What’s the story?

Today I’m going to look at the Meaning of Life. Don’t worry, I only mean in MMOGs, otherwise we’re into “What’s it all about? Seriously? When you get down to it?” territory, and then there’s nothing for it but drinking heavily or joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion.

Plot, and the part you play in it, is one of the central problems of a massively multiplayer game vs a single player game. In a single player game, you can be Luke Skywalker or Frodo; in an MMOG, you’re more like Third Stormtrooper From Left or Ragged Villager, and it’s not really so much fun when your quest is “stand around menacingly while Lord Vader gives a dramatic monologue” or “hang around in the background eating mud to provide suitable ambience“. So most MMOs cheat, and set you off on a quest to finally rid the village of the evil that has been plaguing it from the nearby dungeon. And if you want to finally purge the evil again next Tuesday and twice on Thursday, sure, go for it!

Personally, I find it difficult to get engaged with a story when you know thousands of other people have killed the same creatures you’re sent to hunt, and when you’re finished thousands more people will keep killing them as they keep appearing. Then everyone will hand their pile of assorted body parts in to the same NPC; just once, I want to see that NPC break down and scream “JUST STOP IT! I’VE GOT ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS! My house is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my shed is filled with Murloc eyeballs, my neighbour went away for a couple of weeks so I filled his house with Murloc eyeballs too, Lord knows what he’ll say when he gets back from holiday, I DON’T WANT ANY MORE MURLOC EYEBALLS! But still you adventurers keep bringing them to me; yes, a couple of years back, I thought it would be a bit of a laugh, I was going to put them in Geoff’s beer one night down the pub, and then word got around that I was handing out XP and some silver for Murloc eyeballs, and ever since then, constantly, you adventurers are round here with Murloc eyeballs, looking so pleased when you bring them with your enthusiastic little faces, you think you’re making my day, “ooh, he’ll be so pleased with these Murloc eyeballs” you say as you come up to my house, and I didn’t have the heart to point out that I’ve got ENOUGH MURLOC EYEBALLS TO CARPET REDRIDGE, but that’s it! NO MORE! Next person who comes to this house is going to get BEATEN over the HEAD with a sack stuffed with BLOODY MURLOC EYEBALLS”

The problem becomes even more glaring with quest chains; often, they’re very nicely written, and in a single player game would be engaging stories. Factor in the massively multiplayer aspect, though, and…

Luke Skywalker: “I must destroy the second Death Star off Endor! I need cover, though, come on Red Two and Red Three!”
Red Two: “Well, I guess. Share the quest!”
Luke: “What?”
Red Three: “We’re not coming unless we’re on the quest, or we don’t get rewards”
Luke: “Oh. Err… it says you’re not eligible”
Red Two: “Damn, must be a pre-requisite.”
Luke: “Well… there was the shield generator, but they already…”
Red Three: “Right! The shield gen, and for that we need to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut”
Luke: “*Again*? Oh, all right, let’s…”
Red Two: “Nope, hang on, I’ve just Thotted it, there’s a step before rescuing Han”
Red Three: “So, this is where you bought the droids, and you get the quest from them to find Obi-Wan? Cool! Let’s go!”

In theory, I really like the idea of the Face of Mankind system, where the story is player driven. As I understand it, a high placed member of your faction sets an overall goal for the faction, which is broken down to sub-objectives, and so on, down to the point where a squad leader is designated to lead you and your team on a specific “rescue this person”-type mission. In practise, of course, this means you’re entrusting the course of the game to the people you see talking in the General channel of whatever MMO you’ve experienced…

I suppose I’m waiting for AI to advance to the point that it can be a over-reaching “dungeon master”, providing every player on the server with a unique, engaging experience. At which point it’ll doubtless become self aware, and either start a nuclear war, or at least refuse to open the pod bay doors.