February 10, 2005

Is ‘Story’ a Catch-all?

by Andrew Stern · , 10:40 pm

An article in today’s NYTimes about the success of the World of Warcraft MMPORPG ends on a curious note. After describing how the developers have endowed, and continue to endow, their virtual world with a rich history, culture and environmental design, we get this quote from Blizzard’s VP of creative development, Chris Metzen:

You might spend hundreds of hours playing a game like this, and why would you keep coming back? Is it just for the next magic helmet? Is it just to kill the next dragon? … It has to be the story. We want you to care about these places and things so that, in addition to the adrenaline and the rewards of addictive gameplay, you have an emotional investment in the world. And that’s what makes a great game.

Now, I haven’t played WoW, so I may be talking out of my butt here, and am normally happy just to read others’ analyses of online worlds, but is “story” really the right word to use here? Wouldn’t something like “richness of the world” be a better way of describing the nature of the content that players so much enjoy about WoW? Even if there is an overarching story going on, isn’t it the world itself really the big draw for players, as described in the article?

I wonder if “story” sometimes becomes a vague, catch-all way to refer to rich content in a world, even when there is little or no explicit story occurring. When I travel to a foreign country, walk its streets, immerse myself in the richness of its culture, landscape, environment, interact with the locals — which in combination with the “addictive” gameplay are the kinds of things WoW players are primarily enjoying, I’m guessing — I don’t say to myself, “wow, this place has great story”.

15 Responses to “Is ‘Story’ a Catch-all?”


  1. andrew Says:

    The term “story” can be used to mean backstory, or even history, but if that’s what Metzen meant, it’s confusing, since I assume he means a foreground story — a story occurring now — whereas backstory and history are more of a background type of content, something that already happened. (e.g., definitions 1, 2 or 3 versus 6 or 7.) Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but it’s a confusion I’ve noticed spoken before.

  2. Matt Says:

    That’s an interesting point you bring up. I’ve never been into MMORPGs at all. The only MMORPG I ever would’ve considered suscribing to was UruLive (before it got canned due to financial matters). It seemed like a different MMORPG, but I think your point holds true for it as well. Cyan Worlds created a whole background story for it and quite an elaborate one too. They mentioned they would be “releasing content” periodically to supplement the story. I can’t compare UruLive to other MMORPGs since I’ve never played them. Story may not be too appropriate for an MMORPG since story doesn’t necessarily equal content, and I don’t think that “story” is what makes an MMORPG great or why people pay to play.

  3. Dan Shiovitz Says:

    I think he just got out the wrong buzzword. Put in “community” there and it all makes sense.

  4. joshlee Says:

    Maybe he meant something more along the lines of “diegesis?” It kind of still implies narrative, though. It’s also a lousy buzzword.

  5. andrew Says:

    Yeah, if I were being interviewed by the NYTimes on the spot like that, I’d have probably muttered something much more incoherent.

    Still, I’ve heard “story” used that way before, so I’m wondering it’s more than a fluke.

  6. mark Says:

    When I read that quote, I interpreted it as “backstory”. Although it might be worth pointing out that some writers don’t acknowledge a real distinction—Umberto Eco, for example, argues that the real work in creating a good story is the “cosmological” work of building up a backstory and believable and interesting universe, and then the foreground story is just an arbitrary traversal through the world that in a good world almost writes itself. A few other stories are most interesting in their backstory as well—probably 90% of the quality of Tolkien’s work is in the extensive backstory, which makes even his works with essentially no plot pretty interesting (e.g. The Silmarrillion, which is written sort of like a dry history tome).

    I’m not arguing this is the only component of story, but especially in fantasy worlds, a rich backstory does seem to be a pretty important component—you can tell that works by Eco and Tolkien have a lot more “cosmological” work put into them than a lot of the second-rate fantasy and historical fiction that gets put out all the time. If WoW can succeed in getting that level of backstory, the human players might have something more to work with.

  7. andrew Says:

    Mark, well put. In regards to interactive experiences, I wish there were easy-to-use terms to distinguish “actively observe/experience the backstory of our world as you explore and play” versus “experience a story dynamically constructed and performed as you play”. There’s a difference between the two, although a game could employ both techniques of course.

    I might call the former “exploring the backstory”, and the latter “the story”.

  8. mark Says:

    That makes sense, although I think the second story of story is probably so far off the radar of the WoW folks that the ambiguity didn’t even register for them. Just having a robust game world where you can do arbitrary things and have the world respond in a way consistent with the backstory—and in some way more interesting than a thinly veiled “I don’t think you should do that” response—would be a pretty big improvement over the current situation. Now you want them to do that and have a story? =]

  9. Stephen Says:

    I assume that he meant story events that will occur in the game. Since the Warcraft series is extremely popular, and a new offline Warcraft won’t be released for years, if ever, fans of the series are interested in what will happen to the world in World of Warcraft. Of course, the story cannot involve the player as much as a single player game would, but hopefully they will give the player the feeling that they are making some difference in the world.

  10. Eric Tilton Says:

    The story is light, but it does exist. There are plenty of interlocking quests that reveal backstory and also lead from small “help folks out” kinds of activities to big “save the world” kinds of activities. It is a little weird, since completing one of these story quests doesn’t advance the game world state for others, but it does work. WOW is the only MMORPG that’s actually felt like playing a really good single player RPG where the NPCs all happen to be real people. Yeah, yeah, you’re not “that one guy who saves everything,” but it’s the best way I can describe the draw.

  11. Lucas Hardi Says:

    I agree with Eric in that Chris Metzen’s meaning might be explicitly “story” and not “backstory.” WoW’s major divergence from traditional MMO design is an emphasis on questing over camping. Each quest has a story to it, albeit a simple one.

  12. josh g. Says:

    WoW’s major divergence from traditional MMO design is an emphasis on questing over camping. Each quest has a story to it, albeit a simple one.

    This just seems wrong to me. I played a bit of WoW during the open beta, and I’ve also played more of the old-skool EQ1 than I care to admit. In EQ1, camping was, for the most part, a mechanism for slowing advancement, and was most often done within the context of questing. In fact, EQ1 often had a great depth of both backstory and story-within-quests, if one cared to actually read the conversations.

    The difference I saw between the story (and backstory) of EQ and WoW wasn’t depth, it was delivery. WoW keeps things paced quicker, allowing you to absorb more conversational content per session.

    It also has a much friendlier quest interface – no more picking out keywords during conversations and repeating them back to NPCs to make them get to the point. You click, you read a page at a time in a nice large font with clear UI design to move on through multiple-page text, and you’re given very clear directions at the end as to what you practically need to do.

    Come to think of it, doesn’t WoW lose points for depth because of the conversation interface? EQ allowed a sort of simple branching conversation through multiple keywords which you could prompt NPCs with. WoW, if I remember right, gives you one static bit of conversation and a goal. (I suppose this is arguably distinct from the depth of the story, and more about the depth of the interaction, but it seems related.)

    This isn’t to say I think WoW does a poorer job than the old-school delivery method. I just think that it creates a more enjoyable “story” because of the design choices surrounding the story, not because the story itself has a greater depth.

  13. andrew Says:

    Ron Gilbert’s extended comments on his fun playing WoW seem to back up the richness of the world + addictive gameplay theory.

  14. Lucas Hardi Says:

    Forgive me for I did not mean to imply that EQ was entirely about camping.

    Maybe I shouldn’t draw such a distinction between the story and backstory. Josh says: “In fact, EQ1 often had a great depth of both backstory and story-within-quests, if one cared to actually read the conversations.” I think my point is that in WoW, you do read the conversations. They are well written, well integrated with the backstory, and there are glorious numbers of them.

    There is a great deal of polish to Blizzard’s delivery of the quest stories, and, yes, a nice integration with the backstory in the world’s visual design. Those elements combine to bring story to the forefront of your gaming experience in WoW, and make it greatly enjoyable. Quests link together to lead you through the world, seemingly indefinitely. In addition, new avenues to explore are always presenting themselves through the ‘this npc has a quest for you’ exclamation point.

    Although, the player cannot affect the outcome of the story, so you might want to consider the questing “backstory” according to your definition. However, I consider it story, and it is a key component of the emotional investment that Chris Metzen is referencing.

  15. josh g. Says:

    I didn’t mean to say that WoW doesn’t have quality writing – I was impressed by it. I just don’t think it’s the quality of writing which is the strong differentiator here. The interface design is emphasizing the quests and conversations, which makes them stand out more and naturally become a larger part of the game’s experience.

    You do read the conversations, sure – because they’re in a really nice-looking pop-up box, which makes you wait a bit while the text scrolls down before you can get to the ‘Accept / Decline’ buttons and the quest summary. There may or may not be more quests in WoW than in the original EQ, but you’ll definitely find more of them because they’re highlighted by the exclamation mark icon.

    (It’s sort of like claiming Half-Life was great because of it’s story. To paraphrase something I heard once – “People keep saying how Halflife has a much more realistic story than other FPSs like Doom. In Doom, scientists open a portal to another dimension, monsters pour out, and you must fight your way through to that other dimension to set things right. In Halflife, scientists open a portal to another dimension, monsters pour out, and you must fight your way through to that other dimension to set things right.”)

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