MMOGology: Why bother with story?

I recently went through a burn-out period on MMOGs. In addition to a job change and lots of personal commitments that limited my time, I'd simply grown bored with the genre. I think we all go through those periods. Times when we're just done with the grind and we need to recharge our gaming batteries on something different. This seems especially true once we've reached end-game and we're grinding the same old dungeons and flailing away in the same old PvP battles. It seemed like the only thing I had to look forward to was an eight year old telling me how bad I got pwned or watching yet another piece of gear drop that I couldn't use.

My burnout period also coincided with the purchase of a brand new gaming rig. I think the last machine I purchased was back in 2004, and I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a new rig. If you're like me (and I know I am), the first thing you do when you get a new gaming computer is test it on the most graphically advanced game you have available; that special game that brought your old machine to its knees. For me, that game was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Although my old machine could run it with the settings on low, now I can finally play it at high resolution with all the bells and whistles turned on. I'm proud to say my new rig cuts through Oblivion like a hot knife through butter.

I played Oblivion a lot when it originally came out, but because my old rig struggled with it, I never played more than about a quarter of the way through the game. I decided to start over from scratch and as I progressed I remembered why I love single player RPGs: the story. A great story provides a level of immersion that's only possible to achieve when playing alone. It was really refreshing. And it made me wonder, why do MMOGs even bother with the pretense of a story at all?

Think about some of your favorite storylines in your MMOG of choice. One that immediately comes to my mind is the Defias Brotherhood chain of quests in World of Warcraft. This is a series of quests that starts out with several annoying Fed-Ex quests. But if you bother to read through the quest text, a a clandestine plot by the Defias Brotherhood unfolds. Edwin VanCleef, one of WoW's early "bosses", seeks revenge for the Stonemasons' ill treatment by the King of Stormwind. And as the story describes, he has a legitimate gripe. This is one of those storylines that actually draws the player deeper into the story as it progresses and ends with a memorable, fan favorite instance run through the Deadmines.

Another of my favorite story sequences occurs in Lord of the Rings Online. It occurs at the beginning of the game in the human town of Archet. Just as you're ready to leave the newbie zone to start questing out in Middle Earth, a band of brigands attacks Archet and sets it on fire. This was one of the more dramatic events I can remember playing through in an MMOG. Half the town actually burns down and remains burned for the rest of the game. It felt as though your actions had a lasting consequence as a result of your participation in the storyline. This type of experience is typically only possible in a single player game. It was possible in LOTRO because the developers made an extremely interesting decision to make the the newbie zone a giant instance. And of course, as a player, you aren't aware of that until after it's happened.

Think about the storylines I just described and think about your own favorite stories in MMOGs. Chances are high that most of them occurred early in the game. By the time you really get rolling in an MMOG you probably skip reading the text quest. You know that that it'll ultimately be another Fed-Ex quest or another Kill X Wombats quest. While there are still some story-driven chains in the upper levels, they seem to come along less frequently. It's as if the developers at some point stopped caring or ran out of good ideas and started filling the game with simple ways to gain experience. The net effect is that the further you progress in the game, the less intricate and interesting the stories become, and the more you notice the level grind. The dungeons may grow in size and complexity and the PvP challenges may change; but somewhere along the line the story seems like it gets left behind. And, honestly, maybe it should. Maybe they shouldn't even bother with storytelling in MMOGs.

The beauty of the MMOG lies in its ability to deliver multiplayer experiences on a large scale. It allows gamers to play with others and meet new people as they adventure. But playing with others and experiencing an immersive story almost seem like mutually exclusive experiences. It's like trying to read a story with twenty strangers and a friend or two in the same room. A lot of people don't want to bother with the story; they want to get to the action. Others think the story stinks or have already done it and give away the ending. I remember an impatient PUG member that was shocked that I actually bothered to read the quest text. As I'm attempting to immerse myself in the story he's jumping around in circles, standing on props in the area and /farting on the NPCs. It's hard to remain immersed in a story when this type of behavior is going on around you constantly. These types of players just don't care about story and would rather look up the quest on Allakhazam, Thottbot or WoWWiki; or even better, just follow the dotted line with an add on like QuestHelper. The more you skip the story element, the more you notice the grind.

Playing with other people is what makes MMOGs both so great and so awful. Your experience with the game changes drastically based on the people you play with. If you can level with a bunch of like-minded friends who enjoy questing as much as you do, and take the time to enjoy the content, I guess you're very fortunate. Random PUGs seem almost inevitable. Impatient and impolite PUG members make any attempt at immersing yourself in the game's story that much more difficult. And I don't know if there's a way developers can really "fix" that problem. People play the game in different ways and most developers don't want to exclude any particular play style. Ultimately, that's not a bad thing.

Sometimes you just need a break from all the morons with a great, single player, story-driven game. Now that my gaming batteries are recharged, I'm ready to head back into MMOG-land. A friend of mine and I are looking forward to WoW's refer a friend program and I'm looking forward to leveling up again. I'll have more on that experience next time. Until then, happy gaming!

MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.

This article was originally published on Massively.