A Multiplayer Experience

Writing about the ESO beta got me thinking about storylines for multiplayer games - MMORPGs specifically.  Multiplayer strategy and shooter games less so, because the point there is to have fun with the mechanics whereas the online RPG is all about creating your own character and guiding it through a series of stories.  After all, quests are supposed to be stories not monotonous level grinds, right?  
I guess that would be the first premise I’m starting with here.  A thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time and RPGs are story games.  Particularly, they are character-driven story games.  You might think this isn’t worth pointing out, but I think its something that MMORPGs have lost touch with.  Or maybe they never had touch.  Maybe they’re like one of those super conservative homeschooling couples that has a gabillion kids but you can’t be sure they’ve ever had sex or if they just reproduce by budding.  Just me?  Ok, self, lay off the homeschoolers.  This is no time to air one’s childhood grievances.  As the hilarious Yatzee once said, there is an inherent existential crisis that resides in the MMORPG genre.  View his whole review of WoW: Cataclysm here, in which he asks that terrifying question - “Why do you raid?”  When you raid for the sake of loot and loot for the sake of raiding, what exactly is the point?
At this point I should make a caveat about my own opinions.  I have never been particularly interested in MMORPGs because I felt that by their very nature they couldn’t have immersive stories and I don’t find any appeal in raiding for the loot and vice versa.  At least, I’m not interested in playing a game long-term for that reason.  That includes single player games - as much as I love Elder Scrolls games I stop playing them once I’ve exhausted the storylines.  I can’t be completely engrossed in looting bandit caves if there isn’t some reason I’m doing it.  Therefore my experience playing MMOs is somewhat limited.  I played Guild Wars 2 enough to get a character to the level cap, a smattering of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and up to level 10 in WoW.  At which point I decided it was boring and grindy and no amount of “Oh its really fun once you hit level 90” was going to get me to slog through the hours it would take me to get there. So anything I say here will be colored by that point of view, which I realize may not be shared by all humankind.  Ok then, now I’m getting on the soapbox.
I said that I don’t believe MMO storylines can be immersive by their nature, and I should probably revise that statement.  I don’t believe the currently accepted formula for an MMO storyline can be immersive because there’s always an inherent conflict between the what is presented to the player and the player’s knowledge.  My experience has been once I create a character I am presented with an epic quest wherein I am the Most Special of all Snowflakes and am the last great hope to save the world.  This is a wonderful starting point for a single player game, but when I’m looking at dozens of other players around me who are being told the exact same thing the epicness of my journey rings hollow.  I am clearly not the sole savior of the world, lone swinger of the Great Spatula of Justice, or any of that.  I’m just another player in the machine that is the game, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that if you can see the machine behind the game there’s something amiss.  I wonder if there’s a way around that, a story that can still feel like a hero’s journey but also take into account the fact that there are many people involved.
Perhaps I am still power-tripping over being a Master of Dungeons but thinking along these lines brought me quickly to D&D, which is a story-driven multiplayer game.  In a D&D group, the DM has to consider the entire party when planning adventures.  Certainly there can be quests involving a single character’s background, but the overall focus has to be on the party as a whole or players will lose interest.  Have you ever played in a group where the DM’s significant other joins the game and all of a sudden the game has a laser-focus on one character?  That is the anti-fun and players will generally leave.  They will also leave if the DM tries to run each of them through the exact same situation concurrently.  That would be bewilderingly bad DMing.  So I guess my question is if player demand necessitates the production of true multi-player focused content from a single human, can we not demand it of huge companies comprised of many people?
That’s not to say that game developers need to become Dungeon Masters, that would be silly.  There is a difference between tabletop and virtual environments, one of them clearly being of scale.  Where a human DM can spend her time creating content for a specific group of players, game developers have a whole host of players to consider.  They can’t be expected to continually monitor the player base and create content based on their actions.  However, the current solution in my experience has been in essence to railroad players into a static storyline that is common to all.  I think there is a better way, and since there are essentially no new ideas I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Bethesda introduced the Radiant Story in Skyrim, and hopefully will continue to refine it in Elder Scrolls Online.
What I would like to see though is an expansion of the dynamic story beyond the sidequest and into a game as a whole.  In fact, what I would really love is to play an entire game whose developers didn’t write an actual story at all but rather a potential story waiting to be activated by the players.  By now any real game developers are probably staring at their monitors in horror, wondering if I realize the magnitude of what I’m asking.  Truth is, I do and I don’t.  I realize it is a huge thing to undertake, and I have an imagining of the kind of work necessary, but I am neither a game designer nor an AI engineer so specifics aren’t something I could really speculate about.
But generalizations are something I can speculate the hell out of, and if what I’m calling “potential storytelling” in my head were to come about I have a couple ideas on how it might happen.  I do know a little bit about relational databases and analytics - enough to know that the more data you have, the cleaner it is, and the more refined your methods of analyzing it are the better your results will be.  If the result is to be player engagement, then the more “data” or potential stories you have the better.  I believe (and this is the “faith” use of the word not “I believe you are full of crap”) this can be accomplished by building a network of smaller interconnected blocks of character archetypes, lore, morality codes, quest examples, and so on.
And here’s where I get science-fictiony.  You need more than a network of ideas to make a story, there has to be a plot.  The game still needs a Dungeon Master, one that can simultaneously create adventures for the solo player and for the group in hundreds of different places at once.  Or rather it needs something that does what D&D groups do when they get to big; split off into another group with another DM.  You see where I’m going with this, right?  An AI so powerful with such a vast database of possibilities that its calculated creativity is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.  Maybe the Singularity will happen in the land of the MMO - perhaps that is even where it should happen.  Don’t give me that look, I’m being serious.***
The landscape of gaming is changing.  With the newer consoles and super-powerful PCs the graphics race that defined previous generations is becoming less relevant.  Games are looking more and more like their concept art as time goes on and “having cool graphics” isn’t the badge of honor it used to be.  Rather, I think the focus should be more on what technologies can be leveraged to make games more dynamic and immersive, more alive if you will.  If I’m being honest, if there’s any one thing I believe with anything approaching religious certainty it is that if a technology can be sufficiently imagined it can (and probably will) be created.  I would like to see this particular technology happen in my lifetime.
I find it a little ironic that after all that my solution to MMOs that seem too much like machines being a machine that appears human.  Granted, I could still be high from unwrapping 3 epics and 2 legendaries in Hearthstone yesterday and I’m just talking nonsense.  I should probably stop before I hurt myself.
***The author would like to reiterate that she is neither a game designer nor an AI programmer, but a crazy lady with a blog.
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Pretty cool theory. It does always boil down to a group of people making a game though. Even if they've logged absolutely everything in a database games need creators like writers need an alphabet.

Telltale is probably the most successful example of branching storytelling in game design like you're talking about. Just like DMing a game so much of it is controlling character and tone. It's relatively contained experience story/design wise. Put that in an MMO and it seems too big to control - thus the relative unconcern with anything but handling multiple players. It becomes too big not to feel "gamey".

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