Design Collaboration in MMO’s

I just read an excellent post on Moorgard’s blog about writing vs. storytelling.  If you haven’t gotten the chance to read it, I highly recommend it since it has some really compelling ideas.  As an English-major looking to head into this industry, I’m always looking for information regarding writing and storytelling in MMO’s, so thanks to Moorgard for writing this and getting me to consider it from this perspective.

Basically what he’s saying is that there is quite a difference between being a good novelist or a poet and being a good quest writer and storyteller for MMO’s.  He makes the point that most MMO players aren’t playing them to be bombarded by a vast amount of literature.  They are there to play the game and generally skip past all of the text when they can.  He then says that this what MMO writers need to do is create a story that can then be portrayed physically in the world rather than having everything simply be explained to  you.  I completely agree, and I realize that no matter how well a quest is written, only a very small percentage of players will actually read the text before going off to complete the objective.  The storyline that the player should be experiencing is where the experience needs to be enhanced.  I can understand how games work that drop you in with no real sense of purpose, but I would much rather feel as though there was some cosmic purpose to my character being in whatever given world he or she is in, which is where storytelling really comes into play.

If you want to have a game play experience that involves a great storyline, this means that you are going to need to have help from every designer working on the project or else you can’t really achieve your goal.  This lead me to my conclusion that there needs to be a more definitive collaboration between the different design teams in order to create a more cohesive game play experience, rather than each team working with what they’ve been given.  I have no doubt that it is there in some form, but I think it could definitely be improved.  This isn’t always the case, but it would seem as though one designer says “Wow, I have a great idea for a quest!” and another designer says “Wow, I have a great idea for a monster!” and another designer that says “Wow, I have a great idea for a landmark!”  At that point they decide how the three can work together, and generally they do so fairly well, but it could have been much more powerful, cohesive, and rewarding for the player if they had started the process together and really fleshed out a plan for all three that would make them feel connected and necessary.

Obviously, I don’t have any first-hand experience and I could be completely wrong here, but I doubt that I am entirely wrong.  If I were, I think we would have much more compelling quests and clear story lines woven into the frame of the game than we do in most MMO’s now.  I think one game that really breaks the mold here is LotRO with their chapter series and their instanced quests which really bring you into the story without forcing literature down your throat.  It makes the player feel important and in the action.  I think instances are a great way to do this.  Instancing is definitely a great way to do this because the world can be altered in the instance without it being permanent as well as giving players the opportunity to feel as though they are experiencing something for the first time that is really important.  That said, I don’t think this is the only effective way to achieve this result.

Again, I have no experience in the industry and I have no idea how the design and brainstorming process works in their creation and evolution, and if I am wrong, then I can at least say this with certainty:  I think it can and should be improved.  This is one of the areas that is truly lacking in MMO’s that console games have the upper edge on, which I don’t think should be the case.  MMO’s have the ability to constantly adapt and morph since they are being developed after their release, so the story of the world and the characters shouldn’t be put on the back-burner just because there are plenty of other things available to keep players occupied.  I think this should be at the head of the experience, constantly driving the player to learn about the world and how they fit in in whatever way they can, whether that means through questing or simply through making the world a deep and rich place in as many ways as possible.



3 comments so far

  1. Aaron on

    My understanding (as an outsider) is that programmers, artists, designers and whatnot are usually divided into separate departments and teams. It’s then the job of the directors to communicate between departments and coordinate projects.

    But some studios have done it differently. For example, the EA studio that designed LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 and its expansion used a “pod and cell” system. A team would be devoted to a specific feature (like War of the Ring mode) and that team would include people from all departments working directly together.

    That seems like a much better system to me, in general. While it’s good to have people designated as storytellers, the artists and programmers should be directly involve in the earliest phases of designing stories.

  2. John "EviLBetty" Giles on


    I am the Quest Director at Vizual FX Studios, L.L.C. We are currently accepting applications for the position of: Quest Writer/Designer.

    If interested, please forward your resume to:

    Thank you

  3. Tesh on

    MMOs just aren’t the place for strong story. That the best stories take place in instances should underline that. They are unique in their ability to demonstrate an interesting setting, but for story, single player offline games will always be the better venue.

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