Live-Action Role-Players (LARPers) have a bad rap. If anyone has ever told you that you were weird for playing an MMO, just try saying you LARP. LARPers are known for their weapon-making parties, late-night meetings at the Waffle House, and, for some, a severe lack of grooming during events. LARPers are pretty much the geekiest of the geeks in the gamer world.
LARPs and MMOs have a common ancestor: tabletop RPGs. Over time these tabletop games gave birth to two new genres: LARPs and MMOs. LARPs switched out the dice for foam weapons while MMOs digitized the action and put it on a screen. Both strongly resemble their ancestor, yet both do some things completely differently.
The computer was born to solve problems that did not exist before. ~ Bill Gates
As a former LARPer myself, I began thinking: what is it that LARPs do well, and is there anything MMOs can learn from LARPs? My conclusion is yes: content and choice.
Obviously, there are differences between LARPs and video-game RPGs. In a LARP, the player has nearly infinite choice in the way that they interact with others. In an MMO, the choice is limited by the amount of the actions that the game allows the player to do. MMO monsters can only do what their AI permits. A LARP monster can use whatever tactics the person playing it can come up with; it’s as smart as the brain driving it. LARPs do choice better than MMOs.
Player-generated content (PGC) is something MMO developers have an interest in, because making content is really hard, expensive, and time consuming. What developers ideally want are systems and tools that allow players as much freedom as possible.
In many LARPs, players have a choice when they attend an event: work or play. When players work they actually play the monsters and the NPCs. When players are the monsters and NPCs, they become the content and that is the purest form of PGC there is.
If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
This is exactly how I started LARPing. At my first event, I was given a boffer weapon and a costume, a few instructions, and off I went to terrorize the town as a level-2 goblin. I had a blast ambushing players on dark trails with my foam weapon that did a crappy two points of damage. I was such a noob. But, I learned how to use a sword, contributed to the fun of others, and figured out some basic rules of the game.
I liked playing the game without first having to create a character: “testing without investing”. Playing a monster allowed me to see the game and in doing so I enhanced the world and experimented with a small portion of game mechanics.
In an MMO there are lots of quests, monsters and NPCs. Developers have to create all of these, and then script their behavior. Creating content is by far the most time-consuming aspect of MMO development – Content is King. However, LARP developers get their players to do the lion’s share of this type of work (for example, being monsters, NPCs, and vendors), and they still pay to play the game. If players in LARPs are prepared to “be” the content, why haven’t MMO developers tapped into this?
LOTRO appears to have taken this first step in PGC by allowing players in PVP areas to play monsters, but there are lots of restrictions. It is definitely a step in the right direction, but it can be taken so much further.
If an MMO allowed players to be monsters whenever they wanted, and gave considerable benefits to their regular characters when they did so, then that game’s content would be even more vibrant, fun-filled, and challenging to play. The developer wouldn’t need to create nearly as much content, as it would be much more repeatable. Each encounter would play differently depending on whether people were playing any of the monsters. There would be less grind. Fun events would just “happen”. For example, of bunch of people playing zombies decide to try and invade a nearby town, or suddenly “stupid” rats start banding together and become a real challenge.
This would also be a great way for casual players to test the game out. If you had fun dipping into the game for a few minutes playing a monster, how much more fun might you have playing an actual character? It’s like buying a vacuum cleaner. You can watch a commercial, but it’s way more fun to test the vacuum at the store. Is the suck factor good when you run it over a carpet full of dirt? Playing the monsters lets you see how good the “suck” factor is in a game.
Playing a monster in a LARP is truly fun and I think it could be fun in an MMO too. Monsters in MMOs are normally pretty stupid: they only chase when aggroed, move on rails, or repeat the same thing over and over, in short they are brainless. Adding clever monsters would add to game immersion. Encountering one sentient monster powered by a player would be more fun than grinding four computer controlled ones.
A computer will do what you tell it to do, but that may be much different from what you had in mind. ~ Joseph Weizenbaum
There are games that use different forms of PGC, but nothing yet that allows players the freedom that LARPers have in their games. The video-game industry has unbelievable technology. The designers and tools that can make better PGC are out there. Maybe the key is getting designers to pick up a boffer weapon and try looking at gaming through a different set of eyes.
I’m not saying that players should replace computer-generated monsters, because games will always need them. I am also not saying that we do not need designers anymore because players should submit all content. I’m not saying any of that. I’m only suggesting that we could learn from other venues of gaming.
MMOs have been extraordinarily successful, but that success will only last for so long. LARPing is not for everyone. Maybe playing a monster in your own personal favorite MMO is not your idea of fun either. I am, however, convinced that there is something to the player-generated-content system used in LARPing. I think it’s worth looking into.