WoW: Story and Player Interaction

There’s been some discussion lately about the role of pre-scripted narrative in MMOs. A lot of people see it as a cheat, a gimmick that only provides pseudostory, and desire a story that’s more reflective of what the players are doing in the gameworld. The WoW model is of course the one most familiar to the greatest number of people, and in WoW, the scripted storylines are, in effect, static features of the environment. The unit of plot is the quest, and quests get done over and over by different players, and that takes away from the sense that you’re participating in the story in any meaningful way: can you really say that you’ve defeated an enemy if you can stand there and watch it respawn and get defeated over and over? (In one extreme case, I was doing a quest that involved leading an NPC around, and was startled to realize that there were multiple simultaneous instances of that NPC simultaneously following different players.)

My own take on the question is a little more complicated. First, let me point out that there are really two separate stories going on in WoW. There’s the pre-scripted story, and there’s the story of the players playing the game — call it the mythos layer and the game layer. The mythos story contains events like the betrayal of Lady Sylvanas, the attempts of both Horde and Alliance to gain the support of the centaur tribes, and the defeat of the Lich King at the hands of a large band of heroes. The game story contains events like druids getting nerfed, the auction price of glyphs going up, and the Cthun raid being successfully completed for the first time. The two layers do have some points of intersection: the Cataclysm, for example, was a major event with wide-reaching consequences in both. But they’re mostly independent, and players can only have a permanent effect on the gameworld at the game layer (and usually only in the aggregate, at that).

Secondly, the above is not at all unusual. Most CRPGs have such a split, including single-player ones. This very blog contains numerous posts analyzing mythos in CRPGs, and also numerous posts recounting my particular experiences playing the same CRPGs — my exploration of their terrain, attempts at making the most of their combat systems, etc. — and they are, for the most part, different posts. Furthermore, I’ve made comments about how the two layers contradict each other, so that aspect of WoW isn’t unique to the mechanics of trying to shoehorn a single-player storyline onto a multiplayer environment; it’s something that can happen whenever the mythos and game layers both try to depict the same kinds of events. But perhaps something about the MMO paradigm makes it more obvious when it happens.

Now, you may object that the game layer isn’t a story. And I agree. It’s a story-space, a set of constraints and opportunities in which stories can happen. These stories aren’t entirely fictional, because we’re into the realm of what Jesper Juul calls the “half-real”. If my character gives yours 60 gold pieces in exchange for a piece of armor, neither the gold nor the armor actually exists — but the exchange is nonetheless a real event, something that occurred between two actual human beings, rather than just described by a storyteller, or played out repeatedly by a couple of automated NPCs like figurines on a cuckoo clock. But we do have a notion in our language of “true story”. Arguably, real events only get transformed into stories after the fact, when they’re recounted to others, but some events are more inevitably story-like than others.

Let me tell you a story that happened on Everquest during my time there: the story of the Naked Troll Run. Once upon a time, a bunch of players on the Rallos Zek server decided on a whim to make new level-1 troll characters, ditch their starting equipment, and run from the troll starting zone to the human city of Freeport to see how far they could get before they were killed. On their first attempt, wandering monsters slaughtered them all before they got far, but they just respawned back at their starting zone and tried again. As they did this, more and more troll corpses piled up along the way, and other players took notice and asked what was going on. Some of them joined in. Eventually, there were enough trolls that the combined efforts of the wandering monsters and the Freeport city guard were not enough to kill them all, and a few managed to board the Freeport ferry and continue their run as far as gnome territory. This all happened without the participation of the Everquest developers or mods. All they did was provide an environment in which running a naked level-1 troll all the way to Freeport is difficult, and the players came up with the rest.

Let me tell you another story, which we might call the Gaming of the Marble. This one happened on A Tale in the Desert. In ATitD, a combat-free game, combat is replaced by various “Tests” that increase your rank in the game’s various Disciplines. Some of the Tests had other gameplay benefits, and some of the Tests were competitive, and one Test in particular had both of these properties: a two-player mini-game that affected the player’s ability to detect deposits of valuable stone. The mini-game had a ranking system like Chess or Go, and specific types of stone were tied to specific ranks, the higher tiers being types of rare marble. Months after this system was introduced, there was still no one with sufficient rank to find the highest level of marble, and the players grew frustrated with this. So a bunch of them decided to game the system by means of a rigged tournament. A largish number of people got together to play the minigame, but there was one pre-designated champion, and anyone playing against that person would deliberately lose just to raise her rank. Other people would be chosen to win for a while to get their rank up just to maximize the effect when they lost to the designated champion — people had worked out the ranking formula and knew exactly how to optimize it. The end result was that, for a little while, the player base had access to every kind of stone in the game. But the devs knew what was going on, and they soon responded by moving the goalposts, adding several new types of marble that required even more elevated ranks.

Now, both of these stories involve player-initiated events involving large numbers of people. The Naked Troll Run happened in a game that worked on more or less the WoW model (except less questy and more grindy), and it didn’t have any permanent effect on the gameworld. The Gaming of the Marble took place in a game designed with the explicit goal of involving the players in a larger story that developed over the course of play, and it had a permanent change in the global game-state as a result, both before and after the devs intervened. If you take the people who say they want more meaningful interaction with the gameworld at their word, the latter seems more like what they want. But the Naked Troll Run was far and away the more satisfying experience.

Ultimately, the game doesn’t have to make stories happen. There’s nothing stopping the players from making stories at the game layer if they want to. But a lot of people don’t want to. A lot of WoW players don’t even want to engage the mythos layer, and being part of an ongoing creative process takes a lot more mental effort than being a passive audience to something pre-scripted. With power over the gamestate comes responsibility, and responsibility plus persistence equals obligation, not fun. Perhaps MMOs that seriously attempt to provide a more genuinely interactive world are doomed to be niche things, not because they do a bad job of it, but because that’s not actually what the majority of the players want, even when they say they do.

So what do the players want? As far as I can tell, the main thing is just harmonization of game and mythos. Give us a game where the NPCs don’t lie to us about how we’re having an impact on the world. Stop trying to pretend that every single player is the hero of the story. Find a fictional premise that acknowledges the truth of the situation, that thousands of people are going through the same experiences.

Or, alternately, do away with the mythos altogether. Hey, it worked for Minecraft.

2 Comments so far

  1. Chad on 11 Apr 2011

    I’m not sure if you’ve looked at Guild Wars 2 at all, but they seem to be trying to fix (or at least improve) this with their “dynamic events” system: http://www.guildwars2.com/en/the-game/dynamic-events/dynamic-events-overview/

    I’m looking forward to GW2 quite a bit, they’re doing a lot to try to break the current MMO molds. I’m not sure if it’ll all be successful, but I’m glad that someone’s willing to try, at least.

  2. malkav11 on 11 Apr 2011

    I didn’t really want to get into it on Rock Paper Shotgun, but the attitude in that article’s discussion really annoyed me. Some of us do actually value that mythos layer and don’t want it to go away in favor of aimless grinding and PvP as featured in the author’s favorite MMO, EvE. I mean, yeah, occasionally something interesting to read about happens in EvE as a result of its design, but I’m perfectly happy just reading about it.

    Similarly, until Minecraft features some sort of goals (even if they don’t come with an attached story), it will continue to gather electronic dust on my hard drive.

    I’m not saying either is a bad game. (Well, I’d argue that currently Minecraft isn’t strictly speaking a -game- at all, it’s a toy.) Clearly there’s a certain subset of players who would much rather be handed a basic framework and left to their own devices. I’m just not one of them. I pay to experience the fruits of the developers’ brilliance. If I wanted to make my own fun, I’d be making games for a living.

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