As a follow-up to the discussion sparked here and elsewhere by yesterday’s post, I wanted to add that several of the thoughts expressed helped me to clarify what I think of MMOs in terms of roleplaying vehicles.
I have to agree with those who contend that MMOs are not RPG vehicles in the sense of the term as used by older, tabletop (or P’n’P) gamers. And while one should never say never… I’m not sure MMOs will ever be able to provide the main elements required to emulate the old tabletop environment.
The main thing MMOs are lacking in that regard is the ability for players/characters to have a meaningful impact on the world with others — the more I think about it, the more it can’t just be ME having an impact on the world and only ME being able to see its results (as per the whatever-ya-call-em semi-instanced single player experiences you can have in certain games now, eg LOTRO and others); not in an MMO, anyway. Slaying the dragon shouldn’t affect just the slayer; it shouldn’t affect just the slayer and her group either, for that matter. In PnP, characters change game reality for everyone there, PC or NPC, beggar or king, 2 miles away or a thousand. In MMOs, I seriously doubt that’s going to be possible or available for a long, long time.
And if by some miracle the technology and means show up to allow persistent and persitently changing worlds, you’ll run into the problem that almost everyone wants to be a dragon-slayer, not a damned farmer… at least some of the time. One way around this would be to make the major storylines or arcs involve/require a LOT of people — but that brings its own slew of problems. (If you thought getting a 6-man PUG was hard, try rounding up 150!) And even then, on a server with a population of, say, 2000 active peak-time players, you’re still looking at half a dozen major arcs going on. If dragons are being slain left, right and centre — because everyone wants a dragon to slay — then that becomes meaningless pretty quickly too.
Before you start telling me that not everyone wants to be a hero — I know this. *I* don’t want to be a hero all the time; in fact I often half-joke that I’m mostly a crafter in MMOs and that killing stuff is just a hobby. However, we all have some drive towards the heroic and the epic, or fantasy (and space opera) wouldn’t be as popular as they are in games. We play to create rip-roaring tales, not existential musings — Edgar Rice Burroughs, not William Burroughs.
Which, to me, indicates why MMOs will never be old-fashioned RP environments, at least not as they are now and probably not for a long time. You can’t have a persistent, consequence-heavy world with 3,500 heroes. It just doesn’t work. You’d have to have far too many dungeons, bad guys, epic bad guys, plagues, divine insurrections, necromantic invarions and who knows what else to make any kind of rational sense. In a typical MMO, the same dragon gets slain over and over — which probably beats having 120 of them just so that everyone can get their own slice of special. Whether you kill the same thing multiple times or the same KIND of thing once, the net effect is the same: it’s not particularly unique.
That’s not to say, at all, that RP isn’t possible in MMOs, but the old-school, 6 people round a table with chips, sodas and overactive imaginations is not. It’s not that you can’t get people together, it’s that you can’t encapsulate that small-group-affecting-the-world feeling without having to duplicate it for every other small group on the server — after all, these are MASSIVELY multiplayer games we’re talking about. As far as old-school RP goes, I think small-multiplayer and single-player games are the way to go; games like NWN1 that include toolsets for creating more adventures for small-ish groups of people. (Yes, NWN1 had persistent-ish worlds, but they ended up tending toward MMOs and diluting that specific old-school RP experience.)
We just have to figure out what kinds of RP do work in MMOs, and play that. Many people already do, as evidenced by yesterday’s comments. There are ways to play a character even in a static world — it just won’t be the way us creaky old-timers are used to, or yearn for.