Over the past 10-12 years, games have been advancing and being accepted more and more as a legitimate art form and story telling device, in the same way a movie or a book is. This has mostly been led by RPGs, although through the years we’ve seen other games start to take on the idea of moral dilemmas and interactive storytelling. In fact, one of the few genres where it has kind of been lacking (or taken longer to catch up) has been in the MMORPG genre.
Could an MMORPG start incorporating some of the feature we take for granted in singleplayer RPGs? Rather than the “get quest, kill x number of things, hand in quest” formula, could we start seeing multiple ways to complete a quest? Could there be moral choices to be made, with an outcome that will affect both you as a player (emotional involvement) and your character (rewards/penalties).
Heavily edited and paraphrased due to length.
Sounds easy enough, right, putting RPG into the MMORPG experience. But, RPG is such a broad category, I doubt that you’d get the same description of a proper RPG from two different people. Personally, I break the single-player, electronic RPG experience into several categories:
- Single character, storyline choice limited, exploration unlimited.
Legend of Zelda, Quest for Glory, Elder Scrolls
- Single character “puzzles” with limited combat, but lots of environment interaction
King’s Quest, Myst
- Party play, combat emphasized, exploration unlimited, storyline based on character to character interaction
Final Fantasy, Dragon Age: Origins, Torment, Baldur’s Gate, Suikoden, Icewind Dale
- Party play, combat by grid, limited exploration, limited interaction
Monster Play, Final Fantasy Tactics, Shining Force
Some of these I wouldn’t necessarily consider RPG in the strictest sense of the word; however, in many stores and readings, all these games would fall under the umbrella of an RPG. Heck, I’ve played all these primarily because they described themselves as RPGs.
So, having looked at single-player RPGs, let’s cast our eyes to multi-player RPGs. I’ve played in three types of MMO environments:
- A landscape, mobs, and some dungeons. Zero lore, or other “props.” Player interaction had no effect on environment.
- Landscape, quests, and dungeons. Quests did not “contribute” to the storyline/lore of the greater community and were merely errands (farm ore with your ship, kill animals for pelts).
- Player-driven landscaping, some with quests, some without. Generally, quests were errands, but contributed to landscaping (collect wood for housing) or for crafting purposes.
I bet looking at that list, you’re tempted to throw World of Warcraft into the second slot, aren’t you? While we do spend a lot of time running around killing fuzzy animals and gathering materials for esoteric purposes, in reality, World of Warcraft incorporates player-driven landscaping. They’ve done so since the original game, when the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj opened, and the experience has become progressively more “personal” every expansion.
The Gate event had players acting as mindless drones, bringing materials until the quota was met. The Shattered Sun Offensive, a series of dailies that gradually had you taking a more active role in the re-taking of the Sunwell, acknowledged our role as heroes as the various guards and friends increasingly /cheered our names. Although you could argue that it did not change the landscape, it did acknowledge the players as the driving force behind the lore. Northrend has opened a wide variety of player-driven landscaping, from the Gate cinematic, to phasing in Icecrown Citadel. Our actions have increasingly affected the landscape in which we dwell, and I’m sure that we will continue to see landscaping in the next expansion.
However, that doesn’t address the initial question which asked how we could make MMORPGs more like a single-player RPG. I honestly don’t think we need to. World of Warcraft in particular plays very similar to single character RPG’s that I’m familiar with and already like. Our characters have little choice in terms of interaction with other characters, but we also have a huge landscape to explore. We have a lot of choice in deciding which areas and quests we’d like to do, and how to advance from level one to level eighty. Occasionally, we even get a puzzle type quests, such as the Ogri’la dailies. However, puzzle type quests tend to not be as popular, either because players find them frustrating, or the information becomes readily available bypassing the need to conquer the puzzle.
Since I feel that the single-player RPG aspect of WoW is well-incorporated, I’ll be looking for the positives from party system play in our MMORPG. We want our choices to matter, to affect the world around us, to shape us as individuals. First, let’s look at how these things are done in single-player games.
Most of the time, we have binary choices. Let’s take a couple of examples.
- Kiss girl. Get anything from mild flirtation to erotic cut-scene.
- Don’t kiss girl. Nothing happens to girl leaves party.
In this case, our action can have anything from no appreciable reaction to a possibly devastating event. Did we really need that character in our party? If not, all the other options are merely cosmetic. Let’s look at another binary choice.
- Beggar asks for money, and we supply a few coppers. He informs us of an ambush which we can now avoid.
- Beggar asks for money, and instead, we kill him. We gain a few coppers and get ambushed as we leave the alley.
Depending on your point of view, either of these actions may be a positive choice for you. Avoiding a potential fight may seem like a good deal; however, what about that extra experience you gain by fighting your way out of the alley, eh?
Other games, like Torment, take the matter of choice outside of the binary. Instead of two choices, we have six. When we meet a beggar we can give him a thousand gold, 5 gold, a copper, buy him lunch, beat him up or kill him. Depending on the choice we make here we open up multiple new pathways in the story as well as irrevocably closing other avenues. Many times these choices are tied to our reputation. By doing good deeds we become good people and by doing bad deeds people hate us. In most games, our reputation is fairly cosmetic, really, only affecting whether people greet us with smiles or jeers. In other games, our choices reflect in our pathway choices, limiting some meetings and opening others. As an evil thief, I can’t get information from the Bishop to advance the game, but instead fall into line with the local thieves guild for the same end-result. Someone dies, a door opens, and I get to advance to the next stage of the story-line.
However, I think it bears mentioning that in single-player games we rarely have a lasting impact on the story-line. We might change the environment (cleaning out a den of thieves, building a castle, moving a village), but the story has limited branches. If you choose option A you go in door number 1, if you choose option B, you go through door number 2, but in the end all the doors lead to the same conclusion.
Unlike any single-player game, in multi-player gaming environments, story conclusions do not lead to the end. The game does not roll a line of credits, and there is a limited feeling of completeness because, well, the world goes on, doesn’t it? World of Warcraft makes some attempts to have completing story-lines by running quest chains that end in a dramatic finale (Wrathgate, dead guy in Icecrown, statues/heads and other city additions on killing end-bosses). Likely, we cannot make the two types of game-play match up more than they already are in that regard.
Instead, we want to have a feeling of choice. The best way to do that, of course, is to limit us. We already have two distinct lines of quests that lead to the same ultimate conclusion in the very existence of the Alliance and the Horde. However, let’s say we want meaningful choice on a single character.
The first thing that would be required is additional quests. You, the player, wouldn’t have access to all of these additional quests because choice would determine which quests would become available in future. In order to “tier” the quests so that they allowed you to stay involved in the over-arcing story-line, such quest chains would have to be limited, say to one zone where you have chain A, chain B, chain C, and some that are compatible to a mixture (AB, AC, etc.). Perhaps you’d get an achievement, or something cosmetic like a tabard, a badge if you will of your personal choices as a character.
But that raises the question: is just choosing a particular quest-line meaningful? Every day players select a limited number of quests in their leveling time, that’s why Loremaster is an achievement in the first place: it’s a recognition of going above and beyond the requirements for leveling. In this case, it is quite conceivable that you would pass up some of the “specialized” quest-lines, perhaps earning your “choice” through random selection of a particular NPC in a particular place. You could combat this by directing people to the other quest-lines, much like choosing a particular faction such as the choice between the Oracles and the Frenzyhart reputation lines. In this case, you are introduced to both factions before making a choice about the side you wish to aid.
You could take this a step further by implementing special abilities or gear that visibly marks your character as “different,” or “chosen.” The problem I see with this is the same one that arose during Burning Crusade when you had to choose sides. People I played with rarely chose the Aldors or Scryers based on the lore or other ideological considerations, but rather, the benefits that they would receive from being marked as one or the other. Min/maxing, a favorite past time of many game enthusiasts drove the decision, and not one of character development. Every attribute that is added to the game must be carefully balanced within the context of two almost opposing game choices, PvE and PvP play, as well as balancing between the various classes and I imagine allowing an additional “racial” bonus or something of the like would require a time of great transition, such as an expansion to implement. This is not to say it couldn’t be done, I just imagine it would be difficult to have a stat driven attribute based on our choices. You also have to determine the “softness” of the threshold, i.e. can I change from good to bad to neutral, or once I start on a certain path am I stuck? By implementing a “reward” system for choosing a particular type of behavior, I think you’d severely limit the looked for “fun” of having choices by making it about the “right” choice for stats instead of the “right” choice for your character development.
Instead, it might be better to have our choice in choosing a faction had a visible impact on the environment. If enough players joined the Scryers, we would see more Scryer guards or disciples in A’dal’s chamber perhaps. That being said, much like the AQ gates, such an event would have to be carefully choreographed behind the scenes, and would likely set limits on the time people had to make a choice between factions so they could properly implement the “event.” It might not feel as personal, but in an MMO environment, I find large changes in the landscape which can be joined in and enacted by a large group (server) much more significant. Again, such an event has drawbacks. If you consider the number of active players during the Gates event, very few were actually on-line and live for the actual event, or had issues with connection and the like. While environment changes can be dramatic and feel epic, in reality, they can be very limiting and lead to exclusion among your player-base.
Summing It Up
I think the important thing to remember about story-telling within games, whether offline or online, electronic or pen and paper, is that the developer (game master) has the ultimate control over the relevancy and quality of the story. Despite the “choices” that seem relevant in many single-player games, in reality, such choices rarely alter the ultimate conclusion of the story. World of Warcraft developers have provided excellent story-lines in a number of different ways. You have small personal stories (please take my necklace to my spouse’s grave) to stories of epic proportions (the Lich King falls… and then…..), and while a good storyteller involves us in the story as participants, we are ultimately the viewer with limited impact on the breadth and scope of the final product.
That is not to say that choice doesn’t make games more fun and interactive feeling. I think there’s a lot of charm in trying to decide which choices to make in single player party RPGs, and as such I’ve looked at some ways that have been done/could be done to make it fit into the current game-world. If it were up to me, I’d select one quest hub per zone (assuming a Northrend-esque type quest grouping) and make that hub a place where multiple choices would fly. Ultimately, those multiple chains should wind down to a single stunning conclusion, and if we don’t want to be involved in such choice, why, we can simply ignore that quest hub. Instead of rewarding characters with stats, they should be rewarded with cosmetic rewards, such as tabards, pets, mounts or achievements, which single out their choice without unbalancing the larger goals of the game. While a permanent racial-type stat seems intriguing, I think it would lead to min/maxing instead of player-choice, taking the fun out of the experience, especially if quest hubs were “one-time” shots resulting in permanent results with little or no recourse to “fix” a potential problem.
MMORPGs are never going to completely mesh with the RPG storyline. The game-world does not end: it is a persistent entity that survives any single story occurring around the world, and in the end, I wouldn’t change that.