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.

WoW: Ganked!

So, I’m thinking it’s time to stop for a while again. I’ve hit a natural breakpoint in several respects: the lover’s festival just ended (taking its time-limited content and Achievements with it), and I just hit level 50, and I’ve just completed the lingering quests in a couple of zones I was interested in completing. Zones in this game are like chapters: each tells a story (or a set of connected stories) through its quests, and only touches the stories in the other zones lightly. It’s an interesting way to organize a game. I suppose it’s more or less how most single-player CRPGs work, but the immense size of WoW makes it clear how distinctly the different sections are authored, and the apparent seamlessness of the terrain makes the actual divisions all the more striking. Also, seeing this structure makes clear something I hadn’t really understood before I started to play: the nature of the expansions. Each expansion brings new territories into the game, and consequently new storylines, because story and territory are so tightly coupled.

But also, I’m kind of reaching a dismaying point of the game: the point where other players are killing me. For no reason. Or, well, for “honor points”, I suppose, but if you ask me, there isn’t much honor in how it’s happening. I’m venturing into “contested” zones, because after a while that’s where the quests lead you. Because I’m still mostly questing at well below my level, I tend to feel safe, when all of the sudden some Alliance player just up and attacks me, usually killing me with one shot before I’m even aware of their presence. And suddenly this seems to be happening a lot; I don’t know why it didn’t before. In one case, I was pursuing a special Fishing quest, one of the few quests I’ve seen that touches multiple zones: you have to catch specific fish in four specific locations around the world. So I’m standing there peaceably on the shore with a fishing rod in my hand when all of the sudden BAM. My first urge was to say something like “WHAT THE HELL MAN”, but then I realized that anything I said wouldn’t be understood: the game has Alliance and Horde characters speaking different languages, and anything said by people on the opposite team shows up as gibberish.

By means of this communication barrier, and the fact that players on different sides generally only see each other in contested zones, the game fosters the illusion that the opposite side is composed entirely of irrational jerks who can’t be reasoned with. Which, okay, accurately describes a sizable fraction of the players anyway, as my dungeoneering experiences show. But on the opposite side, that’s all you see. And there’s probably a lesson in that.

I suppose that if I don’t like it, I should go to another server — random PvP in contested zones is only possible on servers that permit it, and servers that don’t permit it are apparently considered “normal” by Blizzard. (Normal servers have special PvP areas, apparently.) I think back to my Everquest days. I didn’t like PvP then either, but I deliberately chose to play on a PvP server, because I didn’t want to think that the only reason people refrained from attacking me was that they couldn’t. And it actually worked out pretty well: even playing as an ogre in human territory, I quickly got a local reputation as the friendly ogre who goes around casting healing spells on people in peril. But that wouldn’t fly in Azeroth. The story of WoW is a story about war, and Blizzard has gone to some lengths to reward people for acting in accordance with that story, and to place obstacles in the way of ignoring or subverting it.

A defense and rationale for embarking at this late date on World of Warcraft

I don’t play MMOs. That should be clear by now. I’ve played a couple of MMOs in the past, however — and they’re the reasons why I don’t play MMOs. I got into Everquest for a while when it was new and exciting, and played it obsessively until I had discerned its fundamental lesson: that “addictive” does not imply “fun”. Some time later, while unemployed, I got involved with the first telling of A Tale in the Desert, the experimental MMO without combat (but with plenty of conflict), but after a while it came to feel like a job, and I left it behind shortly after landing a job in the real world.

The big problem with MMOs for a personality like mine is that they don’t end (or, in the case of A Tale in the Desert, don’t end soon enough). If the game doesn’t tell me it’s over, I don’t know to stop playing. The fact that all the joy has been sucked out of the activity is not enough to make me stop, as anyone who has read this blog for long enough can attest. So I don’t play them.

But I think I have to make at least a momentary exception for World of Warcraft.

The thing is, I hesitate to even describe WoW as a MMO. No, it’s THE MMO, the definitive one — heck, practically the only one these days. It’s the Harry Potter of the genre, both in the sense of “universally-recognized best-seller” and in the sense of “the one who lived”. There’s a definite pattern to other MMO projects: someone notices that Blizzard is making ungodly money and decides that they want a slice, they spend a bunch of time and money developing something, it attracts maybe one percent of WoW‘s audience for a little while before most of them drift away because of the lack of content. WoW, it seems to me, is a good example of success breeding more success. A large player base probably makes for a better MMO experience, if only because it increases the odds that your friends are already playing. The mere fact that it’s had so many years of continuous development makes for a better experience. The fact that Blizzard isn’t likely to pull the plug on it any time soon has got to make it a better experience than its worried competition.

This is a game with a unique position in our popular culture, a game still played by literally millions of people six years after its release. It’s been parodied in a thousand awful webcomics. It’s left a massive enough print on gaming that even venerable Dungeons & Dragons, father of its genre, has been reasonably accused of imitating it lately. And yet I have not even tried to play it until now, which, for someone who takes games seriously, is kind of like being the proverbial English major who’s never read Hamlet. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d want to give it a whirl eventually, but the “Cataclysm” expansion’s massive revamp of the long-untouched starting areas was the thing that nudged me into doing it now.

How long I’ll be playing it, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give up when my ten-day trial period is over. Even if I decide to start paying for it, though, it’s clear that this game has no place on the Stack: the whole monthly-fee model doesn’t fit the terms of the Oath at all. Nonetheless, I intend to blog about it as if the Oath applied to it. If at any point I can’t think of something to post about my experiences, I’ll take that as a sign that it’s probably time to give it up. Either way, I do intend to keep playing and posting about other games too.

The first character I have created is an undead warlock named Pleasance. I’ve already brought her up to level 9, and will doubtless have more to say about that experience in my next post, but I’m inclined to experiment a little with other characters before going into details.