Get your RP on II – not in MMOs

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.

dragonslayerThe 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.

20 thoughts on “Get your RP on II – not in MMOs

  1. This argument has been made since the dawn of CRPGs, naturally. We old-school tabletoppers want the full package but computers can’t do that. Yet. Someday when we have full Holodeck simulations… or when we’ve all been plugged into the Matrix as disposable batteries for our machine oppressors…

    CRPGs — it doesn’t matter what genre or platform — are Attribute Advancement Games. The RPG could be linear (most are) or open/sandboxy but either way The Point is to advance the numbers (attributes) of your character. The End.

    We miss the variety only possible by direct interaction with a real-live human GM who can tailor-make the world for our little group. Our actions have an impact. In an MMORPG that is impossible (currently) due to the very nature of having so many players versus the tabletop scenario where for all intents and purposes the story — the world — revolves around your little static group.

  2. I agree, but for now I’d be fine with layered instancing where you simply see a slightly (or drastically) different world than your cohorts depending on what you’ve accomplished. Or you could segment the population but If you are careless with this people reaaaally don’t like it (see guild wars/etc)

    1. @ Thallian: “I agree, but for now I’d be fine with layered instancing where you simply see a slightly (or drastically) different world than your cohorts depending on what you’ve accomplished.”

      I don’t think this works at all for immersion; if I’ve killed a bandit chief, and so he’s not visible to me nor can interact with me, how do I make sense of standing next to you while you kill him as well? You’re fighting an invisible foe, and when you’re done, you’ll claim to have performed the exact same feat I did, which is logically impossible in this case and breaks my immersion.

      If a village has burned down in my phased reality, and still exists in yours, how do we reconcile this in character?

  3. “You can’t have a persistent, consequence-heavy world with 3,500 heroes.” Hrm, I don’t completely agree. I think the key here is to make players generate a lot of the content themselves. A game with heavy political focus, wherein players attempt to influence NPCs through their actions; where players can shape the world themselves and create many of the challenges for each other… this would allow a much greater sense of agency with a dynamic and changing setting.

    Would every player be a “hero”? Well, in one regard it’s possible (in that everyone could do things deemed “heroic” in theory) but in another regard, it’s likely that the most effective politicians/monster slayers would garner more plaudits than those who were less effective. If there are e.g. only a handful of dragons at any time in the world, and a band of the toughest heroes out there kill one of the most powerful dragons, who’s been terrorizing several local villages… those characters would be deemed “heroes” on a grand scale. The characters who helped find the farmer’s daughter would be “heroes” too, but on a smaller and more local scale. Another group of Heroes might break into the citadel of a nation ruled by enemy players, and destroy an artifact that threatens the peasants of their own country; subsequently heroes from the attacked nation might quest to replace the artifact with something more powerful. Provided the artifacts are unique and the quest to gain them is different each time, and they aren’t too casually gained or destroyed… there’s potential for heroism there as well.

    Having a GM present is always preferable but I don’t honestly think it’s necessary; the key is to have procedural content and heavy player agency, so the world can keep changing and reacting to player actions. New threats arise as old ones are destroyed, but not too quickly nor of the same sort, else the heroism is lessened. There doesn’t ~need~ to be a steady stream of disposable dragons ready to slay at all times, and indeed having such makes slaying one unimpressive. At any given time, there could be a limited number of major threats, requiring the most powerful heroes grouped together in large groups… a larger number of serious threats, requiring the most powerful heroes in small groups or solo, and a very large number of minor to moderate threats. Provided players become some of the greatest threats to each other, this model allows for a steady stream of content at all difficulty levels, with no grinding at all.

    I do completely agree that the key to immersion is having the environment react to your actions, in a way that other players can perceive. Phasing just doesn’t work for RP; we need true change.

  4. Hey…look at that. I was going to write comments yesterday that would have mirrored this post you’ve done today. I didn’t have time, though. So I gifted you a whole blog post.

    Role-play is so subjective nowadays. I like loose role-play. I’ve encouraged it in guild that I’ve run. People have generally liked it.

    Basically, the general rule has been, stay within the environment in which you are playing. Even I don’t do the play acting anymore. But I also don’t like out-of-game chatter in my guilds. I also don’t like game-tech-speak in my guilds either. I like to keep within the context of the game. I think that is a very doable compromise in today’s environments.

  5. I agree about the attribute enhancement aspect as being part of the problem.

    I’m trying to think of a way to create epic roleplay environment without having to spawn 1000 Onyxias. The only way I could think of it would be a game pitting armies against armies (sorta like Warhammer) and where players would create a lot of the world around them (ex: player-made forts and towns, etc) which the other side would actually take over or destroy completely (and in the process create ruins on the landscape).

    The creation / destruction scenarios would certainly change the world around the players. The fact that it’s armies though would still make it tough to trumpet “my” special accomplishments when so much would be a group effort.

  6. @ foolsage — I agree. I should been a little more specific. “MMOs as they are currently played and for the most part designed.” 🙂

    Player-created content and political-level actions (not just getting faction and not just tipping levers, though that was a good start) *do* allow greater interaction, and I certainly hope they’re the future of MMOs.

    However, until and unless the NPCs start responding on a rather more personal basis (other than “Stock response 001 for quest return 001”), it won’t be what *I* would consider old-school roleplaying. It’s possible to get much more detailed than most NPCs are now though, I’ll definitely admit. (e.g. characters have not just *faction* values but NPC-related values within that faction. Even then… you’re liimited by a pre-scripted range of action/reaction, so even if my character calls Bob the NPC a giant coward in /say — i.e. to his face — Bob won’t take offense unless he’s somehow coded to react to that kind of string.)

    That kind of unique-experience, highly character-focused, consequence-laden interaction almost seems to require a guiding (DM) hand. Which isn’t something massive online games can really cater to — nor should they try, at least not in their current incarnations.

  7. “It’s possible to get much more detailed than most NPCs are now though, I’ll definitely admit. (e.g. characters have not just *faction* values but NPC-related values within that faction. Even then… you’re liimited by a pre-scripted range of action/reaction, so even if my character calls Bob the NPC a giant coward in /say — i.e. to his face — Bob won’t take offense unless he’s somehow coded to react to that kind of string.)”

    Yeah, ultimately we need NPCs to react to public channels as well as guided conversations, to foster realism, but I’ll settle for any sort of progress at all honestly. 😉

  8. Well, in Oblivion (not an MMO) you can increase / decrease the amount an NPC likes you via a mini-game. Could be a step in the right direction for MMOs to adopt something similar.

    Or make sure players occupy professions in the game as well. Ex: make it so crafters make just about everything. If you want to sell to empty your bags, you need to go to a player-run shop. The stuff that drops, the player-crafters can use in crafting (so they’ll want it – no more random rat tail drops that some NPC will buy for unknown reasons) and the prices get set by the players. Another option, if the player is not present, is to have a shop-helper NPC (only available if the player is not online or not in their shop).

    Basically, make it so players really do create most of the world themselves. Use NPCs only as a last resort.

  9. Whats the real difference between dragon A and dragon B? The name. If I kill Bob Vila the Troll and then someone else turns around and kills Bob Vila the troll it ruins immersion. Worse is if I kill Bob Vila the troll and the Bob Vila the troll respawns and I have to kill him again. Now, If I kill Bob Vila the troll and then Steven Segal the troll shows up and I kill him it’s easier to immerse because I can pretend they were two different trolls.

    Random name generators for named mobs is just the first step in immersion. Then random skin color generators, random model generators and random skill generators would be next. I don’t think that these are really difficult things to achieve in an MMO but would move the game light years ahead in RP immersion. Random quest generators, quest tracking engine that organizes quests done in in form of a suedo story are other ideas.

    The problem with all this is that a large group of people that play MMOs don’t really care about immersion other than the surface graphics (same reason people like movies with awesome graphics despite the fact that the plot sucks) and so there is no reason for developers to attempt to make it better. -NK

  10. “Basically, make it so players really do create most of the world themselves. Use NPCs only as a last resort.”

    Indeed. The trick is incentivizing it so that people *want* to create the world, and giving them the tools to do so. If the game is just another combat DIKU grind, or the best rewards are from dragon slaying, there really isn’t much impetus for players to build the world.

    *idly waves hands in the direction of Puzzle Pirates’ player-driven economy and Wiqd’s Harvest Moon Online theorizing*

  11. @Tesh and others (Player created content)- Woe is he who rolls on a low pop server.

    If this happened, I wonder what kind of effect it would have on low pop servers? Perhaps your actions/ changes would be more potent with less players online. You could be a god!!! -NK

  12. Nosmo King brings up a good point, and one I have personal experience with. The game in question cannot be 100% User Generated Content (UGC) based. It will need some (likely plenty) of directed content as well. Back when I tried Face of Mankind for a month, every time I logged in I was the only person on the server. That was bad enough but hey, at least I should be able to get a quest and go solo for a bit to see how things work right? NO! FoM was totally UGC — players created the quests for players to do. No one else playing the game meant every time I stopped by the mission terminal (whatever they were called; I’ll just use the SWG name) there was nothing whatsoever for me to do.

    Should the “world bosses” be randomly named for the sake of immersion? On the one hand I suppose it’s more meaningful from a “my character’s story” perspective if I helped kill a randomly named dragon boss who will therefore stay dead for all eternity. On the other hand, I know another dragon boss using that exact same model, textures, stats and loot table will spawn next week, the only difference being his name. To a large degree having a well-known creature as part of the game lore can be immersive and exciting in and of itself. What’s more impressive, to say you killed Onyxia or Smaug, or Random Dragons #371 and #586?

  13. @ Scott: I don’t advocate a system that relies entirely on player generated content, but I think it’d be good to increase the reliance there from current low levels. Some amount of procedurally generated content will remain necessary in most games, for the sake of immersion – which is necessary for the RP we’re discussing here.

    Yes, I think “world bosses” should be randomly generated, but I don’t think they should spawn on a reliable timer nor be in any way predictable. Knowing that the mighty dragon you slew is merely an instance of Dragon Boss #4 honestly removes the immersion nearly as much as the current static models; it’s far better if e.g. an Elder Dragon only appears every now and then, when the time is right… if there’s no Elder Dragon around, there might be an Epic Necromancer somewhere, or a Demon Prince, or a Vampire Lord, or… well, you get the idea. Some procedurally generated challenges would remain for the players to conquer in every skill range from simple to epic, but the epic ones shouldn’t feel fungible and disposable – they should feel unique and have mechanics and plotlines that aren’t interchangeable.

    And frankly there’s nothing exciting or praiseworthy about saying you defeated Onyxia. So did everyone else. That’s the problem, from an RP perspective.

  14. Great post. I agree, and I think your argument is very compelling.

    It’s so bizarre to think that yup, those text based games might have been as good as it ever was going to get for online roleplaying. I wonder if they will make a comeback.

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