Game design, Opinion, WoW

I’m just along for the ride

We interrupt this regular random shaman image broadcast for a special bulletin.

Hello Planet of the Hats. You may remember me from such posts as that one guest post I did here once which I’m not going to link to as frankly it wasn’t very well written. Today I want to write about something that’s been gestating in my mind for a while, and now it’s finally ready to pop out in a messy spectacle of verbal diarrhoea, hopefully without a crying child at the end. I’ve upset more than enough toddlers for the day through other means. I would like to talk about choice. More specifically, narrative choice. Particularly, how World of Warcraft (this is a World of Warcraft blog, right?) neglects this potentially interesting design path and instead favours a more linear approach.

To explore this issue, I present you with this hopelessly convoluted choose-your-own-adventure blog post. The rules are quite simple, really: every so often you will be presented with a choice. Depending on your answer you will be directed to another section of the post, indicated by the numbers in front of the paragraphs. Jump to that point, read on! Make your next choice! Repeat till you get to the end of the post. Hopefully there will be no infinite loops. If there are, I apologise, clearly I need to hire a programmer.

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§1. Let us begin. The thing is, I don’t really mind narrative (or, in relation, game mechanical) linearity in games. In fact, there’s a lot of merit to that particular direction of game design. World of Warcraft proves it to us time and time again, doesn’t it? Is it really a worse game because it adopts a linear storyline, with a resulting themepark-ride game structure? I very much enjoy questing in general, for example. Of course, I have certain qualms with it, but most of those have very little to do with the mere fact that it doesn’t provide us with an option to CHOOSE. The reason we sigh at yet another “kill 10 boars” quest isn’t its lack of choices or its narrative rigidity, it’s the fact that we’ve already done a couple hundred (albeit slightly different versions) of those. Or perhaps because it feels too much like a camouflaged grind with very little tangible reward. At this point in the levelling curve we barely see our XP bars rising anymore through the quest’s completion. THOSE are the real problems. So yeah, linearity, not necessarily an issue in itself. Do you agree? If you do, go to §2. If you don’t, go to §3.

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§2. Sure, linearity is pretty great if it’s done well. And arguably, it is in WoW. However, there’s also a lot of merit to a different approach. We could of course just leave things at “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I think it’s always important to look for ways to improve even things which aren’t necessarily broken. Games are a fundamentally interactive medium. That’s what makes them games. We don’t just passively absorb a series of images, pages of text or a sequence of notes and chords, we actively engage with this medium, we become involved in what we’re playing. I think this unique factor is something to be cherished, not quelled. A game designer should do everything in his or her power to exploit this interactivity. Shouldn’t that also apply to the game’s narrative? Transferring a story to a player through cutscenes, through a linear path, is a valid road to take. But shouldn’t the player be stimulated to interact with the story itself, if that’s at all a possible road to take? If I want to be dragged along in a story, I have other media to look into which have a much longer history and a much more developed range of techniques to do so. If I want to have an influence on the world around me, on the actual plot that I’m submerging myself in, games are the only medium which are capable of providing me with that experience. So shouldn’t WoW be trying to do that as well? If you’re leaning towards “yes”, go to §3. If “no” is more up your alley, go to §4.

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§3. You have to consider though that there’s a lot of value in a linear approach to narrative. Blizzard becomes a director, taking us from scene to scene in an experience which approaches a movie. To be fair, that’s not exactly how things are playing out at the moment in WoW. It’s a direction a lot of mainstream action games are taking right now though, exemplified best by last year’s Uncharted 2 (if any readers here play console games!). And I’d argue it’s also the direction Blizzard would gradually like to take us WoW players. Some freedom will always remain, thanks to the fact that we can pick and choose which quests and questlines we take on. But that’s not much of a choice, is it? I think where WoW is going, looking at the Icecrown questing experience for example (and I have to say I haven’t played the beta, so I can’t judge how Cataclysm is faring in this respect), is more tightly directed questlines which clearly progress the narrative, push it forward along specific points, with us being taken along for the ride. Hopefully with us genuinely affecting the world through phasing, but either way, adopting a linear, directed approach to narrative. This has always been the case, but arguably it’s even more the case the longer the questlines get and the more we are all progressing the storyline in the same way (the less we can pick and choose quests, in other words, which is the sole illusion of choice that remains).

Tram!

Truly the epitome of an on-rails experience.

Now, as I said this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Controlling the way the story pans out is pretty crucial for a developer, it not only allows them to always direct the player along the most interesting path (as there is effectively only a single path), but it also ensures they keep their grip on the storyline, which is quite important. Without that firm grip on the way events are unfolding, they wouldn’t be able to build a respected canon of lore, a background story we all share. Which in itself isn’t just necessary to allow every writer to be on even grounds and to make sure everyone has the same information (what would the Knaaks of this world do if every player just evolved the plot in his or her own particular way?), but it’s also a potentially unifying factor in a game which is largely ABOUT communities. Say I had a choice once I got to Arthas: kill him or let him live? Take the evil path and join him, perhaps? That would lead to all sorts of problems, not least of which would be a pretty big falling out with your guild, which probably (hopefully) consists of people you consider your friends. So narrative choice: bad idea. If you agree, go to §4. If you don’t, go to §5.

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§4. There’s a lot more to say in favour of the non-linear approach. Primarily, consider the possibility that we, as players, would be able to influence the direction of the story. A lot of RPGs in the past (starting with Fallout) and indeed, all the way up to the likes of Dragon Age or The Witcher, have taken this approach, and they’ve been all the better for it. In fact, some might even argue that that’s the very core of a role-playing experience: your character has the possibility to CHOOSE, and through his choices shape the world around him. In Fallout or The Witcher, every action has a consequence. This is an exciting prospect. It adds a ton of weight to whatever you do in the game, because you realise that things are up to YOU. The story ISN’T set in stone, it’s entirely down to the choices you make. You can’t just lazily click through quest text, only glancing at the items you need to collect or the location of the quest mobs, because your actions might change the way NPCs interact with you, and indeed, change the places you frequent. You’re no longer a passive component, a puppet in what is supposedly a fundamentally interactive experience, you’re a crucial element in the story’s progression. It sounds daunting, but that’s because it is. Questing at the moment isn’t exactly the most involving of experiences. It’s FUN, but at the end of the day it’s not particularly engaging, especially on a narrative level. Adding choices and consequences to the equation might change that entirely. If you agree, go to §5. If you don’t, go to §6.

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§5. Consider for a moment though, the massive technical (and other) concerns in developing a non-linear approach to narrative. One might argue this sort of thing is simply not feasible, especially with the huge added layer of complexity the MMO part of MMORPG provides. If so few singleplayer RPGs can effectively pull it off, how could an MMO ever do it? Because, looking at a lot of singleplayer RPGs, very few have in fact pulled it off successively. Choices are often superficial, or have extremely similar (or no discernible) consequences, rendering the entire point of implementing them moot. If what I choose will have the same outcome no matter what option I pick, why bother implementing the choice in the first place? Some of Bioware’s games are particularly guilty of this, but they’re certainly not the only examples.

The reason for this is simple though. Building this kind of non-linear narrative with an active player involvement, with choices which have profound effects on the game world, is incredibly difficult to realise in practice. RPG history is rife with examples of games where the implementation has gone horribly wrong, resulting in a truckload of bugs and a general lack of polish: from Arcanum to Alpha Protocol. A lot more testing is required to iron out all the kinks, which often means less gloss (something Blizzard, considering its track record, isn’t likely to accept) in other areas or just plain unfinished games. Which isn’t even mentioning all the problems that arise when the other players are factored in. A shared world which everyone affects in their own personal way? How is that going to work? If you have similar reservations, go to §6. If you disagree, go to §9.

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§6. I think that the current incarnation of WoW presents us with a kind of paradox though. On the one hand, we are often encouraged to see WoW as our own personal story, and we DO have a hand in shaping it. This happens from the very first screen we encounter when we log into the game: the character creation screen. In the character creation screen, we’re crafting the basis of our own story. We’re choosing our faction, race, class, all of which have certain narrative implications. Druids have a background story in the lore, just as trolls or night elves do. Simultaneously, other choices are taking place. We don’t just limit ourselves to the categorisations provided by Blizzard themselves, I think a lot of players (and this doesn’t just include players on an RP realm) also have a backstory in mind which they crafted specifically for their character. Even if they’re horribly vague or entirely informal, we have certain ideas about who our characters are, and what, in their minds, would be acceptable behaviour. I’m sure there’s an equally large group of players out there who don’t necessarily have those sorts of ideas and consequently just scan the quest text for the number of boars to kill, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a sizeable group that DOES create a backstory for their characters. This makes the whole character creation process a deeply personal affair where we make important (narrative) choices about who we want our characters to be within this world.

Impressive beard

Some important choices which will affect the entire game experience have to be made at the character creation screen, such as the amount and colour of your facial hair.

On the other hand, there is a blatant lack of narrative choice in the rest of the game. We can’t choose to complete a quest in a certain way simply because the only completion option provided doesn’t conform with our character’s beliefs. The only choice we have in the matter is to complete or abandon the quest, which is essentially a fake choice as abandoning it shuts us off from potential rewards and a continuing storyline. There’s something that irks me about this: the character creation seems to stimulate me to, indeed, build an online persona akin to an RPer’s, while the rest of the game doesn’t accommodate those choices, it effectively neglects them entirely. Shouldn’t Blizzard be trying to make sure that same very personal shaping of character identity is present in the rest of the game as well, or at least not send out conflicting signals about player choice? If your answer is yes, go to §8. If your answer is no, go to § 7.

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§7. There’s one last thing I’d like you to take into account. Choice is valuable in more than one way. I won’t go off into too much detail here as that’d lead me too far, and frankly this subject is worth a blog post by itself, or perhaps a series of books. Games to me can be several things. They can be entertaining (just plain FUN), they can be intellectually stimulating, they can be emotionally engaging, they can even have some tangible real life consequences. I’m a firm believer that life is all about choices, and that we as human beings are fundamentally determined by the choices we make. I’ve found that having the possibility to choose my own path in a game isn’t just fun in and of itself, it’s also incredibly rich in its potential for real life usage. Building on the fact that a choice is always very much a reflexive action, which encourages active thought, it can be used to raise questions about morality: I can give you more than one example where I reevaluated or at least reflected on my stance on important real life issues because an RPG presented me with a difficult moral choice. Questions of identity are consequently not out of reach: who are we as people, and why are we choosing this option over the other? Is it simply because one of them yields a better reward, or is it because we feel it’s the right thing to do, and what we would do in a similar real life situation? The possible implications are vast, and this is why choices can also be valuable tools outwith the games themselves. If you agree, go to §8. If you don’t, go to §9.

But what if we could TALK to the boars?

This could be so much more exciting with CHOICE.

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§8. I’m so happy you agree with me. Perhaps I was even able to convince you! Anything you’d like to add? Tell me in the comments!

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§9. Clearly I can’t convince you of how horribly wrong you are. Do explain your stance further in the comments.

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I hope this has proven that every choice is an illusion, and at the end of the day I was just manipulating you all to comment. You’re all just along for the ride, really.

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Discussion

9 thoughts on “I’m just along for the ride

  1. I hope you don’t make a habit of posts this good, I wouldn’t want the standard of the blog to increase above my level :P

    WoW is terrible for offering narrative choice… and I think it’s actually pretty terrible for any real kind of in-game choice beyond your class and spec, or how you use your time. For an example of the latter: even with the new 31-point talent trees we basically have to take 30-40 “mandatory” talents to be effective, and even most of the gear we “choose” is simply a case of taking the best available to us. Limiting availability generates a kind of uniqueness for each character.

    But on topic, somehow most of WoW is generic enough that even without any explicit choices to make in-character, you can impose your sense of character on the given narrative on some level and feel like you are a unique personality in the game world. But it’s very limited and you have to suspend your disbelief a lot. One thing I like about games which give even an illusion of choice – say, changing a few words here and there without altering the storyline, based on your responses in a conversation – is that even if nothing changes as a result of your choice, you still get to express something about your character in-world that is unique.

    For example, I recently played through Mass Effect for the first time, and sometimes a poorly-labelled conversation option would result in my character saying something very out of character. Even if this had no effect on the outcome of the conversation, I felt compelled to reload the pre-conversation save and go through the conversation again to have my character say something more suitable. For this reason it irritates me hugely when important conversations have vague response options and take place after, say, a 5 minute “boss” fight. Giving me a choice enhances my immersion in the world and my enjoyment of that experience, but also makes it more irritating when you do accidentally make a choice your character wouldn’t.

    Because WoW’s quest game is basically a front for grinding XP and cash and items, I doubt it could ever really support any sort of choice, even illusory ones that exist only to enhance engagement. And if it did, most folk would probably just click through the fastest and most rewarding way to get on with the grind. Which is a shame as it was really (r)evolutionary for an MMO. Even today after all the work they’ve put in to create lore-heavy quests which try to tell stories through scripted events and NPCs abusing /yell, they’re still basically awkward grind-substitutes. The occasional cutscene or out-of-game video helps, but of course those can’t include our characters. This leaves most of the work of generating a character to the player, and the “missions” that character takes part in can never really be more than a side-note – after all, if your character’s claim to fame is having helped kill Arthas, that makes it somewhat awkward to fit in with the hundred thousand other people who “helped” too.

    Hey look, I posted a long and rambly comment on YOUR post. How the tables have turned! 8-)

    Posted by Charles | October 29, 2010, 1:49 am
  2. @Charles, my question to the regarding the talent tree choice. If the community pressures you into a Elitist Jerks cookie cutter spec (think armory bashing on the forums), or you don’t get invited to a raid because your raid leader says your warlocks SL/SL spec is “terribad” for the Marrowgar weekly, isn’t that just an illusion of choice?

    Posted by Saandstorm | October 29, 2010, 6:29 pm
    • I don’t think it’s really the community which pressures us into taking a cookie cutter spec, I think it’s the game itself – because the game is balanced around characters being as effective as possible, which requires a certain talent build, which means that to stand the best chance of success in any given situation you need to min-max to a degree. The community enforces this because it kinda sucks if you wipe on a boss at 1% because someone in your raid is using their PvP spec, for example. Each player has to be at their best for the good of the whole team.

      The old talent trees allowed more choice in theory, but most of the choice they allowed was *bad* choice; the new trees are better because they give less illusion of choice by removing most stupid/bad talents, but for most classes allow a modicum of options for a few select points that don’t affect minmaxing. But my opinion is that the “choice” offered by talent trees is indeed mostly illusion. I almost wonder if it’d be better for the game if you were just assigned passive increases every time you level up, and got to choose a special ability or every 10 levels or something. But major glyphs seem to be the way they’re offering that sort of choice now.

      Even so, folks will always decide on a “best” choice for anything that affects game mechanics, and then most people will feel required to make the same “choice”.

      WoW doesn’t really offer much choice beyond the character creation screen, except for the choice of how you spend your time and who you spend it with.

      Posted by Charles | October 29, 2010, 6:49 pm
  3. I love branching story lines in single player games (KOTOR was fantastic), but I really don’t look for that in wow. My characters are tools for interacting with the game for me, rather than roles to play, and as such I basically ignore the story and any moral choices presented therein. I’m not thinking about my disc priest’s motivations when I’m healing, I’m thinking about mechanics that might kill me or my group. I guess I play the game the way I play sports – the goal is what I’m focused on, and how to achieve it, more than the story. I don’t mean to say at all that there is anything wrong with other methods or attitudes about how to play. I just want to win more than progress the plot.

    Posted by Shalak | October 30, 2010, 10:11 pm
  4. A very tricksy post indeed! I’m currently delving a lot into emotioneering and character/narrative development at the moment as part of my Honours project and you’ve posted a fair few examples of areas I need to cover. Thanks for doing my work for me.

    In relation to your post though, I firmly believe that Blizzard “could” make a few upgrades within the game to really sell a non-linear approach to storytelling and the development of your own character. It’s obviously going to be limited due to being utterly reliant on user interactivity to drive the story forward, especially with Blizzards new-ish fancy for taking it upon themselves to make everything as cinematic as possible. Our inclusion ends at the point where you see your badly geared character occasionally in the background of a pre-rendered cutscene, just so you can say “I’M THERE”, which feels about as involving as photoshopping your own face onto a bystander at the grassy knoll.

    I remember reading/hearing a couple of suggestions from the RP community, one along the lines of allowing a character description, much like the guild info tab for each person. Not a bad idea but doesn’t drive much force behind development. Another was similar to your suggestion about Arthas, wherein there would be a unique opportunity to “sell your soul” and re-roll DK during the LK events. Obviously that’s a bit extreme and Azeroth needs no more facerolling DK’s, but something along those lines is the right way. Something that doesn’t pigeonhole you so much into choices 1000 players have made before you. It’s a steep challenge, especially for an MMO but I have faith that improvements areat hand one day.

    I just want to be a BAttle-Mage, man.

    Posted by Markus | November 7, 2010, 3:20 am
  5. @Charles: I’d agree that the game is pretty poor at offering choices in general, as was also expressed by Saandstorm’s comment with regards to talent choices. I wonder if that’s necessarily a bad thing though, linear gameplay design has its merits – my post was contemplating the benefits and pitfalls of each school of design (particularly focusing on narrative, but you can certainly see parallels in how the rest of the game is structured).

    The problem you highlighted with Mass Effect I’d say is due to a poor implementation of dialogue choice, as opposed to some inherent flaw in that type of design (not that you were arguing otherwise). I’m still not entirely sure what the point was of the dialogue wheel, when you’ve got plenty of great examples in the history of RPGs using a simple system of “here’s exactly what your character can say next, it’s up to you to pick!” I think Bioware’s reasoning was partly that it was supposed to be more “cinematic” and partly to avoid redundancy due to all the lines being voice acted. I don’t think it works particularly well, as I ran into similar problems of “that’s really not what I wanted to say” through my ME playthroughs.

    You’re right about it being extremely hard to integrate any sort of narrative choice in the quest game as is, it’s almost incompatible with how the questing game is set up. My post was by no means trying to stimulate Blizzard to just change their entire design philosophy and the basic structure of the game, as integrating choice on the levels I proposed is simply not feasible, especially this late in the game’s lifespan. Nonetheless, I think it’s fruitful to reflect on the game’s direction, and indicate potential avenues for future games which might be more engaging.

    @Shalak: Exactly, and it’s interesting to think about the extent to which the way you approach the game’s narrative is dependent on how it’s designed in general. As Charles said, the game is basically set up in such a way that we’re encouraged to be as effective as possible, it’s a game where mastering the mechanics for most players is probably more important than progressing the storyline in any way. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just intriguing to look at the implications for player behaviour, how they interact with the storyline and others.

    @Markus: I think there’s definitely potential to involve players more into the storyline and make things more personal which Blizzard could look into. As I said, I don’t think a grand redesign is possible or even something I’d urge Blizzard to pursue at this point, but subtle changes like the option for a character biography would probably help the more narrative-inclined players build a more active engagement with the game. Again, due to the way the game is designed at its core most players will still probably just click through the quest text and focus on the mechanical aspect, but I think there’s a lot of potential value in helping players express their personality through the game and play a personal part in the narrative.

    Posted by Razz | November 10, 2010, 12:14 pm

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