In the beginning – in terms of role-playing games, that is – there was Dungeons & Dragons. From it sprung countless other RPGs, and modeled upon it were the earliest video game RPGs, and modeled upon those were the first MMORPGs. The evolution looks something like this:
Pen-and-paper RPGs (RPGs) —> Computer/Console RPGs (CRPGs) —> Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs)
Many of the concepts we still see today – classes, levels, races, hit points, and even programming concepts like loot tables – owe their existence to the conventions laid down nearly 40 years ago by D&D.
(Yes, I realize there were other RPG-like games before D&D, like Chainmail and Blackmoor. But as EverQuest is to MMOs, D&D was the first to experience widespread success and the one from which future games largely derived.)
Many of the ideas that do stick around from one generation to next persist in a modified form. D&D hit points number, at most, in the hundreds. A high-level MMORPG character has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hit points. Most MMORPGs, and several CRPGs, don’t use encumbrance, on a pound-by-pound basis, but limit your bag space so as to provide a limit on how much you can carry. And many conveniences exist, often brought about by the greater power that computers offer. Imagine an RPG with as many buffs and debuffs as an MMORPG. You’d go crazy trying to keep track of them all.
But what about aesthetic choices? In recognizing that MMORPGs are different from RPGs, and even CRPGs, you have to ask: Why are these changes made in the first place? Other than simply wanting to be different – which is a good thing, because every MMORPG shouldn’t be a version of D&D – why are they made?
Let’s talk about character creation, particularly the notion of racial and even gender-based statistical differences. This has been a hot topic on the last few episodes of TWIMMO, especially as it pertains to Camelot Unchained. To people who have grown weary of today’s homogenized, bland MMORPGs, these sound great. Having dwarves be stronger – but less intelligent, say – than elves, or having men be stronger – but perhaps less nimble – than women lends an additional layer of complexity and even realism to the game and helps differentiate it further from the rest of its competition.
Early, and even some recent, MMORPGs did this, at least as far as racial bonuses/penalties go. So why don’t most of them now? The easy answer is that it wasn’t what the masses wanted, and a game like Camelot is, if nothing else, not made for the masses. And, as I just mentioned, not having an MMORPG that’s “more of the same” is just what a select brand of players want.
But there’s a difference, I think, between appealing – or even pandering – to the masses and recognizing flaws in an approach and acting to correct them. Racial bonuses/penalties were, and still remain, very common in RPGs and CRPGs, but you don’t see them very often in MMORPGs. Maybe there’s more to it than just “it’s what everybody does.” Maybe everybody does it because it’s the best gameplay for the format. No matter how similar they may seem, CRPGs are not MMORPGs, and they need to approach their gameplay from different angles.
In a CRPG – the vast majority of which are single-player experiences – you have only yourself to answer to. You are the only person affected by your decisions, and you will never not be able to experience any content you wish. If elves are excellent mages, and you decide to make a heavy armor, two-handed battleaxe, warrior elf, go right ahead. You won’t be quite as effective as an elf mage, but that only hinders your performance – and probably not by a tremendous amount. It might take you 5% or 10% more time to finish content with your “off the cuff” character, but it’s the character you want to play, and you’re willing to deal with the consequences.
In an MMORPG with racial mods, you can make the same decision. You can make your elf warrior and solo away to your heart’s content, reveling in your individuality as a rarity among the elven race. But what does a group look for? Unless they’re role-players or very close friends – possibly a guild, but perhaps actual real friends whom you know outside the game – they will almost certainly want the best possible character filling their role. In a guild group, you might be able to get by with a character 5-10% below the norm, at least for a while (“But grind for some of that better gear when you get the chance, OK?”). In a PUG or if you’re using a group finder, good luck. “lol elf warror? roll dwarf noob”
So you’re faced with a dilemma: Make the character you want, knowing that he’ll be substandard and potentially even shunned, or make the most effective character possible, even if it’s not what you want, and even if there are already a thousand characters of a certain race/class combination. And if MMORPG players crave anything, it’s effectiveness. If a typically 30-minute dungeon run takes 35 or 40 minutes, it’s easy to point the finger at that sucky elf who should have known better than to make an warrior.
(Edit: And I didn’t even consider PvP and the notion of bringing an intentionally subpar character to that arena.)
The situation is compounded even further if, as has been hinted at in Camelot Unchained, there will be differences in gender, with male characters potentially being stronger than female characters. Now a female player who wants to make a warrior will be faced with the possible unpleasantness of having to roll a male character to have the best possible chance of success, not to mention men having to roll female characters to take advantage of whatever bonuses they’ll possess.
So why does this work in RPGs, which are not generally single-player? I think there are a number of reasons. First, you don’t have the choice of your party. If the four of us get together at my place and decide to play Dungeons & Dragons, we’re not going to decide one of us can’t play because he’s making a somewhat less-than-optimal character. We’re (supposedly) friends and we aren’t going to exclude someone – i.e., kick them from the party – for his character choices.
Also, despite everything else you can do in them, MMORPGs are primarily about combat, and it’s what you’ll be doing most of the time. Conversely, you’ll spend a great deal of time in an RPG doing non-combat activities, even (gasp!) role-playing, so having one or two characters be not so good at combat – but possibly good at other things – means they can still contribute to the group.
(I like to think of Firefly as an example of a nine-person RPG group. Remember that line in “Heart of Gold” where the traitorous whore says Mal only has “two real fighters, besides himself”? Technically, she’s not counting Book and River, who are capable of no small amount of ass-kicking, but that still means that, in a typical MMORPG setting, roughly half the crew would be suboptimal as character choices. And even Book and River would probably be better fighters, stat-wise, if they were younger and male, respectively. And not crazy, in River’s case.)
Finally, in an MMORPG, people base virtually their entire development path around obtaining certain statistics: strength for warriors, intelligence for mages, agility for rangers, etc. There’s rarely a need for a warrior to be smart or for a mage to be strong; warriors never need to cast spells and mages never need to worry about melee combat.
In an RPG, though… well, sometimes stuff happens. The mage can’t use spells and has to fight with a weapon. Or the warrior is caught in a trap and needs to use his wits to get out. These provide great character moments and require their players to really think out of the box to overcome unique challenges. Non-class stats are pitifully low in an MMORPG because you never need them, so there’s even less reason to roll a strong mage or a smart warrior. Imagine a boss fight where your mage couldn’t use spells or your fighter couldn’t use his weapons. It simply wouldn’t work.
It’s not because MMORPGs have gotten less “hardcore” that these kind of things have been done, and that the players who want them back are “leet”; it’s because it’s generally good for gameplay and suitable for the format. They were tried before, when all developers had was the previous generation of games to go by, but as time passed, it was largely decided to be not a good idea and therefore changed. As I stated at the beginning, MMORPGs are not RPGs, and they’re not CRPGs. They share several elements, but they do need to do some things differently.
Camelot Unchained can proceed along whatever road it likes. It’s Mark Jacobs’ game and he’s certainly free to run it in whatever manner he chooses. And he seems quite realistic about the potential size of his game’s player base. But if I could offer him any piece of advice, it would be to not to base his design on nostalgia. For a time when we really were still fumbling around and trying to make sense of a completely, utterly, breathtakingly new genre of gaming we now know as the MMORPG, they made sense. But MMORPGs don’t need to be bound to the rules of the previous generation of games, which had different needs and different goals. Make the best game possible for the format, but first and foremost, don’t format the format that you’re making it for.