Monday, February 13, 2006

Better Storytelling Through Player-Developed Quests

One area of MMORPGs that is currently rich with opportunity for designers is quest design.

A problem I've had with quest design lately is that individual quests (missions, whatever you want to call them) seem to be created in a vacuum. They may come from characters in the game world, and they may tell a little story, but ultimately they're just self-contained pellet dispensers -- pull the lever, do what you're told, get a reward pellet. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yawn.

In other words, I see quests being used almost exclusively as a time sink. They're just quickie content tossed into the game to give the player something to do, or to provide a reward pellet. Wouldn't quests would be a lot more fun if they offered "gameplay" beyond just another collectible reward for Achievers? What if they had more literary/dramatic value?

There are two suggestions I'd like to offer for achieving this.

1. At least some quests should relate to each other to tell parts of higher-scale stories, and should all be part of a few stories with epic sweep.

The developers need to set the fundamental story rules by thinking about the past, present, and future history of the game world. Then all existing content should be keyed to telling some part of the unfolding story.

Instead of quest content being disconnected (because it's viewed as nothing more than a way to supply reward pellets), many NPC-directed player activities ought to be written as isolated glimpses into a larger story. And these stories themselves should be written as simultaneous events related to a few epic-level sagas, each of which reveals some major aspect of the lore of the game world in its current setting.

In this conception of quest design, it's OK if early/easy quests seem to be unconnected. New characters should see only the most local effects of their actions.

But as characters advance in power, they should begin to realize that what appeared to be unconnected requests were really individual parts of something much larger going on. Participating in these quests would let the player feel more a part of the larger story.

For example, several small quests to kill off bandits in a particular area could turn out to be tasks requested by an NPC whose larger goal is to establishing a secret base secure from prying eyes. A player who realizes this should be encouraged to wonder whether his character would support that NPC's goals or not... and that's the beginning of interactive storytelling.

These realizations that players have about the local meaning of what they've been doing should eventually begin to open up larger-scale quests -- let's call them adventures. Adventures should be riskier than than the initial quests, and should require the player to make more intense choices -- do you help those who need it even when it could injure you or your friends? Or do you put your personal desires above everything, even if it means abandoning the larger effort to the "bad guys?" The more adventures you take, the more you learn about the grand storyline in which those adventures are related, and the more you learn, the better your odds of putting the pieces together to succeed at those adventures.

These quests, if successful, should lead to the third and highest level of mission, the saga, which would be a major story set within the mythos of the game. Taking on a saga means you have entered the part of the story that reveals the global challenge behind all the local stories. Succeeding in a saga should not be about what gear a player has -- it should depend on his or her choices when confronted by hard decisions. Success, in fact, should not necessarily mean living or dying -- maybe it's about realizing who your character really is. As in all great literature, the outer struggle should mirror the inner journey.

Integrating quests like this would help players feel that they're not just grinding (even if you still give them rewards for completing quests), but that what they do is part of the big picture, that they're helping to reveal the game world's reality.

In short, integrated storytelling through quests/adventures/sagas helps players feel that what they do means something within the game world, even if they don’t bear on the main storyline. I've yet to hear any players say they don't want that.

2. Players should be given tools that allow them to tell their own game world-relevant stories.

I'm not looking for developers to do everything for me -- online games are an active entertainment medium, not a passive medium like TV. Accordingly, MMORPGs should require active player participation in the storytelling process.

So in addition to developer-created quests, the game should be designed to allow players to use developer-created tools for creating their own multi-player stories within this greater storyline. It would take some thought to minimize abuse, but letting players place, minimally control, and script dialog for NPCs would be an enormous asset in allowing players to help tell stories in the online game world.

Online games are currently the only mass entertainment medium that is capable of achieving this kind of mass collaborative storytelling. Wouldn't it be interesting to see that potential realized in a MMORPG?

[2011/09/20: Five years later, we may actually be getting something like this thanks to Namaste and their Storybricks system.]


I conclude by noting that I'm not proposing all this stuff just to have "good storytelling." Dramatic expression is nice, but gameplay matters, too. (And probably matters more.)

I'm suggesting these features because I believe that offering emotionally engaging gameplay through collaborative storytelling can make a MMOG more viable financially. A player who suddenly comes to understand the role she is playing in a larger world has the chance to become more connected to that world... and connectedness helps retain paying customers.

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