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What MMORPGs say about stories: part 2

June 29, 2007

My first post on this subject can be boiled down to adding AIs or NPCs to branded sites to make them feel ‘alive’ as far too many branded sites currently feel like ‘ghost towns’ something even the most popular branded sites continue to suffer from. To be sure, NPCs are no replacement for real people, but in a world like Second Life, where visitors are operating in numerous different time zones this isn’t always possible.

This post covers the subject of world building, not in a ‘on the 7th day…’ way, but in terms of developing coherent background stories for branded sites, so that visitors are better able to engage with them. Most branded sites incorporate imagery and aesthetics from their promotional material and advertising campaigns, and while these elements create ‘consistency’ with the brand they do little to engage visitors, apart from reassuring them they are in the right place. To illustrate the latter point compare the imagery Vodafone make use of on their Second Life island with that from their “make the most of now” advertising campaign.

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The Mayfly ads were visually striking and the butterflies on their island presumably reference that campaign. This is ‘continuity’ which is necessary, especially for brands, but the idea behind the ad was that the mayflys only live 24 hours so they need to make the most of it, the Second Life presence doesn’t seem to develop this story any further, on the contrary the island feels very laid back and relaxed!
The growth of ‘immersive entertainment’ has been particularly beneficial for film franchises, the recent Spider-Man 3 game topped the games charts for several weeks, despite mediocre reviews for both the film and game. Undoubtedly the games based on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Transformers will see success in the games charts. Part of the reason for their success is undoubtedly their familiarity, but beyond this obvious benefit, they give players the opportunity to experience the story plus some. Clearly Second Life doesn’t offer the same scope for story development as a full-blown computer game, but even taking this into consideration most brands haven’t explored the 3D interactive medium as much as they could do.

Henry Jenkins recently wrote an insighful post on his blog about the way in which franchises are having to develop more complex stories in order to engage their fans. He discussed how film critics took issue with the complicated and exposition-heavy story-line of Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End whereas he, as a fan, found these elements the most appealing aspects of the film. Fans, enthusiasts, loyalists, whatever we want to call them, are the people who are most likely to interact with brands in new media platforms such as MMOs, so content made for these platforms needs to be made for these people first and foremost. Transmedia approaches are the next big thing in Hollywood and although they are still a relatively new phenomenon non-media brands should take note of their methods and successes.

The mantra for transmedia success seems to be ‘stay true to what your brand is about’, because inevitably different mediums – TV, cinema, online, books, MMO etc – require different interpretations. Take Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar for example, in this MMO it would make no sense at all for players to adopt the identity of any of the named characters from the books or films like you can in teh single player computer games, but the quest system and storlines are built to make the player feel as though they are participating in a greater effort. It is Middle Earth on a different scale, where you meet everyday people who have been affected by the growing power of Sauron and the problems you solve for people are often at this everyday level.

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In the MMO medium detail is essential, it communicates story implicitly. The images below show a few examples of this. The first images are from the city of Shattrath, in World of Warcraft. Without going into too much detail the city houses refugees from every imaginable race in Azeroth who have fled from various displaced and corrupted groups. While snippets of the story are picked up from quests the imagery used tells the story with great clarity – dank lighting, makeshift tents, crates and boxes, shoeless children running around.

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To prove that it isn’t just RPG driven MMOs that can use this kind of imagery, The Great Fissure in Second Life is a very good example of what can be done to convey a story without explicitly telling it. Something bad obviously happened here that pretty much rendered civilisation obsolete.

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Goingback to Vodafone’s TV and MMO presences – wht didn’t they take some of the enviroment that they used in the advert and translate that into a virtual experience – sure this might be a little much for the average ad viewer, but it’s highly unlikely the average ad viewer would be in Second Life. riding the butterflies could have been a genuine adrenaline rush, the vegetation could have been thick and lush, the ‘make the most of life’ theme could have been translated into some gaming/puzzle elements. The fact is that if non-media brands want to go into Second Life and leave a mark they’re going to have to talk to the kinds of people who write stories and create games otherwise they’ll just blend into the background noise of UGC built content.

 

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