World of MMOcraft

Looking back over the catalogue of MMORPGs which have come out since World of Warcraft spawned the genre there are only a tiny handful which have sparked any interest for me. Of those I haven’t played one. I used to think it was because I wasn’t a social gamer, then I realised that I really enjoy online gaming. The reason was that nothing with the possible exception of Eve Online has managed to make a remotely convincing departure from the mindset of singleplayer narrative and non-persistent multiplayer online.

I’ll confess at this point, I’m a gamer who considers narrative to be a fairly important part of any game. I do love a good story based game if the writing is good and even just if the story is a strong one, but I’ve realised something in the last few years of gaming. As I replayed Crysis, Bioshock or the oldschool Call of Duty games (past Modern Warfare I lost interest) I found their kind of narrative storytelling immersive but lacking in real connection. It’s only the ability of games to allow for emergent narrative that really allows gamers to connect both with a game and their character. When you think about it this is pretty natural, emergent gameplay can constitute the only opportunity to create your own narrative for your character rather than following a path determined by the writers. I have spent a lot of time playing open world games like GTA and the STALKER series and while there is some ability to create your own story in these, it’s limited to the gaps inbetween the game’s ongoing narrative for you to try. In setting up even a primitive open world producers give gamers the ability to go forth and create their own adventures but always within limits. You will always have to go back to the story mission to progress the game and the game is defined by that narrative progress. Even in a traditional roleplaying game there is conflict between the investment of players in their character’s narrative and it being predestined by being someone else’s imagination, unchangeable from the few choices you are given no matter how compelling. Reactions to Mass Effect 3 demonstrated the impact of this cognitive dissonance on a spectacular scale. Playing three games and creating what often felt like your own truly unique universe from your decisions only to be confronted by an ending which only grazed the surface of the character you had become and the universe you crafted was a frustrating experience for many. But what does this have to do with MMO gaming?

When you look at the market, most MMO’s that have pitched themselves as narrative based tend to implement this narrative as a transplanted singleplayer storyline. They leave the interaction with other people limited to participating in ‘instances’, be this dungeon raiding or some form of PvP. Either way the result is that the multiplayer and the narrative seldom interact in anything but the most superficial way. The only game I am aware of to have really broken this trend is Eve Online. The most memorable stories which have come out of EVE online have largely been the result of a game system which permits players to form organisations, interact and generate a plausible universe which has seen corporate theft scandals, coups and revolutions (both failed and successful). All of these having nothing to do with any storyline crafted by the game’s producers (to my knowledge) and have evolved out of the actions of players on their own or in concert with others. The only issue with this is the detriment to player immersion brought on by the dependence on forums and communication outside the game to sustain much of the intrigues which have made the universe such a vast source of emergent narrative.

In stark contrast to this, take the example of the newly announced Elder Scrolls MMO. An entire singleplayer narrative with you feeling like the lone hero is the classic Elder Scrolls experience, but why shoehorn this into the format of an MMO? Is everyone supposed to feel like they’re the biggest hero in Tamriel when they see all these other people who’ve completed just the same set of missions and think THEY’RE the biggest hero in Tamriel? Bioware’s hotly anticipated The Old Republic exploded onto the market focused on single player narratives interjected into the MMO experience. The problem was this resulted in a game which failed to reinvent the  genre and seems to be slipping in the market due to its failure to distinguish itself from a growing crowd of MMOs out there. It’s a shame given the effort that went into its development that the gameplay bones all the good stuff was grafted onto are showing their age.

But back to the Elder Scrolls MMO, I’m a huge Elder Scrolls fan so I see what they’re getting at with trying to cash in on the MMO market. While wandering the badlands of Skyrim and indeed Cyrodiil in Oblivion I frequently caught myself wishing for some way of wandering around with friends doing quests together. But that doesn’t mean I want to see World of Warcraft in Tamriel. I started speculating about how you could make a persistent multiplayer game that could fit the concept of the Elder Scrolls universe, which is rich with history and a huge amount of lore in the form of everything from mercenary organisations and secret brotherhoods, to pacts with mad gods and feuding empires. Seeing this played out as some kind of largely singleplayer experience with multiplayer bits would undervalue the potential of the Elder Scrolls for a truly vast and interesting MMO.

So how do you do justice to this universe? Technical limitations prevent everyone in the world from playing on one server so that’s out. But if every server hosts a copy of the game world, this still has potential as long as you have a player base of several thousand players. Within the game world there are a multitude of factions and organisations which can be populated by both NPCs and players. The NPCs could form the backbone of the economy (the peasant class) so nobody has to farm or grind (unless they want to) instead the players create their own missions in response to emergent conditions. To do this properly you need a robust ingame system of communication to prevent the players having to break immersion by leaving the game to go to a forum or similar. A system of writing letters or notes to be hand delivered or put on noticeboards to be read by other players would be one solution to this but by no means the only one. With players leading and largely populating organisations, and with a set of game rules to prevent total anarchy. I.e that the Skyrim penal code applies. Except that if you commit a crime witnessed by an NPC they will inform the local lord (human or NPC) who can then post a bounty from the income that organisation receives to bring the other player to justice. A bounty is placed on noticeboards by NPCs or players, and can then be accessed by anyone wishing to capture or kill the other player for the money. Of course multiple players can team up to do this if the individual is a particularly intimidating one. This is just a small example but could provide endless variety, particularly if the quarry is another player. This mechanic could also allow for it to be possible for villages to be captured and their income diverted, prompting raids to retake the village. This form of gameplay could be hugely engaging to players who would actually have a chance to effect the world of other players in either a positive or negative way by their actions, the corollary of that being that they would also have to live with the consequences in the game. If you want to burn that village to the ground, you might want to consider the number of people who will be after you…

The game itself can have an ongoing narrative which frames and affects all of the players in that server, obviously this allows for the narrative to affect different servers in different ways depending on the way that server and the players within it evolve. Using the example of a dragon invasion borrowed from Skyrim, the game could spawn dragons in increasing numbers, leaving it to the players and NPCs leading factions within the game to create missions themselves by trying to track down information on why dragons are returning, as long as this is expanded to sufficient complexity that could mean a very sophisticated system of missions and emergent gameplay as different factions obtain information either co-operating or competing, through the actions of players in their faction or working for them as mercenaries. If the game is balanced correctly, this should mean that there would be the possibility for a lengthy ongoing narrative which allows players to get a sense of engagement with the world and to see their actions take effect on both the world and other players. But despite this rich wealth of material and potential opportunity, the Elder Scrolls game doesn’t look very different from every other MMO I’ve seen recently.

Why is this the case? I think it’s because the business model which most MMO’s are built on requires a business case to justify the initial investment in producing the game. World of Warcraft’s success has wielded an undue amount of influence in the gameplay design of all MMO’s that have followed it by virtue of its proven and commercially successful gameplay mechanics. But it’s not all WOW’s fault. This problem also stems from the fact that game design for MMO games has not managed to divorce itself from a singleplayer approach to narrative and entrust players to create their own.

I was going to wrap up here on a very depressing note but something strange happened. A few weeks ago, after I started writing this article (maybe why I’ve taken so long to finish) I started playing a mod for Arma 2 Combined Ops called Day Z. This might be the closest thing I’ve seen to a serious attempt at using emergent narrative as a gameplay device.  This is a whole other article however, so I’ll leave that to another day. Let me wrap this up by saying that I now have more hope that original thinking is out there and is flourishing than I did when I started writing this. The major players in the games industry may well continue to trudge that now well worn road to World of Warcraft imitation and subsequently fade to obscurity, but original thought is out there in the world of persistent multiplayer gaming. The best bit is it seems I’m not the only one who’s happy about it.

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