I've tried to write this essay three times, each time from a different angle. Each time failed. Maybe third time will be the charm.
Update: It's written. I pity anyone who reads it, though. This is mostly for my own edification. :P
Imagine a MMORPG like any other. Something like WoW or EQ.
Now, imagine the game doesn't ever get any "bigger". The number of zones is always the same, and with each expansion, old zones are plot-killed and taken off line for every new zone that rises up.
I'm not saying this is always a good idea. I'm going to use it as a jumping point into a completely unrelated essay: Massively Multiplayer Narrative Games.
MMNGs exist: to some extent, every forum is a MMNG. Some forums are particularly MMNGy as they are actually about writing stories as a team. The problem with these kinds of games is threefold. One: the immersion is very poor, partly because it's almost always only text, partly because many of the players are very poor writers. Two: It requires a lot of effort on the part of the players to create a piece of story. Three: Well, three's the toughie. Three's the one that I've been trying to figure out how to explain.
Three is why this essay is so long.
The basic idea behind many single-player games is functionally to take problems one and two and get rid of them. By writing the story for the player and letting him walk through at his own pace making minute changes, you functionally turn the player into an excellent writer who doesn't have to work very hard to build his story.
Massively multiplayer games can't really do this - a normal player fades into the woodwork with other normal players, and only exceptionally talented, hardworking players stand out enough to build shareable narratives. Functionally, we're right back where we started: problem one is still solved (ooh, pretty), but problem two rears its ugly head again. A player's narrative cannot be the game's narrative, because it doesn't stand out. Everyone is telling the same story.
Now, the idea of the game with limited zones is to go around problem two by taking adventures off-line. "You have an agrarian sword of corn slaughter? Wow! That's totally legacy, because the Farm Labyrinth has been offline for three years! Wow!"
What we've done, if it isn't clear, is we've turned a massively multiplayer game into a historical relative single player game.
Okay, them's some big, ivory-tower words.
What it means is that your stories (which are actually the game designer's stories played through by you) aren't some generic recount of an adventure everyone else has gone on/will go on. Instead, they are relatively unique - and the longer you play the game, the more unique they become.
This allows us to conquer problem two: once again, the players can use our stories as their personal stories... to some extent. It's not anywhere near perfect because we have very slow turnover times, so roughly half of the population will have played any given zone before it dies. We'll get to my solution for that later, but there are several alternatives.
But now we're at problem three. The mysterious problem three.
Problem three is sharing stories and keeping history.
A month from now? They don't remember that epic battle they had. And nobody else ever hears about it. Right now, the only way to tell stories is over forums or comics. And those are always player-generated stories, never in-game stories except in the loosest sense of the word.
Right now, our concept of "MMORPG" is so incredibly warped, what I'm trying to say doesn't even make sense in its context. I'm talking about history.
When you read about a MMOG, what do you read about? You don't read about how the story of the demon god Spaam is fascinating. You read about guilds and funny things and stories that are made up on the border between the game's reality and the internet. Spaam never comes up: he's just another generic token.
Now imagine you're reading about a MMOG and it says, "a few decades ago, the pirate nation of Keled-zai gathered a fleet of outlaws and conquered the capital of Mira-mira. For the past few decades, they've been building their fleet and conquering nearby colonies. Recently, however, a band of nationalists calling themselves 'the unforgiven' have uncovered an ancient artifact and started raiding Keled-zai fleets."
Okay, a decent enough backstory, right? So, why is it important? Why are they talking about it?
Because it's really what's going on.
Keled-zai is run by a group of old, hard-core players. The unforgiven are another group of players. The whole thing is players. Players everywhere.
The plot may be engineered by the designers, sure. But it is executed by the players.
"It's too PvP! Most players prefer PvE, and a PvP universe leaves casual players in the dust!"
That is thinking too linearly! It's not... really... PvP...
See, the plot is something global. Whether designed by the designers or by a band of players agreeing on a plot arc is irrelevant. Everyone knows how the plot progresses. It probably has a simple two-way structure: either "A" happens or "B" does, and the conditions are agreed upon ahead of time.
So, yes, it's PvP. But it's not running willy-nilly killing people. It's goal-based PvP. It's coop PvP. COPvP?
The only effect it has on casual players is that who is in charge tends to change, but that has little effect on a casual player.
Now, what is that third problem?
A year from now, nobody will remember that the Unforgiven rose up against the Keled-zai. It's ancient history. It's totally unimportant. It's not history: it's simply nonexistant. This is an utter waste of IP building. If everyone had totally forgotten the first three movies, nobody would have gone to see the latest Star Wars films. On the strength of the best stories of the past, they did well. We need to tap into that same power.
So our game, our theoretical little marvel, automatically stores stories.
This means that someone a year from now, a decade from now, can find the story of the Uprise of the Unforgiven. Screenshots, purple prose, drama, personality, and perhaps even humor are found in the story. Maybe the book is even an interactive history, allowing you to "play" a subgame based on the uprising, or study given figures in more detail (linking to other stories related to those people).
Bored with playing for the moment? Sick of waiting for your guild? Pop open a book. Suddenly, the world has a very vivid and personal history.
"That sounds pretty... dumb. I mean, who would bother to read that stuff?"
Well, I would bet at least 1% of your population would become regular readers, and at least 5% will read one if it is recommended to them. But, you're right: it needs to be made part of the game.
So the stories are linked to power.
You read about the Uprise of the Unforgiven? You gain hints as to a secret new power, or the location of an artefact. Put together the clues, become a more central player in a related plot event!
This isn't a one-time affair. John can't read the Uprising three times to gain more and more clues, but the clues John gets and the clues Sara gets are different. Even after the Uprising is ancient history and dozens of plots have uprisen from it, the next player to peer into that dusty tome will still get an applicable clue which can be leveraged into their own plot point.
Which, of course, becomes a new story that can be read and clues gained from it...
(Also, you don't gain anything for reading stories that you were a major player in. Cross-pollination is important.)
"Wait, this is getting more and more convoluted! Now we're talking about a kazillion plots! Who's scripting all these things?"
Yes, I've rather left the "churning zones" game behind in favor of a "player-generated plot game". But, as you might recall, I've been aiming at one for months. And I think I know how to do it.
This post is long enough, though. I'll post that design later.
If you made it this far, you have too much time on your hands. :)