Massively Exclusive: The Secret World's Dag Scheve talks MMO story

MMO story has been getting a lot of press these days, and Funcom has thrown its hat into the ring with a couple of noteworthy developer blogs concerning narrative in The Secret World. The upcoming fantasy-horror MMORPG looks to combine its unique real-world setting and skill-based progression with a compelling narrative populated by memorable NPCs.

We recently chatted with lead writer Dag Scheve to follow up on his NPC-focused dev diary with a few burning questions. Scheve also talks about the narrative and design challenges inherent in massively multiplayer storytelling, and you'll find all that and more in our exclusive interview after the cut.

Massively: The dev blog mentions NPCs that have some significance beyond their functionality as mission terminals. Can you give us specifics as to how this will happen? Is it via voice, cinematics, quest text, or a combination of all three? Are there any new mechanics or design principles here that we haven't seen before?

Dag Scheve: It's mostly about making sure they make sense in the world as more than mission terminals. That they have a role and a reason and that we manage to communicate that in a way that feels natural.

As for how we do that, it's a combination of things. We voice and animate them, and we give them mission content. But we also involve them in the events of the world, and we give them things to talk about beyond missions. They all have information about the world and about their role in it, and that information is there to find for those who want it. Some of them might try to impede your progress; others will do what they can to help you succeed.

When I say more than mission terminals, it means that they should feel like indispensable parts of the world, that it would feel empty and incomplete without them.

Do you have any concerns about players skipping dialogue and/or cinematics in order to get to the traditional MMO gameplay as quick as possible? With such a focus on story in TSW, does Funcom see it as a title that will appeal to gamers who care more about MMO mechanics than they do about story?

I wouldn't say I'm concerned about players skipping anything. If they do, they do so by choice. I personally feel that they're missing out, but I believe that should be up to them. We don't want to force content on anyone; we want to make content that's so good you'd want to experience it. All parts of it. So it's up to us to make sure that the characters and the story are presented in such a way that they are unobtrusive but still feel like a natural part of what you're doing in-game, while also being entertaining enough that people don't want to miss anything.

From an outside perspective, cinematics and voiceovers seem relatively expensive both in terms of time and material costs. How does Funcom plan to keep story content fresh over the long-haul?

All content creation is expensive. We made a choice to include voiced cinematics in our mission content, and our content creation pipeline is set up with that in mind. Keeping the story content fresh is about having enough things to explore and characters to meet and talk to, making sure that there's story in everything in the world, not just the characters. The plan to keep it fresh is to have enough of it, I suppose, and be able to expand it when needed.

Is TSW an alt-friendly game in terms of story, and if so, will the story change or branch out based on a player choosing different factions or different skills? Basically, is there one over-arching narrative (like in Age of Conan) or are there multiple options and possible outcomes?

The world is the same no matter which faction you play, but the perspective on that world is different. We have content that is unique to your faction, but playing two Illuminati characters would be quite similar, story-wise.

Is there any room for player creativity in a story sense? Player-generated missions, scenarios, or custom content of any kind?

I guess that kind of depends how you define player-generated content. As for game features reliant on player actions, I can't really speak to that.

But that said, player creativity is always a big part of any MMO. The community develops and matures together, and players are going to create content as well as a society with unwritten rules and commonly agreed upon etiquette no matter what we do. This is how MMOs work, and it's also a big reason why they enjoy such longevity. As for multiple endings to all the different scenarios and story missions, we don't have that. On the other hand, when we drive the story forward in updates and expansions, player actions will be a big influence on where we take it.

The nature of an MMO (and the fact that dev resources are finite) would seem to dictate that players repeat content after a certain period of time. How is Funcom's story approach to TSW going to fit in with this design conundrum? How are the writers dealing with the challenge of multiple protagonists and the need for a story that never ends?

You're right. This can be a problem for story-telling within a persistent multiplayer world. But it's only a problem if every action has to permanently change something to make sense. That's why our story is more about piecing a puzzle together than it is about moving a certain narrative forward. It's about uncovering a world filled with myth, magic and conspiracies, not necessarily about making a permanent change to that world with every mission.

Does Funcom intend for the story of TSW to "end"? If so, do the players fall back to traditional MMO gameplay at that point?

Well, since the story is the world, then it won't end as long as there are people in it. Chapters will end and conclude, and content updates and expansions will bring new chapters, twists and stories, investigations and mysteries.

We've seen glimpses of TSW's open-world design philosophy, and we've been told that players can affect portions of the game world in certain ways. We've also read that Funcom doesn't want to make each player "The One" in terms of the game's story content. Can you give us specifics on how this collective narrative will work, and how (or whether) players can affect the larger story?

It means that when the story moves forward, it moves in the same direction for everyone. It will move on because of the collective efforts of the players, not just because of the actions of one player. As a player, you are one superhero in a collective of superheroes (in the words of one of our characters: "A flight of superheroes, a fray?"), and as such the actions of one player are less significant than the combined actions of the collective.

In past MMOs, granting players power over aspects of the world has resulted in primate behavior and has led to content being unavailable to some customers. Is TSW segregating any of its story content to mitigate these types of situations? Put another way, can players affect each others' stories or is it a private experience?

I'm not sure I completely understand what you're asking here. If you're talking about instances, then there will be some instanced gameplay. The cinematics will also be client-side events so that we can make sure that Lolzor69 won't interfere with that experience. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the content, and it should be possible to experience and research all aspects of the story at your own pace, uninterrupted by unwanted distractions.

What's the most challenging aspect of implementing a story in an MMO? Do you feel constrained by the medium at all as opposed to, say, a single-player game or a more traditional RPG?

It's different at least. And you perhaps have to think a bit differently. There are constraints in all media, and you just have to work with the tools you have and craft something that fits into that formula. Those tools will be different in single-player games because the experience is a completely different one and the game is supposed to serve a very different purpose. Like how story and characters are done very differently in a movie compared to a multi-season TV show.

In a single-player game, it might be easier to create a linear story with world-altering events, but in an MMO you can change and twist the story for years. You can create a world that has so much more detail and lore -- in fact, you need to since people will be living in that world for years, not just hours. One is not necessarily inferior or more difficult; they're just different.

Interesting stuff -- thanks very much for your time!
This article was originally published on Massively.