Vague Patch Notes: Why the depth of an MMORPG’s world matters

Boredom sets in.

The world doesn’t need first impressions from me when it comes to Elyon. Why not? Well, for one thing, basically anything and everything I would have said about my impressions of the beta were already said quite directly by MOP’s Chris. The game has some fun crunchy systems for customizing your skills and the game’s mechanics; it also has a world that not only fails to offer anything compelling but seems actively afraid to give you any grounds to connect with the world. And that left me wondering very seriously about what sort of prospects the game actually has.

It wasn’t always like this. When the game first showed up on the scene years ago as Ascent: Infinite Realm, it was promising a very different world from the sort that we usually wind up with, which would have made it far more interesting. But as time has gone on, it seems more work has gone into the mechanical systems and less has gone into the world itself – and that, in turn, mirrors a lot of titles that treat their worlds as secondary concerns that no one needs to care about.

This, unfortunately, is a mistake.

You know what game world I don’t care about and have mentioned not caring about before? Tamriel of The Elder Scrolls Online. I don’t find the world compelling or the lore very interesting, never have. But the one thing I would never say is that no one cares about the lore or the world… and I would certainly not include the designers on the list of people who don’t care.

Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s very clear, even to someone without much interest in the lore or the storytelling around the title, that this is a game run by people who do care about the storytelling and the world that has been built up. And you can feel that in the world when you’re playing.

You might think that this doesn’t matter much. If you’re not much of a roleplayer or a fiend for lore in the first place, it can be easy to look at games that don’t care, shrug, and say, “Well, what difference does it make? No one else should care anyway.” But ask yourself this: Do you play those games that clearly don’t care one whit about the cohesion of their worlds? Or do you play one of the many games where even if the writing might be bad, it is at least present?


For all that gamers – including me – dunk on the writing of the original Guild Wars, it was obvious right away that someone cared about the world that was being created and the image crafted in the player’s head for how Tyria worked. It was pretty much impossible to actually care much about Prince Rurik, but you did know that you were supposed to care. The work had been done to establish him as a character and his death to be a tragedy.

Was the story beat successful? Not really. But the work had still been done.

My constant refrain when it comes to MMOs is that these projects are big, complicated messes. The thing about projects at this level of scope and magnitude is that you need some motivating energy to keep you working, especially since MMOs are not big cash-cow projects that can easily be churned out for a quick profit. MMOs can be very profitable, but they’re a slow process of setting up a recurring revenue stream, not a quick setup of pumping some time in and releasing something for a swift turnaround.

You might think that putting more time into the world is, again, wasted time. And you might genuinely not care, and you’re hardly alone. For a lot of people, story and lore and background are there more as set dressing than as a motivator. You’re not playing World of Wacraft to find out what happens to Sylvanas because the worldbuilding sucks and the writing is terrible anyway. You’re playing because the raids are entertaining you and that’s what keeps you going.

But you do know who Sylvanas Windrunner is. You have at least a peripheral understanding of why the story is dumb and why it’s not worth bothering giving too much of your attention. And the reason is, at the end of the day, that the people who are working on the game understand that the world is going to help motivate you even if you think it’s ultimately sort of dumb and not worth bothering with.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that even when you aren’t actively engaged in reading and understanding this content, you are aware that it’s being developed because all of these components work together. The kind of care and attention to detail that leads to a story being written is also the kind of attention to detail that leads to better content being developed for the game as a whole. One usually accompanies the other.

But the other reason is just that caring about the world even in small ways is what helps you build a connection. Very few people start playing an MMO being very invested in its particular lore or setting; while there are franchises that have advantages there in getting you up to speed to start with, when you narrow your scope, that initial advantage is winnowed. (You might have already cared about Star Trek, but the specific stories of Star Trek Online still had to do the work to engage you.)


But that engagement starts happening in a lot of ways both subtle and pervasive. You recognize how certain enemy groups look, certain traits they tend to possess. Maybe there’s a tough fight or two featuring that enemy group. Maybe a quest has a twist or a punch moment that actually affected you a bit, even if you didn’t expect it. Slowly, little bricks get laid, and before you know it, you’ve started to build an actual respect and interest in the game world, even if it never extends to the point of being fixated on the lore or roleplaying or anything like that.

It’s not inevitable that this will happen in every single MMO you play. It’s more that there’s a stark divide between games where this can happen and ones where it can’t. And by cutting themselves off from one of these angles, games are basically praying that you’ll keep playing based purely on content, wagering that the mechanics of combat are just so fun that people will continue to do things to save a world they don’t care about saving because it’s too paper-thin to care about anyhow.

The world doesn’t need to be the most important element of an MMO’s design. It’s perfectly fine if the lore and the setting hum quietly in the background without ever being a major element of what keeps you in the game. But hooking you in partly because you care about the setting is one of the tools in a developer’s toolkit, and by voluntarily building something too ephemeral to care about, it’s wagering that pure mechanics are all that motivates everything. That’s just not a good bet to make.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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