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.

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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
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
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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