Finding the roleplay in MMORPGs

The other day I was watching a retro YouTube games channel in which the host made the claim that JRPGs — Japanese roleplaying games — weren’t actually roleplaying games at all. They were fine games, she said, but they were their own format that had very little to do with actual roleplaying. The gist here is that these games present a story on rails that offers little to no directional input from the player and thus doesn’t offer a role to inhabit and play.

So, yeah, we’re going to get nitpicky and messy with terminology here today, and we’ll probably not come to any great conclusion, but that video really got me thinking about where the “roleplay” is in MMORPGs. In pen-and-paper games, it’s the meat of the game, with the rules and stat sheets and dice being the skeleton. That’s almost a given. There’s a large emphasis on roleplaying a character’s actions and decisions in a live gaming environment.

Of course, video games have taken this broader format and “gamified” it to a large degree — with a huge emphasis on combat. The term “RPG” has been watered down to the point where it’s now shorthand for any fantasy-ish game with hit points and leveling and loot. But again, that’s just the combat mechanics and not any actual roleplaying.

So where do we find, if anywhere, actual role play in MMOs? To me, roleplay is when we make the transition from seeing the avatar on the screen as a disconnected character to an extension of ourselves in some way. We’re inhabiting a role and exerting our will in this virtual setting. So to roleplay is to define and change the game world with our characters versus having the world shape and define us.

Again, where do we find that? There are a few answers here:

  • Our lengthy attachment to characters lends itself to a flexible “head canon” that layers in our imagination into the events of the game, even if any changes or developments only happen in our mind
  • Engaging in roleplaying activities and sessions with other player characters, whom  we can influence and be influenced
  • Having the game offer narrative choices that pay out in observable effects
  • Having the game offer adventuring choices that let us tackle problems in a variety of ways according to our own or our character’s preferences and abilities
  • Establishing morality meters that track our choices and show an overview of our character’s inner arc
  • Having NPCs “remember” your character and develop a virtual relationship with you that changes over time
  • Providing ways for players to interact and modify the game world (housing, mission creation, book creation) that can be observed and enjoyed by others

We’ve seen how different MMOs have taken stabs at injecting more roleplay elements into their game design to various levels of success. Guild Wars 2 offered an intriguing start that let players make choices as to their characters’ backgrounds that would have an impact on the early levels of gameplay. SWTOR put a lot of effort into branching dialogue and choices with (sometimes lasting) consequences. DDO and ESO both offer in-quest choices and options.

It should be noted that while some MMOs are better about giving roleplay tools and spaces to its players, they’re almost all severely lacking. These sorts of things are afterthoughts, if at all.

But I’m left wondering how much more roleplay could be designed into games if developers put a premium on it. We’re still lightyears behind a good old-fashioned tabletop D&D session in that regard, and perhaps we’ve been too conditioned to see our character as nothing but a moving pile of stats to relearn — or learn for the first time — how to roleplay.

Soloing Disneyland

Last week I got to fulfill a personal dream of mine, which was to be able to go solo to a Disney park. I know that sounds like a slightly weird and/or pathetic dream, but you have to realize that every time I’ve gone to one of these theme parks, I’ve always been with family (and, more often than not, been tasked with herding kids around). So when I had a few days’ vacation time coming up and my wife asked me what I wanted to do by myself, this is what I chose.

I regret nothing.

It was a whirlwind trip, flying out to California on a Sunday, doing Disneyland for three days afterward, and then taking a redeye home on Wednesday night. I had never been to Disneyland before (always gone to Florida) and I wanted to check it out before the Star Wars land came in and that park maxed out capacity for the next couple of years. Being solo meant that I could take it at my own pace, traveling light and fast and indulging in whatever rides or experiences that I wanted. Don’t feel too badly for my kids, by the way; they were very supportive of me going and knew that I was going to take them to a local amusement park the week after I got back.

Physically, it was an exhausting trip — I stayed at the parks for 12-14 hours each day, walking or standing almost non-stop — but mentally it was a wonderful break from responsibilities, parenting, and working. While the crowds were fierce (moreso than expected), the weather was almost as perfect as could be and I simply enjoyed my time without stressing out as to where to go or what to do. In fact, while I brought a Kindle to read in lines, I rarely used it — instead, I would just talk with others or people watch or soak in a little inner quiet.

I definitely hit a ton of rides while there, and my brother-in-law Bill came to join me for the second day. I did a lot of comparing to Disney World, noting both the positives (a much higher ride density, some better versions of the rides, better weather) and negatives (some worse versions of the rides, higher crowds). I had anticipated going on Haunted Mansion dozens of times — it being my favorite theme park ride ever — but I was let down by how it felt like a smaller and lesser version than Florida’s.

Instead, the highlight rides turned out to be Pirates of the Caribbean (wayyyy better than Florida’s), Jungle Cruise (I never got tired of the puns), Tiki Room (the full, real show!), Space Mountain (with the in-car soundtrack, which Florida doesn’t have), and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Actually, that last one brought me great joy, because I remember riding it a lot when I was a kid at Disney World, and then they took it out in the late 90s. So to get to ride it again felt like reclaiming a small precious memory.

A strange theme that emerged was getting stuck on rides. We had to get evacuated off Pirates after a 15-minute breakdown, Haunted Mansion stalled for a good 10 minutes while I was in the attic, and even Jungle Cruise had to stop for a problem with a boat in front of us. It was all fine, I wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere or do anything in particular, and I always had enough to do.

By the end of the three days, however, I felt like I had gotten it all out of my system. I was really ready to go home and see my family, and there wasn’t any urge to stick around for much longer. I didn’t expect that; usually when I leave Disney World, I’m left wanting more. But I guess when you go solo, you can zip through rides way faster and get more done in a less amount of time.

The siren call of MMO expansions

Is there anything as predictably alluring as an MMO expansion announcement? Especially for a game that you’ve played extensively in the past? Oh boy, it’s like a siren’s call that beckons, drawing you in even though you’ve been through this pattern time and time again.

I love it. I really do. Even if I don’t end up playing an MMO when its expansion releases, I get a jolt out of seeing it happen. There’s so much excitement around them — the thrill of new content and big features, the option of rolling up new classes or races, and the fun of seeing everyone talking about that game and coming back to it for a while at least.

This year is already shaping up to host several big expansions. We have ESO: Elsewyr and FFXIV: Shadowbringers for this summer, then LOTRO: Minas Morgul and SWTOR: Onslaught this fall, plus a DDO expansion, the typical EQ expansions, and probably a few more besides. The only game that should be pumping one out that isn’t is Guild Wars 2, and that is a shame, because it really could use the kick in the pants that an xpack would give it.

Looking ahead at the rest of 2019, these expansions are going to exert different levels of gravity upon my playing patterns. DDO is an anomaly in that I’ll have the expansion but will only get around to it when I get around to it. But the thought of rolling up a Necromancer in ESO has me giddy — especially if they can pull off a fun class to play for once — and it’s hard to ignore all of the exuberance around FFXIV. Very few MMOs are still in the “phenomenon” range, but this one is, and it’s natural to want to be a part of that.

Obviously, I’ll be playing LOTRO, but SWTOR is a huge question mark for me. I petered out somewhere in the middle of the Knights expansions and haven’t resumed that journey since, and I’m of a divided mind on whether or not Onslaught is offering enough to justify not only a return but also a subscription. There’s a lot that I like about SWTOR and plenty of content that I’ve never seen (which holds a lot of appeal), but it’s been less sticky over the past half-decade than it used to be and I’m not that keen to toss in another subscription right now. But this fall, depending on how the year is going and if I’ve been desperate or disappointed? That might change indeed.

Cat people in MMOs

I am not a cat person. If you have to place me in a category, whatever is opposite of “cat person” is where you should assign my fate. Cats have never fascinated me or drawn drooling “awwws” from my lips or inspired me to write poems about them and claim that one is my spirit guide. And that’s fine, the world has room for diversity and I’m generally live-and-let-live with cats, even if I don’t understand their popularity.

And they are popular, especially in MMOs, where playable cat-people are far more likely to be an option than, say, a playable dog-person (oddly, World of Warcraft is one of the very rare games that has the latter without the former, Druid forms aside). And despite what you might think, not all cat-people are alike. Some are the basic “slap a cat head on a human body, add a tail, and call it a day” model (such as Star Trek Online’s Caitians and SWTOR’s Cathar). Other than giving your person a feline slant, you really aren’t going out on a limb with those kinds of picks.

FFXIVs Miqo’te are a textbook example of trying to make an animal-themed race that is as non-offensive to our eyes as possible. They’re… cute. They’re designed to be as cute and barely cat-like as possible, with slightly different hairlines, teeny tiny pointed canines, and widdle pointy ears. They’re the option for players who are tired of humans but also still want to be a human with only minor cosmetic differences.

Guild Wars 2, for better and for worse, went whole cat hog with its Charr. Technically it’s supposed to be more of a beast character, an amalgrim of various animals, but if we’re honest, that mix is about 90% cat and 10% “assorted.” The designers definitely tried for something different than a svelte human with fur, giving the Charr a larger frame with a distinctive hunch, backward knee joints, and long claws and snouts. When you play a Charr — probably to admire how well this race’s helmets fit — you have no illusions that you’re a hulking brute of a cat. You’re a tiger monster amid a sea of soft bellies.

I also have been contemplating Elder Scrolls Online’s Khajiit. Visually, there’s an astounding range of looks that capture many types of cats instead of just one basic template. I don’t often see “lion” cat-people in MMOs, but I do here — and not just lions, but tigers, pumas, and other predatory felines.

Maybe for some, cat-people are an expression of how much they love the look of their own pets, and maybe for others, these races harken to this fantasy of being a stealthy, quick, and ferocious apex predator. At least we’re not seeing the same-old, same-old boilerplate variants between games as we do, say, Elves.

10 upcoming MMOs I am anticipating

Every once in a while I like to take stock of what’s on the way for MMORPGs and do a gut check — what am I excited about? What am I anticipating? I’ll be honest by saying that there’s little that has me visibly vibrating with joy the way that I used to for some of the old AAA-budget titles, but I am quietly thrilled at the thought of getting to play the following titles. So here are the top 10 MMOs (titles confirmed, not rumored, to be in development) that I’m looking forward to playing — some day.

  1. Project Gorgon: Sure, I can play it now (and might well do so soon), but I have been craving the stability of a full-fledged release without any hint of a wipe after that. It’s shaping up well and has so much potential for hundreds of hours of fun in it.
  2. Torchlight Frontiers: After playing the alpha, I am reasonably confident that this will be a relaxing, 30-minutes-a-day MMO with a lot of replayability and features that are up my alley (such as cosmetics and housing). I just hope that the monetization scheme doesn’t fly off the rails as PWE is wont to do at points.
  3. Dual Universe: I definitely have a craving for a good PvE space sim that is going unfulfilled these days, and DU seems like the most promising of the bunch that will launch in my lifetime. I hope it builds up solid word-of-mouth over time, because I don’t think it’s going to be a day one smash hit.
  4. Ashes of Creation: Depending on the day and communication from the studio, I can either be excited or worried about this title. It’s a mixture of both, but I’m still holding onto hope that this will be an MMO that caters to all types — including my carebear homebuddy self.
  5. City of Titans/Valiance Online/Ship of Heroes: Still going to lump all three of these upcoming superhero MMOs together until one pulls away from the pack and looks like a frontrunner. Just would love a great superhero experience right now and am glad that at least there are several of them to give us the best odds of a solid launch.
  6. Pantheon: So yeah, I’ve been coming around on this title. Used to cast shade at it, now I’m kind of impressed as to the hard work and possibilities of this title. Hope we see it sooner rather than later, to be honest.
  7. Dreadlands: New title for this kind of list, but I think that there’s a lot of potential in a post-apoc MMO-ish title in which you get to control a group that’s exploring the wasteland. It’s definitely a setting that appeals strongly to me.
  8. Star Citizen: Sure, I’ll give it a whirl. Might have to do it in an alpha state, since who knows when this will release. But some people seem to be having a lot of fun with what’s there, and I’m willing to look past the crazy community and overambitious studio to try it out.
  9. Fractured: Been quietly cheering on this very-indie MMO, especially as it will offer a pure PvE experience for those who want it. Not as keen about the isometric viewpoint, but oh well. Can’t have everything.
  10. Peria Chronicles: I continue to hope that this game will head to the west sooner or later, and if it does, I’ll be first in line to try it.

6 reasons why video game crafting pushes me away

I’m not going to get up here on my shaky soapbox and claim that I’ve been a lifelong crafter in online games. That’s simply not the truth. I’ve existed somewhere in the vicinity of it with a fairly amiable tolerance for its presence. If people liked to craft and got something out of it, great. If it helped the in-game economy, even better. And if I could profit off of it by hoovering up gathering mats to sell to desperate crafters, that was just ducky.

Probably my most extensive bouts of MMO crafting came as I powered up Engineering in World of Warcraft back in the Burning Crusade era and pretty much my entire run with Fallen Earth. In almost every MMO before or since — and now with survival crafting games — I always vow to get into crafting when it launches and then fall away pretty quick.

So why does video game crafting push me away? The more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed that this system that’s all about creation and personal effort is designed to be as unfriendly as possible. Here are six reasons that I don’t feel any attraction to crafting, even in games that push it on me as a core feature:

1. It’s a money and time sink. Most games simply ask too much of a player to invest both time and in-game currency into leveling up these systems, and I usually have a much better use for both of those limited resources elsewhere. If you’re looking to make money, often engaging in crafting is a long game where the promise of profits is a ways off.

2. It’s not that engaging. Some MMOs have made a lot of effort to gamify and otherwise make their crafting systems interesting, but for the most part it’s a list of ingredients that are dumped into a recipe, some time is involved, and out pops a thing. It’s about as visually exciting as reading an IBM computer manual from 1979.

3. Most of the junk you craft isn’t useful for anything. Lots of crafted stuff doesn’t have any personal use, and with the market often flooded with low- and mid-tier supplies, it’s not like you’re going to hawk it off to others very easy. So crafters just hang in there for specializations and top-tier products, and I have no patience for that.

4. You can often get far better gear by questing and dungeon diving. So why am I spending all of this time and money and effort to make lesser versions of things? And if the gear was good, why wouldn’t I simply take the money, buy it from another player, and save myself the time and effort?

5. I get fatigued from more complex recipe requirements. I’m all on board for the first couple tiers of crafted things, but when we get to the realm of making things to make things to make things to finally make the real thing that you want to make, I’ve flipped the table and walked away. Some people thrill on spreadsheets and keeping track of all of that, but not me.

6. It’s an annoying hurdle for creators. Sometimes you just want to build without having to spend hours of gathering and crafting first. I love putting together housing plots, but in MMOs where you either need to buy decor off of the cash shop or spend gobs of time making it, I have this significant barrier between me and the activity that I genuinely want to do. Crafting is often just used as gating for content and activities, and that sincerely peeves me.

Just my take, but if I have to see another survival crafting MMO this month that challenges me to be an industrial McGuyver, I might upchuck.

My feelings on the “MMO Big Five”

I’ve noticed that among the larger MMO community these days — mostly on Reddit — that there’s this tiering of MMORPGs, especially when it comes to labeling the “Big Four” or “Big Five” titles that seem to be getting most of the discussion and play. I don’t necessarily agree that these titles are the most popular or successful, just that there’s this perception that they are so. For example, RuneScape may well be doing better than at least two other MMOs on this list, but it doesn’t get that much respect among the wider community.

In any case, I thought it’d be a fun exercise to go through the Big Five, such as they were, and give my current thoughts and attitudes toward each.

(1) Elder Scrolls Online

Let’s start with the one title on this list I’m actually playing. ESO had a rocky start but really started to turn things around with the One Tamriel update, console launch, housing, and expansions. Aside from the lackluster action combat and class design, there’s so much to see and do in this world that I keep getting impressed all over again every night. I like being able to play at the pace I want following whichever quest lines I want, and for the most part, I’m content just to wander around taking screenshots. Also, I want to be a Necromancer SO BAD.

(2) World of Warcraft

I won’t lie: I think about going back every now and then. But Battle for Azeroth ended up being such a bland disappointment that I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for the current expansion and endgame. Maybe one of these days I’ll reroll — perhaps on a fresh server — and there’s always the outside possibility that WoW Classic will get a post or two from me this summer. Now a WoW Progression Server? That’d be totally up my alley!

(3) Final Fantasy XIV

Aside from being slightly irked that fans consider this a game which can Do No Wrong (even when it clearly stumbles from time to time as all MMOs do), FFXIV earns my admiration at an arm’s length. You’ve seen me try and go back a few times, and while there are some nice parts, the slooooow pace of the story, the character models, and the reheated content delivery system leaves me feeling agnostic toward it. However, I am glad its community is getting a lot of fun with its upcoming expansion, so you all go and enjoy that.

(4) Guild Wars 2

Out of all these games, the subscription-free GW2 is the easiest to jump into without worrying about much of a time commitment aside from churning through the boring and needlessly difficult episodes. I still love the world exploration, the class design, the visuals, and the character options (including wardrobe!). However, I’m starting to get a little more than worried that this game may not have as strong of a future, what with ArenaNet’s rocky 2018, its very slow pace of content, and the lack of communication from the devs.

(5) Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR is the title that may or may not belong on this list depending on who you ask, but it still has a pretty high profile. It’s still trying to recover from the damaged caused by the Eternal Throne expansions, and I think a lot of former fans — myself included — are in a holding pattern until we see what BioWare really wants to do with this. If a solid-looking expansion is announced for 2019 or something that’ll inject some excitement back into this game, I’ll probably be back.