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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

The Problem with OddjobXL On Bartle

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday March 17 2009 at 8:59AM
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I have a confession to make.  I didn't read all Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds."  I'm cherry picking to make a point.  The more I skim through the more I see a context there which does make sense.  When he talks about the main sequence of player development where they start out as killers to test their environment, become explorers to learn more about it, achievers to succeed at what they've learned and finally to retire as socializers to hang out with their friends I recognise this. 

In fact, where we see roleplayer populations taking over is on Unofficial RP Servers in older, or struggling, games.  Everyone else is moving on but roleplayers keep on trucking.  Much of it is socialization but the unique power of roleplayers to create content and context for what they're doing, and their emotional connection to the game's setting, the shared narrative continuity of their characters and so on keeps them in the game longer. 

The guy still doesn't get roleplaying, he's almost too technically minded like an engineer.   I know engineers.  They can't just enjoy anything naively without breaking them down and analyzing them.  No wonder Bartle sees roleplaying as being almost impossible because self-editing, consciously, kills immersion.  He's probably analyzing each thing his character does with the idea he needs to control the experience and understand where it's coming from.

Roleplaying a character is much more like improvising in a jam session than deliberately creating a robot.   Kids roleplay, play pretend, all the time.  If I sat down with one and tried to explain in detail how what he was doing worked he'd just give me a blank look.  Which I'd justly deserve.  He's a Transformer and that's that.

As roleplayers get more sophisticated they start running into problems.  It's harder to maintain immersion and suspension of disbelief.  They need verisimilitude:  a context that's internally consistant that rewards a player's understanding of the character and the setting he belongs to.

Generally, in MMOs, roleplayers are forced to get that context from other players because the game designs simply don't cater to it.  They're focused on technical stuff, on bulletpoints, not on aesthetics beyond graphic design in most cases.  More aesthetics in the actual code and gameplay and setting design would be a welcome turn of events.


Right now, I'm flipping through pages trying to find Bartle's description of the role of melieu or setting or theme.  That's what I wanted to deliver today.   They're not in the index nor the table contents.  I know I read that passage a few months back and it set me off.  Getting set off, along with a cup of coffee, is a great way to write a blog.

Unfortunately for me, and my agenda, I'm instead stumbling over more stuff that makes sense.  That's bloody counterproductive.   He does get immersion and quite a few of the things I talk about he does too in his own way.  There's even a chapter called "It's Not A Game, It's A..." which talks about different perspectives on MMORPGs if in a much broader, and more scholarly and documented, sense than my article "It's Just A Game" did (mine focuses mainly on the difference between PvPers and RPers and speculates about what motivates RP-PvPers). 

Bartle's views of roleplaying may be tinged, and this seems to be a recurring theme, by his own ideas about self-exploration of personal identity in MMOs as much as his analytical nature.  He takes this very seriously.  I won't dwell but I would suggest folks interested pick the book up and not do what I'm doing.  Read the whole book through.  You'll learn a few things.

In fact, I have to call the win in this debate for Bartle.  And he's not even here.   It's clear to me he's got a keen interest in immersion and roleplaying, though I'm not sure he really understands the latter on a gut level, and frankly is more clinically studied in both than I am (and many other things besides).  Which probably is to be expected.  There's a reason Bartle's Bartle.

"It's not that players don't know about virtual world design, but their knowledge is too personal.  Players tend to view all worlds in the context of the one they "grew up" playing.  If a new idea is suggested, many players will immediately consider how it would fit into their preferred virtual world, whether or not the virtual world for which it is intended is remotely similar.  If the debate actually concerns "their" virtual world, they'll figure out the short term repercussions of their own playing style and use this as a basis of whether they are for or against.  They'll only refer to long-term effects or other playing styles when they're trying to win allies or convince the live team that they are responsible people whose opinions should carry weight."  Bartle, 122

I am so busted!

Still, even if I am of a "different religion" (Bartle, 122) than another player or a designer I'd be falling down on the job if I didn't try to proseltyze a little.

I'll close with this which tends to reinforce my sense of why Bartle doesn't quite grasp, perhaps can't grasp, what roleplayers are about on an intuitive level:

"When I enter a virtual world, all I see is the machinery, the forces at work, the interactions - it's intellectually interesting and can be artistically exciting but it isn't fun.  Other designers are the same:  The price you pay for being able to deconstruct a virtual world is that of being unable to not to deconstruct it.  Magic isn't magic when you know how the trick is done.

This is why most players aren't good at design.  They still sense the magic."  Bartle, 123

Roleplaying is the magic at its most pure when it's working right.  I envy Bartle's intellect and keen sense of observation but, man, I wish he could enjoy the magic himself one day.

Sakky writes:

Indeed, he's missed many points, and in some cases, cannot see the trees for the forest.

I too can be analytical, and know much of game design, as a hobbiest 3d modeller, I can disect worlds and characters mentally, I can focus on animations, and complain about things that are off.

Yet, when RP'ing, thats the furthest from my mind. One does not have to  analyze all the time, I know I do not.

It is like watching a movie. Turn off your brain, sit back, and enjoy.

As for your comments on preferences on game desgin "religion" I can certaintly see the point. I know for example, that SWG's NGE changed the game in ways that made it impossible for me to fight, and I hated the game. Some enjoyed it from the start.

Even now, while combat is playable, and with groups, can be fun. Thats the social aspect making it fun. I still do not care for the game itself.

Ironic, really, a game that can be so amazingly fun, it's core systems are not. (For me) Others may love it, I tolerate it. I don't espouse the point, and try to get others to see my point of view. It would make others annoyed, and fall on deaf ears on the dev team. Not worth the effort.

(Also I just read the conversation on the other post, made me giggle, thanks guys!)

Tue Mar 17 2009 10:23AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

I think he sees the forest much better than I do.  And the trees.

Maybe I've got a better view of that one little clearing over there is all.

For me gameplay should be part of what makes a game immersive and by this I mainly refer to some kind of simulation or at least recognition of a rational order to things.  Why do things work like they do?  And having for an answer, not some practical reasoning about gamebalance or appealing to more players, but a narrative description of why things are that's consistant with a setting.

You do see that in Eve Online for the most part.  The gameplay fits the setting and the setting fits the gameplay.  In most other games the gameplay, the bulletpoints, comes first and a setting's spraypainted over it. 

What I remember about the part of "Designing Virtual Worlds" that set me off the most was a section, which I couldn't find this morning, that talked about melieu and setting as almost irrelevant.   They can be tacked onto anything.  Players who're really into the setting can never be appeased so don't bother trying. 

And this the same Bartle who in a previous section waxed on about the importance of believeable physics in games.   It's important a player believe the world works on believeable principles in order to help a player get oriented.

Why isn't setting like physics?  Why isn't it something that should be considered in game design when sorting out how a player will relate to the game itself?  Why shouldn't the cogs and gears serve the end of promoting the themes and aesthetics of a setting just as much, if not more, than they do gravity and motion?

That's simulation.  I'm not asking for high end military grade flight sims in MMOs but simplified systems that reward and encourage thematic behavior on the part of players while also recreating, in a player's mind as he's engaged with them, the setting itself.

In SWG we have one of the gravest offenders ever on this level.  Koster had some theories he wanted to test out.  SWG was a "can't lose" proposition as Star Wars fans will buy anything with a Wookiee on it.  Right?  So he constructed his experiment, as best he could in the time he had, and shoved it into Star Wars graphics.

We know what happened next.

In "Designing Virtual Worlds", which was published just before SWG game out, Bartle's singing the praises of Koster's approach even as he plays down the relevance of setting in design.

I wish, I wish, I could find that section.  Maybe I'm remembering it wrong.

Tue Mar 17 2009 10:40AM Report
dolanite writes:

If  you found the sudden sensation that someone is thinking way bigger, broader and deeper than you enjoyable, try reading Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media for a laugh. The fact that this guy saw so far outside the box in terms of new media in 1964 makes you sad that you'll never be as brilliant as him, but glad to be part of a species that makes guys like that on a semi-regular basis.

I feel there's a lot to mined out of McLuhan yet in terms of the new new media, like MMo's and social networking sites.

Wed Mar 18 2009 7:50AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

My major in college was Mass Communications.  The graphics in his stuff alone blew my mind. 

The medium is the message, right?  I think that alone says volumes about the role of setting in MMOs.  Thanks for the reminder.  I should pick him back up one day.

Bartle's definitely several levels over my head in some ways but he does write well enough that I can follow along.  Pick up "Designing Virtual Worlds."  It's older but it's still a bible.  I don't doubt many of my ideas I consider original are actually filtered down from him or those influenced by him as I read on.

Still...well, I'll continue with the regularly scheduled programming in today's post.

Wed Mar 18 2009 8:53AM Report writes:
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