Can MMOs Really Do Story?

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor


Since today is May the Fourth, I thought it only fitting that I try and come up with something to write about Star Wars: The Old Republic. I poked around the Internet a little bit, trying to find something relevant that I could discuss, and I came across an old IGN piece that served as the site's – and probably a lot of people's – first look at the game, way back in 2008. There's a part of it that, I think, hits upon not only a major issue with SWTOR, but also with MMOs in general.

For all its weaknesses, one thing that BioWare has received near universal praise for in SWTOR is its story. Having eight individual, RPG-caliber stories, one for each class, is a delight, and they weren't included just for the heck of it, or even just because “BioWare does story well.” According to the IGN piece (warning: annoying embedded autoplaying video ads), there was a real, sensible reason for it, and it has to do with an inherent flaw of MMOs:

The problem is that the success of the stories in Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect relied on scripted interactions, a dramatic pace and a sense that the player's actions had a lasting impact on the game world. BioWare admits, “common sense says you can't approach story this way in an MMO.” As they see it, the problem with most MMOs, even those that have large story arcs for their characters, is that they try to apply a single story to a wide range of classes and attitudes. In designing content that works equally well for both saints and scoundrels, many MMOs are left with rather generic stories where the only real roleplaying is whatever the player projects onto the action. The solution is to give each class its own story arc.

That's sound reasoning, and, as far as SWTOR is concerned, I'd say “mission accomplished”... sort of.


The problem is, what about the rest of your MMO? Sure, we love the story content in SWTOR, as well as in other games, to varying degrees, but what about the rest of the game, especially the leveling process? Again, SWTOR does a commendable job with some aspects of this – planets have a kind of “main storyline” that tells an interesting story – but you inevitably wind up with a lot of filler, “kill 10 rats”-type quests that serve only as tedious busywork to be done between the cool story bits. And once you get to endgame, whether that be raiding or something else, story is usually secondary to loot acquisition. You don't care why your character is killing the big bad, only that you get something shiny for it, especially after your millionth run.

And, apart from dedicated role-players and sandbox enthusiasts, gamers will inevitably prioritize rewards over story in MMOs. How many SWTOR players use guides to figure out exactly what responses they need to give to maximize their companions' affection, or at least try to pick answers that they think are appropriate for whomever they've got with them? Or engage in Light or Dark side behavior because they want to accumulate enough points to get the right gear?

If you make the wrong decision in a single-player game, you can go back to a previous save point to fix things. Or, if you're like me, you let the story take you wherever it goes; even if you don't get the “best” result, you're happy to have your own unique experience. That's a harder line to toe in MMOs, where there are no save points and there's a need to maximize your abilities so you aren't a detriment to your group in instances or PvP – if you're invited at all.


The more I think about it, and the more MMOs I play that try to wedge intricate stories in alongside their gameplay, the more I think that the MMO is simply not a suitable vehicle for delivering individual stories. It's something you can do in single-player games just fine, and because most MMO players started with single-player games, they want to see that same depth of story in their MMOs, but I don't know that it can be done. Even if there is a kickass story, does it feel special knowing that a large number of people you interact with (or maybe just 1/8 of them, in SWTOR) went through pretty much the same thing, that they also confronted Darth McNasty or made out with their companion? Was your story really that individual or unique? People tend to go through the same stories in single-player games, too, of course, but at least when I play Skyrim, I'm the only Dragonborn in my world (at least, I was until the DLC hit).

This isn't to say I want to play in a bland, unimaginative world with no interesting stories to tell. As the IGN piece even brings up, the Star Wars story was about Luke, Han, Leia, and so on, but they happened to intersect with the greater overall rebellion against the Empire. There's still room for your MMO world to be interesting and well-realized, but these days I'm just not buying the premise, which many MMOs still try to push, that my part in it is in any way special or my experiences unique. Maybe it's time for the genre to move on from that, and for gamers to accept that it's an experience you just can't get from an MMO.

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In this article: SWTOR, BioWare.

About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

Discussion (20)

Leon 8 years ago
I think the problem with story telling in MMOs is that it needs to be catered for every single player out there and that makes player character centric storytelling rather difficult. The game either ignores that you are one in a million, or tries to incorporate the other players in a very unsubstantial way.

To do it differently would mean alienating some players with every part missed, something that MMOs in general tend to avoid. I don't have a solution myself, but I think cracking that is critical to good storytelling.

chefmadness 8 years ago
I like the ground combat, StarWars space combat sucks ass, STO best ever!!! also STO storyline is awesome & way better!

amok 8 years ago
well most people here are just saying no becuase they dont care to read anything. a pvp game is more for those types of folk. no sotry, just gameplay. but as for me i think some mmos have great storylines and then there are others that dont bother to really try. i play FFXIV very much and paid alot of attention to the storyline when i was told to skip it all. im glad i watched the plot unfold as it gave me reason and excite ment to keep playing and wanting more. then we have other mmos such as TERA that.. are very very very poor and expect the player to just go along with the writing.

with this, i have played three other mmos to the end of its base game and read the quests, and plot along the way. RIFT/ THE SECRET WORLD/ and RAGNAROK 2. rift has a great storyline that gives reason to the setting and areas there, along with wrapping itself up and starting the next area like a brand new book. TSW does its home work and lets you know who why and where the plot is going on, it was fun and intresting to see how i took a part in the plot going on and even effecting it sometimes. then... Ragnarok 2.. the storyline was just " oh shit go kill this becuase i dont like it " every time.. not even a solid reason to " kill x of this turn into y"

so mmos can do a storyline right, and be more intresting then a AAA game could ever be sometimes.

but we will have those people that think an mmo is all just gameplay, ignoreing the world they are in and just wanting to get to the end of the game, then quit. becuase to them its just a game, while to others its a living story.

View 2 replies
Cloak 8 years ago

Zylath 8 years ago
Well in Tibia the player do the history, its like if you have done someithing important the players will remeber it and on each server there are some players that were legendary, i can list some of them like Eternal Oblivion, Bubble, Cachero, Lord Palusthina, etc.

ElusiveXTreasure 8 years ago
SWTOR had good story and the dialogue choices are fun, even if it is a false sense of choice. FFXIV:ARR as well does story very well. But no MMO has immersed me in the world and story quite like TSW. Sure some of the quests are mundane, but when included with the story quests, the investigation missions, the stealth missions. It all feels like part of the bigger story of the area. I agree story in an MMO won't ever be done perfectly, but I think when done well, not only is there a place for it, but it sets that MMO apart. At least in my mind, don't get me wrong the mechanics have to be there too, but there's something about an MMO having a solid story that just makes it more meaningful. I play console games as well and sure the console stories will be more in depth, but I am a roleplayer and there's something about experiencing a story with -my- character that feels a bit different.

wootz91 8 years ago
I don't want a damn story in a MMO. I go play Skyrim or Dragon Age if I want a story. I hate the new WoW Expansion and Swotor for these looooong cutscenes. Every cutscene or skip button takes time, and my time is short these days.

View 1 reply
skip 8 years ago
As long as there's a skip button, I don't care.

checkit 8 years ago
Have you guys checked out DragonBall Online Revelations?

Mok 8 years ago
Personally i think any game that tries to focus too much on the narrative is a bad thing. People tend to end content way before it's expected time. SWTOR has decent narrative but it has no impact or effect to the events leading up to as a whole. I mean if players are content with that then w/e right? Galaxies offered more imo in terms of what you can do because the lore from there on is player generated. Till EA fumbled on the whole letting players become jedi's . WoW i think did itself solid by having a history for it's lore based on the RTS. games like Final Fantasy are pretty standardized in what you would expect in an FF game. The different Classes that you can play with gives the game variety and the lore itself isn't half bad either considering what you would of an FF title. Realistically I think Lore is an important factor of any MMO but it should be what defines it as a good game. I think Players should be able to generate their own story past a certain point of any MMO and make something out of themselves. i.e. Player driven narratives. Games like those may bring unwanted " drama" but when you think about it that on it's own is history in the making and really developers should be able to hone in on these moments and make use of it to create more content.

kakainMouth 8 years ago
Wow had epic story in vanilla. Even whend grind kicked in you could mot wait for next story part. Building up to end game etc. They used WESTERN humor like Link's boomerang quest (a paladins only ranged pulling ability).
A key to wow success was not showering people in goods. Standing in Ironforge right clicking people because race, class and items you knew they were from a certain advanced part of the story... And were like godly lore keepers that knew bosses and what happens after. That makes us x10 more invested in immersion.
It soon went to crap like rest in that department, but story wise it is ok. Age of Wushu and other games like X.A.O.C. Online have good story for asian games. The deep culprit is NA and EU not stepping up to the lore plate and leaving East make bad games based on thier view. West has so much to draw on but doesnt. Or markets it poorly, like in assassins creed.

View 1 reply
Arrahed 8 years ago
Then their is the upcoming MMO Star Citizen.
That game comes with full single player campain that seemlessly integrates with the open MMO part.
Although it isn´t finished yet, the concept is pretty cool.

hovsep56 8 years ago
mabinogi had an AMAZING story full betrayals and stuff heck even the goddes herself betrayed the players the story also gets very depresing later on.

mmo's can do a good story they just have to make a story that makes you not the only chosen one you don't really need voice acting or cutscenes to make a good story. dark souls proved it.

bread 8 years ago
Hmm i love the story in SWTOR the only mmo that i can think of that has a decent story that i actually like is Guild Wars both 1 and 2 , Path of Exile has a good story also hmm i cant think of any other mmo where i was actually into the story.

Mogar 8 years ago
One of the reasons I love FFXIV:ARR. Recently got back into it in preparation for the expansion coming out in June and I have to say one of the best things about it is the story. If you're not a fan of Final Fantasy style stories then you may have a different opinion but for someone who's played and enjoyed most of the series I must say for an MMO it's got A LOT of story and one that actually feels like something from a retail 60 dollar single player game.

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