MMORPG Fantasy: Stories And The Quest For The Holy Grail

A Confusion of Campaigns 1: A Review of Games Literature

I would like to attempt a new way of seeing Fantasy MMORPGs. To that objective, this article is a homage to the many articles and thoughts I’ve read, in particular on gamasutra and these will be referenced heavily throughout.



At present I think the cutting-edge wisdom of mmorpg development is captured in this talk by Goblinworks CEO Ryan Dancey, demonstrating a quick tour of the history of the genre and the major families within: Themepark vs Sandbox and the lessons of this applied to:-

Perhaps the most useful distinction between the two types of approaches to mmorpg development I continually refer back to, reposted via Gamasutra: Do you want your game to do everything or do one thing very well? in which Damion Schubert manages to define the categories more usefully:-

Ultima Online and EverQuest represent two very different game philosophies. Ultima Online’s creators tried very hard to create a virtual world with physics and interactions that mimicked the real world, so players could interact with each other in ways meant to model reality: You can chop down trees, dye clothes, build houses, attack almost anyone anywhere, and steal anything that isn’t nailed down.
By comparison, EverQuest is a simple game, not much more than a combat simulator designed to mimic the basics of combat found in tabletop board games and old online Multiuser Dungeons (MUDs). Combat in EverQuest is very deep and intricate compared to that in Ultima Online, with far more ways for players to attack and manipulate their enemies. However, combat aside, EverQuest was perceived to not be a very feature-rich game. Most of the world interactions in Ultima Online aren’t in EverQuest, and when they are, they aren’t particularly deep or fleshed out—to the extent that many observers felt that EverQuest would be too simple for the newly invented massively multiplayer genre. As it turned out, EverQuest easily beat Ultima Online’s numbers, and a few years later, a rematch of the two MMO design philosophies paired Star Wars Galaxies against World of Warcraft — with a repeat of the same end result.
As it turned out, Ultima Online has a lot of features, but many of those features don’t have a lot of depth to them; it is broad, rather than deep. EverQuest has fewer features, but a combat model that is very deep (and became deeper as new boss mechanics were added to respond to an increasingly savvy audience). EverQuest is a game about depth.
The Pitfall of Breadth

Most junior designers come into the industry favoring breadth. They want to design the perfect game, and they want to do so by throwing every possible feature under the sun into the design soup. This is especially true in massively multiplayer game design, where the possibilities of what you can do in a game is effectively unbounded — a virtual world can already incorporate almost any feature of the real world. Even worse, most game genre devotees imagine that the perfect game in their genre is one that combines all of the best elements of other games, because they don’t recognize the underlying costs of all of those systems.

You can read Raph Koster’s most recent retrospective compendium on: Did Star Wars Galaxies Fail?. Where the success of World Of Warcraft (WOW) led to the Themepark mmorpgs inheriting the lion’s share of investment funding for development over the next decade and it seems to me perhaps culminating in the creation/refinement of this model to a new level in a new genre: MOBA’s. Whereas mmorpg design through the Sandbox mmorpgs I believe inherited an alternative measure of success, less commercially profitable from such games as UO or SWG: Stories. One such example I find makes my hands shakey and sweaty with excitement while “the goosebumps of adventure” rise is Patrick Desjardines personal tale: How I Helped Destroy Star Wars Galaxies .

Here the player managed to fashion a personal story where they actually became “The Dark Lord” aka Overcoming The Monster with literally “world-destroying” powers. This contrasts to the tightly controlled ad hoc narration of what are often called derisively “Fed-ex quests” or “Kill 10 rats quests”. Genesis Davies records further examples here: Genese Davis: Twelve Famous Player-Driven MMORPG Moments .



What is notable is that player-driven stories arise post hoc where the preconditions for emergence are present. The roots of modern MUDs and MMORPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) appears to balance in an equally split manner between “Crunchy Systems vs Theatre Of Mind“: Here’s how Dungeons & Dragons is changing for its new edition:

D&D Adventure & Treasure

The most recent version of the D&D rules is 4th Edition, which changed the franchise — for better or worse, depending on who you’re talking to — to something more akin to a board game. More than ever before, procedural rules (particularly in combat) were codified; players relied largely on the powers allotted to their class to execute the most damage and strategic advantage as possible during their turn. Before a battle even started, you knew what your party was capable of; improvising or role-playing in combat was possible, but rarely as effective or rewarded as using your best preselected Power.

The changes made the game far more inviting to an audience of video game enthusiasts; like a video game, its mechanics, player abilities and progression systems were almost entirely determined by the game itself. While the multitude of options afforded to players by the game wasn’t lacking in quantity or variety, longtime D&D players found the system too restrictive, and far less imaginative than past editions.

Moreover, playing without miniatures and game boards (using “Theater of the Mind”) was nearly impossible, considering the number of abilities reliant on specific player positioning.

This split is very well described and captured by Josh Bycer in The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design:-

One of the key areas of evolution in game design has to be the merging of genres. Games like the Uncharted series combine shooting, puzzle, and adventure elements together.

Besides expanding the gameplay, this serves another purpose; it opens up the game to more people.

Two genres that have been working the hardest to do this would be action games and RPGs. The determining factor is the abstraction of skill and how each game handles it differently. This has lead to the term “skill abstraction.” It’s defined as:

The degree of which player skill (or input) has an effect on the gameplay.

In their infancy, both genres existed on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Slowly, over the years, games designed for both genres have been moving inward. Action games have been adding more RPG elements; RPGs have become more action oriented.

On one hand, this has opened up the respective genres to more gamers. However, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “…you can’t please all the people, all the time.”

Skill Abstraction in Game Design

Cross-referencing “Skill Abstraction” with “Breadth vs Depth” leads to the mmorpg model of Diku-MUD/EQ and the Themepark model which itself appears to have led to the MOBA genre of small team/party combat mechanics and high player skill I would make the observation. Even GW2 developers when creating arena-pvp were heavily impressed with League Of Legends (LoL). The other direction MMORPGs with higher player skill can go is towards FPS perspective and possibly further VR for greater engagement and stimulation of our senses ie more directly “visceral” experiences. Star Citizen appears to be imo WOW 2.0 in terms of it’s likely commercial success and technological break-through via more akin to MO- as opposed to MMO- but with much greater visceral combat via spaceships and FPS avatars in effect: Dual-Avatar representation and even including Team-Avatar representation via crew on-board the same ship controlling different functions. According to Keith Burgun Why I Hate the Term “Permadeath”:-

So, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

In role-playing video games (RPGs), permanent death (sometimes permadeath or PD) is a situation in which player characters (PCs) die permanently and are removed from the game. … This is in contrast to games in which characters who are killed (or incapacitated) can be restored to life (or full health), often at some minor cost to the character.

In my opinion, that accurately reflects what most people think of as permadeath in videogames.

There are two major problems with this terminology.

1. It assumes that persistence is and should be the default way that things work

2. It erroneously mis-characterizes “permanent consequences/persistence” as a non-central “feature”

3. Minor issue, but still problematic – it presumes/implies that every game has some central, singular avatar. Like, you wouldn’t call non-persistence in Civilization “permadeath”, would you? “Death”, everyone should be aware, is a thematic element, not a mechanical one.

He’s identifying this contention with RPG’s persistence of avatar character power increase which allows the concept of story of becoming a more powerful hero; which if converted into story progression as per Christopher Booker‘s Seven Basic Plots: Meta-plot:

The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come. This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility. However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero has their first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost. This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes their burden against the odds.

The so-called “character” (more apt to call the avatar “combatant”) power curve is effectively a gamification of the above concept of a character’s story arc in stories. You can see a lot of “dimensions” are lost in this translation: It’s literally very one-dimensional. Tom Francis comes up with a superlative description relating Games Vs Story 2:-

Tom Francis: Story Dimensions Comparison between mediums

1. Fixed story: in a game like Half-Life 2, the player has no influence on the story at all. You either do what the characters tell you to and it works out the way the writer wrote it, or you die or stop. I pick Half-Life 2 because it makes this work: I loved the game and cared about the story. It doesn’t feel ideal, though. The story doesn’t add anything to the action or vice versa, it was an extraordinary amount of work to create, and the story gets less interesting each time you replay it.


2. Chooseable story: in a game like Mass Effect, all of the story is pre-written, but you often make big decisions about how it plays out. By the end of the series, there are a huge number of possible eventualities for the characters and races that come about convincingly from your decisions. But you’re still only choosing from a discrete number of eventualities that have all been catered for by the writers, which means a lot of work for them and limited possibilities for you.


3. Generate minimal story: in Spelunky, you’re an adventurer delving into some caves. Everything else is generated by the game’s systems, which are universally consistent and create new experiences every time. The trade-off is that what it generates is rather vague in story terms.


You might do something mechanically interesting to save a damsel, but she’s just ‘a damsel’, a mindless placeholder for a person with no character or uniqueness. It does a great job of making you care about these elements for mechanical reasons, but the stories it generates read more like (good, complex) action scenes than anything with plot or character.


4. Generate rich story: a game like Galactic Civilizations 2 puts you in charge of a civilisation and gives you a lot of choice in how you deal with others: war, peace, trade, non-military rivalry, secret deals to screw over other civs, etc. From what I understand Crusader Kings 2 is even richer, letting you hatch assassination plots against particular members of particular royal families to shift the balance of power the way you want.

These games generate high-level story – ‘plot’ – through their mechanics, and express it through pre-written dialogues that may crop up multiple times. That means they might not be entirely convincing – every few turns, the Drengin in GalCiv2 threaten me with the same line of dialogue about demanding tribute. But there are at least named characters saying specific things, and in GalCiv they have a lot of personality.

These games are probably the closest we’ve got to merging interaction and story in a way where both really add something to each other. But they all tend to be about managing a civilisation, which is just one very particular kind of story.



It’s a very useful progression and model (see pic) although it’s interesting that he does not include a 5. Generate Emergent Story: a game like EVE Online where a useful distinction is made between:

  • “Users” = Players who play against the computer systems
  • “Participants” = Players who primarily play against each other



EVE Online demonstrates this as the exemplar in it’s field I believe:-

  • The secret to EVE Online’s success: It’s all bottom-up
  • Infinite Space: An Argument for Single-Sharded Architecture in MMOs
  • EVE Online and the meaning of ‘sandbox’
  • The Icelandic Model of MMO Development


  • Tynan Sylvester in The Simulation Dream points out that this is actually quite a well known “idealistic destination” of game design, citing such fabulous games as: Dwarf Fortress Stories and more Dwarf Fortress Stories.

    The problem is that simulations with a lot of moving parts quickly become complex in the intimidating academic sense. There are so many pieces interacting that the game can easily become too much to understand, predict, or play with. All the interesting stuff in the game ends up lost in the silicon, inaccessible to the human players’ understanding.

    And that’s really the key – making complex simulated events accessible to human understanding. Which brings us to a nerdy idea I like to call the Player Model Principle.

    Player Model Principle:“The whole value of a game is in the mental model of itself it projects into the player’s mind.”


    We make a simulation in computer code. That is a computer model of some situation – a dwarven fortress, a prison, and so on. But that is not the only model of that situation designers need to worry about. There is another model of that fortress or prison – the mental model in the player’s mind, which the player constructs while playing the game. Designers create the Game Model out of computer code, while the player creates their own Player Model by observing, experimenting, and inferring during the play.

    In play, the Game Model is irrelevant. Players can’t perceive it directly. They can only perceive the Player Model in their minds. That’s where the stories are told. That’s where dilemmas are resolved. So the Game Model we create is just a pathway through which we create the Player Model in the player’s mind.

    The Player Model Principle indicates a source of risk. Namely, anything in the Game Model that doesn’t copy into the Player Model is worthless.



    The Focus if we rely on using the model of understanding being “The Player Model Principle” is indeed, truly “where the stories are told” as exemplified by dwarf fortress and as applied with this core focus on “player content” in EVE Online ie social networks. And the warning that presents is of significant financial interest, for example CCP’s attempts to create a new Fantasy MMORPG called World Of Darkness met with failure:-

    • World of Darkness MMO an unfortunate casualty of latest round of CCP layoffs
    • World of Darkness – the inside story on the death of a game
    • “I tested it myself, on two different occasions out of those three,” says Blood. “With the first playtest, I was amazed at how little of the core game was there – at this point the game had been in development for over half a decade. I mean, there was just nothing, literally nothing, for someone like me, a complete outsider to the WoD IP, to appreciate.



      Interesting attempts to understand the “player model” via more reductive methods according to “neuroeconimics” by Ramin Shokrizade have also pointed in a similar direction via different approaches, The Rise Of Neuroeconomics:-

      So how can this technology be used to help consumers? By making products give them the rewards they are seeking. Remove all of the painful/boring parts of games that we keep repeating decade after decade. Make video games less predictable and more social. Any company that does this honestly and transparently with their customers is going to quickly build a loyal following, and their products will render today’s games non-competitive.


      I think Richard Bartle‘s article The Decline of MMO’s manages to sum up the major issues surrounding MMORPG development from a high-level point of view:-

      Ten years ago, massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs) had a bright and exciting future. Today, their prospects do not look so glorious. In aneffort to attract ever-more players, their gameplay has gradually been diluted and their core audience has deserted them. Now that even their sources of new casual players are drying up, MMOs face a slow and steady decline. Their problems are easy to enumerate: they cost too much to make; too many of them play the exact same way; new revenue models put off key groups of players; they lack immersion; they lack wit and personality; players have been trained to want experiences that they don’t actually want; designers are forbidden from experimenting. The solutions to these problems are less easy to state. Can anything be done to prevent MMOs from fading away? Well, yes it can. The question is, will the patient take the medicine?



      Of particular note:-

      Re-use of technical assets. We saw this in the days of text MUDs, when people would take a complete game engine and use it to create a new game curiously imilar to the new games everyone else using the engine created. The worlds would change but the games wouldn’t.
      Depth is difficult. Today’s graphical worlds are excellent at making a world look real, but as a consequence it’s harder for them to
      behave real. Characters jump into a river without making a splash, then swim across it in full armour without sinking, to emerge without being wet and with the glass of milk they’ve had in their backpack for several years still as fresh as the day they bought it (Bartle, 2011). This happens because animating all these effects for every object is simply too expensive an undertaking(it was far easier in text, where it merely had to be described in words).
      Other players grief. To protect players from one another, MMOs omit common functionality that objects in the real worldexhibit. This makes the virtual world less immersive.
      Design as art. Game design in general and MMO design in particular is an art form. It’s not treated as such either by the game industry or by the wider world. Designers aren’t seen as authors but as content creators. There is little opportunity to use MMOs to say anything, even though their origins were all about saying something (Bartle, 2010). If designers aren’t allowed to express themselves through their creativity, why are they designing?



      I think these are the major culprits Bartle points out. But above all else, and instead of the deductive approach of “neuroeconmics” above, the “inductive” approach of Richard Bartle from the top-down as opposed to bottom-up: Richard Bartle: we invented multiplayer games as a political gesture. To use J. R.R. Tolkien‘s “Mythopoeia” as a literary allegory of the decay in mmorpg development:-

      This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction… As distinguished from fantasy worlds or fictional universes aimed at the evocation of detailed worlds with well-ordered histories, geographies, and laws of nature, mythopoeia aims at imitating and including real-world mythology, specifically created to bring mythology to modern readers, and/or to add credibility and literary depth to fictional worlds in fantasy or science fiction books and movies.

      In The Musical Heart of the Lands of Narnia and Middle-earth by Dan Kinney:-

      Many readers were introduced to the works of both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien ata young age. Their stories told of worlds that were filled with creatures such as elves,dwarves, dragons, and other magical creatures and places. However, the level of detailthat both Lewis and Tolkien used to craft their separate mythic worlds was lost upon mostchildren until they grew older and discovered exactly how much time and energy wasspent creating these two separate fantasy worlds. As children, we relate most closely tocharacters and situations that are familiar to us; these are the first hooks of a story that pull us in and allow us to suspend our disbelief. The older a reader becomes, the moreeasily they are able to identify and relate to the subtleties in such stories. The concepts,ideologies, and the fabric of the story itself become much more important to readers asthey grow older. One common thread that weaves itself through the stories of both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is the music which is at the heart of the worlds of both Narniaand Middle-earth.



      I suspect this echoes what inspired Richard Bartle to use the allusion of “singing into existence a virtual world” which itself had it’s basis in a much deeper concept informing the creation process. Much like what George R.R. Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” alludes to at this greatest of scales of story telling. Modern mmorpgs have all the training and tools to create “virtual worlds” but “nothing with which to say” or as per Bartle “why?”? This why question is indeed being asked such as the realization that many players don’t have the time to play long hours of games particularly as they become older. In fact a great deal of research has been conducted to elucidate: Unmasking the Avatar: The Demographics of MMO Player Motivations, In-Game Preferences, and Attrition by Nick Yee. I suspect following the pattern described above concerning Story with increasing understanding/maturity a lot of modern games fail to as per “neuroeconomics” match player needs in the market and such marketing research provides glimpses if not clear outlines of conclusions. Ramin Shokrizade again makes some telling observations concerning player motivation behind playing in MMORPG’s: The Barrier to Big:-

      I’m going to let you in on a secret I have been sitting on for years now. It was never about Big.


      It was about Equity.


      The Role of Equity in Gaming

      When you put a lock on the door to your house, it is not just to protect your life, but to protect your belongings. Both have value to you that has built up over your lifetime. This is equity. When you call the police and they come to help you, it is to protect that same equity and possibly the equity of others. This is how our society is built, and how we are trained from the moment we learn the word “mine”.

      We often describe this in games as “persistence”, but what we are always talking about in these cases is equity.

      Ramin Shokrizade further identifies: Group Monetization

      Persistent Gaming Collectives

      When a player elects to participate in a multiplayer game, one of the primary motivations is to interact with other players. If this was not a strong motivator, the player likely would have a better experience playing a dedicated single player game. When a game design permits it, or better yet rewards it, gamers in multiplayer environments tend to rapidly and organically form groups. Because of the strong motivations and communication opportunities found in such games, groups of gamers quickly form a gaming collective if the interaction is allowed to be persistent.

      Examples of games where Persistent Gaming Collectives (PGC) have formed would include World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Games like League of Legends and World of Tanks, where matchmaking is largely anonymous and the social interactions last only for the duration of a battle, do not foster the creation of PGCs. The key difference is whether friendships and repeating peer interactions are fostered, as these types of relationships create peer pressure and reinforcement that can greatly increase retention and willingness to spend. In environments where persistent groups are allowed to form, and interact with other groups (cooperatively or competitively) the PGC is functionally the size of the entire server.

      What is striking about the above:

      • Scale of Economics in Virtual Worlds and it’s implications via “equity”
      • Scale of Social Interaction in Virtual Worlds and it’s implications via “shared story”



      It should be notable that Nation States or Relgious Groups all share a sense of a “shared narrative” in creating bonds of trust for a society with which to create higher orders of organization necessary for human running of organizations at this scale of people included and in Democratic Western traditions where “property” and “habeaus corpus” form the basis of our civilizations’ “freedoms and laws”. What this is all building towards is encapulated by Chris Bateman‘s The Aesthetic Flaws of Games:-

      My basis for this enquiry are the three Rules of Game Worlds that I discussed in my blog-letter to Dan Cook last year. These were intended to be guidelines for creating game worlds – that is, principles for how the fictional world of a game (where its narratives will be set) connect with its mathematical systems (where its mechanics operate). However, I sense that these rules may have some formal depth to them, and indeed might have more general forms that could include other artworks. For now, let us accept them as descriptive ‘rules’, so they can guide an investigation into how games produce aesthetic flaws of kinds that other artworks simply do not.



      The three Rules of Game Worlds are as follows:

      • Setting and mechanics must accord.
      • Any and all mechanical sub-worlds must merge with the game world.
      • No-one plays alone.

      Each of these can be used to reveal a specific kind of aesthetic flaw unique to games – and indeed, can reveal a schism between different aesthetic values for play that lead to different kinds of aesthetic flaw. This is key to what follows, for we must appreciate that ‘aesthetic flaw’ is not an absolute claim, nor is it ‘merely subjective’: an aesthetic flaw occurs between a game and its player as a direct result of a difference in values.

      The final reference on aesthetic I think is immensely useful as a “guiding principle” in the design of a Virtual World for the Simulation of Story-Generation on a Scale described as MMO-, which will be the subject of the next blog post.

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