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The Roleplayer's Redoubt

Is there a really place for roleplaying in MMOs? What do roleplayers bring to the table? How can developers foster stronger roleplaying communities? How do traditional concepts fit into the realities of contemporary online roleplaying?

Author: OddjobXL

On Immersion

Posted by OddjobXL Friday February 27 2009 at 8:17AM
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Immersion is a loaded word with different meanings for different folks but it's one I'll sit down and discuss with you. 

What?  I can't sit?  That's not a good sign.  A sitting avatar often means, in roleplayese, "Sit down and talk to me."   Nonroleplayers tend to be rushing around everywhere, places to go and things to kill, but roleplayers love a cozy setting where they can plop their bums down and just do their thing.  Not being able to sit immediately reminds a player his avatar is just a character in a game and, when that happens, poof goes immersion.  It's the canary in the coal mine - either a developer gets this off the bat or he probably is missing alot of other stuff roleplayers look for.

Immersive elements include setting, control, dynamism and simulation.

Settings should be detailed, ridiculously detailed, but should follow plausible and recogniseable forms and translate fairly well into the actual game systems.  The more detail a setting has, even it it seems silly to some, the more raw material roleplayers have to work with. 

Glossaries of words, greetings and partings and curses for different cultures give a roleplayer a shorthand for identifying his character as belonging to that culture in daily RP.  Histories and cosmologies provide fodder for more complex, scholarly, characters or background for individuals who may have been directly impacted by the forces of fate.  A few 'slice of life' stories fill in the gaps as to how different people live in the world.  What kinds of food are there and how is it eaten?  How do people house or clothe themselves?  What's a wedding or a funeral like?  What major life events are there in a given culture and how are they celebrated?   What current events are on people's minds and, of those, which are threats of some kind?

Much of that can't be represented in game terms but it does give the roleplayer kindling for his own imagination and provides him, and his fellows, with information that they can use to visualize and, with their own words, recreate the illusion.   Roleplaying at its best is a shared hallucination that only partly happens in a game:  most of it happens in the minds of the players involved.

I don't suspect it's any surprise that many roleplayers have, so far, gravitated to known IPs.  Why?  Well, obviously, they've got followings to start with.  They also have a library full of information on their worlds.

Control means a player can interact with the game on, more or less, his terms.  He can sheath a sword, he can sit at a table, he has animated emotes to employ.   If there's a low hill, he can climb it.  If there are strong themes to the setting, he can embody or enact them in gameplay.   There are also universal components to control that appeal to all gamers like intuitive, non-fussy, interfaces and so on.   The more a player's character can do what a player wants the more the player forgets he's in a game and that leads to immersion.  The fussier and more arbitrary the options available the more detached a player becomes. 

Dynamism means a player can't be entirely sure what's going to happen next.  Nothing kills immersion more surely than boredom.  You can have a great setting with good control but if day in, and day out, life is routine folks find other entertainment probably somewhere else entirely.   Games are, after all, for fun.  Players themselves make an MMO dynamic because there's no telling who you'll run into or what might happen.  This is why ERSB ratings might change, on one hand, but on the other it's how new friendships are forged.  Still, many games are too dependant on static content like dungeons and raids.   For many roleplayers killing the same monsters, over and over, in the same way isn't going to suspend much disbelief or provide enduring entertainment.   PVP games, well executed, like Eve Online can provide wonderful dynamism and immersion but they're saddled also with players that can be malicious and bordering on sadistic.   Not all roleplayers are comfortable with this.

The low overhead compromise is a storyteller toolset much like you see in Star Wars Galaxies and that City of Heroes will be implimenting.   With these we see the cycle of roleplaying come full circle back to a human Dungeon Master running a storyline for a party of players.   Roleplayers who enjoy big events have the tools, as well, in SWG to create truly impressive locales and activities for them. 

The high overhead compromise is a living world simulation with dynamic NPCs and randomized PvE challenges.  The advantage, to the player at least, of a living world is that it offers dynamism similar to PvP without the immersion breaking behavior often associated with it.   Whether it's practical or something we'll see in our lifetimes is an open question.  The initial design of SWG called for dynamic spawns of "Points of Interest" to create a sense of real adventure as well as believeable NPC and creature behavior.   The latter did appear but ended up lobotomized by the NGE.  The former never did.

Simulation is a word which, for our purposes, means believeable.   A duel feels like a duel, a ship sails like a ship, NPCs behave in accordance with their cultural or canonical roles, economies function along plausible lines and wars are very big deals requiring enough expense and forethought that diplomacy is a realistic alternative or crucial adjunct.   In simulations, actions have predictable consequences and the foreknowledge of those consequences shapes behavior.   When players are rewarded, or punished, in line with the logic of a setting immersion is achieved.  While there's a strain of thought which argues that simulation is innately opposed to accessibility a good design should be able to balance the two. 

Eve Online is probably the best example of a simulationist game but even Eve abstracts quite a bit of stuff.   Space travel, for example, is routine and nobody ever worries about fuel for a ship.  Who'd want to?   Well, anyone who wants to experience the life of a Mal or a Han and juggle the expenses of running a ship, or the consequences of a malfunction, with the potential profits of trade - legitimate or otherwise.   Not fun?  Well, the job of the designer is to figure out how to make that fun.  Many space sims and even HSpace, a MUSH based space simulation, manage to pull this off.  However, given Eve's focus on macro-level politics, economics and warfare rather than on single ships and crews (there are no player crews or multiplayer ships) it's a good decision for the design.

When a design respects a setting, at least the key elements and themes of  it, by embodying the essence of it in actual gameplay then players are less likely to notice they're in a game after all.  If a developer can make a player forget he's playing a game then he's created immersion.

The key to simulation is to sift useless details from essential ones.  Overly complicated systems can create so much work that a player loses his connection to the juicier parts of the world and, in effect, are as bad or worse than a poorly designed interface.  But omitting essential elements of setting from gameplay will almost certainly alienate many roleplayers.

Official vs. Unofficial RP Servers - Fight!

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday February 26 2009 at 7:18AM
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Okay, don't fight but help me out here a bit.

For some reason it seems the best roleplaying servers I've encountered have been the unofficial ones; servers named by the players themselves rather than designated by the developer.

The names will ring down through the ages (or for a couple years at least):  Starsider, Virtue, Landroval and Wiccana.  All of these servers are among the most populated in their respective games with SWG's Starsider and CoH's Virtue leading the packs.

My theory is that this works on three levels:

1)  When roleplayers get together and vote on a single server they end up on that server rather than being split up over multiple sites as is often the case with Official RP Servers.  While not every potential roleplayer gets the memo, not all read forums for example, over time there will be a steady drift of population as the word does get out.   Of course, people hostile to roleplaying emigrate, naturally, to new games or other servers while those neutral or friendly to roleplaying add in.

2)  Just as in real life homeowners take better care of property than renters do, when players themselves name an unoffical RP server they've taken ownership of the responsibility to make it work.  They know there will be no developer support so they have to figure out how to keep things interesting, how to get along with nonroleplayers (rather than berate them or report them) and to promote the server to other potential roleplayers around whether on other servers or not yet playing the game at all.

3)  As nonroleplayers will be a big part of the population this creates a natural pool of potential new roleplayers.  You can see this playing out vividly in the history of SWG's Starsider.   The initial wave of colonists were a mix but heavily flavored by the first generation roleplayers who adopted the server.  Over time most of the first generation burned out for assorted reasons, most of which owed to SWG's design, however what they left behind was ultimately what shaped the server's corporate culture.  A tradition of roleplaying, knowledge of event organizing, histories of colorful characters and Player Associations and a whole slew of former nonroleplayers who were now the very leaders of the roleplaying community.  I suspect because many of these nonroleplayers hadn't roleplayed before they had a much higher tolerance for SWG's foibles than the more impatient and critical first generation did.

I wonder how many roleplayers on Landroval, Virtue and Wiccana came to the server as nonroleplayers but encountered something new there.  Something that entertained them when the rest of the game was getting dull or repetitious?  Something that got them to flex creative muscles they didn't know they had...

My experiences on Official Roleplaying Servers are much more limited.   What I've seen, in general, were smaller populations of roleplayers, compared the the general public, but with more insular seige mentalities.  Quick to lash out at nonroleplayers, assume anyone they don't like is a griefer, make hobbies of writing down names that don't conform to canon, and often cultivate more trouble than they've prevented by being on an Official Server.  I've yet to encounter an Official Roleplaying server where the rules were actually enforced, and not resented, by GMs there.   Very often staff have no understanding of, or sympathy for, roleplayers and don't go very far out of their way to enforce "silly" rules or deal with the reams of annoying and, to them, trivial complaints.

So, help me out here, what do you think?  What works better for roleplayers, based on your experiences not mine, Official RP Servers or Unofficial RP Servers?

Roleplayers: The Last, Best, Hope

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday February 25 2009 at 6:03AM
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When I'd read that AoC was consolidating servers what stood out to me was the presence of Wiccana as one of the destinations.  According to IGN's report Wiccana has been one of the highest populated servers since launch and in no little part that's due to the fact it was voted in as the "Unofficial RP" server of AoC.  Now whilst FunCom, in their infinite wisdom, only named PvP-RP Official Servers the roleplayers mostly knew what was coming and made a unified dash for a PvE server.  Ol' R.E.H. may have loved bloodshed and violence but it always had a reason behind it in his tales.  Reasons better than kill rankings and ladder scores and sheer bloodymindedness.

I played on Wiccana for a good while and noticed the constant stream, one way, of refugees from the PvP-RP servers to it.  Mature non-roleplayers as well often make for RP servers simply to get away from the lollerhordes and that helped Wiccana too.  Anarchic violence without purpose or consequence really ain't gonna sustain much immersion and I say this as a pretty big Eve Online fan.

Now if this were just one example in isolation it would still be worthy of a footnote.  However, as SWG entered into its free server transfers we saw one server's population skyrocket.  Starsider.  Like Wiccana, Starsider was baptised as an "Unofficial RP" server by the Star Wars Galaxies community.  An offsite forum of roleplayers, long turned to dust and bones now, voted prerelease and then everyone piled onto Starsider together.  They built guilds and cities and storylines.  The unique, at least pre-NGE, economics of SWG further built ties between crafters, gatherers and component producers to create a serverwide network with a practical purpose - but it also served as the nervous system for a truly serverwide community of roleplayers as well.

When Jump to Lightspeed came out, it was the roleplayers (and flight simmers who are roleplayers' kissin' cousins with their in-character mission AARs and game-based fiction writing) that formed up squadrons and created both PvP and PvE events in space which made up for the lack of actual content out there.  Over time, Starsider became famous both for its roleplaying community and the elite and numerous pilots who made it a home.  And, as with Wiccana, older players tended to gravitate to the more reasonable and behaved community.

Now Starsider is by far the most populated of all SWG's servers with Bloodfin, the Unofficial PvP server, and Bria the former top server, in third and second places.

Talking to other players from other MMOs one sees numerous examples of MMOs with declining populations seeing the roleplaying servers and communities holding on long after less motivated customers have moved along. 

Roleplayers are some of the most likely to hold multiple accounts, to play assorted personalities as well as classes, and to buy just about any fiction or toys associated with the games they love.

Why is this?  Well, we can't know for sure until some labcoats get curious and turn the microscope on us but let me speculate.  We love our characters and, to better understand our characters, we have to understand the worlds they belong to.  We spend time developing an understanding of place and accumulate histories we care about, that uniquely to roleplayers actually make for good stories, with people we grow very fond of.   Roleplayers that stick to a game will stick hard and keep their friends around almost regardless of content or consequence.  Roleplayers make their own.   Whether that makes us the cockroaches of MMOs, who will survive a nuclear disaster to rule the world, or simply Boy Scouts who know how to thrive in the wild it does make roleplayers the last, best, hope for smaller MMOs and MMOs with dwindling populations.

That next MMO?  It may have better PvP, it may have more quests, it may have breakthrough and brilliant graphics and animation, but it doesn't have the same history, mythos, community and continuity a roleplayer craves as the MMO he's currently attached to.

So that leads a guy like me to wonder what would happen if anyone ever made a game for roleplayers.   A game that gave them tools for telling stories themselves.  An interactive place where players could affect the world but without, necessarily, the ugliness of direct PvP?   What would happen if a game were designed with a strong setting, or from a known IP, and reached out to creative players who weren't necessarily MMOers?

As it is, like our cockroach friends, we roleplayers feed from scraps, we improvise, we adapt, we overcome.  Imagine what could happen if someone laid out a four course meal for us.

What Roleplaying Isn't

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday February 24 2009 at 12:08PM
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Roleplaying isn't talking in a funny accent. 

Roleplaying isn't a way to pick up virtual chicks.

Roleplaying isn't acting or writing or any kind of high art form.

Roleplaying isn't sitting around in a tavern and chatting.


Then what is roleplaying?  Roleplaying is getting into the head of a fictional character, from an often fictional setting, with a fictional biography and goals and a personality based on both his own past and the world he lives in and then expressing that persona to other players in the context of a game.

Granted, to one extent or another, all the common misconceptions about roleplaying I've listed above tend to come out in MMOs in particular.   In some games characters can talk with strange dialects or personal affectations though the myth of the Shakespearean speaking roleplayer is just a myth (outside of Ultima Online - unthank you, Lord British, for that crap).  Some of the best roleplayers are females and this can attract undesirable behavior, or roleplaying with ulterior motives, from cheesier male players.   There are a few very creative individuals who can act, and write, and express themselves with breathtaking talent in MMO RPdom but, by and large, roleplaying is a hobbyist's craft and, despite the vanity of some (usually not the most talented anyhow), the results are rarely entertaining for anyone but those involved - hence, not art.

Lastly, given how little content in most games creates interesting things for roleplayers to talk about they often gravitate to taverns and cantinas and social RP chat-lines for extended small talk rather than dramatic dialogues involving anything of consequence.

In the days to come, I hope to explore how real roleplaying works and examples of it in MMOs and from older tabletop and MUSH experiences.   I'll also visit the notion of the value of a roleplaying community to an MMO.  As we've seen from both SWG and Age of Conan the "unofficial" Roleplaying Servers, Starsider and Wiccana in fact, have risen to the top in terms of population.  Coincidence?

If there's anything else you'd like me to discuss feel free to comment here. 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forums

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday February 24 2009 at 11:43AM
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A funny thing happened on the way to the forums:  I discovered a free blog service here.   What could possibly go wrong?  Long-winded, check.  Opinionated, check.  Unconventional, check.  Inebriated...not just yet.

So who is OddjobXL?  He's a crusty old roleplayer who dragged himself out, along with the legged fishies, of the primordial ooze that was white box Dungeons and Dragons back in the 70's.  Ever since, except for brief interludes of near coolness, he's been a gamer whether tabletop, console or on the trusty PC.  Wargamer, flight simmer, roleplayer, MUSHer and MMO junkie.   Been there, done that.  And always looking for the perfect immersive experience.

Hint:  It ain't here yet, kids.

Currently playing:  Star Trek Online and Lord of The Rings Online

That's enough for a brief drumroll of getting-to-know-you.  My first regular post will be along shortly.  Any other old timers here?  Are you skeptical about MMOs as roleplaying vehicles or hopeful about them?

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