Creating a backstory for the game

I had intended to write about combat this week but it turns out that all my writing time is being taken up by the game itself, so I’ll keep this really brief!

Basically, my story flopped on me. I’d borrowed the elaborate back-story from the previous MMO incarnation, code-named Frontier, because the target audience is much the same: it’s aimed at systems explorers; people who like complexity in their world; people who want to be invested and involved in the world.

But the Frontier storyline is an onion-skin design: you start out with a very typical fantasy world, and then you discover things aren’t quite as they seem. And as you dig deeper and deeper, your view of the world — and who is “good” and who is “bad” — changes repeatedly in interesting ways.

I’m proud of the Frontier world-building I’ve done, but I can’t use it here. The problem is it’s too hard to get invested in a world where nothing is as it seems. Imagine, just as an example, that it turns out the moon is really a space vessel for an alien race. That takes a lot of the magic out of being a werewolf, with their strong ties to the moon. Or suppose it turns out that the land was created artificially just a few hundred years ago… that takes the excitement out of the Geology profession, doesn’t it?

There’s a constant struggle in a traditional MMO: you want players to invest in your world quickly and easily so that they can have fun and get into it. But at the same time, you want surprises around every corner. In my game, because it’s exploration-based, the surprises need to come from the world and its environment, not from e.g. a warring tribe that betrays the players or a dragon that shows up and destroys cities. Most of the story needs to be revealed through discoveries players make at their own pace, not via a “story event.”

To achieve this, Frontier used the “not really” story technique: “The mountain is the home of the dwarves. NOT REALLY! It’s a weapon of mass destruction aimed at the moon!” (None of these are real examples, BTW, they’re too silly even for me.)

Instead of “not really”, I’m now relying heavily on the “and also” technique: “The mountain is the home of the dwarves. AND ALSO it’s the ancient prison of a demon!” This gives me the surprises I need but lets the world stay “real.” The surprises aren’t as impressive, but hopefully they’re still interesting enough.

I’ve done some fiction writing before, and I enjoy it, but I do admit that my strength is in systems design, not story design. So if you have suggestions on how to create an MMO story, or what you like to see in an MMO story, I’m all ears! (Just post quick, ‘cuz I’m knee-deep in story elements as I write this…)

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10 Responses to Creating a backstory for the game

  1. ExpertNovice says:

    I like your “and also” system here.

    Normal zones have typically one plot or are part of a larger cluster of zone’s plot. Boring! Keeping each with intense amounts of depth will really add to the magic of each zone. Plus zones should interact with nearby zones and have a rich history. Add a little history along with every new content addition and you’ll have lore twists before you know it.
    If you can have players discovering the past and present in their own ways, and have that information somehow useful to the game (not just npc useful), I think you’ll have them.

    I love how risky your being. One man with a vision. But if you mess up it’s such a major set back! There’s such precious little programming time!
    Good luck, good sir! Looking forward to giving you my money.

  2. Nils says:

    I really enjoy reading these weekly updates. But I am curious as to where the MMO part of your game actually comes into play? So far it seems to be a nice fantasy RPG. I mean, you write about the story before you write about the character interactions, or did I miss something ?

  3. Ibn says:

    One thing that’s always bothered me about fantasy RPGs is the way all rumors are true. Go to a tavern, hear that there’s a wizard in the castle up on the hill — and look, there is! But that’s not really how rumors work. I’d love to see some rumors that turn out to be totally incorrect, or just warped through repeated retelling.

    I wrote a Call of Cthulhu adventure where the party hears of a crazy guy in a house outside town who may be sacrificing people to Nyarlathotep in order to stay young. But when they get there in turns out he’s a vampire and the whole Nyarlathotep thing is just a front.

  4. Straw Fellow says:

    I’m not terribly sure how much help this would be, but this has always worked for me when doing some D&D world building.

    I go with the advice they published in the 3.5 DM guide. Build a town and its surrounding area, then put in its inhabitants and how they interact with that area, expand so on and so forth, just keeping in mind how everything would realistically interact. From there its a matter of picking out the conflict and forming it into an interesting plot. Once you have the relationships figured out, then you can start fitting in supernatural events because then you know how each community would respond to it. From there, you know who would care about it, and you can build subsets of communities, factions if you will, directed at combating a threat.

  5. mavis says:

    Storywise – what I’ve always wanted to do was the story of reclaiming the world after some massive post apocalyptic disaster. You have no idea what’s out there – and you explore and rebuild your own tiny corner of it -making that a better and bigger place. Which in turn unlocks new content for you to look at…..

    But I suspect that would need the game designing from the ground up to work.

  6. Eric says:

    @Ibn – I would kinda like fake rumors, too. The trouble is the “internet rule”: if the game makes it harder to figure out than a quick Google search does, then it’s not going to last. If players decide that a lot of rumors are false, they’ll just stop using rumors at all. Which may be okay if there are other ways to lead to content. But it’s something to keep in mind.

    @ExpertNovice – thanks! :)

    @Nils – you mean about the player-to-player interactions? Yeah I should write about that some more soon. Right now I’m developing the prototypical group combat area (“the creepy sewers of a lost civilization”), and this is where I realized my storyline doesn’t help me convey anything. I didn’t particularly want to focus on the story before other things… but I also don’t want to have to redo what I’m working on now, so I need to get the backstory ballparked correctly.

    @Straw Fellow – so bottom-up world design, basically. Last week I started out working that way, actually, but I’ve found it really hard to make all the pieces fit together. Maybe this approach leads to better NPC characterizations, but less cohesiveness to the plot. Or maybe that’s just my inexperience working that way.

    @mavis – yeah, I dig that premise too, and have some sparks of it in the game, but I didn’t want to go overboard with the “rebuilding the world” thing, because I don’t think it’s as exciting to explorers as the “finding what’s out there to do” parts.

  7. Tiber says:

    I never thought about it storytelling in the “not really/and also” way before. However, in my mind, the real risk of the not-really technique is that it can become a bait-and-switch done for shock value. Saying, “Guess what! Elves are actually descendants of space aliens and magic is just nanotech. You’ve been playing a sci-fi game this whole time, suckers!” is just going to tick off the people who only like fantasy games. Or if you set it up so that your most popular character is actually a manipulative traitor, you’d better be a good writer. You just took away what it was that people liked about the story.

    The risk of the and-also technique is that you’re really just adding more and more information. The dwarven kingdom/prison for a demon is also the launching site of an attack by creatures from another dimension! It’s also conveniently located next to the haunted graveyard/base of a cult involved in an ancient conspiracy and the dragon’s den/hideout of a group of rogue necromancers. It’s really just a matter of not overdoing it though.

    The rumors being false thing is interesting (I love when writers use the audience’s expectations against them), but if rumors are completely fictional you’re really just leading them on dead ends and wasting their time. One way you could do it is to have the cloaked guy in the tavern tell you about a wizard in a castle who is supposedly summoning demons. You get there and beat the wizard up, only to find out that he’s actually trying to stop the demons, and thanks to your meddling a big one escaped.

  8. Jason says:

    As far as the rumors go, who says rumors have to be the whole story or either true or false? Rumors can contain bits and pieces of both. To use your example of the Dwarven Kingdom and the Imprisoned Demon you could use a lot of rumors and hints sprinkled throughout NPC dialogue as well as traditional quests to convey the truth.

    Maybe NPCs in Joe’s Bar have heard that there were already caverns in the mountains before the Dwarves arrived. Or that they’ve heard people talk about feeling watched when they are in the mountain. Maybe the Dwarves themselves talk about how they have terrible violent nightmares when they are at home, but not when they are away from the mountain.

    Things like that help convey a sense of foreboding and atmosphere that players (who care about that sort of thing) might think about when they are in the zone/region/area. But, without going all out and just giving the entire story away. Or misleading them with a totally false rumor or statement.

    As for writing stories for MMOs, I have found that I write best when I have an overall story for the zone and then break it down into pieces. Typically as I create/plan the quest hubs and what-not the smaller stories pop up and I can find ways of tying them into the larger story. And of course, with the larger story I work to find ways to tie it into the even greater story. Or at the very least create hooks for future links to the greater story(ies).

    Anyway, my two cents on it all. Love your blog, keep it up.

  9. twitchity says:

    I’m late to the party on this, but keep in mind that detail and surface area are the banes of plausibility. Generally, too much detail (backstory, in particular) sucks the evocativeness from a setting: what seems exciting and fresh quickly becomes stale and quotidian as more details are told. Furthermore, it breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing, and drowns players in ninety-nine irrelevant details for every one gem. So go easy on the backstory — even if you have a richly detailed world in mind, break it into big thematic elements and carefully dole out information.

    Second, be careful with the “but then” school of plotting, because you can easily write yourself into a corner (see: JJ Abrams, BSG, etc.). Don’t just add new elements: go deeper with the ones you have. Always keep in mind Chekhov’s commutative rule of plotting: if you have a gun in the first act it must go off in the third — but, often overlooked, if a gun goes off in the third act it must be introduced in the first.

    For example, if you have a dwarven home that is also a demon prison, connect the two: first you have dwarves (with a few throwaway hints: “Our ancestors abandoned this city over a thousand years ago, and we only reclaimed it recently. Here, fedex this package to an archaeologist team in the lower levels.”), then, much later, you have encounters with low-level demons (“What did those archaeologists from two years ago find?”), then you have a demon lord encounter, then you find out that the dwarves had a civil war two thousand years ago in which the winning side turned to demons for aid, then betrayed and imprisoned them, and now the demon lord is out for (understandable) revenge.

    This style dovetails nicely with not overplotting your backstory, because it’s easier to add new depth without running afoul of canon lawyers.

  10. Eric says:

    @twitchity – that’s good advice, thanks! The one thing I worry about with that approach is being too fuzzy. A lot of WoW quests are like that, and they don’t stick at all: “there was a battle here. Bring me ten snakeskins. Okay, thanks. The battle was long long ago. Bring me ten gizmos. Okay, the battle was…”

    I think the devil is in the implementation, really…