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Some Assembly Required: Conflating story content and MMORPGs

Jef Reahard
A few weeks ago I poked fun at ArenaNet and its "living story" nonsense. As you might imagine, plenty of comments ensued, and I'd like to highlight one of them as a point of further discussion this week.

Skoryy wrote (in part): "Since when did enjoying content, especially story content, actively require skill? Any literate person can read a book; why do I also need to know how to be a master crafter or master warrior or master whatever to get to enjoy the game's true content?" For further context, this was a response to the line of thinking that says successful games like baseball, chess, and RISK are not linear dev-driven content treadmills but rather a set of rules that result in endless permutations of player-generated content.

When I first read the remark I was taken aback. I mean, really, my initial response to the "since when" bit was "since you decided to play an interactive video game instead of read a book!" And that's still true to a large extent. As I thought about the overall discussion, though, I sympathized with his perspective even though I think it's terrible that some MMO companies are hell-bent on conflating the definition of game with the definition of story.

SWTOR - Flashpoint group
1 a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck - Oxford Dictionaries

So there's the pertinent definition of game. I say pertinent because of course it can also be used as a verb, as an adjective, and even as a description for wild animals. But for the purposes of our discussion on a video game website, we'll stick to the above.

Now, Skoryy's (and perhaps many current MMO developers') definition of game seems to omit some crucial parts like the competition, rules, skill, strength, and luck parameters discussed above. In fact, from what I can gather from the comment I quoted in the intro, his definition of game is more along these lines.

sto ry
1 an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment - Oxford Dictionaries

He asks "since when did enjoying content, especially story content, actively require skill?" And all I can do is answer that question with another question -- namely, since when did MMORPGs (games, if you will) become passive story consumption devices akin to books or filmed entertainment?

The answer to that question, in my opinion, is "since MMO developers discovered that the mass market will pay recurring revenue to consume the same content they've heretofore gotten for a one-time box fee in single-player RPGs."

SWTOR - Scorpio
And look, I sympathize with Skoryy's viewpoint more than it would first appear. I'm not a hyper-competitive person, particularly in MMOs. I like to craft and explore and help other players, and I'll only fight someone in self-defense. But I also understand that games, particularly huge, complex MMOs with dozens of different systems, are inferior story delivery mechanisms.

And despite continued attempts to change terminology in service of inclusivity, games are still, by definition, fun-time activities based around a set of rules and skill-based competition. They may also feature a narrative, but when it comes to many genres -- including MMORPGs -- narrative comes in a very distant second to gameplay and mechanics. The fact that I have to point this out absolutely floors me, but it also goes a long way toward explaining the devolution of MMORPGs.

If you want story in a video game, single-player games are literally and figuratively where it's at. That's not dismissive or exclusionary or elitist or whatever other politically correct and intellectually bankrupt buzzword you'd like to apply. It's simply reality. You can't reasonably equate an MMO, with thousands of other players in a simultaneously shared persistent world, to a book-like story experienced by a single user in this own mind and his own time. If you must make the flawed video-game-to-book comparison, the only way it works -- and even then, only a little bit -- is if the game in question is a narrative-based single-player title.

So getting back to the comment and its underlying philosophy, when did enjoying game content become about skill? Well, it became about skill the second you chose to start playing a game!

SWTOR - Agent and Kaliyo
Skoryy's comment continues. "The problem with your definition of a 'living story' is that you're endorsing a living story with winners and losers, alphas and betas," he says, offering a fine example of the mechanics that differentiate a game from a novel or a film. "This is great if that's what you're looking for, but there are a lot of players out there who simply want an interactive escapist fantasy and explicitly don't mind the 'interactive' bit being limited as long as it remains their escapist fantasy."

The problem here is that servicing these players has resulted in a sort of MMO retcon, with the genre repurposed to ham-handedly deliver single-player story content. And never mind the fact that MMOs are one of the worst static story vehicles you could possibly imagine! You don't have to look very hard to see the absurdities in telling one out of 3,000 identical players that he's not only a hero, but the hero. That works in a single-player game because that one player doesn't see the other 2,999, and more importantly he doesn't see the rails and the levers that the other 2,999 are constantly pulling.

Basically folks, if an MMO to you is nothing more than a quasi-interactive storybook, you are simply doing it wrong. I'm sorry if that rankles certain sensibilities, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

It's wrong in the same way that going to a baseball game expecting to see touchdowns is wrong. It just doesn't add up, because the "story" in MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 is a very small part of both the game mechanics and the huge number of hours you'll spend grinding your way through the treadmill of each respective world.

I do sympathize with story fans because the only reason I suffer through play SWTOR is for the class cutscenes. I dislike SWTOR as an MMO and as a video game in general. It's an awful retread of everything that's insulting about the World of Warcraft and EverQuest paradigm, and it's a mind-numblingly repetitive waste of my free time. But I put up with it because I care deeply enough about the IP to want to see the stories that are now an official part of its canon.

If BioWare sold the ability to jump from class story mission to class story mission and skip all of the grindy B.S. in between, I would pay hundreds of dollars for that in a heartbeat. But the firm smartly locks the only part of its mess that I care about behind months of terribad timesinks. I guess I could watch the cutscenes on YouTube and be done with it, but the gamer in me sees this as a cheat and thinks I should earn the right. Yes, I know it's a silly sentiment, but what can I say?

SWTOR - Agent makes a point
Anyhow, MMOs are not storybooks, folks. They're just not. No matter how many devs with dollar signs in their eyes try to tell you that MMOs should be story driven... no. Just no. Those devs are in fact making single-player RPGs, and since we're smack dab in the middle of the monetization age, they're making single-player RPGs with recurring revenue. They've got the business model down pat, but they don't understand -- or don't care about -- the MMORPG nuts and bolts.

MMORPGs are shared social spaces, virtual communities with structured activities, and in the case of the really good ones, player-driven build-fests that provide decades of sustained fun and fellowship. That's what MMOs are and why they exist. That's what separates them from other types of video games, and when you lose that separation to focus on stories that other mediums do better, you lose the point.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!