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Wishing on a Star (Wars)

By (July 1, 2009) No Comment

The Future of Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming

It’s difficult to argue with figures. As of 2008, the revenue for massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs or just MMOs) in the West exceeded $1.4 billion. Over 11 million individual subscribers play World of Warcraft alone, and there are a multitude of other options: Guild Wars, Age of Conan, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest (I or II), Eve Online, and so on and so on. The success of these games is undeniable, their affects far reaching culturally. As a WoW player myself, I noticed that if someone saw me playing the game, there was almost always one of two reactions, differentiating players from non-players, with the non-players asking ‘Is that World of Warcraft?’ and the players asking ‘What server are you on?’. The practical upshot is, most people know to ask the first question, even if they don’t know enough to understand the second one.

It would be remiss of me, therefore, to ignore massive multiplayer games as a genre. As an analyst of games, what could be more important than properly investigating an industry force like this? Yet I’ve had trouble coming to grips with this type of game, even though I play one myself! Why? It’s a simple matter of narrative.

A little elaboration on the MMO genre first. Many games have a multiplayer functionality; local area network parties have been a staple in the high school nerd community for years. Just as many have an online component, allowing for competitive games against players around the world (if your sleep schedules line up that way) (or if you’re 20th-century enough to sleep at all). But MMOs are exclusively multiplayer, and exclusively online. The social aspect of MMOs is therefore inseparable from the appeal of their gameplay. High degrees of player cooperation are required for large portions of the game, and there are remarkable in-game social and economic structures. Teamwork is key as large groups of players must band together to fight powerful enemies, and some players are so dedicated that they have in-game weddings, or even in-game funerals for diseased friends.

This is all rich territory for psychological and sociological study, and while I certainly feel a dissertation coming on, for the most part I deal with stories, and for all the beautifully rendered settings and teeming cities filled with digital avatars of flesh and blood people, there is stark lack of narrative.

But then BioWare, one of my favorite game developers, received the license to make a new Star Wars based MMO, and upon announcing the project, they made a remarkable pledge:

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be similar to other MMOs but with several key innovations. Traditionally MMOs are built on three pillars; Exploration, Combat, and Progression. We at BioWare and LucasArts believe there is a fourth pillar: Story. Our mission is to create the best story-driven games in the world. We believe that the compelling, interactive storylines in Star Wars:The Old Republic are a significant innovation to MMOs and will offer an entertainment experience unlike any other.


I return to my previous statement: The reason I’ve had trouble analyzing MMOs is because of their usual lack of a story-driven gameplay. Without an individual narrative, classic modes of analysis run up against some serious barriers and, while I could whip out the ol’ deconstruction ploy, I feel as if video games possess enough specific jargon to be confusing without any help from Jacques Derrida.

BioWare has noticed this lack, and is promising to incorporate a strong story into an MMO setting. My question: is such a thing even possible? I have never considered a lack of story to be a relevant criticism of a game like World of Warcraft, much as I wouldn’t criticize a turn based strategy game like, say, Civilization II, for its lack of thrilling chase scenes; I didn’t think the application reasonably possible. But BioWare claims they can do it and, as this is coming from the makers of such amazing narrative adventures as Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect, I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But there are some distinct problems in the way of realizing this vision, and I would like to present them, then suggest how they might overcome them, if at all.

First, an MMO is a necessarily multiplayer experience, and ought to be enough of one that the player should feel like one of a multitude. It is this sense of greater community, as well as anonymity and social visibility, that makes these games so compelling in the first place.

gameplay from World of Warcraft, by Dan Miller

Achievements in these games make the dedication of time seem meaningful, as it accrues persistent game rewards that can also be displayed as a mark of skill or status within the online community. This community is almost wholly meritocratic, too, since it exists entirely around the regimented, arbitrarily egalitarian system of a digital game. This is remarkable, and likely responsible for their purported addictive qualities (and thus their market success), but it is not particularly conducive to narrative.

Stories tend to center around a singular protagonists, or otherwise engage in the selective focus that makes fiction what it is, a subjectivization of reality. Novels, the most culturally established form of modern storytelling, are generally one long line of text, to be read from start to finish. This is the very opposite of the open, communal experience of an MMO.

But communities do generate stories, which is how myth, and its ancestor history, are created in the first place. But these are rarely coherent in anything beyond the ‘urban legend’ in large, typically modern communities. It’s often smaller social groups, like families, small towns, and other somewhat insular groups, that create stories. But these stories usually revolve around shared tribulation or emotional experience, and both are somewhat difficult to acquire in a game, where entertainment is its active purpose.

I do not imagine that BioWare will create such communities and just ‘hope’ for story to emerge. While such a choice might be produce a remarkable side effect, it would dilute the ‘Massive’ part of ‘Massive Multiplayer’, and would likely be seen as a cop out. We don’t take sheer entertainment pleasure from creating our communal stories; they are usually produced through hardship and emotional strain, which is why many people gossip when we are particularly emotionally strained (high school adolescents, for example). People want to relax and experience stories that have been prepared by others, even if they are living them. It is about discovery, at least in a mainstream marketable game, rather than self invention.

Then what options do they have? BioWare is well known for having moral systems built into their games; the ability to play a character as either good, evil, or some mix, makes the game experience repeatable. There are usually multiple endings as well, showing either your glorious laying down of justice, or your dark ascent. It’s said that a similar system is going to be introduced in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and this may be the lynchpin in their ‘story in an MMO’ concept. By creating just a few branches of choice, BioWare can considerably increase player’s emotional investment in their characters. As the common wisdom goes, the viewer does most of the work, just filling in the holes, drawing quick conclusions and connections without need to show additional content. Have the character change during their lifespan, and players will invent the story to go with it, playing off the game’s queues.

The danger here is that such choices would have to have a game effect (an evil Jedi could choke enemies to death, a good Jedi could heal his friends and allies), and these choices would take a game mechanic effect first, and a emotional event second. The fact is, it will be taken both ways, but within a competitive or at least comparative, communal game system, there will likely be far more of the former than the latter.

The other option I can easily imagine would be to use the sense of general community to the developers’ advantage, by changing the conditions of the game in the arch style of a story, changing the world, or introducing world events that would effect everyone, or at least a large number of people. It’s been suggested that this, too, might be employed to some extent. There have been statements suggesting that the designers plan to preserve the ‘epic’ feeling of Star Wars by eliminating silly gathering style tasks that often populate online games and designing game tasks that feel relevant within the larger context. This would be a remarkable stroke, and would likely take considerable work if deployed fully. My expectation is that they will be forced into a middle ground; games like this require the possibility of homeostasis, so that players don’t feel compelled to be entirely engaged with world events at all times.

Thus, my prediction will be that BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic will almost certainly contain more story than its compatriots, and more tools to self-produce a story, but I have serious doubts that they will be able to make a game that can accurately be called ‘story driven’. I would love to believe it possible, and perhaps it is, but I cannot hope for that much yet, nor necessarily should I. Video games in general require more active participation in their story-telling than other forms of media; such is their great value, in my opinion. This, however, promises the creation and necessary crossing of a threshold between the game being a manuscript or a blank scroll, either waiting to be read, or waiting to be written upon.

Trailer for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, and Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas.

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