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Indie MMO Conference - MMOXPGs

Last weekend, MMORPG.com's Laura Genender attended the 2008 Indie MMO Developer's Conference. While there, she attended a round table discussion on the impact of players not spending time gaining “experience points” at the expense of experiencing the content

This past weekend, I ventured out of my cozy little Austin, Texas to brave the harsh north winters (ok, 38 degrees) of Minneapolis, Minnesota. There is little that could bring me so wretchedly far north this time of year, but for the Indie MMO Game Developer’s Conference I was willing to make an exception…while small, this conference packs a huge punch of creative minds and innovative souls. What better grounds to prowl for interesting MMO stories?

The smaller conference allowed not only for panels of discussion but for roundtables, where a group of 30 or so developers, designers, artists, composers, and more could gather around a table and discuss one topic of interest to the gaming industry. My first such round table “RP vs. XP” was moderated by Craig Hubert, a long time roleplayer and blogger.

Like many of the industry’s standard geeks, my interest in MMORPGs started with the “RPG”; after a year or two of text-based RPGs I found my way to the website of my first graphical MMORPG. It was this that prompted me to make my first monthly subscription purchase, it was this that started an addiction to expansions and a love of online worlds. I started my MMORPG career as a diehard, cheesy roleplayer.

At some point, though – some point early on in my MMO career – I had the shocking revelation that no one else around me was roleplaying, let alone using three letters to spell the word “you” anymore. I realized that, to my gaming companions, our stats and attack speed mattered more than the fact that these boots had socks and these just showed my bare, shapely knight calves. And like a lemming over a cliff I started to give up the challenge of communicating “I crashed” with an IC attitude – I adopted the standard point of view that we were here in Aden or Norrath or Hyboria to gain XP and beat each other up, not to carry out some big epic fantasy book plotline.

For me, this discussion was right at home: as much as I love and cherish the MMORPG, it’s no longer an MMORPG for me or the majority of players – it’s an MMOXPG, where we spend our time gaining “experience points” instead of experiencing the content.

So lets take a look at our roots. The roundtable discussion started by defining: what is RP, anyway? RP is: Having a character concept in mind and playing it out. Character or story-driven gameplay. Maintaining a persona that is not your own. Becoming part of a world and having an effect on it. Interactive storytelling. NOT Old English. Ideas sprouted up all around the table from game industry professionals.

Our conversation steered, slowly, to how the concept of RP handled itself within the constraints of a game world. In D&D, roleplayers find a handcrafted world and experience that only a good DM and a small group of people can create. One attendee cited Raph Koster’s law of RP: the quality of roleplay is inverse to the number of players.

Even in the early days of MMORPGs, when users were expected to roleplay, some attendees feel that our technical limitations fall short. How can you roleplay when you are assigned a predetermined character archtype? How can you claim a personal agenda when you, a Paladin, are slaying wolves next to (or even in party with!) a necromancer?

There are also inexplicable but vital aspects to the MMOs we play: for example, how does one make a different or impact on a world when killing a wolf only respawns it 5 to 7 minutes later?

A smaller camp of gamers – myself included – felt that this technical limitation, while constraining, does not make RP impossible. As a Paladin, I might kill wolves because they are harming the villagers; as a necromancer I might kill wolves to fuel my blood spells. Intent is at issue, and that’s what the player has to bring to the table, not the character. And while many game mechanics force us into ambiguous situations where our alignments and intents are not apparent or do not matter, some mechanics encourage class appropriate behavior. Paladins in Vanguard, for example, earn Virtue points by saving dying teammates – this forces paladin players to assume the role of a good, selfless knight.

But if you’re forced to do an action that you, as the player, would not assign to your character – whether due to game mechanics, or to receive a reward or advantage – is that really roleplaying?

For Hubert, the above is certainly not the case. As soon as control is taken out of a player’s hands, that removes a level of immersion and personal responsibility. An example Hubert gave was in non-MMO StarCraft, when Kerrigan was kidnapped. Huburt replayed this map over and over, trying desperately to prevent the kidnapping, but the gameplay mechanics required that happen before he could move on.

I had a similar experience in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion; a quest forced me to drink a magical potion, and I was transported to a familiar looking human city filled with goblins. I knew, deep in my heart, that I shouldn’t kill the goblins. I waited for half an hour for the potion to wear off and transport me back, but I physically could not continue the game until I slaughtered each and every one.

For Hubert, the disappearance of Kerrigan removed him from the pilot’s seat; while he still enjoyed the game, it was no longer his experience. Myself, I had a very different reaction: my character sort of “snapped” and went on to kill every living being she could, taking pleasure in their deaths. While the forceful hand of game mechanics pulled Hubert out of character and even soured my experience, it pulled me so deeply into character that I had an uncontrolled moment of character development. Huh!

Then there is the topic of metagame roleplaying – one of our definitions of roleplaying states that RP is “maintaining a persona that is not your own.” In any game you visit, there are players who have “secret” level one characters to grief, beg, and scam. Are these players roleplaying by assuming these evil personalities?

Combo all these hardships with the naturally competitive nature of humans, which drives us to level and progress until we’ve got the best character possible, and the RP of MMORPGs faces impossible odds of success. And yet, one optimistic speaker pointed out, we still see smaller groups forming in the larger communities of MMOs to pursue roleplay and exploration of the world. Whether truly artistic interactive storytellers or kids living the wonder of long-loved fantasy books, there is some drive in our nature to pursue the persona of another – and that’s what puts the RP in the MMORPG.


Laura Genender