This is a continuation of a two-part series. Click here to read the first.
-Where is the story?-
Traditional MMORPGs are story-driven games.
A story-based MMORPG takes what is largely an immersive, single-player experience of video games and provides a setting for thousands to play the same content alongside one another. An MMO provides a unique twist to the single-player experience by saying, “To progress in this story, you can not go alone. You must do this -together-“.
In a “sand-box” type game, the player interaction becomes the story. The developers need only to provide the framework for the community to interact with one another. Second Life, Minecraft, and (to an extent) EVE Online come to mind. While “theme-park” games, like World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and WildStar, are heavily dependent on the developers to advance the game story.
When players reach the end of the story in an MMO, they must find something else to do until more content is produced. And the usual solution for developers is to give players the old carrot-on-a-stick:
“Here are some ‘hard-mode/veteran/heroic’ dungeons for you to complete while we catch up. Here’s more loot for you to aspire to. Here are some cute pets that you can only get if you dedicated enough to spend hundreds of hours in acquiring it.” These are things players can do to differentiate themselves from the crowd and say, “I achieved things others have not!”
-The Story as a Launchpad-
Story-driven games can only produce so much content in a period of time. Therefore, time sinks, gold sinks, and the dreaded RNG become practical and arguably necessary tools for developers to buy themselves time until the next batch of content is ready. And since story-content can only be experienced in its fullest glory the first time through, rewarding players with gear for clearing them repetitively seem very economical.
Instanced content, which is supposed to provide an immersive experience in a multi-player environment, becomes a gear farm. The expansive world maps are left largely untouched, and players only visit them to complete “daily quests” to keep up with the developers’ artificially-constructed progression barrier. The rich, immersive world with its brilliant lore is left to gather dust under the giant hamster-wheel of Progression.
What happens when the developers play catch-up with the story? Usually, it means more story-quests, more dungeons, more raids, and more loot. And what next? More story, more dungeons, more raids, more loot. And because the lull between content is the real majority of the gameplay, the shiny gear–not the story—becomes the end goal for many players.
And here-in lies the dilemma.
The focus of MMOs seem to have shifted, sadly, from one which is story-centered, to one of chasing loot. There is an inherent contradiction here. The game is built up around a story, but the story is no longer the key aspect of the gameplay. It has become an excuse for the grind. The story is there simply as a stepping stone to get to it. Is this okay? Or do we need a paradigm shift regarding this issue. I hope I am not alone in feeling that the story must be the star—the focal point—of the game, and not just a launchpad.
-You Have Been Challenged-
I still think there is room for progress here, even in this tried-and-true genre. Each game is trying to address this situation in its own way: Guild Wars 2 is trying hard to implement an evolving story in its game, while keeping it accessible for players who have missed it. WildStar does many things to make the backstory very intriguing, and the in-game lore system with its collectable encyclopedic archives is a great innovation to keep lorehounds satisfied. FFXIV does a great job at keeping its timely content cycle with continuing story-missions in each patch. These “innovations” should only be the beginning, however. They are still merely bandaging the wounded results of an out-dated, inefficient system.
I would like to see more non-quest related ways to interact with the world that can deepen the relationship between the players and the story. I would like to see systems that rewards players for interacting with the story-content in a meaningful way. I would like to see rewards that do not involve stat boosts and gear acquisition, but rewards that provide you with an increased immersion-experience.
Is the “sand-box” style MMO the answer for a lot of these issues? I don’t know. “Theme-park” MMOs have beautifully conceived worlds with wonderful stories which pure sand-box games do not. For the story to stay alive, however, we need to truly feel that we are a part of the world we choose to spend so much of our lives in. We need a world which is so alive and interactive that people log-in to -be- part of the story, and grinding for better gear is no longer the only logical way to play. I know that it is difficult to break out of the mold. The genre is definitely evolving, one step at a time–I hope in the right direction. All I can do as a fan is to challenge the way we think about MMOs and hope that in time, the gaming community will find a solution to these recurring dilemmas.