Storyboard: The future of MMO roleplaying in the new decade

    
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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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