Category Archives: Story/Narrative

MMO Masterclass: Storytelling in FFXIV – A Realm Reborn

Tamrielo from Aggrochat has recently been looking at storytelling in FFXIV in his two-part post, where he’s analyzing the different content seasons and story archs in the game, how they have improved over time and immersed him as a player. If you’ve been playing a Realm Reborn for any decent amount of time since FFXIV’s relaunch, you know that there’s no way around the main storyline in Eorzea. In fact, there is probably no MMO out there right now that is more dedicated to its storytelling than this one. The narrative is front and center and accomplishes the remarkable feat of including its audience. After Yoshida took over the reigns for ARR, the player character was brought back into the narrative fold.

Naturally, many MMOs turn the player into a nearly omnipotent hero of the story and much has been criticized in regards to that particular trope. However, FFXIV does it in such an unconditional, dedicated and traditional way, that it’s kind of a big deal. Telling stories has always been the forte of the FF franchise and finally, there is a classic MMORPG that not only manages to rise from the ashes but combine the linearity of JRPG storytelling with an MMO environment. As much as I tried to care about the politics of Azeroth or Tyria in the past, no other MMO has managed to include me, make me care about NPCs and the greater course of events, the way FFXIV has done.

The Great Final Fantasy Formula

Ever since the early beginnings of the FF franchise, Squaresoft’s much beloved JRPG titles followed a very clear and narrow path: the player gets to control a powerful hero, more often than not a person of unknown origins or obscure past. The hero is not the player, since the player has no real agency over the character’s story and there are next to no choices. An equally important ingredient to this formula is “the party” which is one of the most central aspects of all FF games; your very own gang of specialists, distinctly defined by their class and different abilities that will mostly align with a holy trinity concept, despite the fact that FF is all about round-based combat. Down the line, you and your gang will probably find out that you are all related or were raised in the same orphanage. You are never truly alone in a FF game.

Cloud and the gang

Cloud and the gang

Add to this very straightforward setup a linear storyline with next to no branching; the point is not to write your own story or find your own path but rather, to immerse yourself in a tale told by an invisible puppet master. The tool you’re given to accomplish your goals is a customizable, complex round-based combat system with random encounters. Your driving force is a world struck by tragedy or impending doom that only you and your A-Team can save (most likely by help of some sparkly crystal or other). Along the way, you will face one or two ambivalent villain figures as well as lots of wacky side-kick characters.

Now imagine all of this being crafted with an outstanding sense of aesthetics on a graphical and musical level, and the result will always be the same: your next FF title. In the past, Squaresoft have consistently pushed narrative RPG standards for at least 15 years, during a most pivotal time for gaming and not just with the FF franchise either. A Realm Reborn, although set in an online world where choices and interactions with other players are possible, follows most of this old textbook to a fault.

Intricate Politics and Overwhelming Stakes

A great many heroic tale comes with a doomsday prophecy: it will be the end of the world as you know it, or alternatively the end of the world full stop, unless significant obstacles are overcome and evil is vanquished. While this can be a tiring setup in RPGs and MMOs, it is still popular enough in getting audiences engaged. I don’t really mind this trope personally, what I really care about is execution. Am I presented with an uninspiring tale of clear good vs. evil or a much more complicated world where loyalties and intentions change constantly?

Squaresoft JRPGs have often introduced such nuances, despite their linear plot. Over the course of a playthrough, you’d learn about the background stories of your adversaries. You would have to rely on characters of questionable allegiance, you’d see mercenaries turn altruistic or allies turn traitor. Faced with warring factions unwilling to unite for a greater cause, you’d find yourself drowning in petty schemes and side-politics. Even villains may be worth saving in the end.

MMORPGs have a hard time delivering such complexities, given that they try to achieve a certain degree of open world freedom and accommodate various playstyles. A Realm Reborn doesn’t compromise much on that front; players who want access to dungeons or endgame, will need to engage in the story. But since the story is the driving force behind the entire game, rather than an afterthought, things feel different.

refugees

Unwelcome refugees in wealthy Ul’dah.

Now I’m with Liore in that there’s still some “goofy MMO writing” and delivery going on at times, the cutscenes sure can get tedious while your character is silently nodding along. But I’m impressed at the different issues the story has touched on thus far – from immigration poverty and class warfare to interracial politics (and racism) and even environmentalism. That’s just to name a few themes. Down the line, you realize how you’re being pulled into twisted intrigues and machinations by multiple players on a chess board Game of Thrones-style, while SE take full opportunity to send players all over the world (including so-called old zones and dungeons) to chase their story’s tail, simultaneously serving the social engineering of the game. For an MMORPG, that is one noteworthy use of narrative.

Joining a band of brothers of sorts, the player soon establishes a steady home-base to return to in between missions and before long, gets attached to the NPCs that share the story with him. It’s safe to say that not many an eye was left dry at the conclusion of ARR before the expansion.

The Heavensward Trailer and The Adventurer

The official launch trailer for Heavensward is another example of storytelling done right. Instead of the usual showcase of random locations and encounters without obvious connection, the trailer takes over from the moment your character finished his/her main story. The Adventurer, an unnamed character who represents the player in FFXIV is back, while the ending of the Seventh Astral Era as well as some future events flicker over the screen. The trailer concludes with the player arriving in Ishgard, which is where your journey in Heavensward begins. Talk about trailers bridging content.

In Conclusion

While I am praising FFXIV’s storytelling here, that doesn’t mean its delivery isn’t without issues. As mentioned above, the cutscenes and loading screens can get too long and it’s a bit of a tragedy that SE didn’t invest in more voice acting for Heavensward. For your daily grind, uninspired fetch&delivery quests are a dime a dozen. When it comes to the main storyline however, ARR has achieved greatness by virtue of omitting branches and player agency. This might present a bit of a downer for some players but in my personal experience, most consequences in MMOs come down to an illusion of choice rather than the real thing anyway.

If there is one advice I would dare give to game developers in charge of big franchises, it would be to play to their strengths and also, not to fix what ain’t broken (okay, that was two pieces of advice). You can mix up some things and you should definitely improve on your weaknesses, ARR is a prime example of that – however, it is a mistake to abandon franchise-defining elements and to throw your greatest virtues overboard for the sake of innovation. Too often have we seen over-hyped sequels crash and burn because they strayed too far from the established path, rather than to widen it just a little. FFXIV has conserved its JRPG traditions and legacy masterfully and for the most part, with little compromise. Storytelling is this developer’s strong suit and they have had the good sense to embrace that.

Ironically, other developers never overcome their struggle with the fourth pillar in MMOs: how to include the player while not making him the center of attention? How to manage that balance of player agency and choices versus narrative chaos and insignificance? Square-Enix’ answer to that would be, not to go there at all. Better to have a solid, engaging and linear story the way it’s told in a book or movie, than to fail epically with the best of intentions. I can’t help but agree with them on that one. The proof is in the pudding.

Three Indie games, three ways of handling story

Last week I wrote on storytelling in MMORPGs and why I think there should be less telling going on in this genre in particular. Judging from the passionate discussions this topic sparked in my comment section as much as on other blogs (such as over at Nils, Bhagpuss, Rowan, Tesh,  Soresu or Eri), it’s  become apparent that many of us feel strongly about this subject and how MMOs should deal with it. It’s probably a fair guess too that most of us actually want stories, so the games we play need to allow and in some cases (such as lore) prepare for them. Interestingly enough, the debates also showed a wide consensus insofar as that many of today’s MMORPGs (which feature heavy exposition) fail in this regard and don’t sufficiently challenge player imagination. I find this rather noteworthy.

On the weekend I’ve played through another indie game, called Proteus. I hadn’t heard about this title previously and went into the whole experience, a term which certainly applies here, unbiased and without expectations. It so happens that Proteus is another antithesis to how story is delivered in many of today’s games, making a perfect addition to a follow-up I’ve been meaning to write on indie games which handle story a little differently. If you find yourself generally curious about different narrative approaches in videogames and are looking to delve further into this subject, I can highly recommend playing these and I will attempt to summarize for you in which way each game tackles story and includes the player in the narrative process (if at all).

Before I get to this though, it’s important to briefly cover my bases as far as definitions go. There is always some wiggling room for interpretation in terminology, but generally when I refer to lore, story or story-telling, my meaning is this:

  • Lore: lore is the unspoken framework of the world. It’s its past and history and is (or should be ) all around you. In the real world lore shows itself via culture, language, architecture, art etc. The same applies to plausible virtual worlds. There is much more to lore than reading books or hearing a story told by elders.
  • Story/Narrative: while a story can be “told” (or narrated), the most engaging stories are the ones that are not explained but developed, discovered, unearthed and experienced step by step. Story happens inside the recipient’s mind and can be achieved in many different ways, to different effect. In games, the player should be part of an experience rather than just a reader.
  • Story-telling: the most direct way to communicate story is via spelling it out for someone, in written or spoken text. This applies to random stories as much as lore and is rarely the best way (and certainly the least engaging or immersive way) to include the player (=/ players are not “audience”).

 
With that out of the way, let’s continue with the way each of the games below handles story. I vow to keep this on a conceptual level and to steer clear of big, bad spoilers as much as possible.

A) “Journey”

journey

Journey is a game of no words, featuring incidental but non-verbal player interaction. While the player is set on an unknown (but essentially linear) path through a visually stunning, limited open world of soft pastels, the only rough guidance comes in the form of paintings on ancient ruin walls, occasional riddles/triggers or NPC presence. Gameplay mechanics are limited to few commands. The player is an errant wanderer, the goal is unclear.

How story is created in Journey: Journey is all about lore. While linear in essence, the game offers more or less opportunities to marvel at details found in the environment and speculate on what appear to be remnants of ancient civilization. Between “zones”, the player’s journey is recapped in form of animated mural artwork. There is a beautiful conclusion (or interpretation) to Journey although it is as much a beginning as an end.

Do I feel like a part of Journey’s story? – Yes. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Yes.

B) “Dear Esther”

esther

Without intending to make a quality statement, Dear Esther is a title I would call more book than game. It’s visualized story-telling in which the player gets to travel strange landscapes of the mind or memory, with narrated monologues by someone else (or maybe not). The player’s path is therefore limited and gameplay in the traditional sense is virtually non-existent. The vistas you travel are tied to the information given as the story moves along.

How story is created in Dear Esther: despite being narrated, Dear Esther presents the player with more questions than answers. The story is hard to follow, text consists of non-expository, ambiguous and often unclear snippets which need to be puzzled together and leave much room for interpretation. While Dear Esther is all about the narration, it leaves much guesswork to the player. The conclusion is a riddle in itself, leaving the player wondering how much of a part he truly had in what’s been told.

Do I feel like a part of Dear Esther’s story? – I’m still figuring this one out. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Not really.

C) “Proteus”

proteus

Proteus is both a game of very limited gameplay as well as minimalistic graphics, putting emphasis on music and sound effects. Cast away on a strange small island, the player gets to move around freely in an attempt to map and explore the natural habitat, including few mysterious ruins scattered across the place. Acknowledgement of player existence is given through sound effects and some NPC reactions. Other than that, there is nothing to be “learned”, no particular path to be taken nor any other action possible in order to “move things forward”. Proteus is literally about (patiently) experiencing the flow of time and its impact on the environment.

How story is created in Proteus: as there’s neither narration nor lore worth mentioning, Proteus is an extreme example of leaving gaps in story. The experience is literally about being there and biding one’s time. While player action or presence seems insignificant, there is still change happening in the world which can be detected and interpreted. Ultimately, Proteus delivers a conclusion similar to Journey’s although much more timidly so. Story in this game is whatever you choose to tell yourself.

Do I feel like a part of Proteus’ story? – No. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – No.

My personal conclusion

Of the three games, Proteus proved to be my greatest challenge. It’s bewildering to “play” a game which hardly acknowledges your presence and generally offers no way of participation. The same could be said for Dear Esther, yet there purpose gets clear from the beginning and the game still offers the player a weak sense of driving chapters forward, if not the actual story. Proteus on the other hand comes with a sense of open world and seems to follow its own timer; while the world changes around you, there’s a feeling of helplessness or lack of understanding that I personally found unnerving. To me it felt like shouting into a well with no echo. I had a very hard time engaging myself where there was so little to engage yourself with (and the island is too small to explore for a long time). I cannot say that I found any story worth telling despite there being a final “conclusion”.

No doubt there are players who would disagree with me on Proteus and whose experiences differs greatly. Maybe players who also dig the musical aspect of the game which I found annoying after a while. This is the interesting part though: the way we experience games tells much about ourselves. Proteus strained my patience and frustrated my impulses for activity. It showed that just wandering a world influenced by time is not enough for me and won’t satisfy my wish for story in games. To be fair, the game is stripped of almost everything. At the very least it could do with some more lore but that’s my opinion.

That experience also confirmed I need some traditional gameplay and means of interaction to enjoy myself; in Proteus, the concept of the “player” is reduced to a point where I found it difficult to feel emotion or attachment (can there be such a thing if the “self” is removed?). This is not just due to the lack of visible avatar (which is the case in Dear Esther too); the game makes a point of how unimportant you are as an entity. You might as well be a hovering, maneuverable camera taking wildlife shots. No thanks – but it sure was an experience.

Journey remains my favorite for overall accomplishment and story – although I would pay for more games coming forward and expanding on Dear Esther’s concept. Journey achieves a stunning balance between player inclusion and leaving gaps, showing story rather than telling it. It features enough gameplay to retain a sense of driving things forward while the player remains a wonderer, wanderer and puzzler within a much greater tale. It’s the game I therefore also found the most immersive and the only one I have replayed. Unfortunately Journey remains PS3-only (worth borrowing the console if you don’t own it!). Both Dear Esther and Proteus can be acquired on Steam.

I recommend all of them if you’re looking to blow your narrative mind sometime and also to test the limits of your very personal notions of what constitutes game. You never know what you may discover.

Why Storytelling in MMORPGs is overrated

I am so tired of all the MMORPG lore I’m supposed to know about. Or care.
Why can’t I be the one writing history? (Syl)

I know there are players who would fiercely disagree with above sentiment; lovers of MMO lore for one thing and all those of you who feel that the player should not be the hero of the world. I’ve disagreed with that before – and I still do.

As great as the story of Arthas was in World of Warcraft and it’s one of the few I ever really cared for, it also made me a by-stander. I was allowed to accompany him through the Culling of Stratholme and assist Jaina several times over but I had neither power nor say in any of these matters. A load of good all the leveling up, gearing up and gaining reputation have done me. Worse though, what the story arch of Arthas really did for Warcraft was ending something; the central theme, the big ambivalent villain figure ended in Wrath of the Lich King. And on a personal level it’s where the game ended for me, too.

No matter what efforts have gone into writing the next expansion or attempting to introduce Deathwing as “that new threat” (another boring force-of-nature dragon in a fantasy game), everything after WotLK is basically “post Arthas” and we know it. That is the nature of storytelling: it ends. To tell a story, recounting events, is to acknowledge the flow of time. All good stories, the ones that engage and touch us, must end lest they not be literally point-less.

Who may be allowed to linger who is fulfilled by purpose? (C. Morgenstern)

tmd

Art by E. Foster

Is it really such a good thing to emphasize storytelling in a genre that wants its virtual worlds to exist forever? There’s a reason why the internal narrative of LOTRO, now in its fourth expansion, has only just reached the chapter of Rohan. It took the fellowship five and a half years (!) to get to that part of Middle-Earth and for a good reason. For what will happen if they ever reach their final destination? What will Turbine do after the One Ring was cast into the fiery chasm from whence it came? As long as their game goes strong it must never happen.

More Lore Bore

Narrative is an important part of the RPG genre; it adds depth to the fictional worlds we play in and the characters we meet, as far as we like to make NPCs an important part of the experience anyway. Traditionally, it can make us connect with individuals, identify more with quests we are given and add purpose to our stride. Yet, if my personal MMORPG experiences are any indication, lore and storytelling do not actually make for much player immersion. There is a disconnect between myself and a world I have “so much to learn about” (like a tourist purchasing a guide book), trying to follow the narrative’s red line and let’s face it: read lots and lots of text! Or alternatively listen to it.

I have all but switched off to my personal storyline in Guild Wars 2, those cut-scene screens cannot come off fast enough. Trehearne is the hero of the day and for all the forked story-choices I get to make, all roads inevitably lead to Zhaitan – yes, yet another faceless, boring fantasy game dragon. Never has a more formidable creature from our favorite genre’s bestiary known more “narrative mistreatment”. I am so detached from what is supposed to be my personal story(?), it feels like ArenaNet should have re-named the whole thing to “world campaign”. Only, the entire narrative doesn’t just feel disconnected from the player on a personal level, it is also not very well integrated in the rest of Tyria.

gw440

However, Guild Wars 2 storytelling failings are far from the exception. And I honestly think the constant demand for increased “story telling” in MMORPGs is mislead. The so-called fourth pillar of game design is overrated for this genre in particular, for should not the player drive the narrative rather than being driven by it? And it would be a good thing to remember how great stories are really created and why more and more story-driven quests and events in MMOs are in fact counter-productive to the immersive experience. Worlds are immersive when they engage us and make us partake – not listen to.

Don’t “tell me” the story

Great writing is the art of not saying things. It’s the skill of knowing which things to write and which to leave out. The greatest of authors understand that it won’t do to spell out all the details, secrets and twists about a story; this is not how interesting characters or plot are created. I believe typically most writers spend the first half of their journey learning to flesh out, formulate and construct interesting, complex plot-lines. After that, they spend the other half of the time removing information and un-saying too many words. I can confirm this for my own writing journey, that it’s a struggle of learning what not to say, rather than what to say and mustering that “courage for silence” which tangentially, is also a central theme in the education of teachers (which happens to be my professional background). Didactics 101 will teach you that for greatest learning effect, impact and longevity, your audience needs to make as many steps of the journey on their own as possible. They must try unearth and unravel the story (or learning subject) by themselves. The teacher should only ever be the prompter, the one asking questions and if required the fallback plan.

Accomplished (fiction) writing follows very much the same principles. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as grabbing the eraser and cutting extra holes into a story; we need to set up the things we aren’t telling and often that takes a lot more doing than just spilling the beans. Writers must balance that tiny margin between frustrating readers with gaps and inconsistencies versus treating them like children. Both shortcomings are equally bad.

Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy. (source – Syl)

I would re-phrase my above statement in this context to the following: “Half of the story building in MMOs relies on us connecting the dots by means of our own imagination. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

Where does narrative happen? And impact? Not inside the game surely. They happen inside our minds and most exquisitely so when we connected the dots ourselves. When we have a sudden moment of understanding, of surprise, suspicion or that big game-altering epiphany: “Oh my god, a-ha!”

MMO players aren’t a lazy audience, they’re in fact experts when it comes to finding secrets, puzzling together bits and pieces of information scattered seemingly at random across the world. Yet, less and less are they being challenged to do this in MMORPGs. I’d like to play sherlock in the games I play in and unwind themes and stories in my own time. And I want to be part of them rather than just a reader plowing his way through chunks of narrative thrown at me ever so often by writers. Most of all: I want less story-telling and spelling it all out for me. Heck, less is a lot more here! Leave something to my imagination? It tends to be bigger than anything anyone could write.

Winding back the clock

I’ve been playing through several retro RPG hommages this last weekend, such as Half-Minute Hero or Evoland. While they’re parodies of oldschool console RPG tropes and mechanics, they made me think back on how much simpler stories used to be in this genre and how well I remember them in spite of this. Characters weren’t nearly as well written or complex, either. Yet that “blankness” or lack of certain pieces of information allowed me to make them “my own” a lot more than newer games do. It allowed me to project some of my own wishes and speculations into them and to keep looking for clues around the world to back me up. To this day, I still wonder about Crono, that mute “protagonist” from one of the greatest games in existence. And I still speculate over pieces of the puzzle that is the story in Xenogears. I like not getting answers to everything. It means I can find my own answers.

Interestingly enough, I came across two links in this context after starting to write this article. One is a Gamasutra analyzis on “Chrono Trigger’s Design Secrets“, a piece that focuses almost exclusively on the balance between delivering narrative versus emergent gameplay and freedom in the SNES classic. This big design challenge applies to MMORPGs too, maybe even a lot more so.

Thanks to modular narrative sections, carefully designed battles, and the use of levels to guide progression, players are given a sense of freedom while actually playing a relatively linear game and experiencing a set overall narrative — but Chrono Trigger‘s narrative freedom goes much deeper than that.

My second link is Total Biscuit’s critical Bioshock Infinite review on youtube. Most players agree that there’s not much in terms of open world in this shooter RPG and it doesn’t need to be – BI is a linear and heavily story-driven, visually stunning journey (with guns). The players is and always will remain a spectator. Yet, at one point through the video (39:40) TB comments on general exploration in Bioshock games:

Generally speaking the world itself tells a story way, way better than anything else would. Like, if you would’ve just said: Oh, I’m gonna tell a story through a bunch of exposition with dialogue – that’s not as strong as the way Bioshock has traditionally told its stories, because Bioshock shows you things. And it also leaves a lot to the imagination and a lot of conclusions which you yourself have to actually make. Which is in itself pretty fantastic.[…] And I would say that if you wanna design your game really well and you wanna do a reasonably open-world game which encourages exploration, you have got to do that stuff. You’ve got to have the world tell various stories.

While I’m not so sure this necessarily applies to BI in particular, I agree with it as a principle.

In conclusion: 3 maxims of storytelling in MMORPGs

I’ve touched on several issues of storytelling in RPGs and MMORPGs in this post, all of which intersect heavily but are also questions of their own. First and foremost whether MMORPGs should feature pre-written stories and if so, how much is too much? And how should ongoing narrative be driven and delivered in online games in order to engage the player and remove him from the spectator’s bench? I haven’t reached any final conclusions on this myself. However, in summary and based on insights from past games, I would state the following three “maxims” of storytelling in MMORPGs:

  • MMORPGs should avoid that one central and finite story arch. Instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.
  • There should be less story-telling and explaining going on. Instead, offer the player more engaging hunts for truth and connecting dots. Dare to leave gaps and not explain everything or everyone.
  • Narrative should be driven by the player as much as the other way around (at the very least).

 
These could possibly be refined or worded better. I think it’s safe to say that many MMO players do enjoy good stories but it’s a question of how they are initiated, how they engage and include us in the worlds we play in – whether they remain tales or become experiences.

Every minute spent on reading or listening to educational text blocks in MMOs is a minute in which I am a passive recipient rather than the player / hero. And with every such minute my world inevitably becomes a little bit smaller – more explained rather than explored, more narrated rather than experienced. What an unspeakable loss.

Experiencing Events, Impact and Player Mindset

From many of my previous ramblings it’s probably become apparent that I’m the explorer type who thrives on open adventure in MMOs; the unpredictable, surprises and taking the long road rather than shortcuts. I put less value on completionism, things like achievements, social firsts or best-in-slots. I’m in for the journey and the immersion in virtuality. Therefore too, there’s nothing worse to me than a world that’s fully discovered, fully mapped and fully understood. The moment we draw the last line in that picture is the moment we limit our world, the moment where it becomes small and finite – when hypothesis and speculation become hard fact and there is no more ‘may be’.

To a traveler and explorer “finishing a world” is the death of his playstyle. I want to stand at the shore of the southern sea and wonder forever what may lie beyond.

I’ve talked about dynamic events in GW2 recently and why I am at peace with one-time events of greater significance (even if it means I miss them sometime). However, the very diverging opinions on this currently hot topic have reminded me once more just how important it is to consider player profiles and preferences in MMO design discussions. There are areas where we will simply never agree and much of that is ingrained; we might as well discuss what tastes better, apples or oranges.

Still, I think there’s something to be said in favor of (well constructed) one-time events in MMOs that exceeds just lasting impact or significance. If more global events are realized in a way that allows for different playstyle approach, “missing a unique event” is not as horrible as it sounds at first. In fact, it is impossible to truly miss it. Let me try and explain why.

Immediate vs. Retrospective Experience

In the following image I (painstakingly..) attempted to depict a small scene of cataclysmic proportions. In case it’s not clear what you’re looking at, that’s A) a comet about to hit your world, and B) you curiously gaping down the crater the comet left behind. Yeah, you’re still alive – be grateful!

Event A / Event B

Now, ask yourself the following question: would you rather be:

A) The player who witnesses the comet’s impact, including all the excitement and epic/traumatic immediate effect that goes with this event.

-OR-

B) The player who chances upon the crater later on, presented with the full scale devastation, wondering what may or may not have happened here.

The two experiences are mutually exclusive. If you have witnessed the immediate event, there is no question of what happened; you know. You are not going to wonder, speculate or investigate further to find out how the crater came to be. Most likely, you’re also not going to spend as much time on site “post cataclysm” analyzing the devastation.

Player B is presented with a different event entirely, yet an event no less. For him, the story unfolds in retrospective – in his imagination, in clues, in reports of NPCs or other players. Is that the lesser experience? Did he actually miss the event – or did he not much rather experience it from a different angle, a different point in time? The thought came to me when standing at the shattered fountain in Lion’s Arch last Sunday night, considering the damage done to this so iconic place in the game –

As always, click to enlarge!

Here’s a little secret: I still haven’t watched the one-time Halloween event on youtube. I didn’t go and check how the Mad King emerged. And I decided I won’t. Nothing can beat the scenario I have envisioned in my mind at this point. I have this epic idea of what happened and I want no youtube movie to take away from my imagination. The Mad King’s appearance in Lion’s Arch will forever be the stuff of legend to me, mysterious, notorious!

I like it that way. Maybe you do not. I’m sure many players would agree that the “main event” of  my little scenario above
is the comet falling down from the sky. If an MMO introduced this, they would want to be there just when it happens. However, the important part is that neither outlook is wrong, just like there are no wrong playstyles. There are different ways to experience events and different things to take away from them. Arguing the point would be as fruitful as arguing whether movies are better than books: some people prefer movies for their more guided experience (the camera is your focus), their concrete visuals and sound. Others rather stick to books that rely more on suggestion and imaginary effort, allowing you to stray. Both media have a purpose, a time and place.


Types of Events, Types of Meaning

Unique events in MMOs work especially well if developers invest on all stages of a scenario, the pre- and -post phases as much as the immediate event. Global changes lose much of their weight if there’s no aftermath for players to experience, no tangible impact on the world. Interestingly enough, while developers improve on creating events with (some) impact these days, pre-stage remains one of the most neglected areas. The only example that comes to my mind is the minor earthquakes pre-Cataclysm patch in WoW, with some NPCs commenting on them. I’d like MMO devs and storywriters to invest more time in foreboding details such as this…any better examples?

Naturally, not all events in MMOs can have monumental impact or narrative significance. Not all of them are designed to be collective experiences, either. Small-scale
events are usually created for individuals and may be repeatable without any “dramatic loss”. Group and raid events too with reset timers,
are very much of more self-defined and social significance. It’s players who attribute value to server firsts, second and third kills. It’s up to guilds which events are important content to them or not.

While events make up a large part of the content in today’s MMOs, they still differ in type and purpose. I personally agree that many should be repeatable in regular intervals – after all, why bother to design content and then not make full use of it? Still, there are events I consider special and where I believe it serves the “dramatic script” and narrative of the world we play in, that they be more unique. That’s part of the simulation – a world that has an ongoing story and therefore feels alive (opposed to groundhog’s day).

I’d like to see more of this in future MMOs, maybe delivered in frequent mini-patches. If designed and implemented well, there is no easy way for players to miss such scenarios – whether they happened at “one time” or not. So maybe event design, setup and finalization, are really the things we should look at, rather than asking for everything in MMOs to always be “repeatable”. If you find yourself in a brilliant field of snow one morning, blinking and breathing the cold air, how much does it matter that you missed the event of the snow falling?

[GW2] Timing is everything. And a good thing too.

Much has been said about the dynamic shnynamic events in GW2, to a point where I have indefinitely banned the term to the same corner as “hardcore” and “casual” for MMO debates. There’s been quite some praise of course, yet as usual the whining has been the loudest on the message boards I frequent. Personally I think most of the negative critics are missing the point here completely, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It’s true: the nature of dynamic events in MMOs is that you can be too late or too early, just being “on time” making for the perfect gameplay experience. It’s true too that it feels somewhat disconnected storywise to blunder into an ongoing event without much context. Alas, that’s an issue MMO players have to cope with – unless you prefer not having these types of more random mass-events at all, or only get phased variations thereof. Phasing wouldn’t work the same way for many reasons. Phasing really isn’t an answer to most common MMO questing/adventuring issues, to be honest.

More importantly though, I love that I can be either too early, too late or just on time for events in GW2 – the fact that stuff is happening out there whether I am a part of it or not. The fact that the world doesn’t only spring to life as I push the button since I am so horribly important. Strange things are afoot in Tyria. The world feels alive and yes, “dynamic” because of it. Even if I miss an event or only observe other players running it from afar, I enjoy that. I can try revisit that place later or join anyway and investigate. And when I actually do arrive on time and things start to magically unfold around me….well, there’s absolutely nothing that compares to that feeling in MMOs!

A year ago I read a splendid Skyrim review that captured precisely what makes that world feel so wonderfully open and alive. Unfortunately I cannot for the life of me remember the site. Anyhow, a game journalist talked about his most epic gameplay moment there, when he experienced the perfect dragon encounter somewhere on the road, after pursuing a wild horse that had raced off in terror. There were all kinds of hints like that one, foreboding the incoming dragon attack, NPCs running his way screaming just as the first huge shadow fell over his party and the dragon’s metallic shriek rang through the valley. Skyrim’s magic lies in moment such as this: when everything clicks and it feels as if the world was truly alive all around you, and you are just an erring traveler chancing on whatever lies around the next bend of the road. It’s a magical thing if videogames put us into that removed, immersed state of mind for a moment. It’s a rare and beautiful thing – a memorable thing. It’s the perfect simulation. Real life doesn’t happen according to your agenda all the time, either.

That sensation can never come a dime a dozen though and it shouldn’t. I don’t want to be on time for all the dynamic events in GW2. I want to be early and too late, so that when I am on time at last the scenery will take my breath away. Syp calls experiences like that “just an awesome moment“. To me they lie at the heart of the MMO experience. It’s why we need more randomness in games, more opportunities to be failed or missed, so that we may succeed and when we do, succeed with flying colors. If the minstrel tells us stories before a burning camp fire at night, they will recall most memorable moments and wondrous, rare encounters. And those are worth waiting for and certainly worth having.

And then, suddenly…

Deep down the mineshaft I saw the light

The cardboard boxes are starting to pile up left and right in my apartment which is also why I’ve been a little quieter. There are only five more days to go at my current workplace. Only two and a half more weeks in this canton I’ve been living in for five years now and desperately long to leave. Waiting and preparing are such an ordeal sometimes.

Between that and not playing much of anything right now (because in this too I am waiting, waiting for GW2), I didn’t plan for much distraction until the big move end of January. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself deep, deep down the cubic rabbit hole that is Minecraft – had you told me only three weeks ago, I would’ve laughed at your face. But then Minecraft happened, brought to me by the sneaky, little voice of an old friend. I’ve mocked him for the first hour, until gradually I shut up. Then, I started obsessing.

This is only the beginning.

 
Who would’ve thought that oldschool pixel graphics could be that much fun? I’m a little late to the party, I know, but then the game has only just launched “officially” two months ago with v1.0. I had never really paid it an awful lot of attention before. Well…consider me pixelated!

Minecraft is a goldmine of creativity, simple complexity and many of the basic concepts me and other MMO veterans have been missing for a very long time. I find myself utterly fascinated by the game’s simplicity which creates such powerful, emergent gameplay. Then it struck me; after my Skyrim high of several weeks ago, this was only a next logical step. This vast, open world sandbox game, so diametrically opposed to Skyrim’s graphical splendor, succeeds in areas many current MMOs are failing me, stilling a deep hunger (and it has multi-player!). Obviously, Minecraft has one significant advantage there: it doesn’t need to look good (which means the world can be vast and generate random maps). And yeah, I use a texture pack too, mostly to display my own paintings, but this stands: if any game proves how graphics become secondary to otherwise fun and engaging gameplay (I’m saying that as someone deeply in luv with the eye candy), then it’s Notch’s little gem. Within a refreshing loading time of 10 seconds, Minecraft (in survival mode) gave me (back) all the following things:

  • Monumental scale; a vast scary world forever dwarfing me in size.
  • No sense of direction; there is no world map, there are crafted, lackluster zone maps (that you must uncover and better not lose). Prepare to get lost often and worry continuously about wandering off too far. Landmarks, the sun and moon become your friends!
  • Impact; solid proof that I am leaving a mark on the world I inhabit (and its co-inhabitants).
  • Scary adventures; annoying, sneaky, backstabbing, sometimes frustrating mobs killing me on a regular base.
  • Punishment; dying comes with potential loss of all EXP levels you might have accumulated, as well as all your carried inventory (unless you are able to retrieve it in good time).
  • No shortcuts, no rides, no teleports or portals (other than into the underworld). No “hearthstone” besides death…
  • Complex, comprehensive crafting, resource gathering and an almost endless list of combinations when it comes to creating and inventing your own space.
  • Cooperative multi-player.
  • Player hosted servers.
  • Different levels of difficulty and play-style/server modes. Console commands if you so desire.
  • Randomness, bugs, imbalances….lots of running and screaming in terror.

How do they do it? By doing very little. By setting the stage only, with few parameters and limitations. By not creating content (much) and instead letting you do it. By controlling as much as necessary, as little as possible. There are no consumers in Minecraft, only creators.

I can’t say how long I will play this game, but right now I am deeply satisfied. The huge castle above the sea I am working on, with the magic library, the round table and Minas Tirith style balcony (including a white tree…GEEK!), will take lots of time to complete. I am still discovering new crafting combinations, under what conditions different crops will grow or how to tame and breed certain creatures. Then, there are all the areas of the game I’ve hardly yet brushed: mine carts and the automation system, the enchantments and spells, the random dungeons you can only find by traveling the world, the Nether world through the dark portal, the Ender dragon, PvP….and I still need to find a zone that features snow!

The best of it all though: coming online and finding the environment changed, again, because your friends have been busy while you were offline. Screaming for help as you are starving down that deep mineshaft. Getting lost, crying for an escort, sharing resources and setting up trade channels. Leaving a little surprise at your neighbor’s doorstep. The world feels alive.

Closing circles in a square world

Funny how often we need to go back, to move forward. In this, even game design seems to follow a basic truth of life; how we need to set out on long journeys into the wild, only to return to our own doorstep. Only then to behold it truly, for the very first time. They say man’s culture has always run in waves of ups and downs and individuals too, run circle after circle in their lifetime, or so it seems.

Yet, something is different when we arrive that second time: we’ve gone the distance and hopefully gained some wisdom, we’ve seen other things – maybe things we originally believed we needed, but mostly just wanted. Things that made us see and appreciate what we used to have. Experiences that made us want to go back. Maybe we can only ever truly perceive truth from a distance, when we’ve moved further away. That’s why it’s so hard to judge yourself (fairly) or a status quo, before you’ve lost some of it. Looking back is always easier.

In many ways, the features I’ve listed as Minecraft’s virtues would’ve been considered weaknesses and difficulties 10 years ago. Back then, all we ever shouted for was to remove the “frustrating aspects”: the long walks, the randomness, the imbalance, the punishment. The devs heard our plea, they polished away. Then came WoW and showed us how different it could be; how much smoother, more convenient, optimal. Later, it showed us how the polish and optimization could be overdone, ruining all sense of world.

Now, all we want is to get back. Not quite back to pre-WoW maybe, but to return to old values with new eyes. Maybe we even need to thank Blizzard for accelerating the insight. Concepts and features we used to complain about, have become what we crave the most. Does this not strike you as a little ironic?

There are still other players of course, those who will disagree with me here. Maybe they are still in the middle of walking their own circle – maybe the disagreement is genuine and will last. I’m not claiming in any way that Minecraft can replace a classic MMO or that it doesn’t have its shortcomings (java eugh), it sure does have room for much improvement (and I’m not talking graphics) which I trust will happen to some extent in the future. However, these things are not the focus of this article.

We’re talking about a game that is about to hit the 20 million mark for registered players, of which 4 million have already paid for an account. And they’re not nearly all of them of the “Sims”-persuasion; there is something to be learned and had in Minecraft that reaches far beyond building furniture or harvesting crops. Something we’ve lost in other corners of the online, multi-player world. A ingenuity and responsiveness that has magically managed to close a circle for me in an otherwise square world.

I can only recommend the journey.

Cosmetic items are for the cool kids!

Nuff said.

I’ve had it by now with people of the MMO “over-achiever generation”, trying to make cosmetic gear appear in a bad light or associating it with certain (lowlife) play styles or player motivations. You don’t have to care for it (although I suspect you do), but spare me the wannabe elitist rubbish, mkay?

Whether you get kicks out of flowcharts, flaunting personal body-count, talking Shakespearean English among yer brethren or drawing your own maps – cosmetic gear is for you, pal! In the past, I’ve enjoyed most play styles in equally serious amounts in MMOs (okay, not the Shakespearean so much) and I’ve found that no matter where a player gets personal enjoyment or epeen from, it should always come wrapped in shiny paper! Cosmetics are for each and everybody and here’s why:

Player customization is an integral part of the genre and has always been a popular wish of MMO players across the board. MMOs are about coherent virtual worlds, or used to be – about identification, immersion and simulation, among other. The way your character looks has a lot to do with where he’s coming from, where he’s going and who he is. We do not exactly have a lot of means to distinguish otherwise in this department; our faces are not aging with time, our bodies won’t scar or build muscle. Many MMOs won’t even allow you to select character height or body type. Clothes and armor are therefore just one way to describe yourself some more and make your character tell a story, in a game that is also a lot about community and interaction.

Funny enough, it is very achievement-oriented players who care to distinguish themselves in MMOs the most; people who wave their damage meters around, ride on achievement mounts or want their hardmode epics or PvP gear to look different from other items. And that’s fair enough, I actually agree with that last crowd – but these wishes are erm, cosmetic! Pretty vain too, in a very exclusive way, unlike those who might simply want cosmetic gear for better choice and variety’s sake, without restrictions. Both groups want customization and frequently overlap – ambitious players care as much about looks as “casual” folk. Or not.

Compared to today’s MMOs, original Ultima Online was a game of remarkable sim aspects; not only would players waylay each other mercilessly around the clock and loot each others corpses down to the last shirt, they would happily hoard their “war spoils” in fully furnished homes and towers (which you could plant on the world map permanently), putting their successes on display; heavy treasure chests among basic furniture, torches on the walls and wallpapers. The most vicious player-killer guild would have a multi-story castle designed from bottom to top, with rares and shinies and uniforms for every member of the team. Guild colors crafted with (possibly) exclusive dies. Looks mattered, looks made an impression, looks formed a community and gave it a character and reputation. I remember how my “notoriously PK” sibling spent hours dying armors or crafting rare sets. Nothing says “I pwned you, noob!” better than your victim remembering your appearance and fearing your entire guild from there.

Time for truth: which one of these two would you rather have looming above your corpse? Which would you prefer to get your ass kicked by? I know whom I’d choose!

On annoying terminology

I’m not sure when the transition from cosmetic items to “vanity” happened, along with other even more negative associations and terminology. As if somehow caring about looks was a trait that divides MMO players and wasn’t a fundamental part of role playing (in the general genre sense). As if it was a way for entirely frivolous, vain and not-so-srs characters to waste their time on superficial aspects, when they, y’know, could be doing much more important things! Oh yeah… my “game schedule” is so busy busy busy with guild leading, raiding and PvP, I cannot possibly fit some time in for appearance slots!!! *GASP*

LOL! Yes you can, you just don’t want to! That’s alright, you can still be one of the cool kids…kinda…..although it really wouldn’t hurt if you put some more effort into your appearance, after all this ain’t the zoo.

We all take pleasure from different things in MMOs and if you really must go there, they’re all equal “wastes of time”; they’re entertaining somebody somewhere somehow and little else. So let’s not, we’re way past that fallacy. Just like your need to optimize doesn’t say one thing about your skills or achievements as a player, caring for cosmetic items and collectibles doesn’t tell you what type of player you’re dealing with and they’re not on opposed ends of the spectrum either. That is a wrong assumption and shows me that you have no idea what genre you have gotten yourself into or where it originated from. It is frankly also another sign of gamification rearing its ugly head, where player customization has no meaning, just like lore and travel do not. Slowly but surely, we lose all aspects that create atmosphere and depth in this beloved genre. How about you get your over-achieved under-dressed ass off my lawn?

I know, some say this genre has been pretty stagnant in places, I certainly agree. Then again, we have come such a long, LONG way in other areas when players do not even remember the second half of what’s making these games a whole, the “-RPG”part. Or both the visual and narrative side, for that matter. It saddens me, truly. What a dark and scary world where numbers are all that’s left!

Screw this – MMOs are about choosing the blue pill!

P.S. This is not an “anti-achiever post”, even though you’re a tiring bunch at times. It’s in fact a pro-cosmetics post, for achievers as much as other player mindsets (not that they’re actually mutually exclusive, but you know). Dare to be frivolous! You can do it! <3

Storybricks: breathing life into NPCs

Jaina Proudmoore, powerful sorceress of the Kirin Tor. We first met her in Theramore Isle, doing her bidding in a series of quests, before she buggered off to save the world from the Burning Legion, following Medivh, falling in love with Arthas Menethil. Last we saw her, she had changed – “she’s become too whiny”, some said, her mind addled with the quest to save beloved Arthas, until she finally succumbs to reality during the Halls of Reflection scenario in the Wrath of the Lich King.

Remember Jaina? I’m sure you do.

Sheddle Glossgleam of Dalaran is a special little gnome. He resides in the Threads of Fate shop, just above Paldesse whom the clothwearers among you must surely know, so many times have you stood at her side and browsed her wares. I’ve talked about Sheddle in the past and why he stands out in a crowd of anonymous, faceless NPCs out there. I hope since then you’ve paid him a visit or two. Did you know that he has a secret thing for Paldesse? I wonder how they manage to maintain such problematic a relationship…

The truth is, it’s hard to remember much about most NPCs that co-exist with us in MMOs and frankly, it’s a crying shame. Unless a developer decides to promote a special character to hero status, we rarely remember the face or story of the innumerable characters we meet on our travels or visit frequently. If they even have a story. Our virtual worlds are flooded with characters of every size and color – they populate our towns and cities, they work in our shops providing the most crucial services, they hand us our very first quest as we begin to explore the new world.

Yet, we have no idea who they are. In fact, most of the time we don’t even stop to have a look around as we enter a new town or quest hub, let alone talk to every NPC or listen to what it has to say. Mostly because none of them have much to say, anyway – and so we click our way through loot and service windows, counting on nothing out of the ordinary to happen. And usually we are quite right about that.

MMO developers have a long way to go when it comes to creating more plausible NPCs in their games, characters that actually deserve notice and justify our attention over more than potential rewards alone. Why does such an omnipresent aspect of gameplay remain game “furniture” – at best making for an escort quest or popular quest-giver, more frequently serving as a shell for your average service window? Why do NPCs get so little impact on a world they co-inhabit?

Introducing Storybricks: more than just dialogues with NPCs

Namaste Entertainment intend to change the oversight that has been NPCs in videogames these past years. With Storybricks, a project in progress, they want to breathe life into non-player characters (and the entire world from there) and to make them a more engaging, fun and fundamental part of online gaming experiences. And not just that: they want you to invent your own NPCs and scenarios with them!

After having been invited to see a demo on Storybricks, I’d like to try and summarize for you what it’s all about in few simplified words: Storybricks is an ingame tool-set that will enable players to create their own stories about and with NPCs, allowing them to write complete scenarios in quest-like fashion by defining an NPC’s pre-determinants/history, basic attributes and behavior towards other players, down to more complex relationships, adding setting and even NPC inter-relations. That means you will not just set a stage and invent a story for other players to experience, but each NPC is being attributed his own, individual AI, whereby it reacts hostile or friendly towards you and will change and adjust its behavior long-term, depending on your actions. Not enough with that, your choices and actions might not only influence your reputation with one NPC, but other NPCs associated with it. There is no accounting for what consequences your actions might have!

Namaste intend for their Storybricks system to be an easy to approach, self-explanatory tool where the player/creator can choose between building a more simple scenario with help of a vast variety of pre-defined functions and actions, or defining every step down the road himself for a more unique experience. On an UI level, this means you will be working with so-called “bricks” that allow for an unlimited number of combinations for each NPC. It’s really up to you how far you decide to go.

When it comes to how such player-generated content could be implemented and made available for others to play, Namaste are still in the phase of evaluation. Technically there are many options: allow players to write scenarios for existing NPCs they enjoy, let players create NPCs and stories from scratch that can then be offered like a “module” – similar to downloading apps from an app-store.

There is great potential here in terms of tapping a player-base’s creativity and making for unique, non-repetitive questing experiences; if developers cannot put much time and effort into creating interesting NPCs and ongoing lore, why not make your player-base solve the issue for you?

There are concerns too of course – on the surface: dynamic implementation, choice-impact relation and realization, balance, polish and including the multi-player aspect. Also, regulating potentially conflicting NPC stories. However, Namaste are aware of these pitfalls and they have time to find just the right answers over the course of many months to come. The more feedback they are receiving at this stage, the better they can work out solutions.

Worried? It ain’t “all or nothing”!

Now, from a more classic MMO-driven point of view, you might have some justified doubts. Do you really care to know that much about NPCs? Are MMOs not much more about interacting with real people, rather than NPCs in Fable or Dragon Age Origins -manner? And what if you simply do not enjoy story writing and inventing characters?

The answer to concerns such as these are very simple: first off, Storybricks is entirely optional a feature. If you’re not one for creating content yourself, it simply means more quests and more interesting NPCs will be available for you to interact with. Or not. But if the successes of games such as Little Big Planet or Forza-I tell us anything, then a great many gamers actually love to add to their favorite games, to create content and share it with others. Think about it: just how much time do players already spend every day interacting with NPCs – daily quest givers, service providers? The number must be enormous.

Why not exchange that experience for a more unique one? Why not play new, player-created content all the time, instead of dailies and other repeatables? Assuming the content is dynamic, meaningful and well-implemented? It’s not all or nothing from here: Storybricks has the potential to add considerably to any type of MMO. It remains up to individual players how much they want to get out of it.

Everyone wins – A big palette of potential

For developers the advantages of Storybricks seem evident: get customers to add unique content to your game, in an area where you cannot necessarily spare the resources or focus in equal amounts. Provide for a long-lasting, almost unlimited source of new adventures, rather than adding more and more repeatable content, boring your players to death as they wait for the next expansion or patch. By this, make your world flow more naturally, feeling more alive, dynamic and exciting.

For the online player, it is an unprecedented opportunity to direct his own MMO experiences and to unleash his creativity and hidden talents. Once more, players become creators rather than mere consumers in their virtual home. The complexity of Storybricks, the far-reaching NPC relations add elements such as meaning of choice, impact and consequence to gameplay, making for an altogether more immersive experience. Add to that an unebbing flow of new quest scenarios to play through.

I fully endorse a project with the potential to add that much depth to MMOs and bringing players back to the table. It feels like we have finally reached the “post-WoW era”, with future online games needing to set themselves apart, improving and innovating in areas very lackluster so far. We can all feel a turning point in this exhausted industry – refreshing concepts such as Storybricks are exactly what we need.

What the team at Namaste needs from you to help them on their journey, is feedback: ideas, suggestions, critique. They have been reaching out to a variety of bloggers and gaming networks these past weeks and they want more, as many suggestions as they can possibly get this early into development. So, if you have any time to spare, are interested in demo testing and want your NPCs to become a more exciting and memorable part of online adventures, check out their website and get in touch. I for one, will definitely keep a very close eye on Storybricks from here!

Musings on time and travel

Time is an interesting thing. Such fixed a measure, the same amount of time can pass in a heartbeat or seem like an ordeal that will never end. When there’s a busy day of work ahead, the same time that usually has you listening to the monotonous clicking of the clock for hours will fly by like a sudden breeze. On the other hand, a week full on activities and new impressions will feel much longer a span; when you do absolutely nothing for days on end, the blessed holidays will be over in one dull series of waking up and closing your eyes. Time is paradoxical like that.

When I journeyed to southern Ireland a good two weeks ago, I was reminded of that interesting quality of time – the way our individual perception of it can change and its (at least) dual nature. My partner and I don’t fly, as in we don’t use airplanes. I have flown a few times before as a teenager, but never again after college. As for him, he wouldn’t get close a “flying prison” if his life depended on it. As a consequence, we travel by car, train, bus, bike and on foot which suits me fine really because I never particularly enjoyed 10’000 meters above ground and as a child my parents never took us anywhere by airplane either. So, while there are personal and environmental reasons for both of us, I simply like traveling the long road. I like to know where I’m going – I like to experience it, feel it, smell it. The journey is at least half of why I even bother going anywhere and I find an almost meditative repose for myself in being on the road. It’s when I’m usually at my most creative too.

The whole journey took us around 26 hours (one way) including several breaks and two ferries. We were appointed to meet two friends there who live close to us and made the journey by plane, therefore embarking a day later. What was a very long drive for us, multiple coffee breaks and an eventually rather stiff neck, was one people’s magazine and two rounds of soda for them in an air-conditioned seat. And yet, when we finally arrived at the B&B with them waving in the drive-way, I thought how weird it must have felt to wait for us and miss out on things we had gone through to arrive at exactly the same place. Maybe (most probably) it was just me who noticed it though; we just had so much more to tell and show for. Like some of the most brilliant coastways we had passed through on the way. Like riding one of the fastest Catamaran ferries of Europe (feeling seasick and then overjoyed to feel solid ground under your feet once more). Meeting that lovely old couple who would tell us about their long life of travels together. Driving through a tunnel far below the ocean. Smelling the increasingly salty sea breeze as you approach the first coast line. Feeling the spray on your face with anticipation. I would not trade that for the world.

We saw so many things on the way, the journey felt fast although it wasn’t. All the while our friends “saved time” by skipping the road; yet they ended up at exactly the same point as us and they hadn’t really benefited on the extra time either. If anything, they spent more time waiting before the go, staring at a suitcase and then checking out the area a bit while they waited for us. They certainly had nothing to tell when we met up. Which ultimately brought me to the following conclusion: we gain no time by saving time. Subjectively speaking, we stretch time by filling it and thus feeling fulfilled or at least active. Cutting things short has the opposite effect: eventually we feel like we did nothing at all, simply because we experienced less and our perception of time feels shorter. The more time you “save”, the less time you feel you’ve had. Mostly because you cannot treat time like some currency: just because you save time now, doesn’t mean you’ll make good/better use of it later or beforehand, it doesn’t quite work that way. At best, it’s a trade-off between definite opportunities and potential ones. Meanwhile, time keeps flowing without pause. Really, we might as well enjoy our travels, inside and outside our virtual homes.

Anyway, I am back now.

Wiping expansions off the table

There is one thing I am still waiting for in the world of MMOs. Okay – that is not quite true, there are a good few things I am expecting to see developers change in the future. One particular aspect however, has been gaining ground and speed there lately: namely the removal of the classic expansion model.

If I consider some of the biggest negatives MMO developers and players currently suffer from, it’s the ever-increasing pressure to deliver content fast vs. beating it, the extreme between players with not enough time to experience new content  and waves of un-subscribers towards the second half of an expansion-cycle. We all know at least some of these feelings: the race right after an expansion or major content patch hits. Then, the inevitable monotony and burnout hitting raid guilds and players at later stages, the “been there done it all”, driving some into creating yet another alt and others into canceling their sub altogether, waiting on the next installment.

And when you think about that, you realize that it’s quite an unnatural flow of things: a disturbance to the consistent and long-term enjoyment of a game. The “content peaks” delivered by traditional expansions create highly negative side effects, not just for the player base but the developers. So, why keep clinging to this model?

How extremes destroy stability

My main grief with expansions is their very situational concentration of a truckload of new content on one arbitrary and artificial moment in time – funny enough called the “release”. Players will wait 1-2 years for that monumental chunk of new content to arrive, all its ground-breaking changes and additions to the game delivered in one, fatal strike. The wait time drags on and gets tedious, the expectations are high. Some players cope by rolling alts or going on preparation sprees, others fall deep into “player depression” and “identity crisis”, leaving their guilds, canceling their subs.

The change of emotion that finally follows on arrival is extreme: players go from utter boredom to an almost hysterical rush to take in as much of the long-desired content as possible. Between those two points in time, we have a gradually plunging curve, only ever lifted by a major content patch or two (if such exist). Make no mistake though: the first quarter into a new expansion is peak time. Things go steadily downhill from there, on an individual level as much as overall sub numbers. Every time, every year, the same story like a groundhog day

Now let’s assume developers decided to get rid of these opposite poles entirely: let’s assume that instead of featuring virtual coitus, erm release, every 1-2 years (few content patches included), they would rather aim to create a more natural and continuous flow of events and change by releasing regular patches on a 2-weeks base. Every other week, something in your world would change, get added or removed. It might be small things like a flood destroying parts of a map. It might be big events like a new quest hub being installed or a new dungeon. The frequent patching would allow developers to create an atmosphere of a living, breathing story where things happen constantly and where the environment (both NPC and PC) reacts accordingly, more like to our real world. There is never the one, big traumatic change but a dynamic world that is being re-shaped all the time, like a book with endless chapters.

How exciting would that be! To log in every other Wednesday, knowing that something has happened somewhere in your world! Maybe even uncommented in patchnotes at times. Sometimes big, sometimes small. Sometimes an isolated event, sometimes an ongoing number of chapters. The world would feel more alive and relaxed because change happens gradually. The game won’t rush ahead of you, leaving you behind. And it won’t just stop at some point, leaving you longing for more –

Not enough, along with this change in game flow, a long list of negative effects would shrink considerably or fall away entirely. Things that used to unsettle and spoil your fun in the game:

  • Begone player burnout during the second half of expansions
  • Begone (raid) guilds struggling to keep going because players despair or leave
  • Begone un-subscribing and re-subscribing once things are looking up
  • Begone social break-ups because friends frequently leave and return
  • Begone “content rush” right after the big fat expansion hits
  • Begone time pressure for raid guilds fearing the next major patch striking
  • Begone missing out on big loads of content
  • Begone long wait times to experience something new
  • Begone radical changes to economy and gear/item values
  • Begone big jumps and breaks in lore and world

I remember how underwhelming player reception was in places for WoW’s Shattering in 4.0.3.; pretty much the entire world as we knew it got revamped in a swift strike, and yet there was little orchestration or preparation beforehand. Few earthquakes aside, it was certainly no thrill. Then, we did not get to be present when it happened, either. We got to log back later, presented with a grand Fait accompli that didn’t make us feel like a part of the world. Expansions often feature drastic and overwhelming changes and additions like that which simply feel un-immersive. Getting to read huge walls of lore later on is not the same as experiencing a process.

I want to feel part of the world I play in. I want to be included in a continuous and ever growing story. I want change happening all the time, not every 1-2 years in traumatic leaps. I want stable and lasting fun, not a curve that goes from player fatigue and long wait times to over-excitement, before tumbling back down into the valley of tears. I don’t want to regularly un-subscribe from the MMO I am playing because it’s delivering content in situational peaks. Surely, developers would wish for that too?

Why don’t they do it already?

If you consider Blizzard’s ongoing (failing *cough*) effort to create a game that keeps a tight, exciting leash on its player base through an unebbing flow of fast rewards and achievements, you could think breaking the “peak-time” expansion model would follow the same strategy; after all, what better way of keeping things fresh and interesting than releasing new bits of content every other week?

Is it a marketing thing? Are expansion modules so crucial a selling-point for recruiting new customers? Surely, it can’t be the retail factor – it would have the smallest part in overall profits generated via subs, virtual goods and merchandise. So, attracting potential new customers with announcing your next big hit, I can see that as a factor. As far as I know, Blizzard added a substantial amount of new subscribers with each of their expansion releases, heavily marketing for “The Burning Crusade” or “Wrath of the Lich King”. I wonder though: how many effective customers have they lost since Cataclysm’s launch – does the strategy really work forever? And how much sub time do they lose every year because players unsubscribe regularly? It would be interesting to compare the potential losses and gains here.

It would be interesting too, to hear a developers point of view concerning the planning, administrative and actual design efforts (and deadline pressure) that go before a full-scale expansion. Have them compare the effectiveness of such an undertaking to a large number of mini-patches allowing them to break down change and innovation, focusing on one chapter at a time. Somehow I feel that from a pure design’s point of view, it would be more controlled and rewarding to go with the second option. Safer in terms of devastating bugs and far-reaching miscalculations, too. I am of course entirely speculative here and as usual happy to be educated otherwise!

I am no design or marketing and investment specialist; I would still claim however, that a content delivery model creating the more lasting effect, the stable fun and entertainment and the more dynamic and immersive flow of content for a player base, bests a system full of highs, lows and break-ups. That is from my humble point of view – from me, the paying customer. Somehow I have the feeling I am not alone.

So, who will step forward and show us how it’s done already? I am waiting!

P.S. I love charts, don’t you? I have actually used them in the one, proper way in this article – serving and exemplifying my personal message and meaning, rather than basing on existing numbers. It’s called journalistic freedom!