Reviving the RPG in MMORPG (Part 2)

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Should I just call you by your tag or what?

If all this is the case, why do the MMORPGs still have that RPG thing tacked onto them? The developers and investors alike are probably aware that these games rarely qualify as an RPG proper, so why the moniker? There are a number of possible reasons, the first of which is that, for all the connotations of “nerd” and “gamer” and whatnot, the title of MMORPG sells. As long as you know role-playing only by that single-phrase spasm of a definition, you are tantalized by the idea of an escape that is far cheaper than six days and seven nights in Cancun and can last even longer.

When Ozzy Osbourne makes incoherent remarks about his World of Warcraft character in the television ad, the mind reels with the idea that Ozzy plays the same game that you could be playing. More importantly though, the advertisement asserts the role he plays with his character, that you too could be on equal, if not greater footing than Ozzy Osbourne with the role you play. Another commercial formed as a kind of conversation between William Shatner and Mr. T has Shatner saying, with less pause than is pleasing, “Get World of Warcraft, dawg, you can be anyone you want.” Any sane person with even the tiniest shred of dignity would sign up under an assumed name. Thus the moniker of MMORPG is something to be cherished – it is an excellent tool for promotion, giving the impression that they are playing an important role rather than just acting a part.

Awesome. Who cares?

If money is being made hand over fist and companies like Blizzard are rumored to have something like three billion US dollars in their coffers, why bother with the RPG element? Who cares if it’s a railed ride on a pretty pushcart? It’s your damn pushcart (sort of), and while it’s not really an RPG, you have to admit, it’s kind of fun.

Let there be influence

The RPG, the real one that actually fulfills the wikipedia quote, continues to exist because it is fun. If it was some horrible, misshapen cult following, you’d have probably heard by now, and the whole idea would have more or less died off. And no, LARPers don’t count. They’re in some whole other weird area that this article aims to steer clear of. But the RPG, the real kind, is a wonderful experience. Without some ultimate quest, without some predetermined endgame, you exist to explore whatever horizon appeals most. There are game rules, of course – you can’t just kill everything all at once and be done with it – but there is an unmatched sense of freedom that can be as disconcerting as it is vivifying.

EVE Online captures this role-play feel in a way completely apart from most other MMORPGs. It is, in its entirety, a true RPG. There is a back-story, but no main quest to strive for. You can go in whatever direction you want, under whatever guise you want. Freelancer. Mercenary. Diplomat. You make the choices and you control your own little piece of an unclaimed destiny. The game is complicated, sure, and you may not have friends the instant you start playing, but the object is truly to play a role, to immerse yourself and throw away the petty self-consciousness of playing a video game with a bit of seriousness involved. Even that can be dispersed with, if that’s the role you feel like keeping. Admittedly it’s not all the best of times – without the game forcing any direction on you, it can be a difficult transition from riding the pushcart to walking in whatever direction you choose.

If it hasn’t become readily apparent by now, this is not an article aiming to bash games like World of Warcraft or coddle the few games like EVE Online simply because they meet or fail the definition of RPG. The point is for developers and players alike to recognize that embracing the RPG aspect has almost horrifying potential. With the custom mission-making, City of Heroes has proven that even a small ability to forge your own destiny in a game is intensely gratifying, as evidenced by the popularity the option received. Likewise, EVE Online has proven that true adherence to the RPG aspect is not only possible but profitable and enjoyable. It’s hard not to almost start drooling after hearing of the 10-month infiltration mission that eventually led to a CEO’s assassination and the destruction of in-game assets worth at least ten-thousand dollars USD, yet at the same time, getting to that point seems so daunting that many people would simply steer clear in favor of the linear game.

Why bother with the RPG element of the game? Because it involves the player more than a no-control rail ride – it engages and lets the player pursue more of what they want. It is more gratifying for the consumer and by virtue of this more gratifying for the developer – look at the community that has surrounded the City of Heroes mission making and EVE Online in its entirety. These people aren’t just playing the game, hoping to be entertained by the sights and sounds provided – they’re outright enjoying themselves and their potential for power. A game wouldn’t even need a full overhaul to get that feeling of having some control over events – even World of Warcraft has the custom UI that has stimulated a number of enterprising souls. None of these make a game a true sandbox, but they add that, that feeling of power and control instead of some routine, been-here-done-that grinding. Even given in small amounts, it’s difficult to imagine how a game like City of Heroes could have ever existed without it.

Whatever direction the MMORPG chooses to go, one thing is clear: the RPG element becomes more tantalizing and possible by the minute, and those that do not embrace it will find themselves wondering in five years, against a market that has already given consumers a considerable taste of forging their own world, why the old linear formula didn’t just start doing its magic.

By Stephen Marshall


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