One of the major disadvantages which MMOs are burdened with is that any story cannot make substantive and permanent changes to the landscape. Unlike a single player game, in an MMO the developers must account for every player experiencing the whole world at once, this is because the world is experienced communally. If, in the final battle, the big-bad destroys half the world in a rage then you’re going to have a lot of confused newbies who are just fighting their way through the boars and goblins on the starter island as the verdant land drops away into a chasm of darkness and fire in front of their eyes.
So, the story must progress and any changes must be superficial or temporary – so that half of the content of the world isn’t blown away before the late-starters have a chance to experience it. Now, the trend for “Dynamic Events” aside, there hasn’t been much advancement past this linear design for storytelling (and even Guild Wars 2 tells its main story through a personal, and particularly linear, questline).
Imagine instead a game where the developers accepted that if they were going to have a truly epic story, then it is going to have to have truly epic consequences and that means substantive changes to the landscape to reflect this. They would have to accept that with these changes to the world, player’s experiences would change and those who are tardy to the party are going to miss some elements.
Imagine a game where the story is split into 20 chapters of 3 months each. The developers would plan each section in advance, each with its own internal storyline, and overarching it all a grand story arc which would play out over 5 years and culminate in the final chapter beginning 4 months and 9 months down the line. At the end of each chapter the world would change along with the story: perhaps the main government could be overthrown, a number of the main characters enslaved or killed. Perhaps the glistening capitol city could be completely levelled and replaced by a shanty town. Perhaps half the once green and pleasant eastern continent could be scorched by dragon-flame, turned to dust and ash, dotted by ruins and glittering glass-crystals.
This approach would require the developers and the players to accept the fact that in this format the player is taking part in a story which is much larger than themselves. It is not a “personal” storyline, but a “global” storyline in which they are taking part. This approach means that they would have to let go of content from earlier chapters and recognise that the story is going to progress without them if they don’t keep up. Players coming late would join the story at whatever point in the arc it has reached globally, and not have their own personal story inexplicably starting again with every new character – “Wait... why do I have to clear the village of corsairs? Haven’t all the guys hanging around in Kamadan already done that?”.
One of the great advantages of this approach would be that you can incorporate the all-important temporal element into the game. Your character could age with each chapter (with older characters looking more world-weary, wizened or wise depending upon how early in the story they were created), they could develop scars (ala Fable) or long-term injuries (I’ve always wanted a guy with a limp!) because you wouldn’t be going back to play earlier content and saying “hey, why are you limping? What do you mean war-wound? You’ve only just joined the army”. You could reliably kill off and introduce new NPC characters without them clashing with characters from earlier in the storyline and you wouldn’t have the awkward moment of “I don’t want to bring the Staff of Orr to you, Vizier, I know you’re the Lich. But I’ve got to bring you the staff so I can progress with the story”. Imagine the buzz on forums as the next chapter approaches, the speculation akin to a new game release every 3 months!
It’s pie-in-the-sky thinking, really. You’d need to have enough content within the chapters to keep players interested for the whole 3 month period (and we know it is usually only about a week and a bit before people start maxing out characters on a newly released MMO), and I’m unsure how the completionists would react to having missed content in earlier chapters. It would be a mammoth task. But if we could let go of this compunction to gather every shiny object in the entire world and put it in a box in our Guild Hall, I think it might work. With guaranteed content for 5 years, I’d hope it would allow greater freedom for the real lore-buffs to get their teeth into a meaty storyline – with murder, deceit, destruction and creation on a world-wide scale.