I'm gonna take some time, and discuss these three letters in our favorite hobby's acronym/abbreviation. First, some questions and answers to help build a background on this particular discussion. I am using Wikipedia as a source, with my own interjections and additions in italics.
1: What is an RPG?
A role-playing game (RPG; often roleplaying game) is a game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters] Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.
As the definition states, it is the freedom to improvise and make choices that ultimately affect the game. As an example an elf warrior and his human rogue companion are tasked with confronting a menace of some remote village or town. They should be presented with multiple paths. Not all obvious, to complete this. They could run the menace off, kill it, join forces with it, or ignore it, or whatever other ideas they can come up with. The consequences should reflect the path and actions taken to do this. Say they slay the menace, and it turns out to be an innocent caught in an unfortunate circumstance? Now they are stuck with the guilt and perhaps the admonition of said innocent's family. Say they just run it off, and later down the road, it's plaguing some new village, and they must face it again? Roleplaying games should provide such paths, choices, and consequences.
2: What is Roleplaying?
In roleplaying, participants adopt and act out the role of characters, or parts, that may have personalities, motivations, and backgrounds different from their own. Roleplaying, also known as RP to some, is like being in an improvisational drama or free-form theater, in which the participants are the actors who are playing parts, and the audience.
Most roleplaying games only do this halfway. Sure they give you a few choices of roles to take on, usually prerendered and pre built with a certain set of skills and abilities they can learn at the cost of others. This is both limiting and simple. Simplicity is fine so long as it doesn't make the user feel dumb. Some allow for a wider range of choices, such as allowing the player to branch from their beginning path and learn new abilities atop their old ones, much like multi-classing or dual-classing, or they toss the class system out the window and allow for complete character customization.
Roleplaying should allow for as many choices as possible, providing the player with near limitless combinations and possibilities. This allows for the player to truly be what he wants. Instead of being another of the 5,678 Warrior Brutes or Wandering Priests of the Same Faith, they can be what they trully want. Perhaps a bounty hunter with a code of ethics, a cook who dreams learning magic, a priest breaking from his faith to start his own, or what have you.
3: How Does One Roleplay?
The simplest way is to begin by thinking of a role you would desire to act out. This role can be anything from cook, maid, stable boy, to knight, king, knave, or duke, to whatever else you can think of. Then begin to think of their background that fits in with the lore of whatever setting you plan to roleplay in. Perhaps you chose to be a knave who has lived in the slums of a totalitarian city? Is he streetwise? Sneaky? Brutish? Intimidating? How did he come about such a personality? How will this contribute to his skills and abilities? How will this affect the reactions of those he may come into contact with? All these should be taken into account. This is the basis of your character.
One common mistake is to over develop them. Writing down their entire family history, their childhood, teenage years, etc. You don' want to develop the character so much before even playing him that you can't improvise, grow, or develop him as you play. Develop him to the point that he has a steady, but evolving background, a small yet growing set of skills and abilities, and a small yet sturdy set of personality quirks.
Developing the personality should be another key thing in the creation of a roleplay character. Is your knave smart? Is he perceptive? What does he like? What is he afraid of? What are his desires? How is his approach towards men? Women? Authority? Is he sane and level headed? Or is at his wits end? Does he take risks? Does he have a self preservastion mind set? All these are important. Obviously there is far more than i've listed, but you get the idea. Develop it to a point. But allow for it to change and grow.
The most important thing to remember in roleplaying a character is that he will change. That is the nature of all roleplaying. Change is key to roleplay, or else it would be static, stagnant, linear, and pointless. How you play him, the reactions of other players towards him, the events and situations he gets involved in will affect and change him, causing him to evolve not only in skills but in personality, ethics, and outlook.
Once you have developed your character to a point of playability, introduce him to the world. Interact with other players using the basic setup you gave him. Try not to deviate too much from it, at least in the beginning. This will allow for you to get a feel of your character, and develop him on a path close to what you wish. But don't stick so strictly to it he becomes boring and predictable. The knave may have a change of heart one day, renounce his shady activities, and become a pious monk of some distant monastic order. Who knoes? It's all on how you wish to play him, and how you have him respond to the events and situations he gets involved in.
4: Now that we have that covered, why did I bring this up?
Because since the dawn of World of Warcraft, roleplaying has fallen into the backwater locations of the niche market, which in turn has caused it to become both stagnant and unable to evolve. I am by no means bashing WoW or niche markets. Both have their place in the MMORPG genre, but WoW has taken the RPG in MMORPG and turned it into a Lite form. Hand feeding you roles, paths, and choices, only allowing you to make minor decisions or choices in how your character develops or how he affects the world in which he exists.
Niche markets are a haven for roleplayers, but the community so small that the chance for them to branch out, grow, and evolve is small. The main problem is that the MMORPG in question is of no interest to the mainstream gamers or too complicated for the younger players or those with only limited play time. Take EVE Online for example. It's roleplaying community is large in the game, deep, and it affects the game in ways other games don't. The player can be what he wants, how he wants, and when. But the game has a steep learning curve and requires a minimum of dedication to the development of your character and playtime.
So what do I count as true to the RPG in MMORPG? Well, that is really subject to the opinion of the player, but I will attempt to give some examples that I hope a majority of the MMORPG fanbase can agree on. All these games I have played in some form or another to at least half way through the story of the MMO in question. What I will list are a few current and old MMO's and their classification as follows.
Hardcore RP - This game allows for unlimited possibilities. There is no holding hands. The choices you make are the choices you wish, no matter what. You can be what you want, how you want, when you want, allowing for complete uniqueness. Your choices affect the game in a dynamic way and progress the story in a dynamic and evolving way. This game provides tools, content, and areas solely dedicated to roleplay, allowing the player to feel as though a part of the world.
Mediocre RP - This game holds your hand at the beginning, but still allows for the player to make most of the choices pertaining to their character, the story, and the game. It may restrict some choices such as who can use what abilities or how much a choice affects the game, but overall, the players choices are still important, with a semi-semblance of player diversity and uniqueness. This game provides some minor tools and content to help facilitate roleplay, but is not the focus of the entirety of the game.
Lite RP - This game holds your hand through out the entire game. You are given pre-rendered generic and limited options that overall will be no different from another player, almost cookie cutter in respect to one another. The story is handfed, with the player making only minor choices that may or may not affect the game as a whole or just for him. The player's character is unimportant in the lore, being a mere tool in the story, with the ending or consequences already decided, rendering the journey and choices linear and closed. This form requires the player to make up their own stories completely, serperate of te gameplay and storyline, and without much in the way of offering tools or content in it's aide.
EVE Online - Hardcore RP to Mediocre RP. Currently the tools and content is limited, but is on the way in the form of Ambulation. But the player can make choices for their character without restriction. Factions can mingle and mix, skills can be learned by all, the player can play any role they desire, and their choices and actions as a whole affect the progression of the game and it's storyline.
World of Warcraft - Lite RP. Almost no tools or content to facilitate roleplaying. The story is static and linear, with the players choices meaning naught. The player is stuck to pre-rendered, generic roles with very little choice as to how they advance in the way of skills, abilities, powers, and use of equipment. The appearance of servers labeled with RP is just that, an appearance. There is no enforcement and overall lack of care for the roleplay community.
Anarchy Online - Hardcore RP to Mediocre RP. A fair amount of tools and content is dedicated to roleplay int he form of social clothing and items, housing, and territory control. The story is somewhat static, but with the ability to take territory in a dynamic environment allows for the players choices to have some meaning. Roles and classes are present, with some set skilles and restrictions, but open ended enough to allow the player to make choices that make their character semi-unique.
Lord of the Rings Online - Lite to Medicore RP. With some tools and content to facilitate roleplay, but limited in many circumstances. The story is obviously static, as it is taking place during an already established story told for many years now, and the player is mostly along for the ride. Player choices for their characters are similar to WoW, but item customization, skills, and crafting are much more open ended that it's predecessor, allowing for semi-unique characters.
Runescape - Lite RP to Hardcore RP. The tools are only now being implemented to facilitate roleplay, whereas the content was already diverse and extensive. The crafting system, although not entirely meaningful, still has some use and point in the game and roleplay, as well as the economy. Character choices are completely open, with very little restriction, allowing the player to advance and develop his character as he desires. The story itself being rather minor to the overall game, the choices made by the player are not overall meaningful, but with the implementation of player vs. player games, has allowed roleplay guilds to make their own choices.
City of Heroes/Villains - Lite RP to Mediocre RP (Perhaps soon Hardcore RP.) The tools only now or soon to implmented, and the content being provided in the form of limitless costume and base customization, it's shaping to become a more roleplay friendly game. The character is still limited to restricted sets of classes but with a more open ended choice for powers and abilities, as well as probably the best character customization in the MMORPG genre to date. And with the soon to be implemented architect, players will be able to make their own missions and their own stories for Group and Coalition interactions and development. The overall storyline is rather linear and set, with player choices meaning very little. Has a rather dedicated roleplay base and unofficial roleplay server complete with it's own player run and edited wikiepedia style superhero database known as the Virtueverse.
Second Life - Lite RP to Hardcore. Not an MMORPG per se, but it fits the criteria for MMORPG's game listing, and thus, will be included here. The tools and content are completely provided by the players themselves. Everything from weapons, armor, roleplay tools, to combat systems and environments to roleplay inare provided entirely by it's playerbase. With a wide variety of settings, genres, styles, and systems, the choices are limitless. The player must rely more on roleplay than the actual content provided, but the player's choices are wat make the story progress. There is hardly any static or linear story, as quests are rare or non-existant and the storyline(s) are controlled entirely by the players. uniquenss is paramount here, and so prolific and diverse it is impossible to find any two players alike. Classes and skills are just aides to roleplay, instead of the roleplay being base of them, allowing the player to develop how they wish.
These are the games I have played extensively and attempted to or did or still do roleplay in. With City of Heroes/Villains being my current flavor, and shaping to be a rather nice meal with it's upcoming Issue, it is shaping to be a real haven for roleplayers on the more mainstream market, and Second Life being my longest lasting flavor, both as a hardcore sci-fi roleplay in the SWRP community and a business owner making weapomns and armor for roleplay. I tried to give a bit of diversity in the games and their roleplayability as best I could, with hwta I played, what content I came into contact with, and their overall size and seriousness of their roleplay community.
As you can see, the leading game of the genre, World of Warcraft has very little in the way of facilitating and providing content for the player to make choices and roleplay as open as he desires. And unfortunately, many games are following the mainstream and successful model. Sandbox MMO's being a rather niche market, even though it was a sandbox MMO that started our beloved hobby. But with the hopefuly immenent release of the much anticipated, much maligned MMORPG known as Darkfall, roleplay could come to the forefront if the game succeeds in all it promised.
Developers and players alike need to take heed and realise that the games they are making are based on classics created by innovators and creators of a hugely popular past time and hobby. From Gary Gygax and his creation of Dungeons and Drgaons to Sir Richard "Lord British" Garriot and his creation of Ultima Online, our genre of game was born on the idea of player choices and interaction with consequences and reward beyond the shiny new weapon or bland cutscene. These worlds are ultimately our worlds. You provide us with a setting, some lore, and a way to play, and we are to do the rest, adding the flavor, the adventure, the excitement.
Developers and players both need to take a look back at what started this growing hobby of ours, and perhaps take a tiny step back to it's roots and bring it back so my generation, the old generation, and the new generations can enjoy it. The proginators will enjoy what they had as kids, my generation will be able to enjoy what has grown into a massive hobby, and the new generation will get to experiance and learn what it truly means to roleplay.
It's time that we bring back the RPG in MMORPG.