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The Roleplayer's Redoubt

Is there a really place for roleplaying in MMOs? What do roleplayers bring to the table? How can developers foster stronger roleplaying communities? How do traditional concepts fit into the realities of contemporary online roleplaying?

Author: OddjobXL

On Immersion

Posted by OddjobXL Friday February 27 2009 at 8:17AM
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Immersion is a loaded word with different meanings for different folks but it's one I'll sit down and discuss with you. 

What?  I can't sit?  That's not a good sign.  A sitting avatar often means, in roleplayese, "Sit down and talk to me."   Nonroleplayers tend to be rushing around everywhere, places to go and things to kill, but roleplayers love a cozy setting where they can plop their bums down and just do their thing.  Not being able to sit immediately reminds a player his avatar is just a character in a game and, when that happens, poof goes immersion.  It's the canary in the coal mine - either a developer gets this off the bat or he probably is missing alot of other stuff roleplayers look for.

Immersive elements include setting, control, dynamism and simulation.

Settings should be detailed, ridiculously detailed, but should follow plausible and recogniseable forms and translate fairly well into the actual game systems.  The more detail a setting has, even it it seems silly to some, the more raw material roleplayers have to work with. 

Glossaries of words, greetings and partings and curses for different cultures give a roleplayer a shorthand for identifying his character as belonging to that culture in daily RP.  Histories and cosmologies provide fodder for more complex, scholarly, characters or background for individuals who may have been directly impacted by the forces of fate.  A few 'slice of life' stories fill in the gaps as to how different people live in the world.  What kinds of food are there and how is it eaten?  How do people house or clothe themselves?  What's a wedding or a funeral like?  What major life events are there in a given culture and how are they celebrated?   What current events are on people's minds and, of those, which are threats of some kind?

Much of that can't be represented in game terms but it does give the roleplayer kindling for his own imagination and provides him, and his fellows, with information that they can use to visualize and, with their own words, recreate the illusion.   Roleplaying at its best is a shared hallucination that only partly happens in a game:  most of it happens in the minds of the players involved.

I don't suspect it's any surprise that many roleplayers have, so far, gravitated to known IPs.  Why?  Well, obviously, they've got followings to start with.  They also have a library full of information on their worlds.

Control means a player can interact with the game on, more or less, his terms.  He can sheath a sword, he can sit at a table, he has animated emotes to employ.   If there's a low hill, he can climb it.  If there are strong themes to the setting, he can embody or enact them in gameplay.   There are also universal components to control that appeal to all gamers like intuitive, non-fussy, interfaces and so on.   The more a player's character can do what a player wants the more the player forgets he's in a game and that leads to immersion.  The fussier and more arbitrary the options available the more detached a player becomes. 

Dynamism means a player can't be entirely sure what's going to happen next.  Nothing kills immersion more surely than boredom.  You can have a great setting with good control but if day in, and day out, life is routine folks find other entertainment probably somewhere else entirely.   Games are, after all, for fun.  Players themselves make an MMO dynamic because there's no telling who you'll run into or what might happen.  This is why ERSB ratings might change, on one hand, but on the other it's how new friendships are forged.  Still, many games are too dependant on static content like dungeons and raids.   For many roleplayers killing the same monsters, over and over, in the same way isn't going to suspend much disbelief or provide enduring entertainment.   PVP games, well executed, like Eve Online can provide wonderful dynamism and immersion but they're saddled also with players that can be malicious and bordering on sadistic.   Not all roleplayers are comfortable with this.

The low overhead compromise is a storyteller toolset much like you see in Star Wars Galaxies and that City of Heroes will be implimenting.   With these we see the cycle of roleplaying come full circle back to a human Dungeon Master running a storyline for a party of players.   Roleplayers who enjoy big events have the tools, as well, in SWG to create truly impressive locales and activities for them. 

The high overhead compromise is a living world simulation with dynamic NPCs and randomized PvE challenges.  The advantage, to the player at least, of a living world is that it offers dynamism similar to PvP without the immersion breaking behavior often associated with it.   Whether it's practical or something we'll see in our lifetimes is an open question.  The initial design of SWG called for dynamic spawns of "Points of Interest" to create a sense of real adventure as well as believeable NPC and creature behavior.   The latter did appear but ended up lobotomized by the NGE.  The former never did.

Simulation is a word which, for our purposes, means believeable.   A duel feels like a duel, a ship sails like a ship, NPCs behave in accordance with their cultural or canonical roles, economies function along plausible lines and wars are very big deals requiring enough expense and forethought that diplomacy is a realistic alternative or crucial adjunct.   In simulations, actions have predictable consequences and the foreknowledge of those consequences shapes behavior.   When players are rewarded, or punished, in line with the logic of a setting immersion is achieved.  While there's a strain of thought which argues that simulation is innately opposed to accessibility a good design should be able to balance the two. 

Eve Online is probably the best example of a simulationist game but even Eve abstracts quite a bit of stuff.   Space travel, for example, is routine and nobody ever worries about fuel for a ship.  Who'd want to?   Well, anyone who wants to experience the life of a Mal or a Han and juggle the expenses of running a ship, or the consequences of a malfunction, with the potential profits of trade - legitimate or otherwise.   Not fun?  Well, the job of the designer is to figure out how to make that fun.  Many space sims and even HSpace, a MUSH based space simulation, manage to pull this off.  However, given Eve's focus on macro-level politics, economics and warfare rather than on single ships and crews (there are no player crews or multiplayer ships) it's a good decision for the design.

When a design respects a setting, at least the key elements and themes of  it, by embodying the essence of it in actual gameplay then players are less likely to notice they're in a game after all.  If a developer can make a player forget he's playing a game then he's created immersion.

The key to simulation is to sift useless details from essential ones.  Overly complicated systems can create so much work that a player loses his connection to the juicier parts of the world and, in effect, are as bad or worse than a poorly designed interface.  But omitting essential elements of setting from gameplay will almost certainly alienate many roleplayers.

Sakky writes:

Great read, as usual. In fact you covered so many of my own thoughts, that I have nothing to add.

Fri Feb 27 2009 10:45AM Report
neopythia writes:

One further thought I would add about immersion is that while it aids RP greatly, it is not necessary in the least, from a developer point of view.  A MUSH is a prime example.  The players are creating the immersion and the game organizer merely provides the forum.  

I think RP'ers have a pretty high tolerance when it comes to immersion.  We are able to overlook things such as respawns and people behaving OOC or griefing.  We can find new ground to cover in lands we have walked a thousand times.  Even though our characters don't visibly change, and we are trapped in an electronic box, there is one element that continues ever onward and that is story. 

Immersion in the story is the only thing that truly matters.  On a personal level, I prefer the pve/DM model of storytelling.  I like to have as much control as I can over the story.  This isn't to say the story is scripted.  It is not.  It is as open ended as I can make it, but I want the characters to dictate as much as they can.  

A lot of people become immersed in a game like Eve, and even show a great interest in the creation of a character, but that doesn't lead to RP.  Part of the question becomes at what point does RP begin?  I haven't experienced much, if any RP in Eve, but the dynamic story seems to be fictionalized accounts of in game activities.  While this is a novel concept, I'm not sure if the participants would consider themselves RP'ers.  I think it would take more than a chronicler to meet that standard.  

A seperate topic would be about immersion or lore breaking events and behaviors, especially when dealing with a known IP.  We've seen the uproar in games like SWG or even LOTRO whent he developers make decisions against the lore of the games.  It's interesting that on a micro level players have no trouble breaking these rules in order to craft a unique character.  It is only on a macro level that things get out of hand.    


Interesting thoughts, as always.  I look forward to reading more.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on PvP as RP. 

Fri Feb 27 2009 10:11PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

We can ignore the gameworld, easily, as roleplayers and do our own thing.  In fact, this is what you tend to see in games like WoW.  Because the world doesn't seem to follow it's own setting-logic we invent our own continuities and subcultures and, ever so slowly, diverge from the experience of the game itself.

You mention MUSHes.  Some of the best MUSHes I've played actually had quite a bit of code to support the conceits of the setting.  AmberMUSH included code to handle trumps, pattern, logrus and other powers that really gave the right flavor when those things came up.  Many MUSHes, if not most, have simulation-minded combat systems as an alternative, or guide, to OOC negotated outcomes in battle.  I mention HSPACE in my post.   You'd see that in several space-themed MUSHes and it does a powerful job of creating the sense of uncertainty and evironmental danger, economic considerations, and need for teamwork on a crew when commanding a space vessel.

Sure, we could sit in a closet and make up the fine points of space travel as we improvised our roleplaying.  But actually having it there creates an effective framework that both helps us suspend disbelief and focus on other roleplaying while still having the conventions of the setting firmly in the back of our minds.  

MUSHes are filled with dynamism as characters randomly interact and improvise their encounters.   So are MMOs where roleplayers live.

But since we're in a rendered world with a multitude of coded systems anyhow, in MMOdom, seems to me we roleplayers should express what kind of systems help us do our jobs.  If we want to purely adlib there are always MUSHes to go back to.

Even in tabletop there are books and books and books of both 'fluff' and rules that both work together to forge the indentity and enumerate the nuances of the gameworld the players will be inhabiting.  Why shouldn't MMO designs keep immersion in mind as well?

As to the last, well, if you don't have the game itself presenting a good example by reinforcing archetypes and modelling the essential themes of a setting then how can you expect players to?  That's why it's so very important, especially when dealing with known IPs, that the game designer get it right.  You can't expect every player to be clueful but that assumption will always be squarely, and correctly, aimed at the designers.

Sat Feb 28 2009 6:07AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

One last point.  In an MMO the developers are the Storytellers/DMs.  While it's handy to have subsystems like Storyteller or Architect so we players can try our hands at it as well, ultimately, the job of bringing a world to life and inspiring players to become immersed in it belongs to them.  Let's see if we can't lend them a hand or at least some new perspectives.

Sat Feb 28 2009 6:22AM Report
neopythia writes:

I think the point I was trying to make, admittedly poorly, was that there are two kinds of immersion.  There is the immersion of the gameworld and the is immersion of story.  An MMO, such as LOTRO, does a brilliant job of concieving the game world.  There are many, many non-rp'ers that find themselves sucked into it and feel as though they are playing in Middle Earth.   Compared to other more sandbox oriented MMO's, LOTRO fails to be a dynamic place with tools to further RP immersion.  Personally I prefer to focus on the immersion of story as that is something I can control. 

It is not my intention to absolve developers of the responsibility to create sandbox worlds or tools that allow for the creation of story, but short of a MUSH architecture, is such a thing possible?  What would be the ideal game?  

One of the big problems I see in the quest for greater immersion is that quite often the needs of the RP community are at odds with the rest of the players, especially min/max pvp types.  For the most part, RP'ers are willing to create weakness in their character.  They do not desire to be the uberest of all.  As a result, they are better equipped to handle systems like SWG's old skill point system.  The min/maxer on the other hand will exploit these same systems.   Can these two things co-exist? 

In my opinion the greatest RP feature that could be instituted in a game is the concept of meaningful choice.  Every aspect of the game should reward or enrich your experience somehow.  Character creation, faction affiliation, actions in the game world, even pvp, all of these should shape your character.  I would love to seem a sort of over-arching morality system come into play, but one with meaningful barriers.  I like to think of it as alignment in the D&D sense or the light/dark spectrum in Star Wars.  Actions affect your standing and your standing changes what you can do and who you can interact with in both a pve and pvp sense.  The sense of immersion is increased a thousand fold as there is no more seperation between your character and the world.   I think Eve some games touch on this experience, Eve would be one, but there are other barriers there, like the lack of Avatars.

Sat Feb 28 2009 9:56AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Just to touch on one point, for now, I do think min-maxers and RPers can both be catered to.  Just assume every single player is a min-maxer and design your systems to reward people for behaving in ways that reinforce immersion.

Look at Eve.  You get ahead by acting like characters in that world would.  Mining, trading, manufacturing, empire building, hauling cargo, pirating, anti-pirating, fighting wars to control territory, engaging in politics, diplomacy and espionage, investing in long term deals, being a mercenary, etc....

While there are "dungeon" like places in Eve they're a place a player goes to recover or build up a warchest.  They're not the end-all, be-all, for most players.

I think this kind of design could work well in other kinds of MMOs as well that deal with other melieus, that focus more on PvE, and so on.  Just assume players are greedy, self-aborbed, bastards and use that to reinforce the right kind of setting-appropriate behaviors.   That will at least create the kind of ambience, and immersion, a roleplayer can appreciate.

Sat Feb 28 2009 12:50PM Report writes:
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