TERA’s Emotional Rewards Through Storytelling

GameZone has partnered up with En Masse Entertainment to provide to you an exclusive behind the scenes look at the upcoming MMORPG TERA. Each and every month you can expect to find the latest installment that delves into the development, creation, writing, art, design and much more up until the launch in 2011.

Previous TERA Developer Diaries:
The Monsters of TERA – Exclusive Pictures
Developer Diary 1 – “Playing is Believing – A TERA Story”
TERA’s Path to Creating Compelling Characters

By David Noonan, Lead Writer, En Masse Entertainment

“Emotional Rewards through Storytelling” is the motto of the writing team here at En Masse. We call it ERTS (rhymes with hurts) for short. We first saw the phrase on a Powerpoint slide; it was a key element that early focus-group testers said TERA must have. We took “emotional rewards through storytelling” as our rallying cry, and every day we ask, “Does this have enough ERTS?”

(If you have to ask, the answer is usually “no.”)

Games don’t have to use storytelling to evoke emotion, of course. There’s no deep storytelling in Pac-Man, for example, but you get an emotional charge nonetheless when you turn the tables on those ghosts—or when you flawlessly execute that pattern through the maze you’ve been practicing for days.

Storytelling is just one vehicle for delivering emotion, but it’s an awfully good one. It’s especially good for MMORPGs, which have big, persistent worlds, a cast of thousands, and hundreds of hours of play. A world that large practically demands a story. And if you’re going to tell a story, you might as well do what stories (and art in general) have been doing for millennia: evoking an emotional response.

This guy needs your help

Games Are Different

I have an unshakeable bedrock belief that telling stories in a game is fundamentally different than telling stories in a book or film. The key difference is one of focus. A novelist knows his readers are, well, reading. A screenwriter knows his audience is watching the screen. But especially in a nonlinear game like an MMO, the game designer knows less about where the player’s attention is focused.

• Is the player searching each dialog box for clues about an upcoming quest or otherwise deeply invested in every word?

• Is the player desperately trying to catch up to friends in another zone, clicking past the quest without reading it? Does the player remember what happened in a previous quest, or did it all happen months ago in real life?

• Has the player followed an expected path to reach this point, or did something unusual bring him here?

We writers know less about our audience, yet we must care more. We must care more because bad or intrusive storytelling can get in the way of actual gameplay. We’ve all seen it happen: long cutscenes full of exposition, battle sequences where the players are mere spear-carriers for the really important nonplayer characters, and chains of “talk to this guy, talk to that guy” that send you halfway across a continent just to make a conversation possible. Good storytelling in a game delivers that emotional reward, and then gets the heck out of the way! No one should ever have to choose between the storytelling and the actual game.

Why Quests?

There are lots of ways to tell a story within an MMO, but one time-honored (some might say “timeworn”) way is through quests. TERA has about a thousand quests, so it’s a key way we’re telling the game’s story.

It’s easy to dismiss a typical MMO quest as “Meet village chieftain, kill ten rats, bring rat tails back to chief.” But it doesn’t have to be so…so perfunctory. Strip away the specifics, and a typical MMO quest can be a surprisingly flexible tool for delivering that emotional reward.

In the end, TERA’s story is your story

How so? Look at what even the simplest quest offers:

• Someone has a problem. Problem means conflict, it means struggle, and it means drama. And a quest usually lays out a problem (though not necessarily the problem) right away. Deliver a compelling problem, and you’re well on your way to hooking the player with your storytelling.

• The player is the star. Once you’ve engaged with the quest, you generally have to do something. Maybe it’s easy, maybe it’s difficult. Maybe it seems easy…almost too easy. Maybe it’s so hard you need to recruit some friends. But no matter what, it’s you and your friends taking action. The nonplayer characters are where they belong: serving as supporting cast.

• Gameplay is central to the climax. Think about the best quests you’ve played. Where was the emotional delivery? Usually you don’t get the thrill of victory when you’re talking to the questgiver. You get the emotional payoff when you defeat the last foe, find the rare magic crystal, or get the lost woodcutter back within sight of the village. The quest sets up the structure for the emotional reward, but you receive it right in the middle of good old-fashioned gameplay.

• You learn why your actions matter. This is particularly important in a persistent world MMORPG, and it can be one of the harder elements to pull off. With every quest, we try to add nuance, shade, and color to that emotional reward by telling you how your success (or occasionally, your failure) changes the world. The refugees have food for another day. The magic crystals power a forcefield to protect the city. The woodcutter gets home to his family. If you ever wonder why quests often send you back to the questgiver (or to another NPC), it’s to provide an emotionally resonant closure after the climax of success. Think of it as your victory lap.

A good game can make you feel elated, proud, mournful, conflicted, and (every once in a while) frustrated. If we do our jobs right, TERA will make you cheer one character, crave vengeance against another, and try to shepherd a third—sometimes in the same set of quests! Using storytelling techniques learned at those hunter-gatherer campfires, we’ll deliver emotional rewards—using nothing more than pixels. When our game (or any game) adapts those age-old techniques for this marvelous medium, the great stories are almost inevitable. And because you’re the player, they’re your stories.”