Blacksmiths of Intellectual Property: The Rise of Originality in MMOs - Page 5

Updated Mon, Jun 08, 2009 by Cody Bye

In the realm of MMO gaming, every online player strives to tell their own personal story through their actions. Some stories revolve around competition where players constantly strive to excel at their chosen venue. Others focus on social interactions, fleshing out their online experience with shared events that resonate within the guild’s memories for years to come. Some players want to imagine themselves as part of the tapestry of the game world itself, picturing their character as a recognizable figure in the world’s lore. Others commit themselves to simply discovering every piece of the in-game content that they can find, feeding their desire each time they open a new treasure chest or kill a novel mob.

However, the one element that every gamer craves is that moment where they feel like a true hero to the world around them. Almost every gamer wants to have that jaw-dropping, eye-popping moment where their character stands in front of a world-shattering monster, laughs in its face, engages in combat, and comes away victorious. They want to step forward and wake the Sleeper, stomp on Magtheridon, or go fist-to-cuffs with the Balrog and lay a smack down of epic proportions. They want to have a feeling that they are actually invested in their world, and through their actions they’ve done something memorable.  To some degree, MMOs are the perfect medium for this sort of gameplay experience. Gamers have the chance to play through fantastic worlds that are created to propel them to heroism or villainy, and every player can feel just as heroic or villainous – depending on their playstyle – as the next person on their server.

However, in those games that are based off of established IPs, you run into elements of the story that just don’t fit into an MMO. Pre-existing heroes are already running around the world, races may seem to strong to optimally balance for gameplay purposes, or any other number of dilemmas. To use Star Wars Galaxies as an example, it’s hard for a player to seriously think of themselves as a hero or a villain when the strongest of these characters already exist: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and the Emperor.

Therefore, putting together a solid, yet MMO-friendly story should be one of the top priorities for most original MMO studios. I asked our panel of developers what their thoughts were on their own storytelling situations.

“Many gamers are used to story being an afterthought, something that exists only to appease role-players or fans of reading lore,” Danuser said. “We've spent the last few years changing that paradigm. Story is at the core of everything we do. Our story drives the design of our gameplay, which in turn drives our art, audio, and engineering. Everyone at 38 Studios is a storyteller, regardless of the title on their business cards. Every system we build, every piece of art we craft, and every line of code we write is created for the purpose of bringing this IP to life and making it something our players will always remember.”

“I may be biased, but I truly believe that you need that kind of a commitment to your IP to really make it stand out in the marketplace,” he continued. “Players will respond to that love and attention to detail. Make a fun, polished game with thought and heart, and success will take care of itself.”

The response from Funcom echoed Danuser’s sentiments. It seems that backstory is the building block through which all good things come.

“Building a world and making a game at the same time is difficult,” Ellingsen responded. “A game is more than just the game mechanics, it's also about the believability of the universe where the game takes place, the characters you encounter, the storyline you progress through and so on. Being original and creating a believable universe while you're struggling with creating game mechanics and making technology work can be difficult, especially if you work with a small team who might have a few people working on several elements in the game.”

“For Funcom it has always been very important to put a lot of effort into building the game around the universe, instead of building the universe around the game,” he continued. “We spend a lot of time working on the backstory, the characters, the environments and so on before we actually start the development process. We're also blessed with a very talented team of designers lead by Ragnar Tornquist, the creator of the Longest Journey games, and there is certainly no end to his ability to create a believable, original universe!”

On the other hand, Hi-Rez Studios has a different sort of mindset when it comes to story.

“The storyline of Global Agenda has gone through numerous revisions, each one getting closer and closer to the kind of world we had envisioned,” Knaack commented.  “Our “game first” philosophy served as a destination for where it needed to end up, while the world as it exists today was the starting point.  From there, it was a simple matter of connecting the dots in the most interesting possible way, keeping the timeline concise while leaving enough hooks for expansion of the original concept.”

“That being said, the setting is important enough that Hi-Rez Studios maintains a full time writer to bring the project together with a coherent fictional context,” he concluded.  “We provide our community with an engaging back story to get them into the game, but we also rely on our players and the groups they create to provide the interesting narrative moving forward as they cooperate and compete in our world.”

Too contrast the importance – or lack thereof – of storyline, April Burba’s answer to this questions was particularly enlightening. We’ll let her answer speak for itself.

“I worked on both City of Heroes and Tabula Rasa and the differences in the size and depth of the backstory were jarring. City of Heroes (before Villians) had a 300+ page story bible where TR was significantly less even including all the Logos symbols and their meanings,” she said. “I'll let you take from that what you will, however, I think it's important to understand that if you are creating an MMO then you are creating a world for people to spend an enormous amount of time in. Having an exceptionally deep amount of lore for them to discover, play with and play through is not a bad thing.”

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