Free for All: Can roleplay rise above the sexy stuff?

Velvet Sundown screenshot

Recently I logged some time in Velvet Sundown, a new pseudo-MMO that places players into small, instanced roleplay groups of 11 characters aboard a ship in order to solve a mystery or to otherwise "win" a roleplay session. It sounds strange, but it really is a very interesting idea. Each character has a different angle on the game, and depending on how that character interacts with the others, he or she also has many different ways of achieving goals. The game also offer a decent text-to-speech tool that gives more life to the characters.

I logged in and was assigned to play the character Malik, who was something of a wise man. My apparent goal was to find a spy, hire a thief to steal secrets, and look for other players who were from the same background. I was also assigned the task of blessing people in the hopes of gaining new disciples.

Excited, I logged in and approached a group of players. Almost as soon as I did, I was disappointed. Within minutes several players were talking non-stop about women's underwear. At first I thought it was part of the story, but then I realized it was simply another great roleplay opportunity taken down by a few jerks.

Velvet Sundown screenshot

My session in Velvet Sundown should not shine negatively on the title. It is still in beta, the game still needs plenty of work, and it's very possible that the behavior I witnessed was not very common. In fact, other writers I know have played the game for hours without any incident. I just happened to stumble on the wrong group. (Expect a deeper look at the game mechanics from me in a future column.)

It might not help that the game is cast as a sort of sexy romp on the high seas, something that seems to attract those gamers who seem to lack any ability to control their hormonal outbursts. Second Life suffers from the same public image. Sex sells, unfortunately for gaming, but there is so much more to social gaming than sexy ads.

Minus all of the sexy stuff, roleplay is often torn apart before it gets started. Like anything in nerd culture, roleplay is as defined by sets of social rules and guidelines as raiding or PvP is. Roleplay is wonderful improvisation at best and boring, predictable, and even offensive at worst. Roleplay does not often invite new players. I have approached many roleplay events nervously because I knew that many of the established players were too worried about continuing on their specific storylines or drama to be concerned with new players. I usually do what I did in my sessions of Velvet Sundown: stand around on the edge of the group and hope someone stops talking about himself long enough to allow newbies to pop in without seeming rude.

Roleplay and raiding share many of the same issues. There is almost no better example of what makes MMOs great than raiding. Raiding with a group of players is what MMOs are best at, as they should be. Raiding is about working with people, in real time and hopefully having real effects on the game. On the other hand, raiding is usually an instanced activity, one that puts those dedicated groups of players off into their own corner of the world; it's an activity that encourages constant grinding and running on the hamster wheel. Raiding is the core of MMOs, but it's also the enemy of innovation and exploration.

RIFT screenshot

Roleplay works the same way. Roleplayers often ignore many parts of the greater MMO world in order to sulk like a ranger in a corner. Roleplayers can be snooty, ignorant, and as mean and nasty as any troll. I've witnessed just as many players leave the hobby because of jerky roleplayers as people leaving due to burnout with a game's mechanics.

I've discussed the death of live roleplay events before and how they have died off largely because of newer, scripted events and fear of enraging players who miss the chance to interact with developers. Are developers as responsible for making roleplay more rare than it used to be? Yes and no. Players are just as responsible for the lack of real roleplay by preferring grinding and activity-based play over exploration and immersion. Developers have the responsibility of encouraging and supporting and rewarding roleplay more than many of them do now. They could do this in several key ways:

First, they could host roleplay events. As I pointed out before, hosting live events is not being done for many reasons, and those reasons will probably not change for a while. The indie scene and older MMOs are more likely to host roleplay events, and some genres like MUDs continue to be one of the few places left for MMO roleplayers to attend dedicated events. Still, it doesn't take much at all to host even a small event. It could start with a single 30-minute storytelling session with a staff member ("dressed" as an NPC) talking about some new lore development. Or a GM could spawn a massive monster and drag it around for a show and tell, enticing players to explore higher-level content.

Second, they could encourage and police roleplay events. Sure, plenty of developers highlight player-hosted roleplay events or offer roleplay servers for RPers to gather on. However, doing these things usually amounts to nothing more than hanging a sign on the server that says, "Roleplayers, go that way." A staff member could hang out, invisibly, to stop trolls or griefers from ruining gatherings. The developer could even hand out lovely (but not powerful) items to roleplayers who do the most work.

Third, they could enforce roleplay rules. If I play a new MMO and it has a roleplay server, I will almost always roll on that server, even though I know that the title generally means only that roleplay is encouraged. But if it's only as encouraged as it is on any other server, what's the point? Developers have got to regain the guts they used to have and force players who choose to roll on RP servers to use a specific type of name. They could also ban people who routinely interrupt events or who break character talking about real-world sporting events. A simple pop-up or tutorial video could explain the rules before a new player joins the server.

Velvet Sundown screenshot

There are a few things that will likely have a hand in the downfall of MMOs as we know them now. One is the obsession with achievement. If getting the greatest sword in the game or having the most PvP takedowns is the only thing that most players value, then none of us should be surprised when developers catch on and realize that creating all of those lovely trees, virtual weather systems, and virtual world-crafting can be done away with. (Many modern AAA MMOs and the rise of the MOBA genre are both signs of this trend.) Another is the influence of hands-free gaming. Many of newer titles are popular in the East, but I can promise you that auto-attack and "easy-mode" (for lack of a better term) is not something that only foreign gamers find attractive.

One of the most destructive forces in MMOs is the erasing of roleplay. Without roleplay and other elements that slow the pace of gameplay, MMOs become nothing but a sport. When things become a sport, they become less accessible, about money over innovation and dictated by rules. Roleplay is exactly what makes MMOs unique and wonderful; without it, MMOs are just a series of button-presses.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!