The Contrarian: Growing Out of the Stone Age

In my last column, I wrote about roleplaying at the tabletop and online, and how the latter experience falls short of the former. I don’t think that’s a gap technology can readily close – the two experiences are fundamentally different – but in writing that column, I kept wondering: What could technology do to improve the experience of roleplaying online?

I soon realized that was the wrong question to ask. Technology’s impact on roleplaying is limited for the foreseeable future. Making your voice sound funny on Xbox Live doesn’t make you a better roleplayer; neither do RP servers on MMOGs, which aggregate more roleplayers together but have no effective ways of enforcing RP through game mechanics. Shadowbane has its RP server where factional hatreds are actually obeyed rather than relegated to closet drama, and most online games are happy to encourage roleplayers as long as it doesn’t cost anything. But the conventional wisdom is that good RP experiences require good in-game GMs, nannyish supervision, or both, to ensure that Everyone Has The Right Sort Of Fun.

The hell with that. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons around 1983, and we learned quickly in those days: Good gaming needs a good group, period. The rest is optional.

Back when TSR, the original publisher of D&D, cranked out the first adventures in the Dragonlance series, I really bought into it. I obsessively studied the modules, recruited players, photocopied back-story and gave everyone packets of information about their characters, the world and the awe-inspiring story of epic grandeur we were about to undertake.

The first session lasted about 45 minutes, at which point the group I’d gathered was so bored, we watched TV instead.

The problem wasn’t Dragonlance, despite its death grip on fantasy clichés and exuberant ambition. The problem was with the group I’d assembled to play: We sucked. They weren’t into it and I did a poor job of getting them into it. We really were better off watching television.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of gaming groups, good and bad, and what I’ve always found is the group makes the game, not the other way around. The biggest impediment to tabletop gaming being a bigger hobby is the need to find a half-dozen people who are smart, creative, engaged and punctual. Good luck with that.

That’s the real problem with RP online. It’s not the lack of tools for roleplaying – it’s the lack of tools for finding and maintaining good groups. Groups are self-selecting by definition, whether they are guilds or ad hoc clusters of players doing the same mission. If players want a better experience in online games, they need better tools for groups.

What they need are community-building tools. They aren’t getting them.

The case in point is World of Warcraft, whose own official community site lays out the depressing summary of its offerings: “The official site containing news, trailers, gameplay videos, wallpapers, screen shots and the official forums.” There’s only one word for this kind of community support and that word is “yawn.”

Sure, it’s fine. And admittedly, when you want a bold, original vision in online gaming, the place to go is not Blizzard. So, let’s give them a hand. Let’s talk about what they could do to better support online gaming communities.

Blogs: I’m talking about in-game, in-character blogs. You log in and while you’re waiting in the server queue, you can access your blog, guild blogs, friends’ blogs, etc. The interface is inside the game client, not on an external web page. You don’t have to be in the game, but you need to be in the client. There, you can blog as Thundarr the night elf to your heart’s content.

Bolting an HTML window onto the game client is easy. But you want to give players a reason to use your in- game blog tool instead of something on the web. So, let’s snazz it up a little with some features you won’t get from LiveJournal.

Blog Waypoints: Embedding waypoints in your blog means other players can follow your footsteps. If you found some really cool corner of the gameworld, you can share a waypoint for other players to go there, too. If you’re organizing a dance party, you can point everybody to the right location.

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Blog Cameras: Pick a waypoint and let viewers of the blog look through a camera to see that location. Drop one on a famous loot drop spawn and visitors can check the current status of the queue to fight the bad guy, or just check out the amazing view you found. Mountain climbers can drop a cam at the top of the summit; the rest of us can enjoy it.

Blog Screenshots: Besides dumping screenshots to your hard drive, they can also be added to your in-game photo album. Then, you can easily select one and add it to a blog entry without uploading files. Adding coordinates as metadata to all screenshots allows any screenshot to offer a waypoint or a live feed from the point where it was taken.

With features like these, players will launch the client just to keep up with the blogs. As long as you keep the blog server separate from the game server, players can do this without taking up valuable slots in the live game. But if they’re already in and playing, they can be checking out their friends’ blogs or updating their own while suffering through endless travel times.

Imagine you meet another player in game. She’s 30th level, a druid, and she has some sweet gear. “Where’d you get that?” you might ask. She responds by opening her blog to you, and there you find the entry where she records the sweet loot drop she got. There’s a waypoint there you can grab, and you can check out the live camera for that site to see if it’s crawling with Horde scumbags. As long as you’re reading her blog, you can see she’s working through a big quest you’re doing, too, so you ask her for some advice and offer to tag along while you both work on it. For that matter, you can add a comment to her blog entry and post a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review of her blog in general, which affects her standing in the blog stats and can lead to more traffic to her write-ups.

Competing for better blog stats becomes a metagame. Links from blog to blog introduce you to players you would never otherwise meet. Players with popular blogs become celebrities, attracting useful group mates, twinkers and friends aplenty. If you’re looking for group mates, you can scan someone’s blog and see if they sound like crap or not. You can flag an entry as public, for friends only or for guildmates only. If your blog is all about cybering with trolls, you can keep that stuff to yourself.

So, blogs are one thing online games could do to help players find each other and make more meaningful connections. What else is there?

Privacy: You know what would be a great thing to do with local/global chat? Turn it the heck off. Unless you want to hear 16 gajillion players screeching, “THIEF 3 LFG!!!!!” you shouldn’t have to participate in that particular “feature” of persistent worlds. I know diehards scream about issues like instancing and whether it’s really a shared world if I can ignore your annoying ass. Let me just make that call for you: Yeah, it is. It’s still a shared world if my friends and me, who have opted to hang out on my island of sanity, can pretend you and the 2,000 other motards who pollute this server with your constant stream of shouts and come-ons simply don’t exist. We still have our guild, we can meet people when we need to, and when something big is going down I’ll need all the help I can get. But the rest of the time? Leave me alone. I realize there’s a mythical fantasy in which we’re all heroes striving for glory, but the reality of MMOGs is most of you are shills for the Home Shopping Network and what I really want is a mute button.

If you want to talk to me, you can /tell or /whisper me. Otherwise, let me tune you out in favor of my buddy list, group mates and guildmates, in the hopes that you won’t stomp all over my fun. And if you are looking for a group, the game darn well better provide you with a good feature for making that happen rather than relying on constant spamming of chat channels.

Meeting Places: There’s usually a tavern in town, but if anyone’s there, it’s probably AFKers or people making drunk emotes. What if no local chat was the default for everywhere except in taverns, so they became the places you went to find other players to game with?

Other forms of departure lounges would be useful. A group leader who is ready to go out on a mission could play a looping emote that caused them to raise a glowing beacon and advertise their desired mission underneath their floaty name on mouseover. So, if you’re looking for people to do a specific quest with, you’ll spot them easily and can gather ’round, then head out.

Good Gaming Bonus: Some tabletop roleplaying games let players vote at the end of each game session for who was the best roleplayer that night. If someone at the table had a particularly inspired conversation with an NPC, give that gal some XP! While players can technically hand over bennies whenever desired, there’s nothing to suggest that they do so. Twinking is something players do to the disadvantaged. Instead, how about twinking for the gifted, to reward those players who made your latest dungeon crawl more entertaining or successful? It’s easy enough. At the end of a mission, all group members would receive a UI where they can pick the MVP for that mission. Let each member of the group decide what he or she values – tactics, humor, RP or whatever. Whoever gets the most votes is awarded a little XP bonus, and the leader breaks ties. Stats keep track of how many bonuses you’ve earned, so players can see who the talented ones are.

Guild Plots: Making missions for MMOGs shouldn’t be that hard. Open up the content creation tools, just a little, and enable players to create missions for their guild. Given how intensely unsophisticated most MMOG missions are, this should be trivial. Let them pick an existing spawn in a known location, write up some profanity-filtered text, assign XP/loot rewards based on the existing spawn, and let them daisy-chain the results together to make a story. Pick a source and destination NPC for FedEx quests and supply their dialogue. Request X of some crafting material and reward those who deliver.

RP fans already do a lot more with a lot less. They create alts just to play NPCs in their own storylines. If they actually had in-game missions, even just delivery/hunt missions, they could forge endless storylines out of those base materials. Let them offer those missions to their guildmates, restricting them by guild rank or in exchange for guild donations. Tax them a bit to support the content so it becomes a money sink. In no time you’ll have players constructing 60-mission storylines that feed directly into guild events and RP, with special rewards for completing major guild storylines.

Soon, you have guilds competing not just on the basis of reasonable players but on excellent content. A writer who can spin a compelling storyline out of a stock mission generator becomes literally worth his or her weight in gold, turning out new chapters in the guild’s saga in exchange for sweet loot.

When storytelling becomes a form of crafting, game developers can officially go on vacation. The players will take it from here. In the meantime, find the right friends to game with and don’t let them down. Until somebody invents holographic peer-to-peer Doritos, a good group makes everything more fun.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for 15 years in tabletop and electronic gaming with Pagan Publishing, Chaosium, Atlas Games, West End Games, Steve Jackson Games, Wizards of the Coast, Acclaim and Bungie. He works as lead writer and game designer for the MMOG Pirates of the Burning Sea and is a columnist for The Stranger, X360 UK and The Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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