Note: TL;DR at bottom of this wall of text. Hail. Just wanted to start with a brief introduction to what I plan to be a series of threads or posts to really analyze, nitpick and hopefully discussion the various nuanced aspects of MMO design. I wanted to add as a disclaimer that I am by no means a professional game designer or have any formal education. These are entirely my personal observations, ideas and concerns from my 12 years of experience spanning over 30 MMOs that I can recount from the top of my head. I will most assuredly come with ideas and arguments that you will disagree with or are just plain wrong, because I can be an idiot. Please disagree and tell me why. Let us have a friendly chat to narrow down what we disagree with and why. There is no right or wrong opinion and I would love to hear from you, as long as it‘s constructive. With that aside, I will begin. I decided to start with a concept that find to be extremely important in MMOs but isn‘t often purposely designed around, which is one of the aspects of it. This concept is Emergent Narrative. In short, it is stories that emerge through gameplay. A non-MMO example would be playing X-Com and the mechanics might cause a series of events that you might tell others about, such as a rookie managing to not be hit by three aliens, panics, and kills them all with his berserking shots. A personal MMO anecdote was one time I was playing with two friends in WoW and we were three blood elves running through Ashenvale at 3AM in the morning. We happen to run past three night elves of identical class and gender. Shortly after passing, both parties stop, turn around and stare, then turn back around and run off as if saying, „Am I in the Twilight Zone?“ I hope these examples give you better insight to what I‘m speaking of. My point with this is that nine out of ten stories I hear MMO vets speak of are about these memories. It may involve the downing of a boss but it‘s mostly about what went into achieving the kill than the kill itself. Now, what promotes this emergent narrative that I bang on about? I find it to be a series of systems in MMOs. I want to start with forced social interaction. Many design elements of older games either intentionally or unintentionally forced social interaction. These elements may involve levelling requiring people grouping, to trade wares you need to go to cities or other hubs and use a chat channel to peddle your wares (WTS Great Sword of Smiting 10pp!). These older designs are now considered harsh and ultimately not fun by most of the current MMO audience, which I chalk up to changing lifestyles and the rapid expansion of the MMO audience from niche to mainstream, thanks primarily to WoW. What has changed? With WoW many new or changed systems were popularized. Level progression was now through a more free-form version of questing, which has now evolved into a linear quest-hub design. This was a solution to reduce the feeling of the grind which is an eternal constant to keep up the longevity of an MMO. It also reduced the time to reach level cap and thus, the ever sought-after End Game. This also promoted solo play to accommodate people who didn‘t have the time, or desire, to commit themselves to a group in order to advance. While desirable and effective, and such a design philosophy is definitely required in this day and age, it also isolated people from each other. It became less and less desirable to group up during the infamous Journey to level cap besides exclusive group content, such as areas with elite, stronger than usual, mobs or dungeons. Group content only really kicks in at level cap and even then, nowadays in games such as WoW, LotRO, and other recent games, only reason to group up is to do dungeons, raid and PvP minigames (battlegrounds) and arena. Another thing that has changed, and I will touch about in another post in more depth, is the popularization of cross-realm matchmaking. This has had effect to further reduce the need to actually interact with players other than on pre-agreed terms, „I‘m healing, you’re gonna tank and the others will DPS, we don‘t have to tell each other our jobs.“ also because of the massive pool you enter when queuing, there is little chance you‘ll meet the same people again, even if they‘re your server, so there is no incentive to develop any sort of relationship with the other players. I find cross-realm matchmaking to be an interesting topic as it solves many problems for those who don‘t like to wait or have the time, but creates many other problems, mostly for the social aspects of an MMO world. So what promotes social interactions and encourages emergent narrative? I‘ll discuss a few features or designs that I‘ve noticed in my travels in a variety of MMOs. Server communities and your reputation with the community is one. You will be meeting these people again, you will do business with them, group with them, or fight them. You may adopt an alter-ego from your real-life self but none-the-less, your character is connected to what opinions other players have of you from their interactions with you. Group content, such as dungeons and raiding, along with PvP minigames and arenas, also promote this. The variety of encounters, the things that go right and the things that go wrong, the joy and drama that loot brings, and events of awesomeness and dismay, all create their own stories. For better or worse, these stories have people develop an investment in their characters and with other players. Social hubs are another aspect that promotes this. People tend to group up in points of interests and meet each other there. Banks, auction houses and even crafting stations can cause spontaneous conversation or develop relationships. Chat channels also count in this as the infamous Barrens chat can testify. Cosmetic customization and RP tools are strong proponents. Appearance systems such as found in LotRO, Rift and WoW’s more archaic approach, help people develop their character’s image. A personal example was my Hobbit minstrel in LotRO who would always use a cowbell, wears a top hat and fancy attire, while my tank would be a dwarf with a wizard’s hat and a dress. Other tools would be a biography tab as you could find in LotRO and as far back as Ultima Online. LotRO even went as far as to allow for complex family trees and accompanying titles, f.x. “Daughter of Maurvaethil.” This leads to another part of customization: Titles. People love titles and the most robust system I’ve personally encountered is, again, LotRO. There were a great deal of titles in different categories you could unlock, from events, killing mobs, or more unique achievements such as killing a raid boss. Another extension of this are emotes. I’ve found having a robust list of emotes to choose from, from serious to zany, creates fun encounters with strangers. One final thing I wanted to mention, but definitely not the last thing that promotes emergent narrative, is meeting people in the world. Like my previous anecdote of the two groups meeting on the road, exploring the world and finding these other players that you may wave to or even group up to do a quest can develop and nurture relationships between players. You might be levelling alone but end up meeting the same guy often as he is progressing at a similar speed. You might end up grouping up with him more often, end up in the same guild, or even for some people go as far as to meet each other in the real world and even get married. These sorts of things have happened. This aspect is something I find to be most under fire by the ‘streamlining’ of MMO design. These are my general observations on this important phenomenon in MMOs. I could go into further detail about certain things if asked. Please, do contribute to this discussion. I would love to see ideas and concepts I didn’t mention, correct factual errors, tell me I’m right or wrong and why. I’d love also to see suggestions of things you feel have been neglected or never even considered that I didn’t mention. Overall, I hope you found this post informative regardless of your stance on the issue of emergent narrative in MMOs. TL;DR People love making their own stories and memories in MMOs. What do you think MMOs do that make this happen? Do you think that the current trend in MMO design is making this more difficult? Do you have any suggestions what MMOs should do to help you make these memories happen?