MMORPGs are so full of tropes and standard formats, and have had them for so long, that we don’t even notice them to challenge why they’re in the game and if they’re needed. Or, in many overdue cases, why they haven’t been changed to something more interesting, immersive and fun.
One of the things that kind of bugs me is how just about every MMO has you starting out with a character who has (a) absolutely no background or prior history in the world and (b) is eerily proficient with a specialized class for no good reason. When you think about it, how we just “pop” into being as a young adult professional soldier of some kind, it’s not too far to jump to a cloning theory. We might as well come from test tubes, for all the backstory and history the game provides for our characters.
Sure, some upcoming titles are — happily — trying to rectify this. Guild Wars 2 will let you choose a background scenario for your character, which should impact your journeys somewhat, and The Old Republic’s initial focus is to put you into a very specific story for your class, to give you a place in the world before setting you loose.
But maybe it’s time we went reached back to single-player RPGs (like Oblivion and Fallout 3) to where you didn’t start as a certified rogue or mage, but you had to earn your class by playing through the initial game. I think this has a lot of potential in the MMO world, since devs are always looking to tack on more content anyway. Let’s start you out as a blank slate with only a basic attack and no other skills, and have you explore the world to find people to set you on the path to become a Somebody. Make trainers actually trainers and not just glorified vendors — if I find a magic trainer, don’t let me pop in a few coins and get a skill out the slot, but have them test me, challenge me, and send me on a series of quests to gradually learn the arts of mysticism.
This is more a pie-in-the-sky idea than any practical suggestion, it’s just that I’m getting a little tired of characters being specially-equipped combat machines that just popped into the world that way without any great explanation. If more MMOs gave us more than a token of motivation — why am I doing this? how did I get here? what are my character’s goals? — then it might go a long way to strengthening an emotional connection between us and our avatars. Playing through the journey to develop our skills and gradually become a class (or a custom-built character) is a terrific way to do that.
And that’s not to say that it hasn’t been done. People were tripping over their feet to praise how Blizzard handled the Death Knight intro quests, which is sort of this idea. Even though you were already that class, you were given a proper introduction and reason why you were there, you had to gain your skills and talents by plowing through the story, and you finally emerged as a fleshed-out character, instead of a template.
In a lot of fantasy books, people who are on a quest to become great magicians or whatnot don’t just become them overnight. They practice, they have to seek out new knowledge and skills, they have to find specialized teachers in the world, and they have to pay the price in pain and trial for what they gain. I’d love to see a game where wizards would have to gain spell fragments here and there, and combine them — trial and error, perhaps — to form new spells. The best wizards would be the ones who had scavenged the world, collected the most and used their brain to construct the most effective spells.
I dunno — just rambling on a Tuesday morning here.