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Where is the RPG in the MMO?

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Where’s the RPG in MMORPG?

Editorial by Cari Davidson

If you are reading this article, you’re probably familiar with the term MMORPG. The MMO part,” Massively Multiplayer Online” was coined somewhere to describe games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Eve-Online, and City of Heroes. At any given time, there could be hundreds, or even thousands, of players online simultaneously. I suppose that’s what makes the multiplayer part “massive”. I can accept that. Then there’s the RPG – Role Playing Game – part of the acronym. When I think of an RPG, I think of Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeon Master always tells a story and brings the character on an adventure, the kind of adventure that inspires poetry, and somehow they involve YOU and make you feel as though you have just personally saved kingdoms and planets alike! When was the last time you remember an MMORPG making you feel like that? Is there something about it being multiplayer that detracts from the story?

By focusing on creating an entertaining story with good character development, computer-based RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Wing Commander (…am I dating myself here?), Ultima, and Morrowind managed to keep me out of the sun for weeks at a time. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, where you are the hero… or perhaps the villain, but in either case, the story is told, and in the end, it is about you. You grow, gain experience and power, and maybe even find a love interest along the way. Finally, you confront your greatest challenge and emerge victorious! …And they lived happily ever after.

This, of course, is ideal. The reality is that most MMORPGs have little to no story, and are really just glorified chat rooms. There’s entirely too much grinding. Most MMORPGs are just Progress Quest. Kill blue-con mobs until you level. Then go find another group of blue-con mobs and kill those. Rinse. Repeat until you hit max level. That’s a game?

Only slightly less annoying is the quest-grind. “Go kill 99 rats”, or perhaps “Go find 10 rat tails”, which of course requires you to kill roughly 100 rats at the 10% drop rate to accomplish. It’s still a grind for the sole purpose of gaining experience, and therefore power, but it does nothing to tell a story – especially the way most games provide icons and waypoints, making it unnecessary to actually read the quests. You know you don’t read those quests in World of Warcraft. You click the NPC, get the quest, and just look at what you have to do. “Ahh! Kill 20 Raptors!”

How is it possible that a single-player game, with no monthly fee, can be richer than a game that costs the same amount to purchase, and then charges an additional $15 per month? The only real difference between the two games is the amount of interaction with other players. So it’s assumed that there is no story to tell when there is player interaction? This might be true in First-person shooters or real-time strategy games, but in an online role-playing game, player interaction must blend well with role-playing, character development, and storytelling. It can be done. It’s really not that hard.

We need to tell an entertaining story. Bring in some screenwriters and write a movie. The characters will need to be animated for our game, but with effective use of cut scenes, motion-capture technology, and voice acting, stories can easily be told in 3D graphics (Need I mention Pixar / Disney?)

In creating this great story, make sure to go beyond the scope of the story and create the background environment and characters. Every good storyteller knows that a story will be riddled with holes if it’s not complete – even going beyond the scope of this particular tale. Do you think that the Lord of the Rings trilogy would have been any good if J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t defined Middle-Earth in exquisite detail? The only difference in a game is that we need to create each character, monster, and NPC using 3D graphics and AI logic. This is no simple task, but it’s been getting done in CRPGs for years, and it can be done in MMORPGs as well.

The biggest difference from reading about Frodo’s adventures and a video game is making these your adventures. This isn’t even about you playing the part of Frodo. This is about an extension of yourself battling your way through Mordor to defeat Sauron. Maybe you would do things differently. Perhaps you would join up with the dark lord, or even overthrow him to enforce your own rule.

It’s not difficult to give players a choice as to what their traits are and then tell a story with this character as the protagonist. Letting players choose their race, gender, appearance, and even skills dates all the way back to D&D, and every nerd with a TRS-80 was able to write a program in the 80’s that created a decent character.

Making a good RPG is hard enough, but telling a story in a world populated by thousands of players is a big challenge: a challenge that’s not been met. Player interaction is very difficult to control. Some players want to play cooperatively and others want to kill each other. Some players bounce around saying they are “1337” and others say “thee” and “aye”. How can the environment be controlled enough in a multiplayer game to provide a rich role-playing experience while still allowing people to play with one another online?

Quests can be instanced to keep the story moving. Characters can have voice acting to give them depth. Rules of speech can be strictly enforced. There can be interesting cinematic pieces to enhance the storytelling element of the adventure. Players can even be incorporated into the story as foot-solders of a greater good/evil, and therefore add to the depth and the story while providing fun endgame PVP playability. A true MMO-RPG can be created, and I’m still waiting for it.

- Cari Davidson

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