Given that MMORPGs were mainly conceived as virtual representations of the roleplaying games that came before them, one might consider that RP would consider as a strong part of the genre’s tradition, but it seems that RP has had its ups and downs in MMO communities. Might even say that RP has seen better days. What is the state of RP in today’s MMOs, and where might things go in the future? In part one of two, I with several gamers with RP experience in MMOs and MUDs to see what the general thoughts were on RP in MMORPGs today, as well as how their experiences have evolved, along with my own.
Many gamers that found their way to MMORPGs, came from MUDs, tabletop, or the D&D tradition. There were rulesets and lore and lots of people took the time to really conceptualize their characters. Of course, games had their more casual players back then too, but even they could often muster a “hail” now and then. There were RP servers and naming conditions. You wouldn’t see IPWNURFACE99x running around your server. Guilds were generally plentiful and if you wanted it, RP in many forms could be found if you looked. Today, it’s scarce to find an RP flag or sometimes even official RP servers. Things have become more splintered as the genre has both expanded and changed.
Of the gamers I spoke to, most were experienced RPers that began in MUDs and transitioned to MMORPGs with games like Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, Dark Age of Camelot, EQ2 and others. Their participation levels now in 2013 range from nonexistent RP but still active in MMOs to continuously involved in both, but all expressed that things have certainly changed.
There were places to go, things to discover, and a lore that worked well. But many of these experiences are gone or changed now. When was the last time you saw RP flags, in character channels, multiple official RP servers, and naming guidelines? The Lord of the Rings Online has an RP-flag that I switch on whenever I return to that game. In fact, LOTRO just might be the last time RP support was so blatantly built into a AAA game, with a flag, discoverable places you can use that serve little other function outside of festival events, buildings to enter, taverns, housing, a slew of emotes, the music system, and even naming guides at character creation.
Today, there are many more games to choose from, along with the often-heard complaint that developers aren’t making virtual worlds anymore. Not all themepark games are linear and without imagination, mind you, and not all sandboxes are the ideal places to roleplay. With the focus on endgame and content, and with players consuming content so rapidly in the first place, RP isn’t as much of a development consideration. With the rise of free to play, resources go toward making more content and items; sometimes RP-friendly customization items make the cut. Finding “good RP” is often a concern and the definition varies, but RPing on closed guild channels does nothing for the greater community. Merely saying certain words or pretending to be a runaway princess in disguise or using other tired stories can be repetitive and boring. For some, sticking to rulesets or at the very least, a stricter lore with players who know their own player stories and how they connect is what they came in with and eventually, people like that gradually disappeared. For others, it’s harder to find dedicated groups, and when they do, sometimes these groups can lose a few key members and fall apart.
When coming from a text roleplay tradition, it’s easier to have a greater feel for the roleplaying part of MMORPG, but fresh blood in the genre, shifting views of the consumer profile, and monetization have all played parts. Newer players who play MMORPGs now versus the more insular crowd of say, a decade ago, in many cases, might lack for the cultural experience beyond light roleplay or none at all.
Yet I’ve mentioned players a lot in this column, but the players and the changes we feel from the days of yore (completely intended) until now have multiple causes and many assumptions. Roleplay is just one of the bits of infrastructure that both fosters and strengthens community in MMOs. But with the focus on content, content, content, devoting resources to these bits, especially when your budget is limited or you’re free to play and must not only create content but virtual goods, is deemed unimportant and overlooked. This isn’t true of all developers, but in light of the lightning strike that was WoW, the successes and failures of other titles, market forces, and perhaps even changes in developer attitudes, we are in a place now where RPers aren’t explicitly valued in many titles. It leads to the impression that ‘nobody roleplays anymore’, that ‘we might as well call them MMOs because the RPG part has fallen by the wayside’.
Paraphrasing, of course, but the lack of support makes it seem like RP is invisible or dead and engenders a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Perhaps the RP audience grew up or the number of MMORPG players diluted the concentration that was once. But losing sight of actively supporting RPers is a mistake.
Part 2 of this column on RP will center on just why studios should actively support roleplaying in their MMOs and look at the present and potential future of roleplaying in the genre.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her at RTSGuru as the site's Associate Editor and news writer. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez