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Developer Perspectives: Roleplay Servers Are Hard

Column By Sanya Weathers on July 10, 2009

What's the first thing most industry insiders think of when they hear "role play server"?

"Noooooooooooooooo."

And that's the clean version.

Okay, not everyone that I pinged for this article reacted with horror and dismay. And let me be clear that the horror and dismay is for the server type, not the roleplayers themselves. Katie Postma, community queen for Jumpgate Evolution, said "I think the reason role players get a bum rap is because they are the most immersed and the most passionate about the game. Unless other players feel the same way, it's going to be difficult for them to relate to the RPing players."

But let me back up. How do RP ruleset servers come into being?

These are MMORPGs. The RP part comes from, as certain resident grumps remind us, the original pen and paper games. Six people with dice, painted figurines, and occasionally costumes would get together and pretend to be rangers, elves, clerics, and more, each according to their alignment.

In D&D, very few chaotic evil characters actually get played. Lawful evil, sure. Chaotic evil is a pain in the ass to group with, or even function alongside. I'll get back to that in a second.

Anyway, these games spring from games where people riffed off each other, built memories, and created worlds with their imaginations. This experience had the potential to be magical. Even so, it wasn't a pure roleplay experience. If you didn't laugh at the Dead Alewives thing, you never played D&D in high school.

The early adopters of an unlaunched MMORPG are not usually high school D&D players. They are the true believers, the dreamers, and the hardcore everything - hardcore PVP, hardcore fans of the license, hardcore roleplayers. All of these people are early adopters in part because they know that early in the development cycle is their best chance to impact the final structure.

And even though the pre-launch proportion of hardcore roleplayers is the biggest that it will ever be (by launch they'll be swamped by the casual roleplayers, the non-roleplayers, and the d00ds), it only takes one senior executive to read the boards and see the "demand" for a roleplay server before the community person is weeping in a corner.

"There shall be a server with an RP ruleset!" speaks the executive. And there is rejoicing among the roleplayers who haven't already ridden this particular merry go round.


And it's not
the fancy kind of
merry go round, either.)

The roleplayers who've done this before, and the community person, both say "And what does that mean, exactly?"

What it usually means is bupkis. It's easy to wave a hand and say there will be such a server. It's not so easy to guarantee resources to make this server anything besides a refuge from d00dspeak and swearing.

What resources are necessary? Dedicated customer service personnel would be a start. On the RP server customer service tickets are higher than other servers for the same game. There is no industry source willing to speak on the record, but estimates range from 10% higher to a whopping 25% higher depending on the expectations the company created before launching the server. These ratios, especially since they can't be predicted in advance without a really experienced community person, can ruin a delicately balanced CS budget.

Why so many tickets? Alan Crosby, formerly the Director of Global Community for SOE and now the producer of EQ2, said in his usual calm and low key way: "I think the main problem with role play servers is that role play is subjective. What is and is not acceptable role play differs from person to person. So policing or making rule sets for them is a task where almost no one ends up happy with the result."

Beyond CSRs, roleplayers need events. On regular servers, guild leaders provide a lot of game "content" for their members in the way of planning raids and other exercises in cat herding. On roleplay servers the guild leader needs to be a raid planner, an imaginative storyteller, a charismatic leader, and a shrink. Since there are maybe five of these people on the entire server, the players quite properly look to the game developers for their fun.

Live events take ungodly amounts of time to design, plan, and execute. If you don't think so, please go over to your favorite MMO right now and plan a simple game of hide and seek for fifty people that starts on time and ends with one person clearly winning a desirable prize. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Yeah. Now you see why the effort is usually put into planning repeatable events that players can trigger, as opposed to one-off live events. If you have live events, you are playing a game that has a big budget, a big event team, or most likely an incredibly devoted developer who has no other demands on his evenings or weekends.

Roleplayers also need more scripted packages. For just one example: Most players will never bother to get in-game married. But roleplayers get married more than Elizabeth Taylor, and they expect props like rings, flowers, and cake.


Pearls are for brides, baby

Roleplay servers need a higher barrier to entry before people can roll a character there. Right now, the sole hurdles are a text blurb about behaving oneself that no one reads, and a stronger name filter than the normal one.

Finally, roleplayers need tools to execute their elaborate scenarios. Object creators, communication channels, visual effects, the ability to cut and paste large amounts of text, and the ability to block other people from disrupting the event are but a few of the more reasonable requests I've heard over the years.

Victor Wachter, a community weenie with experience on a number of titles, was talking to me a little about tools and the MMOs themselves. "Is the nature of the standard quest-based game even conducive to role-playing? I think that to effectively role-play in a virtual environment, you need one of two things: a free-form path that you can follow so you can truly develop your own role-playing identity or a world that changes that your character can react to in character.

"We get into so many different design snarls when we start thinking outside of the standard quest model. Repeatable objectives are subject to min-maxing for the highest returns. Customizable faction and resource objectives run the risk of increasing complexity. Personally, I think the future is in easy to use tools (that are actually good) that players can use to run scenarios for themselves, customizing them to fit the group that they are playing with."

I'd like to see more community building tools inside the game, and more ways to automatically connect people. But in an MMO, every tool developers give to players must be tested for possible exploits, and that rules out most object creators or disruption prevention tools right out of the gate. Roleplayers accurately describe most of the available options as "cosmetic" and "shallow," but those are the only options to pass the exploit test.

Even if a decent toolset could be generated without fouling up the rest of the game, and even if the game company were willing to devote multiple CSRs for the exclusive use of the roleplay server, you still have the players to contend with.

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Developer Perspectives
Community Manager for Dominus, Sanya Weathers offers her unique thoughts on all things MMO from the developer's side of the equation.
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