Role Playing for the Masses
by Heather Logas
An interesting comment was made to my previous article about Character Advancement. To greatly paraphrase, the poster suggested that the schemes I was suggesting for alternative ways to advance characters were not (in essence) financially viable for a large-scale MMORPG.
My first reaction was the defensive bristling thought: “Well, I never said these ideas were financially viable. And who cares about money anyway?”
Then I relaxed and thought about it a little bit. And I was struck with the thought: “Well, why couldn’t they be?”
I wondered how many players were in my former LARPing organization, world-wide. And how many in the even bigger, company sponsored LARP organization that literally spans the globe. I wondered how many people buy role playing books that they will never play, because a group to play with is in some way unavailable to them. I wondered how many gamers moved far away from their gaming group, and missed their weekly sessions.
Are these people a viable market? The answer is obviously no, not on their own. They may comprise a huge number of individuals, but the real trick to keeping the whole thing going is to keep bringing in new people. Fresh blood. Which means opening the doors to the masses.
Anyone who has ever tried to role play in Everquest probably has plenty to say about the masses. The problem with MMORPGs from a role-playing perspective is that they are filled with people who know nothing about role-playing games. There is no role-playing culture in these games, and the game mechanics do nothing to support role-playing. The players have never been in a situation where it was necessary to learn.
Does this mean that there aren’t plenty of untried players out there who wouldn’t enjoy role-playing? Or that players in current games who had gotten tastes of it here and there weren’t intrigued?
I had an awkward interaction with another player on Star Wars Galaxies one time. A little bit afterward, he sent me an in-game email telling me that he was sorry he didn’t role-play very well, he really enjoyed my role-playing and really wanted to learn more about it. Is this an isolated incident? Or are there other players who have only been slightly exposed to role-playing here and there and thought it was kinda neat?
So the big question is this: how do you create and support a role-playing culture in a game aimed at the mass MMORPG market? Let’s pretend for a few moments that the answer is something other than “forget it, it’ll never happen.”
As in the design of anything, you first need to consider who your audience is. In this case, we are targeting beginning to intermediate role-players, with the hard core role-player as probably a secondary market. I picture a sample player to be a convert from some other MMORPG who either came over to us because she has read about role-playing somewhere, experienced brief bits of it in the other game, or whose more role-playing savvy friends have migrated to us first. She is probably nervous and unsure what to do. We don’t want to throw her to the lions or make her read some ridiculously long introduction that explains what role-playing is and how it works (the “What is an RPG” chapter at the beginning of every role-playing book). We want her to feel comfortable and ease her into the whole thing.
Everything should be role-playing centric. The manual she is paging through while the game loads discusses things in terms of role-playing and has stories set in the world to read and maps to look at. The in-game tutorial shows her how to switch between OOC and IC chat modes, and explains what each one is for. It also introduces her into the background and fiction of the game world. The game itself gives her lots of opportunities to gradually evolve almost any kind of character she likes, and there are a variety of activities available which don’t at some point lead back to killing things.
The question of how to incorporate role playing into MMORPGs is why I am walking down the road I am on already. It is the core of what every article in this column is about. Is it possible to make an actual MMO that really has an RPG component? Is there anyway it would ever sell? It’s hard to say of course. I believe there is a market for role-playing. It may just be that a large part of the market doesn’t yet realize it’s what they want.