Story in MMOs: A Paradox

By Tyler Edwards, May 18, 2012

Massively multiplayer games have a reputation for possessing very weak plots and lore compared to story driven single player games. When listing the video games with the greatest stories, you'd expect to see names like Mass Effect and Deus Ex, but you probably won't see names like Aion or World of Warcraft. There does seem to be something about MMORPGs that inhibits good storytelling.

But does this really mean that story is irrelevant in MMOs, or that we are doomed to never see a massively multiplayer plot that equals its single player counterparts? Or are we perhaps underestimating both what MMOs are capable of and the importance of story to their players?

quantity over quality

Quantity over quality:

It is largely true that it's harder to tell a good story in an MMO than a single player game. A lot of this is probably down to that first "M." MMOs need to present a massive world and a massive story; it's in the name. But while this does create a good backdrop for epic storytelling, it also tends to necessitate a "quantity over quality" philosophy.

In a game with literally thousands of quests, it's simply impossible for all of them to be a gripping, emotional experience. Even if you were to hire the best writers in the video game industry, you're bound to end up with plenty of quests that are just collecting bear rectums for Faceless NPC Forty-five.

Most MMOs try to make their questing fairly non-linear, too. MMO players don't usually appreciate having their quest progression dictated for them. I would imagine this has the effect of discouraging developers from putting a huge amount of effort into quests. Why bother when a lot of players will just skip it?

Questing isn't the only storytelling option available to game developers, but the others are equally problematic. You can put important story moments in dungeon and raid content, but without extensive backstory and development from the rest of the game behind them, these moments can feel forced and weak. And if developers crowd their content with too many cinematics and RP events, they risk frustrating players who are just there for the epic lootz.

quest ant

"Who reads quest text?"

Not only do MMOs have a reputation for having weak stories, MMO players have a reputation for not caring about story. Many players are legitimately shocked when they find out one of their fellows actually reads quest text. Some of these were probably turned off by weak MMO stories and no longer want to bother, and others probably never cared about story in the first place.

I suspect this creates a kind of feedback loop. Developers aren't encouraged to tell a good story in their massive online games because many players will just ignore it no matter how good it is, and players aren't encouraged to pay attention to in game stories because most developers won't even bother to make a great story.

So each group's indifference feeds the other's. Based on that, it seems like having a story in MMOs doesn't matter. Nobody really cares, and even if they did, the format of the game still works against them.

But here's where it gets interesting - because the reality of the MMO field doesn't reflect that conclusion at all.

wrath of the lich king

No story, no point:

Let's take the notion that story in MMOs is irrelevant to its logical conclusion. A new game has come out, Massively Multiplayer Game. It eschews all plot and lore - no one cares, so it doesn't matter, right?

The end game raid is called... End Game Raid. Its final boss, Final Boss, is a white cube in a gray rectangular room. It has many powerful abilities players must defeat, such as moving black squares on the ground that damage characters who contact them, and a white beam that stuns players. It is a challenging fight that stresses each of the game's four classes - Tank, Healer, Melee DPS, and Ranged DPS - but those who overcome it are rewarded with amazing loot, such as a Melee Damage Modifier #32.

Does that sound like a game that you want to play? I'm no mind reader, but I'm willing to bet that the answer is no.

Even as the players of MMOs seem at first glance to universally ignore story, there are times when it becomes clear that story is a lot of what hooks them in. Take World of Warcraft fans, for example. There is a surprisingly large section of the WoW community that argues that there is little or no point to keep playing the game now that the Lich King, the game's most popular and iconic villain, has been defeated. And we won't even mention the endless fan outrage when one of the game's two playable factions is seen as getting better storylines…

It seems like players care about their virtual worlds more than even they realize.

Be honest. Even if you never read quests and claim to care nothing for the story, you don't want to run End Game Raid to loot Tank Mitigation Boost #24. You want to charge into Hammerknell Fortress, slay Soulrender Zilas, and recover Soultaker from his broken corpse.

swtor story

Banking on story:

The importance of story becomes even clearer when you consider how many developers bank on it as a selling point of their game.

Most popular MMOs are not original intellectual properties - they seek to draw on the popularity of established franchises. This is because developers understand that people are more likely to play a game and keep playing if they care about the world and its story. WoW, Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic are all examples of MMOs built on the popularity of preexisting franchises.

Then there are all those recent MMOs who have used a strong commitment to story as a key selling point of their game: Star Wars: The Old Republic offered its fully voice acted personal stories, Funcom sings the praises of The Secret World's epic storyline of ancient myths and secret societies, and Guild Wars 2 is promising a unique personal story experience that would put even SW:TOR to shame.

If it was just one developer trying to make it big by promising a better story in its MMO, we could write it off as a fluke. One developer went out on a lark and will probably be disappointed when all their players skip all the cinematics. But that's not what's happening. So many MMOs are now trying to capitalize on a better story that it may now qualify as a trend, and that seems to show there's a real desire for better stories in online games.

This may be my personal bias showing, but I believe we will continue to see more and more effort put towards story in MMOs over the coming years.


The paradox:

And so it seems we have a kind of paradox. Go into any MMO and talk to the average player, and they'll tell you they care nothing for the storyline. Yet if someone were to create an MMO that abandons all pretext of story, it's hard to imagine it succeeding. Many developers are now banking on their story being a key selling feature of their game.

It's difficult to explain this contradiction. Maybe people care more about the story than they realize. Maybe there is a large section of MMO players who appreciate a good plot but keep quiet about it. I know I rarely discuss my lore obsession with my guilds. I tend to just assume no one cares about the story like I do. Maybe others feel the same way.

Whether they admit it or not, I do think that everyone wants to be immersed in an MMO world to some extent. Even if they've never read a quest in their lives and skip most cinematics, I suspect that when they log in for the first time, they want to feel the awe and wonder that comes from stepping into a vast fictional world. After all, that's the whole point of creating a massive online world: to immerse someone in the fiction, and to create an entire imaginary world.

So in that sense, story will always be an important part of MMOs. You can't have an imaginary world without some kind of story, and you can't have an MMO without an imaginary world. Or, at least, you can't have an MMORPG without one. I'm sure World of Tanks doesn't need a story to attract players…

Whatever the case, it's an odd relationship MMOs have developed with their stories. On the one hand, it doesn't seem likely that the low reputation of MMO stories or the seeming indifference of MMO players will change any time soon. But on the other hand, no MMO is likely to prosper without putting a significant amount of effort into its lore and plot.