The Digital Initiative had a blog post last week on world-building. It made very interesting reading. It’s not something I’ve necessarily separated in my mind before from a MMORPG standpoint but the topic certainly resonated with my view on paper RPGs. A game may have the best pre-written adventures you can find but it would not hold my interest for long if the world-building isn’t up to scratch. World-building is important to me.
This may well be a strong factor in why I’ve gone off certain games faster than others, Tera and Rift spring to mind as games that had wonderful game systems but an underdeveloped setting. If the world my virtual character is playing in doesn’t feel immersive and full of depth then I’m more likely to lose interest. Standard quest mechanics aren’t actually that great at telling stories, they are almost always linear and simplistic. But having a rich world that you can discover whilst questing adds up to a much richer experience. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why I stuck with World of Warcraft so long during my first, unbroken stint in the game (~4 years). During that time we levelled many characters in small groups and solo. But there was always some element of discovery or wonder at the breadth and depth of the world created for us to play in. Blizzard are extremely adept at this.
Although I’ve not played as much WoW since that first break I did come back for Mists and now for Draenor and the world-building is still top-notch even if the questing has become more directive and forced. In Mists you had the lore objects to collect, each giving a snippet of an unfolding story. That mechanism not only gave you some very well-written backstory to events in Pandaria but it also linked the earlier history of Pandaria to greater mysteries that have been hinted at throughout the game’s life (e.g. the Titans). That kind of multi-layered world-building is pretty special.
Other aspects to world-building include ensuring your quest-givers and random filler ‘NPCs’ (the ones stood around to make a hamlet seem less deserted) have some character or background. Several MMOs shine here to quote just some examples; WoW certainly but also Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy 14, SWTOR and Elder Scrolls Online. If there’s a setting-oriented reward just for speaking to NPCs then the world is more immersive, that includes characters without the quest-symbol above their heads – world-building doesn’t have to always be obviously sign-posted.
Finding details in the world is another aspect to this: seeing a ruins with familiar architecture, spotting a lone note or book in an abandoned cottage or decyphering runic script from a stone monument are just a few examples. There are endless ways to convey a sense of a greater world than just the quest-texts. Guild Wars 2 was particularly good for this, there was so much to find by just exploring, in a way it is sad that many of the game’s mechanics encouraged you to race (or teleport) around constantly after map-indicated events instead of stopping to look around you. I wonder how many players of that game never realised just how deep the world-building in the original zones went?
Story-telling can be just as much a distraction from the appreciation of deep world-building as game systems like the events in Guild Wars 2. As I mentioned above World of Warcraft’s story-telling is very linear and directive nowadays, quests only appear when unlocked by earlier quests and whole zones can be devoid of life until ‘reached’ from a story perspective due to the phasing technique Blizzard employs. That’s very different from early eras in WoW, quests were a lot more scattered at least in Vanilla and finding an out-of-the-way quest giver was just one way you could be rewarded for exploring beyond the ‘beaten path’ of quest-hubs in the zone.
This idea of a bigger world than just the stories you are following is a powerful way to keep players involved in a game for longer, it certainly works for me.