So the last couple of weeks I've been mulling over how to tell a story in MMOG format. The conclusions I'm reaching are quite possibly ridiculously off base, because my MMOG experience ended with EverQuest a solid four years ago or so (interestingly, just a few short months before this whole ARG business started up.) My apologies for typing -- this is practically stream-on-consciousness, and you'll have to let me know how much or little sense I make ex post facto.
So, let's get on with it: I'm not convinced about this business of players "telling themselves stories about themselves" and only being interested in a gaming story if they are the protagonist. Indeed, my experience with ARGs shows that people are content to be among a cast of thousands -- and that in many cases, even if you give people the tools and opportunity to cast themselves as a character in the story, many will choose to remain spectators. I'm equally as happy watching my husband play a Zelda or a Final Fantasy game as I am playing myself, and I suspect I'm not alone in this. That's an important lesson all by itself.
I've mainly been thinking about MMORPG storytelling in terms of the fairy tale at this point, since the genre hangs out with those tropes, but that's just for my convenience in these thought-games. Now, the first step would have to be developing a culture among gamers that encourages true role-playing. I'm talking -- at a minimum -- about the culture of tragic one-man quests against all orcs, loyalty to your guildleader, etc. Better: I'm talking the Star Wars Galaxies stormtroopers who really conduct drills. At any rate, you need people who are interested in a story, or the rest of this is useless. Once you have that culture in place, though, you can start to do some amazing things.
Some of the other challenges to telling a gripping story have to do with the assumptions developers have historically made about online gaming. In my admittedly old experience, you see static worlds where lowly NPCs don't develop over time -- the bartender who's looking for some extra rat ears to brew some of his special grog, that's all he'll ever want. I say mix it up. Look for opportunities to characterize even the lowly NPCs, and don't let those guys always stay the same. At the simplest, you can have his information change based on time of day, on the weather, or on your own reputation -- these are systems already well-discussed. Don't assume that every newbie ever needs to do the same rat ears-to-grog quest, though. Allow for some variation. Breathe life into your world, let it change. Let the bartender realize his lifelong quest of marrying the innkeeper. Or let him get killed by goblins. It doesn't matter specifically what, just: allow change to happen, and allow it to happen constantly. Only doing it every six months as you develop and release mod packs is much too slow for anything resembling dramatic pacing.
Although it would seem the designers didn't intend it, I see the accidental plague in WoW as a fantastic example of this kind of dynamic world change; they just need it to be placed into a context. With context, high-level story elements can trickle down and affect players at all levels. Let's say that the Evil King takes over Graceland. He'd probably raise some horrendous taxes, and maybe he'd introduce thugs to randomly shake you down for gold while you're in town. The NPCs would start to complain, going into town wouldn't be so safe anymore, and suddenly everything is twice as expensive as under the Rightful King. It would really only require a soft touch and some tweaking -- nobody needs to retexture entire villages or rewrite engines to make this kind of dynamic change really vibrant.
Next: Stop assuming that every player needs to be directly and personally involved in every story-furthering event. Stop thinking about stories in terms of limited-time events like "this duke duelled that prince for the hand of the fair maiden." We do have some realities to deal with, here, to wit: limited server capacity and the need to push story to a wide array of players.
One of the hardships of telling a compelling story in the MMORPG environment is the lack of a way for players to propagate the action to each other; you can do something with offline newspapers, maybe. A really great gossip system could cover some of this, or possibly even allowing a way for players to view cut scenes -- if something historical happens, maybe there should be a vision spell that allows everyone to see it after the fact. You could use a scroll for it, or crystal balls, or have special viewing circles. That's one way to broaden the time scale of an event, by simply not requiring that the player had to be in the Soggy Meadow at exactly 10pm EST when the server was overloaded with 5000 other players all wanting to watch the same event -- just to see the earl and the prince duelling and exchange some witty repartee. Story can be so much broader and participatory than that.
The other way is to make events that unfold over a longer period of time: days, not minutes. In my EverQuest days, I remember an event wherein werewolves suddenly infested a particular area. That would be great for the kind of story I'm talking about, but again, you need a context. Do you remember the old-fashioned fairytales, where the king would let the princess marry the man who could climb the glass mountain? That's one way to drive a MMOG story with participation -- one-time trials and tribulations, climbing the glass mountain. Maybe for two weeks you can try (but only once per person!) and at the end of that time, all of the people who made it to the top go on to another quest -- finding a rare flower and bringing it back the fastest, who knows. Post trumpeters inviting people to the tournaments, and have heralds and runners spread the news regarding winners.
Make more NPCs with real people driving them, at least some of the time. Create an NPC who starts to rally people into cells of a secret resistance to the Evil Baron. Create prophets who speak to the gods and then visit small groups of players giving them personalized information or tasks. It wouldn't take a lot of this to make a huge difference in terms of the depth of the world and its evolving history, and your players could feel like they were participating in a truly epic drama.
I quite honestly don't know where MMOGs stand right now in terms of this kind of overarching story, but I'm pretty sure nobody has tried to do anything like this on the kind of scale that's necessary -- I'm sure I'd have heard about it by now. It's a shame, though, because I think that it would be a killer experience for the players and for the dev team who does it.
OK, now somebody can tell me all of the things I don't know. :)