Hunt, kill, level and repeat. This pretty much sums up the action to be found in any MMORPG on the market today. The world, creatures, graphics and objectives may vary, but each game requires its players to consistently level in order to progress in the game. Whether you need bigger spells, more fighting ability or a chance to be useful in PvP/RvR action, if you don’t level you won’t get what you need.
But after several days of your life sifting away through the hourglass as you mindlessly hunt the same things over and over again, either alone or with a group, one begins to question the point of all this leveling. The rewards quickly fade compared with the needed effort. The “gee-whiz” factor of a new game wears off when faced with a two-week (real-life time) binge of constant hunting in order to gain your next level.
And that’s when the harsh reality sets in: there is no RP in this MMORPG. The term “Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter” would be more accurate, except that they toss in just enough old-school role-playing reminders to make the gamer think that what they’re playing is somehow related to a RPG. However any role-player will tell you that the ability to modify skills and abilities, the opportunity to choose a different face and hair color, or the chance to play an Elf do not a RPG make.
There is not a single MMORPG on the market today that actually allows for Role Playing in the traditional, pen and paper sense (which is where the gaming concept originated). Game mechanics relegate role-playing to an ancillary role that can only be enjoyed in the brief moments of rest from the leveling treadmill.
The Past and Present:
Before the earliest computer and console RPG game sims, there was a game known as Dungeons and Dragons. This is the grandfather of all pen and paper RPGs that exist today, the origin of the species. In Gygax we trust, and so forth. Geeks, nerds and losers (praise be to us) from all over congregated in small groups to play a game based almost entirely on paper which took shape in their imaginations. You had control over every aspect of your character and you could, in turn, create a character to reflect any personality you chose. It was escapism at its geeky best.
The market grew and expanded as other companies and other storylines got brought into the RPG fold. It wasn’t long before the games were modified and adapted for play on the personal computer and the console gaming system. Unfortunately, computer/console games of the time were single-player affairs. Many games addressed this difference by allowing the single player to control a party of different characters, but the fact remained that the player was no longer in a social setting, instead isolated in his gaming experience. The closest thing to social, imaginative RPG games were found in MUDs, text-based online RPGs similar to old games like Zork, but populated by other gamers over a network. But these were mainly an underground sensation not accessible to the general public.
Fast-forward a few years when the Ultima line of computer RPG games launched Ultima Online – the very first graphical, multiplayer online role-playing game that earned the title Massively Multiplayer. A whole new genre was born and soon thousands of players from all over the world were flocking to Ultima Online servers to pay and to play. The market soon grew to include such popular games as Everquest, Asheron’s Call and Dark Age of Camelot.
But were any of these hugely popular games actually fulfilling the RPG in their title? It’s my opinion that not a single one of these MMORPGs has been able to provide anything remotely approaching the concept of role-playing. Even when developers attempt to set up areas geared towards “role-playing” (as with Dark Age of Camelot’s three, dedicated RPG servers), the only kind of role-playing you’ll encounter is people chatting using flowery speech infused with thee’s and thou’s.
So what’s the problem, smart guy?
The crux of the problem is that the player no longer has any control over the story. In traditional pen and paper RPGs, the Game Master or Dungeon Master was a thinking person who could take a player’s quirks and foibles and have them affect the world in which the game took place. In the world of the MMORPG, developers have a static world with static creatures and dungeons, which they attempt to flesh out with back-stories, none of which can really be affected by the player character.
You could tell other players that your Ranger is a sullen but essentially kind man in his late 30’s who has been disillusioned with society after living through a particularly rough war ten years past. If you played a pen and paper RPG, your GM/DM could then work in angles to his ongoing story that would force your character back into society or make him confront his former war enemies in a new light, but in an MMORPG this back-story has no impact on anything game-related.
In effect, an MMORPG is nothing but a goal-driven game that features several hundred to a couple of thousand people all pursing the same goal at the same time. That goal is to get as powerful as possible, as quickly as possible. Stories, creatures, other players are nothing but means to an end.
Any solutions, whiny guy?
So what can developers do in order to bring some role-playing to their games? The general response seems to be: “add more content”. Content varies between developers, however. Usually it involves adding another static dungeon for players to explore, writing another chapter of their ongoing, but static, storyline and adding new creatures for players to hunt. The problem is that none of the additions really add up to increasing the role-playing experience.
What’s lacking? In my opinion there can be no role-playing without interaction, and no game currently allows players to really affect the game world by their actions or role-playing. In fact, nothing that your character does has any real impact on the game world. Creatures respawn, dungeons repopulate, quests regenerate – nothing you do has any permanent effect on the game world. Perhaps this is why so many people value being the “first” to hit a level, get a rare item or kill a new creature – it’s something to point to as an accomplishment.
The only way to really allow RPG in the world of the MMORPG is to bring Game Masters and Dungeon Masters back into the mix.
Bioware, the folks who brought you Baldur’s Gate, are returning with their first attempt at a truly unique MMORPG: Neverwinter Nights. A fully authentic Dungeons and Dragons-based game (they have a licensing deal for all their games) set on the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms, this game seeks to bring the DM back into the game.
The game comes with pre-built modules and existing storylines that players can take part in, but this is not the revolutionary part of the game. That comes with the games design: an actual attempt to bring the players into the development of the storyline.
Using scripting tools and pre-built toolkits, players will have the ability to create their own game areas with their own creatures, quests and treasure. Then, acting as the Dungeon Master, they can control the game environment, take control of NPCs and modify the game mid-flight to keep players on their toes and react to player’s decisions.
The more servers that people set up, the more game environments (similar to pen and paper modules) can be created and played. Organized groups have sprung up all over in preparation for this game with plans for servers, games and ongoing storylines. It’s the closest thing to pen and paper RPGs that I’ve seen come out.
Will it work? Only one way to tell: play it and see. It’s not going to be easy (the tools themselves may be daunting to gamers without a grounding in some sort of coding logic, but they will become more user friendly as people continue to streamline the kits), but finally we can see, on the horizon, the beginning of role-playing in the world of the MMORPG.
So for this gamer who has tired of the leveling treadmill and can find only moderate amusement in the continuing rush to add new “content”, the future now appears brighter by far. With any luck (and with some effort) real role-playing may actually be available online.
For I have a vision I’d like to see fulfilled: I’d like to see my old buddy and Dungeon Master who moved so far away pick up his design hand again and begin to create a new world. I’d like my old circle of friends with whom I still stay in contact, but from whom I am removed by time and space, come together again (albeit virtually) and put our minds to the task of hacking, slashing out thinking our way through another game session. And I’d love to see this all take place online when we could all meet more than once or twice a year.
That’s the future I’d like to see for MMORPGs – that’s the future that allows for role-playing.
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