Click Me Baby One More Time
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGS) are, for the most part, all boring wastes of time that have very little of importance to differentiate one from another. This is not to say that MMORPGs are not fun, because in their own way they can be. They certainly have the tendency to be addictive.
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGS) are, for the most part, all boring wastes of time that have very little of importance to differentiate one from another. This is not to say that MMORPGs are not fun, because in their own way they can be. They certainly have the tendency to be addictive. Nonetheless, the current crop of MMORPGs offer a sort of mindless monotony, that while engaging, is really a waste of the technology and the potential for true role playing. Unless the base of players, and the games themselves change in some very important ways, I believe that the upcoming MMORPGs will find the same fate.
At the most basic level, role playing is taking on the role of a character as you guide that character's actions within an imaginary setting. MMORPGs do offer role playing in this sense, because you act through a character, rather than as yourself. For players who are used to pen and paper role playing games, this hardly counts as role playing at all. Unfortunately the very nature of their design, MMORPGS do not encourage, and can actually hinder true role playing.
True role playing goes beyond just wearing the body of an imaginary character. True role playing is giving your character a fully developed personality of her own, directing her actions based on that personality, and can even go so far as to include an entire imagined life for the character. It includes giving a character likes and dislikes, goals, fears, behaviors, speech patterns, and other distinguishing characteristics that make her a unique individual. Furthermore, the relationships that your character builds with other characters and the history of your character within the world make up an important part of her personality. True role playing in an MMORPG is almost impossible because the structure of the game cripples or removes many of the important elements that allow a character to build and develop a personality and interact with other players and the world around her.
In MMORPGs, there is one basic goal, to make the character more powerful. This goal can be achieved in two basic ways, by gaining experience to raise statistics and skills or by gaining wealth to buy more powerful equipment and spells. The main way to accomplish this is two things, to practice a skill, or complete quests.
It is almost unheard of for a character to interact in a meaningful way with computer controlled characters or to change the game world. There is no real storyline to follow, and the minimal story that does exist does not offer characters any useful way to participate and enact change in themselves or the world. So all characters have essentially the same motivation and goals, which makes true role playing very limited.
Interaction between characters is fairly limited and sometimes difficult within the game. Talking to computer controlled characters gives no meaningful response, and talking with other players involves typing into a small dialogue window and reading their response. Since the keyboard is both the primary means of communication and of character control, it can make speaking with other characters difficult and dangerous to your character's health. Several of my characters have run off cliffs or bumped into deadly monsters while I was typing instead of moving my character in the right direction.
Dialogue takes place in the same window where battle results or item descriptions appear, further confusing communication. In a game world with dozens or hundreds of other people around, conversations of nearby characters, characters shouting, and out of character comments can all intrude. These difficulties make in-character conversations much more rare than they should be. Communication is often relegated to macros and hot keys giving important information. Money makes the game world go round, so the only communication that does not suffer is auctions and requests for help or donations. In-character discussions are rare, and people who actually bother to develop a personality for their character's communication are rarer still.
To really role play, you need a community of other players who are all role playing as well. It is possible to be the only player around acting in character, but it is not very enjoyable. If nobody else is acting in character, there is little point to dialogue. It is difficult to build a community in an MMORPG because the game's mechanics make it difficult to gain power and build a role playing community at the same time.
In order to gain power most efficiently, players need to form groups composed of diverse characters. In EverQuest it is not uncommon to see a Dark Elf Necromancer and a Troll Shaman grouped with a Dwarf Paladin and a Halfling Druid. From a role playing perspective, this group should never work together. The Paladin and Druid would most likely be quite hostile towards the Necromancer and Shaman. In the world of MMORPGs, enemy races and classes often group to combine skills and offer safety in numbers.
It is also most efficient and safe to group with characters of similar power to your own. If powerful characters group with relatively weaker characters, either the more powerful character will have no challenge and little worthwhile experience or treasure from fighting weak monsters, or the weaker characters will be easily killed and offer no real assistance when fighting stronger monsters. So within the game, groups almost always contain characters of roughly the same power.
Because gaining power for a character can take a large investment of time, it is easy for a character to fall behind others in her group if she is unable to play as long as they are. If a group of role players frequently works together, and one player takes a vacation for several days, she may come back to find that her character can no longer safely group with her companions. This effectively breaks the role playing community by forcing community members to split up.
All these features of MMORPGs work together to eliminate true role playing from the game. What is left is a game of pretty graphics and new places to explore, with action that consists of mindless clicking and very little skill or thought to achieve your goals. The game becomes merely a waste of time, since the only goal is to strengthen your character, and the only way to achieve that is by devoting countless hours of time to repetitive tasks. Game play consists of killing one type of monster over and over until you are strong enough to advance to the next harder color of that monster or running between two locations to complete the same quest dozens of times. This can be entertaining, the same way that throwing cards into a hat across the room is entertaining, but it's a shame to waste the potential of putting that many role players together by forcing them all to complete one boring task after another and making it difficult for them to actually role play their characters.
Of course, for the game developers, these types of games are pure genius. The mindless task of gaining power for your character by simple, repetitive actions is easy enough for anyone to enjoy. The "Gotta catch 'em all" mentality of collecting that made Pokemon such a success keeps players coming back to get just one more level or find the next most powerful weapon.
The ability to meet new people online, or spend time with your friends working together toward a common goal does have great appeal, and since these games are currently the best we have, thousands of people play them every day. With the developers collecting a monthly fee from every player, often bought in six month or one year subscriptions and automatically renewed for you, these games are a gold mine.
So unless we get really lucky and a developer comes along who wants to make a great game instead of a money-making game (Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause), or we demand more out of our MMORPG experience, I believe that the next generation of MMORPGs will be essentially the same as the ones we have now. In fact, Anarchy Online, the most recent MMORPG, was just released to the public. I was a beta tester, so I already have a pretty good idea, but I'm guessing it will be EQ In Space. Send them your money, shut down your brain, and click away!