I have never understood the acronym “MMORPG”, because it lies.
Role-playing games are what I played as a kid in high school. Combat tables, equipment, and loot only served as structure for the interactions between our player characters and the non-player characters (NPCs) portrayed by the Dungeon Master. The role-playing was the heart of the experience.
Nowadays, we drop the RPG altogether and refer to the genre as MMO. Combat mechanics and loot tables are all that computers are fit to replicate from the tabletop. Role-playing requires human beings, and writing and performing your own dialogue is a challenge for most people. MMO players often establish unofficial “roleplay servers” to make it easier to find one another, as they are so few in number.
When Bioware announced their focus on story in The Old Republic it sounded like a step in the right direction, but I couldn’t figure out how a focus on individual plot lines was going to support the group play that is so essential to a successful MMO. If all the players have their own, individual stories to pursue, what’s to keep them gaming together over time? When I sat down with Daniel Erickson after my hands-on demo of TOR at E3, this was the first question I asked him.
“The demo you played takes place on the origin worlds,” Erickson said. “Most of that is class specific content, but you can still work together to accomplish those goals.”
Why, I asked, would we stay together after that point?
“The great majority of our content is not class-specific,” Erickson said. “Each planet in the game has a world arc. They are giant, multi-quest stories that are designed for party play. Also, you get different dialogue options from NPCs for being in a party,” he added as an aside.
I raised an eyebrow.
“If I talk to an NPC by myself, I get a different set of dialogue options than if I was in a group?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“If I have different types of character classes in my group during different conversations with the same NPC, do I get different dialogue choices each time?” I asked. No MMO has ever given me a reason to repeat a quest other than loot runs.
“We had to prototype the multiplayer dialogue system before we even had an engine,” Erickson laughed. “Brad Prince, our lead world designer, only plays MMOs. He’s a strictly multiplayer gamer, so he always asks how groups work. What we wanted to do was recreate the pen-and-paper tabletop roleplaying experience that people have always wanted.”
In other words, Bioware wants to create the first MMORPG that lives up to the name.
Here’s roughly how it works: you and your party of three players are on a quest together and encounter an NPC. Someone from your party starts the dialogue from the familiar Bioware radial menu. The NPC speaks, and then each member of your party gets to select a response from their personal radial menu, and you all issue your “lines” to the NPC. Think the party dialogue in Dragon Age, where party members opine about the potential choices you might make while dealing with an NPC, but now that party dialogue is being generated by human beings.
“In pen-and-paper roleplaying games, groups tend to move toward the extremes,” Erickson said. “You have a small group of dominant personalities all trying to control the direction of the party.” He gave me an example of how The Old Republic replicates this. Let’s say that your group is composed of three Light Side characters and you’re a Dark Side character. Your party begins the interaction with the NPC, and your three compatriots select Light Side dialogue choices.
You decide to screw with your party and choose a Dark Side dialogue choice. That gets the NPC riled up, and now your other party members have to try calming him down as the dialogue continues, while you continue messing with them.
NPCs in modern-day MMOs serve as little more than quest bookends. Bioware is not only turning these interactions into substantive content through full voice support, but where groups of players are concerned has turned them into roleplaying exercises.
Bioware has taken the onus off players to learn how to successfully roleplay. The Old Republic may not even require roleplay servers because the game turns everyone into a roleplayer. Groups will no longer be solely about 40-man raids into instances, but about playing characters creating a story.
This may not make roleplaying the heart of the experience, but even introducing it as part of the default experience returns the RPG to the genre’s acronym and may forever change what players expect from an MMO well beyond expecting their NPCs to speak to them.