Storyboard: The future of MMO roleplaying in the new decade

Plole ray.

Here we are in a brand-new decade! (If you feel the urge to pedantically correct this, you are wrong, it’s a new decade, hush up.) And at the start of this decade, the first question on everyone’s mind is… well, whether we’re going to see another one. The second probably had to do with how much liquor you had the night before. But at some point the thoughts presumably turned to the matter of roleplaying in the next decade and whether or not that was even going to be a thing by 2030.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel like it’s not, after all. If you’re feeling in an alarmist mood, it’s easy to assemble a set of problems wherein people demand more and more speed and less in the way of realized worlds. No one wants to sit around and chat, roleplaying is dying, and we’re now in the last generation of people who will sit down to tell a story about their characters! It’s all very dramatic. Also, kind of wrong.

With any sort of predictions, of course, you’re probably dealing with people who do not have actual precognitive abilities but are just looking at the past and the present and making a reasonable guess about the future. That’s how predictions work. But if I look at what I’d consider the five biggest MMOs on the market right now, four of them pretty roundly support roleplaying. Three of them feature proper housing systems. All of them either have mods or in-game tools to facilitate various necessary roleplaying functions.

This shouldn’t exactly be a surprise, of course; roleplaying goes hand-in-hand with MMOs. And roleplaying, at this point, seems to keep going through a slow-rolling renaissance.

I don’t know exactly when Dungeons & Dragons podcasts started becoming a thing, exactly; it was something on the fringes of my radar for a long while, and then I turned around and suddenly there were actual fandom wars over which of these series was the best one. There is fan art. There is a deep rabbit hole there, one that I have not explored, but it is present.

Remember when Wendy’s released a kind of terrible and also kind of insidious tabletop roleplaying game? Like, yeah, that’s kind of disturbing on many levels, but this stuff doesn’t happen without at least the bare minimum of marketing research saying this is at least a viable approach to marketing. That is wild.

Kind of wish we had some better D&D MMOs to choose from, even though I'm well aware they both have their fans.

All of this springs to mind because it prompts a certain amount of following. This isn’t quite the same as watching, say, speedruns or obscure Let’s Play footage or something. If you see a bunch of people playing D&D and having fun, you can go buy books and do that yourself with a bunch of people. And these series aren’t just about the rolling and the smashing, but heavily emphasize character development and interplay.

And hey, maybe you don’t have a whole lot of friends in the area, but you like The Elder Scrolls Online and that has a roleplaying population, doesn’t it? The interest and intrigue transfers pretty laterally.

The point here is not that D&D podcasts are the future of MMO roleplaying. No, the point is that roleplaying is just… kind of a thing people like to do. Maybe it’s never going to be the majority population in anything, but it turns out that even when people wouldn’t describe themselves as roleplayers they still like to have nice outfits to use on their characters, or houses to decorate, or titles to display, and so forth. We get invested in our avatars and the worlds we play in.

So roleplaying is probably going to be fine. People will find ways to make it work. But why does it feel like games are more hostile to roleplaying? Why is it that an awful lot of games don’t really want roleplaying, or at least don’t seem to care about it?

To a certain extent, they do. Even in a title like Fortnite, the main thing you’re buying isn’t the option to do more damage or play better but the option to express yourself more, and roleplaying is at its most fundamental level an act of self-expression. But it certainly seems like an awful lot of smaller titles put roleplaying right on the chopping block and de-emphasize it.

At the risk of being contrarian, though, I’m going to go ahead and say that these two aspects are actually co-morbid. I think that roleplaying and healthy long-term games tend to go hand-in-hand, and roleplaying is going to be buoyed over the next decade as designers move a bit more toward realizing that the model of success looks more like steady performers than big flashes.

Because you've got nowhere to go.

Why do I say that? Well, I’m pretty sure that roleplayers are a minority population in basically any MMO you care to name, up to and including the games I choose to call home. But they’re also a minority population that tends to be very devoted. Roleplayers will probably keep up a subscription incredibly reliably, because even if there’s not a lot of new content there’s still new storytelling to do. They tend to buy cosmetics with less grumbling. They’re more likely to have alts, resulting in purchases of level boosts and the like. They keep playing.

New players coming into a game definitely help keep the game moving forward. But having a solid backbone ensures that those new players come into a populated world, one that doesn’t feel like it’s already one foot in the grave. And they also tend to produce a lot of art, writing, and so forth, either by being creators or by paying other people to get art of their characters or the like.

From a truly cynical marketing standpoint, a player who commissions an artist to do a piece of art based on an MMO character is a customer who paid someone else to do your marketing.

MMOs are expensive to build, of course, and unlike many expensive games a lot of the stuff going on for MMO development costs are based on back end and overhead. The games are rarely designed to be graphical powerhouses or feature dizzying new gameplay systems. But a properly managed game can not just pay for its own development but also reach a point wherein pretty much everything is just profit.

And roleplayers help that. Hooking in roleplayers by making a positive environment costs a fair bit up front, but it winds up producing dividends over the long run. Once that long run starts panning out, the game pretty much pays for itself over the long run.

That doesn’t mean that every game under the sun is going to cater to roleplayers; there will always be games that fail to. There will always be games that are pushed out as temports without any consideration for the long term, or titles that really truly want to sell like Fortnite without realizing that the whole point of unexpected hits is that they are unexpected. But as the genre moves on from its gold rush, I think we’re going to see a more hopeful crop. The rush is past, the audience is visibly there, and it’s time for new titles to try a different tack.

Optimistic? Maybe. It’s the start of a new decade; I’m allowed to be optimistic sometimes.

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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Paragon Lost

Lack of consistent, immersive gaming worlds drove me back to text based.

Michael Simard

I have been the same undead mage on Ultima Online for almost 5 years and that was my best gaming years without any question. Unfortunately playing a MMO is now only about being the strongest and that is why I can’t be satisfied at playing any MMO currently on the market.
Funny thing, this is also the reason we have started ReWorld Online and I plan to bring roleplay back in a private world for those players that still believe in it like me.


Unfortunately the trend for RPing is at the best case getting ignored and other players often feel RPers are “weird” simply cause an entire generation of mmo gamers were taught that power creep is all that matters

Ardra Ventax

The days of late 90’s-early 2000’s video game roleplaying where you speak in “thees” and “thous” is dead and gone. We won’t see true roleplaying again until voice changers are perfected and VR is firmly mainstream.


It sounds like you’re saying “roleplaying where you speak in “thees” and “thous”‘ is “true roleplaying,” implying that the non thee-and-thou “roleplaying” isn’t “true roleplaying.” But that can’t be what you mean because that would be ridiculous?

Matt Comstock

Role-playing is inherent in all gaming, in that at its basic core, a player creates a character that they adventure through the virtual world with, interact with npcs and other players. The player is playing whatever role the character they created fills in the core story told through the game.

The question, I suppose, is the degree which the player will take on that role with their communications to other players: be it (1) reflecting themselves (or some version thereof) in chat, or (2) their character in chat. I imagine point 2 is considered true role-playing

My point is this: all players in an mmo are role-players, whether or not they want to admit it. And, there will always be a place for the true role-players in mmo games, so long as they find the right chat channel.

Toy Clown

Thank you for the insightful article, Eliot. I’ve been RPing on-and-off in MMOs since Ultima Online and I’ve developed my own perspective about the state of RP being shaped by new generations coming into it. Probably a lot of my opinions are subjective, and my perspective shaped by the communities I was part of.

One hurdle to RP I’m trying to overcome over is that I view my time in SWG as the Holy Grail of RP that I have found myself trying to chase, community after community. It was one of the few truly-collaborative, close-knit RPing communities I’ve come across where the features of the game, mainly Storytelling, allowed us to use our imaginations to create the scenes and backdrops for RP that weren’t part of the game. The troupe I ran utilized Storytelling props to create large, massive stages that reflected the shows we put on. My guild once ran a server-wide plot involving 11 RP guilds where many of the backdrops ranged from Nar Shaddaa to Raxus Prime. The RP Jedi guilds made staggering temples to RP in and the RP city my character lived in had a full-on no OOC rule and used lots of Storytelling props to show when a battle happened, destroying a part of the town and showing it being reconstructed again. Every item in the world could be picked up, transported, traded and placed in a house as decoration so it was easy for RP pilots to create cargo for storylines between the RP Imperials and Smugglers.

There just aren’t any MMOs that had that same kind of freedom that SWG did and it boggles my mind why this is. It created the best environment to foster RP and where I learned that a good MMO to RP in was one that had the visuals in place so less “prose” was needed.

I know I get long-winded, but I love to write, and I love to RP.

In recent years, I’ve watched a trend of new RPers coming onto the scene that aren’t as interested in “reading” as the prior generations of RPers were. Before, RPing largely belonged to players who had time to do it and were passionate about it, but it also created an elitism around it all that if new players didn’t try to strive for, then they were ignored. I know it was upsetting for many players trying to get into RP. Many of those new RPers were people I took under my wing. Most didn’t stay, but a few did and I still remain on friendly terms with one of them going 10 years on.

I watched a generation of new RPers about 5-7 years ago finally get angry toward the elitists and rebel. No longer was it okay to be helpful. No longer was it okay to post guides. Very few RP communities allow RP guides posted to their forums anymore. It’s brought a change into how RP is. I find many players, especially in large communities such as FFXIV, more interested in instant-gratification scenes with little interest in building on a character relationship. People are afraid to approach other RPers unless they know them first and many join RP discords or guilds to foster RP instead of using actual RP to foster RP. This has been difficult for me as I prefer to keep IC and OOC separate, but I still strive to find players who are interested in what we now call the “long story”. :)

I’ve never understood the hate people have toward RPers. It truly is mind-boggling. They’re hating on people for acting a part, much like an actor would do for film or stage. I’ve seen RPers grief other RPers if they didn’t share the same RP style. This is particularly evident in MMOs where PvP is a main feature. “Action” RPers talk down on RPers who enjoy character development through interacting. Taverns used to be a place RPers congregating to line-up their next RP adventures, largely how you would see it on LotR movies. Now, taverns are used as the equivalant to modern-day pick-up bars. We see many people only interested in cyber sex who call themselves RPers. I miss the days when people seeking only cyber sex stuck to Dark Nest and looked for like-minded individuals. Now these people are preying on characters without care for the age of the person behind the keyboard.

In spite of all of the changes I’ve witnessed, and rarely able to find the meat and potatoes RP in current offerings, I think RP is thriving and growing. I see more players involved, or interested in it than ever before. RPers used to hide away to keep the griefers at bay and now we see RPers everywhere. It’s wonderful. I just hope we can see a return to quality RP in the coming decade.

Robert Mann

It will continue to be treated as a fringe, with little support, and with that lack of support being further promoted by design… because the reward cycle and lack of willingness to risk in development will continue us along the same paths for some time yet.

It won’t be until somebody does something really wild with a new game, or the market busts and has to go through a revitalization effort, that we will see that change. The entire reason is business practice as it stands, and that’s not changing unless both business and education changes their position on the topic.