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Emotionless MMO's?

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Greetings, I have been working for a couple years now on the design of an MMO project, and though I now have a very firm grip on what I want in terms of classes/factions/backstory/mechanics I still have a large hurdle that I can't seem to overcome. Nor have I seen any other MMO's successfully handle this issue either, and after much thought it seems to be simply due to the nature of the current design mindset. The problem I am referring to is the seeming inability of games in the MMO genre to emotionally connect to the player. While it is possible to connect to other players within the game itself, the actual game itself seems singularly incapable of having a deep emotional impact on the players. I say this as someone who has always been an exploration/story type game player, who read every single quest text in every game I've ever played (starting with meridian, and including almost every major MMO made). I have listened to songs, seen paintings, read books, watched movies, and even played single player video games where I have had strong emotional reactions of fear/anger/sadness/joy/relief/happiness etc. But I honestly cannot think of a single moment in an MMO where a quest or event or anything of that nature has illicited an emotional response of any measure from me. Some of these quests and encounters are very well written, and I get the feeling that if I were to encounter these stories in another setting I might very well have been impacted. But for some reason I find that something about the nature of the MMO genre, a game genre supposedly built around the idea of strongly identifying with your character and immersing yourself in another world, prohibits this kind of strong reaction. I have many of my own ideas as to why this is the case, but in an effort to not color the discussion too much with my own opinions and see the uninfluenced ideas of others I would very much like to know if any of you have had the same experience with the genre. And if so, why you feel the genre fails to interact with us as deeply as others, and what could be done to solve this (in my mind) pivotal but seemingly hidden problem.

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I think the main hurdle is trying to include story based gameplay without it feeling tacked on top of a multi-user gaming experience. Another issue is killing off actual player characters (would you want to play a game where your character could die for good? I think it would get you emotional, but it would be the wrong emotion).

I can't think of a good way to interactively provide narration into an MMO. If you change some part of the world, what does that mean for players who haven't reached that point? Can you still play with them? Will more advanced players ruin the story? If you kill off NPCs, would anyone care? If they were important (i.e. AI party members), then maybe, but it would be pretty scripted.

The more narration added to the game, the more difficult it will be to ensure it is told in order as much as possible and that it makes sense if different users play the game different ways. Also, is it confusing for players who repeat objectives? If something important happens (i.e. someone dies) does it make sense that it can happen again?

I think emotion and connection to story will be part of MMOs' evolution, but I don't think it's the most important step right now.

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I have had some moments in MMOs where I felt very emotionally immersed in the game. They were usually when the graphics and music of the game combined to make the world seem very real, whether that meant scary, or beautiful, or lonely, or hot/cold/wet, whatever. I'm not a big fan of WoW but I thought this was one thing it did very well - I haven't played that game in a year but several of the locations are still clear in my head.

When I do have difficulty taking an MMO seriously I think the problem is often that the world makes no sense - internally inconsistent, lack of cultural development, rigid character classes, absurd motives/psychology of both cultures and individuals, lack of sex, romance, and families for players, lack of much gameplay besides combat and very mechanical gathering/crafting.

I'm in favor of adding dating sim and faction-relationship building elements to MMOs to increase their emotional involvement. It would also be good to design a game so that the player sees the same NPCs many times (and they say different things) rather than having thousands of throwaway NPCs or NPCs which say the same 2 sentences forever. Replacing mechanical/grindy crafting systems with good minigames, perhaps also adding pet-training minigames or farming minigames ala Harvest Moon, adding more interactability/puzzle-like mechanics to the world, making classes a descriptive result of the player's in-game actions rather than a permanent pre-game choice, and making clothing a personal choice rather than linked to stats, would help too. Basically, develop the idea of "MMO as opportunity for the player to enter a novel and be the main character."

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I am not trying to plug my own threads, but the discussion that took place in this thread might be of interest for what you are considering:
http://www.gamedev.net/community/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=536424

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MMORPGs are about attainment first and foremost. That is a major reason people are not going to get that emotionally attached to a story. What they are emotionally attached to is the pat on the back at a job well done.

MMORPGs work because they make the player feel like they have accomplished something and when put in a social setting it makes them feel good.

If you want to encourage additional emotional attachment then encourage individuality as well as patting them on the back.

You can use loss to create emotion in the character but that works against the "pat on the back" approach. Such an approach works with some players but it is a much smaller segment of the MMO playing population and leads to burnout faster.

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There are several reasons why there is no emotional connection. One thing is that the games/movies/etc that elicited an emotional response were story lead, meaning that we were lead by the hand through the story. In MMO's part of the appeal is that you are creating your own story. Well, it is really hard to get emotional about your own story.
The other thing is that the vast majority of the characters are everyday people. They aren't the perfect villain or hero, they are just people. Some you find annoying, some you like, but most will not create a strong emotion and even if they do, it only detracts from whatever world the authors of the game tried to create.
Another thing is that MMO's do not provide a background story or any kind of motivation for your character. The motivation and story of your character is whatever you make it to be. It is like trying to illicit an emotional response from yourself. I know that sounds a lot like my first point.
Probably another big reason is that an MMO story is not designed to end...ever. It is designed to drag on forever. Any good story has an introduction, conflict, climax, resolution, etc. An MMO story is like a telling of the events of the day. It usually has none of the elements of a story, instead it is just a series of events strung together which have no beginning and no end.

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Quote:
Original post by Stangler
MMORPGs are about attainment first and foremost. That is a major reason people are not going to get that emotionally attached to a story. What they are emotionally attached to is the pat on the back at a job well done.

MMORPGs work because they make the player feel like they have accomplished something and when put in a social setting it makes them feel good.

If you want to encourage additional emotional attachment then encourage individuality as well as patting them on the back.

You can use loss to create emotion in the character but that works against the "pat on the back" approach. Such an approach works with some players but it is a much smaller segment of the MMO playing population and leads to burnout faster.


I disagree with attainment blocking emotionality. Consider a romance novel: the typical romance novel is a wish fulfillment fantasy where a woman obtains a good mate, sometime also a child or wealth or a title or her dream job or the freedom from needing to have a job. Yet, romance novels are one of the most emotionally powerful genres there is.

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Original post by landagen
The other thing is that the vast majority of the characters are everyday people. They aren't the perfect villain or hero, they are just people. Some you find annoying, some you like, but most will not create a strong emotion and even if they do, it only detracts from whatever world the authors of the game tried to create.

I interpret that as the problem being that the authors aren't trying to make the player strongly like and hate characters. Why haven't game developers in general tried to create popular characters audiences want to see more of an buy merchandise featuring, the way almost every other medium of entertainment has? This fits in with my point about an MMO benefiting from having a few recurrent characters rather than many throwaway ones.

Quote:
Another thing is that MMO's do not provide a background story or any kind of motivation for your character. The motivation and story of your character is whatever you make it to be. It is like trying to illicit an emotional response from yourself. I know that sounds a lot like my first point.

Games can and should provide more structure aimed at helping the player construct their own story in an interactive way. Characters could start at a point where the character's background would logically be a blank slate (like they are a newly-hatched creature or a human from modern earth suddenly transported to a different world where their earthly life is irrelevant.) Or, the game could give the player a few choices about what their character's background was like, then work these into the game using dialogue with blanks filled in from these choices, or generate some footage of a child version of the character illustrating the choices and use that footage for flashbacks and/or dreams.

Even more importantly, an interactive MMO could subtly ask what the player's motivations where at various points and then the game could build on that information and feed it back to the player, which would add replayability and make the game feel personalized.

But, I disagree that people don't get emotionally involved in their own stories. Writers get deeply emotionally involved in what they are writing, as do people playing with Sims. Games just don't generally facilitate this kind of play, and often accidentally obstruct it.

[qoute]Probably another big reason is that an MMO story is not designed to end...ever. It is designed to drag on forever. Any good story has an introduction, conflict, climax, resolution, etc. An MMO story is like a telling of the events of the day. It usually has none of the elements of a story, instead it is just a series of events strung together which have no beginning and no end.[/quote]
Absolutely a problem. It would make more sense to build an MMO out of lots of optional, smaller plots, through which the player was led more or less by the hand (maybe the story would branch at a key point due to a dialogue choice by the player). Each of these small plots would have a clear and personally meaningful ending where the character obtained some kind of wish-fulfillment thing, which could be anything from an NPC falling in love with the PC to the PC gaining a pair of wings or other appearance customization, to the PC gaining a social rank within the game world.

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Original post by sunandshadow
Quote:
Original post by Stangler
MMORPGs are about attainment first and foremost. That is a major reason people are not going to get that emotionally attached to a story. What they are emotionally attached to is the pat on the back at a job well done.

MMORPGs work because they make the player feel like they have accomplished something and when put in a social setting it makes them feel good.

If you want to encourage additional emotional attachment then encourage individuality as well as patting them on the back.

You can use loss to create emotion in the character but that works against the "pat on the back" approach. Such an approach works with some players but it is a much smaller segment of the MMO playing population and leads to burnout faster.


I disagree with attainment blocking emotionality. Consider a romance novel: the typical romance novel is a wish fulfillment fantasy where a woman obtains a good mate, sometime also a child or wealth or a title or her dream job or the freedom from needing to have a job. Yet, romance novels are one of the most emotionally powerful genres there is.



A spouse would just be another thing to get in an MMORPG.

Ohh you completed quest X, here is your spouse. Grats!

Ohh you killed a dragon and have a dragon head as a trophy! Grats to that too.

The canned story made by the devs doesn't matter that much. What could really get the player are the two things I talked about before. Individuality and loss.

Loss is straight forward, threaten to take that spouse away and you have an angle or an emotional hook.

Individuality in an MMORPG setting is harder to come by because in the end the spouse is just some programmed part of the game. If the player is allowed to express their own individuality enough that they build an attachment to their character or their spouse or whatever they will be more emotionally attached to it.

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Some interesting feedback so far, some of which agrees with thoughts I've been having. Attainment being one, but the problem with that is not the Attainment itself, but I believe it to be that the short-term attainments of completing a quest or something of that nature seem so weak in comparison to most people's desire to simply reach the end of level grinding so they have their player at maximum. I think perhaps if something is added that makes players focus more on the journey instead of the final destination they wouldn't ignore so many of the early quests.

Another problem that I believe contributes to the ease with which players seem to move through quests that should and could be powerful with no emotional attachment is the ADD factor. Too many quests at once basically. In most games you grab 5-15+ quests from your major quest hub, then go out into the world to finish off as many as you can to get those xp bumps and quest rewards, then go back to grab more. Is it possible that giving LESS quests at once, but perhaps the same amount of quests overall would lead to the player being able to focus more on the actual story of each individual quest. Instead of just finishing one off and just moving to the next area to do the other without actually taking the time to consider the emotional impact of the first?

Also, I think part of the issue could perhaps be the feeling of not being able to permanently impact the world around you is an issue, and one of the major thing that MMO developers struggle with. Phased zones ala WoW's WOTLK expansion are a step in an interesting direction, but in a way weakens the players experience because you simply cannot group with other players for quests if you're on different steps of the quest.

Is it perhaps that so much of the interaction with NPC's is simply either they give you a job to do, or you are killing them. There really is not much other chance for interaction, especially with the enemy. Perhaps dragging out encounters with enemy mobs, which could force you to interact with them, but maybe increasing the rewards for each interaction accordingly so leveling time doesn't increase, could be a step towards removing the feeling of breezing through the world to get to the end that most players have.

I'm just kind of throwing out a few of my ideas of what could be done, not neccesarily how it could be done, but I'd be curious to know what you think could be the impact of each of these possibly solutions: Making players while leveling not have such a long-term view of attainment, getting rid of quest overload and making players able to focus on one storyline at a time, allowing players more interaction with NPCs, perhaps grouping with them in a "squad" type setting, as well as much deeper interaction with "enemies" besides simply shooting spells/bullets/etc. at them.

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