Imagine, if you will, the following: In a dimly lit boardroom, a collection of men and women, disheveled and sleep depraved, stare blankly at a room filled with wads and scraps of paper. A broad shouldered man sits alone at the head of the table, the only indication he is there is the low red glow of his cigar. Finally someone speaks. "Ok, how about this? There is this ancient evil that lives ... um ... in a castle and ... ah ... there is a good king who lives in another castle and ... he needs heroes to help defeat this big, bad evil king ... dude."
A thick silence falls on the room.
Through a puff of gray smoke, "I love it. Let's pump a couple million into this baby. Let's make sure we set up the billing structure and get me some in-game advertising! Let's roll, people!"
I confess. That might not be entirely accurate but what role does the story play in our lovely MMO games? It serves as the backdrop for all the contextual details of the game but beyond the introduction movie, what importance or what prominence does the story play in MMOs? We're going to look a few of the more popular MMO games out there and how they deliver the backstory. We'll start with the obvious.
Lord of the Rings Online, in terms of storyline, is the most privileged of the group. J.R.R. Tolkien created a tremendous amount of material both published and private that serves as a veritable cornucopia of substance. Turbine not only benefits from the core material that a large number of people are now familiar with but they also get to pull on years of material Mr. Tolkien created. As our illustrious Elizabeth Harper mentions in her One-Shot of Weathertop, one of the enjoyable aspects of Lord of the Rings Online is the familiar places and faces that you encounter as you journey along. Even those only familiar with the movies will find plenty of opportunities to say "Hey, I remember that!" Those steeped in Middle Earth lore will find many more nuggets of trivia and familiar stories, places, faces and events.
How does this carry over to affect gameplay? With a deep, rich history, plenty of references, and a strong familiarity, you don't mind that silly fetch quest because you're doing it for Gandalf! Yeah, that's right. We're buds. Me and old grey-beard? Tight. The New York Times heralded LOTRO as a "... a major achievement of interactive storytelling." Well, with this much material to pull from, Turbine would be hard pressed to screw this up.
World of Warcraft is only a slightly different story. Instead of drawing from one man's deep and detailed creation, WoW pulls from their own history of previous games and books. From a game development perspective, this allows for greater freedom since you can simply change your own history to accommodate whatever floats your boat. This can only go so far since there will be die-hard fanboys (and girls), playing on their Burning Crusade mousepads, their shelves crowded with swag and obscure merchandise, who will cry foul if you mess with their precious timeline (of which there are a few).
As for WoW, the story is simple enough. A two-sided struggle with no one faction gaining total control over the other. The key here is 'balance'. WoW creates a fun world with clear lines that is easy to grasp and never becomes overly complex. You might not feel emotionally invested in your quest but you won't mind doing it simply because it's cool. If only office jobs worked the same way.
Guild Wars is another similar yet different approach to story in an MMO. The original game and the two stand-alone expansions (that excludes the recent Eye of the North), had a unique land with a unique campaign to undertake. Again, from a development standpoint, this approach offers even greater flexibility than the one employed by Blizzard. (Or Actizzard? Blizzvision? That's just awkward.) By essentially starting over, NCSoft doesn't have to worry about messing with the events set forward in their other expansions. The fanboys (and girls) have nothing to scream about. Eye of the North is a direct expansion to the original game. The first true expansion. In all honesty, the NCSoft's business model is pure genius! Take the game, re-skin, re-tool some aspects and then re-release it as a stand-alone for full retail price. Granted there are no recurring fees, but one has to wonder how much from-scratch development needs to be done in order to create one of these expansions? Think about it and get back to me.
From a player's perspective, this is good because it gives you something fresh to work with every time. No zones to re-visit. No dull NPC to talk to again. New places and new faces with each new box. The draw of the Guild Wars storyline is the freshness. Can you smell it? Mmmmmm. Cookies.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss some games that might, well, fall short on the story element. One that comes to mind is Archlord. It isn't that the game doesn't have a story. Oh, quite the contrary! You can read some fifteen pages of it on their website. I haven't played the game a great deal (You, sir, are no Archlord!), but thus far, the story has had little, scratch that, no effect on my experience thus far. I could be fighting a war against evil turnips for all I know. In the case of Archlord, what is the drive to play? Well, in this case, the word "free" holds a great deal of weight. I'll put up with a great deal for "free" and the game isn't a total disaster. That helps.
There are many more games out there that have gripping storylines and plenty others where turnips run wild. What matters is how the story is weaved into the gameplay to make the experience worthwhile and rewarding. Even more important is how the story grips you, the player. There might be a niche audience of raging vegans who would gladly wage war on the unsuspecting turnips. Luckily, game companies hire actual writers to make sure that doesn't happen. Let's hope they keep it that way.