4 Oct 2013

WildStar: Rocket-Propelled Narrative


I’ve started a new writing gig, working over at MMORPG.com as their WildStar columnist. I’ll be there every week about the latest developments in Carbine’s upcoming MMO, and I’ll also be active in the comments to answer questions and dispel myths. One response in particular leapt out at me speculating about how immersive the lore would be following changes to questing systems.

From my own experience, World of Warcraft was superb at providing a sense of story. There was a deep lore that had built up over the previous three games, which the quest designers could then draw on as they filled Azeroth with content. When it first launched, I was sure to read every scrap of quest text and really immerse myself in the tales surrounding each location.

When I moved on to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was expecting something similar. BioWare had a reputation for being great storytellers with the Mass Effect Series, and I was looking forward to something similar in MMO form. I wasn’t disappointed either – the levelling experience was huge amounts of fun, even though I found the combat a bit too similar to Warcraft.

Unfortunately both of these games suffer from the same problem. The story ends when the content does, until a new patch or expansion pushes it along. It results in a chunk of the player base unsubscribing for significant periods of time, before something new comes along to pull them back in.

The second issue is around questing itself. After a while, despite the careful expertise of quest designers, it can start to feel repetitive. Being asked to kill ten rats is such a genre cliché that there’s even a blog named after it. You start to become blind to the narrative, instead just glancing at the objectives before charging off.

When I started playing Guild Wars 2, the Renown Heart system was designed to cure this quest blindness. Instead of running up to an NPC and getting a mission, I could just enter an area and get objectives to complete. Dynamic Events were thrown in to mix things up, providing pseudo-random encounters for us to enjoy.

But it came with a cost, and that was immersion. ArenaNet tried to counter this with the Player Story, a voice acted and cutscene-heavy sequence of events that was designed to help pull players through the world. While it worked to an extent, it’s only really good for the first playthrough – although different races have different start points, they all tend to have similar conclusions.

ArenaNet’s more recent idea – Living Story – has been much more successful. By releasing new content every two weeks, Tyria feels much more like a breathing, evolving place rather than a static universe that lurches between patches. I still feel a little short on the immersion front, but I know that every time I log in there’ll be something new to do. That’s a pretty powerful lure for a game with no subscription.

With the recent news about WildStar’s new quest system, I feel that Carbine are trying to get the best of both worlds. This began early in development, with the narrative design team trying to cut down on quest text while using visual cues to explain what’s going on. That doesn’t mean the game will be light on lore – internal design documents are laden with it and the team are aware of how important it is in shaping a game’s personality. The recent decision to switch to quest progress bars and open tagging doesn’t remove any of this, but means that collecting ten jabbits will change to rounding up ‘some’, depending on individual jabbit tenacity.

I feel this is important because it creates interaction between the player character and NPCs. This is less crucial with the more significant characters like Dorian Walker or Malvolio Portius, which players will form bonds of love or loathing with over time. Instead, I’m thinking of the bit-part characters like the innkeeper, guard or storekeeper who seeks the aid of the player. In Guild Wars 2 those characters were still present, but they were a focus of observation rather than interaction, and I feel the experience was less personal as a result.

The deeper lore of Nexus will still be there for those who want it. Entries in the Galactic Archives will open up as we play, explaining more about the things we discover. Choose the Scientist path and you’ll uncover even more lore. For me this makes sense, because it means those who are truly interested in discovering secrets get content specifically tailored for them.

What really surprised me though was WildStar’s commitment to regular updates. In a similar style to Guild Wars 2, Carbine will be pushing out updates at something between 3 and 5 weeks, last I heard. That means the narrative isn’t just there when we level, but is constantly evolving every month that we play. It means that we hopefully get an experience that feels smoothly rocket-propelled, rather than the clunky stop-start of a badly driven car.

Ultimately though, story isn’t just conveyed through dialogue and quest text. One of the first interviews I ever did was with Tom Abernathy and Richard Dansky, two veterans of game narrative design. They explained how visual and environmental storytelling both have a role to play, and that building a narrative framework requires a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach. For an MMO, it can be the difference between having a stage for our actions, and a world that embraces our interaction.

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