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A Niche Called Roleplaying

Editorial By Steve Wilson on January 11, 2007

Casual Play: A Niche Called Roleplaying
By: Steve Wilson

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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To most players roleplaying is, frankly, a little bit weird.

In all honesty, the current state of roleplaying and its supporters are both odd and useless. The first and most obvious sign of this is that there is no benefit to roleplaying whatsoever, except for the warm fuzzy feelings it produces. While a player pounding out text chat in a close approximation of a Scottish/Dwarvish baroque can be amusing in small doses, too much of it produces an awkwardness that can kill the enjoyment of the game for most others. The worst part about roleplaying currently is that some roleplayers are so self righteous in their belief that they actually do represent some sort of superior playstyle. To the masses of casual players, however, there is no benefit to roleplaying other than looking and sounding silly. That alone is enough to turn off most of the uninitiated. What tactile benefit does roleplaying provide in a game other than some feeling of smugness?

One of the dirty little secrets about roleplaying servers is that the support cost is triple that of a normal server. The roleplayers are so busy reporting each other for names that ‘break immersion’ that gamemasters spend their entire day checking up on other players’ names. Running into Owen Joo is no more immersion breaking than the fact that in order to speak in game the roleplayer has to type on a keyboard outside the game into a separate little chat window. And yet that doesn’t stop most of these elites from tattling on each other in a stalwart display of just how superior their playstyle is.

The reality is that all games encourage some roleplaying. In Dawn of War, I play the commander of squads of space marines out to do battle for or against the Imperium. Madden NFL has me filling the shoes of a professional league football coach. To a degree, even WoW has got me to think in some roleplaying ways. I find myself sneaking across battlegrounds looking for wounded foes and mana-drained mages to ambush rather than rushing in like some lumbering tank. But when questing, I’m more prone to slice my way through every mob in the way of my goal for the experience points they yield rather than acting true to my class and slinking past.

MMOs don’t encourage roleplaying nearly as much as traditional single player games. Nothing got me more in the spirit of slaying helpless foes, betraying my friends and drowning puppies than Knights of the Old Republic, and most of that was encouraged because the game rewarded those types of game choices with evil blue lighting and some old fashioned force choking. Games like System Shock and Dues Ex encouraged thinking about problems in different ways with each character build. A sneaky type character had little chance of taking on Shodan’s agents in a straight up fist fight. Throughout my experiences in those games I stopped being myself and started actually thinking of the game in terms of how my characters perceived it. Reward for thinking outside my personality encouraged thinking of solutions in those terms and playing my role. Even beginning game designers know that reward is the path to get players to do things.

The current crop of MMOs however is more like Baldur’s Gate where the classes really only serve to differentiate how a player goes about killing all foes. When the primary purpose of a character is to kill everything in sight, there’s not much difference between stabbing it in the back, frying it with fireballs or running a sword through it. The classes in most games only exist as a coat of paint for the purpose of killing digital enemies.

I believe that is the reason that there is little to no spontaneous roleplaying in MMOs these days. There’s just no reason for players to do it. Not because the average player wouldn’t understand, but because the current crop of games offer no incentive to do so. If the true roleplayers want to see roleplaying take a more prominent role in games, then it has to offer something more than a different way to kill things. Even if it’s as simple as being able to respond to quests in different ways, those choices add up and get the player into a mindset that might be far removed from their true personality. That’s roleplaying.

Of all of the games out there, Star Wars Galaxies came closest to realizing this. While playing that game, I ran into a smuggler that hung out in cantinas emoting a sly look and making deals for his goods in hushed whispers. It was silly, but it added immensely to the atmosphere. There was also an entire community that made up their own dramas to act out (and with the amount of content included at release it was almost essential for them to make up their own). In the original skill based system, players could take on the roles of entertainers, cooks, crafters and diplomats. The only characters that could actually do anything however were the combat classes. Access to Jaba’s fortress could not be gained by dancing or preparing meals for him. It was a huge opportunity missed by a content team that chose to focus on combat as the only meaningful experience in a game. It was also a missed opportunity to get players to think about surmounting problems in alternate ways, which is far more in the spirit of true roleplaying than the very best Dwarvish accent ever typed. If diplomacy works out as the hype portrays there may even be some hope that Vanguard ushers in a class of gamers more interested in hobnobbing and making backroom deals than looking to cash in monster parts.

If roleplayers really want their playstyle to advance beyond a weird little niche, they are going to need to get developers to think about conflict resolution beyond mere hack and slash. Once acting like a sneak, or diplomat, or confidence man becomes a viable gameplay style, then participants will see other players truly acting out their roles and even *gasp* roleplaying a little. I’m not a killer in real life, but because nearly all games reward that playstyle I practice it exclusively in almost all games. Honestly if given the chance I’d be just as willing to be Gordon Gecko, Mon Mothma or Al Swearinger rather than Jack the Ripper.

Steve Wilson / Did some dumb stuff, grew up, then against better judgement went and did some more.

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