Sunday, September 24, 2017

On the Endangered Species List: The Story in MMOs

As I'm well into my third (and kind of poking around my fourth) MMO for my "Fun With" series, I've noticed something about some of these Asian MMOs that I've not noticed in the WoW branch of MMOs: that story is much less important than other factors.

True, I'll grant that ArcheAge is more story rich than TERA, but the more I've played the more I get the feeling that the story is father down the priority list than what you'd find in most of the WoW branch's MMOs. For ArcheAge, story is below PvP, Crafting, and graphics* in terms of importance, while for WoW, the story is likely only below the Orcs vs. Humans dictum. I could even make the argument that Orcs vs. Humans is the foundation of the WoW story and that a argument could be made that WoW's true #1 is raiding, but even then the story is a higher priority in WoW and its branch of MMOs than in ArcheAge, TERA, and (now that I think about it), Aion.**

As much as the post-Cataclysm story discontinuity drove me nuts, I can't deny that without a story WoW would have been closer to a MOBA than anything resembling its current incarnation.

Now, all this being said, I readily acknowledge that there are going to be Fantasy/Science Fiction tropes --that are primarily Western in nature-- that don't apply to Asian MMOs. (And vice versa.) This also impacts the development process, what parts of a game to put priority on, and how the story unfolds. So it's likely that I'm missing some parts of the story and overall thrust of some of these Asian MMOs that would be more apparent were I not so steeped in the Western SF&F tropes.

What is bothersome to me --and to others who prefer the story to be the primary focus of a game-- it seems that game companies in general are moving away from the story and more toward multiplayer competition. Remember how Mass Effect: Andromeda announced it won't be updating single player, and only multiplayer going forward? I used to think that maybe it was more due to the ME team needing to take a step back and refocus on what makes Bioware games tick and devote resources to making that happen, but now I'm not so sure. The more I've played the Asian MMOs and gone back and reviewed the rise of the MOBA and Overwatch, the more I think game companies are starting to abandon the story in favor of (cheaper to develop) multiplayer games where it's "Story? What story? I just want to kill things!" as the focus.

Even Blizzard had begun doing this with WoW by dumping major story points into novels that are then reflected in game; if you want to catch up with the story, you have to read all the novels.*** That has historically given me the impression that it was done as a cost saving measure, so Blizz wouldn't have to spend development dollars for something they'd pay an author to write. But at least Blizz still puts focus on the story, because without the story they'd be another Splatoon.

While I get that for some people, the story in an MMO is best left to the players --such as in EVE Online-- I'm not like that. For me, a story provides a framework for everything else that happens in an MMO, and while you can get away with a generic Fantasy or Science Fiction MMO as a pure sandbox, MMOs based on name properties would have a hard time pulling that off. If you've got a name such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars, you expect a game to have a WoW or Star Wars feel to it, and while you can stick a Wookie in a bar, that doesn't make a game "Star Wars" anymore than having some Orcs fight some Humans and call it WoW.****


Perhaps these things come and go in cycles, where story becomes more or less important based on what becomes the new hotness. Computer RPGs had an early golden age with Infocom text games, the early Ultima series, and the AD&D games developed by SSI, but there was a long period in the 90s where RPGs nearly vanished from the scene. It was 1998's Baldur's Gate that revived the RPG as a genre, so maybe we've hit a period where except for a few titles --such as Zelda and Horizon: Zero Dawn-- there's just not a lot of interest from the major software companies to fund new story driven games.

But I sure hope more of them get made, because while companies may not be interested in such games, the public certainly does.

*Yes, including boob physics. The nature of the boob physics in ArcheAge is that while breasts can move that way, because cloth and leather armor operate in-game as if they're attached to the frame of the toon, the breast movement is more akin to a naked person wearing body paint than a person wearing cloth or leather armor. In WoW, this "attached to the frame" aspect of toons is very obvious if your toon is wearing a tabard; in ArcheAge it is less obvious until you see a female toon move. Like TERA, the ArcheAge devs' implementation of boob physics is less about realism and still more about titillation.

**I suspect that Black Desert Online is in the same vein. Not so sure about Vindictus, however.

***It must be said, however, Blizzard still would have a ton of story in each WoW expac.

****Some boardgame designers forget that when trying to design games based on named properties. For me, Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, is a prime example. When you take out too much theme --or try to wrap a theme around a mathematical exercise-- you end up with a result that looks nothing like the source material.


  1. I don't think story in MMOs is endangered quite yet. My impression has been that (at least in the west), SWTOR kicked off the trend of focusing on an overarching narrative - and despite of failing at its WoW killer aspirations, it managed to raise the bar for everyone else, so that for a while every new MMO seemed to be very interested in having a coherent story. Since then it's somewhat fallen out of favour again, but at the same time we haven't had many major new MMO releases in a while, so change has been slow.

    Now, non-MMOs seem to be a different matter. From what I hear there is a definite trend of focusing on random multiplayer modes over any sort of campaign or solo story, presumably because it's cheaper to make and keeps people engaged for a while. I suspect that trend will eventually crash as well though - not everyone can be the next big hit on the block, and multiplayer requires active queues. If not enough people are playing at all times, a game without anything to offer to the solo player will just fizzle out.

    1. Vanilla had its share of multizone stories, but at the same time it didn't have a coherent story like Wrath, Cata, and newer WoW expacs had. Still, story mattered enough to Blizz that they spent a lot of time on it.

      And yes, you're right about SWTOR upping peoples' game on story, but even before that there was an epic storyline for LOTRO and Age of Conan (the latter I've yet to finish). But that doesn't diminish SWTOR's achievement of going full bore into cinematic storytelling and pushing MMOs into better crafted and better designed stories.

      As for the non-MMO market, I certainly hope that random multiplayer modes doesn't overwhelm everything for the next few years in the same way that Wolfenstein and Doom did in the 90s. It took the original Baldur's Gate to break out of that wave and push the RPG genre back to the forefront of PC gaming.

      Then again, we do have Breath of the Wild, which is a fantastic game. No, I've not played it, as the ability to swivel your view all the time gives me headaches when I watch the mini-Reds play. But I have watched enough to realize it is a very special game. It's the sort of game that you watch and say "I wish there were an MMO based on THAT."

  2. I came to MMO's from RPG's and Action/Adventure games which were all about moving a story forward via various means.
    My first MMO was Star Wars Galaxies, where you didn't need quests because you were part of a familiar story, and you wrote new chapters every time you logged in.
    Then I played Lord of the Rings Online, which has one of the richest stories ever told, completely quest driven.
    I had a lot of trouble getting to like World of Warcraft because the world and it's story was unfamiliar, and I still am not engaged by the lore of the world, though it has many great features.
    The tide in gaming seems to be PVP and, to me, variations of online shooters. They seem so repetitive. I suppose if I grew up playing Capture the Flag and other games that are basically Tag, maybe, maybe I'd be interested.
    I like the points you made about multiplayer, and remembered a point where various developers were saying Single Player is dead.
    This article has the spirit of all that My favorite quote though talks about the expanding audience for games in general. We now have a couple of generations of people who grew up playing single player and multi-player games of all kinds. The audiences are out there for everything that can be made, I think. The total audience is just so huge, and the numbers are dispersed, not given to a single game or game type anymore. The quote:
    Harvey Smith, Arkane Studios’ co-creative director, backed up the success of his title with strong words for the industry mindset in an interview with “What people say each cycle is, 'Fill-in-the-blank is the new thing'” Smith said. “And if you're old enough, you remember when it was live-action video games. At another point it was MMOs. At another it was social games. At another it was multiplayer shooters. And none of those things are bad; they're all great. But what the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding. It seems like our attention focuses on the new thing, but in reality, there are still plenty of people that like a particular kind of game. Every time someone announces the death of the single-player game, something like The Sims or BioShock Infinite comes along and does different things well. So far we haven't capped out. It's not like DOTA fans are buying DOTA and not playing Skyrim, or buying Dishonored and therefore not buying Madden. I think there's a bunch of different audience types, and we haven't even hit the limit yet."

    1. I think that you hit the nail on the head with that article, Atherne. All that goes around comes around.

      At the same time, I do see multiplayer modes being more of the new hotness for a purely business reason: they take up less development effort to get out the door. I would have thought that the success of The Witcher III and Dragon Age Inquisition would have brought more AAA game companies into developing newer single player games, but apparently we're a few years away from that being the case.

      I've heard some people say that multiplayer is a "better" video game experience because nothing can beat playing against another human for the intellectual experience. The dirty little secret is that PvP and multiplayer modes in games are as much a physical challenge as a mental one. Both Ancient (from Tome of the Ancient) and I can tell you that physical skills, particularly with visuals and hand/eye reflexes, diminish over time and if you were competent 10 years ago you might not be now. So eventually people have to come to grips with games where physical skills aren't quite so important, and that means that for quite a few people multiplayer/PvP modes aren't going to work for them.

    2. I can understand that multiplayer could be cheaper, just release new maps periodically to refresh the game and voila.
      And also that some people prefer human opponents to AI.
      I personally am not interested in opponents, I'd prefer others to share adventures. Dungeons give an endlessly varied experience because no two groups ever approach any dungeon the same way. Last night in the Scarlet Monastery a hunter was tanking backed by a frolicking bear Druid. Nobody died.
      The only interesting pop I've played was in ( what else) Galaxies, where big groups would sneak attack an enemy town or base, taking them by surprise ideally and dealing with their mines and turrets and whatever players they could muster before the base was taken down. There was planning, strategy, cooperation, exit strategies. Pretty exciting.
      By the way, I've never been quick as my husband and son are, but my self defense mechanisms kick in pretty fast, even in a game, and I can generally target and shoot as quickly as I need to.

    3. That Galaxies PvP reminds me of my first month in WoW, when I started as a Blood Elf and finally reached the quest to get to Orgrimmar. (I can't tell you how long I spent wandering the throne area of Silvermoon City without realizing that there wasn't a gate or a door but a device you click on to get transported magically to just outside the Undercity.) About 30 minutes after finally arriving in Orgrimmar by myself and wandering around without the help of my companions, an Alliance raid group attacked to try to storm their way in and kill Thrall. (No, they didn't succeed, but I give them marks for trying.)

      And yes, I can appreciate wanting to share adventures with people, not play against them. Which is a large part of why I followed my fellow blogger Souldat off of Stormscale-NA, which is a PvP server.

      So.... About that 5-man....

      Was the Hunter using a bear companion to tank with? I figure I have to ask, because that's the most obvious tanking companion.

    4. Nope, the Bear was the actual Tank, not the Hunter's pet. The Hunter was running ahead and pulling and the Tank would bounce over, literally, once he'd fought whatever he was fighting himself and take over. There were a couple of times where the Bear led the way. He didn't seem to know where here was going, to say the least.

  3. Replies
    1. At least it wasn't something like "poop", which by now I'm used to having had three kids go through middle school.... ;-)