Approaches to story in MMORPGs

What does story mean in the MMORPGs we play? Having stories to discover and experience is a big part of what attracts me to a given MMO and what keeps me playing as well. It’s a positive and negative aspect of the genre – the games keep evolving and growing as long as they are online, so there are usually new injections of content, including new storylines. The pace at which new story (or content more broadly) is added can be a problem. It’s been identified, rightly or wrongly, as a reason why MMO gamers are fickle and tend to move on from or between games. That describes a motivation of my own gaming behaviour, once I’ve played out a given MMOs primary stories I may stick around some time to replay it on an alt or two but I will inevitably move on if new story is slow in coming.

According to the old Bartle taxonomy of gamer types, story is most identified with the Explorer. But is story only a motivator for Explorer types? I write often about coop gaming on this blog, playing MMORPGs with friends and family as a mode of gaming as opposed to playing with a guild or random strangers. Coop gaming surely speaks to the Socialiser type of gamer in the same taxonomy, so for me a big motivator is the ability to enjoy stories with others – to play through them seemlessly as a group (without forced solo’ing quests). Such gameplay offers the ‘water-cooler’ style benefits of discussing plot developments as we play, a ready-made group for beating tougher challenges and a way to maintain engagement as we talk offline about progress and achievements.

Some MMORPGs tie story into achiever style gameplay pretty heavily. World of Warcraft in recent expansions has packaged story as weekly unfolding quest chains with certain grindy or challenging steps to check progress. In the Legion expansion dungeon runs are required, and some might be at a higher difficulty level (e.g. Mythic). Final Fantasy 14 had many such ‘dungeon checkpoints’ as part of the main storyline, at least before the Heavensward expansion. Some of the steps of the epic storyline in Lord of the Rings Online required me to modify my character’s playstyle, particularly the instance set-pieces. The requirement to complete Big Battle instances were also a learning curve, not necessarily that challenging but still a whole new set of mechanics to learn. Is it good to bind story/explorative play by mechanics in this way?

I can think of at least one example of a game locking story behind classic killer content – during the Pandaria expansion World of Warcraft progress of the legendary cloak quest chain required PVP participation. That was a very painful gaming experience for myself, queueing for battlegrounds where a sizeable minority of players were trying desperately to get quest credit for this chain without the experience or motivation to run instanced PVP to do so. At the time it brought me the closest I’ve been to ‘ragequitting’ a game as it’s the content type I simply do not enjoy. Other games do blend story and PVP content more systematically – Archeage and Aion both have PVP as part of the leveling process (as well as a focus on it at endgame), so it’s much harder to enjoy the game’s leveling story without getting dragged into PVP if you’re not into it.

So story isn’t all about exploration it seems; it can be tied to progression and character development, it can be the focus for less casual social interactions or even a background to or excuse for competitive gameplay. Do these approaches to story affect your enjoyment of it in a given game?

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5 Responses to Approaches to story in MMORPGs

  1. bhagpuss says:

    I find the connection between story and exploration unconvincing to say the least, b ut then I guess it depends how you define the “Explorer” archetype. In my mind Explorer in this context is virtually synonymous with “sightseer” or even “tourist”. As an explorer, all I really want to do is go everywhere, see everything and take photos. Story is often one of the things that gets in the way of that.

    I’ve always attached story in MMOs to the Achiever archetype. Getting through the storyline usually means completing a series of quests or tasks and ticking them all off a list – sometimes literally. That’s behavior I associate only with Achievers. MMO storylines are also almost always linear, which also seems to obviate against exploration. Even the language we use tends to suggest a different interpretation: you “follow” a storyline, you don’t “explore” one.

  2. I think this whole discussion is a good example of why those Bartle archetypes really aren’t worth much. It honestly amazes me that so many people are still putting so much stock in such a shallow and arbitrary way of lumping people together.

    I mean, look at me. Every time I’ve taken that test, it’s flagged me as an explorer (and by a mile — the other archetypes aren’t even close), and Bhagpuss’ comment above about story “getting in the way” is pretty much the exact opposite of my attitude toward MMOs. For me, it’s the other stuff that gets in the way of what really matters: the story.

    People are individuals. You can’t just lump us all into four narrow boxes. It’s so much more complex than that.

  3. Ettesiun says:

    I do not remember the last time i was interested in a videogame story. It could be starcraft 1 : and this was mostly beczuse the majority of the story was written in the manual. I am a binge reader and a casual gamer. I find the rythm of story in games far too slow and not really interesting.

  4. Shintar says:

    There was a mega-thread on the official SWTOR forums last week wherein someone complained that a four-year-old quest ended in an operation. Since they didn’t want to raid (not even on easy mode) and there is a little cut scene at the end to say “well done killing those guys” they felt that the game was “withholding” story from them.

    Maybe story players are kind of their own player type by now? Back when Bartle came up with those types, continuous storylines weren’t as much of a thing in MMOs. I always considered myself a story-liking explorer, but as such I don’t mind a bit of challenge to “find” every possible ending. Achievers generally don’t mind overcoming obstacles to get their achievements either. Players who just expect to be served up the story almost passively, like they are watching a TV show, are really something else.

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