How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.

Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.

It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me

I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.

Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.

When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.

The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.

But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.

Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.

I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.

Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.

Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.

On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.

It Helped Me Focus on What I Like

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.

That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.

But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.

It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.

Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.

And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.

When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.

I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.

Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.

And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”

But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?

Pretty much nothing.

No need to take it all so seriously

I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.

And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.

And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.

It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.

That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.

But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.

* * *

What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?


Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
MMOEvent
ArcheAgeWinter Maiden Festival
AionSolorius Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)Frostfell
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)New Life
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)Starlight Celebration
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)Wintersday
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)Yuletide Festival
NeverwinterWinter Festival of Simril
RiftFae Yule
Star Trek Online (STO)Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)Life Day event
WildstarProtostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)Feast of Winter Veil

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.

Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.

Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:

How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?

Christmas elements in MMOs

The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.

My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?

A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)

The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.

1) Sci-fi MMOs

MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.

Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.

These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.

More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

3) High Fantasy MMOs

Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.

High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.

Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.

Conclusion

Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.


MMO Blogging Dead? No, But…

“blogging about them [MMORPGs] doesn’t appear to be a thing any more.”

Tobold, MMORPG blogger turned general gaming blogger, created waves with this statement. It’s a testament to his legacy in the community though that he is able to create such ripples for a community he doesn’t really place himself within any longer. It sparked defense from several bloggers and a handful of readers. Many clamored that MMO blogging is far from dead, citing a wealth of posts composed every week.

The quantity of posts originating from self professed MMO blogs doesn’t necessarily point to the trade’s life or death. After all, everyone shifts their attention away from MMOs here and there. Tobold points to single player game articles on MMORPG.com as evidence of a decline in this niche field. Here at MMOBro, we too touch on single player games. Does that make this less of an MMO site? I don’t think so. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had board game articles, but they’re still squarely a PC gaming site. The focus of topics here is still on MMO(RPG)s.

That said, it is true that there are less (if any) pure MMORPG sites out there. The answer as to why is as clear as it is subtle. The proliferation of MMO and MMO-lite games has blurred the distinction between MMOs and MMORPGs to the point where that line has all but faded away. Distant cousins of the genre like MOBAs have embraced growth and achievement mechanisms that made the genre popular in the first place. Now that players don’t have to inhabit a persistent world, nor necessarily grind for growth, MMO populations have fallen.

The reality is that it only seems that way to MMORPG purists and veterans. To everyone else in the world, Destiny occupies the same genre as World of Warcraft. And that means the genre is as healthy as ever. It’s just not restricted to PC anymore nor does it require a hundred players to occupy the same space. MMOs have always been about achievement/progression, online play, and persistent characters. Maybe that wasn’t the intent of developers – but that’s what kept people playing and led to the genre’s massive growth. Without progression, people quit and move onto something else. All of this is why our MMO games list includes a myriad of online options. MMO means different things to different people.

mmo blogging shadow of war

It may not be an MMO, but Shadow of War really feels like one.

All of this trickles down to single player gaming as well. MMOs continue to lay the ground work for addictive feedback loops. Only playing players pay, so developers focus on creating content that keeps players busy without drifting into boredom. You can see these loops implemented into AAA single player titles like Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. The developers for those games spent so much time copying those loops that they even added loot boxes, but that’s another discussion entirely.

This trickling effect isn’t a one way street though. Features from single player games regularly make their way into MMOs. Perhaps the most compelling of such features is rich, linear stories. Final Fantasy XIV arguably boasts the best storytelling in series history. Most of the game’s story can be experienced without any other players. Despite this solo focus, we don’t look at Final Fantasy XIV as less of an MMO. To many, it’s the best of its kind on the market.

This is why we can’t assess MMOs in a vacuum anymore. Gaming genre definitions have and will continue to blur. What makes an MMO an MMO, an RPG an RPG, and so forth no longer applies in any strict sense. Genre names are only starting points for us to find a product that will fulfill that which we’re seeking. Many video games can provide the same sensations as MMOs and vice versa. Because of that, I think it’s critical that MMO bloggers in fact do not wholly focus on MMO content. The only way bloggers, journalists, and writers can fully explore the genre is by stepping outside of it.

MMO blogging isn’t dead. It’s just evolved.


Lowered Health Pools – More Fun?

I have some strong feelings about (most) MMORPG health pools. And like any good opinion, it can be summed up with a meme:

mmorpg health pools meme

MMORPG health pools have grown to absurd propositions. DPS meters clear a million easy. More precisely, World of Warcraft’s top damage dealer serves out 1.5 million damage per second. World of Warcraft’s DPS currency resembles a country suffering from hyper inflation, and like a such a country, it’s hard to take seriously. High health enemies require monotonous ability usage to down. High health characters negate any semblance of combat intensity. Simple calculations give way to mandatory use of online tools to decipher true net effects. Gameplay starts revolving around bigger and bigger numbers, leaving little room for anything else.

The benefit of large health pools is that it’s easier for developers to balance. Boiling everything down to a few numbers rather than fine tuning systems takes a lot less effort and allows for more fractional balance changes. That’s noteworthy – so I’m not saying smaller health pools is easy to implement.

I’m simply suggesting that there’s a lot to be gained by taking the path less traveled. D&D has balanced around small health pools for decades. Some of the positive side effects of such a system can be found in games like (not surprisingly) Dungeons & Dragons Online.

5 Reasons to Lower Health Pools

1) Easier to understand and mentally calculate the effects of abilities, talents, items.

2) More room on the screen for things that aren’t ten digit numbers.

3) Forces developers to move into damage mitigation, which opens up more diverse play styles.

4) Ramps up intensity and sensation of danger (whether artificially or not) when every hit point actually means something.

5) Higher hit points tend to result in longer, repetitive fights. MMORPG battles stay interesting until you “solve” them. On average, I would expect lowered MMORPG hit points to lead to faster battles and fewer slogs.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do it

The main reason high health pools are “in” is because it’s simply less time consuming for developers. This frees up man hours to create more content, which is the current big selling point for maintaining active players. Personally, I’d rather see more time devoted towards a better base system. The content gap can be filled by procedural generation and emergent narrative structures.

Expansions and DLC are usually the primary culprits for numerical inflation. It’s easy to grasp that higher damage, healing, health, etc. is better. Sticking to a low health pool system necessitates developing less obvious character progressions. Horizontal progression is one option (pick the right tools for the fight), but damage mitigation is absolutely paramount regardless of the progression type. Unfortunately, most damage mitigation systems devolve into an obtuse Diablo style resistance system.

Again, tabletop RPGs like D&D offer a neat outline for engineering these solutions. Tabletop games are forced to work with smaller numbers, and there are some pretty cool lesser known RPGs out there like Iron Kingdoms. I know if I had millions of dollars to develop a new MMORPG, I’d spend a few hundred of that on tabletop player handbooks for market research.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating a product that maximizes fun. When choosing between high health pools and low health pools, the latter exhibits so much more potential.

 


The Best MMOs for Solo Players

To some, “solo MMO player” might sound like an oxymoron, but in reality, soloists make up one of the largest player groups in MMORPGs, and even people who do enjoy group play will usually end up playing solo some of the time.

Soloing MMOs used to be a hard road, but these days most games offer a wealth of solo content. Still, some are more welcoming of solo players than others. To be truly solo-friendly, an MMORPG must not only offer solo content, but also ensure that content is well-crafted and fulfilling, not just generic kill ten rats quests, and there must be meaningful rewards for solo play.

The different types of solo-friendly MMOs can be divided into a few broad tiers, so let’s take a look at what they are.

Somewhat Solo-friendly

These are games that offer a wealth of solo content, but may still reserve the very best content and rewards for group play.

World of Warcraft

A solo player in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game that definitely requires group play to get the most out of it — all the best rewards and most important story moments are found in dungeons and raids — but quick and effective group finders make them easily accessible to someone without a guild or a group of in-game friends.

The current Legion expansion has also added a great deal of fun and rewarding solo content in the form of class campaigns and world quests.

Overall, WoW’s a good choice for a “soft” soloist who prefers to play alone but isn’t totally opposed to grouping. Pure soloists may want to look elsewhere.

Lord of the Rings Online

A cutscene from Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO has no shortage of solo content, and the “epic story” of the game is quite solo-friendly. However, the quality of its side quests — which are necessary to level — tends to be fairly weak, and it does shift focus to a more raid-centric endgame once you’ve progressed far enough.

Play Lord of the Rings Online here.

Defiance

A solo player in the MMOFPS Defiance

Trion’s MMO shooter has a strong focus on open world events and story-driven missions, both of which are quite approachable for the MMO soloist.

The strikes against Defiance from a solo player’s perspective would be that some of the best rewards are still locked behind group content, and that it can eventually become exceptionally grindy, which can tax the limited free time many solo players have.

Very Solo-friendly

These games have made solo players a priority and offer solid quantity and quality of solitary options.

Guild Wars 2

A thief character in Guild Wars 2

In the past, I would have considered Guild Wars 2 one of the best solo MMORPGs, but these days it’s not quite as welcoming to the soloist as it once was. Open world content has become more difficult and unforgiving, encouraging (though not requiring) the assistance of fellow players, and the endgame has shifted more toward high end raids and dungeons.

The majority of GW2 is still soloable, and you’ll still have a lot of fun content and satisfying rewards available to you, but it’s just not quite as flawlessly solo-friendly as it used to be.

Play Guild Wars 2 here.

Warframe

A promotional image for the MMOFPS Warframe

Recently I’ve been considering giving Warframe a try, and reading up on it, the consensus seems to be that you can do most anything in the game solo, but some things may be difficult, and you may require a specific build to do it. So it seems like a good choice for a solo player, but perhaps not quite an ideal choice.

Play Warframe here.

Cryptic MMOs

A story quest in Star Trek Online

I’m going to lump Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online together because they all follow more or less the same formula. There’s an emphasis on solo story content, usually heavily instanced, and while the quests aren’t the best in the genre, they definitely are above average.

Endgame in Cryptic MMOs tends to be split between traditional dungeon content or PvP and more solo-friendly daily quest grinds. It’s not the most thrilling solo content in the world, but it’s there.

Of them all, I’d rate STO as the most solo-friendly. It has the most story-driven and overall best quest content of Cryptic’s library.

Play Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, or Champions Online here.

Exceptionally Solo-friendly

These are the crème de la crème of solo MMORPGs, where solo content is at least as fun and rewarding as any other option, if not more so.

Secret World Legends

The character creator in Secret World Legends

The Secret World was pretty much the pinnacle of the solo MMO experience, with impeccable mission design, purely optional group content, and an egalitarian endgame that allowed most anyone to get the best gear eventually.

I haven’t delved as deeply into Legends, but the general philosophy of the reboot seems to have been to move away from MMO mechanics, so if anything it should be even more welcoming to solo players (if that’s even possible).

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A story mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion

SWTOR does lose some points for having an endgame that still puts raids and dungeons at the top, but most would agree that the real attraction of the game is its story, and all of that is entirely soloable. Even if you only play the class stories, you’re still essentially getting eight high quality single-player RPGs for free… ish.

The endgame doesn’t entirely shut out the solo player, either. Most anything can grant you experience toward Galactic Command ranks, including soloable heroic missions and the like.

Play Star Wars: The Old Republic here.

Elder Scrolls Online

A nightblade character in Elder Scrolls Online

Like the other top tier solo MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online has a strong emphasis on story content, which can all be completed solo, and while the mechanics are not quite so unique as in Legends and the story not quite so powerful as in SWTOR, ESO’s questing is nonetheless a cut above what most other MMOs offer, and the sheer volume of it is staggering.

There are dungeons and raids, but they’re not at all essential to understanding the story, nor are they the only path to advancement at endgame. Crafting provides an effective, if somewhat grindy, path for solo players to achieve high-end gear, and any content will give you the XP needed for Champion Points.


Emergent Storytelling Reigns Supreme

This is a collaborative post debating merits of emergent storytelling vs. static storytelling between yours truly and Roger from Contains Moderate Peril. After reading this, make sure to check out his side of the debate!

When it comes to MMOs, emergent storytelling is king.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good static story. The choice driven narrative in The Witcher series is as compelling as the linear experience of The Last of Us. For a single player game, it’s still the way to go. Emergent storytelling is improving for single player games like future XCOM-like releases, but they still pale compared to a hand-crafted story. The reason for this is single player games lack the human component. We’re still not close to AI that can mimic humans. But if there’s one thing that existing MMOs don’t lack it’s people. It makes the genre what it is.

Think about the most memorable stories in MMORPG history. Lord British’s assassination in Ultima Online. Felling the Sleeper in EverQuest. World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood plague. Eve Online’s heist (and basically everything else in that game). For MMO-lites, Rust has long been a source of entertaining stories. These events are so special that they transcend the worlds from which they originate. The common denominator between them is players using (perhaps abusing) the game system in unforeseen ways.  You literally can’t make this stuff up. That’s the potential of emergent storytelling.

emergent story eve heist

It’s true that to fully experience emergent stories, you need to be there when the event occurs. For the regular person, that’s not feasible. Gamers also work or go to school and can’t be available for something cool that’s happening in a video game. Fear of missing out affects a lot of people, given how many choices we have for entertainment. Playing a game where that’s a constant threat can be stressful. The flip side is that every login, it’s possible you will experience something memorable and unique. Maybe you’ll even be the one to initiate it. There’s no end to the storytelling in an open-ended system. Contrast that with a static story that will eventually end, and I think it makes the risk of “missing out” completely worth it.

Most of the events also tend to revolve around loss of some kind. Eve Online makes news based on espionage or massive wars, leading to the loss of property for players. Even the family friendly World of Warcraft’s most newsworthy happenings revolved around a nasty plague and disrupting a funeral. These are the things that make headlines – but I think that’s because MMORPGs have largely relied on PvP for emergent gameplay thus far. Non-MMO multiplayer games, like Minecraft, have demonstrated that players can impress us with cooperation as much as with conflict. Unfortunately, MMORPGs in that realm (like Landmark) haven’t made it very far. And in terms of PvE gameplay, public quests in games like Guild Wars 2 and Rift have been too predictable.

Ultimately, there is a lot to be gained by emergent gameplay. The point of the above is to show that thus far developers haven’t gone far enough with it. World of Warcraft blew everything up with its focus on solo play and quests. MMORPGs are expensive to produce so that’s been the blueprint for a decade. Thanks to the beauty of crowdfunding though, developers can now take risks to differentiate. MMORPGs like Star Citizen, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria will (hopefully) deliver some exciting emergent options.

star citizen emergent gameplay

The core element is focusing on freedom of choice. I realize that’s easier said than done. The balancing element that also narrows the scope is consequence. Everything is possible, but everything has a price. It’s from this choice and consequence that people create these memorable narratives. Whether MMORPG developers like it or not, people play pivotal roles in storytelling both by their absence and their presence.

1) Absence – AI is predictable. Predictability does not lead to good stories. Good static stories circumvent this through scripted events to weave their tale. The problem is that these events work in isolation. When players are running around the world, that changes the experience in unseen ways. The absence of real players is usually critical for the storyteller to deliver their goods as intended. But MMORPGs are not solo affairs. Why focus on stories best experienced alone when the medium itself is built around multiplayer?

2) Presence – Humans are anything but predictable, especially when relatively minor consequences and internet anonymity gets thrown into the mix. MMORPGs should use this to their advantage. I’d argue that playing Eve Online is boring at best, but experiencing Eve Online’s multiple PvP systems is thrilling. Give players the tools, and they’ll create history. Again, just look at the massive success that is Minecraft and all of its copycats. Whether it’s building and destroying or cooperating and conflicting, it’s the people that make the MMO genre what it is.

Even language itself changes in unintended ways thanks to the players. MMO first timers might be overwhelmed by all of the genre’s jargon. It can feel practically like a foreign language. What’s cool is how this language naturally evolves to create terms or abbreviations that didn’t exist prior. Language may not be flashy, but altering the way we communicate fascinates me. And we have MMO players to thank for that.

I’ll close saying that games like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Old Republic offer good stories, but I’ve never seen them talked up besides from those who have experienced them. By contrast, I do see single player stories talked up. That’s all because it’s a strength of that focused medium. I say leave static storytelling to those single player games and push MMOs to invest in systems that allow players to tell their own stories and build their own legends. MMOs were built for emergent storytelling.

Like any good debate though, there’s always another side to the story. Check out Roger’s discussion in favor of static storytelling at Contains Moderate Peril.