Massively Overthinking: The one about MMO roleplay servers


An MOP reader named Thierry recently pointed us to a brewing storm in the World of Warcraft Classic community: In a nutshell, the server crunch in that game has meant that roleplay servers are dominated by people who have no interest at all in roleplaying – in fact, some of them seem to be straight-up griefing the roleplayers themselves.

“Blizzard has not opened enough servers, hence the RP servers have been invaded by people anxious to avoid queues and the streamers,” he told us, pointing to a Reddit thread discussing players fleeing the scene. “We’ve ended up with RP realms that aren’t RP at all and where no RP ruleset is enforced, not even the naming policy one. RPers paid for a service we didn’t obtain, and Blizzard is doing nothing.” And while some folks are debating the rather the far-fetched idea of lawsuits, others are asking for “real” RP servers and free migration to them.

I thought this’d be a good topic for Overthinking this week since roleplay servers have fallen by the wayside here in MMO land, and yet Blizzard brought them back, so it seems a shame to let it all go ignored. What should Blizzard do in this situation? What should players do? And what should roleplay servers in MMOs look like going forward?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): The RP server issue has been a issue for as long as I can remember. I rarely played on them because of it. See, on the one hand, you have people who RP while ignoring the core game, and on the other, you have people who play the core game but ignore the RP possibilities.

Without sinking too many more resources into it, companies (especially Blizzard) should have default filters in place on RP servers. “AFK” should turn into “napping,” or “gear score” turned into, I don’t know, “weight class,” just as an example. Just a little something where non-RPers will see that, hey, this place is really different.

That won’t be enough though. What I used to do, aside from just roleplaying even with non-roleplayers, was hold RP events, even on non-RP servers. If you’re worried about being bullied, make it an invite-only affair until you feel comfortable. Find other guilds/people who want to RP and hold the event in a little used area of the world. Or do the opposite: hold it out in public and let anyone come. You’d be surprised how many people actually give it a shot and will help combat trolls.

Andy McAdams: What’s interesting to me is that I’m not a roleplayer – at least not in MMOs (I do love me some tabletop, but that’s a different beast). But I like being on RP servers because at least in my experience, they tend to be a little bit more laid back and have fun as opposed to treating the game as if your performance determines your self-worth for eternity. So I’m one of those people who will often roll on an RP server but not actually RP all that often.

And I think there always need to be a dose of pragmatism with servers with a focus like this. Yes, there will be people who use OOC chat and people who never participate in RP at all – and that should be OK. I think the naming thing is really going to be determined by how hardcore people want it enforced. For example, there’s a difference in my mind between having a unique name that doesn’t necessarily tie to anything in world and something like “KaynesFishSticks” as a character name. But in my mind, saying something like, “Oh, you’re a blood elf and your name doesn’t look like Sin’Dorei name – you have to change it or GTFO!” is a bit much. I don’t think there are many people who go that far with naming rules, but I’ve seen people complain about not going that far in comments. So YMMV?

I think Blizzard should take a light-handed approach. It can’t swoop in and force everyone off who doesn’t subscribe to RP in a specific fashion, but it can cull the KayneFishSticks of the word and force name changes. Ultimately, while WoW is an MMORPG, the RP bit has been neglected for a decade if not more. It’s not feasible to enforce any ruleset, that is even assuming you could get people to agree on a single ruleset to begin with. So yeah, just create the space for people to create their own communities around the rulesets they want, but don’t mandate one way to RP over another.

At risk of trolling, the lawsuit bit made me roll my eyes.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Thinking back to my LOTRO days, I think the devs did a good job leaving themselves some “wiggle room” by naming the Landroval server as “RP encouraged” instead of straight-up designating it as an RP server. It was a place that typically attracted RPers, but if things went awry and elitist RPers (they do exist!) got upset about non-RP-like activity, the studio wasn’t under any obligation to take action based on preserving a perceived paid experience. I do believe that griefing needs to be policed, but if your definition of griefing includes non lore-friendly character names, maybe playing online with other people isn’t for you.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): “No use in having rules if there’s no punishment for breaking them.” -John Locke. (No, not that one. The other one.)

Nobody made Blizzard put up servers with the “RP” tag on them, just like nobody made Blizzard hold back on server capacity and bogart the shard transfers. Blizzard chose to do these things. And Blizzard never should’ve put up roleplay servers it had no intentions of doing even the bare minimum to police (or at least incentivize non-RP players to play elsewhere with sufficient server space). It’s essentially advertising a curated experience that Blizzard was never going to deliver. That goes for everyone else putting up “ruleset” servers that have no enforcement. It’s impossible not to empathize with the genuine RP community in those circumstances. They deserve better.

As Andrew above me notes, this is an ancient problem, but it’s one Blizzard brought on itself – again. Moreover, while people will always express skepticism over whether enforcement possible, we’ve seen it done in multiple older games, including Dark Age of Camelot. It’s not a myth; I saw it with my own eyeballs in days when “RP” was actually much more emphasized in MMORPGs. A combination of naming policies, embedded gamemasters, and multiple chat channels to differentiate between OOC and IC take care of 99% of the problems very cheaply. You don’t need roleplay police to make sure nobody’s emote-metagaming (Who wants this? Nobody wants this), but you do need staff willing to step in and deal with obvious griefers, spammers, those jerks who jump onstage to wreck events, and so on. This is just not as hard as people make it sound.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I’m not sure if I have the unpopular opinion, but I think we should also consider the people who have to be on RP servers. Some people don’t want to be there, but since it’s the only available server, of course they have to!

As for a “paid service we didn’t obtain,” everyone pays the same sub price. They did not pay more just to be in an RP server. Also, we’re talking WoW Classic here. Everyone wants to play it. People getting mad over this nontroversy need to realize that the situation isn’t ideal and should at least have a modicum of flexibility. When the population staializes, the problem will solve itself.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I love when a server is flagged for roleplay because it at lest is the barest of bones thrown at roleplayers like me that we’re at least marginally wanted. That said, people have been “hiding” in RP servers in every MMORPG that has them, either officially or unofficially. It’s just one of those things you sort of have to accept when you want to play an MMO as an RPer, along with those who inherently or actively seek to ruin everyone’s sense of fun and immersion.

All that can be done — by both Blizzard and especially the players — is to just simply form an RP community in spite of it all. Yes, this will require some more legwork to find where roleplayers are and sniff out people of interest, but it’s probably a good bet that a character who doesn’t name themselves Xxdankenstein420xX is a good start. If you really want to RP in an MMORPG, you’ll dig around. And all you can do is ignore/block those who are making as many inroads as possible to ruining immersion and personal stories; my blacklist in FFXIV is about 40% gold spammers and 60% people who rush open RP spots like the Quicksand to spam emotes or skills in the middle of interactions.

As for what RP servers should look like in MMOs going forward? I’d love there to be some more strict guidelines in terms of who can enter those servers, but that’s unrealistic as all heck, so my demand is simple: Just flag a server as RP. At least, like I said, I’ll feel vaguely welcome.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, it’s really dumb that RPers have to put up with this kind of thing on an official RP server. On the other hand, should people’s characters, that they’ve presumably sunk a good number of hours into, really be cast into oblivion just because they named themselves after a Game of Thrones character? Or worse, something coincidentally similar to a Game of Thrones character? Or because they were talking out of character in zone chat? I think the best solution would be to kick those characters to a different server and temporarily ban the player from using RP servers specifically, but I’m not sure that that technology exists, and to be honest I can’t see Blizzard taking the time to develop and use it.

The thing I’ve learned about trolls is that they tend to eventually go away if ignored. In the next few months, the twisted enjoyment people get out of messing with other peoples’ fun will have faded, and a lot of these jerks (maybe not all, but most) will have moved on. The only advice I can give to players is to stick around, hide zone chat when it becomes bothersome, and find a like-minded group of players to hang out with that play the way you want to.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): All right, let’s face reality: This is not some kind of new problem in Classic. This is a problem that has existed in WoW since the game’s servers were first turned on. Any enforcement has always been mostly limited to telling people with blatantly inappropriate names that the name has to be changed, and even that is historically reactive rather than active (the team isn’t running searches to make sure that everyone’s name is correct but taking action if a name is reported). Similarly, RP servers in most games have generally been the less populated ones, so this has often been where the trolling alts or no-interest-in-roleplaying people have wound up anyhow. This is not unique to Classic, and it’s the sort of thing where actually changing it would require Blizzard to employ people to actually proactively search for this stuff.

Needless to say, the company is so not doing that.

The thing about roleplaying is that, well, it’s really hard to enforce anyhow. Having a server designated for roleplaying means less than the community on that server. The Final Fantasy XIV community has two servers “designated” for roleplaying, but even that’s a community designation rather than an official one. Except the servers do remain pretty much friendly to roleplaying, and that comes down to community events, community support, and community insistence. No one is willing to let these servers stop being roleplaying servers, and so there are active scenes on both with a general understanding that roleplaying is the norm if not mandatory.

But by the same token, do you want official representatives watching your roleplaying and making sure that it subscribes to official rules about what qualifies? Probably not. You can’t make someone roleplay, even on roleplaying servers. I think in this case about the only thing Blizzard really can do that’s fair is to be more proactive in policing general chat, and even that’s debatable. Ideally they’d be willing to wall things off for roleplaying events and the like, but that is again far more effort than I see anyone putting forth in this scenario. At the end of the day, the real issue is that roleplaying servers need a groundswell of community and community expectations to keep things running, and if that’s not in place, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): To quote Beauty and the Beast, this is a tale as old as time. There is this perception that way back when there were roleplay servers where omniscent game masters roamed to make sure that no one was talking out of character or had an unapproved name. While there may have been efforts to police such servers in the past, it wasn’t perfect. And for a while now, if a game even deigned to designate a roleplay server, it was in name only with the expectation that the community would police itself.

I used to tool around on World of Warcraft RP servers back in the vanilla era, and I can say with certainty that it was not a hive of pure, unadulterated roleplay. There was the occasional RPer and the odd in-character message to zones at large, but it wasn’t the norm. A lot of people, myself included, rolled on these servers because they had the reputation of being generally less nasty and more friendly. That was the reputation that drew folks, and I suspect that’s what’s happening even now with WoW Classic.

The solution has always been in the realm of the guild. Guilds have more authority and presence to enforce and encourage a roleplay environment. Sure, it’d be pretty cool if we saw a lot of spontaneous roleplay everywhere, but we also need to keep in mind that not everyone’s idea of roleplay (and the method of executing it) is the same. It’s a lofty ideal that has to be approached with less-than-ideal solutions, and I think that trying to pressure a studio into spending a lot of time trying to force a community to act a certain way isn’t going to achieve anything other than annoy everyone.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): At the risk of sounding like a betrayer to my people, I believe that an RP server ruleset or anything other than a label attached to the server name is far too difficult, subjective, and expensive to enforce in any kind of real manner. I have played on RP servers and non-RP servers of all kinds, and over time, every server ends up looking pretty much the same regardless of label. The only way to successfully run an RP server is to lean into the rules and regulations super hard. For a company as large as Blizzard, the return on the investment would be far too low. I would be surprised if roleplayers make up five percent of the overall population. And within that five percent, there are sub-factions that in turn have their own expectations of what roleplay is, so the decision on which rules to enforce would be even more difficult. Who’s going to be the judge if xxTbonezxx isn’t an RP name? I actually knew an RPer who used a name like that so that only people who actually RPed with him would know his character’s name. The best thing that Blizzard can do is to set a high standard for spam and harassment then enforce that. Besides, if non-RPers don’t see the fun that RPers are having, how are we going to attract more RPers in the first place?

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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