Ha! And you all probably thought I forgot about this site!
Honestly, I have been super busy for practically a year. My son joined Cub Scouts and I got roped into being his Den Leader. This involved me doing a lot of stuff I normally wouldn’t have been caught dead doing (spending a night on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for one). In addition, at work we were working on something SUPER secret and I didn’t want to risk giving out any inadvertent hints to what we were working on in my blog. I like my job.
What I wanted to discuss today was the story lines of an MMO, and how things work as your game grows older. For City of Heroes, much of the background was crafted by two gentlemen, and we, the mission writers, would mine the enemy groups’ background stories for interesting stories to tell, figure out with Production what the major beats were, and what level to reveal secrets about the group or the game world to the player (this is level-based story advancement, where the world grows and changes as your character levels up).
I have to tell you, while this was fun, it sure as heck wasn’t creative. The mission writers were beholden to those backgrounds as gospel, no deviation, no improving them, and only occassionally being able to add our own ideas and characters to a storyline. After launch, we found ourselves wanting to tell new stories, inventing new enemies and groups, and having more of a “say” in the story of the game. This sparked tons of creativity. New NPCs showed up that better fit the world (since we knew what the world was, we’d been writing for it for so long), new enemy groups appeared with backgrounds tied into the game world, etc.
Time moved forward. People moved on.
I soon noticed that new writers were becoming as beholden to the established game world as we were when we first started working off of the Background write-ups. There was so much game lore in the world that they were very much restrained in the stories they could tell, and the people who established these stories didn’t even work on the game any more. This caused me to take a different tact. I was Lead Designer at the time, and I let the writers be creative. I let them “bend” the established lore to fit the stories they were interested in telling. I let them “retcon
” certain aspects if it made for a more dynamic and fun experience. The only thing I asked was that they avoid doing so when it directly contradicted something that was already in the game. If it was buried in a background doc it could totally be changed, though. That’s not to say the writers didn’t occasionally rewrite history, but the idea was that they had a story they wanted to tell.
I think I can put it in these terms for a City of Heroes player. After you’ve played through the game on a character, you know most of the stories of the game. You can now make a new character that has a background that meshes perfectly with the game world… but where is the creativity in that? CoH characters are specifically generic so that your imagination can run wild with them. You have the creative license to introduce your own background into the CoH world at this point. You would probably take care to make sure it didn’t contradict any established lore, but if you did have a great idea that you absolutely wanted to run with you wouldn’t let that lore get in your way.
Since I am Lead Designer, and I was part of writing for the game back before the game launched, I am often a voice of reason, and a sounding board for ideas. I will bring up things that have been misunderstood by the players (like Back Alley Brawler being a member of the Freedom Phalanx. That little gem was buried so deep that I hadn’t even been aware that several designers in the interim assumed he was and threw references to the fact into the game). I can also be a good resource as to why a character acts a certain way or an enemy group has a certain look. If I am not around, designers can look up what the players “know” on the internet on various wikis. (But in the case of Back Alley Brawler, this can lead to mistakes as well). That said, if a designer comes to me with a completely new take on a character, one that enables them to tell amazing stories, what kind of a boss would I be if I said “no”?
As your MMO grows, people will leave the project and/or the company. They will leave behind a legacy of content that they have created. New people will be hired on, and likely hired on their own creativity. What cool stories can they tell? Should they be restricted to only tweaking the playground that was built before they arrived? Or should they be allowed to add-on to the playground, altering things to make their amazing, new, ideas a reality? I say give them the latitude to tell amazing stories. Don’t stifle them.