Perfect Ten: The 10 tiers of MMORPG lore

Lore! Huh! What is it good for? Understanding why you’re standing in the middle of a pack of angry people with fangs in MMOs, of course. It’s the thin line dividing your actions from being reckless, indiscriminate mayhem and discriminating, careful mayhem. Lore is how you know what the world is like beyond your front door, and it’s the difference between understanding that you face Ragnaros, lord of flame or just knowing that there’s a dude here made out of fire, so you should probably use water spells on him.

All lore, however, is not created equal. There’s lore that creates a detailed, vibrant world full of people with their own hopes and dreams, and there’s lore that creates a game where you know what you’re supposed to be doing but have no idea what people do for fun afterwards aside from waiting to die. So today, we explore the tiers of lore, arranged in a numbered list because that’s the entire premise of the column. It’s not Perfect Vague Assortment of Concepts. That’s not even a column.

1. No lore

Enter dungeon. Kill bad guy. Leave dungeon.

Consider Pac-Man for a moment. The original game doesn’t bother telling you who Pac-Man is, why ghosts want to kill him, what the stupid pellets are that he’s munching, or anything even vaguely resembling a rationale for what’s going on. Why? Because no one cares. There are ghosts after you and you have to eat pellets, and you’re doing that because otherwise the ghosts kill you. There’s your lore.

Fortunately, MMOs generally steer clear of this nadir; even the most thin explanation of lore still counts as lore, but it is theoretically possible to have an MMO that doesn’t bother to tell you anything about the world it’s set in. It would be novel, at the very least, but it probably wouldn’t lead to much in the way of actual attachment.

Why are you fighting me? Because I'm a freaking dinosaur.

2. Excuse lore

Enter the Bone Spire of Evil Skull Island to fight the Necromancer! He’s bad! You get new hats for beating him.

People and monsters have names! You have a world! In the broadest possible sense, there’s something going on! But it’s pretty obvious that you aren’t supposed to care much about it, and the designers obviously don’t. The game’s lore exists as a very thin layer of soap bubbles, and the part that anyone is supposed to care about is the actual gameplay.
You could argue that it’s hard, if not impossible, to technically go below this level. Even Pac-Man has names for the player character (Pac-Man) and names for the ghosts (which I never remember), so it has the thinnest amount of lore. But I would argue that this level at least has some overarching sense of this being a world, it just doesn’t care about that world.

And, I’ll note, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To the best of my knowledge, this is the level that Trove operates at, and that’s perfectly fine – it gives you the thinnest possible explanation and then invites you to have fun with the actual game mechanics. Excuse lore is perfectly fine if your designers do, in fact, just want an excuse to make the game. The trouble usually comes up when a plot is added retroactively… but that’s another discussion.

Great cast. Tell a story with it already.

3. Meta lore

Enjoy the new Necromancer Battle mission in-game! You can also read the lore behind the Necromancer in our five-part short story on the official site.

Did you know there’s a fair amount of story behind League of Legends? Because there is! Of course, it has basically nothing whatsoever to do with the actual game itself, but it exists just the same! And if you really like playing a game wherein the lore will never interact with what you’re trying to do, that’s great. If you were hoping for actual lore connections, well, that’s a different discussion altogether.

MMOs rarely go this route, but I place a lot of not-really-MMOs into this category. Overwatch is afraid of lore actually influencing its gameplay, so it falls under this category. SMITE piggybacks on a very long history of myths, religions, and so forth. And once again, this is not an inherently bad thing; it just means that the actual moment-to-moment experience of gameplay is more or less totally separate from any lore concerns. That isn’t appealing to me, but I get why people would like that.

I don't know either, guy, just go with it.

4. Plot lore

This patch will see players fight through the lore of the Bonespire Necromancer on the Island of Skulls, including a questline concerning the necromancer’s goals and history. He doesn’t have a first name.

While the second entry concerned the excuse lore, this is about lore that is basically made up of a series of excuse plots. There are definitely plots, characters, and so forth; the trouble is that you’re not really connected with any of it, because it’s just a bunch of thin layers over “go here, fight this dude, take his stuff.” None of it feeds into any sort of larger structure, nor does any of it feel like it forms an overall theme or motive. It’s just a sequence of things which happen.

Lore like this is actually perfect for younger audiences, because it’s more about a sequence of events than any sort of overaching notions. It’s also good for games that want players to jump in and out at will. Unfortunately, it also winds up feeling rather thin after a while, because nothing ties into anything else. The latest threat to fight is the last threat you fought, but bigger and harder. It’s not someone you know or care about.

Go. Hunt. Kill something.

5. Basic lore

Fight Garnos, the Necromancer of the Bone Spire and third in the line of Spire Necromancers, on the Isle of Skulls. Two more Necromancers to go!

This is… well, basic. Places have names, characters have names, there are organizations. That’s about all you have and all you need. It still all feels like it’s a thin layer over a video game, but there is at least attention paid to the concept of lore. There are lots of free-to-play games with exactly this much lore, and depending on personal opinion a lot of games can move between this tier and the next one almost seamlessly.

The biggest failing in games at this level is that while there’s a lot of information, there’s no much sense of how the world actually works. The original Guild Wars, for example, is a game that I’d slot right around this point. There’s clearly lore, there are stories, there are things that fit together. But I could barely tell you what people would do outside of fighting one another, and the Prophecies expansion is very much a video game of running from one place to another until the story is done. Full stop, you’re all set.

Sort of a symptom and a cause at once, oddly.

6. Elaborate lore

Garnos Calvendish, one of the minor antagonists from the Necromancer’s Curse patches, has recovered his power and has a spire on Evisku Isle. Fight through his traps to learn more about the Spire Necromancers and find hints about their next plot!

Elaborate lore is different from basic lore in the same way that a Double Quarter Pounder is different from a Quarter Pounder. That is to say that it’s the same thing, only there’s a lot more of it. As a result, the world winds up feeling richer just because there’s more to it. World of Warcraft, for example, arguably sits here, and in this particular case that’s kind of a failing – there’s years of storytelling, places, names, and so forth, but no sense of the actual larger world beyond “go fight these dudes now.”

More details, at least.

7. Detailed lore

Garnos Calvendish is a Spire Necromancer on Evisku Isle. Check the wiki to learn more about the Calvendish family, the 400-year-history of Evisku Isle, and the order of Spire Necromancers as well as how they’re different from normal Necromancers.

This could also be called The Elder Scrolls Online lore, but it’s not really fair to the game. Here you do have a picture of the world as a whole, of the various peoples and politics going on behind the scenes. You probably have a decent idea of what people do for fun and why, and there’s plenty of space to understand how the world works.

At this level, the big problem isn’t necessarily that the lore has no connections, it’s that it’s easy for so many details to be piled on that none of it feels particularly real. There are plenty of names, places, orders, historical facts, and so forth, but a dearth of vibrancy in the immediate context. You’re still getting “fight through to the evil necromancer” as a plot, you just know a lot about evil necromancers and where you’re fighting through.

This is also where we start to get into a lot of personal preferences regarding lore, so it’s the sort of thing that should be taken gently. The lore here isn’t necessarily better than elaborate lore, but it’s far more detailed, and there’s a tendency to substitute those details for actual points of interest; for some people, though, those details are all they really wanted in the first place. Which is totally fair.

A long time ago, in a galaxy... oh, you know.

8. External lore

You probably remember Garnos the Necromancer from Season 4 of Sword Ladies, but now he’s back as your newest enemy in Sword Lady Online!

The reason I rank this one higher than just detailed lore isn’t because it’s necessarily all that different; sometimes that additional lore just provides more details. But there is a lot of additional lore, and that’s what matters. You probably have your own feelings on how much you enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies/books, but Lord of the Rings Online indisputably gets to draw on all of that lore to create a more elaborate world. Star Trek Online gets a lot of television and films to flesh out the world and provde tons of antagonists. The list goes on.

Sometimes, this can highlight weaknesses in the source material, but no matter what it means an immediate connection and more stories to draw upon. Designers got to draw on a whole lot of Star Wars lore for Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and players get to draw on that same lore to understand the galaxy as a whole. Of course, this also relies on the notion that there’s enough lore to make it worthwhile; as much as I love the books, Otherland is a bit thin in terms of existing support material.

Vivid lore also allows for more nuanced silliness.

9. Vivid lore

The newest dungeon takes players into the lair of Garnos Calvendish at the behest of his brother Simon Calvendish, both of whom are elaborately explained characters from the past expansion. Players will explore E’skinu Isle off the Seeping Coast with the help of local fishermen.

Guild Wars 2. City of Heroes. Final Fantasy XIV. The Secret World. Final Fantasy XI. This is where lore-lovers live and breathe, games with elaborate and fleshed-out lore that nevertheless retains forward momentum and a vitality to the lore. You can write pages and pages about, say, the backstory and activities of the Freakshow in CoH, but you also have a sense of these as plausible antagonists with goals and wants and lives.

Here, you fight antagonists you know for reasons that are clearly understood, sometimes because their goals and your own are just simply incompatible rather than because they’re the Bad Guys. That’s not to say that all of these games have spectacular storytelling all of the time or never make mistakes, but to say that you can see these worlds as living, breathing places. You understand slang and turns of phrase native to this world. It’s a lovely thing, when it works out properly.

Of course, this does have weaknesses beyond “it’s really hard to do.” This much lore can be kind of overwhelming, and it usually requires either sticking with the game over a long period of time or doing a bunch of reading to understand everything. It can also lead to endless debates over the nature of story in MMOs, so that’s always fun.

Gosh, I don't care, let me shoot monsters already.

10. Forced lore

Welcome to Calvendish’s Necromancer Lair. To enter, please enter the three names of Garnos Calvendish’s childhood pets based on their species name found in the Taxonomy of Fauna.

The Secret World, when its riddle quests get too elaborate. Heck, you could argue that no game goes this far, but the idea is still there. This is when a game has a world that’s so vivid and so detailed and so elaborate that players are basically writing a book report on it instead of actually, like, playing in it.

I’m also going to go ahead and nominate Shroud of the Avatar here for forcing me to play myself according to its official lore. Don’t make that decision for me, game, I’m playing you to avoid myself. Gosh, get it together.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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20 Comments on "Perfect Ten: The 10 tiers of MMORPG lore"

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Drevar93 .

An article about lore in a MMORPGs and no mention of Asheron’s Call. Someone needs their press pass revoked.

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Alex Malone

Interesting article.

I personally dislike most lore. My main reason is that the lore and the game are usually disconnected. You read the lore in quest text / npc comments / books etc, but you don’t really see the lore in the world and you usually don’t see it having any effect. The second reason is a lot of the lore is just generic fantasy writing.

My personal preference is for the lore to give us the barest context to the game and then let player actions fill in everything else. For example, I shouldn’t be told that the town i’m in is a major trading town, established 500 years ago etc. I should just be able to look around and see lots of people trading, compare it to previous experience and come to the conclusion that it is a major trading town (or not) on my own.

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Malcolm Swoboda

Vivid lore!!! Aka most of Secret World except when it gets kinda way deep 0_0.

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Viktor Budusov

Ehh, excuse me WHAT? You rate Lotro story and lore lower than GW2, CoH and FF?! REALLY?!!

At least you should add Lotro to both 8th and 9th rank as the game has tons of its own intersting lore and story (Epics tome I anyone?).

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Malcolm Swoboda

‘Lower’ doesn’t mean ‘worse’ here.

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Robert Mann

I have two problems with this whole thing.

The first is that Vivid lore is assumed to work out regardless of writing, but a number of the examples felt more like Elaborate lore to me… because the writing and plots were weak enough that I didn’t have the interest for the names, plot, and reasons to stick. Actually, of those I played in that grouping, this was the norm. Sure, there was more there, but the lack of good writing ruined it, and left it as a failed effort.

The second is that it doubles down on combat as the only thing that matters. I’d have loved to see the Vivid lore section here talk about those local fishermen as something more than guides to getting to the combat. I realize that’s where most current MMOs live, but darn it they don’t have to! I want to know about the local fisheries, shipping lanes, pirate activity, culture and customs on the island, and possibly if there’s some unique skin I can use for woodworking or something based on their local designs… and why that matters to the world at large.

If the second is going too far for Vivid, maybe we can add another ranking of Mythos or something… where we actually see a whole world view of things?

ekynoks
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ekynoks

Nice article, except I really do not think that your assesment of WoW’s lore is really fair, especially when comparing it to FFXIV (two games that I’ve played extensively over the past year).
I mean when you fight the Burning Legion on the Broken Isles, you know exactly why they are here, and what is the motivation of their leaders for being here. And when you take a zone like Suramar, you know exactly why there are enemy/allies where they are and what their motivations are.
When comparing to FFXIV, there are numerous places where there are enemies/buildings but you have absolutely no idea why they are there. One of the best examples I can give is that, eventhough we went in the expansion zones to fight the Garlean Empire, I don’t think there are ANY open world places with a single Garlean enemy to fight. I mean, the only enemies in the whole expansion who I know why they are where they are are the two beast tribes. The rest is just random mobs.
Take the humanoid wolves mobs in Yanxia. Why are they here ? Where do they come from ? What do they want ? Nothing. Take the southwestern ruins in Yanxia. What are those ? Why are there those big heads mobs here ?
I’m not trying to shit on XIV, I’ve been playing it and enjoying it for a long time, but I really don’t think that its lore is its best feature.
And then, about the “living, breathing” aspect of XIV’s world compared to WoW’s, I truly disagree with you. I think that XIV’s world is really static. I mean most of the quests do not even interact with the world, you just go somewhere and you either enter an instanced phase that’s completely disconnected from the open world or you have instanced mobs that pop out of nowhere and that are rarely connected to the place you are. One example would be the Garlean supply base south of Yanxia that you need to disrupt ine the MSQ. If you go there, there’s just a couple of building with 5 dogs hanging out, but nothing that feels like a base you’ll ever need to disrupt.
If you compare it to WoW’s Azsuna zone, the Legion’s or the Naga’s are here for a reason and anchored in the world, and you really feel why you have to go on and take care of it.

I know that this will feel like a rant against XIV, but I’ve only try to articulate my ideas as to why I think that WoW is a much more potent representative of the Vivid lore than XIV but not saying that it does not have its place in this category.

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cista2bpo

9 ½ EVE Online (stop hating, you know it’s true)

EVE Evolved: Have the Drifters conquered the Jove Empire?

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Steve Vetack

EVE will always be my lore king. I once spent a week plus following the unscripted Sansha invasions writing up real time reports on what was going on. This included battle reports, interviews and covering a 2 day UN like meeting with corporation leaders. Not many MMOs out there inspire players to write their own lore and then have it actually be factual with the game itself. Those unscripted Sansha invasions that came out of nowhere actually felt like a crisis and I have never seen a player base actually work together trying to figure out how to beat back an evil force when the motivation wasn’t just the loot or rewards that baddies would drop.

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Loopy

Interesting theme for an article. I’m really enjoying these kinds of discussions. One thing i would also add to the tier levels is the players’ engagement with the lore. Are you there simply for the ride? Do you get to interact with the story characters? Do your choices matter? Are you participating in the events that shape the lore?

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Robert Mann

Are you railroaded into things you totally would not do in character? Is there any alternative solution? Etc.

Agreed so much!

Reader
connor_jones

Don’t get me wrong, I like GW2, but I think you maybe rate it a bit too highly, though I can’t really fault your reasoning too much. To be honest though I thought the lore/story of the searing and Jora versus Svanir in GW1 were much more compelling than most anything you see in GW2.

I’m in complete agreement with you on Secret World though. A very vivid, deep, and rich world.

Concerning SWTOR, I think KOTFE severely hurt an otherwise very strong narrative. For example, it used to be when you did the final dustup with Darth Baras you had a reasonably tough fight on your hands. Since the KOTFE changes though, now bosses like Baras talk the talk after which there are two hits, you hit them and they hit the ground. Not only that, Bioware messed badly with their own lore as the KOTFE story renders the original class stories largely irrelevant. It always annoys me when authors, game devs, too say nothing of Hollywood moguls, wreck havoc with their own lore because they can. JJ ABrams’ hackneyed Star Wars and Star Trek come to mind, but I digress.

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sophiskiai

I like Vivid Lore, but find Elaborate Lore more annoying than many of the lower tiers.

External Lore can go wrong – I’m currently playing Battlestar Galactica Deadlock, and my memories of the tv show add a great deal to the flavour of the ship designs and the feel of fighting against the Cylons (which is already brilliant on a tactical gtameplay level) but has also led to the devs trying to imitate the show by shoehorning in a plot full of Moral Grey Areas… only they don’t have the writing chops to pull that off so instead we get an appallingly written mess that makes all the high-ranking military officers come across like bickering adolescents who’ve been reading Wikipedia articles on moral philosophy.

I find it interesting the way some games mix different lore levels – for example, Warframe comes across as Basic Lore but has a bunch of Vivid Lore (sparse but well crafted) hidden away in the high level quests, which’ll hopefully getting more of an airing when the Plains of Eidolon arrive in the setting.

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Schmidt.Capela

Fun fact: all the tiers are perfectly acceptable if the developers can play to the tier’s strength.

BTW, I would say that there’s quite a few tier 10 games. A whole genre, even; visual novels tend to belong there. That tier isn’t a good fit for when you want players to have more control over the world or even their characters, though.

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A Dad Supreme

Really enjoyed this article. Thanks for writing it so well.

Kind of reminded me of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Interesting fact: there are 10 tiers of human’s poo also

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thickenergy

Welcome to the Pac-Man extended universe.

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TheDonDude

I loved me some City of Heroes, but I dunno, was its lore really more elaborate than WoW’s? Probably not.

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Alex Willis

While I agree with your organization of the categories as they relate to “detail”, I’m not sure they all speak to immersion or involvement in story. So while I do not dispute your placing GW2 in the “Vivid” category, I’d probably put it somewhere between 5-7 in terms of how it meshes your experience with that lore. In that respect, I’d also put ESO higher than 7.

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Duey Bear

Tiers 5 to 9 is just fine for me, but yeah, 9 is best. 70% of my playtime in FFXIV is reading dialogue, and I love it.

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