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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

The Problem With Bartle, Part II

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday March 18 2009 at 9:25AM
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And after our brief intermission I found what I was looking for:

"A newbie will look at a set of virtual worlds and say this one is medieval Fantasy, this one is Cyberpunk Science Fiction, that one is dark vampire Horror, this one is Greek Mythology, this one is asexual Japanese Anime, that one is stylized Gangsters, and so on."

"Again, though, from a design perspective most of the way a virtual world works is independent of genre."

After this he describes particular examples of why realistic, or melieu based, simulations would mess up a gaming experience.  I'm not the only one who cherrypicks it seems.  Then:

"The chief importance of genre lies in the ability to attract players.  From this perspective, the choice of genre becomes a marketing issue, rather than being a design issue (although designers should, perforce, understand their market)."

A description of the pros and cons of licenced IPs follows.  Then:

"Perversely, though, licencing can be liberating - at least insofar as virtual worlds are concerned.  A sure fire hit such as Star Wars Galaxies or The Sims Online can take risks that unlicensed games might avoid simply because if they do screw up, it's not going to kill the game."

"For a competant design team, a world with a big enough license behind it isn't going to fail unless they set out to make it fail (for the time being at least."

Now keep in mind this was published before SWG came out and The Sims Online was brand new.

Now look at what killed both of those games. 

The Sims Online failed to deliver the ant farm experience of independent little avatars living out a soap opera (an odd one that involves going to the bathroom and kitchen fires but it is what it is).  Instead, they put the player into the role of one Sim and gave them lots of unSimlike things to do.  So if hanging out in hottubs with virtual hookers and speaking non-Simlish is your idea of a good time you know where to go.

Star Wars Galaxies failed to deliver anything that resembled Star Wars at all.  It was entirely an experiment for Koster.  In his defense some of those ideas, that he pioneered, keep folks in SWG to this very day.  Player cities, crafting, space, detailed custom avatars, pets and so on.  Many were jettisoned with the NGE and are only slowly coming back.  But in every single poll people wanted more Star Warsiness, an overused term by now if there ever was one, and more PvE content. 

The topic of when and where PvP can work in an immersive setting or in the context of a design based around an IP (and boy howdy is Bartle right, for a change on this topic, when he talks about the marketing importance of a licensed property) is for another day.  It can but has to be handled very carefully.  In SWG it tore a real big hole in everything.

With Koster's PvP there had to be balanced sides so no Empire, really.  There would be fighting everywhere so in the middle of downtown Theed, in a cantina in Coronet, in every starport as load-gankers lined up.  The pressures of making PvP 'balanced', based on the complaints of the minority PvP population, sucked all the air and immersiveness out of the conversation.  Everyone ran around in the same composite armor, battleaxes and pikes were more common than rifles and rifles were more common than pistols.  Medics sprayed the battlefield with poison gas.  People had multiple giant pets like rancors or AT-STs following them around like ducklings. 

Meanwhile there was no space and no starships.  No recognisable Galactic Civil War (aside from the bloods vs. crips street PvP).  No urban spaces or spacestations.  You did have a cool crafting system, skill system and a well developed wilderness mechanic. quests, missions or other real content outside of the terminals.  There were no Jedi for a very long time (this is both a blessing and a curse as it turns out).

Where was the Star Wars?   Well, graphically speaking and in terms of sound design, if you really hunted around you could find it in between vast stretchs of wilderness and the multitude of secondary factions and NPCs that came out of the Expanded Universe and, generally, stood around like bumps on a log.  Nothing like seeing CorSec, the Corellian cops, wander blithely by as wanton murder was being committed right and left in the street.

But if you wanted to be a rebel hero fighting the evil empire, which is where the numbers were, good luck with that son.  You sure you don't want to pick up hairdressing or learn to trash talk in l33t instead?

This is the problem with Bartle.  Where does real immersion figure in?   Where imagination impacts code and the code reinforces that process without creating a tsunami of cognative dissonance?  Immersion isn't a thing it's a constant cycle of feedback between a player and his environment.  That environment is also impacted by the other players in it as much as the code.

These things must be designed for. 


Loxius writes:

"A description of the pros and cons of licenced IPs follows. Then:

'Perversely, though, licencing can be liberating - at least insofar as virtual worlds are concerned. A sure fire hit such as Star Wars Galaxies or The Sims Online can take risks that unlicensed games might avoid simply because if they do screw up, it's not going to kill the game.'"

This quote made me think of the cons of using a licensed universe, which seem obvious, the lack of freedom I think chiefly amongst these. 

I consider myself a fairly well-traveled MMO player.  I started in earnest with Asheron's Call and loved it.  Now, I know, you always love your first, and compare others to that, and I am the poster boy for this malady.  Asheron's Call, in my opinion, did a LOT of things right.  There was a small role-playing community, but it was robust because the players (and the devs) enjoyed the freedom of no preset canon to follow. 

There were no Jedi to avoid implementing due to timeline, and no way that things were, "supposed to be."  This was liberating all around, truly.  They could create non-Tolkienesque monsters, and they did.  Three legged beasts, interesting stories, and clever implementation of portals to cover areas that needed to be loaded, all played into, and derived from, the lore, which was as they wrote it.

Granted, by today's standards, Asheron's Call does not measure up, but at a decade old, I do not find that shocking.  They still blazed many trails and had some great devs.  Asheron's Call II, of course, bombed and was eventually shut down, but I believe it did not possess the same dev team entirely as the original, and it showed.

One of my favorite dev quotes came from a Turbine developed in reference to what we now call, "min-maxers," in MMO's, and that was, "Play the game, not the spreadsheet."  He was later killed by an angry mob intent on the fabled "Perfect Build."

In all seriousness, no disrespect to Lord of the Rings, D&D, Star Wars, or any establish Intellectual Property, but AC did an awful lot right, in a time where others were mass-producing tedium and camping, to many the banes of immersion. 

Aside from player housing, a dedication to learning from all the Everquest did wrong (ie camping), allowing solo play (!), interesting stories written by an actual writer and author not a programmer as an afterthought (novel idea!), and monthly updates with Dev controlled characters and epic events, I think one of the things that Asheron's Call did so well was facilitate immersion, because the world was fresh and new.  The story was interesting and different.  And that was, to be honest, a real treat.

Wed Mar 18 2009 7:28PM Report
ScotlandTom writes:

Bartle's statement, "Perversely, though, liscensing can be liberating..." is really only true in very specific circumstances.  The Star Wars liscense, for example, I think, currently provides great examples on both sides.

First, Star Wars Galaxies was a mess for environment and immersion.  Now, I am a Star Wars fan and I threw myself into it anyway and had a blast, but because it lacked that quintessential starwarsiness (blasters, robust space combat, an opressive Empire) the immersion was lost on most who didn't decide to dive in without caring.

The other example is, of course, the upcoming Old Republic.  We have yet to see how that pans out, but simply setting the game in a largely unexplored time period within the Star Wars universe opens up incredible possibilities.  We can only hope the developers take full advantage of the freedom the time period provides.

Really, it all comes down to the possibility space that a liscense provides.  STO will likely suffer simply due to the fact that the expectations for how things like the Federation, starships, politics and so on should be are already well founded by existing sources.

Without question an MMO with a  familiar label or setting can draw potential players in, but my guess is that the true success of the game will be built upon the richness and depth that players can explore and entrench themselves within.

Thu Mar 19 2009 1:06AM Report
ScotlandTom writes:

Now, if I could only learn how to spell "license"....

Thu Mar 19 2009 1:07AM Report writes:
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