Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cinematic Storytelling Vs Failure

I've been making good on my New Year's resolution to work on my console game backlog, wrapping up Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed (yes, the original) in the last week.  The two games differ in some ways - Uncharted is like an interactive action movie with guns and grenades, while AC is more about stealth assassination (except when you abruptly need to kill 10 guys at once) in the era of the crusades.  Even so, the two share the use of cinematic storytelling and an approach to dealing with player failure.

Storytelling and gameplay
If you look at an old school "pure" game, like say Super Mario, the story is generally pretty limited - a scene at the start in which The Princess is kidnapped again and a scene at the end in which she gives the plumber a peck on the cheek.  The "point" of that game, and its incentive to continue, is the gameplay itself, and beating each additional level.  If the game gets too hard, that's okay because you're not missing much.

By contrast, these newer-fangled cinematic games are out to tell a story. Each gameplay success is rewarded with the next scene in the tale.  The game mechanics are conceptually similar - you're using the abilities on your character and the tools in the environment to solve puzzles (which may include beating enemies) - but the philosophy is very different.  When you fail to figure something out in Uncharted or AC, you don't get sent back to the beginning of the level.  The scene resets itself to a point pretty close to where you failed, and you can try it again until you finally beat it and then never look back. 

Because of this story focus, giving up on a cinematic game is much more of a "failure" than the Mario game.  When you quit, you don't get to see how the story ends.  This is a problem for the developers, because they want you to leave happy and ready to purchase the sequel.

Quests and MMO Storytelling
Here's where this becomes relevant to the MMO audience: the modern quest system is driving MMO's away from the gameplay model and towards the cinematic model. 

World of Warcraft launched primarily as a world, full of threats for players to attack.  Sure, you needed to raid to get at the very end of each storyline, but this mattered less because there were multiple stories to follow and multiple zones to explore.  The game's two expansions, however, have gone the more cinematic route.  With a few sideplot exceptions, every single quest in the new content of these expansions has been focused on building up the storyline to the expansion's signature fight (Illidan and Arthas).  Ignoring the plot is no longer an option unless you simply don't read, and even that won't save you from cinematic events like the Wrathgate.  This, in turn, has left the playerbase less satisfied with paying full price and not getting to see the end of the story.

Bioware's upcoming Star Wars extravaganza will take the format to its logical conclusion, with a multiplayer form of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, complete with cinematic cutscenes and dialog trees.  Players are excited about this, but I wonder whether they'll like the results.  I've never been able to get into Dragon Age personally; the gameplay is too shallow compared to what we have in MMO's to stand on its own merits, but it requires just enough attention to seriously detract from sitting back and enjoying the story while you fumble with inventory management and character sheets.  Somehow, I don't think I'll be first in line to pay for MMOre of the same. 


Longasc said...

"the modern quest system is driving MMO's away from the gameplay model and towards the cinematic model."

Quoted for truth. This is also seen in Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, and I wonder how SWTOR and GW2 will turn out in this regard.

Klepsacovic said...

With wikis and youtube and all manner of spoiler sites, is a player really missing all that much story if they don't play? While they don't directly experience it and therefore lose something, the same applies to the gameplay, and I'd say a video of gameplay loses much more in the 'translation' than a video of lore.

Yeebo said...

The problem is that "pure gameplay" MMOs such as EQ and UO are not compelling games. They were grindy and repetitive. It would be like playing a version of super mario where you are required to mash the jump button 100x to get to the next level.

Mario has compelling gameplay, it doesn't need a story. MMOs generally don't have moment to moment game play that is much fun considered in isolation. They hook you in with deep sim mechanics or...a storyline. Few players have the patience for deep sim mechanics (e.g., EVE), those are niche products. So MMO developers are left with storylines for most players.

As an aside, DDO seems to have a nice compromise going. There are interesting stories to follow, there are idiotically deep character mechanics if you care to dig in to them, and the moment to moment combat is much faster paced and exciting than most MMOs.

Tesh said...

I'll second Yeebo, and throw in (again) a recommendation for the GW business model. If you're buying a story, it should be like buying a book or a movie; buying *content*, not time to consume said content.