Over the years World of Warcraft has added a host of tools to its story delivery options - cutscenes, scenarios, events like Battle for Undercity, open-ended exploration, and quest integration with each of these kinds of vectors for story. It's not all just text anymore - we have in-game cinematics, cut-scenes rendered and played through using totally in game scenes, dialogue (the end of the Isle of Thunder, when Jaina and Lor'themar confronted one another was entirely realized through in-game dialogue), scenarios like A Little Patience and Dagger in the Dark, and even more complex combinations of all of them. The Dominance Offensive/Operation Shieldwall story in particular was unveiled through all of these techniques, using every arrow in the quiver to drive the story points home.
I'm bringing this up because of the recent revelation that not all secondary objectives in Warlords of Draenor will have quest text. The discussion led to a series of tweets from Dave Kosak that I think definitely are worth discussing. How do we get story in an MMO? Can the world we encounter be the story itself? As we move through it, how can it be best presented to us?
Let's look at the first of three tweets Dave made and discuss how it could play out.
Seeing some confusion, I'll try to clarify a FAQ! In level up you'll have quests, side-quests, bonus objectives, rare spawns & events. [1/3]- Dave Kosak (@DaveKosak) April 16, 2014
Moreover, rare spawns and events of this sort populate the world, and give it that feeling of existing outside of your character and her or his arrival. If there are things to do and see that are unrelated to the main questline of a zone, you get more of a sense of how that zone functions as a living place, with things that live there and things that happen regardless of what you, or even your enemies and allies, are doing there. The Isle of Giants, for example, has hooks in the main story - you can see Zandalari barges there, and Zandalari Dinomancers working to capture the native creatures for use against you. It's a background place than answers the question 'Where did the Zandalari get these massive dinosaurs they're using against us' but it lets you draw that conclusion through going there and seeing it. It's literally the game showing you instead of telling you, making use of one of its strengths - that it is a game, not a movie with a static PoV. In a movie, you see only what the camera shows you, but in a game like WoW you can choose where you go, and the camera can show you whatever you choose to go look at.
The goal of dynamism that Dave mentions in his follow up tweet does more than just allow a story to be told with more tools - it is akin to the background details in a work of art that help build up the illusion that allows us to sustain our ability to believe. On some level, in a game like World of Warcraft, we're always going to be aware it is just a game and nothing more. None of this is actually happening but if it has an internal consistency, you can ignore that more readily. By making the story present itself in more ways, with different tools, it enhances this suspension.
As always, we also focus on telling the story through the environment, spawning, events, and fun things to discover. :) [3/3]- Dave Kosak (@DaveKosak) April 16, 2014
In essence it hearkens back to that aforementioned bit with Ragnaros and Executus. It may seem corny to us now, but the reason there's so many 'too soon, Executus' jokes in World of Warcraft is because having the event play out in front of you makes it more real. To give another example, there were a great many events in the Landfall patch (5.2) that were quest oriented, but we didn't read text for them - we saw and heard them. The purge of Dalaran, the final confrontation over the Divine Bell, these were elements we saw and experienced. What we get in Warlords will be experiences crafted with these in mind. The story will be presented through what we see and what we do as much as from what we read. As a result, the story becomes the world itself as much as it is what we do with it.