What they're doing
If I were Émile Zola, I'd be able to get away with just titling this part something catchy like "j'accuse." But I'm not, so I'll just have to state the sentiment. If I'm going to accuse anyone of being at fault for the dearth of meaningful tools for roleplayers, it's going to be Blizzard Entertainment.
I'm going to be totally blunt: If there is a single game that has done more to undermine the very concept of roleplaying than World of Warcraft, I have yet to see it. The game is the chief advocate of the idea that systems like player housing and long-term gameworld changes are irrelevant. Absolutely nothing any given player does in the game has any lasting impact beyond possibly granting a small buff for the zone.
All of the major dungeons are instanced, so the villain of a story arc will always be sitting there, waiting for you. And if you kill said villain, just zone out and back in, and he'll be right back on his throne. Your mark of having slain him is a piece of armor that will inevitably be replaced. Fights with the incarnation of death itself are something to be run over and over, rather than a single and bracing impact in the life of a character. Everything is a disposable commodity.
This is not to say that World of Warcraft is a bad game, nor that it didn't do wonderful things for an industry that needed someone to break a lot of contentions at the time it was released. What really irks me is the fact that years after the fact, nothing has been done to change these central failings. "Personalizing" your character consists of what mount you happen to ride -- and there's no system distinction between the mounts, since each of them works identically to the others beyond appearance. Not to mention that only a very narrow range of options is available to you by default.
The game is the single most successful example of an MMO in existence, and most games developed or released afterward have tried to emulate it to some degree. Even some of the games released beforehand have tried to play its game, such as Star Wars Galaxies. And Blizzard's expansions continue to tear more and more responsibility from the hands of players. The entirety of the ultimate raid instance, Icecrown Citadel, seems to almost forget the players are there, with all the important interactions taking place between NPCs whom the players can't affect in any fashion.
Heck, among the major advertised features of the current expansion were dance studios, which currently sit so low on the development ladder that they would have to look up to see rock bottom. But Facebook integration is well on its way to completion, thanks for asking.
Now, before I get mailed by enraged fans of the game, let me point out that it's still an excellent game, and I played for many years. But Blizzard sure as hell doesn't seem to care about roleplayers. And I'm sad to say we make it easy.
What we're not doing
There is a game out there that really does care about roleplayers and care about allowing people to RP in an enjoyable environment. That game is Ryzom. It features some stunning graphics despite its age, a very open character progression system, and about seven players.
I'm being hyperbolic, of course -- the actual number is around nine -- but the point should be there. Despite the fact that the game explicitly advertises itself to fans of roleplaying, it's attracted only a very small playerbase. The saga of management mishaps hasn't helped it, to be sure, but there's also the fact that it seems targeting stuff to roleplayers simply doesn't work. We hear about it, and then we just sort of ignore what we're being sold and go back to the game that doesn't look twice in our direction.
When was the last time that a large number of roleplayers got together and actually insisted that before game X launches, it needs a robust environment for players to take on the roles they want? Have you ever heard of people leaving a game because it doesn't give you a big enough RP toolbox? Do developers even seem to listen when the RP community says anything?
Somewhere along the line, we seem to have accepted that unlike roleplayers in the MUSH and MUD games that came before, modern roleplayers should be a marginalized group in MMOs. Developers realized that we were content to be given a paltry set of concessions and that we'd then sit obligingly in our corner without bothering to raise any real ruckus. And even today, we seem to accept the idea that on some level, roleplaying is somehow a fringe behavior in a game where you start off pretending to be some variety of elf.
Why don't we get more support from developers? Because they told us that we didn't matter, and we listened.
Housing matters. Storytelling tools matter. The ability to build and develop a character matters. Meaningful interactions with the game world matter, and the fact that so many games stop supporting this past character creation is our own fault for not emphasizing it more.
If we want developers to care about these things, we have to say so. We have to make the point that roleplay features are just as important as solid PvE and PvP. We have to actually get up and say that there isn't anything strange about the playstyle, and hey, I want my make-believe person to do neat things in my own way.
Heck, it saves time for the developer. You have to force people to group up to clear things in PvE; you have to force group tactics in PvP. People will naturally group up for roleplaying.
This is my needless rant for the week. I promise, next week we're back to more sober advice -- and the project that was going to be started today but got pushed to next week. You can feel free to send comments, concerns, or dismissals of my point of view to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can just leave them in the comment section, if you'd rather.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.