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The roles we play


To some people, the term "role-playing" conjures up images of guys with tinfoil swords and shields shouting "Lighting bolt!". Role-playing in MMOs gets a similarly polarised reception, suggesting scenes of people playing pretend and speaking to each other in Shakespearean tone. To those of us that grew up with pen-and-paper role-playing games and single-player RPGs, it might mean the opportunity to play fantastic characters like wizards and rogues. At its core, however, role-playing is something far more subtle and fundamental than we sometimes give it credit for and it underpins the entire MMO genre. In playing an MMO, we are inherently playing roles that the game's developers have created for us. But do most MMO developers really know how to create engaging gameplay for us or are they failing to immerse us in their own chosen roles?

In this probative opinion piece, I delve into the roles we play in MMOs and the things developers often do wrong when designing an immersive game experience.

The role of story:
At the heart of it, computer games are just another way to tell a story. As with books or film, the experiences we have in MMOs and games in general have been created by an author of sorts. The game designer and the content creators conspire to bring a story to life and drop the player right in the thick of it. Some games go for a passive filmic approach with cutscenes, plot development and linear gameplay. Others do away with the plot altogether and focus on letting the player create their own story.

MMOs have a wide variety here, with some like Age of Conan's Tortage area and the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic focusing on storytelling and others like EVE Online dropping players into a sandbox environment. In the more familiar Warcraftian formula, players can choose what to do in the game world but each area or zone has its own story to involve them in. No matter how an MMO tells its stories or helps players create their own, we take on a role in them and play an immersive part in a sort of fantasy play.

The roles we want:
The fact that we control an avatar, a character that isn't us, means when we play an MMO or indeed any game, we are inherently playing a role. Whether you play the role of yourself in a space ship, the main tank in a dungeon crawl or a mute physicist with a penchant for crowbars, you're playing a role that the game designers have created. This fact has significant implications for the design of immersive game experiences. It's the unfortunate truth that the roles we play in MMOs are often overlooked and poorly designed, with detrimental consequences for gameplay. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lazy quest and zone designs that no MMO seems able to overcome.

An example of a staple MMO storyline might be a zone where an enemy force is invading, be it on land or from sea. This could be played out with immersive gameplay where you're part of a group fighting off invaders who periodically hit the shores in longboats. Once per hour, players and NPCs might band together to fight off the invaders. You could man the cannons and aim them manually or co-ordinate rows of artillery archers. You could place magic mines and then detonate them as enemies run over them or run around the battlefield healing fallen NPC comrades. Maybe you just fight wave after wave of the invaders as they land and then kill their captains. In this zone design, you're immersed in a story as it unfolds. Single-player games have included experiences like this and one or two MMO quests fit the formula but somehow this isn't what we get in the majority of quests.

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