GDC Online: Five Point Takeaway from Tim Cain’s Talk on MMO Participatory Storytelling

Making the an single-player RPG-style story at the end of an MMO was the subject of Tim Cain’s GDC Online speech. The idea was presented as a fix the problems of telling a coherent participatory story that makes a person feel as special in a world of thousands of players as when the story centers on just them. This Five Point Takeaway attempts to summarize the core ideas he presented as part of this fix.

1. Having a person choose a background from the start of the game. Not only does Cain feel this can be used for attribute setting, it can be a subversive way of making sure a person spends times learning a character’s history and motivations and having some attachment to that decision. Then getting into the game, their particular story can be crafted and set-up during the tutorial stage leading into mid-leveling.

2. Traditional storytelling and questing instances still maintain their place through the mid-leveling portions of the game. Cain makes a point of differentiating between those zone stories and “world” story to be the centerpiece of the end game. He doesn’t want to take away from makes an MMO in terms of leveling up,  learning abilities, getting items, crafting and earning in the economy, earning achievements and being social. But the designer wants to assure the story doesn’t suffer for it. He particularly pointed to leveling process as a distraction.

3. Big amongst of the freedoms the idea allows, Cain said, would be the ability for designers and writers to assume many things about players. For starters, as the idea allows for this world story to unlock at the level cap, there’s not issues of worrying about players being underpowered, not having experienced certain in-game events, not being without certain key items. It’s an shared experience easier to script as players enter don’t enter into story events unprepared for the challenges of the story ahead.

4. Though not exactly put in these terms, there as a load of Cain hopes to be aspirational teasing that can be done this way. One example given was that of a boss sitting atop a mountain that could be seen but not quite reached by lower level players. Encountering the boss wouldn’t be instanced but there were enough high-level monsters surrounding the monster to serve as a deterrent until the person was powerful enough to face this boss. Another example involved placing a level-60 lieutenant in an area where first encountered, there was no shot of defeating the boss and townspeople would tell the player of a specific item needed to eliminating that foe. In such a case, the it foreshadowed a battle to come and gave a reason to want to come back to an area previously visited at a higher level.

5. Cain presented the entire idea of holding back this world story as a reward for player whom have taken the time to max out their characters. That only then would particular items and drops become available and through an in-game newspaper, other players would get to read of the exploits of a particular player offering a sort of in-game “fame” in Cain’s words.

My Takeaway: It’s an interesting idea, particularly to me as an RPG-player cares little for most MMO-conventions and loves a good story. I do have some pause as non-MMO gamer about having to max-out a player to get to that world story, as that’s rarely a task I and many other RPG fans ever care to accomplish in many single-player RPGs. But as a fan of story in games and anything that may serve to push that forward and make the process easier for game designers is a good thing.

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