Have you ever met a designer (or armchair designer) who is excited about MMOs because they have a story they want to tell? It’s a story that they’re sure is going to change the world. What an odd thing for them to believe!
When I was first working on Star Trek Online, the team was initially excited by the idea that we could breathe new life into the Star Trek franchise with our game. There are some amazing stories to be told there, and maybe, just maybe, STO could be the vehicle that reinvigorates the Star Trek name! But one by one, we all came to grips with the impracticality of it. Even if the stories are the best ever, they wouldn’t have any effect on the public’s perception of Star Trek. Video games are not a mainstream media. Neither are books, to be clear. Have any of the higher-quality Star Trek novels ever altered the public perception of Star Trek?
You could try to argue that World of Warcraft has broken through and become a mainstream phenomenon. Look at how many TV shows it’s on! But yet… none of those actually convey any story. They don’t even convey how the game actually plays, or why people would play it. Scratch the surface and there’s no real coverage there at all.
Of course, you can argue that WoW doesn’t have any story to convey. I think that’s a fair assessment. Much of the in-game story is banal at best. The quest text was clearly written by level designers in a hurry.
Now, Star Trek Online has a dedicated writing team, which is unusual for an MMO, and the team has actual game writing experience, which is even more unusual. But even so, they are not going to change the world with their story. At the very best, their story might occasionally entertain the player in the way that a good novel would.
For whatever reason, most designers (and armchair designers) who say they have the perfect story in mind are not writers. They have never written much of anything, but they figure it can’t be that hard because they already have a plot worked out in their head! This is in stark contrast to an actual novelist, who might spend six months to a year creating a quality novel. An MMO has to do all that plus be an MMO.
If you’re going to do any writing, pick up a copy of James Frey’s “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.” This is a great book, and its lessons can be directly mapped to an MMO story. This book will have you creating character details for your main characters, stepsheets for your plot, and redoing your dialog over and over until it’s sharp and crisp.
Now, an average-length novel has 172 pages of background information and stepsheets written before any of the actual novel writing even begins. And an MMO’s step sheets are going to be a whole lot bigger than a novel’s, given the vast number of possible plot branches. Plus you’ll need to rewrite everything several times. And of course, a novelist only actually gets good at their craft after they’ve done several practice novels.
So why do you think your story, with all of 20 pages of back-notes and almost no time for dialog revision, is going to be a masterpiece? If you’re hoping to change the world with your game, you’re in the wrong field. Instead of writing an MMO with a novel-quality plot, just write a damn novel.
I don’t mean to say that we designers shouldn’t write story into our games. We just shouldn’t let it go to our heads. :) All designers occasionally have to pretend to be writers. When that happens, understand that the quality level of what you’re producing is not on par with a damn good novel. Tighten your focus so that its purpose is just to engage and entertain the player briefly, as they go from one activity to the next. Even that is going to be plenty hard enough.