Last Thursday at the ION Game Conference, we gathered for the ultimate showdown… internal game story vs. emergent player story. The results may not be what you think. Sam Lewis, Lead Designer at Cartoon Network; Katie Postma, Community Manager at FireSky (STARGATE WORLDS), and Sande Chen of Writers Cabal debated the topic, with yours truly doing her level best to moderate. In attendance we had a number of game designers interested in expanding their ability to combine game story and player engagement. Here’s how it all went down.
Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs
Internal game story or narrative in MMOs provides context and meaning for player actions, while the emergent story and social fun engages players and tends to make MMOs sticky. That said, many at ION talked about using a diversity of methods to engage players and keep them around. Can game story be far behind? We talked about internal game narrative, emergent story, and ways to combine them both.
Sam Lewis pointed out that the worst kinds of game stories get in the way of achievement. Few enjoy hearing about a character’s life story when they want to kill the big bad. It’s important when writing and designing to keep in mind all player types, and not force anyone down one particular path. For example, story-lovers tend to be explorers — you wouldn’t necessarily want to make your game all about exploring, story or otherwise. Of course, this ties back in with designing with diversity in mind.
Sande pointed out that you can make the game story important. If hearing a character’s back story isn’t important, it probably shouldn’t be there to begin with. However, you can create systems to make story important, like lore badges in-game, or through forum status out of game.
Katie added how even though STARGATE WORLDS would draw a lot of fans of the Stargate world and story, 60% of its players would not be familiar with this world. The designers would be attempting to tell story other ways, like through the names of debuffs, for example.
Overall, the design ideas for making the internal narrative more important and more relevant to players include:
- Lore badges
- Link story through gifts between players
- Use of instances: The changes players can effect in instances as opposed to the persistent world make them ripe for story
- Animations in the persistent world, though these would be reset for each player
- See progression of story on website, perhaps through earning cash like on Club Penguin
- Catch the disease bug. Have a story-related effect spread throughout the game
The stories people play
Katie recounted what players talk about when playing MMOs. Hard-core raiders will share how they got their exalted reputation. A roleplayer in her casual guild would give a play-by-play of what he was doing fully in character.
Sam pointed out emote systems worked well in creating player story. He brought up the cantina crawl in STAR WARS GALAXIES, where players could go from cantina to cantina and would put on performances in each one. The biggest problem Sam had with MMOs from both a story and gameplay perspective involved the low stakes — if player makes a mistake, well, it’s no big deal. However, in EVERQUEST, the corpse run became one of the most talked-about features, because if the players didn’t get to their corpses in time, they lost everything.
Where game story and player story meet
Sam Lewis worked on STAR WARS GALAXIES, which, while brilliant in many ways, had some flaws. On the one hand, it didn’t capture the game story/world of Star Wars well enough for most players. On the other hand, because initially it was so hard to become a Jedi, it encouraged players to form entire guilds around helping characters become Jedis.
Katie pointed out that in WoW, most of her knowledge of lore came from another player. How, then, can we use the social systems that make MMOs great to tell the internal story, and vice versa? Check out these ideas that came up:
- Before launch, put some story clues onto the website and community boards that will get everyone commenting and speculating
- Allow user-generated content, such as tools to create missions in game
- Use systems like the cantina bands and tie them into the story
- Make it possible for players to be the first to discover something story/game-related, then give them public reward and recognition
- Let players show their story through motion capture and share it with others
At the end, each person offered one tip developers can implement right now to combine player story and game story on their MMOs.
- Let the worlds you build tell the story and create curiosity, rather than rely on dialog to convey it
- Bring in writers early to integrate them into the design and story-building process
- Make User-generated content available at launch and make sure your guild tools are robust at launch
Overall, this panel was chock full of good content — and I didn’t even get into the great question and answer period. I quickly discovered taking notes and moderating at the same time was a bit of a challenge, so if you were there, let me know if I missed anything key. What other ideas do you have for telling great game story, helping players tell their own stories, or helping players tell game story?