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RP, MMORPGs, and their Evolution

Discussion in 'UHall' started by Guest, May 22, 2003.

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    NOTE: This is a letter I posted on another MMORPG forum, that I thought directly applied to UO as well. I attempted to clean it up to remove any refernces to the original thread it was crafted for, but I might have missed something. It's late, I'm tired. *grins*

    Let's set a foundation on exactly what I am attempting to discuss regarding Role-playing in MMORPGs:

    1. What are the different types of Role-playing currently embraced in MMORPGs?
    2. How can we bring new types of Role-playing to the MMORPG genre?
    3. How can we encourage Role-playing in such a fashion that it does not lead to abuse?


    So let us take these in order.

    = 1. What are the different types of Role-playing currently embraced in MMORPGs? =

    We see three types of Role-playing in widespread use in the MMORPG genre (in my opinion).

    A. Personal Role-playing - The development and personalization of one's character.
    B. World Set Role-playing - The interactions and growth of a character as it relates to world level events/scenarios, generally administered directly by the Development Team.
    C. Group Role-playing - The evolution of a character within a closed community, be it a guild/fellowship/party or some other mechanism.

    Now all three of these interlap, but I think it is important to take a look at how the current MMORPG Development Community allocates resources for each of them, and thus give us a better idea of both what they consider priorities, and where there failings are.

    In almost every case, HEAVY personalization of one's avatar/character is stressed as one of the major selling advantages in this genre. This is only logical, as we don't like playing clones of each other, and most players have an innate desire to be unique. But this is literally skin deep... apart from clothing/equipment/facial sets, all we are really seeing is masked polygons. So do MMORPG developers give us advanced customization beyond the superficial? Yes, to a degree, in the archetypes, skills, or professions we choose. Some MMORPGs allow even greater expansion on this model, by allowing you to "freeform" the design of your skill sets, literally creating your own, specialized archetype.

    Of course, this still leaves it up to the character to define their background history and other intangibles, but this is something that I believe SHOULD be in the player's hand, so that is not necessarily a bad thing. Could it be done better? Of course, but I think Development Houses are already quite aware of the importance of this category and allocate considerable development time to it's growth. One tangible aspect I would like to see developed more in MMORPGs is to make a character's background history a more integral aspect of their "persona". In Dark Age of Camelot and ShadowBane (and to a limited extent, the upcoming release of Star War's Galaxies), your race and starting "kingdoms" have a very obvious effect on how you play the game. In some places, you are shunned, in some hunted, and in others welcome. This is a very deep and immersive aspect of their world sets, creating an identity bond between the player's character and other character's of similar type, and that is something I would like to see explored more beyond the "race" issue.

    Why not have starting towns for all players? Places they call home where the NACs/NPCs recognize them by name, give them discounts... and even perhaps offer specialized content/quests for their "home town heroes". Why expend the effort for this? To bring people BACK to specialized places... let them literally set roots within the township and let those static, empty NPCs and buildings take on a community meeting area for players who have a similar background. If you encourage players to continually return to these places, it is bound that they will meet up with others and form bonds of friendship/community/fellowships that further emphasize on the GEOGRAPHICAL home base they chose when they created their character.

    On the other hand, I think it would be even better if you could literally move. Are you spending all your time in new city ____? Then after X amount of time the NPCs in that city begin treating you as one of their own... and when you return to your old city, you get the "where have you been?" script set.

    But beyond even this level of immersing your players into the geography of your world, I think it is important to reward and encourage the development of their own communities with similar systems... but I will cover that in point C "Group Role-playing".

    The next category of currently embraced Role-playing is "world set", or ongoing world wide fiction run and maintained by the Development Team. This is the Fiction that EVERYONE wants to be a part of, but only a small portion generally feel they did much of account with. It is notoriously costly in both manpower and development time, and despite all the effort expended there is always a portion of the player base that ends up crying foul.. "What? When did that happen?!? No fair, I want to save the world!"

    In this scenario, I believe that the consolidated efforts of the MMORPG Development Community have striven long and hard to find some balance. We have AC & AC2 epic storylines, utilizing various levels of rather static quests and interactive Epic RP. We have Ultima Online's extinct Seer system, and currently on hiatus Scenario Team, attempting to add interactive content and "quests" to satisfy the player need for entertainment. DAoC, E&B, the list goes on and on with different ideas, and generally... lackluster results.

    The simple truth is, massive games do not lend themselves to massive quests/fiction. Now I DO think that these are valuable additions to the community, and by all means PLEASE keep using them to explain new introductions of classes/skills/land masses/whatever. They are a needed aspect of developing the fictional consistency of the world, and setting the "stage" for all sorts of things. But from a pure entertainment view, in attempting to directly touch as many players as possible and let THEM feel like the heroes/villains, they fall significantly short of the mark. There simply isn't a way for a handful of developers to offer true dynamic content to ten's of thousands of players on a regular basis. It isn't economically or statistically feasible, or if it is, it is beyond my humble imagination (though please enlighten me!)

    And that brings us to type 3 of the currently enabled MMORPG Role-playing choices. Group Role-playing. This is the RP guilds/communities, be they an Elven Town amidst the woods or a Vampire Conclave deep in the Crypts. Here, this is where things start to get really interesting. This is where epic quests where the players have a chance to MATTER become a reality, where battles are about saving your town, not trying to find the next uber-l33t quest item.

    And yet for all the potential this category holds, it is the LEAST enabled of them all. Sure, players can generally participate in battles amongst each other, so combat merit and duress is always an option. But how many of you remember the wonder you felt in pen and paper games as the Dungeon Master revealed a new type of monster? Or item? Or a spooky city/castle/dungeons/whatever? This is the category that holds the greatest potential in the MMORPG genre, though it is yet untapped. This is the genre where players grow from simply living a story, to TELLING one.

    Games like NWN have begun to expand on this with remarkable success, and I think it is no coincidence that a significant percentage of MMORPG RPers play NWN regularly. In that world, they ARE enabled to create the stories they are dying to tell, and the result is hundred's of thousands of modules.... each of them with their own entertainment potential. But NWN lacks one thing which MMORPGs have in spades... a massive populace of players. I am going to paste an excerpt from an old article I wrote on this subject, which I feel is relevant:

    <blockquote><hr>

    Basically, it seems that MMOGs are simply treading water with the current "mindset" behind MMOG development. Sure, some have bells and whistles that others do not, but there has been nothing that has truly pushed the envelope of what a MMOG is for some time. So I sat down and began to think, what IS the future of MMOGs? Once we have reached the level where unique character customization and development has hit as close to perfect as the industry can achieve (which I believe is very close) where will we go from there?

    People play MMOGs in particular for one main reason... to interact with other people. Of course, the guiding motivations of these players is quite diverse, ranging from competitive sport, socialization, a feeling of belonging, and even malicious intent behind an anonymous mask! Yet the one unique bond that encompasses all players, be they PvPers or RPers, Socializers or Explorers, is the fact that they have chosen to do so in a world where dynamic content is created via the very foundation of the players themselves. Therefore, once players have achieved the ability to customize their characters to their heart's content, does it not hold that they will seek to then personalize the world around them?

    We see this, to a degree, in current MMOGs. Quests, scenarios, plotlines... all attempts by the developer houses to involve the players in the interactions that define those worlds. Yet they are curtailed by their need to retain consistency within their world's history, fiction, development, and background, ultimately resulting in interactions that always leave the players thirsting for more. So where is the answer to this dilemma? Let's take a look at some of the existing gaming genres that offer the ability for players to modify the very worlds they interact in:

    = FPS Mods =
    In the First Person Shooter genre, player crafted mods are a valuable asset. They allow players with the skill, motivation, and creativity to expand the boundaries of what players can interact with. In many games, player expansions have been so successful that they have spawned their own mini-games within the greater rule-set. Even though the underlying structure of the game remains consistent, the actual graphics, items, characters and even game-play can vary drastically. This depth of creative customization has given the genre the ability to grow beyond the industry's budget-based barriers, with the players themselves pushing the envelope on drafting new ways to play, and new ideas that are implemented along their own schedule, without the restraints of a development house's priorities and schedules.

    = CRPG Mods =
    Computer based Role Playing Games have jumped on the mod wagon as well, with titles such as Neverwinter Nights, Dungeon Siege, and Morrowind all allowing players to build the world around them, and share it with others. In many ways, this is a foretelling of what I believe the future of MMOGs holds. The basic principle upon which these games are built relies on players to craft new content to keep them interesting and dynamic. In fact, one of the NWN developers even stated in a recent press release that they fully expect the players to build better adventures then the ones they have included within the game's original content. This genre, with the unique ability to not only create new superficial content, but actual stories, holds the most promise for what MMOGs could grow to achieve.

    = RTS Mods =
    Some Real Time Strategy games also allow the ability for players to craft their own modules, thus providing new experiences for them to conquer and dominate in. New units, geographical landmasses, fortifications... they all add to help create a more compelling world that changes at the needs and potential of the players who invest in them.

    All of these genres began as static as the MMOG world is currently. They crafted games with frozen content, and to expand their worlds a new title was released. Yet there was no true continuity, a hallmark of the MMOG genre, allowing players to grow and expand WITH those new modules by retaining their existing characters/armies/etc. I remember the old TSR/SSI boxed set of AD&amp;D CRPGs, which was one of the first games that allowed players to move their characters from game to game... growing as the storyline progressed through multiple titles. It was only logical that this step would lead to the creation of tools where players could not only keep their characters alive, but create the worlds in which they adventure. I believe the next step of MMOGs follows this same pattern, by allowing players to build and create pieces of the worlds around them, and SHARE them with others within the Massive Multiplayer environment.

    Of course, this path does have its pitfalls. As I mentioned previously, MMOGs do have a vested interest in keeping control of the fiction their world creates. If players decide to warp and influence the world, say by creating a "Star Wars Rebellion Facility" within a Fantasy genre game world, then of course it will dilute the effective influence of that world fiction. Yet these are not insurmountable goals... they simply require the forethought to create these "World Building Tools" with these issues in mind. The easiest path to this goal, in my opinion, is to keep each player created world-set local only to the communities that build them. Let me give an example of how I see the interface being used, in generic terms that should apply to any game.

    = Scenario Example =
    A guild in a MMOG decides they wish to host a quest/event. Their guild leader activates a feature on whatever his guild interface is to "buy" a scenario section for 10 days. Now "buy" is a loose term, and could be either for real cash (with the cost added to his account subscription for that month) or in game assets, as a permanent gold sink. Once he has purchased the account, he sets who has the ability to influence this scenario setting, choosing from his existing guild-mates. The Editors accounts/characters are then flagged and are allowed to enter and modify the scenario setting via their guild interface (be it a guild stone, command, or whatever.)

    The scenario setting is located on a separate server from the normal game, and is inaccessible by normal means. All players flagged as Editors enter the setting area (via guild menu or command) in Edit mode, with functions equal to what the Dungeon Siege and NWN: Aurora editor tools offer for customizing the area and creating specialized items/NPCs. The main key here is to allow a huge selection of options, but to keep them limited to the genre upon which the game is based. The full capabilities of each scenario setting are dependent on what "level" of service was originally purchased by the leader of the guild, thus allowing communities to create everything from specialized one evening encounters to month long quests. Once there, they "build" the world, or choose from pre-existing sets, placing monsters and NPCs for their community to interact with, as well as setting out items and unique points of interest throughout the scenario setting.

    After building the setting and populating it, the Editors activate a feature allowing them to set "portals" into the world. Then they re-enter into the normal game world and place the opposite side of those portals in various areas throughout the world. These portals are clearly visible to everyone in their community/guild, but completely invisible and undetectable by anyone else. From the point when these items are placed, they can be toggled on or off by any Editor, allowing passage for regular (non-Editors) within their community to participate within the worlds that they have created. When the term purchased by the guild leader expires, an option to save or extend the setting will be displayed the next time they log in... again, with additional fees attached.

    This model allows the creation of new content within a local setting, but even more importantly, it is a self-policing model. Giving players the ability to create monsters could very easily lead into a situation where a player with less then honorable intentions creates death traps. However, by making these features limited to only the communities that build them, you prevent that abuse from becoming an issue. A guild that had a player who built such death traps would quickly either lose its members, or get rid of the offending player. Thus, the potential for exploit is removed by making each community responsible to themselves for the content they have built. Even more importantly, it shares the responsibility of keeping players entertained with the players, not just the developers, thus providing a more satisfying experience simply by the selfish nature of the players involved. If they want the content, they can build it... or they can join a guild that builds it for them.

    This does somewhat limit the ability for new players to get involved in community based quests/adventures/hunts, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Promotion and encouragement of group related activity via this sort of method is prime example of how MMOGs can stimulate community interactions and promote additional methods for their expansion. I would fully expect numerous meta-communities to develop specifically for special event creation.

    This is, of course, just one example of how such a setting could be created, yet with it one of the most daunting limitations of MMOGs are surpassed, and the creative freedom of its players are set loose to truly build. By limiting their influence to local communities they not only prevent mass dilution of the game world's fictional content, but they also reinforce the draw of creative communities to attract and keep player members interested and excited in their game... and thus, the subscriptions that keep a MMOG running. The specifics on how this is integrated into a game system are really immaterial, as long as it retains culpability via local community development. Ideally, I would love to see the ability for cross community alliances to even allow guilds/communities to "share" quests with each other. Particularly exceptional player modules could even be submitted to the game developers and incorporated into the Editor tools as one of the options, thus allowing players to help in the growth of the game world, as well as have an influence that could truly make their efforts immortal. The possibilities are truly endless.

    Of course, there are other revolutions that are on the crest for tomorrow's MMOGs as well. Everquest Legends broke one of the first barriers in creating a personalized "character" web site for each of their members, with customizable content allowing them to show their equipment, stats, and locations. But I believe the next generation of MMOGs will take this one step further, by allowing communities to create "fill in the blank" web sites for their guilds and towns, with integrated news syndicates run by the developers themselves to make certain that new information regarding the game is published universally. Furthermore, a locally integrated communications network could very easily allow the creation of meta-communities for all the guilds on one server, categorizing them together with common resources and contact methods, and thus enforcing the community wide network not only via local communities, but on a more universal level.

    <hr></blockquote>A mouthful, I know. Let's move on to the other two "important questions" I mentioned.

    = 2. How can we bring new types of Role-playing to the MMORPG genre? =

    The key, in my opinion, is not allowing players to "rate" Role-playing merit, but rather in building systems that ENCOURAGE Role-playing. The ability for players to create quests, program NPCs, develop and own townships, be creative in new and fabulous ways with the way they decorate the houses/characters... all of these lead to MORE Role-playing by building systems that promote it for it's own sake. Let's look at the dinosaur of MMORPGs, Ultima Online. I have been playing UO non stop for almost 6 years now, and in all that time I would say there is only ONE thing still holding the doors open. COMMUNITY. Now most MMORPGs have some form of guild/fellowship option, but UO has one aspect that most other's do not... houses. Lots of houses, and most everyone has one.

    Sure, other MMORPGs have added housing as an option as well, but never with variety and customization offered by UO (which is ironic, really.. I've never quite figured that one out), though SWG is moving towards the same model (understandable, really, since Raph Koster, the current Producer for SWG, had the vision that brought it all together for UO in the first place). In UO, when you walk into your "guilds" house, you can usually tell by the decorations and choices of layout exactly what sort of guild they are. With the new customizable housing recently released in the UO Age of Shadows expansion, that capability has increased ten fold. In one of the communities I am involved with, an Elven town, it is impossible to look at the area and not see the "theme"... the over-whelming stamp of community ownership and influence. And that, my friends, is what we call MMORPG immortality, which is something most guilds strive for in one way or another.

    But beyond that, we need to encourage new systems to allow players to TELL their stories, as I mentioned in my quoted article. We need to encourage players to be Dungeon Master's again, and in doing so entertain their communities without continual effort expended by the Development Houses in the name of "entertaining the masses". And in so doing, it would open the door to an entirely new pursuit of community level gameplay, thus further adding to both subscriptions AND building their longevity as new content is continually introduced... by their own guildmates.

    Basically, I want to see tools put into place that allow players to BE better Role-players.

    OK, on to my last question.

    = 3. How can we encourage Role-playing in such a fashion that it does not lead to abuse? =

    This is, in my opinion, one of the paranoid dead horses of the MMORPG Development Community. From my experience, Role-players tend to... eventually... find each other. And when one of them turns out to be a griefer, the action is swift and deadly. Simply put, craft your "Role-playing Tools" to be attached at the hip to each community using them, and THEY will police THEMSELVES. If a guild pops up that is being abusive, they will be ostracized by the rest of the RP Communities. I have seen it happen dozens of times, and likely will see hundred more.

    Now this does rely on the assumption that those tools added to encourage Role-playing are centered on community level interactions. There are some who prefer to RP loners... but generally even they seem to hover around the edges of OTHER communities. Lets face it, RPing by yourself is just writing a story, and if we wanted to do that we would be playing a Single player game, not a MMORPG.

    In other words, don't worry about it. The players will handle it themselves, IF you build the tools that keep such content on a community level.