Dont Tell Me a Story, Mommy
by Jessica Mulligan
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about persistent world games and the telling of stories. If you wondered what that weird odor was, now you know.
It has been on my mind for the simple reason that I've been doing a lot of driving the last couple months, to spend time with family and friends that I didn't get to see much while pursuing my career. Those driving trips included quite a bit of quality time with only my own thoughts to provide entertainment. There is nothing like cruise control and the open road, and nothing but the open road, to get the ol' creative juices flowing. In fact, such 'alone' time to catch up on one's thinking can be pearls beyond price in these helter-skelter times. And believe me, driving a thousand miles is much to be preferred over flying these days, unless business demands it. Flying may be faster, but it also includes the wonderful experience of having low wage, soon-to-be federally employed flunkies getting to decide whether I'm going to be searched on every leg of my flight and whether or not I get to bring my potentially weapons-grade tweezers on the plane. And, gee, funny how those 'random' searches seem to overwhelmingly hit A) people that those doing the searching obviously want to harass for personal reasons, and; B) pretty women that the male flunkies obviously want to fondle with a metal detecting wand. Being a 6'4" woman who sometimes looks like a bear-wrasslin' lumberjack in drag, I have been 'randomly' searched - and sometimes painfully so, as jerks with a uniform and some power to abuse decide to use the wand to check my 'package' for veracity - on every single one of the flights I have taken in the past year. I tend to laugh hysterically when I see some politician on TV urging Americans to fly more.
OK, whining rant over; back to the subject at hand. There is nothing particularly bad about wanting to tell a story in a massive-multiplayer game; backstories, those tales that act as history and backdrops that set up the thesis of the game and give the player something to hang a hat on, are particularly necessary. Give a player and his friends a starting point and off they go, happily building legends and new history. It is why they are there, after all.
Where I start to go slightly ballistic is when designers think that their story, and only their story, is the one that should be told. You can hardly blame most of today's designers, really; after all, they were hired to write stories for computer or video games and most those stories have, at best, one, two or three pre-scripted endings. And, as we all know, stories have beginnings, middles and ends, right? Yeah, right, all that persistent world players are looking for is a good climax to the story, so they can... what? Stop playing and quit the game? What this really points up is that, for all that for-pay persistent worlds have been around for twenty-eight years, few designers have actually worked on one and haven't had the unique experience of being punished by hundreds or thousands of players for pre-scripting story endings.
That begs the question: What happens when the designer starts to treat a persistent world like television writers treat a series, constantly creating stories with a beginning, middle and end? Well, for one thing, the designer has already lost the war. He may win a battle or two if some of his stories are fun to play and talk about, but treating a persistent world like a TV series shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the medium. Static stories are all about the designer, his characters and his stories, trying to hook viewers into an emotional lock with the characters, so the viewer cares about happens to the characters over the long term. It is what soap operas and ongoing serial dramas thrive on. It is also a completely observation-based shared experience; Conflict A happens between Characters B and C with Results D, at which point Fans E through Z discuss it at the water cooler the next day.
That is not what role-playing and persistent worlds are about; they are not observation based, they are participatory exercises. No persistent world player subscribes to a game to watch other people play or to hang out and watch the designers tell a story. These games are all about the players and their characters and the stories they create, both by themselves and in conjunction with their in-game friends and team mates. It is about the uniqueness of each individual, combined with the shared experiences with friends and the team.
This problem of experience is self-correcting over time; within ten years, avoiding prescripted stories won't just be common knowledge among developers, it will be working knowledge and a standard. When I think about it, what really bothers me is that it needn't take a decade to accomplish. If today's designers would just look, really look, at what has succeeded and failed since Trubshaw and Bartle's MUD I went commercial in 1984, the next round of persistent worlds would be much more compelling and players would be more apt to stick around in the same game for years.
One of those failure points, of course, is trying force players down a prescripted story path. Which bring us to Mulligan's Rule for Persistent World Storyline Goodness:
It's about the player's stories, not the designer's stories.
In case I haven't overstated the point yet, about the stupidest thing you can do in a persistent world game is to try to ram a story with a pre-plotted beginning, middle and end down the throats of the players. It has never been successful and never will be, for the simple reason that players can't influence the story and create a little (or a lot of) glory for themselves if the ending is preordained. The best persistent worlds are all about players having influence, over their characters, guilds, the environment, other players, you name it. The more in the world the players can influence, the more popular the game is going to be over the long haul.
What we have today is a market of two extremes, the No Story game and the Prescripted Story game. Let's take the example of two successful games which sit at the opposite end of subscriber populations, EverQuest with some 450,000 subscriptions and Asheron's Call with somewhere between 65,000 and 85,000 subscriptions (Note: The AC population is a raw guess, based on simultaneous user totals and some educated guesswork. The subscriber total might be higher or it might be lower, but I'm willing to bet I'm within 10% either way). EverQuest is an example of the No Story extreme. Sure, there is a history to back up the character classes and the inventory items and spells that go with them, but there really isn't an ongoing story plot for which the players can influence the ending. Basically, EQ is an Achiever game; build the stats, acquire the toys and spells, wash, rinse and repeat. It also has Socializer aspects, in that there is incentive for teams to game together to accomplish goals. Mind you, it is a good Achiever game; you don't retain over 400,000 paying subscribers in a horrid game, that's for sure. Not in this market, and certainly not in the market of 2003 and 2004, with several more persistent worlds getting ready to launch.
Asheron's Call is an example of the Prescripted Story persistent world. Once each month, a new story is installed, along with some new goodies to acquire, but the players have no real influence on that story; they basically are following a prescripted quest for a few days, ringing the bell and grabbing the prize, then waiting for a couple-three weeks for the next round. In this, AC is mainly an Achiever game with some good Socializer aspects. It isn't a bad game, but it hasn't grown much or at all for the last two years, either.
If the Prescripted Story concept were all that compelling, shouldn't AC have a lot more subscribers, instead of being stuck at a total that is 1/5 or less of EQ's and dropping? Please note that, of all the persistent worlds on the market today, I have the most fun in AC; I like the skill system, I like the Allegiance and hunting party systems and the players are, on average and in my opinion, much more helpful and amusing to be around than in other games. And I'm not trying to lay subscriber totals completely on the story aspects; there is also technology, marketing and other factors to consider. But consider this: Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot, which is another No Story game, outstripped AC's two-year subscriber accumulation in less than six weeks from its launch. Like EQ, DAoC has a very full backstory that plays into ongoing goals for players and teams of players to work at, many of which, such as the Realm versus Realm combat for the higher level players, are open-ended and changeable without developer intervention. There is no ongoing story presented by the developers which the players can influence and change; there are ongoing conflicts between the players and teams in which they create their own stories and histories over time.
So considering only the concepts of No Story versus Prescripted Story, No Story seems to win hands down. I am counting the world's largest game subscriber population, Lineage: The Bloodpledge, in here, which is something of a cross between both concepts with its occasional episodes that drop new content into the land. For the most part, however, Lineage is a No Story game that involves conflict between Bloodpledges, although the Austin team for NCsoft is doing interesting things to try to get the players more involved, such as player story contests and seasonal content. Overall, the current crop of subscribers to persistent worlds would appear to prefer no story to a prescripted story.
So those are the extremes we have today. What about persistent worlds that feature stories that have a beginning, but maybe no middle and end? Are there any good examples, either today or in our short history? That, we shall talk about in the next column.