Massively Overthinking: Do you need to be the hero in MMOs?

    
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MMORPG developer Raph Koster recently tweeted that he’d had a “debate with some devs who asserted that videogames require the player to be the hero.” You know we just have to talk about that.

I don’t know whether the devs in question were MMORPG devs too, but let’s assume for the sake of argument in Massively Overthinking that we’re talking about MMOs here and not single-player games. Do you need to be the hero in MMOs? Do you like to be the hero in MMOs? And do you think you align with the majority of other gamers on this question?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Big ol’ NOPE from me! I know I’ve said it a million times, but in games in general, I don’t need to be the chosen hero. Been there, done that. We need more “grey” area stuff. I won’t go into details, but I’ve tried playing the “hero” IRL a few times, and it does bite you in the butt sometimes, from bad cops picking on you to getting stabbed or worse. The games that actually tackle those things are often the ones that also let you do “bad” things.

In all honesty, I still feel like any strong narrative in MMOs is a step in the wrong direction. Again, that doesn’t mean devs should just make a world, turn on PvP, and leave, but a more dungeon-master approach is appealing. We talk about Uncle Owens a lot: When the game narrative is about saving the world, and Uncle Owen is suddenly told he has to pick up a gun and stop working on his crops on Tatooine and fly over to Mustafar to fight a droid army, that may not be his thing.

If instead there’s a threat on Mustafar, and people ignore it, and it starts spreading around the galaxy, it’s more engaging. If Uncle Owen sees people are gathering on Mustafar and are in dire need of moisture farmers, he might want to start up a farm there and hire some mercenaries to protect him. There’s a fuller, more complex story going on now, rather than just “Kill the Bad Guy.” You’ve got economics in play, citizens being affected in real-time rather than just in lore. While I know I talk about Asheron’s Call having done this quite well, I’d argue World of Warcraft’s done it quite a few times with its plagues as well. And while there are people who get turned off by this, I’d argue that those are players who are more interested in video games than virtual worlds, and for me, MMOs have always leaned more towards the latter.

You can have a pure, non-combat experience and still be the “good guy.” Bad guys might raise taxes or shut down shops. Being able to skim some money off the top by joining them would be a neat feature. But then maybe players can create a black/grey market in-game. Those are the stories I think that matter. Game designer-made linear narratives are OK, but people talk more about EVE wars and WoW plagues than that one boss that threatened that one game world we had to beat for loot… or not, because the game was going to get updated and move on no matter what the player base actually did.

Andy McAdams: I think I want to make a distinction here: do I need to be The Hero, The Chosen One in a game? Categorically no. In fact, a lot of ruins the imurshion for me because it comes across as so contrived and so willfully ignorant of what I actually did in-game. When I do things that don’t feel particularly epic or feel disproportionality epic to where/who I am in the story, the whole chosen one makes me give the game side-eye when it seems like its pandering to my ego as the Chosen One.

Now being a hero in a game? I think that’s necessary. I want to run around and do extraordinary things and complete feats of strength and just generally be more than what I can be in meatspace — but I don’t necessarily want to be The Chosen Hero Spoken of in Prophecy. Clear out a dungeon of baddies that’s been harassing a nearby village? All over it. Killing a boar and being declared King of a nation because that boar was actually the big bad? Nah, get out of here.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I sometimes prefer not to be the grand hero of a story. For the sake of realism, simply making a contribution towards the greater goal is my preferred method to experience the story. After all, side characters are still important and can sometimes have a drastically different and more interesting viewpoints of larger events.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The way I see it, everyone’s playing MMORPGs for different reasons. Some people are playing because they want to be a hero, or the hero. And some people are playing because they just want to be somebody, anybody different, to try out something or someone they can’t or be or don’t do in real life. I mean, look around: Some of the people you’re gaming with every day actually are heroes in real life and just want some escape, while others are living vicariously through fantasy and sci-fi worlds, or just dabbling in country life from the confines of their city apartment, or flying a spaceship even though their real-life body would never let them be a pilot, or whatever. (My favorite MMO character of all time was a pirate queen, with stories that belonged entirely to me and my guildies, the kind you can really be proud of rather than the kind literally everyone around you is led through in a prefab hero plot. She was definitely no hero – not a hero, not the hero, not in any sense of the word.)

So I’ll never poop on someone for wanting to be the hero in an online world. And I’ll never mock someone for wanting to be Uncle Owen. Or anyone in between, or anyone who wants meander back and forth and be both, which includes me.

What I’ll sharply criticize is the idea that MMOs should be made only for the first group and not the second. No, of course video games and MMOs do not and should not require players to be the hero. Insisting otherwise says more about the devs than about games. I honestly cannot believe we have to have this debate in 2021. Do you even virtual world, bro.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): In terms of the lore, no. I prefer to be one of many. Because we’re playing an MMORPG and cooperation should play a central role in the game’s plot. I like my characters to have a weakness that others can compensate. And it’s even more important to see the efforts that helped me acknowledged.

I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about Final Fantasy XIV’s plot and how it’s so dependent on your god-moded character to move the plot along. I don’t mind it so much in a single-player video game, but in an MMORPG, it feels a little more of a stretch, especially since major fights with primals and endbosses were a group effort. It doesn’t rub me the right way that my character is getting all the credit, when in reality it should be him, the healers, and the damage dealers that gets the credit.

Rather than be the hero, I’d like to just be one of many, something Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft do so well. Let’s look at WoW first. My fellow adventurers are considered champions of the realms, and it took a concerted group effort between us to make changes in the world – like how the Lich King was taken down. The same goes for Guild Wars 2. I’m a commander, but I depend on Rytlock just as much as he depends on me. And more importantly, I depend on the other commanders as much as they depend on me. And it’s acknowledged too. While we were there to deal the killing blow to Mordremoth’s mind, the other Pact commanders were out there destroying the body. As lukewarm an expansion Heart of Thorns was, the story itself is very appropriate for an MMO filled with players!

Looking forward, I certainly hope FFXIV 6.1 (the story arc that started in 1.0 will come to an end with Endwalker) will find a way to fit my fellow heroes along.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Being the hero? Not really. Being a hero or among an elite group of skilled or magically endowed others? Sure, why not. The Secret World did a pretty good job of this, as I recall.

That’s not to disparage every MMO narrative where I play the chosen one — Final Fantasy XIV’s story is easily one of the best in the genre even if it does fall into this trap — but considering I tend to roleplay just a well-trained or somewhat gifted normal person, I’m pretty much over being the big shiny hero in MMOs.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Usually I don’t think of myself as a hero, save for perhaps in Lord of the Rings Online, which seems to make it part of its mission statement to teach us what heroes are. In my head, my characters are “adventurers” who may or may not make good choices, may or may not be at the center of the large world narrative, and may or may not be a fashion guru. A hero seems like it’s loaded with responsibility, like it’s a day job. An adventurer gets to sate his or her wanderlust, go where the road leads, and make decisions on the fly.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): No, I have no need of being THE CHOSEN ONE in the games I play. It actually ruins the vibe of an MMO for me, and completely destroys the story. I like being a background character that is just one of many in a deep world, having my own impact on the world but not the impact. I think one game that did this exceptionally well was Lord of the Rings Online. You already know who the real heroes are, and trying to make you out to be them would have been catastrophic in my opinion. Instead, you are an adventurer whose actions are helping along the main heroes from the background. So you get to be a part of an epic story without being the sole hero. And yes, any time quests and dialogue talk about you being the one and true savior of all… right before and after saying the same thing to everyone else is just droll with a side of eye-roll. There is no worthwhile engagement in the story when you know it’s all hogwash.

If you go back to the question from a long time ago in a decade far, far away – does anyone want to be Lars, the moisture farmer? Why yes, yes I do! Or — more accurately there — a crime lord boss dancer. My own story was epic without having to be contrived.

Do I think I fall into place with the majority of other gamers? No. But when do I fall into the majority of anything?

Tyler Edwards (blog): While there may be occasional exceptions, yes, by and large I think games do need to make the player a hero.

Mind you, “hero” doesn’t have to mean the one and only chosen one upon whom the entire fate of the universe rests. There are a lot of other ways to be a hero. I’d argue the player armorer mentioned in that tweet is playing a hero — anything that helps your fellow humans can be heroic. Even those who are into crafting and other “humbler” aspects of gameplay want to be at least a little exceptional, I’d wager. I don’t think a lot of people truly want to be completely ordinary, but there is a lot of middle ground between that and being the ultimate chosen one.

That said, I’ll also be upfront that I’m quite happy to be the bright shiny hero of the realm. Sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason. It feels good to be the star. It can strain immersion in MMOs when everyone is the chosen one, but honestly that’s far from the most immersion-breaking thing you run into in your average MMO session. You just gotta suspend your disbelief. Or you can find a happy medium. TSW/SWL does a good job of making the player an important character, but not the important character. The NPCs acknowledge your power and significance, but it’s also clearly established that you’re not the only immortal running around.

What I really don’t like is when games make us do heroic things, but don’t treat us as heroes. People complain about how the role of the player has changed in World of Warcraft over the years, but we were always slaying dragons and saving the world. We were always important, epic heroes. The only thing that changed is the game’s narrative and NPCs started acknowledging that, rather than treating us like we were still random adventurers. There’s something especially demoralizing about playing a character who’s saved the kingdom three times this week, only to be still be treated as Joe Schmuck the Quest Monkey.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

I play RvR/WvW/large scale open world team vs. team vs. team PvP, cause I want to be a part of a massive team working together, and not the hero.

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MarumiMoo_VT

I’m biased towards being an adventurer more than the hero. I’ll play games where I get the weight of the world resting on my shoulders alone with maybe a bit of npc support, but if much rather a game where I start as a nobody and it’s up to me where my virtual MMO life takes me.

If I had the freedom in an mmo I could choose to join the city guard, become a thief and outlaw, a courier with my own growing fleet of caravans with other players as employees. I could be a prospector, a medic, a sailor, a pirate. Heck I could even chose to be political and work my way to mayor or governor.

Story driven mmos are great and I’ll always love them, but am mmo where you’re truly free to choose your path? That would be beyond awesome.

Of course if you really wanted you could play hero, heroes party member, or even a villain should you choose to.

The best narratives are the ones we are enabled to create ourselves.

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starbuck1771

No matter which side you play you’re always the hero.

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hooby _

I think that in an MMO you have the unique ability to do something that actually affects and helps other players – as in real human beings.

Your actions in the game can not just help other players directly – but also indirectly, by helping the economy, helping a guild, helping a town, helping a faction, etc.

If the game has such features, you can do *actual* good towards *actual* people. Might not be as “big” as saving the entire universe from absolute evil – but it’s real.

And if I can have that tiny bit of real “heroism” – then I personally don’t need some pre-written, pre-determined, made-up storyline that tells me that I’m the GREATEST HERO EVAAAAR (just like everyone else playing through the same storyline).

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Jo Watt

Funny one of my comments during I believe the WoW2 articles I actually brought this up. Something along the lines of “tired of being the ‘Hero’ running around knowing that thousands of other people I see are also ‘The Hero’ just ruins that story bit.”

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Bruno Brito

No.

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Sleepy

Just look at Valheim – everyone can’t wait to tell everyone else their stories from the game. PvE, co-op sandbox cleverly engineered to allow people to do cool things together. Not a hero’s journey in sight.

Planetside 1/2 were the same. Everyone remembers the time they genuinely saved the base or held back the assault single-handed until reinforcements turned up, because it was genuinely heroic.

I wish more developers would lose the everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude.

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Anstalt

Never before has a massively overthinking article matched my own thoughts so closely!

First up, Andrew: “I still feel like any strong narrative in MMOs is a step in the wrong direction.”

Hell yes! Totally agree! Ive been arguing for years that strong developer-led narratives in multiplayer games is a mistake. My own actions in game always clash with the story, making it nonsensical. Then the actions of other players clash with the story, making it even worse. Then theres the fact that the stories themselves are usually shallow, generic, and not really worthy experiences. Games are just a bad medium for telling stories, and multiplayer games are the worst at it.

Now, creating stories…..thats where the power lies.

Next up, Chris: “Being the hero? Not really. Being a hero or among an elite group of skilled or magically endowed others? Sure, why not.”

Agreed here. What I’m looking for is the opportunity to become a hero, not be told that I am a hero. I need to earn that status, not be given it though completion of an easy quest chain. And it needs to be my choice. If I want to just be a simple community member, the Uncle Owen, thats my choice. If I want to be the next Luke Skywalker and blow up the death star, then I damn well need to earn that shit. Maybe I become the hero by setting up an anti-PK group. Maybe I become a hero by hanging out in the Old Forest in LotRO (pre-map) and acting as a guide for newbies.

Hero status comes from the other players, not from the story. And just like real life, what some people call a hero, others are going to disagree.

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Crowe

I need to feel like I’m “a” hero but also feel like being “the” hero doesn’t work unless it’s a single-player game. Otherwise, everyone is already the chose one as well. Yes, you there, Scratchy MacBallsack, you are also the only one who can save the world. And even in single-player games, it feels over-used.

Reader
Alex Abbott

Mmos are always going to be flawed because you can’t have that many people in one place and have everyone have an interesting story.

That being said please let’s not try to make computer games more like real life. If you play games for escapism then why have things like hunger, economics and so forth in? Take star citizen for example, the ships are awesome and the setting /infrastructure is there with a wealth of possibilities… Then they have to bring in economics and survival stuff to make it more “real”… In a game where the engines on a ship are smaller than the ship and seem to store the vast quantities of fuel in a pocket dimension. All it does is bring an exciting adventure down to mundanity.

Even book roleplay games make sacrifices for shorthand corner cutting. Very few players I’ve spoken to take note of how many pages they filled in their spellbook or how close they are to needing more ink. Why? Because most of the time it’s a drag. Leave it in as optional flavour, don’t bind everyone into having to track sixteen stats just to walk down the street.