Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?

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The Endgame Dilemma

One of the most criticized and praised elements in more recent “themepark” MMORPGs is the concept of “endgame.”  A themepark MMO is a static world that remains largely unaffected by player actions.  It can be described as a backdrop where players are “led” through quests (with many pointers and hints making it difficult to fail at the task.)  Players critical of themeparks joke about games being “on rails” like a rollercoaster ride at a themepark.   Eventually—the time varies depending how frequently the person plays—the character completes most of the quests and reaches “max level” or “level cap,” and endgame.    This is simplified, of course; there are often additional ways to reach max-level besides questing, including player-vs-player (PVP) battlegrounds, crafting, and instanced dungeons.

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Funcom’s Trying Something New with The Secret World

Well, it’s been a few months since The Secret World (TSW) launched, and of the new games arriving – Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria – this is the one I find myself returning to.  A big part of the reason is the setting – there’s simply no other game quite like it.

The Setting

The Secret World is set in the modern day, but with one critical difference – the stuff of dreams, nightmares and mythology have begun manifesting in the waking world.  Zombies, Lovecraftian horrors, ghosts, the wendigo and sasquatch of indian legend, Slavic vampires and more have made their way into our countrysides and cities, all with the seeming intent of destroying our world.  There’s a hint at some kind of power behind this invasion, and player characters begin their creation by being “selected” somehow by a mysterious force, (imparted by magical “bees”) that imbue them with extraordinary powers.

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“The Serendipitous World ‘Isn’t Fun’”

At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing.

The original Ultima single-player games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated.  There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread.   At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and a decent-sized notebook.  If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story.  Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.

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Warcraft’s Leveling Grind and Breathing Life into Old Zones

With the final patch for World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion out the door, Blizzard recently posted an interesting interview with Greg Street, one of the lead designers looking back on what worked and didn’t work in this latest update. One of the first things mentioned was the enthusiasm for redesigning the 1-60 level “zones”, or geographic areas of Azeroth where characters begin their questing.

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