Story in MMO’s

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.

This entry was posted in Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Story in MMO’s

  1. Tzing says:

    I’m not so experienced with MMOs, but is a good story in MMO itself really matters with such a great background like in Star Treck, Star Wars, LOTRO and even WOW. Players know this worlds and many of them subscribe to play only because they know what they will recieve. The implementation of the world depends on designers and developers. Writers have already done their part of work, introducing virtual worlds into the minds of future players, and now they may just sit back in armchair drinking wine.
    Also, quest texts surely should be rich and expressive, but what percentage of players even read them? Outstanding quests with interesting dialogs is a must for a single player games, but MMO assumes there’s a group of players challenging it. They are surely interested in main concepts of the quest, but what is more important to them is to communicate and cooperate to reach the big shining medal (honor, status) at the end.
    I’m a developer, not a cool designer, even not a mega-writer. :) And my vision of this things may not have any intersections with the real world you live in.

  2. Bonedead says:

    I’m wondering if the F13 interview with Scott Jennings and Dave Rickey helped fuel this post. If so, I was also fueled to post something on the topic.

    As a gamer (and an armchar designer in my own mind) I get frustrated with the lack of story in most MMOs today. It really does seem hard to have a decent game and a good story. It sucks when a game modeled after a movie can’t get a good story, you know, because there’s already a prequel. I do feel for story writers for MMOs that create their own worlds, that’s got to be much more difficult when you don’t already have characters and a sense of their personality.

  3. Babs says:

    And here I am drafting a seminar for our designers on “how to write well as opposed to writing for an MMO.” Hah! I’m almost tempted to think it’s not worth the effort after reading this, Eric. Sniffle =/

  4. Eric says:

    Bonedead, nope, hadn’t seen that. I sometimes am frustrated by the really poor quality of story in MMO’s… I’m not even really looking for high-quality entertainment. I just dislike it when the author is obviously phoning it in!

    Babs — it can’t hurt :) I’m sure there’s a lot that your designers can do without spending a whole lot more time than they have available. Interesting characters that we care about, that’d go a huge way… (not that I’ve seen that in pretty much any MMO…)

    Tzing: yeah, you’re right. The more well-defined the story property is, the less the designers should have to work. If they go too far, then they’ll just mess things up! But they still need to be entertaining!

  5. neofit says:

    Then I think there is the issue of conveying this good story to the public…

    I have gotten bored rather quickly with LOTRO, in my early thirties (the usual ‘been there done that’ feeling, ‘WoW with a worse combat system’, and blah-blah-blah). People are telling me that the game’s strong point is the story, and that I have completely missed it. Maybe.

    I remember there was some kind of a story that started in the first instances. At low levels I was usually outlevelling the Chapter instances so I was able to solo them. I could take time to properly read the quest/story text and get into it. For the later main story and multi-step quests, those that required to group with guild mates or PUGs in a dungeon or instance, all of this got lost. There was always someone in the group (or all of them) who had already done the quest/dungeon/chapter, so we were unwillingly being rushed through the content. It’s not like they were the proverbial loot kiddies either, I was in an old-timers’ guild, some even knew the names of the five mages of whatever from the original.

    Then you know, there is something like an important scripted event happening, like an NPC who starting to morph and telling you why and what you should do next, and /groupsay is all about a groupmate’s new graphics card :). Then again, if for instance the guild only has a couple tanks or healers, you can’t expect them to remain interested in the story for their n-th run through the same instance.

    Who knows, if I could have performed these steps solo (at an appropriate level, mind you), at my own pace, properly read and get into the story, maybe I would be still playing and paying :).

    As for STO, regardless of how well the story is written nine times out of ten our chat tab will look like:

    Spock: “You saved our people. Live long and prosper!”
    DaKilla says to group: “fag lol”
    Spoque says to guild: “who watched the game yesterday night?”
    Ipwnjoo shouts in global: “WTS red shrit +3 faling on bridge lol”

    So why bother? ;)