Why would any healthy, functioning individual invest hundreds of hours of their lives into an MMO?
More to the point, what exactly are the elements of an MMO that make them such insidious time sinks that people endlessly flock back to – it can’t just be as simple as a palatable Skinner box, can it?
For quite some time, there has been the circulation of a false premise that claims that the majority of MMO players gravitate toward their respective games because of their story.
While it may be true that some of the most successful MMOs are set in fan-favourite worlds, there is only one truth when it comes to MMO narratives: a fair few of them are god-awful.
There are certainly some arcs that are worth their weight in gold – but the overall narratives make the stories of the world seem less like a work of professionals and more like a fan-fic you’d find on some forum somewhere.
There certainly are some amazing stories featured in plenty of MMOs. But the problem is a critical one: they’re all isolated instances that rarely tie into the overall narrative of the world.
This issue is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Many of the narratives that happen in local areas with a zone-like focus need to have the player focusing on what’s happening around them.
No one is going to make the claim that an NPC asking you to donate funds to some far-flung war effort is going to generate the same amount of interest and engagement as an NPC running toward you screaming bloody murder about an attack on their village next door.
It’s in those arcs that MMOs can often pull some of the most memorable bits and storylines. But when it comes to forming a cohesive narrative that spans multiple expansions? Things tend to fall apart drastically.
A good example is the overall storyline for World of Warcraft – what is still arguably the world’s most popular MMO. When looking at the entire narrative from beginning to end, it begins to seem more like the schizophrenic ramblings of a mental patient rather than the epic saga of a fantasy world.
Villains are introduced, propped up, and promptly taken down at a pace so quick that you’re likely to snap your neck by trying to admire the scenery. Developers keep pumping out scripts of convoluted narrative to pad out the justifications for why you are being sent out to clear out a hovel of rodents once more.
Do you really need a narrative justification for why you’re doing something in a game you’re voluntarily playing to show off your prestige and share in the experience with your friends?
Just imagine the types of worlds that could be created if the developers funnelled all their narrative resources into systems design and polishing gameplay.
Given the fact that the industry tends to run far more on momentum than anything else, we don’t see this changing anytime soon.
And so, come the years of more poorly-conceived and convoluted plots that spend more time convincing us why a task is worth doing than how long it takes us to do it.
How about a vague Dark Souls MMO, just to prove it can be done.