A great story is something that can be handed down and remain entertaining and relevant regardless of how many variants are told or how many generations pass. And while there have been a handful of MMORPGs which have done a good job of handling story, the vast majority of them have traded in their storylines in favor of milk run quests that satisfy our innermost need for quick and easy gratification, which keeps players coming back to the trough over and over.
Before we get into how we are doing story in our game, I want to jump into an early 2017 interview Kotaku did with Luke Smith, the creative director for Destiny 2. The interview in question was about Destiny 1, and how the game completely skipped any sort of actual, meaningful storyline and instead went for a extremely generic “light” versus “dark” concept.
It is what I would consider to be one of the absolute worst iterations of storyline in a video game.
This is my favorite part of the interview, when Smith was questioned on what they were acutally thinking in regards to their Darkness bad guy:
Schreier: Tell me the truth. Is it because none of you have any idea what “The Darkness” actually means?
Smith: So, I think that at a point, just totally candidly? We had no idea what it was. Straight up. We had no clue.
Schreier: Good! I’m glad you’re being candid today.
Smith: We didn’t know what it was, and we, for a period, we chose [that] we’re going to lump all the races [in together], and you see this in the tooltips in the game. “Minions of the darkness.” And we had taken all the races and said, “Ah, they’ll just be The Darkness.” But that’s not what the IP deserves. It’s like, literally not.
A couple of years back, I wrote a post, Dissecting Story: What Defines Epic? There were several criteria, but the one we kept coming back to over and over throughout all of these different stories that have been passed down the generations, was that the truly epic tales of heroes overcoming the odds always revolve around heroic and even godlike characters going up against something that was so much greater than they were that they couldn’t do it without the help of other heroic and godlike characters.
This goes back to the milk run episode: no one cares about Thor going to the grocery store and picking up a roll of toilet paper. That’s not interesting or noteworthy.
When we started digging into how other games do storylines and quests, we faced the reality that the modern generation of games rely entirely upon the quest hub concept. But the number one flaw of the quest hub system is that it relies upon milk runs and minimaps: dozens of meaningless and menial tasks that players don’t pay attention to. Instead, they spacebar or escape mash their way through the dialogue to get to the accept button, which gives them a shiny glowing trail or a pulsating POI somewhere on their map, and off they go so they can rack up as many experience points as they can in the least amount of time….because as everyone knows, it’s all about the rush to get to the end game, because that’s where all the fun happens.
At no point in time are players actually investing themselves in the storyline of the world. Instead, they just want those tasty, tasty experience points.
In case we haven’t mentioned it enough, our primary source of inspiration are tabletop games, and in tabletop games it is never about grinding out repetitive milk runs or fetch quests. Instead, tabletop games revolve around story-based campaigns, which are planned out in advance and are meant to be played out over a period of several sessions… at the very minimum. And even though a roll of the dice or the whim of a character can send that campaign careening off in directions no one anticipated, at no point in time is it about skipping parts of the dialogue or parts of the storyline that you and your fellow adventurers are a part of.
From a design perspective, the first thing we did was strip experience points out of the equation, because this leads players to only doing quests for the purpose of leveling their character, as opposed to investing themselves in the world, or the storyline itself. In the Saga of Lucimia, quests give zero experience points and are thus 100% optional; if players choose to do a quest, it’s for lore reasons. Most of which tie into the novels, which in and of themselves tie back into the tabletop camapaign that this all originally spun out of.
The second thing we did was removed minimaps from the equation, because players don’t actually pay attention to the dialogue if they know that they are going to get a POI on the map or a glowing trail leading them from point A to point B. They just mash that spacebar until they get the glowing trail/POI and off they go.
Without a glowing trail telling players how to get from point A to point B, players actually have to pay attention to the quest dialogue in order to find clues about the whereabouts of whatever it is that they are hunting. It might be directions, it might be clues about landmarks, it could be telling you to talk to a specific NPC who can be found in a specific place at a specific time of day or night. And if you are the type of person who hits the spacebar to get to the end and the accept button as quickly as possible, you will miss out on all of that and won’t know where to go.
Without experience points being the driving cause for players to pursue quests, players will have more of an incentive to invest themselves in the story itself. And while there will always be the gear incentive as well, it’s important to note that not all quests in our game will have gear rewards. Some quests will be purely lore-based in that they give faction as a reward, or they are part of a gated series of entry quests to allow you to access a certain zone, or they are done for proving to an advanced trainer that you are truly ready to take the next step and learn his specializations. Things that mean something in the world around you, not just a shiny piece of lewt.
But what about those folks who just take a screenshot of the quest dialogue and the location of the objective/npc/ground spawn/etc. and stick it up on a wiki somewhere in the hopes that it will make it “easier” for the next player to do the same quest? Doesn’t that negate all of the above?
What some of you may not realize if you are new to our fold, is that we have a lot in mind in regards to continually changing the location of NPCs, ground spawns, dungeon locations, and more. And we won’t be telling players in the patch notes when we make those changes. (pssst, we wrote a blog post about this topic a couple of years ago)
So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that player A takes a screenshot of the quest dialogue telling them how to find Ranger Bob. They find Ranger Bob, and they put that location in a wiki somewhere. In a traditional scenario, every player who comes along after player A will be able to find Ranger Bob without needing to actually read the quest dialogue, because someone, somewhere, put it up on a wiki.
In our game, we are working on a series of manual and dynamic changes behind the scenes so that Ranger Bob will not always be in the same place. Instead, players will find in-game clues that will lead them to discovering where Ranger Bob may have gone. It might require players having a certain level of tracking, or it might just be as simple as players finding a note that Ranger Bob left behind telling them where he went.
And it doesn’t just go for NPCs. We are also actively looking at doing things like changing the location of ground spawns. For example, maybe the flowers that you need in one zone are only available during a specific time of year, and then change to another zone at a different time of year. Or maybe a world event wipes them out and you can only find them through a merchant and outposts somewhere in the remote places of the world.
The same goes for dungeon locations. An earthquake might shut down the main entrance to a cavern, and the only way to get in is to scout around and find a new entrance. Only the river changed course during the earthquake, and the map you found on the wiki doesn’t work anymore because now the river goes somewhere different, and in our game you can’t cross rivers without bridges or fords (remember; you sink like a rock wearing plate mail and trying to lug all that gear around, so you have to find a river crossing. Same goes for your pack animals and wagons where you store your gear and loot).
But the only way players will know about these things is by actually paying attention in game. None of these changes will be in the patch notes, and adding screenshots and location updates to a wiki is only going to work a small fraction of the time, because we will be actively changing things to make sure that players understand that they aren’t just playing an MMORPG: they are partaking in a living, breathing world that changes around them.
It’s a lot of effort on our end, to be sure, but these are just a few of the ways we are working hard to ensure that storyline in our game means as much as it does in one of your favorite tabletop campaigns or favorite novel.