Monday, April 14, 2008

MMO Lore: Why So Serious?

I hate to steal a marketing line from the upcoming Batman movie but it seemed to resonate with the issue so well that I had to include it in today's title. Most of the lore in today's MMOs is standard epic fantasy usually revolving around an insurmountable evil that plans to darken the land. Yet as these games get older we see more and more evil overlords being introduced. Players defeat the villain only to have another villain show up a year or two later who is about ten levels stronger then the last one. Eventually, you get the feeling you’re stuck in a time loop but with the details being slightly different each time around.

The whole premise is a bit ridiculous and yet most MMOs try to lay out their storyline and quests like the most serious of D&D dungeon masters. The devotion to fake authenticity can get a bit annoying like a living history town that makes you park your car half a mile away. You're invited into the fantasy but you have to ignore the obvious plot holes and play along with that guy who uses "thou" all the time. The problem is of course that a lot of people who play MMO's don't actually want to role play anything. We've been brought up on console games where RPGs were more like we watching a story while leveling then actually pretending you were the main character.

Thus when you surround the average "gamer" with actual role players who grew up on LARPing and D&D you get some interesting conflicts. The developers are actually on the side of the role players for the most part since they try to stay true to either their license or the epic fantasy template handed down by Tolkien. In fact I have to say that World of Warcraft was the first MMO I ever ran across where the developers broke from the mold. Their lore still tells a sweeping fantasy story but it’s filled with pop culture references and jokes just designed to get a laugh. Blizzard has always had a sense of humor in their games and you can't be surprised this came through in a content intensive MMO.

This style definitely annoys the hell out of the serious role players who once they emerge themselves in the fantasy don't want anything to disrupt it, especially really bad puns. I guess it makes it hard to role play when one quest giver could have an appropriately sounding elfish name and the guy next to him is named Haris Pilton. On the other hand I think the average gamer appreciates the attempts of Blizzard to make sure their fans know it’s only a game. After all most people would just feel stupid if you asked them to act or role play anything. They may appreciate a fantasy novel or video game but you aren't going to catch them dressed as a wizard at the next renaissance faire.

Why it would be sad to see all MMOs treat their lore as loose as Blizzard I think games need to start taking themselves less serious. It always going to be important to have a really great story behind every MMO but the style Blizzard has adopted makes it easier for people not to feel silly while playing a game as a fantasy creature. You can look at it this way. What's the number one thing people do when they've gathered a bunch of strangers in a room? If it’s a lecture then you start with a boring story that probably sounds a lot like every other story. However, if you want to break the ice and get people talking then you tell a really funny joke. In the end I guess you can call World of Warcraft the icebreaker of MMOs.


Shalkis said...

The problem is that many MMORPGs are trying to please all of these separate groups at the same time, leaving nobody satisfied.

Blizzard tried to solve this with RP servers, but they don't have the will, the manpower and/or the knowledge to even enforce their own rules. And without the watchful eye of the GM(s), feuds between player groups run rampant, escalate and devolve into outright jingoism. You get anti-RP griefers on one side and RP police on the other. Again, nobody is satisfied.

Relmstein said...

Yeah the RP server idea never really works out right. I still remember in Everquest where they made the mistake of taking away item binding on the RP server to make it more popular. They basically ended up flooding it with gold farmers.

What we really need are more games that are approachable to non role players and new gamers. At the moment WoW seems to be the only one and its large population has attracted players who don't even like the game but simply want to play something with a lot of people in it.

Shalkis said...

It would be interesting to see some research on the effects various factors have in this regard.

For example, medievel fantasy vs. scifi, original IP vs licensed IP, sandbox vs theme park, one world vs shards, mass-market vs niche, active vs passive developers, PvE vs PvP, grouping vs soloing, gentle vs steep learning curve, elitist vs inclusive community..

Eventually, the proper balance will be found, but it might take a decade or two to accomplish. In the meantime, I'll be reading EvE's lore and seeing how their upcoming faction wars will work out. Age of Conan will probably be interesting as well. Licensed IP will place some limitations, but I don't know how short of a leash (if any) they'll place on their players.

Captain Angry said...

It makes me wonder if the schticky aspects of wow's gameworld encourages people who name their character Pwnzilla or Drhealgood.

I'm not a real RP player but it does rub me the wrong way when people have goofy names and don't take the game seriously at all.

Sometimes it seems like coming up with the stupidest or most offensive name takes precedence over actual skill and dedication.

Relmstein said...

Aha, you could be right about Blizzard encouraging really bad names but being such a fan of puns.

Then again in classic Everquest I knew a Squiggle McGigglenuts and a SoftLipHardNips. There's a lot of people who don't want any roleplay in their MMO and I think they kind of protest with really bad names. Or else they could just be jerks.