Thursday, February 04, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be...

Since I can't get in game due to increasing real life pressure from preparations of the third member of the carebear brigade (March 8th!), I'll avoid saying much about the renewed -A- offensive other than I was surprised at first they opted to attack 9UY, but in hindsight I can see some very possible logic from the strategy.

There are times I really really regret not being involved at higher levels for corp and alliance planning. Some of the best moments during my Warhammer 40K hooby days were marshaling battle plans for my side at megabattles, culminating in the epic beatdown my Chaos side delivered to the Imperials in a massive megabattle back in June '07. I would love to be formulating strategies for the alliance warfare but I lack the time to give to such a commitment and I leave it in the hands of others.

But that is not the focus of this post. This post is a rambling thought regurgitation on that central concept that is often ignored in moderns MMOs: Roleplay.

In the Beginning... 

Pencil and paper role play games (rpgs) were built to allow you to actually play the role of a character in a fantastical setting. You were a character over a series of adventures with a static group. The characters progressed, improved, and the challenges scaled accordingly. I'm sure you all know this but its always good to set an agreed starting point in any conversation.

Anyways, you can see the basis for many common "themepark" MMOs in that basic premise. Somethings are vastly different though. For one thing, the "static group" is now an exception rather than the rule because the online games brought large numbers of people together making it easier for "pick up groups" to form as opposed to having to wait for all members of the static group to be available at the same time. The pick up grouping eventually developed into large entities typically called guilds but with varying names based on the game you choose (i.e. corporations in Eve). Some games, like Eve, have even larger groupings of players emulating an actual society as it grows. But that's another post for another day.

Another thing that has changed a lot from the pencil and paper days, and that is the concept of roleplaying. And thus we come to the focus of this post.


Two things happened recently to make me think on this subject more. For one thing, my best friend Andrew has been playing Dragon Age: Origins and posting about his adventures in that game. And for a second thing, my corporation joined Paxton Federation in Providence which means we are a close ally of the Curatores Vertatis Alliance (CVA), the Amarr role playing alliance in Eve. Listening to Andrew describes how he makes choices for his character in the game (i.e. Fiona would say this and choose this) and how the CVA pilots choose to role play in Eve makes me realize that in this day and age these are often the last things players do in a game, exceptions rather than rules.

All too often in games players make choices based on what is perceived to be the winning move; how to get the best ally in Dragon Age; or how to fight a war against an enemy in Eve. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Andrew and CVA are weirdos or lolRPGers but just that most commonly people don't make decisions based on the character's preferences, but on their own.

I don't role play in Eve. When I'm in game, I'm using Kirith Kodachi the character but it's me, Bill, talking and making decisions, and choosing to shoot that ship. That's not to say I don't think about what my character might think and feel if I was actually roleplaying him, and my "Fiction Friday" series is evidence of that. Its just that I prefer to not add that extra level of complexity to my game when I'm in game. I have been tempted in the past, back before I found m3 Corp, to join a role play alliance and let my right brain have some free rein (I even tried to apply to Ushra'Khan at one point but I was turned down, don't remember the details, was a long time ago) but it was never a driving need for me.

(Although, I have to admit that right now, the fiction I have for Kirith in which he is disillusioned with the Caldari State ideals and hates slavery, does not jibe with being in an alliance allied with CVA. It was hard enough living in Amarr space! I am trying to mentally reconcile that still. Someday I will return to my adopted homeland in Molden Heath! ... OMG, I'm roleplaying!)

So the question is, why has role playing become an oddity in these "Role Playing games"? I believe there are a number of reasons.

1) The introduction of single player RPGs.

The Dungeons and Dragons "gold box series" set the tone for many copycats for years after, and in that game it took a traditional static group role playing game and turned it into a single player experience with the game acting as Dungeon Master and the player as all characters in the party (typically six). The result was that there is no other role players to feed off of and by inspired by, and as you are playing 6 characters its harder to "get into character" as it were. The divorce of the character and the player is important as it turns the player into a gamer as opposed to role player. Also, game itself, i.e. the Dungeon Master, is a fixed obstacle without any built in human judgment to make the game enjoyable for a player who is struggling. This means that the game rewards optimal decision making rather than character decision making whereas in a pencil and paper game the person acting as the Dungeon Master can more easily change parameters to scale the adventure and reward in-character decisions and acting.

2) The introduction of strangers.

As RPGs moved into the online world and brought about the idea of Massively Multiplayer Online games, the other people make it harder to roleplay. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to start talking to greet a player you do not know with "Forsooth good mage, I am Lord Lucas Draknoght, knight in the Order of the Obsidian Tempest!" rather than "hi there, how's it going?". In a group where you know everyone well and everyone else is also roleplaying, its ok. In a public sphere, its a different matter.

3) The introduction of casual players.

In order to boost sales and number of subscriptions, role playing games strive to appeal to people who may not have ever played a role playing game before and don't want to. They just want to play a game, Peggle , WoW, Batman, whatever. Thus fewer players in the population role play and fewer people are encouraged to do so.

4) Alts and level caps and progression ramps, OH MY

Since many games have a strict character roles (i.e. DPS, Tank, Healer) and level caps such that a character stops progressing when they reach a level cap (admittedly there are others ways to progress but the main method is fixed). Couple that with lower and lower progression ramps and you have players often playing many different characters (i.e. alts) in order to try different roles and continue to progress, thus further divorcing player from character.

5) Emergence

My last, and most controversial point I suspect, is that as games develop further into communities working towards common goals there is no need to roleplay. I don't have to roleplay a character fighting a war with thousands of allies against thousands of enemies in a battle to control resources and living space because I AM fighting a war with thousands of allies against thousands of enemies in a battle to control resources and living space. Eve is interesting in the same way a sport is interesting to participate in; you have competition, camaraderie, glorious victory, ignominious defeat, and at the end of the day everyone goes home to have a beer and go to bed.

To Be Or Not To Be...

So there you have it. My rambling post on role playing in todays "role play" games. I'd love to hear comments on what others have to think and say.


  1. I always found roleplay to be hard to do due to a degree of self conciousness. I do however have a strong imagination and enjoy getting caught up in the fanstasy of Eve.

    I made up back stories for my main two characters though the alts to an extent are left in the dark as shadowy fleshless avatars.

    To play as a pure RP is incredibly hard as RL will intrude where it must, jumping up to grab the mouse from the cats mouth or going AFK for more Tea means a break from immersion.

    I play the game more for the interaction with the people than the game itself. Max's absence due to computer problems got me more than a little depressed as logging in without him seemed a little strange.

    Eve is entertainment and friendship to me and roleplay second. /me puts his cloak and wizard hat away :)

  2. I've thought a lot about this very topic: how RPGs are actually making it difficult for players to actually role play these days.

    In my years in WoW (get over it), it was a much different game/world in my head that the actual gameplay showed me. I was the leader of a moderate roleplaying guild for 2 years (unlike EVE, that's ancient in wow terms), and though the roleplaying aspects are still my fondest memories of gameplay—it made the game so much more epic than it actually was, and made me more invested—it always felt like we were playing against the grain by the nature of the game mechanics. All the damn achievements, quirky pvp/pve mechanics, limits and regulations always took us right out of immersion. It's like WoW, and plenty of other games like it, strive to remind you that it is just a game.

    This is why EVE appealed to me in the first place. It seems like there are really no mechanics that take the player out of immersion, because it can all be backed up by the lore. And CCP obviously had no interest in limiting players experiences by making you click a button to become a pirate or trader. You just become the role by living it. Awesome.

    But i think that's also why EVE players maybe don't feel the need to roleplay... is because they don't have to "pretend" they're being a pirate. They just are a pirate. I don't have to pretend I'm a rookie pvp pilot that's struggling to find his calling in fights…I really am that noob. And if I wanted to roleplay that I was something otherwise, that would be going against the grain.

    But an EVE with more in-character action would be a good place. I still have hopes Incarna will do a lot to help us with that more lore-driven immersion.

  3. Anonymous3:30 pm

    EVE misses the character involvement Incarna will bring, getting in-character is harder when you just have a solid piece of steel with a static images as your "character".

    Though I haven't really did any RP yet I'm getting more and more interested in it, however MMOs tend to be way too limited for it.

  4. I've played a lot of morgs and I would say that Eve manages to create the most RP friendly system for exactly the reasons mentioned. Your style of play becomes your "role". When you interact with other pilots you can ham it up a bit if you like. Eve has copious forums for posting your character views. I know I prefer to read posts by players who try to keep the meta-gaming to a minimum.

  5. I think Roleplay has suffered tremendously because of graphics based MMO's. Text based MUDs were so much easier to roleplay in, because there was nothing to see, you were forced to visualise, and that opened up the roleplay. Graphical games paradoxically reduce the visualisation required by the player, and I think that's a hindrance to getting into character.

    I'm not saying we should go back to text... I'm just saying that there IS an impact on roleplay.

    I'm also wondering if FPS games - where there really is no incentive to roleplay - have had an effect on people coming to MMOs?

  6. I agree with your remarks about emergence, but I think it adds to RP rather than, for me, reducing the need for it. When I was involved in faction war, for example, my character *was* flying in large fleets of fellow-minded militia trying to liberate systems from the Amarr. As you said, I didn't have to pretend that what I was doing had a wider meaning.

    However, my character's reasons and reactions were different (sometimes subtlety, sometimes widely) to my own. I lose a cruiser, and my reaction as a player is 'meh, I have six more fitted at the station' but for Ciarente, that ship had crew on it and *isn't* disposable. Likewise, when an opponent's ship pops, I'm pleased, and while she also feels the thrill of victory, for her it's tempered by the knowledge that again, there were crew on that ship.

    I also make decisions about what I do IG based on what my character would do, even if they aren't always the 'best' option. Sometimes (doing something that supports my corporation) I have IC and OOC motivations for 'inefficient gameplay'. Sometimes I have no OOC motivations at all, but I do it because 'it's what Cia would do.' (including getting involved in FW, incidentally, because orbiting buttons for 20 mins at a time? Meh.)

    I'm in a RP corp and a RP alliance. I can honestly say that without the RP, I wouldn't keep playing EvE. Partly it's the fun of collaboratively creating stories with other players, and partly it's the added challenge of overcoming obstacles that my character, or other people's characters, create.

  7. A very thought provoking post. One thought I'd like to add is that role playing seems to be a specialized type of play that a smaller number of people participate in when compared to other organized games. Perhaps more of interest to those with an acting bent, or a more active, dynamic imagination. I never played a pencil and paper role play game because I just couldn't see being able to immerse myself into the role for the length of time most game sessions seemed to take. I knew people who played D&D games and enjoyed it, but they were smaller fairly static groups of dedicated players. They'd welcome new players, generally, but there never seemed to be the broader interest. More people seemed inclined to play social games/sports that didn't involve an acting component too.

    EVE seems to reflect this too. Players organize into corporations and alliances to form social "teams" of players more than to organize their characters into integrated groups based on the back story of the races. Some players do organize and role-play based on EVE racial interests, but these are smaller numbers, like the smaller numbers that used to play the pencil and paper D&D games.

    And EVE doesn't really encourage you to follow a character's racial interests. Since any character can train any skills, and the starting skill set of a new character doesn't give you much of a head start in any direction, there is no enticement from the game to pick a character with a view to an on-going role consistent with the back story races. You can do it, but the game doesn't give you any reward for doing so.

    I like the idea of playing a Minmatar character, and to take on a other players in game that would be traditional Minmatar opponents appeals to me, but I don't think I could live in the role the way the role-playing corps seem to. Let's go have a battle with the Amarr enemy, but once it's over I think I'd not want to try to maintain the act in channels or vent etc. Seems like too much work to be always thinking what the character should do or say. Like I said earlier, it seems more suitable to those who are natural at acting and have a free flowing imagination.

    So I guess the TL;DR summary of the above is that role playing is a specialized type of play that interests smaller numbers of players, hence the smaller numbers playing that way in MMOs.

    [posted via my google account because OpenId through my blog isn't working for comments to blogger sites atm.
    Luccul -]

  8. Anonymous6:27 pm

    @Sorrowsbane: Though visualizing might get you a different view then the creator of the character had intended.

    Graphical avatars aren't a bad thing as long as you have sufficient customization options to get the character to look the way you want.

  9. To me, the fundamental goal of a game designer building a RPG should be to cause the 'emergent roleplay' you discuss to happen on it's own.

    I personally dislike 'RP' roleplaying - all imagination based. Props to those who enjoy it, but I personally am nor interested in playing an imaginary character in that way.

    Thus, my characters always are, at their core, me. However, I WANT to feel immersed in the game. I don't want everything abstracted, I want the decisions I make in a game to work both on personal and character terms. It's a huge challenge for MMO's, though it's becoming more practical in more modern single player games.

  10. I have fond memories of the pen-and-paper roleplaying games I played during my school years. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Cyberpunk was the common ground that brought me together with many of my friends back in the late eighties, and it's some of those same friends that I'm in an EVE corporation with today, over two decades later.

    One of the things that we learned during that transition from sitting in the same room with familiar faces to digitally generated online worlds, is that MMORPGS are not really roleplaying games. At least not in the same sense. They may use the same IP and some of the same mechanics but it just doesn't recreate that intimate, personal environment of creativity and comedy that the old pen-and-paper games did.

    I know that was basically a "it weren't like that in my day" statement, but please don't misunderstand me. We really wanted online games to provide us with the same environment and spent frustrating years trying to make it happen as a 'replacement service' once we'd all grown up and moved to different towns. Eventually we came to realise that they weren't the same kind of entertainment, in the same way that a film adaption isn't the same as the original book. Bigger, flashier, but ultimately shallower and less interactive.

    So we've adapted. We sometimes indulge in a bit of in-character stuff in game (it was one of the things that attracted us to living in CVA territory), but it's secondary to game events and the win scenario will always be chosen over the roleplay. Every once in a while we talk about getting together and picking up a d20 again, but it's unlikely to happen.

  11. Personally, I find that the difficulty in roleplaying in Eve Online stems not so much from the visual aspects of the game, which are really neutral to the roleplay mechanics, but from the depth and intricacies of the game. In Eve, there is always something more you can be doing, and the depth of the game requires you to devote a lot of thought to most of your actions (aside from mining or gateganking with smartbombs).

    I'm a veteran roleplayer, and would love nothing more than to have a game which actually allows some limited roleplay (like the UO series did), but it isn't to be found on Eve. The game is cathartic, and the amount of thought required does draw me to it, but it takes a lot of effort to roleplay in the game.