Storyboard: What makes an MMORPG a good home for roleplaying?

    
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Guess who’s back.

I gave Star Wars: The Old Republic a lot of grief over the course of 2018 for the fact that its server merges outright demolished the game’s RP servers. This may be understandable, all things considered, but it still had a pretty huge effect upon the game’s RP community, and while you could argue it was more a reflection of the state of the game than it was an active snub, it still wound up being one.

But people who have paid attention to my writings over the years know that I’ve long advocated Final Fantasy XIV as a great place to roleplay, despite the fact that the game has never had official roleplaying servers. (It does have two unofficial servers that everyone is well aware of, though.) And so now that I’m bringing this back, it seems like this is a great time to start by establishing a foundation. What makes a game good for roleplaying in the first place?

Headshot.

A robust setup for character expression

It’s really upsetting how few options there are for looks in World of Warcraft. The character creator doesn’t even allow you to play around with your character height, but beyond that it’s only with the most recent expansion that the game has actually included pieces of armor that didn’t belong to some of the same models. There have been four different models for gloves since the game’s launch (which I have affectionately referred to as Flat, Folded, Triangle, and Tube), and even now the majority of gloves are one of those four.

This is not good for player expression.

By contrast, Guild Wars 2 lets you have dozens of different armor sets, play with the body type of your character, and you can even dye your armor so that the same set can look totally different on two different people. That space for character expression makes a big difference.

The limitations of any engine will mean that there are always things you wish you could do in your MMO of choice that just aren’t available. I wish that SWTOR offered more than four body types, for example. I don’t like how FFXIV has limitations on muscle customization and only makes it available for some races. I wish City of Heroes hadn’t given everyone mitten hands. But giving you lots of different outfits, different looks, and the change to make a broad spectrum of different characters instead of a few unified looks makes a big difference.

Home sweet home.

Player housing and other spaces

You can point out lots of issues with FFXIV housing availability, but you know what? The housing exists. It’s present. That alone makes a big difference in a game. Heck, I’d venture so far as to say that what kept a lot of people playing WildStar was the simple reality that despite its issues, the housing was present and excellent. That covereth a multitude of sins.

That isn’t to say that housing is mandatory for roleplaying (it is mandatory because player housing should just be a thing, but there are some games that don’t have it). In fact, there should be roleplaying spaces in a game that aren’t housing. There should be areas with no purpose beyond giving players a fun spot to interact and chat, places that look like plausible libraries or bars or medical facilities or whatever so that players can interact there as needed.

I think that there’s a certain design philosophy whereby this is anathema to the game. After all, stuff that you put into the game just to look pretty is stuff that isn’t being made for anything; if you’ve got the time to make four areas, for example, it’s hard to justify having one of those areas be just for looking nice. But putting in the effort to make for a fun world with plenty of interaction really does help make the world come alive.

And the reason I stress housing here is because it’s a demonstration of creativity, but it’s also a space for people to congregate. It’s at once a hangout and a way to show what you can do.

And ANOTHER goddamn thing!

Animations and interactive tools

You know what’s a good thing? Head tracking. It’s such a little trick, but it’s one of the things that makes FFXIV fun to roleplay in because it means that you can give someone a sidelong glance or look down at the floor if you’re being a bit tricky. Good stuff!

But there’s more to this category than just looking at what you target. It’s emotes and context-sensitivity, yes, but it’s also about letting you interact with the world around you. It’s letting you sit down on chairs out in the world. It’s the option to visibly throw back a drink with your friends. Heck, it still tickles me that you could have a cigarette out in The Secret World if it suited your character. It made the world feel more rich and lived-in.

The thing is that for roleplayers, these things aren’t just toys, they’re tools. Being able to interact with the world in tangible ways helps when it comes to feeling like the world is fleshed out. If you can’t properly sit in chairs, you feel like you’re just standing in a box; it bothers me to this day how difficult it is in Star Trek Online to settle into a chair properly, especially with all the “Commander Riker can’t chair” memes.

You may notice a theme here. Expression is about who, locations are about where, and this category is all about how. So what’s left?

These will always be the voyages.

Realized and explained world elements

Yeah, you got it. The why.

Lore in MMOs isn’t just about explaining what you’re fighting. That part is usually pretty easy to understand. “I’m fighting this giant cat with fire magic because I don’t want my face detached.” No, lore is about understanding what brought you to a point that made “fighting giant cats” a reasonable state of affairs. It’s about knowing where your characters came from and why they care about the world around them.

Some games have it easier than others. In STO I’ve got years of Star Trek fiction to draw upon, making it almost trivially easy to give a character motivation and reasons for being in this space. GW2 had to create a lot of lore fresh to get people into the world, but the designers have still done the work to make the world feel like a real place with people who actually have an investment and interest in the state of the world around them.

It’s one of the things that always disappoints me when a game skimps on it. Yes, the lore is always there, but there are games where it feels like filling in a set of Mad Libs with some vague setting-appropriate nouns. One of my usual tests is to ask what the people of a given world do for fun when they’re not doing other things; if I can’t answer that question, something has gone wrong with the lore development stage.

If you’ve got all of these things existing in the same space, you’ve got the foundation for a good game to roleplay in. That doesn’t mean that the community is necessarily there to support it or that all is well, but it does mean that you’re starting in an environment conducive to what you want to do instead of actively inimical.

If you’re an old hand at roleplaying in MMOs, you can look to Eliot Lefebvre’s Storyboard as an irregular column addressing the common peaks and pitfalls possible in this specialized art of interaction. If you’ve never tried it before, you can look at it as a peek into how the other half lives. That’s something everyone can enjoy, just like roleplaying itself.
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Fenrir Wolf

I feel one of the most important elements would be being able to flag someone’s global handle as invisible, and the ease of sharing lists thereof. The purpose would be to finally create an immersive space by being able to remove someone on the client side. Their character would become invisible and they’d lose collision. Naturally, all bets would be off in PvP, but in a PvE setting on a roleplaying server, I can imagine a feature like this would be heavenly for the majority.

We wouldn’t be inundated with Jimmmy McDankstank’s nude dancing. I feel this would be incredibly conducive to roleplaying. It allows those who aren’t roleplayers to go about their business, but it places in the hands of roleplayers the power to forge the kind of experience they want based upon their tolerance for such shenanigans.

Further, I feel like having an events calendar built into the UI would be quite lovely. It’d be less a typical calendar, though, and more a series of dropdowns organised by date. Expanding a date would show a list of short summaries for upcoming events, if any were to catch one’s eye they could be clicked for a more loquacious exposé of the festivities on offer.

I also feel that more could be done to allow players to craft their own stories. I’d certainly like to see what an MMO could do with, say, an equivalent to the toolkit used by Neverwinter Nights, where one player could act as the DM. Custom areas could be crafted, and the DM could have a variety of tools for storytelling via NPCs, the environment, or even combat. Perhaps there could be a system which gauges difficulty and provides tangible rewards, too. Or at least cosmetic ones.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this, yes, as MMOs are so rarely any good for satisfying roleplay experiences.

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Robert Mann

DEEP world, lots of options to do different things that matter, emote and tool support for preparing and acting things out… and those are just the top 3. They are also nigh non-existent in MMOs. :(

Is it sad that the most common and easiest one (emote and tool support) is most often and best done via mods? Why yes, it is dear developers. It is sad.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

What makes an MMORPG a good home for roleplaying?

Oh, this is simple: the beautifully created characters (most important aspect, at least for me) which can utilize a lot of cosmetic outfits and emotes for interaction in a non-combat, persistent areas (like Limsa’s Aetheryte plaza or Quicksand in Ul’dah on Mateus/Balmung in FFXIV) ;-)

This is why I can’t wait for MMO developers to integrate VR into the games, especially the motion tracking sensor support. Sure, VR is kind of useless for things like combat in terms of body motion tracking – everyone would just get tired after a few minutes of swinging the virtual sword with the motion of their hands, BUT for RP this is great. You can come up with any emotes by yourself if the game will have very detailed body motion tracking for your avatars, plus you can do unscripted dancing and other… things ;-)

Also, I see some people mention “lore” stuff… Personally I never cared for it in any MMO games, especially for RP purposes – you can always have a perfectly immersive RP experience if you just use your in-game character as a simple way of expressing your “real life” character (meaning I never have to care that, for example, someone’s Miqo’te character has cat-like physical features or that they split into Seekers of the Sun and Keepers of the Moon). But that’s just me, of course.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Having a non-combat oriented feature set of the likes of Star Wars Galaxies. People have to have the tools in-game to allow them their imaginations to come to life. Chat bars and chat emotes are a whopping 1% of that tool set.

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Sarah Cushaway

I used to RP quite a bit in EQ2 (best housing system out there, too bad the rest of the game aged so poorly) back in 2004-2008-ish. I also used to RP a lot in WoW. I dislike FFXIV immensely, GW2 doesn’t seem very suited to RP and I rarely see anyone participating, ESO’s mega server makes it hard to network with other RPers and not get griefed, and most other MMORPGs aren’t too RP friendly. SWTOR and LOTRO are, but I never got into it in those games.

By and large, I think my RP days in MMOs are over at this point, as the younger crowd that now dominates that niche are more interested in a different type/style of RP than what I jive with.

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TheDonDude

There’ll never be another CoH for me when it comes to RP. The Virtue server had folks RPing even while doing standard grouping activities. It ruled!

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IronSalamander8 .

The only online game I’ve ever RPed in was SWTOR (prior to that I’ve played RPGs since about 1982 in 5th grade) and for me it was both an active RP community back on Sanctum of the Exalted and then later on Ebon Hawk and encouragement from RPers in our largely PvE guild. The lack of chat bubbles hurt back then, CoH had them and even though I never tried RPing there, I did like to customize them anyway, when the events used to be so large you couldn’t see what was going on but in smaller groups it worked out alright.

I would say not only a good community, which I feel is absolutely essential, you need consistent lore, in game tools like emotes and such, and little things like the facing your characters do in SWTOR when looking at people. It had moods as mentioned earlier but they were mostly so ridiculous looking I preferred the neutral look.

Housing can help for sure, even the limited housing in SWTOR can work with the right decorations and player input, to set up scenarios but we actually did an RP run of Directive 7 once as part of an RP event, so a lot of good RP is where you find it.

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Kawaii Five-O

Headtracking and eyetracking is a huge one for me. It’s such a little thing, but really hard to go back and RP in a game without it after being so used to it. Roleplaying while two characters stare vacantly past one another or not even remotely looking at who they’re addressing in a group is just really off-putting now.

Having not only a massive selection of armor/clothing to choose from, but also a wide variety of styles is a huge boon as well. It’s a really cool feeling when you’re in an FC meeting of 50+ people and not single person is even remotely dressed the same.

Elliot gives GW2 a mention for it’s character expression, but I have to disagree. While the body customization is nice, I find its clothing selection to be sorely lacking. Frankly, the only game I can think of that even comes close to being comparable to FFXIV in that regard is Mabinogi–but of course, that involves a lot of gacha, and its RP scene is severely lacking.

Another thing I really like about FFXIV is the variety of sitting and standing poses with the ability to automatically cycle through the latter. That way, characters don’t just stand around like breathing mannequins, and that variety in how characters stand or sit also lend an extra breath of life to everything.

One thing I do really wish that FFXIV had is moods kind of similar to what I believe ESO has. Moods that you can set that affect the bulk of your character’s animations, so that if your character is angry, they wear a constant scowl and that mood is reflected in how they stand/sit with some unique idle animations tied to it.

Similarly, more interesting emotes that are persistent would be nice.

FFXIV is getting better about this with adding a lot of NPC emotes like /shiver and /confirm as rewards from content like Canals and Eureka, but stuff like eating or drinking would be really conducive for RP. Really, I just want a pipe-smoking emote (like Yotsuyu’s), darnit! Or at least let me hold a pipe! Surely that wouldn’t affect the game’s Teen rating.

Oh, and another really important one is a custom emote channel. Nothing discourages me from roleplaying in a MMO quicker than discovering that it lacks an emote channel.

Having a decent character limit is preferable too–another thing FFXIV could definitely improve on. Conan Exiles’ character limit (at least with Pippi) is massive, and I love not having to figure out where to break up my posts in a multi-paragraph post.

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Toy Clown

That’s basically what I look for when I consider an MMO to play, is what features they have for roleplay. To add to your list of things that I also consider, first is what is the chat character limit? Many Asian MMOs are gorgeous, have housing and lots of customization, but they might have a 50-character chat limit, which absolutely kills RP for me. Another big one I look for is how is the community?

I’ve fallen into FFXIV as my main RP MMO. BDO has all the things I love for RP, except a good community. It’s very toxic, anti-RPer, and even the RPers tend to be drama-prone.

FFXIV largely has it all. I’m not fond of the cartoony (anime?) aspects of some of the artwork, but I deal with it as the other aspects far outweigh my graphical preferences.

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kieranbunny

heh, was playin BDO and got told me wasn’t rp’ing “correctly”..Me mean..jus cause me a wabbit doesn’t mean e don’t know how to RP *giggle* ==}:*[=]

Godnaz
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Godnaz

Developers can provide all the things you mentioned but acceptance, understanding support from its community is where RP thrives the best. The tools to make that happen are the topping to a supportive following.