The fundamental flaw of MMO’s

Traditional narrative

The basic design behind MMORPG’s, as we make them today, is fundamentally flawed. Now, that does not mean that they cannot be fun to play or have the potential of financial success – today. But what of tomorrow?

Quite the cocky statement, but indulge me. To understand the flaw, let’s backtrack a bit.

As humanity has carried and evolved the tradition of linear storytelling throughout thousands of years, game designers now struggle to understand the power and meaning of nonlinear narrative. Of course we do! It is not intuitive to us. That the player has some level of control over the narrative faces us with a problem – and an awesome opportunity. How we solve it will define our medium as an art form.

The problem of “linearity versus nonlinearity” shares similarities with the issue at hand – which is “massively multiplayer versus singleplayer”. MMO’s are made to support thousands of players in the same world, yet we build them with the building blocks of singleplayer, building blocks we are comfortable and used to work with. Just as with nonlinear narrative, the MMO space is not intuitive to us. Let’s see what problems we get from making MMO content with singleplayer ideas:

– The story defies the nature of time. You have just saved Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf at her grandmother’s house, but in your friend’s experience she hasn’t reached the house yet. A linear timeline is used. We are in different stages of the world story, yet we both inhabit the same world. This makes the storytelling bizarre, and splits up players.

– The content of the world is static. The ideas of singleplayer heroism and semi-linear progress are used, but the aspect of a thousand protagonists all being in their own point in the timeline denies any real change to the world. The content created becomes a weak, faded version of what could have been.

The core of the flaw is using a linear narrative timeline even though it goes against the nature of the MMO environment. How do we break the spell of singleplayer? We go dynamic, organic.

The content, the story, the gameplay and the experience must come directly from player interaction with dynamic systems. That way, the world is reactive to (and changes by) the actions of the player, and everyone shares events in realtime – at the same time – instead of being separated within an artificial timeline.

Games like Eve, Tabula Rasa, Warhammer Online all dip their toes in the dynamic pool, but to create a truly dynamic, player-driven world will demand something far more complex and visionary. And boy, will it be difficult to achieve!

The first struggle is simply to figure out how it can be done, and who’s going to pay for the research. Lots of prototyping will be necessary to not only find systems that are interdynamic and consistent, but also fun. It’ll be a problem to find the funds, because where do you find a publisher willing to shell out millions of dollars on something that is extremely high risk, when the existing models are working well enough (financially)?

Perhaps baby steps will have to do.


  1. Very interesting, but I think you are not giving enough credit to the reasons things are this way, and the benefits they provide.

    Current “mainstream” MMOs have multiple narrative lines: the player’s individual (quests, leveling up), the player’s social group (guild building, guild drama, raid progression), the server’s (auction prices, inter-guild dynamics, server achievements, zone ownership in PVP), and the game’s (class changes, exploits, world firsts, game information sites). The higher up you go, the more shared the narrative experience. In contrast, the most dynamic and player-influenced is somewhere in the middle, around the player’s social group and the server.

    To extend the shared experience all the way down to the individual player means building a world where thousands of players have something interesting, yet unique, to do. HARD.

    To extend the dynamism and level of player influence in the narrative towards the individual player, you have to arguably solve the first problem. To extend it towards the whole game, you have to relinquish control of the game and let the players rule it. DANGEROUS.

    ATITD did all of them, at the cost of creating a game that few people found engaging and interesting. Meanwhile, mainstream MMOs try to push progress in the middle (around the player’s social circle: guilds, friends, groups) and keep it contained there, where potential problems remain reasonably isolated, and the player has a comfortably sized community inside which he feels he can have an impact. These MMOs also benefit from the fact that individual content that is instanced and repeated for each player, gives players a common past before they have even met.

  2. pixelpark

    First I want to say that I don’t agree that “player’s social group” or “server’s social group” has a narrative line/timeline; its dynamic nature makes it nonlinear and is therefore not stuck in a timeline. Those aspects are not part of the problem.

    “To extend the shared experience all the way down to the individual player means building a world where thousands of players have something interesting, yet unique, to do.”

    I’m not saying that we should have some sort of dynamic quests where everything is unique and everyone is the hero. I have no idea how to do that.

    Not everything has to be completly unique. In a realworld battle, most people share the same goal – but the goal of the battle came to existance dynamically, based on the state of the war. Depending on the result of the battle – and how the result were achieved – we get future goals.

    Not everyone can be the hero of the kingdom, and even though we tell the player that she is the hero (through static content in today’s mainstream mmo’s), she obviously realizes that her interaction with the static world has no effect on the state of the world itself. Lets leave that idea and move on.

    The idea is that the content of the game is born out of self-balancing dynamic systems through interaction with the player. Unlike ATITD, the fun should primarily come out of the game mechanics you use to interact with the systems (combat, etc), not just from the system themselves.

    We already have seen some of these systems (guild cities in AoC, 0.0-space in Eve, public quests in WAR, realm vs realm in DAoC, conquerable bases in Tabula Rasa), yet we seem to think that they must be high level and only cover a fraction of the gameplay. Get them in early, get the player involved – and let her level her character through playing with that dynamic content.

    Difficult? I never said it was anything but.

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