Engaging players through story in MMOs – but which story?

It’s the first day of the ION Game Conference in Seattle, and already the fur is flying. Not really, but I just like saying that. We’ve already had a number of conversations about game narrative (internal narrative) and the emergent story. While some insist that MMO game story will never match its single-player counterparts, some think the future of MMOs requires game story to make those grinds meaningful. Can they both be right?

The internal narrative plays a key role in creating the context and meaning for player actions. We’ve already spoken at length on different ways to tell game story — if you missed it, check out the SxSW postview with some of the highlights. In an MMO, you can offload a lot of the storytelling to world building, level design, and ideally gameplay, just like you would for a single-player game. From a narrative perspective, the player character is the great unknown. You can write story for player type, you can write story for player class or race, but it is difficult to write story for a player character, especially if branching is not possible. Players chafe at too much direction in how their player character should act or feel. In an early level of the Vanguard MMO, one player class started as a soldier ordered to fight defenseless villagers. After you performed a few of these tasks, you were told you were starting to feel guilty. Innovative, but it can be off-putting for many players.

Players more readily connect to the emergent story in an MMO. Emergent story is often referred to as the choices the player makes during any type of game, but in an MMO it should be taken one step further. It’s also the choices other players make during the game; this unending variety of choices makes the genre appealing. Sure, you may have to save the maiden from the trolls as part of your quest, but your best friend in real life just took over another guild and now you have to decide which one to join. No one would be surprised if you felt more emotionally engaged when your friend was involved. Today Charles Manning of PLAYXPERT pointed out that MMOs are social networks and developers should integrate these systems earlier into the design process. It is through these formal and informal social networks that the emergent story is told, via guilds, forums, and more. But from Manning’s perspective, MMOs haven’t gone far enough.

If so much of what makes MMOs fun surrounds the social systems and stories, can the internal game story steal a page from the same book and use some of the same techniques? If internal narrative creates the context and meaning for your actions, can the social systems as well? What do you think? Our ION Game Conference panel at 3:30pm on Thursday addresses these very questions. Stay tuned…

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