The Evolution of Storylines

Back in the day when I first started up with MMO’s, we didn’t really have a whole lot of storylines.  Well, we did, but we called them quests.  You know, back before quests were just a way to give you a bonus for grinding the same thing for hours instead of exploring.  Back then, every quest was a storyline quest by default.  In EQOA part of the reward of grinding was hitting a level that had an available quest, which would usually take several days to complete and lead you over multiple zones, with the end result usually being enough XP to move you up another level.  You’d pay attention to the text, you’d probably need a group, or at least another friend or two, and with the story text and some imagination, you could spend a week RP-ing the snot out of that thing.


But I digress…


This all comes up because my brother apologized to me last night.  We’ve had some problems with the overflow instancing in GW2 preventing us from being able to play together.  To be fair, while its not the best system (and it is broken right now apparently – there is an option to join your partymate, but it gives you an error message), it was our fault because we had a little miscommunication when the queue was up about whether we were going to stay in the overflow or not.  And we never got re-linked because he was zoning all over the play working in his storyline quests.  Hence his apology – “I’m sorry, I just got sucked into the story.”


And I thought – wow, what a  change.  A month ago we were complaining about how the storylines in TOR were slowing us down and not at all interesting.  And we frequently apologized when the action had to be interrupted for one of us to go advance a storyline or pull us the wrong way on the map to update a related objective.  And that led to a bigger question – how is it that Guild Wars 2 stumbled into better stories and arguable a better way of telling those stories, and with more meaningful dialogue choices (a three axis personality system rather than two), all while seemingly not making it a priority above anything else they were doing.  Granted, roleplaying and storyline were a part of their manifesto, but so were gameplay and fun and all that jazz.


And of course this led me to the inevitably sad “what if” scenario.  What if TOR had allowed your personal story the same level of customization that GW2 does?  Some of the early leaks around TOR indicated that you would be choosing a background for you character – but it was tied directly to your race – in other words, you had a single three point decision to make that decided both your back story and your race.

One of the small blips in the aftermath of TOR’s crumble was an anonymous posting by an alleged developer who complaining that it was the communities fault for giving bad feedback.   I am wondering now if it wasn’t bad feedback – it was the usual Bioware “allergic to listening” miscommunication.

You see, when images like this started being leaked, people hit the roof.  It was restrictive, it was draconic, it was foolish, it put us too much on rails…and at that point in the raging, Bioware pulled the plug on it and started opening up more race options for each character class.  They ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because what people were actually saying was “What if I want to play a ‘Merc’ – who is not a human?”  What if instead Bioware had kept the three backgrounds, and separated them from race?  Or, as Guild Wars 2 has done, separated them *by* race?

Of course, all that is assuming that Bioware actually had that background programmed into the extensive voiced dialogue they had recorded, and I think we are all pretty clear on what the chances of that were.

So for now, we’ve ended up with some pretty decent stories from a game that didn’t set the bar too high, and took a long hard look at the feedback they got to try to give the people what they want.  And still managed to provide voiced dialogue for all its stories – thought sadly not for Bill the Barkeep, or Sally the Forlorn Imperial Navy Officer.  But try not to kill me for saying that I wish beyond wishing that The Old Republic had been some kind of love child between these two games.  The IP of Star Wars with the design philosophy of Arena Net.

What an MMORPG that would have made…

And as for the evolution of storylines – I guess the lesson here is that while the form has evolved, the importance of their inclusion and featuring in the game never has.  Its was there from the very beginning.  It was just that some games ignored that feature, and some worshipped it.   Guild Wars 2 manages to strike a nice balance between the two.

I think there’s a conspiracy here…

Me:  “Hey, look, here’s proof of a evil gnoll presence in the Forest Ruins!

Acting Lieutenant Germain: ::nudges partner:: Yeah, well, its just one arrow kid.

Me: “Seriously?  Dude there’s pirates and undead everywhere…is it really that hard to believe that some rogue gnolls are hiding out here?

AL Germain:  ::with a straight face::  Yeah, well we can’t call out the Qeynos guard that easily, rook, they are busy people.”

Me: “What about that guy over there?  He’s level 55, he could pretty much walk through those ruins and wipe out everything living and unliving and it would all be done with.  Then I could get back to harvesting goods here.”

AL Germain: ::glances at the guard:: “Who him?  Yeah he uh…can’t leave his post.  It’s um..his sacred duty or something.  Guess your gonna have to do it, rook.  ::his partner snickers::

Me:  “You want me to beat back a pirate invasion, root out a gnoll plot, and clear a castle of undead inhabitants?  At level 10?  Alone?”

AL Germain:  “Well, Qeynos always needs heroes rook.” ::partner is openly laughing now::

Me: “Fine…whatever.  How much are you paying.”

AL Germain:  ::fishes in his pocket::  Uh, we are authorized to pay you… ::pulls out his hand:: …like 2 silver and some copper.

Me: ::glaring::  “Are you #$%$ing me?  That’s not even enough to cover my rent for the week.”

AL Germain:  “Heroes do it for honor and glory rook.  What do you think this is, Freeport?”

Me:  “Right, sure they do.  Alright I’ll do it.”

AL Germain: “Great, great kid.  Now I’ll need some proof.  Lets say like, 10 globs of protoplasm from the undead.”  ::partner, howling, excuses himself::

Me: “How about , no.”

AL Germain: ::raises an eyebrow:: “Gee kid, I can’t, um, authorize payment unless I have proof that you completed the job.”

Me:  “Won’t dozens of dead bodies be proof enough?  You know what, nevermind, I know an easier way to get the money.”

AL Germain: “Oh really rook?”

Me: “Yep, watch this..” ::draws sword, runs Germain through, takes his money::


Queasy Tom Snot

King Arthur: Go and tell your master that we have been charged by God with a sacred quest. If he will give us food and shelter for the night, he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.
French Soldier: Well, I’ll ask him, but I don’t think he will be very keen. Uh, he’s already got one, you see.
King Arthur: What?
Sir Galahad: He said they’ve already got one!
King Arthur: Are you sure he’s got one?
French Soldier: Oh yes, it’s very nice!

~ If you don’t know where this comes from, you should go boil your bottoms, you sons of silly persons.

I was playing some Pirates of the Burning Sea with my brother recently, and we were gutting the available quests in New Orleans.  We’ve gotten to the point where, with the double xp shot from agreeing to have these ridiculous accents…err, be French, that we don’t do any of the “group quests” (too hard, same xp), or any quest that can’t be done the that town’s longboat or instances (more time, same xp).  Even then, we have quest logs that hold 25 quests (half of which at any given time are our solo or bounty quests), and we frequently have to make several trips into town to clear space for the next group of quests.

Basically, we run into the town, collect as many quests as we can, do them, turn them in, and repeat the process until the town is dry.  Then we move on to the next town.  Laugh at PotBS if you want, but this is no different than most other MMO’s.  We now have quest hubs, which direct us to hunting grounds and provide bonuses and fast tracks for advancement.   We lamented that this avalanche of “quests” made for some ridiculous storylines, bizarre encounters, and mostly unread fluff.  PotBS is tricky too in that probably 5% of the quests involve a pathing choice.  Occasionally we’ll play solo, get back together, and realize that in just grabbing the floating “!” without reading, we’ve accepted opposing quest lines.

Eventually we discussed how little “good loot” was available from quests in all the games we play.  Most of the time, quests offer nothing other than cash and xp.  Many times in many of the games we’ve played (WoW, EQ2, Vanguard, Conan, WAR, DAoC, LotRO, PotBS, Wizard 101, SW:G, and even EVE), we get items from quests that are useless to our characters or so low power that we just sell them.

And for those who enjoy, if not RPing, then simple immersion in the game (there’s more than you think), this completely destroys their experience in the game world.

So long story short, we got all nostalgic for EQOA.  And why?  Well, let me list for you all the quests available to my Elf Magician in the game for the first 20 levels:

  • 4 Tutorial Quests (1 each, levels 1-4)
  • 1 Tutorial Grouping Quest (level 5)
  • 5 Class Quests (7, 10, 13,15, 20)
  • ~ 22 Side Quests (mostly level 6 or 17, ~ 1/3 unavailable because of alignment preqs.)

That’s it.  The side quests usually gave 10-25% of a level of xp, some money, and a faction boost with whatever literal “side” they were for.  The class quests gave a unique spell or item (or both), and usually a full level’s worth of xp, or close to it.  We complained about this of course, but only because the questing levels were so much more fun and involved, and because the the phat rewards at the end of each.

The result:  more emphasis on grouping, on helping guild mates.  More immersion and rp possibilities.  A requirement for smaller server populations.  Quest rewards and quests themselves were meaningful milestones.   I *miss* that.

I miss that this also meant that the lore of the world was encoded into conversations with NPC’s.  That locations had to have personality and design of their own to attract players and groups.  That having a night where you could call out “ding” in chat gave you a gaming high.  That when you arrived at a new zone or location, your first impulse was not to make all the exclamation points disappear, but to chat with players to find a group or connect with someone you recognized or knew by reputation.

But that’s enough nostalgia.  I know those days are gone.  And I’m sure there are drawbacks that I’m not seeing with my rose colored glasses.  Its just that its been a long time since I’ve worked with a full group in an MMO and felt the rush of coordinated combat and the skill of working as a team.  It been a long time since I’ve had a place or a niche in a game or a group, and I’m really starting to miss that.  ::sigh::