Inside most nerds there’s a frustrated genre novelist – myself as no exception (more on that later). It’s why so many of us write fan fiction, or roleplay, or willingly do the extra work that dungeon mastering a pen and paper RPG entails. The nerds who are lucky enough to work in nerd industries like video games are absolutely no exception to the rule, and for some of them their day job even gives them a helping hand towards realising their ambition. Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 both have spin-off novels written by some of their game designers, and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples out there. It’s a sold choice for the publishers – in terms of quality of writing, games designers are at least on a par with the hacks-for-hire that normally pump out genre spin-offs, and they can be pretty much guaranteed to know the game setting inside out and write something that actually fits in it. That’s not really a problem, unless you find mediocre genre spin-off novels in general a problem (and then the solution is simple – don’t buy them. There’s plenty of original SF and fantasy out there too).
No, the problem is when the guys who haven’t got to write a novel use the MMO they’re working on as a surrogate. Because then instead of playing a game designed to be as much fun as possible for us to play through, we’re sitting through a game designed to be the interactive novel the designer wanted to write. That just causes problems for them and for us.
First of all, creating a novel is different from creating a game. Both of them require settings and world-building, true, and a cast of characters (but there’s a difference here which I’ll get to in a minute), and dialogue between those characters that should ideally be entertaining to read or hear. However, novels have plot and MMOs have a scenario, and those are different things. Plots tell you what the story is. They have a beginning, a middle and an end – unless you’re George R R Martin or Robert Jordan, in which case they have a beginning, a middle, a middle, a middle and more middle. A plot takes you from the beginning of a story to a satisfying conclusion (even if they have to hire someone to write that conclusion after the author has popped his clogs). A scenario is a situation. It’s a call to arms to the player that says “this is what’s going on out there – what are you going to do about it?” Dark Age of Camelot had a scenario – you are a citizen of one of three realms at war with one another. EVE Online has a scenario – space capitalism, red in tooth and claw, a galaxy full of endless opportunities including the opportunity to die or be ripped off. Neither of them necessarily tells you what’s going to happen – that’s up to the players to decide, not the designer to force upon them.
Then there’s the thing about characters. Novels have protagonists (heroes or someone who fills the role of ‘hero’ even if that’s far from the right word to describe them), antagonists (villains) and supporting characters. An MMO should have antagonists (the monsters) and supporting characters (quest givers and merchants, at least). However, the protagonists of an MMO should be the player characters, not anything the game designer has created. Otherwise, players start to ask themselves “what’s the point?” when the game has some central NPC character who could just as easily do all the stuff they’ve been doing, and who ends up getting all the glory.
Put these together, and you get games with the events on rails, giving the player a guided tour of the story the designer wants to tell instead of the one they want to make for themselves, and to add insult to injury it’s one where the players don’t even get a starring role – they get to fight the dragon or the Dark Lord down to 1% health, then the NPC hero du jour steps in to get the killing blow in a blaze of glorious cinematic. At which point the player realises that for fifteen bucks a month he can get a whole pile of self-published ebooks that are probably as well-written and original as the story being rammed down their throats on-screen. So here’s a plea to all the game devs – if you want to write a novel, write a novel. Once you’ve finished, you can self-publish on Kindle and if it’s good, it will sell. You can even use your link with an MMO to get some publicity for your novel, if you like. But please, when making a game, make a GAME – something that lets us find our own story to tell instead of leaving us grinding dailies until the next batch of ‘content’ allows us to see what your favourite NPC did next.
I mentioned, back at the beginning, that I’m no exception. My own gaming time has been cut into recently as I’m taking another swing at one of the novel outlines I’ve been working on for years, and this time I’m actually reasonably happy with what I’m turning out. Which means you may see some writing commentary, or samples, on this blog interspersed with the rants about gaming, in the coming months. And if I can actually finish the thing this time, I’ll be taking my own advice and self-publishing on Kindle. Let’s see how this goes…