1. Hey Guest! If you're more than just a WildStar fan and want to keep up on the latest MMO news, reviews and opinion pieces then I'd like to suggest you visit our sister site MMO Central

Emergent narrative in MMOs and you!

Discussion in 'Gaming Arena' started by Yakzan, Feb 20, 2013.

  1. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    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?
  2. JarNod

    JarNod WildStar Haiku Winner 2012 / Lead Guinea Pig

    Joined:
    Jun 26, 2012
    Likes Received:
    815
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Moscow, ID
    huh... :p
    Ayr likes this.
  3. Kirathis

    Kirathis Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Dec 9, 2011
    Likes Received:
    90
    Trophy Points:
    28
    Location:
    Behind You
    A great discussion starter and an interesting topic for sure. As another veteran MMO player, I have also had a first hand view of the changing scope of the genre. You bring up very interesting points.

    I would honestly have to say that one of the major factors impacting the emergent narrative is quite simply the move from the niche market to mainstream. Also yes, like it or hate it, WoW was a primary catalyst for the major change. I encourage anyone who never touched an MMO prior to WoW to speak to veteran gamers about MMO life before WoW. It was quite a different place. This is primarily due to the changing type of player in MMOs and the changes to the genre to accommodate the changing player-base.

    Most of the MMO players in the beginning were already pen and paper role-players and/or fantasy fiction readers. These players had a very in-depth knowledge of fantasy tropes in general and many translated this knowledge and their other experiences into the game world. There was a much larger role-play aspect in the older games and players tended to function much as they would have in a session of Dungeons and Dragons. This meant grouping to achieve a goal or traveling as a group to ward off monsters who tried to eat you. It meant saving a fellow light elf when they stumbled into a dark elf camp or becoming a beloved hero or hated villain to a faction. All in the name of the adventure.

    With the advent of WoW along with things like the debut of the Lord of the Rings movies, many people who were never a fan of the fantasy genre, never role-played or read a fantasy book found an interest in the MMO genre. This was by no means a bad thing, but it did begin to change the scope of the types of players. Players became more interested in being told or participating in a pre-created story than in creating one of their own. Games began to move away from the design elements that so impacted the emergent narrative and focus more on specific stories that the player interacted with, rather than the player creating their own story.

    Like most veteran MMO gamers, I love talking about the old days. Out of all of my stories, structured combat such as raids and events in later games such as WoW comprise very little. The truly great moments in my MMO gaming life revolved around items as simple as trying to travel across multiple zones; corpse runs in the original EverQuest or surviving an accident zone into Lower Guk. I cannot count how many times I was saved by a higher leveling adventurer when my low level character took a wrong turn somewhere and found myself fighting to survive only to have the other player jump in and save me from certain doom. I remember swooping in on my druid to save a group of lowbies who made the mistake of a night time run through Kithicor and met a set of nasty high level undead. It was these moments and many like them that created so many great stories that I have loved to share with friends over the years.

    It is interesting to see just how much this genre has changed since its inception.

    Oh and "Price check on Greatsword of Smiting!" ;)
    Mudfin, Joukehainen and Yakzan like this.
  4. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    The changing MMO audience and catering to them is definitely a strong player in what caused a lot of changes that work against emergent narrative. In the past years there has been an extreme shift in storytelling in MMOs. It went from UO/EQ days where the story was nothing but a backdrop, something for players to use to create their own stories, like Kirathis said. With recent MMOs such as GW2, The Secret World and the prime suspect Star Wars: The Old Republic, the storytelling went suddenly to directed cinematic storytelling. I also agree on the point that this paradigm shift caused a shift in how much emergent narrative took place, which has in my experience been on the decline, mostly because it takes away power from the player to create their own story and replaced with a script instead.

    In my opinion, linear, cinematic story telling has little to no place in MMOs. Their place of strength are in singleplayer/small co-op games, where the persistency of MMOs cannot hinder them. That is not to say it cannot work, just that it must be used sparingly in order to maintain balance between lore vs story. Linear storytelling can progress an overaching plot, something that is still done to this day in Asheron's Call 1 via monthly events, and also to evolve the game world.

    How I feel MMO developers should handle this balance between linear and non-linear story telling is this. Lore > Story. Make a rich setting, quests, dialogue and environment can make you more invested into the setting. A directed story, especially one that makes you the Chosen One (TOR, I'm looking at you) is extremely counterproductive to the natural flow of the game world. People love to wander around alien worlds pretending they're prodigal explorers or mighty warriors, on their own accord based on their own experience. Telling people what they are in an MMO really takes that away, especially with "Chosen One" mentality because in an MMO, not everyone can be the Chosen One. (TOR, really, what the hell)
    Norlamin likes this.
  5. Joukehainen

    Joukehainen Well-Known Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
    Likes Received:
    308
    Trophy Points:
    63
    Welp I gotta agree with OP. A lot of the "streamlining" of modern MMOs has the unfortunate result of making a lot of interaction between players largely irrelevant. Cross-server dungeon finders (and dungeon finders in general..) can be really destructive for community and teamplay, especially when coupled with the solo-ification of levelling and content. What ends up happening is players become more likely to see one another as means to an end (instances being the only content that can't be done alone) rather than co-inhabitants in an online world.

    Path of Exile comes to mind: while not an MMO, the in-game economy is already flourishing in beta despite all trading having to be done in person and via trade chat or, more commonly, the forums, where the community discusses what items are worth what together. PoE did away with gold entirely and instead made everything barterable, with consumeables that change item quality or reroll its slots, etc.

    GW2 actually did a good job with a this, to an extent, I feel. having "open tagging" and quests trigger on proximity does promote group-play in GW2 in my experience, and people join up to take on the champions and rare bosses that spawn in the world . World-spawns, and non-instanced content out in the world that requires grouping to do are things I'd definitely like to see more of in MMOs nowadays. And randomness. Waiting on an open-world boss timer to reset is a bit passé, if there could be chances for 'packs' or bosses to spawn in slightly differing places at different frequencies, that might make it even better. The more 'unpredictability' there is, the higher the chance for emergent gameplay, I feel. Which ties back into OP's mention of XCOM: a lot of the unexpected 'random' factor of events that could trigger and then snowball caused a lot of moments of shock and joy for players. (And then you gotta step it up and deal with it!)
    Norlamin and Yakzan like this.
  6. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    Whether narrative comes from scripted game design or from social interaction isn't important to me. It's the quality of it that I think about. Communities in MMOs are in a poor state, and a lot of the emergent narrative you talk about, for a lot of people, is actually negative.

    I'd love to know how we're going to reverse that. Thinking of my last MMO, I can think of stories about trolls, ninjas, people who were caught hacking, lame zerg legions, catty legion-leaders etc

    The really good stuff.. there's some, but not as much as there should be in my mind.
    Yakzan likes this.
  7. Joukehainen

    Joukehainen Well-Known Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
    Likes Received:
    308
    Trophy Points:
    63
    As for cinematic storytelling in MMOs: yeesh. I think that misses the point of MMOs entirely. It doesn't surprise me that Bioware tried to cram that in there, but I'm shocked that other companies latched onto it like grim death. The entire point of an MMO should be to play with others - that's the story. Having cinematic cutscenes where characters talk to you is just antithetical to the concept of massively multiplayer, imo, bc rather than horizontal storytelling (player to player) it's entirely vertical (game to you). And since there are thousands and thousands of other PCs, you somehow have to ignore the fact that everyone is getting the same cutscenes and having the same experiences with these NPCs and dealing with them as private friends and ugh... just nonsensical. I'd suggest making a SP game if a dev wants "personal story" in the form of important NPCs in the game world being chum-chummy with your PC in specific. And everyone else's.

    As for trolls/ninjas etc - I don't really see how that's connected to emergent narrative? There are always going to be people abusing systems and exploiting others, I think game devs can deal with that by learning from previous MMO mistakes (what kinds of systems can be exploited and how). That's more of a programming issue to me.
    Norlamin and Mudfin like this.
  8. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    The open-tagging system is extremely interesting, actually. What it has done is promote more spontaneous group play, at least a lot better than other contemporary MMOs. It has an interesting effect though, which isn't always true, just let me note. One thing I noticed that more than not people would just converge on an event then when it was over they'd go on their own way. Contrary to this are larger raids back in ye olde times where people had to group up and interact directly in that way. However, this isn't always true as forming those older raids had a series of logistical issues and sometimes you just didn't want to directly deal with people. Back to open-tagging, it truly does ease people into grouping as they can work together without direct interaction which can then lead into the more direct interaction that we're primarily used to.

    The use of open-tagging vs closed-tagging really depends on the game. Games like Everquest thrive much better on closed-tagging but games like GW2, and now LotRO, benefit from open-tagging. From what I've seen and read about Wildstar, I feel that open-tagging is the way to go. What do you guys think?
  9. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    I don't get that. MMO's came from the RP genre. There should be a deep narrative from start to endgame, and it should keep coming. You shouldn't have to group up to get some sort of story from the game.

    I don't understand why you don't get the point about trolls etc. Those are negative experiences people have. Experiences can be both positive and negative. If you have a negative experience, that narrative is negative obviously. Whether it's related to programming or Acts of God, is by the by.
  10. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    That is a very good point. I believe starspun has a post about how a server community can be extremely detrimental. This really depends on who you're dealing with, as with any social interactions. It's just that one cannot forget that these are MMOs where dealing with people is, and should be, a fact of life. It's also a good question of how can we as a community, and how can Carbine as game designers, make player interaction favorable rather than a big mess? Should there be an in-built player reputation system, akin to Xbox Live or even social media (Likes, up/downvotes)? What do you guys think could be done to promote a living, breathing server community that is more nice than naughty?
    Ayr likes this.
  11. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    I would massively be up for an in-game rep system. It'd probably be tricky to implement and safeguard though.

    I think the best solution is the worst one. Remove anonymity. Will never happen though.

    haha :D
    Yakzan likes this.
  12. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    I'd like to correct you a bit on this. MMO worlds were primarily driven from pen and paper RPGs. This is apparent when you look at MUDs and how the earliest MMOs were primarily sandbox. Even with the introduction of what we call themepark MMOs via EQ, the pen and paper elements were still pretty strong. The original idea was to give players a world to live in and interact with each other. MMOs have, of course, changed with time along with our preconceptions of the genre. I still feel that in these world driven MMOs that linear narration should only be on the sideline to help promote non-linear storytelling.

    Bioware's approach in TOR is an example of how it just doesn't work in an MMO. It had an initial boom of people who loved their style and what did they do? They played through the story content and left. MMOs are supposed to make you want to play beyond this content, it's not a singleplayer game where you can play once or twice and experienced everything. The fact they applied this even hindered their storytelling because of the massive dissonance of being the Chosen One then you exit the cutscene to be standing next to a bunch of people who also killed the Sith Emperor and were the chosen one.

    Can linear storytelling work in an MMO? I found one game that did it pretty well and evolved it in a fitting way, I feel, with time and release of expansion. This is Lord of the Rings Online. They have epic storyline quest chains that direct you through the game world, but were entirely optional as well. At first, certain sections required full groups but has been changed that you can do it solo, as well with a group, which I feel is a welcome change despite my lovely memories of doing it with groups. It didn't make you the chosen one, but a helpful bystander, and that made sense because you're one of many adventurers out in the world. IT was also a theme which they used for content updates like the introduction of zones and the direction of expansion content. Again, this was entirely optional but I personally loved going through this story content and the ending of the first Volume, which was the original Shadows of Angmar storyline, was the first and so far only time linear storytelling in an MMO has brought a tear to my eye.

    I would like to emphasize on the notion of "Lore > Story" as deep lore as established with environments, quests, etc, does a lot more in creating immersion than cinematic storytelling can, in my opinion.

    Sorry if I come off hostile with this post but this something I have very strong opinions on. I disagree with the notion that linear storytelling as can be found in TOR has a place in MMOs, but rather something akin to LotRO does the job much better. However, if you feel this isn't true, that is perfectly okay and I have no beef with you, I just have contrary views to this.
    Kirathis and Joukehainen like this.
  13. Witless

    Witless "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 7, 2013
    Likes Received:
    505
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Having played numerous MMOs in the last 13 years I agree wholeheartedly. For me though I think there is no hope for gameplay to offer this narrative anymore. I can bring up at least 10 stories right now from EQ that fit this and I played it for only 2 years. On the other hand I can only think of two stories from WoW and I played it for 6 years. Those two stories involved my guild. To me with the streamlining of MMOs the place were emergent narrative will occur will be with in your guild. Everything else is instantaneous.

    I hope WS will bring back opportunities for this but I won't hold my breath. Mainstream MMO gamers don't care about it.
    Norlamin and Ayr like this.
  14. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    Yeah there's a large and noisy PvP element that wants nothing to do with storytelling. I think writers have let a lot of people down with shallow lore too.

    RP is the first two letters in RPG.

    Try not to treat people like they're stupid.
  15. Joukehainen

    Joukehainen Well-Known Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
    Likes Received:
    308
    Trophy Points:
    63
    I agree story should be built into the game, such as via the lore, the area design, the artwork, quest and instance background etc. It's just the passive "Bioware-style" of storytelling (cinematic cutscene where an NPC talks to you in shot reverse shot) that I find clashes fundamentally with MMOs. There are many ways of injecting storytelling, and that "personal story" style that devs have recently aped from TOR I find to be an uninspired one.

    About the trolls: yeah, ofc I get that trolls are a negative experience ;) what I didn't get was how that's the backside of or result of emergent narrative. As long as there is a chat box in any game, there's going to be trolling. When it came to exploits, I see that as more of a programming issue than an emergent narrative issue: ie programming that is harder to exploit/hack solves the problem, rather than restructuring group-play.
    Norlamin likes this.
  16. Yakzan

    Yakzan "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    743
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Iceland
    Now you're assuming something I did not say. The RP in RPG means "Roleplay" not "Deep, linear narration." That's what I'm getting at. It has been approached in many different ways. Bioware RPGs are currently the most mainstream of western RPGs which uses linear storytelling heavily, with a bits of cosmetic and side-plot choices. JRPGs are infamous for their entirely linear storytelling. MMOs are in beautiful in that they can support completely open-ended player-driven storytelling. I feel that it is this that should be encouraged more than linear, developer-driven content.
    Norlamin and Joukehainen like this.
  17. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    It's much deeper than as simple chat nuisance. Players can have their whole game turned around by a poor experience, say a legion officer who they've trusted for a long time, suddenly makes off with all their legion gold/crafting mats etc. The knock-on from that will change everything for the players affected. Everything they do will be to recover from that negative event.

    The story becomes about dealing with personal strife for months. That's their narrative, and it ain't good.
  18. Joukehainen

    Joukehainen Well-Known Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
    Likes Received:
    308
    Trophy Points:
    63
    Indeed, and we've all been there, but I don't see that as a result of game systems or how they're implemented. I see that as a result of human socialization and it's going to be the same at school, in the workplace, at home, etc.
    Norlamin likes this.
  19. Witless

    Witless "That" Cupcake

    Joined:
    Feb 7, 2013
    Likes Received:
    505
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Maybe I need to ask a clarifying question.

    Emergent narrative as I understand it has less to do with story and lore but more to do with mechanics in game that cause interaction that leads to your own stories and then memories. Right?
  20. Ayr

    Ayr Cupcake-About-Town

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2013
    Likes Received:
    191
    Trophy Points:
    43
    You've just completely convoluted the point. You tried to pull some bit about where MMOs came from, as if I wasn't aware of the pen and paper history, MUDs etc. All because I said MMOs came from the RP genre.

    For the birds.

Share This Page