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Old 05-26-2020, 09:32 PM
Kyalin V. Raintree Kyalin V. Raintree is offline

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Default How to Write an MMO - Revisited

Some time ago, I wrote a thread called “Night Elves and the Player Experience, Or: How not to write an MMO”. The most important part of that thread, in my opinion, is where I attempted to draw a framework outlining what makes an enjoyable MMO story. That framework still defines most of my thinking, but it’s incomplete and the subsequent parts of the work take away from it.

So here is my second and final attempt.


First – video games are an interactive medium.

The audience is integral to the story in that it changes based on the outcome of their actions and choices. Their satisfaction directly relates to said actions and choices because we play games to fill psychological needs for feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Or, put another way: we play games to feel like we can capably act, that we can choose how we act, and that those choices matter. (1) If a video game is not making us feel that way, it is failing. The same is true for its story, which is itself a statistically significant factor in MMORPG enjoyment. (2)

Now, in an RPG, we experience the story and the world through the lens of our character, and identify with them and their role – whether we crafted that role for them, or if that role was in some way chosen for us. (Though that identification is stronger if we choose it for ourselves) (3) In an MMORPG – we mostly choose that role on the character selection screen – most sharply with race and class, in that order. Considering the prior point: that role identification means that every race/class combination must in some way be presented as competent, autonomous, and meaningful. If it isn’t, it will hurt the experiences of those playing those combinations – depending on the relative value they place on story (which is always a factor greater than zero).


Rule 1: The MMORPG story should present every race/class combination as competent, autonomous, and meaningful.

Second – video games are a visual medium.

Visual storytelling is critical in how messages are conveyed to general audiences because visual data is much more effective in being understood and remembered than text and audio is. Viewers retain 95% of a video’s message compared to 10% when reading text. (4) “Show, don’t tell” is true even in writing as it helps the reader to understand a story not just by reading information, but by ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ it. Most people will not understand a plot detail just because there is text describing it. For it to stick, you must show it. Visual and in-game content will almost always be more powerful than a quote, a tweet, a string of quest text, a spoken line of dialogue, or a book – to the point where those elements almost do not matter.

Further, when text and visuals clash – visuals will win. Even if the audience member understands the text, the visual information will still have a much greater impact. So if the messages you want to send are in text, but are not onscreen, they won’t work. General audiences won’t notice them, and even lore buffs will subconsciously remember and put more weight on visual information than text when confronted with a contradiction. Rule #2 then, is predictable.

Rule #2: Show, don’t tell. And whatever you do, don’t confuse.

Third – video game stories can only work based on what the audience knows and will believe.

I have two points to make here.

First – transmedia narratives, developer statements, tweets, and interviews are by their nature inaccessible. A small population of the overall audience will ever encounter them, and their contact is subject to the same problems as discussed before in rule #2. Hence, if critical plot details are buried in these elements but aren’t in the game, then general audiences will not know about them, and will not follow you when you use those elements to advance your story. There is also a similar problem in that if you have a message that appears only in that content – general audiences will not receive it.

Second – just because the lore says that something is the case does not mean that general audiences will agree that it makes sense. Previously established elements, real-world history and perspectives, as well as an understanding of how people generally behave will govern how audiences will ‘believe’ the MMORPG story. You must respect your audience, and “It’s a video game” can only carry you so far.

Rule #3: Your MMORPG’s story should be accessible and believable.


(4) Several sources were consulted for this – each can be found here:
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Old 06-02-2020, 12:07 PM
Kir the Wizard Kir the Wizard is offline

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I'll say this: if you are making an MMO, commit to making it massive, multiplayer, and online. Have the players' choices shape the world around them. For the most part, WoW played like a singlepayer game, and it would have actually been BETTER as a singleplayer game, without the narrative beeing schizophrenic.
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