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Some Assembly Required: Want a real living story? Try a sandbox!

Jef Reahard

I'm going to criticize Guild Wars 2 this week, or more accurately, ArenaNet. I know, I know. I might as well change the name of this column to How to Alienate Friends, Co-workers, and Commenters.

As a qualifier, I don't play Guild Wars 2. I have in the past, briefly, but my criticisms today are mostly directed at ANet's marketing folks or whoever is responsible for the Living Story refrain that gets sillier and sillier every time I hear it.

Guild Wars 2 arches
If you want to see an MMO with an actual living story, say hello to A Tale in the Desert. Or Wurm. Or EVE Online. Regardless of your personal experience with EVE's playerbase, the title is an exceptional MMO where empires rise and fall, the game world changes on a daily basis, and the neverending commerce engine keeps on trucking at the behest of the game's 500,000 players.

That is a living story, and what Guild Wars 2 has is simply... not. GW2 has a story, but much like the one in Star Wars: The Old Republic, it's very dead. And by dead I mean unchanging, unchangeable, and the same for every player whether it's his first character or his 50th.

Not only that, but it's my guess that most GW2 players don't even want a living story. They want a static world that stays largely the same regardless of whether they leave for six weeks or play six hours a night for the next six months.

These people want content.

What is "content," really? To be perfectly honest, the term -- in an MMO context -- amounts to busywork. I'm sure quest designers the world over would take exception, but MMO "content" is nothing of the sort. There are two pieces of MMO content that have ever been created. You know them well. They are the FedEx quest and the kill quest. That's it, folks. Sure, you can hire a wordsmith to dress up your quest text with licensed lore or lore of your own creation, and you can annoy your players with escort missions or other minor variations, but you're still going to have a FedEx quest or a kill quest at the end of the day.

Guild Wars 2 NPCs
Content locusts, completists, and achievement junkies could not care less about a story, living or otherwise. If they cared, they would be playing a sandbox because sandboxes are where MMO players go to play out actual in-game stories that aren't just delusions shared with a couple of roleplaying buddies.

Anyway, content. A couple of weeks ago, Massively reader blackcat7k posted a pretty insightful comment regarding content. I'm going to link it here, but I'm also going to reproduce it in full:
The whole idea of "content" in regards to a game that's supposed to be a world is strange. True games don't have content. People can play ridiculous amounts of games like chess, baseball, and RISK and never grow tired of them for their entire lifetime.

MMOs used to seek after making themselves into this, but lost their way. Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and EVE Online are examples of MMOs that tried to go this route and only one of them is still doing that today (even though it's doing it in the most vitriolic way possible).

The whole idea of this "content" means that the world must end instead of having tons of outcomes only limited by the human mind. Scripted paths, ladder climbs, achievements... ideas such as these point to an end of a game. Developers lament that they can't make enough content, yet they do this to themselves when they constantly shunt players through their world by these ever dangling carrots and gates.

When you separate your playerbase by things like gear instead of ability, when you focus on grinding to an end point and then selling a means to speed it up, the end result must be that you make an impossible workload to keep players from reaching that end.

The ever sky-rocketing costs of making these MMOs is a great thing. It will mean that developers will either finally realize that they should start making worlds in which players make their own pathways or they will find ever increasing tricks to keep players players paying to skip ahead. One will lead to having some truly memorable worlds that can last for decades; the other will make a lot of companies close down and finally get rid of the rubber- stamped clone titles that make up the majority of MMOs on the market today.
So what does that wall o' text have to do with what I've been saying today about Guild Wars 2? Everything! The examples of baseball, RISK, and chess are good ones because they illustrate that beloved, long-lasting games aren't content treadmills but rather a set of guidelines under which players make things happen. In other words, good games get out of the way in favor of player-generated content.

Some time ago, MMO executives and developers got together and decided that the way to make MMOs more popular was to give them more dev-produced "content." A lot of people point to World of Warcraft as the primary culprit here, but as per usual, other titles did it first while Blizzard sat in the front row taking notes and getting ready to apply its trademark coat of polish. And truthfully it doesn't matter who was ultimately responsible; it matters only that there was a seismic shift away from MMOs as virtual worlds toward MMOs as single-player RPGs with recurring access fees.

Guild Wars 2 cutscene
Until MMOs recapture their virtual world aspirations and ambition, and until all of the players who like busywork leave the genre, you're not going to have anything remotely approaching a "living story" in most of these titles. You can't because most gamers don't want it. They want to watch the numbers on their character sheet rise, and they want to play the loot lotto, and in order for those things to happen day after day without fail, you have to build a static, unchanging, and unchangeable game world.

And that is exactly what Guild Wars 2 is. Yes, ArenaNet sold it as something new and different because it lacked quest icons over the NPCs' heads and it has "dynamic events" and blah blah blah. But the fact remains that no player can make any sort of lasting impact on the game world, and so saying that the game has a living story is to fundamentally misunderstand (or attempt to redefine) the words living story.

So what's a dev who would like to be taken seriously while using the phrase "living story" to do? First, stop developing "content." Stop pushing grindy progression treadmills and start building in-game tools and toolsets to go along with your beautiful and expansive world. Then turn those toolsets over to the playerbase, watch what happens, and fix as necessary. Then, and only then, will the MMO in question feature a living story. And hey, if that's not profitable or desirable for whatever reason, fine. But at least be honest about your product.

I'll borrow a phrase from my favorite Game of Thrones character: "Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not."

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!

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