Thursday, February 25, 2010

A finite MMO

Between reading Keen’s post on Monday and what Massively has posted about Final Fantasy XI I started thinking. Massively Multiplayer Online Games have always been about never ending content. What has drawn so many developing companies to the MMO market is that it has the potential to be an unending supply of revenue. Like Willy Wonka invented the Never Ending Gobstopper gaming developers invented the MMO. The thing that I have started wondering about though is what if a developer intended to end a game, like a single player game.

MMO games are notorious for having a “treading water” feel when you reach max level. The reason for this is the developers don’t want the game to end. Every piece of content added is always designed to be open ended so that they can continue to add on more at a later date and time. This means as a gamer, no matter how far you get in a game, you can never complete it. As such it is nearly impossible to tell one epic story, instead most MMOs focus on small short stories presented in various forms such as quests or expansions.

What if a developer did something new, something bold. What if at the release of a game they decided that they would only release a finite amount of content. The developers would be free to create a huge story arch spanning how every many expansions they feel are needed, for sake of argument let’s say 1 main game and 4 expansions… and let’s call them chapters.

A MMO with 5 chapters. The developers could take 6 or 7 years to tell these 5 chapters in their story. The key to every great story is it has to come to an end. With the developers having a defined goal they could better focus on the story and how to present it. The developers could have the entire story pre-written and story boarded before the first chapter ever launched. This would let the developers really focus on making each chapter great and they would already know how it ties into the next. It would allow for foreshadowing and all the great story telling features we see in movies, books and miniseries.

After the 5 chapters are completed the main developing team could move onto another project. Do not shut the servers down though. This is still a MMO after all. The game could continue to run as long as it had a large enough player base to support its upkeep. The small development team could release small content patches that would add side stories to the existing game and leave the main story unchanged. New players to the game could play through the game years later and if the chapters were designed right they would get to experience the vast majority of the story as it was originally written for the first time.

The developer could then move on to another project. They would have positive cash flow, a great game, and unlike every other MMO on the market it would have a beginning, middle, and end. It would have an epic story that each player felts as though they had contributed too. Then just like a miniseries on HBO they could make something new and just as amazing.


  1. I am really hoping that something like this happens with Star Wars: The Old Republic. It seems like Bioware is making the story a huge part of the game.

    I really miss story when I play MMOs. Everything seems to be stupid errands that I half read and just throw together in a quest log. I want an epic story arc in my MMOs. I just finished Mass Effect 2 and it made me realize how much story is lacking in our current batch of MMOs.

    One way or another I hope MMO developers start doing new things with the genre, because most of the new games feel iterative.

  2. In a way, Guild Wars did that. Of course, they don't monetize via subs, which I think is key to making "chapters" work. I've written about a theoretic Episodic MMO recently, too, much in the same vein.

    I think it would be a great direction to take these games, allowing for a more dynamic world and much stronger storytelling.