Story as an alternative to gear progression

| Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Tesh and Scrusi have one of those stunningly obvious observations that we never see because it's just that blindingly obvious: we as players are not narrators or writers, we're characters, in the story written by someone else. We don't kill bosses because that fits our own story. We kill bosses because that fits the story that Metzen has written. We're pawns. Heroic pawns, but still pawns. We're driven not by personal motivation, but by relentlessly overpowering plot.

It gets worse when we realize that first off, there are a lot of us, and second, we don't actually get anything done. We're eleven million nameless, faceless, mindless heroes. Kill the enemy. Kill it again! AGAIN! Sisyphus would have despaired in the face of respawns.

We can't change the world because if we did, no one else would have any content. So WoW would be great for give or take 100 players who spend all their time rushing to get the world first, and world last, kill of anything. Lich King or Arugal.

Tesh suggests that games let us play in our own stories. A nice idea, if not for the fact that it doesn't at all fit with current MMOs. So I decided, why not take an unworkable idea and take it a step further?

Make NPCs active participants in the world. And in our stories. My story. Make the Lich King send Scourge minions to attack me, unexpectedly, possibly at the worst possible times. Maybe I'm out on a leisurely daily run around Quel'Danas when all of a sudden a bunch of abominations wander in and flatten everything, including me and the naga who theoretically drop chest keys, so dammit, now I have to wait for respawns because the beach just got cleared out. After this I personally have quite a bit of motivation to go to Northrend and kill Arthas. That fucker ruined my questing.

So I go to Northrend and I battle my way through everything in my way. There might be larger events, but what I care about is getting the damn Scourge to stop attacking me. Have I mentioned that they drop no loot? As I fight my way up and kill bosses the attacks lessen. After all, I'm destroying leaders, necromancers, and constructors. So as I go along killing bosses, life gets easier. Fewer and weaker attacks make my daily life easier just as gear would do. But it happens not by steady inflation of stats, but by steady destruction of enemies. Finally the Lich King is dead and I can go back to killing Naga in peace.

I will gain some items along the way, but the primary motivator, and the primary benefit, is advancement of my own story. In my story there is no longer a Scourge attacking me during dailies. There is no longer a Dark Portal letting demons wander into the Blasted Lands when I'm trying to pick Gromsblood. There is no longer an army of golems and dark iron dwarves getting in my way when I'm trying to farm thorium and dark iron ore.

Of course new enemies will emerge. It would be boring if everything died and died forever. Active NPCs would also have goal-seeking behavior. With the Lich King gone, necromancers would eventually round up leftover undead and make their own little fiefdoms. Not right away, after all, the goal isn't to just endless attacks. But eventually I will feel the need to go topple another self-proclaimed king.

With NPCs who think, players can no inhabit the same world and interact with each other in it. By that I mean, we can all live in a post-Lich King world, even if I didn't kill him, because you felt the need to kill him and got to it first. We're all glad you got that out of the way. And when other enemies rise, we all feel the desire to get rid of them, so we all go to take care of it.

I can already hear the criticism, that over the long term, if enemies keep popping up, we get nowhere anyway. True! But we get nowhere with gear either. My ICC epics are long gone. So are my BC epics. My few few vanilla epics. Even the gear that I thought was so great while leveling is gone, replaced. As I grew stronger so did my enemies. But ultimately, two mountain tops are of irrelevant relative height if they're the same, only the guy at the base sees any difference, and for him, it's only trouble.

Of course toppling an endless series of trivial bosses sounds boring. So make them hard. No scripted Mario-style hop and run fights. Make them random. Maybe this boss will be easy. But that boss, that one spawns adds, has defile, does tons of AoE damage, and has a short-cast heal for half his health that he tries every five seconds. So cut the instance crap and stick them outside and let's bring as many players as we want. Anyone in the raid gets a piece of the pie. So with that you want as few people as possible to maximize the pie you get, but enough to kill, plus maybe some buffer room.

Not everyone will kill every boss. No one will kill every boss. Possibly no one will even see every boss. But they will kill their boss. They will have their story. Their own story.

There are obvious problems here. To fit thousands of players, providing content for all of them when they're constantly 'stealing' kills, without a very high re-emergence rate, you'd need a big world. Big enough for players to spread out and fight for their own spaces. And varied enough that players don't just ignore the hard bosses. Maybe the hard boss is in the area with the highest number pyrium nodes or the only good place to find essence of air. So we want that boss dead and we're going to kill it and it will be our choice as part of our story.

Think of it as a sandbox filled with randomly-generated themeparks, which we get to ride into the ground.


Syl said...

I can't believe you just made a Sisyphus reference when I just finished an article of my own with one in it!! are we...cosmically linked?? =O

Apart from that, the topic is hugely intriguing to me; what a huge paradigm shift would we be looking at if the game was out to get us, instead of us the game? does that mean we become the NPCs, strictly speaking? umm...wait a sec. ^^

I've always asked myself why there couldn't be more Stitches in WoW, you know, that abomination roaming Duskwood (mostly due to a quest but still) and scaring lowbie players shitless that chance upon him and get instagibbed in the process. Why can't the game have more of those events where the player feels haunted, beleaguered, forced to react and cooperate?
I had my own wish list for a while that ranged from our cities being besieged by the odd flight of dragons, down to things like random natural disasters or being waylaid and robbed on your way to the next quest hub.

and what ever happened to that big guy that warstomped Ironforge (and Ogrimmar) a few times during WotLK, was it Kazzak coming to visit...? I don't remember....but it was awesome! we need more events like that where the game happens, instead of us.

Nils said...

Always love the ideas a free mind is capable of. I may disagree with details here, generally I agree.

I'd add this suggestion:
Enemies can take conquer villages, cities, countries, the world. You, the players needed to stop them.

And if you do not?
Bad luck. If your king dies (in a spectecular last battle), the server shuts down. One year for nothing. Let's try again.

If if you succeed. Well, that takes a year or so, but if you succeed, you win. You are praised. You get 1€ back of your subscription ;)

It is not impossible to make players feel endagered by enemies. Loss is only annoying if not epic enough.

Nikodhemus said...

Love the idea! One of my favorite bits still is the Fel Reaver, stomping through Hellfire Peninsula... prefaced with the ground shaking and pistons firing, interrupting your demon pig murdering. The only issue I had was... why? What purpose does this giant machine have on a world of demons?

I really enjoyed the random Elemental Spawns in zones during the pre-cata days... I think that should continue! Randomly make a major assault on one of the major cities (Not just Orgrimmar/Stormwind) or any halfway city (I've always thought Crossroads in the Barrens would make a nice assault point) and give whoever happens to be in the area big props for beating back the attackers! Just make it happen once a day, for half an hour, on a random city for both factions. If you are anywhere in the barrens, you'll get the 'Crossroads is underattack!' message, and off you go!

Klepsacovic said...

@Syl: Sisyphus and WoW go together like tea leaves and hot water, or bad analogies and bad metaphores.

Kazzak? He used to wander part of the Blasted Lands and people killed him for epics. Or kited him to Stormwind (entirely unrelated to his later invasion scripting). Before BC he was used as part of an event, wandering around attacking cities before eventually he wandered out to hang out in Outland and kill people picking Nightmare Vine.

@Nils: Rather than a reset, why not have players essentially take on the role of outsider bandit trying to conquer to rebuild their shattered kingdom? That might be too much of a game change for many players, but I could see how it could attract players just for the defense or offense phases of several months.

@Nikodhemus: The demons made it. They really love putting fel magic into technology and then sending it after us. Have you seen the little one (relatively speaking) attacking Area 52?

Crossroads already has its random invasion force of destruction! It's called the Alliance.

Nils said...

Klepsacovic, a good idea, too.
I'd love that. Now you just need a way of preventing players of coming together at one spot and crash the server. Ask CCP.

And there you are: A fun new MMORPG and nobody will tell you that he has already played it. Even if you have talent trees and an auction house.

Klepsacovic said...

I'd imitate the zone structure of WoW, but slightly smaller areas, though a larger world overall. Zones would have a population limit, let's say for arbitrary number purposes, a single zone server can handle 100 people. When a zone has 90 people it will be blocked off from the world. Magical fields block off the land routes. Flight paths or the equivalent are shut down with the NPC operators saying it's too dangerous.

This does conflict slightly with the potentially random (high) raid sizes needed for some bosses, but if a boss was found to need more players than a zone could handle, it could be manually nerfed.

Leah said...

you know, I was just reading a post from Kill ten rats and it looks like guild wars 2 will have at least some of the features you're looking for, specifically dynamic content that makes you feel as if you are making a difference i an world, your actions having some meaning.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't heavy phasing supposed to show us that our actions made a difference? That they have some meaning?

Anonymous said...

This post just reminded me of the opening of the AQ gates. We need a new server wide event.

Either something where we "join forces" similar to the AQ gates, or something to encourage/perpetuate the racial bitterness.

Klepsacovic said...

@Leah: I've seen some of that. GW2 is on my list of "games that I sometimes think about but they aren't out yet as far as I know so what's the next patch in WoW?"

@Anonymous: It was, but even phasing has its limits. We still hunt for respawns. Not all quests phase a zone, so only sometimes do we see any difference. Instances are entirely out.

Nils said...

Phasing adds meaning only if you didn't understand it. It is good for kids, but doesn't work on me. Sorry.

GW2 could show the way. But when I watched that presentation where they basically surrendered in front of "questions marks above heads", I felt a bit let down.

Tesh said...

I've used Sisyphus and Valhalla a handful of times recently for these MMO things. I mean, really... nobody dies for long, progress is only progress until someone (not a player) changes the rules (adds an expansion), and everything you do and acquire is ephemeral. That's not such a bad thing if it's a fun playground, but the cognitive dissonance between that and the "Hero Is You, The World Saved Now It Is" storytelling is jarring to me.

If I want to be the Big Dang Hero, I'm going to play a single player RPG where the world really *can* be saved my little ol' me, and the game changes to reflect that without needing to contort itself into knots to let everyone else do the same blasted thing.

Tangentially, I think it was the Escapist that had an article up about the "Massive" bit of MMO, and how it might be better to just have a massive world, but only a few people in it. When everyone has to take down the same Big Bad in convenient Sisyphian ten man groups, it gets silly. When there are only fifty heroes in the world *at all*, and new threats happen all the time, well, there might be some emergent potential there. Guild servers and/or private servers, perhaps, where each starts from the same point, but players mold the world by how they play, and each server might be radically different a few months down the line.

Indeed, it's about telling *my* story, not playing through someone else's story. I always find that more interesting.

Thanks for the link! I'm ready for the paradigm shift in MMO design. WoW has chased their evolutionary path into a corner. It's time for something different to be treated with the money and love WoW got.

Klepsacovic said...

@Nils: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "adding meaning only if you don't understand it". Do you mean that only kids don't realize that the world is the same, just that you're shown a different piece? In other words, that it's a mechanic change, not an organic "you did this so this happened, then this and so on."

@Tesh: I don't think there's an inherent conflict between "you saved the world" and a lot of people in the same world. The problem is that we all save the world from exactly the same problem in exactly the same way.

Still, I think there is a space for large world, small population games. Maybe something as basic as a 2-5 person co-op mode for current RPGs could do the trick. I know I'd love to play Oblivion with some friends.

Tesh said...

True enough on the design conflict. I don't mind a lot of heroes, but there needs to be variety.

Multiplayer Oblivion or the like seems to me to be a natural niche for game design. I'm a bit surprised it hasn't been done, actually.

Nils said...

Klepsacovic, how meaningful is a change you make when nobody can see it? Yes, that is what I mean.

Garumoo said...

Make it possible for players, and guilds of players, to own land and to then develop that land ... and you'll (a) have all the players much more evenly distributed throughout the world, (b) have lots of places where different upstart Big Bads can cause havoc, and (c) players from the other side of the world have less motive to swarm on over, as it's not their territory being attacked.

Sure, be a mercenary and come kill the Grok'tar the Ogre Mage-King of Greymist Mountain - but you won't get much phat lewt. He's just an upstart ogre after all. On the other hand, if it's your mining outpost that is being harassed, then every day that that two headed lunk lives is costing you the production of a qty of iron ore.

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