The main problem with introducing real consequence to multiplayer games is that a significant portion of players want to see everything, or at least feel like they would be able to if they spent enough time. And beyond that, years of single-player games and other hero-lead narrative media, as well as a natural and understandable desire to be powerful and significant, have lead players to expect to play a pivotal role in all major events. Finally, the expectation of home media is that it be accessible in perpetuity: the consumer is king, and should be able to access what they've paid for at any time (never mind the rapidly diminishing technological relevance, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, gameplay sophistication*). Even in the much smaller-scale and brief context of a non-massive multiplayer game it can be hard for developers to keep things from feeling flat: introducing systems that allow for variety, development, and a general feeling of personal contribution can be a challenge. The increased emphasis on personalization, character development, support abilities and more detailed scoring schemes is an attempt to keep players of all competencies engaged for longer. Interestingly, all bar the last could be argued to have been borrowed from RPGs, perhaps a hopeful signal for the idea, but it's worth pointing out that the RPGs from which they're being borrowed are all very much hero stories.
For a story-driven game to be effective, it must have varied and interesting content. This is costly to develop, which is why most MMORPGs are essentially a lot of people playing a relatively small-scale RPG with a lot of other people milling around in the same geographical space. There are, of course, things that make it more interesting than that, such as PvP servers and trading, but the meat and potatoes is recycled for everyone.
Returning to the point about player agency, I believe this is the reason why a lot of large-scale games partition action into smaller units. MAG sounded very impressive and possibly interesting with its 128-player matches, but as I understand it the way they handled it was by dividing the players into smaller squads, and sending the squads to different parts of the map for most of the round. The reason they do this is entirely valid: if you don't do that, you tend to end up with unmanageable mayhem in one area, but it does make one question the actual value of having all the other players in your world, if you don't directly interact with them. I imagine there is something interesting about being in a huge map and roaming from area to area as the battle progresses, and I believe the rounds do end with a big mêlée in the middle, which is crazy and probably quite fun but would become tiring before long, but the fact of the scale seems to be less crucial to the fundamental substance of the game than it might at first appear. There is also a meta-game element whereby territory on a world map is won or lost according to the outcome of matches, but since it's a competitive game and nobody likes to lose forever, I imagine there are incentives for new players to join losing factions, and being an endless war it all seems rather meaningless to me.
So I suppose your idea of having an actual conclusion is appealing, but that comes up against the desire for all things to be at least theoretically accessible at all times. World of Warcraft has experimented with meaningful world change with Cataclysm, but I think that's very much a case of replacing old content with equivalent new content: it's a "refresh", and places don't necessarily serve their old function any more, but somewhere does, so it shouldn't pull the rug out from under established players too badly. I'm not a player, though, so please correct me if I'm wrong.
Anyway, this is meandering quite badly, so I'll try to summarize the various options I can think of:
a) The story is scripted and plays out at a meta-game level, whilst the gameplay itself is not story-driven.
This is quite achievable (the main obstacle, I imagine, would be generating lots of level assets, but MMOs already do a fairly good job of this). It's difficult to keep people engaged and feeling like their contribution is important, however; are they just wiping out wave after wave of an immense horde of enemies? I can see some sort of satisfaction in seeing the scenery gradually change as you push back the enemy line, and in knowing that this was achieved through combined effort, perhaps, but I don't see it being enough of a draw to justify itself.
b) The story is scripted and is integrated into the gameplay.
The problem with these is the conflict between agency over one's own story and agency over others'. To guarantee them a significant role in their own game, the player must to a certain extent be insulated from the actions of others. You will see others in your world, and might be temporarily affected when they, for example, kill a quest-giver, but in the long run you will have the same opportunities offered to you as to everyone else. To allow them the ability to change the world with a specific action, they must be able to deny others to do the same. To script enough meaningful events for all players would be prohibitively expensive, and probably impossible to implement.
c) The gameplay is story-driven and the story is procedurally-generated.
There have been experiments into procedural generation of story, but I can't imagine interesting and meaningfully distinct (yet inter-connected) stories will algorithmically generated any time soon, if ever.
d) The story is implicit and emergent from the gameplay, which is systems-based.
This is probably the way to go. I believe it's pretty much the way that Eve works. The only practical way to make everyone's time in a game distinctly interesting is the same way in which people's lives can all be distinctly interesting: have the story emerge through human interaction, rather than having it prescribed by a scriptwriter. To best allow for this the gameplay has to be largely systems-based, as it gives players the flexibility to behave and interact interestingly, and to enact or infer complex thought processes. In an FPS, there isn't really any way to express your back-story and thought-processes, other than being a pacifist or a traitor. In an MMORPG people verbally communicate an awful lot, and sometimes in-character, but I don't feel like it really corresponds a great deal to the actual stuff that's happening in the world. In Eve, however, a person can infiltrate a corporation, work his way up to a position of trust, then empty the coffers and cause a massive crisis for them. I've never played Eve, but I have played Neptune's Pride, and although I tired of it fairly quickly (I'm quite an impatient person), the very hands-off game design allowed for all sorts of amazing interaction between the players. The systems themselves are very simple, but the diplomacy meta-game – which is entirely emergent and not at all embodied in game systems† – can be incredibly tense and engaging. You have to invest a certain amount of effort to get anything out of it, which was my problem with later games – I just didn't have the energy to properly get into it – but when you do it can be really fun and quite unlike anything scripted.
I guess my point is that systems allow for emergence, which is your best bet with keeping things interesting. People can build their own stories around unexpected events, and the unpredictability can keep things fresh, be it the diplomatic dealings that blossom over a competitive territory war, or the haphazard nonsense that a good physics system can offer.
I'm running very low on focus and steam at this point, so I'll try to draw things to a close:
Ponder, your idea is interesting (particularly the PvE nature of it, which would allow for meaningful progress not really possible in PvP games), but as I've tried to outline above, I think there are several difficulties in making it work in a way that people would find satisfying. That's not to say it's not possible, but unfortunately it's kind of an experimental idea, and MMOs are very expensive to develop and run, so I don't see anyone taking the risk any time soon. I don't feel like I'm explaining myself very well, or keeping my thoughts in very good order, but hopefully there's something of worth in this post.
* That said, retro gaming looks past these things and finds real value.
† Actually, allegiances can be codified in premium games, meaning that sensor data can be shared between players (i.e. you can see what your allies see). This is an elegant and effective mechanism for allegiances, but I think I may prefer it without, which is how it was in the free games I played. When an allegiance exists in words only, you have to rely on the information your allies are giving you, and only your wits stand between you and treachery, things can get pretty tense.
Last edited by James
on Mon Oct 08, 2012 3:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.