Three case studies on story in MMOs

MMOs are becoming more story-driven.  This is an assertion backed by anecdotal evidence from developers, personal experience writing for MMOs such as WIZARD 101, as well as recent MMO expansions.  While that’s all fine and good, does story have an impact on the sales of MMOs?  Or does it just mean that to get in the MMO space today you better have a big story to back it up? I’ll be personally investigating the following three MMOs, but I would love your feedback!

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Now the fastest selling PC game in history, Lich King brings more zone story to the table, as opposed to single character story.  Unfortunately, I can’t speak with authority on whether this is true or not.  Why?  Because I am still at 68% download on patch # umpteen for my WoW.  However, I will bravely go forward and investigate further once it finishes.  Have you played Lich King?  Do you find a greater emphasis on story, or do you feel it is more of the same?

For two years it’s been the most successful free-to-play MMORPG according to the Guinness Book of World Records.  What’s more, it’s the top video game search term of the year, even beating out Lindsay Lohan in the great search race.  I will bravely run around this free world as soon as WoW gets past 69% download.  In the meantime, what’s your take on the story in RuneScape, or is its main claim to fame “fun and free?”

Tabula Rasa
As you must have heard by now, Tabula Rasa is closing its doors very shortly.  While it took many years to make, it boasted at most 30,000 subscribers.  Before going down for good, however, Tabula Rasa will also be free to play starting in January 10th, at which time I will sneak in and take a look around since I forgot to do so during their beta.  What’s your take on why Tabula Rasa didn’t make it?

I will be exploring these three games for story and fun in the coming weeks and months.  That doesn’t mean you can’t weigh in — you can even post anonymously.  Does the story in these games help, hurt, or have no effect?

Of course, if you care to join me in my adventures, feel free to drop me a line at anne (at)

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Published in: on December 2, 2008 at 4:05 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. At heart, story is a single player phenomena. Multiplayer input will always destroy a narrative. Multiplayer content can create its own narrative in a sandbox game, but if you as a designer want to tell a strong story, it’s going to have to be something that either solo players experience or very small groups, and it’s going to need to be instanced.

    Story can be a part of an MMO, in other words, but it runs contrary to the nature of the beast. MMOs by design are static sandboxes; they have to be to avoid abuses by players.

    To my mind, “story” in an MMO has to take the place of lore (since the world never really changes) or highly instanced (Guild Wars) or phased (WoW) content. At that point, you may as well make a great single player game.

  2. An interesting perspective, Tesh! The issue soon becomes what exactly is story in an MMO — is it lore? Is it the series of quests you go through? To many, the “real” story in an MMO comes from the player or emergent story which is inherently multi-player. Indeed, anyone who has played D&D with more than just the DM knows the story grows out of the interaction with other players, not just the narrative.

    Since I’ve been back on WoW, I’ve seen that they have added control of towers to the game. To complete certain story quests, you need to interact with other players. It is not instanced nor static, and control of the towers changes dynamically in-game depending on who’s playing that day.

    For some other interesting approaches to using the multi-player aspect to convey story, check out our ION Game Conference write-up:


  3. I think that, by definition, in an MMO “story” has to involve player input. That’s going to be true in any game, but when you have multiple possible viewpoints and people who work to cross purposes (intentionally or no), you’re not going to really be able to maintain a strong storyline.

    Perhaps it’s the difference between “stories” and “narrative”. I’d say that stories are how people play in the world, and the narrative is the non-interactive “spine” of the world’s lore, which may encompass world-changing events or merely setting.

    The only way to make a strong narrative in an MMO is to take it out of the players’ hands. They can certainly tell their own stories within the narrative, but giving players control over the narrative will mean the devs cannot maintain what they had in mind.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of. When Lord British was killed in Ultima Online(with a hack, if I remember properly), Richard Garriott rolled with it. It’s hard to do that sort of thing if you have grand plans in mind for certain narrative elements.

  4. Hi Tesh! I strongly believe taking narrative out of the players’ hands is a recipe for disaster in any type of game. Otherwise people would just watch TV, or see a film, or read a book. Of course, there are plenty of successful games that offer linear story, which seems to be your personal preference.

    However, games have more to offer than other media. In my view, a “strong narrative” can survive and even thrive with player input. The strongest game narratives will take into account player choice.

    As evidence, check out our post on narrative design and non-trivial choice in THE WITCHER at:


  5. Perhaps it is indeed a matter of scope. I agree, games have potential to do more with story than a strictly linear narrative like a movie. My concern isn’t so much with the concept of the interactive narrative (which typically must have all options mapped, by the way, or else we get into dynamic content creation, which is another matter) as it is with the scope of such on an MMO stage.

    I agree that the magic of games is giving players the ability to change the narrative (or at least appear to do so by accessing variations of the designer’s sum narrative space)… it’s just that an MMO has to juggle the input of thousands of players. The simplest way to handle that is simply to cut them off at the pass and make a sandbox game.

    The card game Legend of the Five Rings took an interesting approach to their story; players in tournaments swore fealty to clans in the game, and their successes and failures (and how they came about) determined a large part of the storyline for the next discrete chunk of narrative. The interaction was spread out in a back and forth that spanned months, though, so the aggregate actions of the players could be sifted and adapted well.

    In a game, we look for immediate feedback. If WoW were to do the L5R thing and use player aggregate actions to define the lore and narrative of each expansion, that would be one thing. (And likely a good thing.) If they had to take the aggregate actions of every player at every moment, the world would be constantly dealing with griefers, political shenanigans, cross-faction town slaughters, and so on. Making those things matter means disrupting other players for more than the ten minute respawn window.

    The disruption of the Zombie Invasion for Halloween showed how many WoW players don’t like being pushed into world-altering events. They want their little static bubble treadmill. That is a large part of why people play WoW. A more dynamic MMO that allows players to make a difference opens the door for griefing and abuse.

    Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if that’s the sort of storytelling you want to do, but leveraging the unique aspects of a truly MMO game means giving players power that they will ultimately abuse. Not everyone wants that, so a dynamic, living world with a player-driven narrative will almost certainly be a niche title at best. It may be an absolutely fantastic application of storytelling via aggregate behavior with some fascinating psychological applications and gameplay, but I really doubt that it would be very commercially viable.

    I love talking theory, but if the producer and devs can’t actually make it happen because of real world concerns, the dreams that I have of making a “finite state machine” storytelling game, especially an MMO, just aren’t practical.

  6. […] from the Engage! Expo (formerly Virtual Worlds 2009), which focuses on virtual worlds rather than MMOs.  In the case of virtual worlds, sometimes developers have the Field of Dreams notion of “if […]

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