Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MMORPGs Without Roleplaying

I read some comments recently that today's gamers -- in particular, players of MMORPGs -- don't value roleplaying. They were reported as saying things like "it's creepy to think you are the toon" and "I'm playing the game, not the character".

I think these are accurate observations. The "RPG" part of MMORPG has atrophied and is about to fall off.

The current population of gamers simply isn't interested in the original D&D model of storytelling through action. Instead, they favor what I suppose we might as well call the WoW model of action-oriented materialism. The land of MMORPGs has been thoroughly colonized by the Achievers, and the rest of us are living in their world.

This has been a self-reinforcing process. Gamers who prefer rules-based acquisition over narrative-based storytelling come to roleplaying games; as they do, new games are released that cater more to these rules-focused gamers; the greater supply of rules-based games attracts more rules-focused gamers; and so on. I'm not implying that this is good or bad -- it's just how things appear to have gone.

As I've put it before, most of today's gamers (especially MMORPG players) see the avatar not as a character with a story, but as nothing more than a vehicle to be inhabited temporarily for accessing game content. "It's just a game." From this perspective, the avatar is merely a tool.

As a mere tool, the avatar could be anything -- a human person, a nightelf, a cyborg, a mech, a car, a cloud of particles from the Xlpnrx Galaxy -- whatever. The form of the tool is vastly less important than its functionality to the type of gamer whose enjoyment comes from collecting the most stuff by being the best at following the rules of the game.

The way I see it, the gamers whose enjoyment comes from experiencing a compelling story have always been in the minority. The first major multi-player roleplaying game -- D&D -- just happened to cater to the Narrativist interest of these folks. Within the world of roleplaying games at that time, these gamers looked like a majority merely because few others were playing this kind of game. But as more games followed D&D, and especially as roleplaying games moved onto the computer where there was no human DM to place the game's action in the context of an emotionally compelling story, games about "stuff" overtook and eventually overwhelmed games about story.

To anyone who naturally enjoys gameplay that's about following rules to collect stuff, this probably seems like a obviously sensible progression, and not like any kind of "problem" at all. Developers are just giving gamers what they say they want.

To us old-school types, however, we're left scrounging for leftovers in the wastebin like a bunch of crazy old bums. For each of the rare games published these days that offers more than lip service to storytelling and interesting characters and roleplaying -- BioWare being about the only developer consistently making such games as KOTOR and Mass Effect -- there are probably 10 or 20 "kill it and take its stuff" games.

And the ratio is even higher in the MMORPG world. Is there even one triple-A MMORPG that caters primarily to roleplayers? Really?


That's a pretty grim picture for those who enjoy action but prefer that it flow from and support a meaningful narrative about people. But I'm not convinced that we're doomed and might as well just stop playing games entirely.

For one thing, BioWare's acknowledged success could spawn some imitators. (If so, I hope they won't repeat BioWare's mistake of initially releasing roleplaying games like Mass Effect solely for consoles, but that's another essay.)

For another thing, we don't know that there's not some new technology on the horizon that could create a new playing field for story-driven gamers in a way similar to D&D. What if someone came up with a dramatically (and I use that word deliberately) improved model of NPC AI where the NPCs felt much more emotionally plausible? What if someone dreamed up a new roleplaying system that made it incredibly easy to build emotionally engaging content?

Such innovations could produce a new golden age of true roleplaying games. Narrativist and Simulationist gamers (who are still around, IMO, because those are innate motivations, not learned preferences) would be the first to explore these new game spaces. Later, of course, they'll be overrun (again) by the larger population of Gamist folks and Gamist games once they realize that this "new world" exists.

But until then, it'll be nice to be able to play interesting characters in immersive worlds again.

I'm such an optimist. :-)

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