world should tell you about itself as you explore. I’ve been told this is impractical, but that’s not necessarily true. The Crusader states are an incredibly complicated historical subject, but Assassin’s Creed manages to fill the player in through gameplay and a few speeches. So it can definitely be done.

    (Free Realms, by the way, puts its generic fantasy world backstory in an in-game museum. It’s not ideal, but it is entertaining, especially since NPC patrons have their own comments.)

    The half problem is having necessary information outside the game. On the one hand, we want multichannel or transmedia storytelling. Players should be able to connect to your world without waiting through two minutes of sign-in and loading. However, if they go through that two-minute process, they should be rewarded with a game they can play immediately, not a commandment to go read a wikia site.

    @Chuck

    “Even though I’m a reader, the last thing I want to do is stop and read in the middle of a game experience.”

    Justin and Ethan had a throwdown about this in public recently, but I can’t find it. I’m in the “don’t interrupt the game for text” camp.

  5. I’m obviously cool with having information located outside of a game client itself. ^_^ Transmedia FTW! But I do prefer each piece to be as whole an experience as you can make it, so collecting additional pieces enhances and deepens your big picture, but not doing so doesn’t lock you out of understanding what’s going on.

  6. This is actually what is currently irritating me about playing Morrowind. Every NPC encounter is like reading a book — a book that I’ve read most of before.

  7. The closest thing I can think that would qualify as a “throwdown” with Justin was more of a question of pacing: I like having moments of smoother pacing where I can kick back and read something, as long as that something is interesting (big qualifier). If I’m trying to wrap my head around a new game mechanic or carefully husband my resources in a drawn-out fight, don’t hit me with story when I’m thinking about those things. I guarantee you I will forget what’s going on, and possibly even resent your damned story because you thought it was worth distracting me away from trying to get this stupid hogwrangling mechanic under control AARGH great, now the hog gored me to death, thanks, story.

    But we both agreed that Assassin’s Creed II was a good example. He hated Dragon Age’s version, and I can’t speak to that because I haven’t played it.

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