[If you haven't checked out the introduction for this mini-series yet, it will probably be worth your while to do that first - although it isn't absolutely necessary. It's sort of the mount this whole series rides upon - but don't worry, a pair of coconut halves should suffice for now!]
As stated before, MMO games are ultimately defined by what kind of experience they provide their players. Some titles offer a multifaceted experience, while others offer one that is much more focused. How many various play-styles are integrated really isn't of consequence right now (but will come into play much later on). The important thing to keep in mind is that I'll only be talking about these things one at a time, starting first with:
Story matters, especially for MMORPGs. In fact, the majority of MMOs and MMORPGs feature some form of contiguous story. While each game serves the story up slightly differently, most MMOs feature a highly linear narrative. Sure, these games offer some amount of side-quests and alternative activities that might have some story relevance, but the majority of all meaningful narrative is conveyed through a system built on rails. This distinction has led to the popular term for this play-style as a "themepark" experience.
Let me first state that this is not a bad way of doing things for video games.
Massive Multiplayer Considerations
For MMOs, well... It's debatable. It certainly has it's cons - but there are some positives too.
In a linear narrative, the lead content designer knows that everyone who plays through the game (and follows along on the rails) will experience the complete narrative the game is offering. Additionally, content designers can rest at ease knowing that nearly every hour they spend creating will get noticed (which can be highly motivating). It's extremely efficient in terms of maximizing creative man-hours towards content that will go directly in front of anyone who plays the game through. Writers and designers can build a complex, epic, and elaborate story this way.
It's great for players that are really keen on experiencing an epic tale and participating in a legendary adventure.
The current model we see in most MMORPGs today has largely evolved from single-player RPGs of old. Might & Magic, The Elder Scrolls, and Final Fantasy just to name a few. Unfortunately this model can be extremely problematic when you open the doors up to group-play and/or a massive simultaneous player-base. There are also issues of instant-information accelerating the rate of content consumption games today are subject to, but that's a completely separate argument of its own.
A Single-Player Goldmine
Linear Narrative offers a great experience on its own, and for many players that can be a compelling reason to pick up a game - however, it just doesn't synergize extremely well in a multiplayer-focused setting; which is probably why we've seen so many MMORPGs drift deeply into the realm of solo-oriented content. When the goal of linear narrative is to convey a finite story to players, having a bunch of side-distractions can actually be detrimental to presenting that narrative.
It's a good idea, but it's not a great idea - at least not for games that value meaningful multiplayer interaction. So utilizing this system/mechanic/method of narrative conveyance will be a hard sell when we're talking the "Perfect MMO". That's not to say that it can't be done, but so far it hasn't been done well.
I'm not certain how many will find this statement agreeable - but I believe the narrative from games like the Elder Scrolls Online, World of Warcraft, and DC Universe Online (just to name a few) would be a dish better served in a single-player RPG. Is it cool that you can actually experience these stories with others? Sure, kind-of. The reality, is that the majority of meaningful multiplayer content in today's MMORPGs happens outside of that narrative anyways. Just a nugget to chew on.
Which begs the question: "Should it really carry so much weight if it's so... superficial... to the greater game experience?"
Asking the Right Questions
That question might come up often during this series, and for excellent reason. Many of the systems and mechanics we will be talking about are arguably "luxuries" to a massive multiplayer experience. The problem is that we've been conditioned to expect them as part of these games - whether or not they are actually relevant to the intended experience developers and designers are trying to offer.
This is a very bad thing.
When developers feel "obligated" to include features like a Linear Narrative, because that's what the majority of players "expect", it convolutes the design process. In worst-case scenario, it may end up ultimately directing players away from a game's most unique, iconic, and innovative features. Which is something just about everyone who pays close attention to MMOs and their unique features can attest to.
Instead of asking ourselves why an upcoming MMO doesn't have a feature, we should instead be asking "Why does it include some of these other features?" What are the developers trying to accomplish? What's the point of this game? What are they trying to get me to accomplish here?
While it isn't required to know what to do before you jump in and play, sometimes it is a very good idea to give the whole plan some thought. Scrambling blindly into a game expecting a certain outcome without actually spending some time analyzing the finer points of the whole design will only leave you seriously disappointed.
If you don't believe me, ask these guys:
That's it for today's chapter. There are several other tangents I wanted to go on related to Linear Narrative but would have carried me too far off course, so if you believe I missed something - you would be correct. Thankfully we've got a comment section below for further discussion and debate on the topic. Just watch out for falling livestock, they can be fatal. (Also, I may or may not insult you with slurs containing rodents and fruit.)
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