Zenimax, 38 Studios MMOG writers: We're doing it wrong

GDC Austin 2009: Everquest II veterans working on new unannounced projects detail the pitfalls of and offer solutions for massively multiplayer online storytelling.

Who Was There: Zenimax content designer Tracy Seamster and 38 Studios creative director Steve Danuser, both veterans of Everquest II and both working on acknowledged but unannounced massively multiplayer online projects.

Steve Danuser

What They Talked About: On the Austin GDC schedule, Seamster and Danuser's session is titled "Writing for MMOs: You're Doing It Wrong." As fun as it would have been to listen to developers with companies that have yet to ship MMOGs tell a crowd of MMOG writers why they suck, Danuser backed off the belligerent topic of the session right off the bat.

"We're not up here trying to portray ourselves as know-it-alls who've done everything perfectly," Danuser said, adding, "We've sinned as much as anybody."

With that out of the way, he started listing the problems facing MMOG writers. First off, he explained "Nobody wants to read what we write." With the medium being inherently social, people play for the communal experience, not to read quest dialogue or listen to non-player characters.

Danuser also listed a number of other challenges facing writers, specifically story arcs that don't have conclusions. Because MMOGs work on subscriptions and designers need to keep players from ever getting real closure and walking away from the game, Danuser said it's tough to give satisfactory conclusions to a story arc. The lack of a single protagonist and the difficulty of pacing a story for all the different ways players can enjoy it is another sticking point.

Seamster offered some solutions for those problems, starting with the open-ended story arcs. Because she typically enjoys MMOGs on her own, she said developers shouldn't make story conclusions dependent on coordinating a huge raid. Limiting the satisfying story conclusions to those who play the game a specific way could do little but frustrate portions of the audience, Seamster said. She pointed to soap operas as one good way to keep a compelling story going, with overlapping and intertwining story arcs keeping some shows alive for decades.

As for the lack of a single protagonist and focus of attention, Danuser said it's possible to sidestep the issue by finding narratives that emphasize teamwork. Challenges that involve the entire virtual world and players of all types also help. Danuser also said MMOG players are smart enough to understand that the world doesn't revolve around their characters, so developers shouldn't try to trick them into believing they do.

To address the question of pacing, Danuser wanted to see MMOG developers keep a narrower focus with the goals they give players. Instead of giving them dozens of concurrent quests and potentially overwhelming them, Danuser said it could be more helpful to give them fewer obligations with a more obvious sense of urgency and priority surrounding them. Seamster said that was one problem with Everquest II, where players would collect all the quests from a given area before trying to complete any of them.

Tracy Seamster

The pair was particularly critical of quest journals. Giving players a way to track what's going on with their assorted quests is a reasonable idea, but Danuser said it leads to problems where players have too many obligations in too many locations. Seamster said the journals should be used more just to point players in the right direction than to recap chunks of the story or act as the driving force behind the storyline.

Another "challenge" some developers of MMOGs might find is that the players' own stories are more memorable than the scripted stories in the game. Danuser said that's not a problem at all, as the most interesting parts of MMOGs are the tales that emerge from normal social dynamics. All developers can do is create a living world to encourage those connections, according to Danuser. Getting more specific, Seamster said features like social emotes and guild chat are vital because they let players tell their stories to each other.

Players need to be able to tell a story to each other because they won't always let developers tell it to them. Danuser and Seamster talked about the habit players have of clicking through dialogue trees as quickly as possible to get to the quest acceptance, no matter how much time and effort writers put into the flavor text. Danuser suggested they just strip away as much of that fluff as possible, as dialogue isn't the best way to tell stories.

Another pitfall Danuser brought up was masking the narrative. Cool ideas need to be conveyed to players in simple and direct ways because there's too much else going on for them to work at understanding it.

The pair talked about a handful of cornerstones for narrative, starting with an up-to-date story bible for the developers to draw inspiration from. On that same note, Danuser said developers should have a separate tone document to set a range of what's acceptable in the game world. Without one, developers risk having one designer making Lovecraftian horror content while another focuses on Three Stooges slapstick.

Quote: "Don't feel like it has to be your genius and creativity that's bringing people back to these games."--Danuser, cautioning attendees not to resent players who prefer the social dynamics to the flavor text.

Takeaway: Danuser said MMOG developers need to be awesome storytellers as well as great writers, noting that the two aren't always the same thing. It's up to the writers to inspire the development teams and create a cool world, but they need everyone on the team to tell the game's stories in their own work.

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Discussion

34 comments
puffadell
puffadell

what kind of story can u have in a mmog

sircyrus
sircyrus

What's the matter, not wanting to point out that was WoW's problem because you're afraid of fanboy backlash?

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

Maybe they'll work on a game that ppl besides EQ fans will try.

Kai0nTheMoon
Kai0nTheMoon

I actually prefer being immersed in an MMO with a good story line rather than dealing with the social interaction of it. The in-game communities of people are usually full of players who are a word I can't say in GameSpot forums. The lore behind EQ1 & EQ2 was a huge part of what kept me around for so long. It's the stupidity of the players in the game that drove me away. It was just people trying to constantly upgrade their gear so they could kill harder mobs so they could, yes, upgrade their gear again. Lame. Thankfully games like Guild Wars allowed me to have the best of both worlds.

Express_Diablos
Express_Diablos

Makes real good sense, cause in the most part of MMO's i've played their story sucks ass or doesn't really have one at all.

-Celeste-
-Celeste-

@gamestop27 Go play FFXI like "Simple_malk" said; the first two expansions have an amazing story to them told through cutscene after cutscene. Its like playing through an offline FF game with a room full of people. I haven't play the "Wings of the Goddess" expansion, and left just after "Treasures of ...." was released so i can't comment on those too much. "Rise of the Zilart" and "Chains of Promethia" were AMAZING stories. Even "Treasures had some pretty good story telling behind it". In addition, all the extra jobs had some sort of quest arc and story behind it also. Some of them were move involved then others, while some were relatively simple to accomplish.

DiscGuru101
DiscGuru101

I read the stuff that is interesting, especially if it ties in well with the mission or quest. Later, epic sized quests and lairs more so than the "deal with Leo's pesky giant rat problem" ones....

DarthMK
DarthMK

Somehow the other players destroy the storytelling aspect of the mmos. When I chat with the people in guild chat or on my friendslist I am in a "meta-game" mindset. Conscious of playing a game together with others. And while they talk about 100 different things I am not realy in the mood to know something about a story. Its different in the beginning when you don't know anybody. But even then the bystanders and people in general chat could easy ruin the emersion. And when I am draged out of the emersion I don't care anymore and just click to the end of the dialogs.

RavenXavier
RavenXavier

I've always read the quests the first time through them in any new MMO. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I'm a old school gamer. It's the second or third time through with a new character when I just "click" "click" "click" to get to the end so I can accept the quest. If they want players to actually Pay Attention to the quest storylines then they should give the player a Choice and Options in the storyline like single player games usually do these days. That's incredibly hard to do in a MMO though if everyone's choices can change the world and it might affect someone else's quests. It would be interesting though.

mrklorox
mrklorox

Haha... "storytelling" in MMOs. That's pretty funny Gamespot.

Simple_malk
Simple_malk

FFXI by far has best the story telling out of any MMO I've ever seen or played and FFXIV seems like it'll trump it. SE did what they do best with FFXI and made a riveting story that you can jump directly into relatively quickly and story progression awarded you with access to new areas and thus access to new bosses and gear. The focus on story unfortunately took a back seat in the 3rd and 4th expansions which is a real shame. I have very high hopes for FFXIV especially given than the script and original VOs are being done in English.

gamerboy100
gamerboy100

Sounds like they learned a lesson from Bioware.

raahsnavj
raahsnavj

There are stories in those?! I thought it was just grinding.

jazilla
jazilla

What about lazy story writing? For example: Collect 'X' amount of Pelt 'Y'? Delivery quests anyone? Kill this character? All of it is totally rehashed in every MMO and those are the things, that if made interesting, would really separate a good one from a mediocre one.

brian_13un
brian_13un

Hope its great..... How about The Elder Scrolls online (just kidding) ^_^

Gen-Gawl
Gen-Gawl

I usually just click through to accept then go back to the journal to actually see what the objective is. I don't need a huge backstory so I can go kill 12 worgs and 17 rabbits. Now, if the quest was for something actually cool and unique then I'd read it. But as it stands, it's 99% kill x amount of this or that.

firedrakes
firedrakes

problem with most mmorpg is their dont really let the player do anything but quest.

ayanematrix
ayanematrix

gamestop27 Posted Sep 15, 2009 2:43 pm PT I truly think it is impossible for an mmo to have a story on the scale such as Half-Life,Halo,Metal Gear Solid,Final Fantasy,etc Actually, if anything, Half-Life should be a good starting place in how an interactive story should progress. Plus, even though you're Gordon Freeman in the game, YOU are in control of what he does and how he thinks as it should be for any game. A MMOG is should not be any different. And the closest MMOG I've played that to having decent cinematic has to be Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine, but for all of it's wonderfully crafted story and lore, I can't get into it. Then again, almost all of the MMO's I've tried feel like that.

Tarmac_Hunter
Tarmac_Hunter

"Everyone besides NCSOFT?!?" Please tell me that's some sort of bad joke.

dukerav
dukerav

Bioware's The Old Republic, that is all.

glhx2112
glhx2112

He should have said Everyone besides NCSOFT are doing it wrong Hind sight is always 20/20.

drokmore
drokmore

Ya I find myself reading the initial quest lines, but when your're doing the 20th collection quest, you just want to get going already and a page of reading to explain why i need to collect 15 dove tails, well isn't that pivitol. I think you do need some sort of major quest lines with storyline. It needs to succinct, because playing is the most important. But it does add a greater sense of purpose then the usual grind...

ZeerusX
ZeerusX

He should have said "Everyone besides BioWare are doing it wrong" Hind sight is always 20/20.

airshocker
airshocker

I'm very interested to see what these guys are planning concerning a new MMO. EQ2 WAS one of the first MMOs that used questing as a main-source of leveling. But I have to say, I consistently DON'T read the quests because I'm more concerned with the XP I'm going to get at the end. I'd love to learn some more of the lore behind some of the games I play, but PvP and other pursuits tend to get in the way.

xSithiSx
xSithiSx

@whosnext I really have to agree with you bro, WoW doesnt have any interesting story whatsoever.. its terrible. You should try AION or Age of Conan, they both have these Campaign missions throughout the game, fully equipped with cutscenes and interesting story. It was just very hard for me to get immersed into WoW, but AION and AoC was very cool because they both drew me in with the voice acting and cutscenes. I guess I just got sick of hearing "For the sunwell!" or "Lok'tar Na' rosh!" everytime I clicked on an NPC on WoW.

Wolfkcing
Wolfkcing

I actually did want to read those dialogue trees when I first started playing these kinds of games, but there is just so much else going on in the game. I too ended up just skipping through them.

xIWhosNextIx
xIWhosNextIx

i think hes right on the money, i tried World of Warcraft and i personally think that those were the reasons why i didnt get sucked in. I dont really care to read 4 paragraphs about why im going to kill someone, i just want to do it. if there was a better way to tell the story i think it would be much more alluring to me. im excited for The Old Republic because i think the fully voiced system will draw me in and i will be able to follow the story of the game unlike WoW where i felt like i was just doing a bunch of random crap

gamestop27
gamestop27

I truly think it is impossible for an mmo to have a story on the scale such as Half-Life,Halo,Metal Gear Solid,Final Fantasy,etc

clickade
clickade

@ xeridae They have already put a disclaimer in the first half of the article - "We're not up here trying to portray ourselves as know-it-alls who've done everything perfectly," Danuser said, adding, "We've sinned as much as anybody." Please do re-read the article :)

xeridae
xeridae

I love how they are saying what others developers should or should not do as if though they really know what's best.

N0tYrBeezin
N0tYrBeezin

Ok we will be watching how many subscribers they get in their new MMO. Let's see if these lessons are useful or not.