Who was there: At this GDC Europe 2011 panel, freelance game design consultant Ernest Adams discussed the problems with storytelling in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and how these issues can be addressed using a hypothetical, World War II-inspired MMOG called The Blitz Online.
What he talked about:Ernest Adams has some problems with how storytelling is handled in today's MMOGs. In brief, there's a big disconnect between what the game says the player is doing and what is actually happening. Using The Lord of the Rings Online as an example, Adams' first problem was that creatures respawn when killed. The game may say a player has killed the diabolical spider, but if you wait a few moments, it reappears again. The problem is still there, and it will always be there.
He went on to say that in these games, the player's actions do nothing to influence the state of the world. In another example from LOTRO, Adams was tasked with collecting some items so that a group of non-player characters could invade a town. However, after he collected the materials, the invasion never happened. Other players brought their materials as well, but it didn't make a bit of difference. He also disliked the fact that players could simply abandon a quest without consequence. The world didn't suffer for it and neither did the player.
This isn't to say that gameworlds in MMOGs never change. World of Warcraft, the Ultima games, and LOTRO have all received expansion packs that have altered their respective worlds. However, Adams said, the change doesn't come gracefully. Instead, it happens to everyone, all at once, and it's usually not the result of the player's actions. One day the world is one way, and the next day, it's totally different. Once again, Adams doesn't feel as if he's making a real impact on the world; he's just watching it happen.
The solution to this MMOG problem is not an easy one. It involves creating a massive world with a plot line that naturally produces several smaller ones. Traditionally, this story structure takes the form of a massive expedition, an engineering or construction project, or a disaster-relief effort. The changes the players make to the world should be permanent, and their actions should matter. The game must end, and the quests should be unique to the individual players. And if players can die in the game, the death should be permanent.
All of this may seem impossible, but Adams didn't stop there. He went on to lay out his plans for an MMOG that uses all of these elements (and more) to create a world where player choice truly matters. The hypothetical game is called The Blitz Online; a free, educational online game about the civil defense forces during the blitz in World War II. The blitz refers to the sustained period of bombings to several European cities by the Nazis in the early 1940s.
The game would take place in London during this dark time, and the conditions of the city would only get worse if the players didn't take action. Buildings would be destroyed dynamically depending on where the bombs hit, and some areas may even become impassible if they take enough damage. Players would be divided into different regions and help with the relief effort as defined by their character class.
Good players would help the national morale go up. If the national morale reached a certain point, the Nazis would conclude that the bombing isn't having the desired psychological effect on the population and would stop; thus ending the game. Otherwise, the game would end on May 10, 1941, the historical date the bombings ceased.
Character classes would include firefighters, who drive around putting out fires; rescue workers, who rescue people from rubble; ambulance drivers, who are just as they sound; and the Women's Voluntary Service, the game's primary support class that provides food, shelter, and other services to the other characters. Character death would be permanent in The Blitz Online as well. The only caveat is that players can't be damaged by actual bombs; Adams doesn't want players to feel cheated by a random explosion. However, fires, car crashes, and other hazards are still plenty lethal.
Ultimately, The Blitz Online would be designed to feel less like the player is playing a game and more like he or she is experiencing a story. The gameworld would change through the ravages of war, as well as the player's ability to save (or not save) its buildings and people. No two bomb strikes would be exactly alike, and the changes made would be permanent. The global plot would also have a narrative arc taken from history, including the opening of shelters for citizens and the advent of deadlier bomb types. And finally, the game would have a specific end point.
Adams acknowledges that such a game won't happen overnight, but he does urge developers to start analyzing how their games can have a greater impact for players. As he noted early in the presentation, Adams is certain he's not the only one searching for this type of experience.
Quote:"I realize this game breaks almost all the rules."--Ernest Adams, on his hypothetical MMOG, The Blitz Online.
Takeaway: The MMOG genre (and video games in general) is still very young. There are plenty of new and unique experiences out there for developers to explore and players to discover. It's important that we help foster an industry that isn't afraid to take chances and get a little creative with the medium we all enjoy. Adams' ideas may seem overwhelming when taken all at once, but he insists that evolution of the genre is important.