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If the players will create their own drama, why bother trying to tell stories in massivley multiplayer games? Why not just make a sandbox and let people play? You're already telling a story, whether you meant to or not. Every single thing you do when you create a game, from the look of the interface to the colors of the spaceships to the way the avatars move to the amount of grass you put on the ground tells a story.

Chris Klug, Blogger

September 16, 2002

17 Min Read

Why Tell Stories?

People like stories; when they play games, part of what they do is play a grown-up version of pretend. When we played as children, we were devising our own stories. Players of massively multiplayer online game, when thrust into a new world, will create their own stories lines. People do this all the time; story is woven into the fabric of our daily lives ("Boy, you should hear what happened to me on my way to work this morning..." "That guy at the check out stand; what a jerk!" "What is with Jennifer today?") These statements all act as introductions to stories. Our very lives are structured in three acts --youth, middle age, and old age -- and we see all the events in our lives as narratives. If the players will create their own drama, why bother trying to tell stories in massivley multiplayer games? Why not just make a sandbox and let people play?

You're already telling a story, whether you meant to or not. Every single thing you do when you create a game, from the look of the interface to the colors of the spaceships to the way the avatars move to the amount of grass you put on the ground tells a story. Sergei Eisenstein, the father of Montage, summed it up like this: if you show an image of a dead man followed by an image of a woman with a knife, the audience will synthetically assume that the woman killed the man. The following two paragraphs quote liberally from a web site on film directing (http://members.tripod.com/~afronord/montage.html). Any errors I have made in interpretation are pretty much mine alone.

"Montage is based on what is known as the ‘Kulishev Effect' -- this early Russian film-maker played with his footage, gluing together man's face and then a shot of a plate with food, or the same face and then a shot of naked girl.... Surprisingly, the same close-up of man looks different next to a new following shot. First sequence -- hunger. Second sequence -- lust. How could it be? It is because of what the viewer does in their head when they see the images. They try to connect the two images and make sense out of the combination of two shots. Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director, declared that any single image by itself is "neutral" (have zero meaning till it is revealed in position of context with other shots)."

"You see, the original meaning is only the first part of the visual statement, according to montage theory. It's open and -- incomplete. What montage does is this: the thought (action) in evolution with the next shot "throws the meaning" on the previous shot! (In primitive terms we call it a reaction shot). The second shot in its turn is incomplete also -- it asks for another shot! That's why we crave for continuity and can't take our eyes away from the screen!"

So, Montage effects the experience a player has with a ‘game as story' even more than when that player watches a movie because, in a game, the player is creating the next image by choices he makes during play and is more invested in the secondary image than a movie watcher can ever be. And how does a game player create these images? By interacting with the game universe. And how does the player do that? By using the game systems and interface the designers have provided him. This is, in part, what gives games their great unique power to evoke emotion. But that means that every part of every game tells a story. Game developers need to also be expert story tellers, because we are telling stories even if we think we aren't.

The current state of MMOG stories…

Now that we know we (the designers, not the consumers) are responsible for creating a story, I think it would be incumbent upon us to tell a good one. First, a definition:


Story = change due to conflict.

That is pretty much a universal definition of what story is. You can do a lot of research, and I'd wager a fair amount of money that what you'd find pretty much equates with that definition. Story has lots of elements and such, mind you, but most people would agree that without change and without conflict you don't have much of a story. Games meet the requirements of storytelling very well, actually: a character, controlled by the player, engages in some activity that will, over time, change something (whether that is as simple as going from no state at all to raising their characteristics to ‘winning') and that change will come through conflicts of one kind or the other.

Everquest is a god example of how stories are told in massively multiplayer games. EQ is fundamentally an RPG, and as such it does tell a story; a character is created, changes in ability through fighting MOBs and grows. Okay, so we got a story here. While EQ has a fairly immersive world, and clearly there are lots of moments where the players is drawn deeply into the emotional reality of that world, it ultimately is a very unsatisfying story.

For a story to exist in an MMORPG universe, the world and the characters in it both have to change, and they have to change due to conflict within the world. In EQ, the characters do change as they level, but the world doesn't change hardly at all, so in the end you've got an unsuccessful story. What is EQ missing? Well, for one thing, dramatic structure. For a story to be successful and emotionally rewarding, the experience needs to have a solid dramatic structure.

Dramatic Structure

Everquest approximates the tried and true three-act stucture: in Act I (the newbie game) we are not told what in the heck the conflict is, so our actions in the world have no context; we don’t know what the stakes are. In Act II, we still don’t know what the stakes are. There are lots of conflicts, changing locales, epic adventuring, but Act II in Everquest lasts forever, as there really is no Act III. None. In Everquest, the world doesn’t change at all, and certainly the world doesn’t change as a result of the players’ actions. There is no payoff, no enjoying the fruits of victory; the carrot keeps dangling just beyond your reach.

If they could just deliver a satisfying climax to their audience, they’d have players hooked for life. But MMOG games don’t offer easy endings, and the carrot always stays just out of reach.

Whether the designers of the games create a satisfying ending themselves, or whether they let the players do it, they have to understand that we all seek closure to any extended activity we engage in, we all seek Act III's in our lives. If the MMORPG designers want to give the players simply a sandbox and let players have at it, they must give the players the tools to create dramatic structure for themselves, or else players will feel empty at the end of the day.


Adding Structure to an Open-ended Game Design

To build an engaging story in an open-ended game, you need to write the story content early in the game design process, making it an integral part of the game design process. And, I don’t mean here ‘story as backdrop’ or ‘story as fiction to explain why the game system works the way it does’. In a MMOG, the story is the way in which universe changes after the game goes live. Think of the game as if it was a TV series, with episodes and seasons, and story arcs and subplots. Isn’t that the kind of game world everyone would want to play in?

Game companies, for the most part, aren’t used to thinking script first (for goodness’ sake -- they aren’t used to thinking of the script at all!). For this to change, the game design process has to respect and allow for the story weaving process a little more than it does now.

The game designers have to be willing to make systemic decisions that support the needs of the story. Right now, story tends to be the blacktop that is laid down last to cover all the potholes the game system has left in its wake. This lends itself to the creation of stories that don’t make much sense. And remember, since every moving image a player sees tells story, if the script is done last, after the artwork, the odds are even better that the game system will tell one story and the artwork will tell a different story and the poor writer will be pulling their hair out trying to make it all fit together.

Sandbox theorists assume that stories created by the players will be as entertaining and compelling as stories created by designers, and if you could dynamically edit out 90 percent of the boring stuff that happens in these worlds that might be true. If you gave the players story telling tools (in essence, AI-driven Gamesmaster tools), they might as well. But, until these two needs are met, designers and writers are still going to do a better job of economically delivering compelling story content in on line worlds. Players want to be players. I think this is the biggest reason that ultimately, until the tool and technology get better, audiences want us to entertain them.


System as Story

I have often heard that game system changes made after MMORPGs go live have more of a story impact than any story that the designers are telling. There is an idea that games consist of ‘story' (often defined in a limited way as what the NPC dialogues say) and a ‘game system', and they are somehow separate. This is absolutely false. Every single thing the player experiences as he plays the game goes through the big sifter in his head and comes out as the game universe. System is Story. To use this fact, game designers have to be willing to make systemic decisions that are aware of and support the story, as well as the story being used to support the game system. Right now, story tends to be the blacktop that is laid down last to cover all the potholes the game system has left in its wake. This encourages the creation of stories that don't make much sense. And remember, since every moving image a player sees and every system a player interacts with tells story, if the script is done last, after the artwork, the odds are even greater that the game system will tell one story and the artwork will tell a different story and the poor designer/writer will be pulling their hair out trying to make it all fit together.

The Benefits of Telling Stories in a MMOG

An Audience that stays tuned in. There isn't a single customer of a MMORPG game that wasn't raised on TV. We're bred to understand that every Monday night at 10 or every Thursday night at 8 there's gonna be a new episode of our favorite show. We're wired this way. TV advertising execs know this very well, because whenever a show goes on break, or delays episodes because of the Olympics or sweeps month, the networks go out of their way to tell their viewers "Hey! We know you've gotten tired of the re-runs. Well, guess what? Blah Blah shows has new New NEW episodes starting next week." Why do they have to blare that stuff as loud as they do? Because they know that you've probably gotten out of the habit of watching your favorite show due to all the reruns lately, and they have to capture your attention span back. Now, with TiVo and all the other services, this habit forming nature of the TV business might change, but I doubt it will change demonstrably anytime soon. So, our/their audience expects to get regular updates to their stories and be told well in advance in a very loud voice when this update is going to happen. Our audience is ready and willing to go along with us on that ride; we just have to let them know we're gonna go there. So, if we deliver changing content that wraps itself in conflict, and do so on a regularly scheduled basis, we're playing to our audience's expectations.

Advertising campaigns. Advertising can be centered around game-world events. Okay, so after a MMORPG ships, how do marketing gurus build a successful campaign to increase market share? I mean, with typical box product, the campaign is all about targeting that first month a product is on the shelf, because we all know in this business that at the end of that first month, the ultimate success of the product is gonna be pretty well known. However, if the game's story is changing every month, and those changes really mean something, and they are dramatic enough that gamers will care about those changes, then marketing can advertise them just like TV shows ("Join us when the Romulans try to take back 61 Cygni! Will Kirk be able to stop them this time?") And, now the kicker: in an interactive gaming environment, marketing can add this to the pot: "Will you help Kirk or hinder him? Come play with us this Friday 9pm Eastern Time when the Romulan offensive begins." Now, that could be leveraged only in a gaming environment and one where players cared about the story.

Emotional content. When you start doing stories in games like this, you begin to work off of a story model known very well to advertisers: The Soap Opera. The Soap Opera works like this: you establish characters viewers care about, and then you add a tablespoon full of villains who oppose those characters, and you reveal a little of the story every day, gradually hooking the audience into ‘needing' to watch to see what is happening to their ‘friends' in this factional place. The Soap Opera formula works well, and has worked for a long time. Fiction serials in magazines used the same formula. A current best-selling fantasy series heading into its ninth or tenth novel uses this exact model to facilitate its success. One key to the Soap Opera model is getting the audience to care about the characters, and then manipulating the hell out of that audience (taking them for that emotional roller coaster ride) which is exactly what they want you to do. Attention, game publishers: notice the word ‘emotional' in the sentence above. To engage people emotionally, you must present them with content that stirs their emotions. All this depends on delivering emotional content. Games need to get up to speed on delivering emotional content, because many people in the game biz don't know how to do this; we tend to avoid the issues of emotion in games. But that's a different article.

Long-term audience retention. Once you've hooked the audience emtionally, if you know how to manipulate them in the right way, you can keep and grow that audience for a long time. And, creating long-term subscribers is what this business model is all about. Again, look at Soap Operas.

Opening up the marketplace. The gaming business has long talked about attracting non-gamers (alternately described as getting ‘normal' people interested in games). The typical TV watcher and/or movie-goer wants to go for an emotional ride. That means putting emotional content into the product so non-gamers can see what is in it for them. Everyone understands story. Only gamers really understand games. Story is a way to bridge that gap.

Soften the hard edge of gaming. To attract these new audience members, we have to present a face of gaming that isn't so competitive. There are many 40-ish potential gamers who don't think that battling against 15-year old joystick jockeys is a fruitful use of an evening. But if the game was less threatening, they might be interesting in joining in. Story isn't as threatening as combat is.


Making the Story Work in MMORPGs

How do we start marking the story work in MMORPGs? First, by treating the script like it was a movie or a TV show. Aim for high quality. Write the script before you design all the systems. Use story as the glue to hold everything together. Design systems that support that story, instead of writing a story that somehow acts as the glue that justifies and holds together disparate game systems. This process is ultimately cheaper, because a script is very inexpensive to develop as opposed to a game prototype.

Hire real writers. The game industry seems to define writers as "the people you bring in to write dialogue for characters and stories that the game designer has created." If you try and deliver emotional content (see above), well, that's what writers are trained to do, so maybe we can learn something from them. Writers don't need to understand the game business if they are paired up with a talented designer to act as their guide. They add a great deal to the overall project. Just bring them in early. Hire good ones. The really smart ones are beginning to understand interactive more and more. Yes, for a development environment that isn't used to that financial line item, they might look expensive. But, do you want a game that just sits there like a pancake or do you want a game that people care about? If you want the latter, hire a good writer.

Budget for a talented live team. Assuming you now understand that telling a story in a MMORPG live environment is worth doing, take a different look at the composition and role of your live team. Remember, from points raised above, you're going to need to deliver a changing world that uses dramatic structure to deliver conflict to the players. Instead of looking at the live team as a stable of second-class designers, programmers and artists (because, after all, the first-class team members have already moved onto other projects as leads, right? Who wants to work on the live team, after all?) treat them instead as if they were first-class talent in a broadcast environment. Ultimately, I believe the success of any MMORPG will be based on how well the live team reacts to and treats the audience. That means keeping your stars on board for a while after you go live. And these people need to really be talent: writers, actors, designers, programmers, artists: people who understand broadcast entertainment delivery. Because that's what you're doing, broadcasting to an audience.

Design tools that serve the live process, not just the build process. The toolset used to create static games isn't necessarily what you need for ongoing changing story. You need to track the game's bible (what's been told in the story, what hasn't, who talked about it, what art assets were used, what changed, how the players reacted to it etc.). You need someone with broadcast experience to begin to create this kind of toolset.

In 10 years, we will be in the same space competing for the same time and dollars as TV. Either they will move into our space or we will move into theirs. Whoever makes the move first and with conviction will dominate the following decade of broadcast entertainment. Games can do it, but we have to take ourselves as story tellers seriously. Let's start today.



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About the Author(s)

Chris Klug


Chris Klug has been designing games for 21 years, and has won three Game of the Year awards for role playing game designs. He is currently employed at Westwood Studios on Earth & Beyond and is the Lead Designer of the live team for that title. He can be reached at [email protected].

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