Theory of Evolution

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.

Chainmail_3rd_edition(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.

Who says hobbits can't tank?

Who says hobbits can’t tank?

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.

What do you suppose her dual-wield penalty is?

What do you suppose her dual-wield penalty is?

(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.

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11 Responses to Theory of Evolution

  1. Great post. I appreciate your thoughtful approach to what is a very nuanced topic–developers aren’t stupid; they may make wrong decisions, but they don’t make them without some reasoning. I am nervous about the future of MMOs–I love them, but have not found one to call home since WoW–but I am looking forward to seeing what new direction the genre foes (and I agree that backwards is not the answer). Also, I love the Firefly illustration.

  2. Interesting post, and well thought-out.

    I have mixed feelings on racial bonuses, myself. On the one hand, I don’t really like it when race is a purely cosmetic choice. I feel it robs the game of a great deal of flavour. But the on the other hand, it obviously sucks quite royally if you can’t play the way you want just because of your racial choice, either due to peer pressure or game design.

    I think WoW has a good take on it. Their racial skills are powerful enough to be noticeable, but not so powerful that anyone cares whether your race is the best for your role or not, barring an incredibly tiny minority of fanatical min/maxers.

    What I really hate is when your choice of faction is limited by race. Using WoW as an example again, my favourite race to play as is Blood Elf, but they’re a Horde race, and my in-game friends are Alliance. So I’m left running around on some dumb human paladin when what I really want is to be a Blood Knight. But I guess that’s more related to my hate of factions in general than race design…

    I guess my feeling is that race choice should make a difference, but only in a positive way. It should feel like a bonus, not something hobbling you.

  3. Benjamin says:

    For what it’s worth, in DAoC racial bonuses were less along the lines of “playing race X will make your mage 10% less effective” and more along the lines of “do I want more damage or faster cast speed?” The races in that game were relatively well balanced, and you could make a decent argument for most of the allowed race/class combos.

    • jasonwinter says:

      Something like that *might* work, but I have to imagine it’ll still bring out the masses with pitchforks screaming about imbalances. What if I want to play a class with a lot of insta-cast spells? Now faster casting speed is irrelevant to me and I’ll “have” to take the damage bonus to get my advantage.

  4. Kuldebar says:

    Nice post, but I think it is much more than nostalgia that’s at work here, it’s a return to a more organic and and less homogenized gaming experience. If players can make their choices with eyes wide open and not remain willfully ignorant of the game they are playing; there really is no issue or problem. But CU isn’t about being safe for mass consumption, it’s not seeking to be watered down or cooled to room temperature or have all the sharp edges filed off.

    Like music, art films or cookbooks, MMO’s can be produced for the tastes and preferences of its target audience, Using the music industry as an example, not everyone likes pop music even though it has a mass appeal but there are plenty of other genres out there that do quite fine in a smaller their markets. CSE is well positioned to be able to really connect with its target audience because what Mark Jacobs is putting out there is being cheered and welcomed by a small but very dedicated core of gamers who will need to prove their support via the Kickstarter Project. The yardstick for measuring dedicated interest won’t get any clearer than that.

    Camelot Unchained may be going old school style on some things like the race/gender differences, but frankly that’s a pretty refreshing development after the last 12 years of MMO gaming. The genre has been getting watered down and all the wildness is being bred out of it. The RPG elements are becoming nothing more than aesthetic skins with no real impact on player involvement in their virtual world. Sure great graphics, beautiful worlds but bland and restrictive game play that attempts to give the illusion of player self determination.

    For myself, I am weary of playing games designed for every type of gamer, I want something more appealing to my preferences. I can appreciate aspects of WoW or GW2 or Rift, but they never really venture into the places I want a game to go. The road map for CU that Mark Jacobs has drawn out is completely new territory in many ways and all the more interesting because it retains some of the characteristics of games I played avidly when I was a younger man.

    Sometimes MMO’s need to be bound to the rules of the previous generation of games, because all the newer generation games are losing their genetic identity and heritage. Camelot Unchained encompasses the idea that just because something is old doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into something new. Very much like the old world myths on which it will be based, Camelot Unchained can fold in some of the classic MMORPG elements into a new generation of MMO.

  5. Mark Jacobs says:

    Hey, great terrific piece, thanks! In response, let me simply say that the typical PUG rules don’t apply to a pure-RvR play game except when people are choosing to play in their 8-man or some variant. When you are raiding in PvE, the makeup of your small group is extremely important and even a small variant between the “ideal” build to successfully complete that raid and what your 8-man would be is enough to generate build scorn as you describe. However, when you are standing on the battlements and reinforcements are streaming in, most players won’t say “GTFO you loser, build a proper warrior next time”. We actually had this same discussion in the office yesterday and I do believe that since CU has no raiding component and because the statistical differences will not be of the character gimping amount (unless you actively choose to further gimp your character), along with the “banes and boon” system, that the vast majority of our core demographic will not let them stand in their way of playing the game. What it boils down to is that if I embrace the rock, paper, scissor approach for CU, then I might as well go all the way with it. Make the races/class/genders different because if I don’t and go the infinitely safer route of no racial/gender differences, why wouldn’t I do that for classes too? As you know, I did that once before with Warhammer Online where it was my call to use a mirrored class system. For CU, I think this is the right approach.

    However, as you correctly say, we are definitely venturing in new territory and some of it is dangerous. If I’m wrong about how core demo feels about the game, its FPs, our Kickstarter will fail to fund and CU won’t be made. OTOH, if I’m right that there is a strong core audience who yearn for non-homogenize races, classes that are really different from each other, etc. then we’ll do our best to deliver on it for our players and it will be fun, from both a designer’s perspective and our core demographic, to look at the choices available to them and go “Damn, I’m not sure what to play. They are all different from each other.” 🙂

    Again, a really great piece. Thanks so much for taking the time to compose it.

    • jasonwinter says:

      Hi Mark! Thanks for stopping by!

      You’re right about CU being “pure RvR” so exclusion from a party won’t be an issue and probably makes banes/boons easier to dish out since people won’t always be able to decide what they’re up against.

      Regarding not making the racial differences “non-gimping,” I thought that would be a solution, but then I wondered that, if they’re mostly there for flavor, will anyone really notice? If a dwarf takes 1% less damage, he might be the “best” tank, but will I really feel hardier than if I play an elf tank? I played a lot of LOTRO, and it had a few very small racial differences like these, but they were largely ignored, even by the min-maxers.

      In any case, good luck with the game! And I actually knew a Jenny Hayden.

      • Kuldebar says:

        Perhaps it could be a balance somewhere between too little or too much?

        Maybe “Race A” has a toughness rating of 5 but an agility rating of 2, while “Race B” is very agile with agility at 6 and but having only a toughness rating of 1.

        Thus a player can decide if they want damage mitigation based on avoidance or tolerance. Both very viable mechanics for being a melee class.

        And sure, depending on the game’s gear itemization stats, some of this might be evened out, but the initial base levels would be the foundation to build upon.

        As for gender differences, the same methodology could be used. Effectively, class and genders and races are all the same: methods for a player to truly customize there choices and focus.

        It’s the difference between only having one decision point :
        – Class
        Or multiple decision point combinations:
        – Class
        – Race
        – Gender

  6. Mark Jacobs says:

    Grumble. Sorry about the “great terrific” on the first line. Makes me sound like Jeff Bridges in Starman.

  7. Another awesome article! Love the walk the path from pen/paper to keyboard/pixels and the future of the industry is wide and open. And a surprise comment from M.J. to top off the read. 🙂 Thanks all!

  8. Pingback: It’s Not You, It’s Me | Wintry Mix

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