In previous blog posts I've defined roleplaying and discussed techniques developers can employ to achieve immersion from a roleplayer's point of view.
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."
The key elements: Setting (where the bed is and what kind of bed it is), biography (the bed the character's made for himself), goals (what gets him out of bed in the morning), personality (the tactics one uses to achieve his goals and assorted other quirks that make a character unique) and free expression to convey the gestalt of setting, biography, goals and personality to other players.
Immersion: "Immersive elements include setting, control, dynamism and simulation."
This is explained in greater detail in the post "On Immersion."
There is some overlap here of course. Setting is crucial to both characterization and immersion - setting is everything worthwhile about the MMO from a roleplayer's point of view. Setting is conveyed in the images from a screenshot. It's defined both by setting flavor text and game mechanics . These all inspire possibility in the mind of the roleplayer. "I can be that? I can go there? I can do this?" Setting is the game, the game is the setting in an ideal configuration. Simplifications and creative abstractions in gameplay are crucial but they should never go against the fundmental concepts of the setting and gameplay should tend towards, simplified, simulation rather than pure abstraction for the sake of experimentation or cool bulletpoints or pleasing some lobbying fraction of the player base.
Control when considered as free expression is vital for both roleplaying and general immersion. Being able to visualize an original character and then express it on the grid is crucial. Now, setting trumps control and almost everything else. Players should be able to freely imagine and embody a wide variety of characters, and their associated traits and quicks via emote, only to the extent it will not undermine setting. This really can't be stressed enough. When SWG had an "Ewok Valentine's Day" event recently one of the permanent rewards was a pair of angel wings players can wear. Now? Everywhere you go in SWG people are wearing wings. SWG's always been weak on setting but this is a brand new low.
So in future posts I'm going to look at MMOs from the vantage point of the roleplayer's paradigm. What setting, background, goals and ability to express one's self does the game offer a roleplayer? To what degree, and in what ways, does the game embrace dynamism and immersive approaches?
Many, if not all, MMOs aren't designed with roleplayers in mind. We're seen as a small group. The previous blog posts "Roleplayers: The Last, Best, Hope" and "Official vs Unofficial RP Servers" point out where that it's not how big the player base is but how much it helps a game that matters. Roleplayers exist in numbers that are consequential. Roleplayers are only growing in number over time as they encounter the craft as practiced in the wild.
What contemporary tabletop roleplayers consider 'good practice' didn't evolve overnight. It started out with some static and scenario based miniatures rules, that became D&D, on one hand and a minor cult game with a very detailed setting perhaps even richer than Middle Earth, Empire of The Petal Throne, on the other, which was published less than a year after D&D first hit the shelves. A third party provider of add-ons, Judge's Guild, introduced looser settings and dynamism in the form of randomized tables to create neverending adventures so long as the DM (Dungeon Master) could improvise how all those table results fit together. This led to more dynamic games like Chivalry and Sorcery, flush with verisimilitude including realistic magic, economics and warfare and games of raw, randomized, adventure like Traveller which was 'Firefly' a quarter century before there was a Firefly.
Much later on internal conflicts were modelled in Vampire: The Masquerade and, even before that, Pendragon. Personalities were expressed in hard, practical, code/rules that rewarded players mechanically for interacting appropriately, given who their character was, with the setting!
MMO's are still very much in the D&D phase of evolution. Loots and dungeons. Eve Online's heritage is TradeWars, an old BBS game, which in turn owes much conceptually to roleplaying games like Traveller and dynamic strategic simulation RPGs like Chivalry and Sorcery.
Where D&D and WoW are mostly running around in a circle now sniffing each other's butts like overly familiar puppies there are many, many, untapped branches of the roleplaying tree for MMO designers to look at. Even more, there's much to be learned from singleplayer computer games as well except, perhaps ironically, most CRPGs. Strategy games, simulation games and others point the way forward. CRPGs are, for the most part, quite backward looking themselves.