At the Austin Game Developers Conference, we sat down to a one-man panel held by James Portnow, of Divide by Zero Games. His topic was "The Secret to Storytelling in a Massively Multiplayer Environment", and it was well worth our time.
James' main point was to collect the various servers, or shards, into one continuous world, and how that would affect the idea of composing an overarching storyline. We've compiled a breakdown of James' panel here, condensing his hour-long talk into what we think are his most salient points. Remember, most of these statements are not actual quotes unless specifically pulled out as such. Read on to learn more about "The Secret to Storytelling in a Massively Multiplayer Environment".
James began by discussing what's meant by the term "Unsharding". In this case, the term refers to the concept of pulling together all server shards and piling every character into one world. "The important thing about Unsharding is to remember that interactors in an Unsharded world participate in a shared story space. Not a shared world space." EVE Online is one of the few examples of a truly Unsharded MMO. Same story space, same world space. Players can drive the story because there's only one server, one shard, so player politics in EVE is really the deciding factor.
The Nexon MMO Kart Rider is mentioned. KR is a completely instantiated world. All races exist in the same story space. They can all affect the overall picture. You can take the agglomeration of those races and have them affect what engines are being produced, what new tracks open up.
"The important thing about Unsharding is to remember that interactors in an Unsharded world participate in a shared story space. Not a shared world space."
Kesmai's Battletech 3025 is mentioned. The development studio created a storyline by fictionalizing the player battles that occurred, the overarching battle stats that accrued over time. Players really felt like they were affecting the world. Prices of goods changed, the things being produced changed, and everyone felt that they were participating in growing a world that only existed as a 2D map image.
On to the mechanics of Unsharding: Say you find a way to get 10,000,000 players into one Unsharded space. First thing to do is give agency back to the players. Writers make players face fake choices; equations, mathematical problems that have a solution. "Solutions, solvable problems do not drive Story. Choosing that Weapon A and Armor Set B to help you kill Monster C; that's not a choice. That's a problem. So we have to get back to real choices, with unknowns that you can really make decisions about."
Second: the decisions that they make have to have real consequences. There should be no room for the concept of the retcon, or retroactive continuity. Choices that a player makes must stand and affect not just the player, but other players, the world, and the dev team as well, who have to include the changes the players make. This is difficult, but for true storytelling in MMOs to take place, it's a necessity.
Lastly, we have to be wiling to put less restrictions on them. The players must be able to feel that they have a voice, a way of shaping their world that isn't prohibitive. There is a fine line between the complete freedom that Second Life affords, and the standard mandated lockdown on player-created content, but there has to be a happy medium to engender the spirit of creativity.