How much does story matter?

I’ve posted in the past about the importance of engaging stories in MMOs, or at least well-written stories. Given that questing generally can be boiled-down to one of a very small number of archetypes (kill 10 rats, collect 10 gizmos, click 10 levers etc), how the devs encourage the player to do those same repetitive tasks is important. For me story isn’t just the little snippets of quest dialogue that introduce, advance and complete a quest. It’s also how that task is linked to the area, NPCs and the wider lore of the world. Little, staid tasks aren’t so boring if you feel like a larger story is unfolding before your character.

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Due to recent news items and other bloggers interest in the game I’ve poked my head back into LOTRO again. It’s the easiest of my long-term MMOs to return to since I have a lifetime subscription, I can jump back in to play the game without paying any money and without any annoying restrictions on my gameplay experience due to free-to-play account status.

Playing the game I’m struck anew by just how good Turbine are, or at least have been, at this overarching story telling. The individual quests are mostly the usual kinds, some are even more mundane tasks such as ‘pickup rubbish’ or ‘deliver a letter’, but generally there’s a wider metaplot for the zone that gives impetus to what you are doing. They also have that ‘following the Fellowship of the Ring’ thing going on in the background as an über-metaplot (to rule all the meta-plots).

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After my recent musings on Everquest 2’s issues with the lack of apparent overarching storytelling I find LOTRO storytelling to be much clearer. I have the dual-layers of metaplot clearly stated in text and video vignettes to motivate my character’s journey across Middle Earth.

Playing for a while though does remind me of certain annoyances with the game that I’ve long had. The combat isn’t quite as engaging as in other MMOs and the lack of creature variety due to the lore-guardians that approve all content can also be a downside. I’m sure this dilemma is one reason why I’ve been jumping between MMOs over the years, no game in my mind has all the pieces right. LOTRO is a game I’ve come back to more than most, however, so does good storytelling trump all other concerns in the end?

 

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6 Responses to How much does story matter?

  1. I can only speak for myself, but I find story incredibly important in MMOs. A single-player game is at most an investment of a dozen hours — good game mechanics can carry a weak story. But MMOs are not one and done experiences; they’re entire worlds you’re expected to lose yourself in for potentially hundreds or thousands of hours. If I’m going to do that, I need to care about the world, and that requires a compelling story.

    I’m still going back to WoW now and then despite a laundry list of complaints with its gameplay purely because I have a lot invested in Azeroth as a setting. By comparison, I loved Guild Wars 2 in terms of mechanics, but the incredibly dull and simplistic story utterly failed to make me care about the world and its residents, so ultimately I moved on from that game.

  2. Prof.mcstevie says:

    An MMO story has to be good, however it should be presented in snippets that aren’t TOO subtle as a taste of what is to come. Big bad around? Nah. Whispers of problems stirring in the dark? Ooh, tell me more~

  3. bhagpuss says:

    I’m kind of in the opposite camp. I find zones in which all or most of the questing ties into a specific narrative or theme quite claustrophobic. I much prefer lots of short, discrete stories that don’t have any particular overarching narrative.

    I also don’t like too many of them. In ESO, which I’m playing on and off at the moment, I don’t seem to be able to move ten yards without meeting someone with a problem. I’m quite happy to make at least some of my own entertainment in an MMO and go kill things without being given any specific brief. That way I feel like I have a lot more agency and control.

  4. Sylow says:

    I do love story and find it important. (As anybody can guess by my TSW track record. ) I really appreciate some internal consistency. I don’t really require the “all included” massive storyline, but the pieces of the world should fit. Though, this is also where my gripes with LOTRO actually start. I tried to like the game, started it twice, but it just had some “nope” factors.

    That my captain grunted throughout the fight was annoying but hey, that’s perhaps just how he fights, but his armours looking like being made of cheap plastic was just not bearable. I know from screenshots that there are some beautiful armours in the later play, but i quite soon ended up in red, yellow and green pieces of armour, all of them having the “plastic effect” on them. Yuck.

    The character which got further was my rogue and by getting further i very much saw the huge design problem, that the topic “new and unknown person, working through the zone and become a hero” was repeated. So i left one zone, being celebrated as saviour and hero, walked 500 meters over the zone boarder and was greeted as unimportant and unknown peasant, who was best used to feed the farmers cows and collect their crap, while the farmer was watching from 15 meters away to make sure that i didn’t do it wrong or even wanted to do some evil deeds to his cows or their excrements.

    So all in all LOTRO has a very pretty world and if you manage to reset your brain between zones then it also has fine stories, but the episodal nature and the “reset to zero” procedure there really painfully cuts into the internal logic.

  5. Telwyn says:

    Overall I enjoy both games’ approach to story, some zones work better than others in them both. I do like having the metaplot in LOTRO but it’s hardly a deal-breaker that EQ2 seems to be lacking the same. Certainly story alone isn’t the answer since we’ve mostly given up on SWTOR and it’s “4th pillar” for now.

  6. Of what little of LoTRO I played, that is something I noticed. The simple questing felt like it was part of a story, and not just a random quest for the sake of a tutorial. I, for one, appreciate that kind of thought put into quest design.

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