In part one, I explored some of the reasons roleplayers have either become nearly invisible, dwindled in number, or have even quit altogether in the modern MMO. This time, I want to propose some things that work, as well as why investing in social infrastructure in MMORPGs is a good thing. The shifts that have happened to RP aren’t limited to sandbox or themepark, and they’re certainly not the result of one thing over another. The result is that the life of an MMORPG has become quite short for many people, instead of thinking longer-term. MMO “tourism” is a real thing, and with so many games competing for players’ attention, retention is probably more important—and more elusive—than ever. Studios claim “social” is important, but implementation is another story. Developers must invest in the sometimes intangible and sometimes virtually invisible social features that go beyond a friends’ list and achievements.
Roleplaying is a linchpin of community building, and something that can keep players subscribing or active in the game even past cap. However, developers don’t place much effort into it these days, as even City of Heroes’ Matt Miller recently noted. With MMOs expensive to produce, coupled with economic realities of the current market, something has to give. The focus instead tends toward repeatable content.
These people populate and sustain the foundation of game worlds. Maybe they don’t reach cap in two weeks, or even a month, or ever, but if developers give them the infrastructure to support the more social aspects -- places to gather, items in the world to interact with and use, places inside and outside quest hubs – then it’s like hanging a welcome sign on the gate. By focusing on the ever-shorter content consumption cycle and those chasing endgame, the journey is neglected. It’s easy to look at raw numbers. If 10,000 people raided yesterday, you can track that. You can use those numbers to predict your raid demand and make more repeatable content. How do you measure the presence and value of the level 30 players who meet, quest a bit, chat in the tavern, play some music, then go on an occasional leveling spree? Their consumption of the included content might be nebulous or irregular, but the value to having populated servers with engaged, returning players, is something that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Some might think this value has diminished with the advent of free to play. But free to play games arguably need robust populations more than subscription games, because the risk and the investment from the player is little or nothing, so it’s easy to leave. Word of mouth about ‘dead servers’ can sink a game. The percentage of paying players in most free to play games is so low that 10% is considered good. Keeping population numbers up is critical.
Measuring progress and success by power players, the ones with seemingly unlimited time and a desire to achieve quickly and interpreting that as the need to funnel budget to endgame content and quests may be overlooking players that won’t just be tourists or “content locusts”, but the spine of the community at large. Not just roleplayers, but the more social and exploration-oriented players too. It doesn’t have to be complex, either, because creating a game that lends itself to incidental roleplay is a head start.
Although the game met financial woes, several aspects made The Matrix Online ripe for roleplaying. There were three main factions after the fragile truce that Neo had brought about in the films. Players could not only enter many of the game’s buildings in some capacity, but they were also part of the storyline in several key ways. The game had a live events team that enabled GMs to enter the game as movie characters. Imagine, you’re finishing up a mission with your team, when suddenly the building elevator opens and Niobe is standing there before you, inviting you to a meeting. Perhaps there is a broadcast and several names are given out to each faction as targets. Those were the kinds of things that took place and really enriched the game. In-game live events team appearances continued for a while but that’s an expensive venture. Eventually, a player-run volunteer team came together, but by then population had dwindled.
Being that the game was sci-fi and you were playing characters that were “jacked in” humans into the virtual 1999 of the films, it was easier and more natural to some to roleplay in such a setting. Another game that also lent itself to incidental roleplay was City of Heroes. It’s really hard not to RP in some form when you’re playing superheroes and villains, zooming around the city, fighting thugs or cops, and fellow players just like in comic books and movies. The very sense of stepping into that world, and it was indeed a world, was carried by its theme. But the developers also supported this with hubs like Pocket D, a slew of emotes, and tons of costume pieces. You could be an evil tea-drinking villain telling your master plan to your nemesis, a schoolgirl who suddenly discovers her powers and fights crime, a cyborg mad scientist gone mad, or just about anything you wanted.
Familiar IPs are more likely to get the average player to feel part of the world, so that gives advantages to games like The Matrix Online, LOTRO, and Star Trek Online. But a game like City of Heroes presented a familiar slice of culture in letting people create their own superheroes and villains, which tapped into a fantasy for many of us.
Several of you mentioned The Secret World after part one of this column was published. I haven’t played it yet, but planned to give it a mention. I will explore the game sometime, but it’s clear that the modern setting shares something with The Matrix Online in that it makes players feel a certain familiarity. The legends and creatures present in the game also lend an opportunity to RP.
Looking toward the current crop of games, LOTRO, EVE Online, and Guild Wars 2 all sustain roleplayers and diverse communities. A mix of supporting active roleplay and incidental roleplay is important to the future of the genre, lest things become so streamlined that MMORPGs feel more like hamster wheels with a dangling carrot above than somewhere to go hang out with your friends and get things done together. For some, things already do feel that way, and developers might just be ignoring the ways in which providing lore and social infrastructure might lift their bottom line.
So, what about the future?
Although development is slow going, coming at a time of economic restructuring for the company, encouraging signs have emerged from CCP about World of Darkness. World of Darkness will have a ruleset base and feature systems of politics, intrigue, race relations, and also permadeath. From CCP’s plans, there will be weight and consequences upon players’ actions, and the system will reflect that. Although players will have several phases before their characters die permanently, the fact there are consequences, good and bad, make this ripe for solid roleplay. World of Darkness will also likely chase a niche audience as EVE did, but that’s okay. The game presents an opportunity for many to slip into a character with impact upon the world, and might even blunt the criticism that the MMORPG isn’t a good vehicle for roleplay in the first place.
WildStar aims to provide content for players with multiple interests and will even have features to cater to the roleplayers and explorers, as well as socially concentrated players. The world couldn’t be much different than World of Darkness, but the game looks to be supportive of play styles that aren’t simply achievement-oriented.
EQNext hasn’t seen a major reveal just yet, so it’s hard to talk about in any certain terms other than it’s in development, and John Smedley has made comments that seemed to lend a sandboxy direction to the game. But if the EQ legacy is well served in the next chapter, then the social features and support for the journey along the way might provide fertile ground. It might not quite feel like the old days, but there’s a lot of potential for SOE to create a world that feels like a place to live in again.
When it comes to today’s MMORPGs, there are often more choices, but sometimes we want to stop and stay for a while. Keep the fireplace lit for us, devs.