Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Narrative vs Gameplay in MMOs: Unquiet Waters

One of the ways that MMOs can set themselves apart from their rivals is through their narrative, the stories they tell.  When BioWare announced Star Wars: The Old Republic they elevated story to being one of the four pillars their game was build upon, (along with Exploration, Progression, and Combat).  This is in direct contrast to Blizzard, which proudly espouses "Gameplay First."

In a key interview with MMO Gamer, Daniel Erickson, original lead writer for SWTOR, expanded on that design philosophy:
"We always talk about the four pillars that create RPGs: You’ve got exploration, you’ve got progression, you’ve got combat, and you’ve got storytelling.
When we said, hey, we’re going to do our first MMO, the obvious one to talk about first, even though none of the pillars can stand without the rest of them, and none of them are more important than the rest of them, we’re talking about story first because story is the delta. It’s the thing we’re doing that other people have not done."
Lately, story has become one of the things I'm primarily interested in from an MMO.  Yes, gameplay elements are important, like the feel of combat and the optimizing of stats, but I've come to see them as secondary.  As I sample different games, gameplay elements take on a sameness to me that is uninteresting.  For example, the action buttons in Warcraft and Neverwinter do pretty much the same thing, despite having different interfaces.

At a minimum, I want gameplay considerations to fade into the background and allow me to seamlessly participate in the narrative.  I don't want to struggle with movement controls that a game introduced for mere novelty's sake.  The interface should be a tool that allows me to do what I need to in the game, and to do so transparently.  Navigating the interface itself should not be a challenging mini-game experience.

More optimally, gameplay elements should be designed to work with the narrative to enhance its effect.  Well designed classes, for example, should have mechanics that reinforce their overall narrative concept.  Everything about a paladin, from abilities and attacks to type of gear and weapons used, should contribute to my experience of being a paladin. And it should happen in a world design that supports the Paladin class in the first place. 

Each of the gameplay elements support the core concept of the class and that class concept supports the concept of the world.  When that's done incorrectly in WoW, you end up with the Goblin starting area.  Initially, that seemed true for the space-crystal Draenei as well, but Blizzard spent the entire BC expansion literally expanding the story concept of their game and broadening it's narrative focus.  Now we have further opportunities in Warlords of Draenor to develop the race concept of the Draenei in a way that allows us to understand the space-faring Titans.

What I'm coming to understand is that I want my RPG to be less game-like and more novel-like.  Repetitive dailies are game-like.  Progressive dailies with narrative milestones make them more story-like.  PvP is almost entirely game-like, and eventually so is raiding.  Narrative quests, and particularly sequential quests can be very story-like if that is the goal of the designer.  So, too, can instanced dungeons.

Thinking about gaming this way allows me to understand why I am much less interested in PvP for MMOs than I am for other online games.  Now obviously many other players are not this way.  I'm not saying that this is the way that MMORPGs should be, merely that this is the way that I prefer them, and that knowledge should inform my choice of games to play.

With that in mind, I return to considering The Old Republic and it's particular emphasis on narrative gaming.  If what I'm really looking for is narrative, it makes sense to look at game companies that make that a priority.

This is my sixth installment in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.


  1. We are cut from the same cloth!

    I used to RAID OR DIE but now that I can't commit to x nights at x hours a week (married, with child, real life stuff..) all I want from my MMO is a good story. Something I can work away at at my leisure. I won't have an end game, I won't have a world first, but give me something interesting to work towards and you may get my money.

    I say may, because last time I tried this in SWTOR they gated me getting quest rewards because I wasn't a subscriber. The first x levels were fun, and a breeze, but now I can't even improve my character without playing? I get they need to make money. I would have happily paid if it was gated by levels or content.. but once I stopped getting class upgrades because I wasn't a subscriber I stopped playing.

    WildStar has a very interesting story and I hear it plays out pretty nicely - but I can't get the hours in to feel like the sub fee is giving me value. I'm about to unsub.

    LOTRO maybe - last time I journeyed through there I wanted the story but I so outlevelled the story and quest content because of built in XP boosts meant to speed along newcomers to the "end game"...

    GW2 lost me on season one because I couldn't keep up with the story and by the time I logged in I missed half of it...

    which leaves what - The Secret World? Is there story there?

    All of the above examples are just to show that MMOs are designing around the player interested in the story - because we have a short shelf life. And that is what RPGs are for (in the MMO designer's eyes....)

    Let me know how your return goes to SWTOR, may be tempted to revisit myself! Great post!

  2. It's odd that even when an MMO wants to emphasize its story, many things seem to get in the way - like the delivery method, or the leveling curve, as you mention. Each game has a different rhythm.

    The Secret World is definitely a game that emphasizes story. I find it very rewarding and it is certainly worth your time to take a look. The way that GW2 is handling their living story now is slightly different, and by logging in once every two weeks, you can keep that story saved for you. I'm not yet high enough level to participate effectively, but when I do reach level, it will all be there waiting for me.

    I want to apologize for my clumsy wording which has created a mistaken impression. I am a regular subscriber of SWTOR and switch between a few games. I meant that I wanted to examine The Old Republic more closely and see how well they are backing up their claim to support the "fourth pillar." I completely agree with you that SWTOR free-to-play restrictions are pretty terrible, particularly when other games (like LOTRO) are fairly easy on free players.