THE “R” IN MMORPG

A lot of young players don’t really know much about the history of the game and a lot of them are missing out on what the game is all about, especially the whole concept of sportsmanship and teamwork.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Q&A: Kareem on teaching, the Lakers, and Tim Duncan
John Hareas, NBA.com
Mar 10, 2009; 5:06pm

The “R” in MMORPG has been perhaps the cornerstone of MMOs or solo RPGs, but its evolution in recent years has put potentially at risk more than one may suspect. While the theatrical sense of “role-playing” is also valuable whether it be table-top, MMO, or your flavor of the year RPG, it is not that dimension I mean for this month’s article. It is rather, the unique function an individual contributor brings to a group of players or the massive environment in which an avatar roams. This month as we look back, look at, and look ahead, I am looking forward to the dialectic and your insights on the evolution and impact of “roles” in playing MMORPGs.

Looking Back – It Wasn’t Really About “Button Smashing”

There was a time when endless online polls would be pinned on MMORPG forum with subject lines: “What class will you play?” Playing a class meant something and not just your identity or the identity you wanted to roam around in on your favorite MMORPG. It meant you had boons and you had banes, it meant you had an array of choices relative to your approach to an encounter, and it meant that some encounters your chosen class was superior against or feeble against.

The “Holy Trinity” as it is often called was always there (I can even think far back to 8-bit console RPGs scratching my head why my healer in the front of the pack was being smashed and killed all the time…then I got it…this other member of my party was supposed to be in front because he was the heavy armour “tank!” Before, you check the box of your favorite MMO with a “holy trinity..got that,” consider that it was not just Aggressor, Healer, Damager, as the “role” there were (in good MMORPGs) complicated nuances to each classes approach and arsenal that made it way more than 3-dimensional.

I’ll mention two MMORPGs in the last decade, but I’ll talk about one. Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) and Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) were really two MMORPGs that in their early days understood classes. With the launch of Shadows of Angmar in 2007, LotRO started the game with seven classes (Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master, and Minstrel), with its first big expansion Mines of Moria, it added two more (Rune-keeper and Warden), and in recent years added a tenth (Beorning). It’s less important to understand what each of these classes did, but rather to understand that through roughly its first three expansions they had distinct abilities, banes/boons, and ROLES. In fact, LotRO actually had archetypes that they early held on as “Basic,” “Moderate,” and “Advanced” as another way of growing or approaching a role’s potential. Classes had primary and secondary roles, banes and boons, race restrictions, and a time when the main healing class at launch (Minstrel) had a painful process of leveling. Choice mattered…it mattered in terms of what class you were, whether your raid/group had one, it mattered what skill rotations you used in unique situations, and it allowed for different approaches based on combinations of what you group had…with most raids really having a purpose for each class.

There were perhaps needless debates about whether you needed a certain archetype (tank, healer, damage), but it was the case in raids within those first few years rather extremely beneficial if not in some cases necessary to bring one of at least each class (notice I did not say archetype) and a failure could be manifested by a player not doing their “job” that is “role!” Design approach had great diversity in playing to certain roles through certain mini-bosses, “trash-pulls,” or phases on a major dungeon/raid boss. In other words, the design of the group encounters (and even some open play areas) considered the classes. Moreover, it did not just approach design as “this is the formula we developed to defeat this boss or this is the linear path you must follow from entrance to exit,” rather, it allowed for diversity, success, and openness to whether you went right or left or whether you infinitely crowd-controlled an opponent or defeated it.

The outcome of this was replay, coordination, well designed encounters, thoughtful approach, trial/error, and meaningful alternate class play. Moreover, while some may think in PvMP mirrored classes were a mandate, good Role-play does not require that. It may mean several “class-updates,” but not knowing what an opposing force has or can do with skills/traits is part of the challenge (and if that meant imbalance for a season, then that is just part of design).

Looking At – The Age of Speed “Runs” & Simplification

I won’t proceed to put any specific game on trial while we look at, I’ll subtly pass by saying LotRO did not sustain that design principle unfortunately and went the way of most modern MMORPGs.  Instead, I’ll stick to the main themes that influence most of the modern designs. Those themes are: accessibility and time.

Modern MMORPGs are few in count that have true Classes. They say they have them, but in many cases they are archetype level roles with variable animations. In some cases, it’s a semantic play of calling the same skill two different names. Some have kept the Holy Trinity…many have not…but where it does live a player will find an often crude rather simple version with little depth. The drive for business cases or market share pushed developers to simplify. It drives decisions toward accessibility. It requires regret-less player choice for fear of player attrition. These designs are exemplified in hundreds of available skills for players to choose from, few boons/banes, homogenized roles to maximize encounter availability and “Looking for Group” engines. Fueled by the philosophy of gating progression through gear/stats instead of player aptitude, class design in many modern MMORPGs is not really about a role. It’s about a flavor of ice-cream (“Race” selection long abandoned banes/boons in favor of cosmetic appeal). “What does it look like when I attack” rather than “is this something I should attack?” Even where the Holy Trinity can be found today, modern MMORPGs run “Damage Engines” to make sure every class can hit roughly the same numbers when “traited” that way, and retreat toward something rather basic in its diversified approach like range of attack (short, medium, long) as its staple distinction.

Attrition is perhaps also brought about by the amount of investment required. Today’s MMORPGs strive for speed, and while accessibility is a factor of this, the hamster revolution is what it feeds. The need to simplify to attract and hold players is part of it, but the need to not require long play times for meaningful results is the entrée. Immersion and approach are no longer primary design principles for player enjoyment/attraction/retention; results and loot are their replacements. Modern MMORPGs appeal toward the slot machine players and rarely the poker table players. This results in class, and therefore encounter design decisions. Looking for that one role that may be needed or that player that has figured out their class (or investing in your guild/players to make them better at their class) is all yesteryear. Time investment trumps, and classes must have full DPS, or full options in survivability (whether that is healing, damage avoidance, or crowd-control). In many cases, “tanking” let alone “healing” may not be needed – “We’re gonna Zerg-run it team!” What starts with homogenized or basic or boon-less/bane-less class design, then leads toward linear encounter design, button-smashing approaches, and YouTube hits for One Zerg to Rule Them All guides.

Looking Ahead – Role-Centric & Diversified Adventure Approaches

It starts with design philosophy long before class design. I covered much of this is my last blog. Designing for a more narrow player base may be the only sustainable way of avoiding steady trends in any new MMORPG down the path of homogenization or marginal class distinctions. I think it is wise to focus less on how much content you put in the rat maze, and more on depth and replay. Total game play time may mean less if class design was very meaningful and if it encounters were designed with variable class-group make-ups or remembering it was about “Role-playing!”

I am looking ahead to that MMORPG where it’s not just about obtain skill, and smash button, and it’s not just about gear. It’s about learning skills, rotations, dynamic play when partnered with other classes, and coordinated attacks that play out different scenarios. I want bringing my class and me as a player to mean more than do I have gear. Gear can matter (at least horizontally), but it should not be an E-ticket to beating a dungeon. Rather, it should be a complex soup with each player performing their unique role where it is not overly simplified by one or two “tanking,” one or two “healing all the unavoidable damage or mistakes,” and the remainder just grenade launching the target (while replacing a key-board every six months).

I believe a player should be a hero, but not the divine’s Immaculate Conception able to do everything with no need for friends

Perhaps one of my greatest joys in playing an MMORPG is learning how many different guilds/teams figured out their way to proceeding through and defeating an encounter. It was more than a YouTube channel in my early MMORPG days for a “walk-through guide.” Those times are infrequent these days. Linear/formulaic approach, “speed runs,” everything is possible for every class philosophies are predominate. I looking ahead for something I’ve seen before in the past. What do you want to see in class design? I welcome your thoughts….it’s a dialog after all!