“The fourth pillar of MMORPGs is story”
Many of us have been hearing this phrase often in the past few months. Many developers, ANet and Bioware included, are focusing on the storytelling aspects of MMOs. It is fairly widely accepted that most players in modern MMOs either don’t know or don’t care about the story behind the MMO they are playing. That is not to say they don’t care about story, it means that the MMO of choice is not presenting it in a way that is interesting. Many games of other genres find this paradigm to be not only acceptable be also expected. These games are typically focused entirely on a fun gameplay mechanic or entertaining world where people play for shorter periods of time. For example, does anyone that loads up a platformer usually care what the story is? Are you enthralled by the Brooklyn plumber’s epic quest to save a noble from a savage tyrant, or do you just want to stomp on some Goombas?
Here’s the thing- even though we often abbreviate to MMO, the full abbreviation is MMORPG. Role-Playing Games are notorious for being plot-centric- that’s kind of the entire point in fact. Yet here we are, and as people know and professionals have been saying for awhile, we just see a wall of filler text for a quest, scroll to the bottom, and click accept. Ignoring the story is pretty much the opposite of the intent of an RPG, so I feel it is safe to say that most people are in fact playing MMOs, not MMORPGs.
Some argue that a defining feature of an RPG is the way you level up, or special aspects of character development or gear. I will agree that many RPGs share these elements, but I disagree that this is what makes a game an RPG. Role-Playing is about a character (or multiple characters), their story, and their personal growth throughout the story. It is about immersing yourself in a character. Gear and levels are abstract ways of describing how your character fights, not telling the story. I feel that it is perfectly valid to have an RPG in which you don’t gain levels or gear, at least not in specific gameplay terms. I think the whole issue comes from a lack of precise terminology. For example, nobody would say that if a shooter isn’t in the first person, it isn’t a shooter. It isn’t an FPS if it isn’t first person, but it is still a shooter. Civilization is still a strategy game even though it is turn based, it just isn’t a Real Time Strategy game. Other genres append more descriptive tags to their base definitions to give more narrow meanings, but largely RPGs do not reflect all of their sub-types. There are Tactical RPGs (like Final Fantasy Tactics which I love, or Tactics Ogre or Fire Emblem), and there are JRPGs like Final Fantasy, there are Action-RPGs, there are Turn Based RPGs, but none of them defines how any leveling, gear, character deaths etc. are handled. They each do them their own ways which to me means that they aren’t a unified mechanic. Anyway, that was kind of off-topic, my point is to talk about storytelling in RPGs.
Two major MMOs that are upcoming are both trying to get more out of the story of their worlds: SWTOR and GW2. SWTOR is fully voiced, it has very customizable player housing/home instances in the space ships, has massively branching storylines for characters, and many other things. I actually applaud their works in these areas even though I’m not interested in the game because of its gameplay. That’s sort of my point though- the gameplay doesn’t make it any less of an RPG, I just don’t like it.
Guild Wars 2 already has a head start in this area. Guild Wars 1 was in fact somewhat known for its storytelling prowess. I’m not going to bother getting into the debate over whether GW1 was or wasn’t an MMO, though I will say that I feel it is if you include DDO as an MMO- both use largely lobby-based party selection and instancing from what I understand. Regardless, a big reason for the instancing in GW1 was to accomplish some of their storytelling goals. With instancing, you can have players take quests that feel more impacting because you can safely alter the zone to reflect changes made by players. Kaineng City actually changed its mobs quite a bit based on what quests you had active/completed. GW1 also implemented Missions which were a large part of the story-telling devices, and somewhat unique in the MMO market as far as I know. These missions were started from various cities or outposts and advanced the main storyline of the game. They had voiced cutscenes (as painful as some of them might have been) and really helped to make you feel like there was a point to the game you were leveling up in. You weren’t just killing devourers just to go level up and kill red devourers over that hill; you were fighting to free Ascalon, and eventually flee with your lives from a mad king; a good thing considering where the other NPCs ended up.
All of this long-winded discussion leads us into the title of this post. Guild Wars 2 is using a new Dynamic Event system in concert with a Personal Story and Dungeons to tell the story of your character while using Scaling to aid in social efforts with friends or just plain seeing new content without being bored.
Dynamic Events- like public quests but better
Public quests are something that was tried out in Warhammer Online and in Rift. The idea is that there are certain areas of maps where once in awhile a something will pop up and people in the area will cooperate to complete the challenge together. Typically the idea is to provide something to break up the monotony of questing/grinding and to encourage some community participation. What are the problems with that? Well, some of them include forced participation (either the event is too hard to ignore or it will force you into groups), loot sharing (only some people will get loot credit), griefing/easy mode with high level players in the area, or in some cases just not enough public quests to matter.
Dynamic Events share some conceptual similarities with public quests. They are mutual goals for players to work at together. That’s about where the similarities end, and DE’s are a systematic concept in GW2 rather than just something on the side. DE’s are the main form of “questing” in GW2. There are not a bunch of static NPCs waiting around with arrows over their heads to give you walls of text. Note: There are some NPCs with symbols above their heads, they are part of the Personal Story which I will discuss further down the page.
Dynamic Events are everywhere. As the main apparatus for gaining experience and money, they have to be. ANet has confirmed that there are approximately 1500 Dynamic Events in the game, perhaps even more at this point. The world is constantly evolving as DEs appear, resolve, and continue in chains. When there is a DE, it happens whether or not there are players there. If players never go to deal with the event, then at some point it will resolve and change the world in some way, often times triggering new events based on the resolution. Instead of a farmer sitting by his farm with a quest saying that you need to kill those monsters over in the pasture not doing anything, the farmer will be running around yelling for help while the monsters are actively attacking his farm. If players don’t show up, that farm can be destroyed, and the monsters can move on. Now there are new events- help the farmer rebuild his farm and stop the monsters from attacking another farm down the road. Another example might be that centaurs have set up siege weapons outside a town. If left alone, the town will fall and the centaurs will advance their position and thereby strengthen their position in the region. They may set up battlements that will be more difficult to take. On the other hand, if the players go out and meet them, they can kill the centaurs and their weapons and push the advance back. Now the players can attack their stronghold that is farther away to keep the town safe from new invasion attempts, at least for awhile.
Some events are triggered directly by player action/inaction, like our centaur example. Others can be triggered randomly, say by a weather pattern moving in, striking lightning and summoning lightning elementals into the area. Others can be triggered from a combination of events, and others yet could be unleashed by a single player discovering a hidden relic deep under the sea that summons a huge lake monster. This constantly changing behavior is meant to mirror things in the real world to some degree. If left alone the system will evolve on its own; it is up to the players to help shape things for the better.
Guild Wars 2 has taken an amazing approach to experience, loot and grouping which is key to this whole system working. In other-MMO-X, when two players kill one monster the loot has to be split between the players. The xp is split. Working together can let you kill monsters faster, but you get less experience for it so if you don’t kill things enough faster, working with others is a detriment. In GW2, if you are putting in effort and contributing, you will get full credit for the monsters killed and the events’ completion. If killing a wolf gives 100xp and 50gp, killing a wolf with a friend will give you both 100xp and 50gp (just as an example) instead of rationing it between you, or worse giving it all to one of you who ‘tagged’ the enemy first or got the killing stroke. The net effect here is that players will level up faster in groups than alone. I want to say that again: playing with other people is always going to help you. I know that feels weird to say if you have an MMO background, but honestly it is brilliant. Further, you don’t even need to be partied. It keeps track of what you did and what everyone else did in the area and doesn’t discriminate based on official party structures. Helping is always helpful. Combining this feature with constant DEs yields a cooperative community that wants to play together and fight the monsters of Tyria together, and I for one think it’s amazingly well thought out. If you just want to wander around and see the sights, you can go see a new version of the environment based on what events have been and are going on. This will be the ultimate replayability feature in my not-so-humble opinion. In order for all of this to work in concert, we need:
One of the problems with many current MMO implementations is that content and players do not scale well. If a high level player walks into the starter zone he/she can easily wipe out everything there without taking any damage or expending any resources. This is problematic in several ways. First of all, it’s boring for the high level player. There is no challenge, you’re just facerolling the enemy. Second, it can be detrimental to low level players because they can’t kill anything before Joe Awesomepants blows it all up. Third, it means that if you didn’t start there or missed content, it is essentially dead to a high level character because you can’t experience it well. Finally, it is another barrier between you and your friends who have more/less time than you.
Guild Wars 2 solves the scaling issues in several ways. Players of a higher level automatically scale down to a lower level if they are fighting in low-level areas. The example would be that say you were in a level 5-ish area as a level 50 character. You would be automatically scaled to be ~level 7. You will still have better gear and such, but it won’t just be the one second insta-gib like in a normal MMO. This means that you can go help your low-level friends and still be a star, just not a world ending supernova. It also means that if you missed some stuff your first time through an area… you can go back and still have fun with it! This is especially great if you find a zone that you love the look and feel of but it is a low level area. Now, this next part is pure speculation/hope, but in my ideal world they would scale experience based on the relative level you were fighting at. For example, even if you are level 50, if you are scaled down to ~level 7 and you kill a level 5 enemy, you would receive similar relative (percentage) amounts of experience as you would have if you were actually level 7 killing level 5’s. There can be some degradation of experience gain because you will in truth still be stronger than a level 7 would have been, but just imagine the beauty of such a system. Helping out a low level friend not only is fun for them, it doesn’t feel like you wasted precious leveling time yourself because you are still rewarded adequately. I would absolutely adore this kind of system.
Similar to down-scaling of players, low level players can be up-scaled as well. If you happen to get to an advanced area, you can at least have a small chance of doing something. Sure you won’t be as well off as if you were the proper level, but you also won’t be completely helpless like a GW1 level 1 character would be in the UW. Similar to my hopes about down-scaled xp, I hope that the up-scaling works the same way. If you are up-scaled to level 48 and kill a level 50 monster, it would be awesome if you were rewarded the same as if you killed a level 10 monster at level 8. Given that ANet has expressed that the level curve would be flat, such a system would really make sense.
Yet another method of scaling ANet is using is event scaling. The more players there are participating in an event, the more challenging the event becomes. Say you are fighting off a pirate invasion. More players showing up may make more pirates appear to fight. Some pirates may become stronger and a bigger threat. The boss pirate may gain new skills and more power. There are a lot of dials that ANet can and will use to scale events up so that the more people there are, the more epic it is. Similarly, events can scale down, at least somewhat. I understand that there are certain minimum thresholds on some events (like 1 person can’t solo the Shatterer), but many events can be solo’d and all events can be done without official parties.
Due to these elements, I strongly feel that Dynamic Events will really work well in creating a large immersive cooperative environment. Immersion is a strong part of feeling connected to the world, and it is important for story. However, constantly changing events don’t tell a story very well. That’s why ANet is also employing:
The Personal Story
Guild Wars 2 accomplishes its storytelling needs through a separate mechanism called the Personal Story. This process begins at character creation. After selecting the race, profession and visuals, each player is asked a series of questions about their hero’s backstory. It’s a short survey, and reportedly its effects are not immediately visible and can affect the path of your story a ways into the future. Every character has a home instance that is a large portion of a city containing instanced content based on what you have done in the personal story. This is where you will find the characters with the markers above their heads. They indicate who you need to talk to in order to advance the story of your character. These story points can be everything from small quests like in normal MMOs to essentially GW1-style missions. During these missions your character is frequently presented with choice points and your choices then cascade throughout the rest of your story. Playing two characters of the same race and profession with even the same questions answered at the beginning can still yield a huge number of story outcomes depending on your choices.
Do you save a military hospital or an orphanage? Do you join the Vigil, the Durmand Priory, or the the Order of Whispers? Do you use charm, dignity or ferocity when dealing with NPCs? Do you choose to support a lesser race, or fight against them? All of these questions and plenty more are things that will shape and change your Personal Story. Combined with Dynamic Events, the Personal Story provides structure to the narrative of your character, and structure is fairly integral in storytelling.
The final piece of content I’d like to refer to in this article is Dungeons. These work into both the Personal Story as well as high end raid-like content. Each Dungeon has two modes: story and explorable. The story mode is always about one or more members of Destiny’s Edge doing something inside of said Dungeon and the players giving aid. Once completed, the explorable mode opens up. Explorable mode allows players to try much more difficult iterations of the dungeon. Further, there are multiple pathways in explorable mode that pit the players against different foes and different challenges. These paths provide some pretty decent replayability to the more hardcore players. To add to that further, Dungeons even have their own Dynamic Events in them which can sometimes alter a given path even more. Dungeons all come with unique equipment as rewards. The story mode typically presents a weapon in the unique set and explorable mode grants tokens that can be exchanged for pieces of the armor.
Summing it all up
Between DEs, Scaling, Personal Story and Dungeons I feel like I will be able to spend thousands of hours in Tyria all over again and never really get bored. Aside from my altaholism, the ever changing nature of the landscape and the scaling nature of enemies and players will allow me to simply spend casual time in Tyria while working on other things. This should be a very exciting time for MMO players, I know I’m ready.