Way back in nineteen ninety-dickety, (We had to say “dickety” because the Drafling stole the number eight), a group of developers at Verant Interactive pondered on the existence of an MMO player narrative, a hero’s journey, within EverQuest. We often referred to this as the “Holy Grail,” because it was an elusive prize that could deliver an unmatched personal experience within an MMO world. While it was possible to craft such a personal quest, doing so would often fracture the massive social experience. After all, how could every player be the “Chosen One” or the primary antagonist within an overarching epic quest-line? EVERY player! It’s insanity! The MMO tools to aid in this endeavor were few or in development. In the early days we experimented to get results. This was a work in progress, but I, among other developers, sought this “Holy Grail.” However, should this quest have ever been undertaken?
In the early ages of EverQuest development I saw the world through the eyes of an adventurer: the gamer. This was good, but what I needed to often remind myself is that I should be looking through the eyes of an MMO gamer. At its core, an MMO is a social game. These are worlds where you experience the wonder and dangers alongside hundreds of other gamers. We should choose to play MMO’s to interact with a world of gamers. If not, then we should simply play single player RPG’s. So with that in mind, how does a “personal narrative” that is meant to be epic and unique fit within a world where everyone will be undertaking it at varying times? I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t fit well with the core fundamentals of an MMO. Sure there have been great strides in this realm, but many of the tools of the trade have taken the player away from the social experience in their attempt to deliver a player narrative that is much more of a solo adventure. In my opinion, such a narrative removes a fundamental social element that makes MMO’s special. However, I fell prey to this in my dev days and began my own quest for the “Holy Grail.”
My quest for the grail had led me to the shores of EverQuest II where I hoped to craft massive narratives that all players could partake in. These narratives would often allude to you being the only one worthy enough or lucky enough to be chosen. It gave players a chance to interact with deities and other lore personalities, creating a pseudo-relationship with these EQ icons. Although I requested, “phasing” I opted for liberal use of quest instances (personal zones) and content only visible to players on specific quest steps. For the most part, I thought it worked quite well. The players had large story arcs that they were a major part of, sometimes making Norrathian history. But as time went on and expansions released I began to dislike the removal of the player from the MMO world. In an effort to set memorable encounters that could be experienced by all the players, the quests were removing the social aspect of the MMO. And I was not the only one doing this. Slowly over time, these “personal narratives” began to appear in other MMO games as well. Many of the other games had devoted resources to develop features that supported such experiences. (How envious I was.) We developers got better at delivering grand personal odysseys. But the cost for seeking the “Holy Grail” was expensive.
The development of an MMO is very expensive. I think we can all agree on that. I am not only talking about the financial expense, but also the resources, schedule and manpower. You are limited by a variety of budgets and as a developer you must be wise and choose to integrate the features that best support your game without blowing your budget. Sure, you could try and be everything to everyone, and who hasn’t done that, but that sort of design path will lead you to ignoring or limiting other aspects of the game. So, if an MMORPG is fundamentally a social game, it seems to me that we as developers should devote resources to features that keep the community engaged with one another. But in the pursuit of the ”Holy Grail” many developers ignored this, myself included. Our passion to deliver an immersive narrative blinded us. The many features I had so wished would propel players into an epic personal narrative had removed them from the magic that makes an MMO special- other players! Our journeys within MMO worlds should be experienced alongside other players. In games I worked on and others in the MMO sphere, too many resources seemed to be devoted towards features that played contrary to that core social gameplay. This is fine and dandy and helps explore the bounds of MMO narratives, but always remember, MMO’s are massive beasts that are expensive to develop and support. Spend your budget wisely.
Although I was once a member of the “Holy Grail Expedition” I have since grown as a developer. I feel MMO resources should be solely devoted to supporting the massive social gameplay. It is an aspect that should not be forgotten. To place resources elsewhere is to ignore the core elements of the genre. While some MMO’s have been crafting some great “solo narratives” we need to ask ourselves in the MMO community if these are resources well spent. In my opinion: no. As much as I loved questing for the “Holy Grail” it taught me to respect the fundamentals of an MMO. There is a “magic” in MMO’s. That magic is you, I and every other player in that world. As developers, we need to seek the right grail. Choose wisely.
Tony “Vhalen” Garcia