Making an MMORPG: Story and Premise

Senior Staff Writer Chris "Pwyff" Tom decided to go in-depth with what he thinks makes for the perfect MMORPG. This time around he's focusing on what makes for a good MMO premise and storyline.

"What makes a good MMORPG?"

Ever since I started working as a video game journalist, I've been rather obsessed with this question, throwing it out in candid phone interviews and studio visits whenever I could. In particular, I love to ask this when I hear of a new MMORPG being developed, because when launch day rolls around, that's when it's time to see if the vision matches the product. Unfortunately, I don't think I ever realized what a loaded question I was asking until someone asked me the very same thing and hundreds of different answers popped into my head. Fact is, for every stellar MMORPG we run across, there are probably a dozen mediocre ones waiting to be launched. So just what is it that makes for a good MMORPG?

I've decided to devote a bit of my time and a few articles to exploring this.

The MMORPG Premise & Story

Every year, someone argues that the fantasy MMO market is completely saturated, but it seems like every year more fantasy MMORPGs are announced. In this year alone, there are Guild Wars 2 and TERA, not to mention a few free-to-play fantasy MMOs being ported over. Why can't we try something new?

Probably the biggest reason why all we're hearing about is fantasy MMORPGs is because fantasy has been a proven win for dozens of studios, and when you're talking about a huge long-term investment like an MMORPG, it can be difficult to convince your bank that you want to try something fresh. Of course, this hasn't prevented companies like CCP Games from doing amazingly well with EVE Online, but I don't believe there are any other MMO genres that can boast the success rate that fantasy does.

That being said, this hasn't stopped a company like Funcom from thinking way outside of the box in the form of their upcoming modern-day MMO, The Secret World (TSW). Usually, I try not to get too excited about games still in development, because everyone can say grand things when their game isn't out, but TSW has remained high on my list since it stepped into the spotlight during PAX 2009. Think about it; a modern day world where urban legends, ancient myths and history all end up being true? It's hard not to get excited about an original and unique setting like this, but it definitely takes a confident development studio to do it.

Because TSW is being placed in a modern setting, there's also the great opportunity to break away from the standard "savior of light" story that millions of fantasy MMOs seem to pick up by default. Does anyone else get a bit annoyed when your quest-giver starts talking about you being the warrior of light who is sent to save the world, but then she turns and repeats that exact same thing to the dwarf standing next to you? I suppose she could be playing the odds, but I just find it frustrating when someone creates a wonderful, vast world, filled with thousands of different players, but you end up stuck with a narrow one-player storyline. Thus, I can't help but perk up my ears when I see Ragnar Tornquist, Creative Director of The Secret World, throwing out lines like this:

Ours is never a story about The Chosen One, a single hero rising to the occasion and saving the world, but rather about an army of 'heroes', where the player is just one of millions; sleeper agents awakened in these darkest of days to battle the rising tide of darkness, recruited by three powerful secret societies and sent on missions -- often dubious ones -- across the globe.

More on Page 2.

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# May 23 2011 at 6:30 AM Rating: Excellent
12,049 posts
Nice article. I've been wondering the same thing since the Cataclysm expansion came out for World of Warcraft. Everything I loved about the game was improved: the old storylines were updated, the entire world was remade to allow flight, a new profession was added, and the end-game contained much the same as the last expansion.

But within a month, I was bored silly of most of it. While it was nice to be reminded of how awesome I was as a grunt, every expansion made me feel like I was the best of the best. Unlike your FFXI example, I never felt like I was part of a group, but a hero through and through... and it got a little boring. And the updated questlines were cool, but all of them eventually made you the savior of the zone, and held your hand to bring you each step of the way. It was like riding down a road in a car and having a parade at the end just because you drove that far. Yay? Not to mention how much of a sense of exploration it killed - there was no need to explore since you're led to every quest and important location.

I still can't answer the question myself. I find the story important, but I also find exploration important. Others find PvP important, or loot, or professions. Perhaps we all just miss the nostalgia of playing a game for the first time and getting lost in the world. The longer I play MMOs, the more I fear that might be it.
# May 21 2011 at 9:08 AM Rating: Good
6,471 posts
Nice article. It's an interesting subject. I don't think that I agree with David Gaider's assessment; I think that the video game world is chock full of opportunities to play as the central "hero" character. It's become cliche. I think that there's a lot of untapped potential for interesting video game experiences as a supporting character, or, as you mentioned, a smaller piece of a large group. It'd be interesting to play a game where your role is to support a different hero that you never play as.

You could write a pretty large paper on it.
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