Tuesday 3 May 2011

A player's role is certain, rigidly defined, and perhaps unnecessary.

One thing that always stuck with me from my experiences with World of Warcraft pick-up groups was that in the vast majority of cases people referred to one another by their role or class, not by character name. ‘Healer you suck’. ‘Tank can’t hold aggro’. ‘Weak DPS’. In WoW, and many MMOs of the traditional form, the players pick The Rogue, The Priest, The Warrior, which are further generalised into The DPS, The Healer, The Tank. It’s akin to games such as League of Legends, where players pick a character type to play which primarily defines the player’s role in the group, the abilities they will have to available to them, and the general strategy they will need to follow; nobody in LoL picks Irelia, the Will of the Blades in order to expand on the story of her spiritual companionship with Soraka, the Starchild.

Admittedly there are many players for whom that is the desired system. But I also get the feeling, however, that an equally large portion of the traditional MMO player base desire not to be classified as a character type, but as a character; they want to be a Shepard, a Geralt, or an Altaïr. They wish to be a character, but in an environment where they can share adventures with other players.

It comes back to the thorny issue of defining what is meant when we say RPG. For some this is categorically defined by the role you play in a group, it is a system forged by levels and stats which enables you to fight dungeon monsters. For others, however, that is only one part of the definition, the other being about storytelling and playing a character.

In the case of role-playing, some people like to play the function, other people like to play the part. Role-function, and role-part.

I’m beginning to wonder if Star Wars: The Old Republic is meant to appeal to the latter audience. At the moment it seems to want to bridge the two, carrying with it much of the role-function baggage from the more traditional MMOs, while also trying to introduce the more character-focussed style of the role-part, more often encountered in single player MMOs. My concern is that, in trying to appeal to the general market of MMO players, Bioware have given up the chance to break the traditional mould and bring a truly innovative character-based RPG to the massively multiplayer genre. The danger is that TOR will frustrate traditional role-function players because it focuses too much on character and story and not enough on the optimisation of stats and abilities, while at the same time leaving enough of the relics of the role-function system in place to leave cold those players who want to play a part in a story and not concern themselves so much with increasing arbitrary stats in order to be able to defeat a dice roll. In trying to take a bold new direction, I wonder if Bioware didn’t free themselves enough from the shackles of the traditional MMO form, and will thus end-up pleasing nobody. At best they may have come up with the most expensive way yet for players to play alone, together.

For a pioneering role-part MMO for the mainstream market, we should perhaps instead look to the studio best known for bringing a successful MMO to the market which breaks many of the traditional MMO rules; CCP’s World of Darkness MMO will hopefully be influenced more by EVE Online and White Wolf’s Storyteller system than by World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragon’s munchkinised dungeon crawling, and as such will stand a better chance of appealing to that different but significant market within the MMO genre that Bioware were perhaps intending to target with TOR.

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