A funny thing happened while I was roleplaying my way to gangster infamy on Star Wars Galaxies' Starsider server from early 2004 to mid 2006. Amidst the story arcs, the guild drama (both in-character and out-of-character), and of course the hornet's nest stirred up by Sony's New Game Enhancements, I found myself drifting slowly but inexorably away from the reason I had jumped on the whole MMORPG bandwagon in the first place: to tell stories.
Looking back, I don't know that I was ever truly a 'roleplayer,' even though I defended the play style against all comers and engaged in some particularly nasty forum jousting with various antagonists. Though I was almost always 'in-character,' even while grinding mobs, I was basically playing myself in the Star Wars universe, something that I've dreamed of doing since early childhood, and boy was it a rude awakening when I realized that the lion's share of my fellow players didn't give a bantha poodoo about back stories, character development, or immersive authenticity. My quest for full immersion was doomed from the start, given the nature of these games and the people that play them, but that didn't stop me at the time, and, though I still play Star Wars Galaxies (and two other MMORPGs) on a daily basis, and though I've made attempts to rekindle the storytelling flame in each new game, it always ends the same way: leaving me wistfully remembering the roleplay on Starsider and wondering if, not when, that magic will resurface.
First, some background. I grew up with Star Wars, but I never played table top roleplay games, and therein lies part of the rub: as I met various online storytellers, I thrilled to their tales of D20 derring - do, and, while sad that I had missed out on all the fun (being something of a jock in high school, I ran with the wrong crowd, unfortunately), I was quite certain that I would more than make up for lost time when I logged into Star Wars Galaxies; a living, breathing sandbox of a virtual world teeming with other Star Wars nerds itching to live out their fantasies in a galaxy far, far away.
Its at this point that the scratching needle caroms across the 1977 Polydor Vinyl record of John Williams' seminal soundtrack, and you the reader are probably saying 'you dolt, people don't use MMORPGs to roleplay, what a naive assumption.'
You're right of course, but I was unconvinced of this in early 2004, and after soloing my way to master smuggler/master pistoleer and exploring the world alone since late beta, I joined a fledgling roleplay guild and spent the next two plus years directing story arcs, writing reams of fanfic, and generally having the time of my gaming life. In those days, Star Wars Galaxies was a far different beast from the Warcraft-clone that currently lurks under its science-fantasy skin. Roleplay was everywhere, and I can safely say that out of the 20-odd MMORPGs I've played over the years, nowhere was there as dense a concentration of dedicated storytellers and immersion enthusiasts to match the likes of Starsider in its heyday. Yeah, there were those who didn't care for the play style, and the occasional griefer, but by and large the majority of people responded to you in-character if you made the attempt, and big, active, story-driven roleplay guilds such as Cartel, Malador, The Neutron Pixies, and the Venja Mafia were everywhere.
Unfortunately, it didn't last, and looking back, it couldn't, as Sony's changes, coupled with the explosion of Jedi grinders, effectively put a damper on Star Wars immersion. The game retained its non-combat charm, as entertainers, tailors, and city/housing enthusiasts remained to ply their various trades (and liven up the world) even after the NGE, but some hard core Star Wars roleplayers, myself included, became dissatisfied with both the new mechanics and the atmosphere they fostered, and began to seek greener pastures.
Even without the abortion that was the early NGE, roleplayers tend to burn twice as bright and live half as long, as the play style is a full time job if done correctly. From dealing with other players who actively disrupt immersion, to placating folks who only want to chase carrots or grind stats, to constantly having to manufacture creative ways to explain game limitations, immersive roleplaying is a challenge that few undertake, even in a world as conducive to it as Star Wars Galaxies. Heaven help you if you're actually leading a roleplay guild: the workload only intensifies, as you have to contend with all of the above, in addition to managing personalities that are, by definition, dramatic, and also find time to level and equip your characters (as well as any story alts you may be intending to spring on your audience).
Given all these factors, it’s become my opinion that immersive roleplaying simply can't be done in online games with large groups of people, particularly given the current market of theme-park games where story-centric tools like those in Star Wars Galaxies are an afterthought (if they're included at all). I realize that this is subjective, depending on your definition of immersive, but for me, the limitations imposed on creative types by the game client (bind-on-equip, class/level/equipment restrictions, etc) are stifling, at best, and downright unplayable at worst. This is exponentially worse if you're playing a licensed game with an eye toward the source material (here's looking at you Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online), as market forces will always dictate developer decisions and realism, continuity, and source material authenticity are four-letter words because they're not considered 'fun' by those pulling the strings.
As an example, Han Solo dons stormtrooper armor and flies a YT-1300 in the Star Wars films, but because the game designers wanted to differentiate faction rewards, Rebel-aligned players could do neither of these things. The party line reasoning from the dev team was 'fun' over 'authenticity' and I always boggled at how people treated those two things as mutually exclusive. It stands to reason that if Star Wars in its original incarnation, wasn't fun, no one would have bought the game in the first place. Similarly, the invisible force field effect (otherwise known as bind-on-equip) that prevents you from picking up the pistol of your choice and squeezing the trigger), damages the immersive qualities of any online world. Some games have camouflaged it better than others, but Star Wars Galaxies' original decaying equipment system remains the best solution for player-run server economies with an eye towards the feel of a world rather than simply a game. It also, unfortunately, is despised by the instant gratification crowd (which of course makes up the majority of MMORPG players, and more than a few developers) and so it was relegated to the scrap-heap of pre-NGE systems.
These pitfalls, and others too numerous to list, conspired to drive the fun out of online roleplaying for me, and, while Star Wars Galaxies does continue to cater to roleplayers more than any other game on the market (via the storyteller system and the continuing availability of customizable crafting and player housing), the game's current incarnation leaves much to be desired, and is indicative of the tantalizing frustration awaiting anyone foolhardy enough to attempt roleplay in a current generation MMORPG. In the end, I suppose most people don't want to work when they play games, level grinds notwithstanding, and make no mistake, roleplaying in an MMORPG is work, tons of it. It can be extremely rewarding, but those times are increasingly few, as MMOs have devolved from their virtual world roots into the equivalent of a social round of golf (whether you're smacking a little dimpled ball around an elitist country club or hacking apart orcs and cannibals on the slopes of Azeroth is largely semantics.
So, as I turn to rare loot-whoring and raiding during my time in Star Wars Galaxies, and log onto free-for-all PVP servers on my other games, I have to chuckle at my journey from fresh-faced roleplayer to grizzled, cynical PK-ing veteran, and long all the more for those mythical sessions of table top that I missed out on so many years ago.
- RP is dead. Long live RP.