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

    
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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?

Compassion!

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.)

shippu

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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Anstalt

I feel like there has been a blending of “world” and “story” during this article, but they’re very different things.

I care deeply about the world design. I need to be excited by the world I’m living in, especially given the long term nature of MMORPGs. I need some exciting biomes and interesting creatures and cultures, otherwise my motivation to play will drop. Lore helps establish why those biomes and cultures and monsters exist, but as long as they do exist I don’t really care about lore.

But story?

Na, story is separate from the world and I couldn’t care less about story, especially in an MMORPG. The more story there is, the less I want to play, the stories are at best mediocre, at worst just complete nonsense. Story gets in the way of the game.

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Rob Hagaman

There are two things I love about FFXIV. The main story thread gives out the most XP; and the story keeps me from feeling like I’m grinding through the higher levels. It is the first game where I haven’t quit at the infamous level hump. I’m fine being casual and going at a level a day past 50. I’m invested in the story of my character, and am willing to see where it goes. While the living story on GW2 can be pretty corny, it kind of does the same thing, as you can tell they at least care enough that you don’t feel even “kill ten rats” is a chore.

If story doesn’t appeal to you, that’s fine. It does, however, appeal to most people, at least in the west, judging from the success of ESO, FFXIV, and GW2.

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Ardra Diva

what we really need is a 2022 version of Norrath. It had reasonably good lore for something that isn’t Tolkien. ;-)

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Jon Wax

i like games where the game comes first and the lore comes from the player actions. if the game is compelling enough, you get compelling stories coming out of it. will everyone be a fan of those stories, ie the EvE shenanigans or the Entropia economy? not even remotely. but to me thats a step toward immersion that prefab lore can’t attain.

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Rndomuser

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.

Yeap, same here. Never gave a fuck about ESO’s world (especially how ugly everything looks like due to their choice of the art style) or the lore which I found laughably pretentious (just like in other TES games), but it’s pretty clear that many other people do, including the developers, which was clearly visible when playing the game.

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Bruno Brito

To be fair, the ESO world looks beautiful, albeit the color palette is quite bland indeed. It’s the characters that look like they’ve been through a trip on the Warhammer warp.

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PanagiotisLial1

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.

That feels quite strange and honestly doesnt permit me take the rest of article too seriously. Many, me included, play ESO exactly for the world and finding missing parts in the char development being less open-end that the single player games. Lore and storylines are among the best and also races, world and pretty much everything have more serious design than FFXIV for example where many mobs seem like plushies out of a kids bedroom and world seems just adequate and the start of the story totally uninteresting.

What I do understand is some people may find ESO too dark designed for their likes, but that has been a staple in ES games. ES Morrowind is actually a tone more dark to give an example and the game was designed for attracting ES fans, much like FFXIV was designed for FF fans

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Rob Hagaman

That was his very point. not everyone likes the story; but at least you can recognize that the writers care about the story and the lore. You say you can’t take him seriously, while going on to say the very point he was making.

Stormsong Minstrel
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Stormsong Minstrel

Because too many people use “yes yes next next, done, finish” approach.
NPC: blah blah blah, kill 10 rats, blah.
Player: *presses “Give in da ratz”
NPC: blah blah, reward, blah blah.
I did that mistake in Lotro. Level up, screw this talkative NPC, get/trash reward and xp, move further. Only later, on my 3rd toon did I realise need to read quest text. Rewards sucked, yet it was stories.
And what our mmos mostly lack – any choice. You kill 10 rats, because you are supposed to kill 10 rats. You speak to lame Prince, because you have to speak to lame Prince. That NPC dies because it will die anyway.
SWTOR made some difference. I was excited: yeah, I could kill those Republican scumbags-engineers, letting them die slowly and painfully; or I could save them and show the true face on an Empire. I saved and to my enjoyment later Republic mentioned that fact in their secret mail.
I would say: give us stories with real characters. Give us choices that matters. And then players may turn to the texts, not just “blah blah reward”.

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TomTurtle

I find myself being immersed in a story and its theorycrafting for an MMO. But I also can carry on playing an MMO even if the story is boring or bad as long as the gameplay is good. Were it the opposite, I wouldn’t be playing.

Story is important, but its not critical.

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Arktouros

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?

Yes. So does everyone else who plays Black Desert. There might be like less than 100 people out of the thousands that play the game on various platforms that understand, care or bother with the game’s story. None of it has ever been presented in a cohesive manner or purpose and is entirely forgettable in every way. No one really cares at all.

What the game does have is depth in it’s progression systems and that’s largely what is important for a game like Black Desert. You are bombarded with game systems to progress from the basic leveling, skill point and gear progression systems to a huge number of side systems that offer near infinite progression. You can never “beat” Black Desert, you simply stop playing.

The real question is can a game with a good story/world carry a game that lacks game mechanic depth and I think history has shown us no. SWTOR undeniably had the most robust story mechanics on character, planetary, dungeon and even raid levels with staggering levels of inter-connectivity that once people ran out of things to do it was abandoned entirely until it converted to F2P.

With BDO we see a game with little to no meaningful story that no one cares about but had interesting and meaningful game progression depth will carry a game to success where as SWTOR showed us a game with magnificent story and world lore isn’t enough if there’s no game progression depth to keep people going.

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aYates

Do PvP players really care about a good story/world??
I do but I’m PvE focused.
Maybe, a big empty playground’s good enough for them if the combat/player progression/customization is solid..

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Arktouros

As a PvP player I usually try to get a general idea of what’s going on but it’s entirely inconsequential to me. Crowfall has randomly generated island maps with randomly generated NPCs that I do not know or care about the history of any of them they are just a resource to be farmed to me like Mining on metal or Quarrying on rocks.

Big empty playgrounds don’t work for PvP environments because fundamentally you still have to have a game underneath for people to play. Think of like EVE with internet spaceships you’re still trying to generate income via farming mobs or mining etc. There’s a game there where if you removed the PvP interactions the game would still would function.

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styopa

“…can a game with a good story/world carry a game that lacks game mechanic depth and I think history has shown us no.”
LotRO stands out pretty clearly. Mechanically there’s not much investing or clever, it’s about as vanilla as mmo mechanics can get. Today I’d even call it significantly outdated.
Yet it has a large and fervent base.

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Arktouros

I can’t speak to LOTRO but I can say I kinda worded that poorly. By game mechanic depth I was referring to some sort of progression style game mechanic. Think of it as the carrot on the stick to keep people going, the “chase” if you will. Are you in Tier 1 raid armor, well here’s Tier 2 to chase after. Did you run out of content to play, here’s your 8 game expansions.

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Bruno Brito

I don’t know if i agree with the SWTOR example. I think Styopa’s example is better, in LoTRO.

A better question would be: At what point, can gameplay and good systems carry a bad story and worldbuilding and vice-versa?

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Arktouros

I admittedly don’t have that much experience with LOTRO as it’s always seemed entirely like a WOW clone to me right down to the wait til expansion for the next content drip style game design. SWTOR to me is probably the only MMO game I can say the story was so compelling I was literally just rolling characters to see different stories for each archetype so I chose it as my example of incredible world building. The more characters you played the more you understood what was happening and why NPCs were doing certain things. First pass you just see Imperials attacking a place and you’re taking advantage. Next pass you learn that a diff character ordered the Imperials to attack for some reason. Like the world building is incredible there, but not enough to keep people coming back as history showed.

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PanagiotisLial1

SWTOR probably has the best stories and ESO comes second but in significant distance. Then comes LOTRO but lacks VAs so much. VAs make a significant difference on making you care for story

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Bruno Brito

LoTRO has better worldbuilding than SWTOR. ESO is up there, but LoTRO conveys it on a way that is more comfortable to tab-target players. SWTOR conveys the story directly, LoTRO doesn’t. ESO falls in between, with you lacking linearity after One Tamriel.

All these systems are connected. Gameplay is how the story and worldbuilding is conveyed. If it feels bad, it detracts from the experience.