WebRPG: A Great Idea Gone Bad
I've known for a long time that online gaming is not what I, or any other number of dedicated roleplayers, want it to be. EverQuest and its ilk make it paradise for those who want to beat the crap out of a never-ending stream of monsters, but it's not exactly anyone's first choice for good storytelling and memorable characters. But for awhile there was a wonderful little program called WebRPG that I thought had the potential to revolutionize online gaming as we know it. But along the way its creators made a fatal mistake, and things were never quite the same after that.
What happened to WebRPG, you ask? In one sense, nothing; its website (www.webrpg.com) is still online, and you can still go there to read about it and download all the necessary components for the program. But even though WebRPG still exists in name, the spirit that at one point made me consider it the future of online gaming is gone. Here's why.
WebRPG started out as pure genius. It wasn't a preprogrammed dungeon crawl like your typical MU* or MMORPG. Mostly, it was no different than your average chat program, with a few extra bells and whistles like a built-in dice roller. With a little bit of effort, you could set up character sheets, miniatures, and maps for the benefit of GMs and players alike. The creators also made the intelligent choice of including a game tracker, so even if you didn't have a gaming group of your own you could drop in at any time day or night to see what other games were going on, observe them, or even join in. It was quick to download, easy to set up, and best of all, free.
In short, WebRPG was the cyberspace equivalent of your friendly neighborhood game shop. You could meet up with friends for a weekly session, observe or join in other games, or just hang out and see who dropped by for a chat. It wasn't quite the same as sitting down for a good, old-fashioned tabletop session, but it was close enough. There had never been anything quite like it offered on the Internet (at least, nothing so high-profile or accessible), and one by one gamers were sitting up and taking notice.
It's easy to see why a considerable amount of gamers began flocking to WebRPG, either as a supplement or an alternative to tabletopping. It was a great way to meet fellow gamers and form new groups, or to keep long-standing groups together if their members relocated. It wasn't a perfect program by any stretch of the imagination; the fact that it was programmed using Java made it quite a systems hog, and a number of annoying bugs in the software made random disconnections, serious lag, and the entirely too frequent appearance of the dreaded "blue screen of death" a way of life for many of its users. Despite all this, there were many gamers for whom the program became an indispensable tool for good online gaming.
The trouble started just about a month ago, when the creators of WebRPG made a rather surprising announcement. Their program would no longer be free to all who chose to download it. Instead, they had decided to institute a monthly fee in exchange for the privilege of using their program to run games. In my opinion, this decision spells the beginning of the end for WebRPG.
You may be wondering, "Why should that make a difference?" It matters because the great majority of Internet users are, at heart, cheap bastards. We'll download and use anything if it's free, but once we have to cough up our hard-earned cash for it, we're much more likely to delete it than we are to keep it. Look at Napster. It used to be that every other Internet user was enamored with the wonders of free file-sharing. Its users didn't disappear during its well-publicized cout battle, but the moment money became involved most of them found better ways to trade MP3s. When WebRPG became a pay service, I knew of about four different groups using it for their weekly games. When the players in each group got word of WebRPG's conversion, their immediate reaction was not to revise their monthly budget to make room for a new expense. Without exception, they began scrambling to find a different, free place to host their games. I wouldn't be surprised if a substantial amount of WebRPG's other users do the same.
There's also the fact that WebRPG has now gone from being a free, extremely buggy piece of software to being an extremely buggy piece of software that costs $10 a month to use. The technical problems that followed in WebRPG's wake used to be a lot easier for players to justify putting up with; after all, it was free, and you get what you pay for. I should point out that WebRPG's creators have now released a new version of their software which I have not had the opportunity to test. If the new version resolves those issues, this criticism could become a moot point, but I wouldn't count on it.
Finally, WebRPG's creators seem to have overlooked the fact that, for most gamers, online gaming is a supplement to real-life roleplaying and not a replacement for it. As much as I've enjoyed the online games in which I've participated, I wouldn't give up my weekly tabletop session for them even if WebRPG was paying me to do it. Maybe WebRPG will continue to be a good solution for gamers in isolated areas who don't have easy access to any other groups, but as long as I have a "real life" gaming group to attend every week - and as long as I can participate in it (mostly) for free - I just don't need to pay for something that, in my opinion, is only second best.
And don't even get me started on the way WebRPG announced their decision. There was never even a hint that the transition to a pay service might be down the road, just a sudden, unprecedented announcement. How many well-established games do you suppose had to end abruptly because GMs and players wouldn't or couldn't pay the fee? And even for the WebRPG users who decided to pay for it, the upheaval must have been tremendous. WebRPG may have started out trying to encourage real roleplaying on the Internet, but by not bothering to give its users fair warning, it's done much more to hinder it than it ever has to support it.
I realize that WebRPG's creators need to make money to support their business. But it seems to me that they could have come up with a better way to do it. Why not offer a stripped-down version for free, but encourage users to pay for it in order to get extra features? This has worked for programs like ZMud and SimpleMU. However, WebRPG has presented an interesting alternative to their users by allowing them to contribute game material every month instead of paying the fee. Whether users will take advantage of this alternative remains to be seen, but if anything saves the program, I'd bet that this will be it.
I could be wrong about all this, of course. This is all a fairly recent development for WebRPG, so perhaps it's too early to predict how having to pay to play will affect it. WebRPG is popular enough that I'd imagine it will continue to exist in one form or another for quite some time. But will yet another online gaming service with an Everquest-like monthly fee really be able to bring sweeping change to the world of online gaming the way the free WebRPG could have? Only time will tell, but I'm almost certain that its answer will be no.