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Telling a story in a massively multiplayer game raises very different challenges to those posed by a single player game, and Fish, senior staff designer at Cryptic Studios, discusses weaving individual MMO story threads together in order to immerse, team up, and delight players who want an enduring mythos as well as great playability for their online game.

Sean Fish, Blogger

September 24, 2004

20 Min Read


Infernal sprinted quietly through the abandoned legal offices in the Downside neighborhood of Atlas Park. He had already defeated a number of Hellions, two-bit thugs who were successfully clawing their way up Paragon City's gang hierarchy. His contact had sent him here to find Scorch, one of the Hellions' bosses. His mission? To find out how the Hellions were expanding so fast.
He spied the door to the senior partner's office and paused. A cruel chuckle tipped him off: this was obviously where Scorch was holed up.
Infernal moved quickly through the doorway, clutching his axe before him. As he entered, the room erupted in sound and motion.
"What are we supposed to do with the mystic artifacts after they arrive?" One of the thugs asked. "I told you…" Scorch began. Then he spotted Infernal. He whipped around and yelled, "It's a hero…take him out!"
The villains leapt at Infernal. He knocked one of them unconscious with a mighty swipe of his mystical weapon. Breathing hard, he steeled himself for the battle ahead.

The night was still and silent in the Nebula District. Minx crouched on the fire escape, outside an old warehouse. She was following up on a tip from that photographer guy from the Paragon Times; apparently, some punks called the Skulls had a Superadine lab set up inside. Minx hated the foul substance. She hated the way it drove people to violence and changed their minds and bodies. It needed to be stopped, and now was as good a time as any to begin.
Her muscles uncoiled as she leapt to the ground and ran to the entrance of the warehouse. The fierce feline was looking forward to sinking her claws into the Skulls and reminding them that Paragon City had many protectors.


Telling a story in a massively multiplayer game raises different challenges than those posed by a single player game. Knowing that there would be thousands of players creating characters and beginning their journey through the game simultaneously, we at Cryptic Studios wanted to look at things in a different way when it came to creating City Of Heroes. We had to think about the world we wanted to show our players, and how to make the many facets of a distinctly different game world come across.

K'varr D'shall, known as Infernal.

In City Of Heroes, Paragon City is a city under siege, and the game's zones have been divided up accordingly. Many of its zones have been overrun by villains, and even City Zones, the safest areas in the game, have their share of threats. Hazard Zones are more treacherous, on the verge of falling prey to various villain organizations. Finally, Trial Zones are places where the heroes must make a Herculean effort to overcome a deadly challenge. We needed to craft our story to help lead the player through these areas at a proper pace, as they accumulate new powers and abilities.

Ultimately, Cryptic's goal from the very beginning was to make the players feel like true heroes. The foundation of our system was to start many story threads in the initial City Zones, and then slowly weave them all together over the course of the game. This would allow players to choose between several paths, and would help bring them together as their individual stories began to intersect. It would also allow us to create individual pieces of gameplay that would combine to form a huge tapestry of story, hopefully above and beyond some MMORPGs that use individual NPCs to perform story-independent leveling tasks.

Starting Out: Using Your 'City of Heroes' Contact

This in-game process starts with a Contact. Each new player is assigned a Contact based on his origin. As the hero performs more tasks for his Contact and proves his worth, his relationship with her improves. The Contact is part of a network that stretches throughout the game. When a player gains the full trust of his Contact, he will be offered an introduction to more Contacts within the network. This method of task completion helps carefully structure the expansion of the player's story.

As storytellers, we have a number of ways of using the Contacts' tasks to convey story. We can send the player on an errand to speak to an NPC in the world, which not only educates the player about the city's geography, but also gives him information about the characters and organizations that exist within it.


Another option is to send the City Of Heroes player on a mission. Missions are more complex than errands, and allow us more time to establish the specific goals of the city's villain organizations. Missions also let the player feel like a hero. Rescuing a helpless librarian from a terrible fate at the hands of the Circle of Thorns provides a compelling reason to keep following the game's story line, as does stopping the Freakshow from demolishing an office building with workers inside.

In the scenes above, two characters with completely different origins and archetypes begin their journey through the virtual Paragon City. They begin in different parts of the city, and their goals are different. The first character, Infernal, has decided to pursue a gang called the Hellions in the Atlas Park City Zone. City Zones are the areas of the game least overrun by villainy, because heroes have concentrated their efforts there. However, City Zones still have their dangers, and the Hellions are one of them. This gang has recently risen in power, due to an influx of mystical artifacts.

The mystery that faces a new player is the question of where those artifacts are coming from. Minx is more interested in the Skulls, the gang at the bottom of the drug hierarchy in Paragon City. Her adventures begin in the Galaxy City zone. Either hero could have chosen to focus on different groups, such as like the horrific Vahzilok zombies or the mechanical Clockwork. The Hellions and Skulls will serve to illustrate the more in-depth, intertwining story system quite well, however, since their stories will soon intersect.

As he proceeds through his missions, Infernal will discover that the Hellions have connections to many other groups - the magically oriented Circle of Thorns, for example, who want to steal the artifacts from the Hellions for their own dark purposes. After learning this, Infernal may decide to pursue the Circle and determine their threat level. He could do this on his own, by working his way to a Contact who is an expert on the Circle, or he could locate another hero who is already investigating the twisted mystics.

This is one of many decisions that players are presented with in City of Heroes, and such decisions guide them through different story experiences. By providing these different branches of the storyline, we give the players experiences that they can share with each other. We also increase their desire to create more characters and try different paths, in quite a different way to many MMOs who de-emphasize story in favor of rote item collection.

As Infernal continues to investigate the Hellions, he will learn that they are working under two of Paragon City's other gangs, the Outcasts and the Warriors. The Warriors are at the top of the food chain when it comes to the acquisition and sale of antiquities, particularly those of a magical nature. Eventually, Infernal can follow this thread all the way through the levels of the artifact smuggling operation. It will lead him into the Steel Canyon zone to fight the Outcasts at level 10 and finally to Talos Island to face the Warriors at level 20. This continuing thread of stories exposes him to new areas and introduces the new enemies that reside there.

Another thing that Infernal will discover is that the Hellions are on the front lines of the Paragon City gang war. They are in direct conflict with the Skulls over Perez Park, a huge wooded area that lies directly between Atlas Park and Galaxy City, the two starting zones. This realization will lead him to the first of our Hazard Zones, Perez Park.

Developing the Player's Story: Teaming up with Other Heroes

In City Of Heroes, Hazard Zones are much more dangerous than City Zones, and are a large challenge for solo heroes. When Infernal arrives there, he may find Minx there looking to deal with some Skulls. They can then team up and face both threats together. The might also find other heroes who are looking to fight gangs, or heroes there to do battle with the Circle of Thorns or the strange creatures known as the Hydra Men.

The Skulls duking it out with their rivals, the Hellions.

The grouping that stems from these encounters will lead to players adding one another to their friend list, or even forming Super Groups together, helping players to make friends, increase social interaction, and accomplish story goals as a team. Once again, individual story threads have come together to form complex sections of our story tapestry.

Infernal cautiously advanced through the large archway into Perez Park. The Hellions he encountered on the street were a difficult fight, and they were bound to be present with the walls of the park in even greater numbers. A flash of blue and white caused him to whirl around, his axe ready. A lithe figure was crouched on the grass, looking calm and casual, but also ready to spring.
"For a minute I thought you were one of those Circle of Thorns bozos." purred Minx with a hint of a smile.
"I am K'varr D'shall, called Infernal by my mentor, Numina."
"Well, Infernal, I am here to mop the floor with the Skulls. Feel like pitching in?"
A firm nod was his only reply. Laughing softly, Minx led the imposing tanker deeper into the woods of Perez Park.

In our example of storytelling in City Of Heroes, Minx arrived in Perez Park through a different route. As she continued her investigation into the Skulls, it would have come to her attention that they are toiling at the bottom of an organization known as the Superadine Connection.

Just above them in the hierarchy are the bestial Trolls that inhabit Skyway City, and above the Trolls are the Family from Independence Port. Like Infernal, Minx will encounter these new groups gradually, as her level increases. Knowing that they are out there will help draw her into different zones in the city. It will also draw other groups into her story, such as the Tsoo, who are trying to take over the Superadine Connection.

Although they may wind up joining forces in Perez Park, Infernal and Minx will have different missions to draw from if they decide to team up permanently. This illustrates another way we're trying to push the story envelope, allowing the players to see even more of the game, as they assist each other with missions and travel to zones that they might not have been sent to by their own Contacts.

Minx's claws blurred as she defeated the last of the Skull Gravediggers. She continued the motion of her fluid attack, spinning around to see a knife-wielding Hellion Blood Brother fall to Infernal's powerful axe strike.
"Nice moves, big guy. Obviously I was wrong about you being a Circle of Thorns mystic; the way you use that axe, you're clearly overqualified for the position." Minx grinned as she spoke.
Infernal nodded in thanks. "You are quite skilled as well."
Minx's grin turned into a laugh. "I'll take that as a big compliment coming from you." She looked around the grassy area. "We seem to have shut these guys down for the moment. Before I came here my contact mentioned something going on over in the Hollows. From what I hear, those scumbags the Trolls are trying to take over the zone. They are the next step up the ladder from these Skull idiots. I plan on finding out where that ladder goes."
"I too have heard tell of this area. Once it was a peaceful village called Eastgate, but the destructive impulses of these Trolls brought it low. There is one there called Wincott who does battle with not only your foes, but mine as well. It seems our fates are bound together, young Minx."
"Suits me. Anything that gets that many words out of you has got to be serious. Let's go see if we can un-hollow the Hollows."
The two heroes headed for the security doors that would take them back to Atlas Park and eventually to the place that was once called Eastgate but now was known only as the Hollows.


Taking Missions Further: Creating Story Arcs

After City Of Heroes' missions, the next step of story complexity is the Story Arc. This is a series of missions and errands which all tie together to form a more complex whole. A Story Arc might focus on an evil plot perpetrated by one villain group, or it can be used to illustrate a conflict between several groups. Story Arcs often focus on an epic threat to the city, and they can be used to draw the players toward new areas, such as the city's Trial Zones.

The final type of zone that the players in City of Heroes are introduced to is the Trial Zone. In addition to having the thickest concentration of enemies, these zones also provide monumental tasks for players to overcome. The more difficult the trial, the greater the reward is for defeating it. Players are sent to trials as part of the story development. Infernal and Minx, in the example, end up following a lead about Outcasts and Trolls doing battle in the Hollows, a zone that is being implemented in our current free expansion.

This zone utilizes another storytelling technique that we have adopted: using a specific zone to tell a story. The first contact in the zone is Lieutenant Wincott, a police detective who is trying to keep the Trolls from taking over the Hollows completely. The players begin their journey through the story of the Hollows with him.

Minx and Infernal gazed down the street over the police barricade. Glimpses of roving bands of Trolls could be seen in the distance.
Lieutenant David Wincott spoke quietly but firmly, almost managing to keep the weariness out of his voice. "We have managed to hold them back, but we haven't made any progress in taking back Eastgate. I don't have the manpower to hold out here indefinitely. I'm glad you're here."
"We will aid you as much as we can, Lieutenant Wincott. On this you have my word." Infernal's terse words had the weight of an oath.
"What's our first move, L.T.? I'm anxious to see if that thick green hide can stand up to these." Minx brandished her claws with a flourish.
"I'm sorry to say that might have to wait, Miss Minx. The first thing I need you to do is help me deal with an even more immediate problem. The Outcasts have moved into one of the nearby neighborhoods to hassle their rivals, and my men are getting caught in the crossfire. Will you help?"
A firm nod and a strong hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder was Infernal's only reply.
"Not a problem at all," exclaimed the exuberant Minx, vaulting over one of the barriers, "There's no reason we can't deal with both threats. Two heroes, no waiting."
"One last thing…" As Infernal moved to follow, something in the Lieutenant's tone stopped both heroes in their tracks. "The Trolls, I think they have my son. If you see him…if you find him, bring him back to me."
Wincott's shoulders slumped ever so slightly, and his exhaustion was suddenly apparent.
Infernal and Minx exchanged a glance. The young heroine started to speak, then stopped herself and pointed at her new teammate.
K'varr D'shall, binder of demons, hero of Paragon City, spoke with clarity and conviction. "We will do this thing, Lieutenant Wincott, even unto our dying breath."

The heroes' journey through the Hollows has begun. Solving the trouble with the Outcasts will lead them deeper into the zone. After that, their path leads underground, to even greater dangers. As the players are led to explore the new areas, more pieces of the story are unfolded before them. These tasks will bring them into contact with other heroes and continually provide opportunities to form new alliances and friendships.

Lieutenant Wincott

The Hollows gives players the satisfaction of working their way through a gauntlet of challenges and potentially performing a great task given to them the very first time they speak to Lieutenant Wincott. Successfully solving Wincott's mystery wraps many threads together, and provides a richly rewarding experience for the players.

Conclusion: Toward a Living MMO World

We at Cryptic are constantly searching for new ways to add to the fabric of our story. Telling a story over the course of an entire zone is the latest technique that is part of our process for creating an online world. We will continue adding new ways of bringing the story to the players and when we do, we will make certain that it adds to the whole.

The initial Contacts and tasks are only the beginning of the story that characters will find in Paragon City. As they increase in level, the stories they started with will connect to other villain groups and zones. The players will finish off many of the stories by completing Task Force Story Arcs. These are very challenging Story Arcs that require groups of heroes to complete. Many of them will bring them into direct conflict with the arch-villains who are in charge of the organizations they have been fighting all along. This gives the players many accolades to achieve along their path to the top, with an obvious hierarchy sometimes absent in games which just create larger monsters, divorced from any kind of organization.

In the future, we will also be weaving in many more events... Some of these events will be small and only affect a few, but others might have far reaching effects on a zone or even an entire villain group. These sorts of permanent alterations to the tapestry will enrich the living feeling of the world - the Rikti alien invasion which ended the Beta Test is a startling example of a worldwide event with significant consequences.

From the beginning, starting with one thread, each player will weave his or her own part of the huge tapestry of story that lies within the City of Heroes.

Infernal and Minx stepped out of the building and onto the streets of the Hollows. The area clearly showed damage from the event known as the Hollowing. The buildings were dirty and cracked and the street fell away to open dirt in the distance.
"Those Outcasts are tough cookies, Infernal. I could barely stay on my feet, and that guy Frostfire was brutal! We could have used a hand in there."
The axe wielding tanker simply pointed over Minx's shoulder as a golden metal figure landed behind her and approached.
Purple circuitry glowed as the female figure spoke in a gentle but hollow voice. "Are you in need of assistance with the trouble in this zone?"
"I guess that all depends on who you are and what you can do." Minx snapped back, her hackles rising slightly at being caught by surprise.
"I am designated Luminary. My creator, Positron and my…teacher, Bastion suggested that I lend my aid to others who might need it. I can utilize light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation to injure my foes and heal my allies. Who might you be?" It might have been Minx's imagination, but she was sure her heightened senses detected a different inflection, almost a challenge in that last question.
Infernal might have noticed too, because he stepped forward to make introductions. "I am K'varr D'shall, known as Infernal. And this is Minx. We are on a quest to restore the village of Eastgate and reunite a brave man with his son."
"That is a commendable goal, Infernal. This one would be honored to assist, if that is acceptable to all involved." Luminary's gentle tone was back.
Minx cocked her head at Luminary for a moment and the shrugged. "I guess between the two of you, I better be the informal one. Besides, I have to admit, healing sounds pretty good. Welcome to the team, Lume'." Minx's tone was mostly playful.
"Thank you, Minx. I am glad to assist."
A nod from Infernal got the heroes moving farther into the Hollows. Minx leapt to a fire escape as Luminary hovered into the air. Infernal strode down the middle of the damaged street, filled with a sense of purpose. He knew not what danger they would face, but he felt confident that he and his companions were up to the task.


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About the Author(s)

Sean Fish


Sean Fish is a Senior Staff Designer at Cryptic Studios. He is responsible for continuity and coordinating the IP of City of Heroes and City of Villains. Sean has been working in the video game industry since 1996. He has also written and designed for various Collectible Card Games and Pen and Paper roleplaying games. Sean may be contacted at [email protected].

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