I'm going to make an argument today. I'm going to suggest to you that there is one primary failure that can occur in a game that can lead to its flop more than any other deficiency. There is one crucial element that if executed poorly, can make just about any game feel hideous - even graphically. It's a very specific thing that just about every game contains, the majority of which are underwhelming, especially for in MMOs.
The element I'm talking about here is primarily found in role-playing games of all types, and is also a core component in non-traditional RPG games that most people wouldn't generally label as an "RPG". Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Need For Speed, Assassin's Creed, and Hitman are examples of non-traditional RPGs. Even some real-time strategy games and world-simulation games can overlap into the RPG category - so long as they have some form of campaign narrative, or thematic essence to any of the different factions you can play.
The most interesting aspect of this argument is that multiplayer games actually have an additional element that adds both the potential to prevent this type of failure, but also the ability to cause failure even when the game would have otherwise been good as a single player experience. We'll get to all that in a bit though, for now, let's talk about the key ingredient itself, the primary element everything hinges on: Bad Narrative.
The Destroyer of (Virtual) Worlds
Before I really get into this argument, I want to quickly define what narrative is - as it isn't just the writing and dialogue that a player experiences in a game.
Narrative Is All-Encompassing
Narrative gets conveyed through many elements of gameplay, even the nuts and bolts physics and mechanics of the game world. Think of DCUO for example, the mechanics behind their heroic movement (super speed, flight, & acrobatics) help empower the comic narrative of the game. They make the player actually feel the narrative come to life that they really are a superhero (or villain) in that digital world.
That is just one example, and there are plenty of others I could use; but the point remains, that narrative should not be thought of solely as writing or dialogue. Although that is the place where we get the strongest narrative in most games, especially older games, it isn't the only place. Especially not anymore, with more narrative being delivered through the visuals and mechanics in modern games. So keep that in mind as we move forward.
The "Gameplay Experience"
When you read a review about a game, or hear a developer talk about one, you'll inevitably hear peopl use the phrase "gameplay experience" and sometimes, they'll use it often. It's a phrase that can mean many things, but ultimately is referring to how a player engages with the narrative of the game - whether that's through dialogue or actual in-game mechanics. The narrative defines the gameplay experience almost entirely, because - as described above - it is more of an assembly of all the components of the game rather than just exclusively the story of the game.
The narrative is the primary component to the game experience in role-playing games and as a result, the most damning or glorifying element of the entire work.
If the game doesn't resonate on some level (whether that is the written dialogue or the visceral experience delivered through the mechanics), players aren't going to keep playing it. Games with bad narrative are the ones that you never finish playing (or as the case for MMOs - the one you stop playing). Players regret spending money on bad single-player games. When it comes to multiplayer games, it's a bit more complicated.
Multiplayer Game Narrative
Multiplayer games offer a unique element that single-player games don't and can't: human interaction.
No matter how good AI gets, it will probably never be capable of accurately mimicking human behavior. This affects the narrative and therefore also the greater gameplay experience. Even in the worst of narratives - when people are sharing a bad experience together, they have the ability to make the whole experience feel better than it actually is. With the right group of people, even the absolute worst games can end without a player having the overall negative impression that would make them regret their purchase. After all, if they had fun (even if it wasn't due primarily because of the good gameplay) they're going to be at least mildly satisfied.
When you take it a step further and apply this to MMOs you're essentially taking the pros of human interaction and applying them on a much larger scale. This carries with it its own set of pros and cons - but the fact remains that although good narrative trumps all, players can help better each other's experience. Unfortunately in most cases, players can also negatively influence each other's experience, stripping away joy from a game that actually has great narrative.
In multi-player games, especially MMORPGs - the complete game experience is a direct fusion between the narrative itself and the player interaction. Those two things combine to create the overall experience, and one can often outweigh the other - depending on how much of an influence they're allowed to have on one another.
Mutually Exclusive Narrative
In some titles, the players are so segregated and instanced from one another, that the narrative feels like an entirely separate entity. Players have to volunteer themselves into situations where the narrative and multiplayer elements overlap, like in Raids (PvE) and Battlegrounds (PvP). Games built in this fashion (with World of Warcraft being the leading example), benefit from the fact that their game narrative can stand on its own legs, and can't typically be affected by a negative multiplayer environment. The downside to that, is that players who come to an MMO seeking the social interaction aren't really going to experience it in the greater narrative of the game except in very small (often meaningless) ways.
Mutually Inclusive Narrative
In other titles, the game narrative is tied directly into the multiplayer experience and there are very few situations where players are pulled from the multiplayer environment to experience narrative-driven content. Just like the example above, there are benefits and drawbacks to this choice as well. Yes, while players will have the ability to negatively affect each other's overall-experience and ruin great narrative... they also have ability to enhance one another's gameplay experience and uplift a narrative that in any other circumstance a particular player might have found totally unappealing.
So Which Style is Better for MMORPGs?
Honestly, it depends on what type of game you want to make. Both models have the ability to make compelling games with solid narrative and a pleasant multiplayer experience - which combine together to complete the whole MMORPG experience. They both also have the ability to go completely sour.
A narrative-exclusive game effectively has two ways to tank itself: as a bad multiplayer experience is very bad for any game trying to compete as an MMO, and a bad narrative can make for a terrifying attempt to deliver a dynamic narrative experience to players. It also has the built in protection for itself that these two things don't overlap too much, so if either one isn't that great they won't necessarily be a game-breaker.
A narrative-inclusive game basically is the prime example of high-risk, high-reward in this genre. For MMORPGs (the goal of being both an MMO and an RPG), narrative inclusive games are authentic by merging the story and multiplayer aspects as seamlessly as possible. This means that the game has the advantage of being doubly good as a complete experience when both elements (the narrative and the multiplay) are strong and positive. Unfortunately, if either one of these elements goes wrong it can totally undermine the everything good about the game.
What Developers can do
No matter what, developers have a significant amount of control over the narrative experience. This control is even greater the more they exclude the multiplayer elements from it (as they really have very little control over other players). When it comes to AAA-scale MMORPGs, which are creating entire digital micro-worlds, they usually have so many systems that the variables get much harder and more difficult to control.
If they go exclusive, they keep systems separate and players don't have too much opportunity to abuse a system to exploit another. Players also don't have the ability to use the mechanical components of the game to affect each other's personal narrative. That gives the developers almost full control over the narrative.
If they go inclusive, these systems are intertwined. That means the immersion goes way up, but it also means that many systems and mechanics are so tied to the narrative that abuse by players is going to detract from the whole experience. It makes for the most ideal RPG immersion and offers the most RPG potential... but it could also be the most hellacious - as developers will have much less control over how players are affecting each other's experience.
Regardless of which model is chosen (it is usually some blend of the two anyways), developers do have control over the designed mechanics and the reward systems. They can use these to set the direction for players and design their in-game goals. Unfortunately most MMORPGs of late have done a little too much of that - causing a linear theme-park experience that is almost devoid of any real immersive role-play experience altogether and feels extremely empty lonely in so many ways.
Putting It All Together
I really believe that developers have gone overkill in their use of exclusive-narrative. MMORPGs don't feel immersive at all anymore, and their narrative is usually quite laughable. Additionally, the mechanics that infuse character actions and player agency into the greater multiplayer narrative are so few and far between that people might as well be playing in their own personal servers with matchmaking elements for the multiplayer aspects - making Raiding and PvP the true mini-game bolt-on components that they currently already function as.
Developers have yanked nearly all of the inclusive-narrative out of games, systemically over the past decade to the point that I can't even call most of them MMORPG games. If anything they are beautiful multi-game lobbies that offer a bunch of separate mini-games under one roof. They call themselves MMORPGs when, in reality they couldn't be further from it.
Maybe it's just my personal opinion, but I think MMORPGs are supposed to be games that feel immersive because they allow players to interact on as many levels as naturally possible. To me, infusing multiplayer aspects into the narrative is an essential ingredient to any real MMORPG game - as a single, complete experience. I'm tired of playing modular games that just so happen to be interconnected by a shared open world.
MMORPGs are becoming a dying breed because they're failing, twice. They are trying to function as single-player RPGs when they're not, and they're getting outdone by real single-player RPGs. They're also trying to function like party-based multiplayer instance games when they're not. Games like League of Legends and Smite will always beat out the PvP instancing found in today's MMORPG titles - that's why competitive players go to those to play - because that's the strength of those games. There really aren't many examples of co-op PvE instanced games (though I may suggest that Diablo was the first mainstream graphical attempt at online co-op, gear-based dungeon crawlers).
MMORPGs today are trying to be dozens of things they are not, and trying to pull maybe too big of an audience in this combined mini-game approach, where they're clearly second rate in every category. The only reason they are attractive is probably because of a long-time fan base from back when they did operate as authentic MMORPGs.
I want to see a real multiplayer RPG, that uses elements like Emergent AI, and experience-altering consequences as built-in abuse deterrents to protect players. With the right systems and innovation, developers could create significant enough penalties to prevent players from destroying one another's experience, protecting the great narrative they spent a bunch of time designing.
A game like this will probably have to be behind some form of paywall to help prevent players from constantly rerolling and trolling the masses without spending a dime. Which is brings up another major element missing from MMORPGs today: character investment. I talked about that earlier this week in the previous edition of Gravity Well. If you missed it - go give that a read, as it is very relevant to this piece.
Until developers start finding a way to blend both the multiplayer and narrative elements into one cohesive game experience, we're always going to feel like modern MMORPGs are just an amalgamation of bolted-on mini-game components. The open-world in MMORPGs today essentially operates as a decorated in-game lobby with a few things to do to pass the time between queues. It's absolutely terrible. I'm hoping Emergent AI can pave the way to finally infusing the narrative into the multiplayer setting, but it's just a system. Developers will still have to actively choose to make their games more narrative-inclusive in nature.
(For a bit of visual insight on this topic, here is a very short and informative bit by Extra Credits on Story and Narrative in games.)
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