Story in MMORPGs: The Coming Revolution

These two games look to revolutionize storytelling in MMORPGs

An NPC is seen in a village with an exclamation mark over his head. You run to him and get a lengthy dialogue about a certain plight the character has that only you and the other millions of players in your world can help him with. You simply need to kill "X" amount of a certain creature or get "X" amount of a special item dropped from the certain creature and bring it back to the NPC in order to receive your gold, experience, and item rewards.

You are one of the millions in your world worthy of defeating the largest threat to come about. In order to defeat this great evil, you need to stand around asking for a group to join you, travel a distance to find him, and then wait in line with the tens of other hero groups waiting for him to respawn so you can get the gold, experience, and special item rewards for ridding the world of this evil. An evil that happens to return every two minutes for the next John or Jane Doe and their powerful team in line to destroy it. Welcome to the world of story in MMORPGs, at least for now.

This tried and true, yet eventually dull and boring, method of telling a story and immersing players in their game world in MMOs is about to get shaken up in the coming years. Two new MMORPGs have arrived on the scene, both without a release date but well into development, that look to revolutionize the way players will look at storytelling in MMOs. They are Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.

NCSoft and ArenaNet’s first attempt to change storytelling in MMOs, the original Guild Wars, met with both success and failure. It’s instanced missions and eventual voiceover work for mission cutscenes added a feeling of immersion and importance to what your characters did in the world. However, the entire instance of the world and the use of the same quest system found in practically every MMO out today kept it from being entirely revolutionary.

Now working with a new slate for gameplay and lore to base the game around thanks to the original, Guild Wars 2 is looking to change the way players quest and play a story. Guild Wars 2 will be set in a persistent world minus missions and dungeons, and ArenaNet is introducing what they call an "event system" that is an entirely new way of looking at questing.

"I think I can safely say that you won’t see a single exclamation mark floating above a character’s head in Guild Wars 2," said lead designer Eric Flannum. "This is one of the many things that will encourage the player to explore the world — you can wander through and never quite know what you’re going to see. You might come across a fortress that’s being attacked by centaurs, or it might be that the centaurs attacked half an hour before you got there and they hold it now. You might start walking along a road you’ve walked a hundred times and suddenly there’s a caravan traveling along that road that you may not have seen, and you can go help that caravan out."

This new vision for obtaining and partaking in quests gives a much more realistic, organic feeling, approximating what it really would be like to walk around as a hero in a fantasy land. Players would spot trouble or characters in need and aid them by choice instead of looking for NPCs in the town square with symbols over their heads. The key element of the event system in Guild Wars 2 is choice. Players do not have to help those in need, and if they don’t it will affect the game world.

"Events respond to what the players are doing in the world," said ArenaNet co-founder Mike O’Brien. "If the players raid [a] centaur camp and clear out the centaurs, then there won’t be a centaur attack on the garrison. But if the players let the centaur population get out of control, then the centaurs will become emboldened and start doing raids."

If ArenaNet can pull off this system, which they seem to have a handle on, it can change the way quests are done in MMORPGs. It will help immerse players in the world much more than any quest system in any MMO has done to date. And immersion is everything when it comes to keeping players interested in an MMORPG. Combine it with the instanced story missions that made Guild Wars‘ story so immersive, and we could very well see a new way to look at story in MMOs.

But Guild Wars 2 is not the only coming MMORPG with a recipe to shake up storytelling in the genre. Legendary RPG storytelling developer BioWare is looking to show just how deep and personal storytelling in an MMO can be along with LucasArts with their upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.

BioWare is making choice one of the biggest themes for this massive MMORPG. As players will each have their own personal, epic Star Wars stories that will be forged based upon what decisions each player makes and when.

"You may have completely forgotten that when you were at level eight, that you killed this guy you didn’t need to kill," said lead writer Daniel Erickson. "His family hasn’t forgotten it and they’re going to find you 20 hours later and hunt you down, and you’re going to have to deal with the ramifications. One of the really fun things there is that you may be a completely different person at that point. You might have decided to give up your crazy ways from when you were a kid. And now at level 40, you’re pretty good and these guys come to you. You have to decide, ‘Okay, am I going to cover that up? How am I going to handle it?’ These are the things that really make the galaxy feel alive."

Decisions made in the game will come back to haunt you or reward you as you play. This is something that has never been attempted before in an MMO. The game will evolve around every single player’s decisions in their own mini-epic, which BioWare and LucasArts assure will be "massive."

"I think really it comes down to scope," said producer Blaine Christine. "Obviously it’s much, much bigger; we’ve talked a lot about how each class has their own story and each of those stories is essentially a full game. It’s literally hundreds of hours of story, questing and all of the secondary activities. So when you factor that in with eight different classes it’s a massive, massive undertaking."

Hundreds of hours of story, including dialogue and action sequences surrounding the plot, is once again something no MMO has even dared to attempt. An MMO this deep in story can fully immerse all players into the world around them. And BioWare and LucasArts want to make sure that immersion is exemplified with a fully voiced cast.

This will be the first MMO to ever be fully voiced over. Hundreds of NPCs and players and all their dialogue will have voices behind them. The sheer size of the script that will be voiced over, according to director of audio and localization Shauna Perry, will contain enough material for more than 40 Star Wars novels.

Just because each character’s story will be personal does not mean there will be moments where characters will take part in things bigger than just themselves. The Old Republic will have quests based on the larger conflicts on the worlds players will populate, and some will even intertwine with a player’s personal story.

The final pieces to BioWare and LucasArts’ plans for story in The Old Republic are companion characters. These NPCs will join players, at their side like party members in BioWare and LucasArts’ Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. During the game, your actions will change how the companion will see you for better or worse. This has been hinted to lead towards betrayal, fierce loyalty, or even romance.

When looking at the basic status quo of what storytelling in MMORPGs is, these two games are looking to completely turn the concept upside-down. With emphasis on a player’s choices affecting the world and/or the player’s future in the world, and a new way of obtaining quests, it brings a whole new level of immersion to a genre of repetitiveness. If both Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 can make good on their remarkable promises and visions, gamers could soon be looking at a new golden age of MMORPGs that will revolutionize the genre as we know it.

[] [EuroGamer] [Kotaku] [IGN] [] [TenTonHammer]


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Author: Mike Murphy View all posts by
Mike has been playing games for over two decades. His earliest memories are of shooting ducks and stomping goombas on NES, and over the years, the hobby became one of his biggest passions. Mike has worked with GamerNode as a writer and editor since 2009, giving you news, reviews, previews, a voice on the VS Node Podcast, and much more.

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