My previous post raised the possibility that massively multiplayer online role playing games, or something similar, might play an important role in the future, due to the fact that they, unlike movies, can be technologically protected from copying. That raises an obvious question: How good a story can a MMORG be?
Current versions face at least two intractable problems. The first is that, if the viewer is a character in the story, what he does should matter, should affect what happens. But the authors cannot write a different version for every player, so in practice there is, at least in World of Warcraft (I'm not as familiar with other games), a single plot line which the character is being walked through—meaning that he himself is impotent.
Many years ago, I had the experience of participating in a role playing game (Empire of the Petal Throne, for any familiar with it) being run by the man who created it. He was a Tolkien-class world builder but not a Tolkien-class story teller. The game felt, not like a story or adventure, but like a guided tour. And that was a game where there was a real human being in a position to modify what happened according to what the players did—not the case for a MMORG.
That suggests one possible solution to the problem, a fusion of the ordinary role playing game, with a human dungeon master, and the MMORG. The online game provides the world and backstory, while providing a talented DM the tools to take the plot line in any of a wide variety of directions, depending on what the players do.
One disadvantage of that model is that it, like D&D and its imitators, provides a world with a lot fewer real people in it than World of Warcraft. I am not sure if it would be possible to design something along those lines in which each human DM had control over a different part of the world and plot, making it possible for the actions of each player and group of players to determine one strand of a much larger, but internally consistent, story. Carrying my speculation farther forward, it might be possible to do the same thing using artificial intelligence to replace the human DM. I can imagine a primitive version of that at present, where a game has an elaborate network of potential plot lines, with the particular strand followed by a player depending on his choices. That is already doable, and done, by some single player games. It would be much more difficult with a massively multiplayer game, but perhaps not impossible.
This brings me to the other and related problem with the current version. Your player is told that there is some dire peril threatening the world, or at least large parts of it, and he is the only one who can deal with it. He succeeds in his quest, kills the monster. Half an hour later he observes another player, having been told the same story, fighting the monster he just killed. It is hard to tell a consistent story that way, or successfully suspend one's disbelief in a story that inconsistent. Over and over again.
To solve that problem, I think you need two changes, one or both of which may have been implemented in games I haven't played. One is to abandon the "save the world" point of view and give your characters objectives at a more plausible level. There is no reason why your character cannot save a child who is being attacked by a pack of wolves today, and observe another character saving another child from another pack of wolves tomorrow. That is only a partial solution if the two incidents are obviously identical. So the other part is to design the challenges with a lot of random variation built in, enough to make each run believably different from the last.
As should be obvious, these speculations are coming out of a very limited experience with the world of designing games. I will be interested in comments by those who know more about it, and in particular in examples of existing games that solve one or more of the problems I describe.
Neverwinter Nights was a game designed to allow a DM to create his or her own modules for players to play through. The DM could control NPCs, place buildings, arrange dialogue trees (or take over an NPC and type out the dialogue), and do other basic things to simulate a pen-and-paper game.
My impression of it was that it was not very good. In order to make design tractable it was too rigid--you had two temple models to choose from, and they (and everything else) had to be placed at ninety degree angles. Still, it's not hard to imagine someone improving on the idea.
I'm not sure that an MMO is the right way to go for this. One of the problems with an MMO, as opposed to a pen-and-paper game or a single-player RPG, is that the players are all out to be the hero, resulting in way too many heroes per capita. It ruins immersion (particularly if they're bunny-hopping across the landscape and engaging in LOLspeak). Real people are great in terms of their responses and unpredictability, but they are not so great for simulating a medieval world.
That could be addressed by moving the MMORPG to a modern setting, I suppose. Perhaps players could be encouraged to take on the roles of NPCs for a while, in exchange for some benefit to their PC.
In Tera, each world is split into 6 different "regions" that can be controlled by "Vanarchs". A Vanarch is a player elected from the player base. He makes various promises and does lots of favors to gather votes.
Once he is Vanarch, he can host events, set merchant tax rates, open up special item stores, etc.
The Vanarch doesn't have a lot of power to change the storyline or serve an antagonistic role to the players, but with some imagination this mechanic could work for a more DM style role.
I think the key thing you need to reconcile is what you mean by "story"?
Currently, MMOs are split into two types: "themeparks" and "sandboxes". Themeparks like World of Warcraft provide your guided storyline like you describe.
Sandboxes don't really have stories exactly. They provide the players with a lot of tools, and the stories are generated by the interactions of the players. But it's not really the same type of story as literature, with an intro, rising action, a climax, and a denouement. It is more a chain of events which we humans string together into a meaningful story.
For example, the current largest sandbox MMO is probably Eve Online. Eve is about spaceships, and everything in the game from ships to ammo, is produced by players. Some players mine raw materials, others manufacture goods, others use those goods, and still other shoot down the people using those goods.
Large swaths of Eve are in null-sec, which is a region of space that players can claim. Many of the Eve "stories" center on the conflicts of the various player empires in null-sec and some of the shenanigans (spying, betrayal, battles, etc.) that occur.
What your post seems to be asking for are themepark-style stories, but unique to each player. No game or technology has really mastered this, because *context* is so important to the stories, and that context is best provided by a human writer, and that simply does not scale.
A big challenge for MMOs is the sheer number of hours the players put in. Progressing through a story eats through content too quickly for the designer to keep it up. It also means that the players have different experiences, making it harder for them to socialize around the content.
Where MMOs can potentially win is via the setting and immersion. It can't keep telling you a new story, but it can at least give you an interesting place to hang out. At the extreme are sandbox games that Rohan describes, but I think Warcraft at its best can also make interesting places to visit.
Players as DMs seems more niche to me. It will make the best possible games, but it requires a lot of effort from the DM.
"Players as DMs seems more niche to me. "
Players as DMs is one possibility, but another is professional DM's with reputations, charging players for their services. One can imagine a whole industry growing up along those lines.
At RPGCodex the whole "you are the only one" thing was often mocked with the phrase "The Chosen One Must Choose!".
Apparently the original idea for Everquest was that most quests should be "Dynamic" and GM-led. The "Static" quests were just filler. But it was apparently too difficult to sustain the "Dynamic" quest system, so there were only "Statics" left. The "Static" quest system was then streamlined by Blizzard to make WoW.
But David, I would highly recommend you give Guild Wars 2 a try. It has a well-implemented version of what several games have tried recently - which it calls Dynamic Events. They are quests that you sort of "join in with" in the area you're moving through (rather than have to pick up from an NPC with a question mark over their head - though you can get some of them that way too). The upshot of DEs is that you sometimes do get to feel that you're changing events in the world, even if in only small ways (for example, whether you help out a village or not may change events elsewhere in the zone that impact other players). The DEs are on "cycles", but they're quite long and composed of multiple chains that often move across whole zones, interweaving.
DEs are really very well done, and about as close as an automated system can get to giving an MMO a GM-led feel at the present state of techology.
I'd also be interested for you to give GW2 a go to get your opinion on how they're doing the economy. It's B2P ("buy to play"), which means you pay for the game, but don't have to subscribe, but it's the full game you play (there's nothing "locked out" till you pay more real money like with most F2P MMOs).
However, there is a "gem store", and "gems" can be bought with real money or traded for in-game gold. "Gems" buy minor perks like xp boosts, etc. I think you might find it a bit intriguing to figure out what ANET think they are doing with this system.
Slightly off topic, but hopefully of interest to folks here: in my still-in-progress novel I've got one human and four genetically uplifted Dogs trekking across the farside of the moon and as a diversion from the sometimes-boring sights, the Dogs hack their suit HUDs to play an immersive virtual reality game. The game ends up becoming popular with people back on Earth, and a futures market springs up, betting on the progress of the Dogs through the virtual world.
It reads as a bit of throw-away distraction, but the fact that the code base for the game is integrated with the code base for the suits HUDs (and stored in an open source repository) ends up playing a key part in the climax of the novel...as does the existence of futures markets.
The early science fiction novel titled The Diamond Age from Neil Stephenson examined many content providing possibilities in online multiplayer virtual reality experiences. However, IMHO the current content creating mechanisms have to advance to a whole new level in order to gather more creative content creators. I mean the game designing tools. In order to see quality results game desinging has to become a fun game itself.
I haven't play EVE Online (I have played and play other MMORPGs), but from what I've read EVE doesn't fit your description of MMORPGs. No one in EVE is out to save the world except in their own megalomaniac delusions.
Can I create a bank in WoW, persuade others to deposit, then embezzle from it? Can I subvert a guild by becoming its leader, then betray and destroy it?
As in RPGs with treacherous party members, I find this behavior unattractive, so I don't play EVE (for now).
I have been playing Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), and while it does have a very rich storyline that parallels Tolkien's, it feels forced. Events happen not because of your character's choices, but because they have been scripted. In addition, nearly all of the NPCs are flat and static.
I contrast this with Skyrim which I have recently been playing. It's a single player sandbox world, where you can do whatever you want, including the avoidance of the main story lines. While it has its own storytelling flaws, the story seems much more compelling. I think this is because the player is in charge of directing the flow of the story, rather than in MMOs where the game scripts are in charge of moving the character along.
I'm doubtful that an MMO sandbox can help, since most players (in my experience) are uninterested in the story, but just trying to grind out better armor for the next weekend's raids.
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