The RPG for the MMO

Dig through enough of my posts here and you’ll find a few about managing expectations.  It is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental elements of success that most people simply ignore, usually while their marketing team is lying to them.  You have to ensure your audience is approaching your product expecting the product you are actually delivering.  In order words: avoid misleading or overselling.

The people at BioWare are poised to bring us a new MMORPG at some point… probably 2012.  Which means we will all get to play it for a couple months before the world ends.  Or maybe Star Wars: The Old Republic is the apocalypse that destroys the World (of Warcraft) prophesied by the Mayans.  That’s all speculation, and I’ll never call any game a WoW-killer, but BioWare, or at least some people from there, has no problem going around talking about how awesome their game is going to be.

Last week, we got this:

BioWare designer and writing director Daniel Erickson told CVG that the Mass Effect studio had been disappointed by the “lack of fun” in other MMO titles on the market.

He said: “In the early days when they first announced that there were MMOs, like the existence of them, I knew in my head what that meant – because I played Role Playing Games. It was just giant Role Playing Games.

“And then MMO [games] showed up, and it wasn’t that. It was the ruleset to an RPG: There was combat, and there were areas, but that was all. Someone had left out the module. There was no story, there was no point. You just kind of wandered around. And that hasn’t really changed all that much over the years.

“We’ve always had that thought in the back of our heads: That Old Republic should be all the things we thought an MMO would be in the first place – which is all the parts of an RPG. Which means – and this is the most radical idea – it should just be fun. Like, just fun to play. You shouldn’t be trying to ignore all of the content to get to the end as fast as possible.”

And there was much responding and on-topic posting: Tobold, Zubon, Darren, Jaye, Tuebit, Syncane, and more.

To me, the thing to watch here is the lead.  BioWare is out there telling everyone that their game is going to be totally story driven, non-grind based and essentially the complete opposite of the bulk of the content that exists in most games.  Will they be able to deliver?  Will people want it if they do?

Personally, I’m both excited and wary of what they have to say.  I want more story, I want things to matter… but I don’t want to be isolated from the world in a directed story, I don’t want to play a single player game with multi-player features tossed in (and especially not for a monthly fee).  At this point, BioWare has shown me some things and they’ve told me some things, but I haven’t actually seen the game unfiltered through marketing yet.  They haven’t yet shown me the answer to “How does it feel to play?”

I’m keeping my eye on them, but I’m tempted to just ignore them until they get much much closer to release.

Role Playing requires a Death Penalty

For me, a “role playing” game, despite being short hand for a genre of games, has always meant a game where you, the player, get involved, care for the character and can influence the outcome.  One of the largest aspects of role playing is the danger of losing.  In MMOs this is often referred to as the “death penalty”.

Gordon wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, and Darren a few days ago.  I’ve written about it too.  And if you search around the Internet on the gaming blogs you’ll probably find hundreds of posts.

In my experience the best role playing games have at least a modest death penalty.  More than just a few coins spent on repairs, or being set back a few seconds, but real almost tangible loss that you want to avoid.

My first real role playing game was, of course, Dungeons & Dragons.  Because the game is so unstructured, being just a set of rules which your gaming is built upon, I’ve found that lots of people have lots of different experiences.  If your Dungeon Master never actually reduced your player’s constitution when he got resurrected, then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  If you never had a character die (and I mean really die, as in you might as well tear up the character sheet because that guy is not coming back, ever), then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  If your character went from 1 to Demi-god without ever being in danger of being permanently hurt or sent to the circular file, then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  That’s just me, but if you played without penalties, I don’t know if I would consider what you were doing to be role playing.  You were just gaming.  You were rolling dice while the DM told you a story.

Playing EverQuest, you put together a group (or joined someone else’s) and you went somewhere to complete a goal or just grind out some experience.  If you died, you had to watch the exp bar retreat, possibly hours worth of advancement vanishing along with the pixels.  You could recover the majority of that loss with a resurrection from a cleric (or later, other classes), but a bit of it was gone.  Just gone.  So, because of that reality, if you invited a player into your group who wouldn’t stop drawing aggro or sucked as a healer or in any number of ways exposed your group to death and loss, you kicked them out.  And because of that reality, combined with that fact that most classes benefited greatly from being in groups, people tended not to be aggro drawing crappy healing death magnets for very long.

Many people will tell you that EQ didn’t have any role playing because people talked out of character or min/maxed numbers or whatever, but to me it will always be a role playing game because your character mattered.  Your reputation, your wins and losses, it all effected how you were able to play the game.  Within the confines of the defined computer controlled rules of gaming, you had to play a role in order to play the game.  I remember a number of weeks I spent in Karnor’s Castle in EQ and there was this bard shouting for a group, and most of us who’d been around wouldn’t group with him.  Every time he’d get into a group, he’d go AFK a lot.  Sure, he’d leave on mana song or something, but he wasn’t doing crowd control, and his songs often pulled aggro off the tank on the pull, and when running was needed he wasn’t there, would have to be left behind, then he’d complain about the group getting him killed.  So he spent most of his time looking for a group instead of being a group.  Sure, his actions would eventually earn him the same level of ignoring in newer games that he got in EQ, but given the design of EQ, the fear of death, the shared spawns and grinding exp, he was very quickly rooted out, not because of how he played but because of how his play affected the play of others.  Meanwhile, players who worked well with others and had a healthy respect for the loss of experience grouped well.  Lasting friendships and guilds spawned from avoiding the penalties together.

Of course, not all MMOs need to be RPGs, but I believe what I have discovered over the past couple of years and what I am realizing now is that in the genre of MMOs I prefer the MMORPG.  Many of the most recent MMOs don’t have much RPG in them (remember, I’m using RPG to actually mean role playing and not as shorthand for a genre of gaming features).  Too many of them are too soloable, with too little penalty, with inevitable victories no matter how much I suck.  Many of these MMOs are more like sports leagues for kids that don’t keep score, where everyone gets a trophy because everyone wins simply by showing up.

As always, I’m rambling, and I’m not even sure where I was going with this other than to empty onto the Internet another reason why I think I’m not being drawn into many MMOs anymore…