Here's an interesting one for you:
How do you tell a personally meaningful story with rich detailed characters in an MMO?
I have to admit, it's a trick question...
The answer is "hard work."
I'm not talking about the work involved in creating those characters, or fleshing out their motives or even in weaving the motivations of these characters and the things they symbolize together into the rich tapestry of a story, here. Though, before anyone gets the idea that I'm hating on writers again, let me be the first to say that's a big part of the equation... But no, what I'm talking about is, simply put, the actual hard work of telling the story -- creating the content.
I write a lot, a fact you probably wouldn't get from the sloppy, slapdash way I put this site together. It's true though. Easily half of my job or more is nothing but writing, be it technical documents for the team or -- more to the point of this little spew here -- the words that make up the worlds we spend so much time creating. Without the writing, the rest doesn't happen (or worse, it happens in a seat of the pants, everything is half-baked way), but the bulk of the hard work -- and by hard I mean back breaking, sweat inducing labor -- comes from actually putting the fruits of that writing into the game.
Have you ever considered what it takes to make characters walk and talk, in a game?
Let's take the assets alone -- the models, the animation, the voice over... depending on your level of detail in your game, that could be months and months of work just to produce... then, once produced, someone has to string it all together, on cue with the proper timing and camera work. It's sort of insane how much work it takes just to get someone to walk up to a table and pick up a cup of coffee.
I worked on a game once where we had a police station full of detectives, criminals, civilians and patrol officers who would walk around, type reports, answer phones, get booked into jail, wait for someone to talk to them, get coffee... you know, all of those background things that happen in cop movies that make the police station feel "real" -- to feel "alive." It literally took us, and this in not an exaggeration, 4 months of work to make it happen... and that wasn't even for the story! That was just to make the world feel "right." The work someone might consider "story work" took the entire length of the project, and all of this work was done in the midst in huge revisions to the gameplay and the world itself (it happens on projects: time and money aren't infinite and so when something major needs to change, it tends to cascade down into everything to adjust for the loss of time and money the change will require)...
Now, that was a console game, where we had allocated a huge amount of our budget to the whole "living breathing world wrapped around a single player story" thing... But what about in an MMO?
I think, as a player, the one thing I'm always most critical about in MMOs are their worlds, themselves. The World of Warcraft? *groan* Don't get me started. I can't fault anyone for not reading anything but the objectives in their quests, because everything else tends to be horrible. Everquest was the same way. Now, don't get me wrong -- there are lots of examples of great stories, characters and quests in both games, but the bulk of the content (and this is true in literally every MMO with quests) feels "phoned in."
That being said, as a designer -- specifically as a designer who creates content for MMOs -- I can totally understand why. It's a hard problem to fix; some would even say it's impossible.
That's why all of those folks who claim to have some "visionary approach to story telling" or "stellar new method for creating content" that you see selling books or giving talks, chap my ass so much. It's not a problem of "looking at the content wrong" or "not knowing how to create emotionalizated(tm) content" -- it's a problem of hard work and time, pure and simple.
You see, Content designers on MMOs are a lot like roach coach cooks during lunch time, at a ship yard. You're this tiny group of people trying to feed an army's worth of people... and you've only got an hour, one griddle and a beer fridge's worth of ingredients to do it with. Do you really think you've got time for braised leg of lamb over a bed of rare Peruvian green beans in a balsamic vinegar sauce? Or do you think it's super-burritos and carnitas tacos for everyone?
Every extra bit of secret sauce you see in an MMO is the result of incredible amounts of blood, sweat and tears. Bits and pieces of their teams' souls were annealed in the crucible of pain to bring them to you -- like that roach coach cook that takes the time to make Guacamole fresh, right in front of you, even though it means 5 other customers have to wait an extra 5 minutes. And it really is just like that -- for every second spent taking a quest, instance, or encounter beyond that game's "baseline," some other quest, instance of encounter suffers for lack of time.
Auto Assault was a great example of what I mean. Originally, we wanted that game to have 9 highways for each faction, each with as many as 6 instances (and each instance with 5-8 "layers" or "episodes" that took place in them). The game was delayed by almost a year (more, if you ask our publishers. ) and what did we ship with? Three highways per faction, each with 3 instances... and that was still way more content than you find in a single player game.
The burden on MMO teams to provide a mountain of content, in a short amount of time is incredible -- and keenly felt by every team, out there. It's exacerbated by the fact that the tools you have to use are significantly more limited than they are in a single player experience, like a console game.
Even how you approach the formulation of story arcs is changed by the nature of the MMO. Is everyone the hero in their own story? Or are they all the same hero, in a single story? Different teams approach the problem differently, but all of them face the problem and it affects the content they produce (often for the worse, sadly). On AA we decided that everyone was the hero of a single story -- the game long story arch that each player of each faction went through. It worked, but it's hard to feel like a part of the greater faction when everyone you talked to did the same things you did, every step of the way, right?
The thing of it is, what else do you do? If everyone gets their own story, you have to create content to allow that. It's a case of not just doubling the content or even tripling it, but increasing it to the nth degree -- just to support everyone's choices along the way.
To be fair, there are ways around that, but more often than not, those ways take more work and time than these teams have. As I said before, the problem isn't, usually, that the way these teams work is wrong, but rather that to do anything else takes more time and effort than anyone can afford to spend.
The technology isn't necessarily there either, is it? I mean, how much can your home PC render, anyway? Many MMOs have to keep the world sparse, and sort of generic, simply to ensure that the largest audience possible can play. Auto Assault was not an incredibly beautiful game, but even so it took a fairly high-powered machine to run it at full detail with all the bells and whistles. To be fair, it looked pretty good at that level, but less than a tenth of the userbase ever saw it that way. For us, the needed power had a lot to do with physics and weather, but the point remains -- we didn't have a lot of power to spare to make the AI more interesting. In fact, we didn't have any.
Wherever we could, we used our own time and effort to fake it using scripting, but that takes time and hard work -- time and work that, as I already said, has to be taken from somewhere else. For every Nostos, Mozak or Walker Wind there's a quest somewhere that suffered simply because we didn't have the time.
There are ways to fix that, though. Effort spent on really good tools can save literally months of time, over the course of a project. Every time an artist or designer has to wait 30 seconds for an editor to load adds up, over the course of the several years an MMO usually takes. Especially if they have to run those tools several times a day. That time could be spent making more quests, or making existing gameplay more interesting and unique.
The trick isn't to look at the problem and think, "see, you can't do it because you don't know what you're doing." That's not actually looking at the problem, at all. The trick is to look at the problem and think, "How can we get these people the time they need to do the hard work necessary to take it to the next level?"
The team that figures that one out produces the next big thing, mark my words.
(Here's to hoping my team's approach is the answer! )