Okay, this is long. It’s also devoid of expletives; the hardcore among you may be disappointed.

Today’s MMOGs (yeah, and one in particular) have been suffering lately from a problem: the players, who’ve been cast as extras, keep stealing the show from the NPCs, who are the actors in what appear to be carefully-scripted storylines created for the player’s benefit (well, maybe they’re for the player’s benefit; it could be argued that since 90% of players never get involved with the storyline, the storyline is either for the game company’s benefit or for the benefit of the uberplayer).

Recently, Gordon “Abashi” Wrinn of EverQuest fame made the following comment to my compatriot, Snowspinner (the entire email can be found here):

We’re trying to present a compelling storyline, and further push the complexity of the content that we present with each passing month. Oftentimes the goals of that content aren’t clear, but those who figure things out tend to garner a tremendous sense of achievement. We don’t want to take that away from them.

This is a basic problem with MMOG content these days, in my opinion. They make the story, and set little “triggers” here and there in the game for the players to set off, but what happens when you set the triggers off out of order? What if the triggers are there, but the content isn’t? What if the story is hidden so thoroughly that more than half of your player base hasn’t the foggiest notion what it is? A storyline should not be something you have to search for, it should be something that’s happening around you on a daily basis. It should not be something that you should fear finding out about after the mob is killed and you’re banned or a skill is nerfed, it should be something that develops as a result of you killing the mob, regardless of how it was killed. Here’s a novel thought: it might even be something that develops as a result of not killing something.

Gordon speaks of ever-more complex content on a monthly basis (we’ll just save that one away for later, yeah?), but it seems that the content is following the same formula: kill mob, loot mob, repeat. Maybe killing the mob will cause another, badder mob to spawn and the badder mob will kill you and everyone else for ten country miles. Depending on the name or rank of the mob you’ve just killed, the storyline may be “advanced.” Need I mention that unless you’re over level 50 and a member of one the largest guilds on your server that you won’t even get the opportunity to be part of this formula?

The current state of the art in online games has just about reached its limit for the time being (I’ll get flamed for that one, but it’s true). Interfaces may be tweaked and graphics engines may become more advanced as time goes on; however, the main limitation on further innovation from the standpoint of game mechanics is the amount of information that can be moved from the game server to the client and vice versa, and bandwidth ain’t cheap from either side of the pipe. On the other hand, once you’ve actually made a stable game from a basic mechanics point of view, there’s another direction to go into- involving the players, and using other humans to do it.

Let me start by saying there’s a difference between interacting in a game with a story behind it and being involved with the story behind a game. Interaction is fairly easy to implement; it’s mostly like an electronic book where the reader gets to stand in the scene and activate each turn of the page. You keep them amused between turns of the page by letting them hack and slash on the extras. Involvement is… HARD. You put the reader of the book into the shoes of one of the characters, and you write the book as he or she goes. It’s the difference between LARPing (ask Myschyf) a recreation of the Athenians trying to hold the Persians at Thermopole and being one of them. In the recreation, everyone knows what’s going to happen. When the player is creating the story, the immersion is that much deeper and- get this- people care about the result.

Such involvement is expensive- it involves having more people (GM/writers and developers) devoted to each server, since each server’s storylines would diverge almost from day one. Named mobs, once killed, would be dead and gone, and their killers would be known the world (server) over. New named mobs would take their places, and the story would move along in the direction dictated by the players. The changes would have to be made on the fly, and ‘prime time’ would be 24 hours a day. J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of one of the greatest scifi series of all time, put it best (here, for those of you who like to read these things):

You have to get the basic script into the hopper literally 6 weeks before you shoot it, so that there’s adequate time to build costumes, design and construct sets, plan EFX shots and the like.

What you can do, though, and what’s being done to some extent, is to plan out alternate scenes, and alternate endings to scenes, *within* those sets and using those EFX. It’s not that unlike a computer game tree. Once we get closer to filming them, we’ll have a better idea of where things stand, and I’ll know which way to go.

Done correctly, the story drives the initial conflict, but you have to be ready to change that story at the drop of a hat due to the actions of the players. For this reason, I think that an online game like Star Wars Galaxies is going to suffer from a lot of the same problems as EQ and some others. The story is already written, and the players are along for the ride. Well, the players have a nasty habit of saying their lines out of order and then going on to blast the leading man to a smoking ruin. If the philosophy of the story being protected at all costs is maintained, you’re going to have a very big playerbase (’cause after all, this is Star Wars we’re talking about here) of very, very pissed off people.

There are many, many people (and a lot of them come here) who can suggest more, perhaps better ways to do what I’m talking about. I’m a storyteller. Perhaps it’s because I am a storyteller that I recognize the problem here: once the story is given to the players, it’s not yours anymore. It’s theirs. When you change the rules to make the story ‘yours’ again, you just alienate your player base. As more and more game companies begin to get the basic mechanics of MMOG game play down to a science, I think you’ll find that it’s not a good idea for the Vision to be wearing blinders.