Understanding and delivering divergent story choices in MMORPGs

Understanding and delivering divergent story choices in MMORPGs

By David Osborne

March 17th 2014 at 12:00PM

RuneScape senior narrative designer David Osborne on community-driven narrative in games

For much of its lifespan, RuneScape stood alone in its approach to storytelling. We’ve always refused to include the typical ‘FedEx’ or ‘Kill x number of creatures for y reward’ quests used by its contemporaries of the day.

Instead, the game is filled with rich campaign quests lasting from between 30 minutes up to several hours at a time. However since its launch, the RPG space has evolved and so have our competitors. MMORPGs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, and single-player RPGs like Mass Effect and Skyrim are moving towards the same space, bleeding into each other and sharing similar traits and ambitions.

For instance, the episodic content and huge worlds of MMORPGs are becoming increasingly found in solo RPGs, while more MMORPGs are turning to the implementation of loftier narrative strategies.

The Holy Grail of narrative

As a game well into its second decade of life and facing the challenges of our competitors, we are constantly challenged to ensure RuneScape maintains its relevance and modernity. As the MMORPG genre continues to evolve, we have to ensure that we are not left behind. We want to provide choices that offer real persistence and ramifications to players – the holy grail of narrative storytelling – and overcome the challenge of building that on top of a dense narrative laid down over a 13 year period.

While RuneScape has more than 180 quests (which are not being removed) we are perfectly placed to offer an experience that communicates this feeling, thanks in no small part to our weekly release structure and agile development processes. We can react and release content that reflects player-determined outcomes within as little as a few weeks, which is crucially when the memory of that choice remains fresh in their minds.

When we launched the most recent iteration of RuneScape last summer, we shifted its game world of Gielinor into the 6th Age and unleashed what can effectively be referred to as a ‘Hunger Games of gods’, which sees the gods all fight for singular control of the world. This simple setting allowed us to create and plug in both solo and community-led experiences. While players had never before met the gods, they have featured in the RuneScape backstory for more than a decade, so it was – and is – an exciting and epic proposition for them.

To provide a diversity of choice, we split the gods of the 6th Age into two distinct groups. One – the warmongers – match up against each other in a series of three-month long world events to engage in battles across all servers. Our players pick sides and contribute to the war effort of their chosen god through a series of combat and non-combat activities.

What is important is that the community democratically ‘elects’ warmonger deities to survive or die in the scenario. Modular design allows us to prepare for any contingency, and release follow-up content while the memory of the choice is still fresh in the players' memories. The few gods that remain move onto the 'final'.

Choices to be made

Of course, while democratic, community-led decisions have a number of positives – the choices made are global and large-scale, hugely visual in an MMO world – they also have negatives. For instance, as a voter, my vote can feel inconsequential if it becomes clear that my side will not win. This results in a feeling of disempowerment. To alleviate this, we have a story scenario that allows plug-in from both global events and solo-play. While one half of the survivors in the 'final' are determined in democratic decisions, the other half is determined on a per-player basis.

In solo quests, players will determine the make-up of the second-half of the god survivors. Here, the player's decision is final, and they directly determine them. The negatives of solo choice in an MMO – that a player can rarely show off their story choices, and the results of the choice are often on a smaller scale – are offset by the global events.

In solo play then, players determine the survival or involvement of these non-confrontational gods, and put them in a position where they can make a difference in the final, large-scale, solo piece of content that effectively ends the Age.

In this final piece of content, the gods will have been half-determined by solo choice, and the other by the community. Players will be invested, and will still have an experience that diverges from one another. Characters will react aesthetically and cosmetically to choices the player made in social play, acknowledging their help or condemning their efforts against. Ultimately, my experience of the final showdown as a player is different from that of my friends.

The 6th Age in RuneScape is an experiment for us. We hope that we convey a feeling of an unpredictable and ever-changing world that, from a development point of view, also keeps us on our toes. We cannot predict what players determine in the global events, so the directions of our narrative are very much chosen by our community. That excites us.

We're even seeing the effect on our developers, often outside of this story setting. Developers are enthusiastically asking players who they would like ruling one of our dwarven cities. Another designer has prototyped a parody of our god events, where players can choose between militarised cabbages or hungry monkeys.

We're all motivated to see where this choice-oriented approach takes us, and – based on reactions from our tentative first steps – the players are on board too.