Despite their lofty titles, Tracy Seamster of ZeniMax Online and Steve Danuser of 38 Studios are very willing to admit their own faults.
Their intent in talking before a crowd at the Game Developers Conference this week in Austin was not only to inform, but to analyze mistakes of the past, to take apart classic MMO storytelling frustrations and come to a place where MMO writing could be better understood.
No one wants to read in MMOs. As much as writers want to think their quest prose is for the ages, reading is not a popular activity in online gaming. The genre is a bad fit for classic storytelling. The strength of the MMO genre is that it is a social medium, a communal experience with a shared narrative.
Giving players the tools to create their own story experiences within that narrative is what keeps them coming back to a game. Both directors firmly believe that MMO writers should be leveraging the strengths of both the medium and the playerbase far more than they do right now.
The toolbox of tricks to frame the MMO narrative belongs to a "Narrative Designer". The toolbox for these designers is fairly limited right now, despite their best efforts.
Quests are one of the most common ways that story is conveyed in Massively Multiplayer games. Designers can spend hours working on a quest description, looking for just the right turn of phrase. Because players are more interested in acting than reading, though, quests are a very poor way to express game story.
Cinematics and in-game dialogue are another way to introduce narrative, but because of resource limitations are best applied only for the most important story beats. Assuming you aren't BioWare, Danuser notes.
One of the most effective and perhaps underused narrative tools, Seamster says, is actually worldbuilding and population. The creatures wandering the wilds, road signs, even an overturned cart, they all speak to the story of an environment. Narrative designers, the directors argued, should seek to create a definite sense of place within the world. A random area is a meaningless area.
As a final tool in the box, Danuser called out media external to the game as an increasingly popular way of conveying story. He mentioned videos on third-party blogs, short stories on the official game site, and iPhone apps as just some of the successful tactics he's seen used. Anything that can keep a player connected to the gameworld when they're not logged in was worth exploring.
Challenges and Solutions
The strengths of the MMO genre are also some of the biggest roadblocks to creating a worthwhile story. The ongoing, living nature of the gameworld requires many stories to be kicked off and threaded together, but actively fights against the concept of resolution. Despite this, both Seamster and Danuser feel that players deserve resolution to the epic quests that pepper these worlds.
Moreover, story conclusions shouldn't be restricted to only the most hardcore of players. Completing a tale in a raid ensures that only a small percentage of the playerbase will know the full backstory to the game. Seamster argued that soap operas would actually be a good model to follow, as their easily-accessible ongoing storylines continually draw in new viewers.
The lack of a single protagonist is another challenge faced by MMO writers. "Everyone is special" is another way of saying no-one is, after all. Danuser argued that this issue is additionally complicated by the importance and draw of player stories, tales that arise from the community itself.
Writers should "get over themselves", he stated plainly. Instead of trying to saddle any single player with an epic destiny, the gameworld itself should provide a backdrop for collaborative heroism. Framing the narrative to promote teamwork, and creating narrative events that challenge the playerbase as a whole, allows for the epic tales writers crave.
Another MMO strength is that they can be played out of order, as the player becomes interested in certain elements of the game. That asynchronous play makes it challenging to tell a cohesive story.
The directors suggested that the best response to this is to keep the focus of the game experience very narrow. Danuser actually argued against what's been called "the Christmas tree effect", when a player stumbles upon a quest hub with a dozen or more new quests available. Epic quests and meaningless scut-work is lumped together in that scenario, washing out and trivializing content.
The memorable nature of player stories is a huge strength of the genre, but also possibly the games writer's biggest challenge. The directors were blunt: don't try to fix that. In fact, good narrative designers should accept that reality and aim to create a living world in which great player stories can be told.
Examples: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
In order to illustrate what has been done well and poorly in the genre, Danuser and Seamster pointed out a number of concrete examples from existing game.
Time Travel - The directors recall a quest in EverQuest 2 that sends the player back in time. A successful and well-liked adventure, but it took 27 pieces of quest text to get the player back in time. No one remembers the text, they note. Why not just skip to the good part with a few well-written quips, and let the player just get on with it?
The Sleeper - The original EverQuest had a terrible quest mechanic, so writing wasn't the place to do storytelling. Storytelling in EQ was in the atmosphere, the dungeons and catacombs. The Sleepers tomb was a great example, a labyrinth of passages filled with Sentinels guarding a mysterious treasure. The dungeon's ending ramped up to several dragon guardians, and culminated in the waking of an epic dragon that tried to eat the world. The actual lore of the place didn't matter, what mattered was the 'holy shit' moment when you actually woke the dragon.
Quest Journals - Despite the player popularity of quest journals in modern MMOs, both directors feel that they are nothing more than crutches. Telling stories in a quest journal is a waste of time, as no one reads that information. Danuser pushed the idea again of focusing on storytelling within the gameworld. He noted that a combination of best practices and robust system tools can allow narrative designers to obviate the very need for a quest journal.
Through the Dark Portal - Many World of Warcraft players cite the first moments beyond the Burning Crusade expansion's Dark Portal as incredibly epic. An epic fight between demons and the player races rages, and there's no need for elaborate writing. The player gets it: something amazing is happening here.
As a final aside Seamster pointed out that if a story is amazing in the writer's head, but the players can't understand it, that's wasted work. She noted that MMOs move too quickly for players to sit around 'noodling' about details. Offering story in broad strokes may not feel as nuanced, but it will be far better understood.
Cornerstones of Narrative
Beyond actual process, the directors made the point that specific systems should be in place to ensure successful storytelling. Story bibles and tone documents are particularly important for large teams. An updated, detailed story bible can be a reservoir of history for the gameworld. Pulling elements from the bible will help the story of the world come alive, Danuser stated, and allow players to immerse themselves in a world with a history and legitimacy.
The tone document, on the other hand, should allow writers to understand the range of expression the game allows. A good tone document will clarify for writers what kinds of stories should be in the world, and will give players the impression that the game world is a considered environment.
Having a story visionary on-hand to plug into the world is another important system they like to see. Usually the people best suited to update the story bible, story visionaries can provide a useful gut check to any choices that might be made about the world.
Consistent guidelines for creating content is another element that the directors feel helps writers to create powerful narratives. Freedom can be liberating, but in a context storytelling in an MMO makes far more sense. How big can a zone be? How many characters can be in a town? Should all of the quests in this area be soloable? Knowing the answers to these questions ensures a cohesive, enjoyable game experience.
Go Forth and Tell Stories
The pair's final advice was to remember that they writers on an MMO are just one part of a bigger puzzle. If you get across story in a dynamic way, you're doing it right. If you're inspiring your team, if you're conveying what's cool about the world's story to the people making it, you're doing it right.
Make the team feel like they're storytellers even if they're not writers. The world, the art, everything in an MMO is a tool for carrying narritive to the player. Great stories in MMOs are just begun with the written word.