What MMORPGs say about ‘stories’: part 1

June 12, 2007

As much as I want to focus on the practical details of MMORPGs and virtual worlds and provide good hard evidence for the trends and claims that abound, I wholeheartedly believe that abstract thinking is a necessary part of the process, I’m not some crazed positivist, honestly. I’ve divided this post into two sections, because I have two discrete ideas in mind and to include them both would result in one ridiculously long post.

These posts are about the role of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ in virtual worlds and its relevance to media and advertising in terms of immersive entertainment. I was very surprised by how popular my idea of turning adverts into quests was at the MRS conference and it suggests to me that companies are receptive to the idea of high level interactivity when it comes to media franchises and brands. So this first post will focus on the idea of multiplicity – that brands and media have at their hands technology that will broader their user/audience bases through offering a more personalised experience.

In academia there has been much debate about how to reconcile ‘narrativity’ with ‘interactivity’; a narrative has traditionally been attributed to a storyline that operates from a single perspective (the author’s) even if the story includes lots of characters with different perspectives – so from a readers perspective all the seperate events and characters are drawn into a coherent story by the author. Because of this academia has struggled to incorporate the interactive nature of digital culture into this definition of narrative (Marie-Laure Ryan’s Avatars of Story is a good starting point). Sociological/cultural definitions of narrative have been less prescriptive and have beeen far more willing to discuss narrative as a personal activity (see cultural studies), the problem is that neither of these definitions is particularly relevant to immersive media, the former is too limiting the latter too idiosyncratic.

The literature concerning narrative in computer games has acknowledged that designers have usually combined a degree of freedom within a bound storyline or at least some kind of end goal. These narratives can be linear, or what is referred to as ‘hub’ or ‘sandpit’ based, the latter giving players more freedom in terms of how they progress. Some games may even incorporate two or more endings depending on decisions made earlier in the game.

Massively multiplayer games have added a further level of complication to narrative authority as designers have to make more options available, players may make very different decisions about how they progress and players may even create their own narrative threads.

Brands and media franchises have often been reluctant to let the public reinterpret their meaning, which, with the current focus on UGC, is in the process of being re-addressed by some sectors of the industry and viciously protected by others. What MMORPGs have explored the pitfalls of providing the rough materials for people to create their own narratives out of somebody else’s story. As a comment made on this Terra Nova post states:

“The MMO designers craft is to create interesting opportunities for players to share experiences and create stories themselves rather than telling them a story directly”

Now, I know that Second Life isn’t normally considered an MMORPG (I’m going to dsicuss this in more detail in a future post) and Linden themselves don’t provide any ‘end-game’ or narrative themselves (apart from the start zone), but content providers do need to look at how MMOs like World of Warcraft construct narratives if they want to provide a genuinely engaging experience for residents, beyond shopping, gambling hanging out etc. I think this is especially pertinent to brands who are effectively competing with Second Life natives, many of whom invest far more time in their businesses.

Currently many of the branded sites (although by no means all) seem to be using Second Life as a 3-dimensional space for 2-dimensional content. So they have a store, with objects you can buy or occasionally get for free, much like a conventional online store. Very few sites seem to have full-time staff (Pontiac being one of the exceptions) so there is no on-site presence, communication with the brand occurs through Instant Messaging and it seems responses are slow. Given the preonderence and skill with which Second Life natives are running their own businesses, plus the lack of strong IP protection for brand names (I bought a great unofficial Iron Maiden t-shirt today) puts most branded sites at a distinct disadvantage.

Where branded sites do excel is when they run events, such as an interview, a concert or a single, book or film launch (for example today’s attendance at the Desmond TuTu interview at Reuters Island was very good). But clearly following these events numbers decline again. Now, I’m well aware that numbers are not the be and end all when it comes to measuring the success of brands in Second Life, and brands certainly get huge kudos from running events like the ones mentioned above, but where they seem to be losing people is when it comes to the casuals.

Now I’m not sure what the statistics are on this and perhaps Linden Labs have some nice data concerning this, but I imagine many newbies in Second Life will head to branded locations out of familiarity and will have little knowledge of scheduled events – and when they arrive they will find a deserted ‘ghost town’ store, and this is unlikely to encourage them to stay in Second Life or return to the branded site in question.

To boil my argument down to one point, I believe Second Life needs NPCs and lots of them! This thought is partly inspired by this post on Terra Nova and the latest podcast on the Warhammer Online website. The former discusses the way that NPCs bring consistent character to a virtual world, the latter the kinds of random world events people in virtual worlds may encounter.  NPCs may have very limited vocabularies and behaviour but they help bring a virtual place to life by introducing players to the values and ideals of specific locations. This is an element sorely missing from many of the branded sites in Second Life, there is no feel for what the brand represents and in most cases there is no way to interact with the brand apart from buying from them. Brands need to think about the characters in their ads the atmosphere they invoke. 3D software  and the possibilities of scripting events can be exploited to a far greater degree than they currently are.

In this article from yesterday’s International Herlad Tribune Jospeh Laszlo from Jupiter Research suggests that ‘you actually have to think more like a bricks-and-mortar retailer than a virtual retailer’. I’m not quite sure what he means, but if he means that you have to give a RL store ambience, character and personality then he’s right on the money. As this post on Nobody Fugazi’s blog states, you have to think about the product! The product is never just the commodities sold in store, the product is everything the customer experiences whether they make a purchase or not and currently this falls far short of how most big brands create their RL retail, or even their online, experience.

I’d recommend that any brand planning on opening up a store or even a site in Second Life should look at how MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online handle characters and story and consider injecting some of their influence into their own efforts.



  1. but… but… aren’t Lindens NPCs? 😀

  2. Ha ha, sometimes I think they are!

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