The Soapbox: A case for player-generated content (or why MMO story is complete and utter bollocks)

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I read with great interest Ragnar Tornquist's recent blog posting concerning story in The Secret World. After I got over the initial impulse to roll my eyes at yet another developer jumping on the BioWare-induced story, story, story bandwagon, I found that Tornquist had a couple of interesting points to make.

Unfortunately, he also missed an opportunity to strike a blow in favor of player-generated story content. While this is totally unsurprising coming from a man who has built his career on interactive storytelling prowess, it was nonetheless disappointing on several levels.

Yes, yes, I know, Tornquist is a wunderkind developer, you'd have his babies, and who am I to question his almighty design wisdom? Regardless, I am questioning portions of this particular blog piece, because MMOs are an exceedingly inadequate vehicle for storytelling of the kind that developers are espousing lately. That's not to say massively multiplayer titles shouldn't have a narrative component, though. Join me after the cut to find out why MMO makers ought to stick to systems and math and leave the storytelling to the folks who do it best.

Chapter I: Conflict and consequence

The heart of every story, as any first-day creative writing student will tell you, is conflict and its associated consequences. This is also the heart of why most MMOs are unabashedly horrific story delivery mechanisms (and why most MMO storytellers, aka roleplayers, spend a lot of their time trying to "roleplay around" mechanics that pigeon-hole their stories into a tiny narrative box). Anyway, that's another Soapbox, so back to conflict.

Where is the conflict in a modern-day MMO? PvE? Nope, PvE is a system with finite variables that is easily overcome with the right tools (wikis, gear, zergs). More importantly, nothing of consequence is ever lost -- or even risked -- aside from perhaps your free time. PvP? Puh-lease. No one ever stays dead, nor does conquered territory ever stay conquered past a pre-ordained time window (yes, I know that EVE is the exception to the latter; more's the pity that it isn't the rule).

In fact, most MMOs are specifically designed to let you avoid conflict. Yes, I said avoid conflict. These titles are almost all variations on the press-the-lever-to-get-a-pellet DIKU dance, and as I mentioned above, the whole reason for conflict (consequence) is completely absent. Also, due to various economic factors, MMO design is largely concerned with rewarding repetitive behavior, and there's no surer way to turn off progression addicts than by introducing elements of consequence or permanence.

Knowing, then, that story is about conflict, and knowing that devs have limited resources as well as an economically driven aversion to meaningful in-game conflict, we can only find it obvious that relying on an MMO dev team to tell a compelling story is an exercise in futility. So why do developers (and some players) continue to ignore player-driven content, which is the only MMO storytelling tool that offers infinite creativity, infinite re-playability, cost-effective content creation, and the potential for meaningful conflict on an individual scale?

Chapter II: MMO storytellers

"Yes, it is true that players will always write their own stories, and most of these stories are largely unrelated to whatever universe the game takes place in," Tornquist blogged, effectively dismissing the ability of anyone other than a dev to tell a lore-appropriate story.

To be frank, that's a pretty large leap, and I don't think Tornquist -- or anyone else -- has gamed with a wide enough cross-section of player storytellers to make such a statement.

Here's a very simple and unavoidable fact: Developers will not be able to satisfy a player's appetite for story (not even with seven years or 50 novels' worth of content). It's simply not possible. There aren't enough hours in a dev's day, and there aren't enough devs on a game's staff (nor enough coin in the budget) to write compelling and ongoing narratives for the variety of player types that join a given MMO community. The solution, then -- assuming the goal is still to appeal to everyone -- is player-generated content.

The solution is not carrot-chasing with a layer of voice-acted quest text on top. That is not story; it's grind. It's also not story when thousands of MMO players who otherwise occupy the same shared world follow an identical hero's journey (like the "epic" quests in Lord of the Rings Online or Age of Conan). Well, I suppose technically those are stories of sorts, albeit ones that are as repetitive as they are unimaginative and nonsensical.

It's strange that industry types are often quoted as saying how expensive it is to make a modern-day MMORPG and how difficult and time-consuming it is to keep fresh content flowing, yet when it comes to player-generated content, nearly everyone aside from Cryptic and SOE is curiously silent.

Perhaps this has to do with a couple of the misconceptions often tossed about whenever the discussion comes up. "Player stories suck," says the conventional wisdom, to which I would reply, "Look deeper." Sure, a lot of fanfic is garbage, but a lot of it is better than its source material (particularly when it comes to films, TV shows, and video games that aren't exactly high art to begin with). This is even more true of MMORPG content.

And before anyone raises the tired (and hi-lariously flawed) "player-generated content is unbalancing" argument, allow me to pre-emptively retort. Storytelling tools needn't have anything to do with progression; ideally, they're optional and purely for "fluff" purposes, and therefore grind-focused players and seekers of exploits wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. The end.

Chapter III: The fourth (PR) pillar?

What is it with MMO developers and story anyway? It's becoming such a pervasive buzzword that it could conceivably replace free-to-play as the new flavor of the month. BioWare's PR department has been shoveling the story sauce for a year now, and Guild Wars 2's hype train has at times highlighted the title's heavy use of voice-acting and the player's personal story. TERA and The Secret World have joined the movement as well, and it's almost comical watching successive games fall in line.

Incidentally, if you'd like a fairly accurate preview of how TERA's story is going to be received, log in to Aion and ask a few random players who the Seraphim Lords are. You'll be met with blank stares before the subject runs off to grind some more Abyss Points.

That's not to impugn Aion's backstory. I've actually read the whole thing, and it's quite interesting (it's also worth noting that it was written by former Massively scribe Adrian Bott). That said, it's quite interesting to me and about four other people, as even Aion's tiny contingent of roleplayers generally ignore it and do their own thing (as much as they can within the straitjacketed confines of Atreia).

Anyway, it seems as if a lot of MMO decision-makers are missing the point of MMO stories and how to make effective use of the medium. Consuming a pre-made story is certainly one approach, but it's one that single-player games are better-equipped to handle. MMOs (particularly "living, breathing worlds," to borrow a phrase from Tornquist's blog) are supposed to be divergent and unique experiences. The whole raison d'etre of an MMO is to break out of the confines of a one-player story arc and experience a shared world that evolves and changes based on player action. If you're looking for yet another heavily scripted retelling of the hero's journey, far superior mediums already exist -- books and films, maybe you've heard of them.

It's no accident, then, that the MMO that routinely generates the most interest in terms of people reading, talking, and thinking about its in-game activities is EVE Online. Sure, World of Warcraft has eleventy billion more players, but when is the last time anyone gave enough of a damn about what one of those players was doing to write a news story about it? No one really cares about the day-to-day activities in WoW because all eleventy billion of those people are doing the exact same thing -- and none of it affects the world (or even other players).

You see, the stories that go on in CCP's New Eden (and make no mistake, the scams, scandals, and battles are stories, regardless of whether they fit neatly into your personal definition of roleplay) are actually going on. They aren't tavern-bound /emote fests or railroaded affairs in which the outcome is predetermined by a conversation wheel prior to the participants even meeting one another. EVE-style emergent gameplay is what MMOs do best (in fact it's the only thing that sets MMOs apart from every other type of video game), and it's a shame that most developers are bound and determined to phase it out.

Also, let's be honest: Most professionally produced MMO stories suck. They have to suck because they all have to end at the same place due to the confining nature of most titles. There's no free will, there's no chance, and there's no character development aside from what goes on with your XP bar. It is all, in a word, static. Dev-driven MMO stories will never be mistaken for the intricate plotting of George R. R. Martin, nor will any NPC dialogue be confused with the snappy prose that rolls off Quentin Tarantino's pen. It's apples and oranges, and frankly MMO devs who drone on about story are wasting everyone's time.

This leads to the conclusion that MMO devs do not have a monopoly on MMO storytelling, and in many cases, they simply aren't as good at it as the larger player community. This is obvious to anyone who has played in this genre for more than five minutes, and that leads me to believe the current story-is-the-fourth-pillar nonsense is more of a PR push than an actual design consideration.

The climax

No story-centric MMO rant would be complete without a mention of the fact that many (the majority?) in the massively multiplayer audience simply don't care about narrative. At all.

"No! That's not true! That's impossible," I hear a few of you saying.

"Search your feelings, you know it to be true!"

It's evident in the way people skip cutscenes, quest text, and generally anything that keeps them from the efficient acquisition of the next ding/shiny/whatever. MMOs have devolved into virtual slot machines (because that's what the majority of customers want), and titles that attempt to hide grind mechanics behind dialogue choices or cutscenes are wasting the time of players who simply want to log in and have a toke off ye olde progression pipe.

Hopefully Tornquist and his Funcom colleagues are smart enough to realize that a significant portion of TSW's customers will not care one whit about all the puzzles, hidden meaning, and lovingly crafted story vignettes that will purportedly populate the finished game. As soon as a story bit gets in the way of the average player's next skill point, that story bit will become an annoyance to be conquered ASAP and then ignored.

Sure, the early adopter community has been eating up all the ARG stuff for three years now, and rightly so; it's well-produced and fun to take part in. Let's not kid ourselves, though. Those folks are the exception. The rule is those gamers who want to grind and who crave the gratification and reassurance that dings provide. When it's story time, they log off and go to the movies.

All this is not to say devs shouldn't try to expand the genre; they should (and to give credit where credit is due, Tornquist's statements about assigning meaning to progression and dispensing with the "you are the One" mentality are quite intriguing). But to my mind, all this story malarky is going about it the wrong way. Give players the tools to create stories and you will be rewarded with dedicated, long-lasting communities of people willing to throw tons of money at you. Give them slickly produced cutscenes and dialogue trees with finite choices and you will see them flock to the next big thing as soon as it appears.

The denouement

So the answer to the MMO story conundrum is player-generated content. Quite simply, everybody wins. Players who don't care about story get a dev team that is focused on grindable content creation, bug fixing, and expansions. Players who do want story have the tools to amuse themselves and their compatriots, and devs who rely on carrot-chasing mechanics to pay the bills will be able to make money off both groups.

Ironically, this MMO "story" bandwagon is largely ignoring the only people left in the genre who actually care about narrative (those being the roleplayers and maybe some of the sandbox fans). So devs, if you really care about MMO story as something other than a me-too bullet-point, you'll realize that your stories are quite boring, restrictive, and repetitive, and you'll give players the tools to tell their own. Otherwise, this whole fad is (to borrow another Tornquist bit) complete and utter bollocks.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!