At the risk of being accused again of being a closet roleplayer (full disclosure: there’s no closet. I was a pen & paper roleplayer in my teens, I have fond memories both as a player and GM of these times, and that probably also explains why I spend most of my computer gaming in RPGs), here’s a heads-up on Tobold’s post about story-telling in MMORPGs, which I highly recommend.
Tying into this are the dev’s hints that in Wrath of the Lich King, the Arthas storyline will become pervasive through 70 to 80. While it remains to be seen how this will turn out, Tobold nails one of the most important aspects: a new entertainment medium reaches maturity when it becomes supported by solid story-telling and a compelling, immersing narrative.
MMORPGs are certainly about the most difficult medium today to create such storylines: their open-ended nature, the relative freedom of player character development, and most importantly, the inherent challenge of inserting a relatively static story inside a persistent world contribute to that difficulty.
After all, compelling stories are based on the suspension of disbelief, and that becomes more difficult when you level your second toon and are tasked to exterminate the very same threat you had wiped out on your previous playthrough.
In a game with a world as vast as WoW, there is physical room to create branching and expanding stories allowing for multiple paths, multiple character developments and multiple endings. This kind of story-telling is constrained by the fact that groups of players find themselves not only at different advancement stages of a story arc, but also in different branches. This probably explains why the currently available prototypes of what proper storytelling could become are very limited and have little effect in the grand scheme of things: picking factions like the Gelkis vs the Magram or Aldor vs. Scryers gives access to specific, diverging quests but they currently have only limted impact in the overall game progression.
WoW set a new industry standard in terms of gameplay and polish for MMORPGs. While the introduction of a long-term, over-reaching storyline with Wrath would be a welcome addition, the MMORPG setting the new standard in terms of story-telling has probably not yet been designed. It serves not only as a reminder that the MMORPG genre is still young, but also as a promise that the best is yet to come.