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?


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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