I suspect that there will never be a consensus on what “role playing” is in an MMO. There are simply too many players, each with an opinion and history. That’s not a bad thing, but it does make playing a role in one of these MMO things an exercise in filtering and careful deliberation. (Of course, you could always go with “roll playing” and call it a day.)
To one degree or another, we are all merely players, each acting out our own fantasies, oblivious to the rest of the game world and even the real world. Some of us are soloists, content simply to explore the stage and the setting, while others are only complete if they are with other players, content to ignore everything around them, so long as they company is good. Some have… different goals. Whatever the case, we’re all putting on a character, acting out whatever fantasies we may want to indulge in given our chosen game. That’s all well and good, until opinions clash. That’s inevitable in an MMO, even though the communities aren’t always what one might call “massive”. (Shamus wins again with a great article on that one…) At some point, you’re going to run into someone who isn’t doing it right, and you’re just going to have to move on by.
Wolfshead, Psychochild, Jay, Spinks, Jason, Chris, Scott and many others have written about Role Playing in one form or another, with more experience in the trenches. These illustrious folk are better reference than I for this topic, and I wholly welcome any other links to great references. There have to be bloggers who dive into this sort of thing. Take Ratshag, Orc extraordinaire, for example. Of course, I’m talking more about the layer removed from that sort of fun, but still, there are better sites than mine to check out for role playing.
Since I tend to dig into the “why” and “how” more than the “what” and “how to”, let me diverge a bit.
I’m an artist in the game industry. It’s my job to figure out how to make these game things look fantastic. When I fire up a game, easily half the time I’m “playing”, I’m actually taking screenshots and looking at how other artists have solved issues that I’ve either wrangled with in the past or am looking forward to handling. The first time I played WoW, at the behest of a friend at work (then Headgate Studios), I fired up a Tauren Shaman because I wanted to see how those massive characters animated (I should have played a Druid; more bang for the buck). I spent a couple of hours looking at water in the game, trying to see if I could make the lakes in Tiger Woods PGA Tour games look as good as or better than Stonebull Lake. I took hundreds of screenshots.
An interesting stage can almost tell its own story, or make it so that everyone can tease something out of it, according to their interests. If, on the other hand, the stage is little more than a platform with a few props, players are only left with interaction to fuel interest. Neither is necessarily wrong, but devs really need to be aware of what they are trying to accomplish and why, so that they can set the stage properly.
Even a sandbox game should have some toys to play with. To me, sandbox games are more toolbox than litter box. They are about crafting a setting with nooks and crannies to explore, and way to do so. When and how is up to the player, but there is still stuff there to explore.
To me, it’s easier to imagine a role within a world that has a history, a good sense of place, and things to see and do all over the place. I couldn’t be a pacifist in Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War, for example. That role is simply unavailable to me, no matter how much I’d like to play it.
Similarly, I wasn’t able to play an undead-phobe Forsaken in WoW. The structure simply isn’t there. I can’t attack my own faction (outside of duels, but that’s so… proper for someone in a blind fear-fueled rage) or try to rejoin the Scarlet Crusade. The battle lines are drawn, and I’m For the Horde, whether or not I like it. I also couldn’t understand most Alliance characters (despite having been one)… with a few odd exceptions.
So, the WoW RP stage is there, but given the lore tangles and structural strictures, it’s just not enough of a freeform stage for me to do what I’d like to. Then again, it’s not like I’m in the game for the long run anyway.
Of course, comparing this to Allods Online as I did while playing, it’s not like that game is any better for free form role playing. The Empire and the League are similarly divided, and there are only two servers; no RP-specific realms. Playing a trio of Gibberlings can be fun, and has RP potential (like the Arisen techno-undead have potential), but since you’re surrounded by all sorts of players without even the structure of an RP server, you’re dealing with even more static to filter.
Also, as has been noted before, how many people even really bother with Role Playing on a Role Playing server in WoW? More than once, I’ve noted people suggesting that role playing is stronger in text MUDs. That’s an interesting artifact of the game design, perhaps, since players have to imagine more of the stage. I suspect that tends to either increase immersion (via investment) or blow it out of the water.
We could also take a step back and ask “What is one of these RPG things, anyway?” Jay and Gareth have bandied this about a bit thisaway:
With such a variable definition of what these RPGs are in the first place, perhaps it’s no wonder that RP itself is such an ill-defined beastie.
Though… perhaps that’s as it should be. Leave it up to the players, and craft a spectacular stage for them to play on. In the end, they want to play, after all, and it’s their role. Why not step out of the spotlight as devs, and just be the stage hands? Let the players play.