There was a recent editorial article on MMORPG.com that talks a little bit about the background stories of various MMOs, and briefly ponders how the (probably) inevitable changes brought about by expansions and updates can impact the players and the play experience. The article does a decent job of hitting the salient points, comparing to other entertainment mediums like movies, comics, and so on: click through for more on that.
My rant is only loosely related, but was triggered by that article. In short, “who really cares?”
Understand, this is not because I don’t want to care. I’ve been a RPer for 30 years now… I want a meaningful backstory that helps to explain what is going on around me when I am playing the game, and points to potential future opportunities and activities. I just almost never get it… I’ve been fooled on that score so many times, I’m not sure who is to blame any more… “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me… fool me a 200th time, shame on my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side?”
Instead, the “backstory” usually consists of “hundreds of thousands of years ago, these major things happened”, driven by beings with 25-letter names (so you know they were important). “Then some lesser things happened tens of thousands of years ago”, kinda triggered by these beings with 20-letter names (so you know they are less important). “Then some trivial things happened thousands of years ago…” (these guys only have 15-letter names… obviously lightweights). Then, 100 years ago, EVERYTHING CHANGED (so none of that other stuff will actually matter to you…but thanks for reading…).
As in so many other ways, WoW did a fair job of avoiding the typical syndrome, the “if I wanted to read mythological textbooks, I’d bone up on Celtic legend” reaction. After finally cracking open the 200+ page Game Manual a couple days ago, only 10 pages were dedicated to the backstory… and they didn’t bother with much of anything before the “Third War”, which is the immediate past of the game setting. Then there are a couple of pages per race, describing the present condition of that race. AND, they put it in the BACK of the book.
Huh. It’s almost as if they realized that NO ONE READS THE MANUAL…
In short, this rant is a simple plea to all the budding MMO devs out there, please don’t fall into the age old trap of thinking that your incredibly complex backstory is a selling point to the RPers out there. We’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt WAY too often. If you actually utilize it, it can add to the value of your final product, yes: but in itself, it means nothing. It has to be built into your setting and your design, step by step, for it to be anything but a weak sauce novella-wannabe.