[MUD-Dev] RP, MMORPGs, and their Evolution

Talanithus HTML talanithus at mindspring.com
Thu May 22 04:01:29 New Zealand Standard Time 2003


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 attemptint 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:

_+_+_+_

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&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.

_+_+_+_

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.

=======================================
Talanithus Tarant
  UO Lake Superior - http://uols.net
  Tel'Mithrim - http://www.grey-company.org
  UO Powergamers - http://uopowergamers.com
  Unknown Player - http://www.unknownplayer.com
=======================================



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