MMOs on a Scale

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Editorial

I had originally intended to leave a comment on Syp’s post today regarding the possibilities of adding role-playing to MMO quests, but in the process of trying to form a coherent thought that didn’t sound like a blog post in its own right, I realized that I should probably branch off an write a blog post anyway.

After reflecting on the most recent D&D marathon that was chronicled in the Adventure Co section of this very website, I came away with the impression that among those who had traded TRPGs for MMOs, there was a greater tendency to apply MMO approaches to TRPG situations than there was to take advantage of the open nature of TRPGs.

What’s an “MMO approach”, then? MMOs kind of exist on a scale of free-action somewhere between the “here’s a shovel good luck” freedom of sandbox games like Minecraft, and the “you have one job” rigidity of side-scrollers. While MMOs do have stories, as players we are always only passing through them. We are presented with an illusion that we’re “the hero” and that we are “making a difference”, but the story is already written. The only choices we can make are how long we want to dally on the road to the next milestone, and whether or not we want to interrupt our narrative consumption with some extraneous activity like PvP or crafting.

MMOs teach us that all problems are to be solved by figuring out a puzzle that’s probably been sourced from some other, more well-known puzzle (Tower of Hanoi, the Riddle of the Sphinx, etc), by collecting items, or more likely by killing something. Our D&D game, then, kind of progressed this way, or so I felt. We ran published modules, which in and of themselves don’t offer a lot of freedom, but the main benefit of an RPG is that if the GM or players want to go off the rails, they can (even with published modules), unlike in MMOs where there’s absolutely no room to go anywhere but the rails. Applying the MMO mindset to a TRPG means that conversation and nuance are rarely considered as means to an end, options are not explored despite having literally all the options that the theater of the mind can invent, and at the end of the interaction, sending someone home in a Zip-Loc bag is the best and most forthright way to get beyond the current obstacle.

So if MMOs can push their mindset into TRPGs, can we reverse the flow and get TRPG-level freedoms into MMOs?

I think we already have them in sandbox games like Minecraft or in the “survivalbox” genre. These games provide the framework and the tools but impose no narrative. The stories are the experiences of the players, not the experiences of the characters, so the decisions we make as players affect the game world: who or what we kill, where we build, and how we treat other players. But that’s not “role-playing”, that’s dicking around with self-sourced goals. Very few — if any — survivalbox games offer any kind of tools for players to create these structured, in-game narrative threads for players to “role play” through, so while survivalbox games can offer a lot of players the ability to play together using mechanics without reservation, there’s no purpose except in what the players devise for themselves.

On the opposite end of the scale, then, we have more simplistic games such as platformers and side-scrollers. In these types of games, we don’t get freedom, but we don’t expect freedom: we expect a score. A lot of MMOs lean in the direction of using loot as a primary driver. In some ways it subverts any narrative the game offers, even becoming an impediment for those players who’d rather blow through content to progress in the ways that matter to them. When the acquisition of loot and the importance of gear is the agreed upon (and even designed) as the real reason to play, there’s no need for free-form decision making. So long as players (and developers) believe in and seek out this kind of game, having the absolute best role-playing options in any MMO isn’t going to have a high ROI.

I don’t think that MMOs can accommodate free-form choice model. If they did, they’d look like survivalbox games. That’s not a bad thing because a survivalbox game with MMO structures like quests, dungeons, and raiding would be kind of cool…but also kind of impossible. The reason is the “Ms” in MMO: Massive and Multiplayer. MMOs must offer the same opportunity to all players, and in order to do that, no one can seriously affect the game world with a lasting consequence (unless you’re a dev/designer). TRPGs deal with small-party cause and effect in a world of complete on-the-fly imagination, so as happened in our D&D game, if the players blow up a flour mill in the course of a mission, that’s OK (although the villagers will probably starve because of it). In an MMO, if blowing up the flour mill is an option, we know that the flour mill will be rebuilt in the next fifteen minutes so other players can take their turn in destroying it. The only alternative is to instance the world based on individual player decisions, but I don’t think we’re at the technological point where that’s feasible, even if our reality operates on that exact principle. 

It’s kind of weird because everything old is becoming new again. We have the GM mode of Divinity: Original Sin II which offers the mechanical handling of number crunching while staying out of the way of the narrative and is probably one of the closest CRPG games offering that TRPGs do. Beyond that, if we want to really provide a video TRPG experience, we need to gaze way back to the days of MUDs, MOOs, and other text-based CRPGs. Anyone could jump into these games, but certain people from the community could be promoted to craft the world and create experiences for the players. These could be one-off adventures for players in the right place at the right time or could be world-changing events that everyone would have to deal with when they completed. I’m not sure why we haven’t moved more forcefully in that direction, considering the earliest MMOs like Ultima Online pulled so much from those early CRPG adventure games. Maybe we’re getting there — I’m thinking of games like Legends of Aria which allow for custom rulesets, or even the most advanced mods for Minecraft — or maybe we haven’t gotten there because of the potential for people to use such tools to harass and annoy one another, or more importantly to unbalance the game world, specifically between players who use such systems to “twink” their characters and their friend’s characters beyond a mechanical “level appropriate” load-out — once again, ignoring any pretext of narrative in favor of loot and power.

I think in order to achieve this level of content a game would need to be built with the primary focus being on the toolset and not the game itself. While I have recently discovered the modding tools released by Larian to create areas for DOSII, the tools are sufficiently obtuse to someone who doesn’t have the professional vocab that Larian devs/designers have, meaning that the tools, while powerful and exciting, aren’t going to help someone who just wants to set up a quest line for her friends to run through over the weekend, and then maybe offer it for other players to build upon/use themselves. If the tools are easy but powerful (a tall order indeed) then the game can be and survivalbox as it wants to be, as players can find or set up a server that suits their external goals of providing an experience that meets their game-internal goals. That needs to be the focus, then: good, easy to learn and use tools that can be employed by the end user to create professional designer-level experiences within the framework of the game. Beyond that, players would need to accept that yes, the game may become imbalanced. Players may (will) abuse the system, but there will also be those who take the responsibility seriously and create something that can offer more freedom than the current crop of MMOs are able.