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Redefining Interactivity, pt 6b – Why Can’t We Be Friends, pt 3 (RPGs)

July 4, 2011

ROLEPLAYING
Okay, this article is a month overdue, so let’s get to it.

Tabletop Roleplayinggame mechanics confusing; can’t get a group:

tl;dr Version: Old School Gaming, Baby!!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: When we were kids, we didn’t have these new-fangled home video games you kids are all so used to. We had to walk to the arcade, up hill, both ways, in the snow, just to stand in line to play Ms. Pac-Man (she was so hawt). You kids today have it so much easier, with your downloads and your Amazon deliveries. Probably never lost a quarter in the coin slot before, either. Punks!

Boring Version: You may have never actually played classic pencil & paper Tabletop RPGs. Perhaps you never will. It’s not as common as it once was. But it was pretty hot when I was a teen. You know how ‘concerned parents’ try to have certain video games banned because of their mature themes and graphic portrayals of violence and sexuality? That was called Dungeons & Dragons when we were young. Your ubergeek friends (or perhaps your parents) may still be into them, and may even be trying to get you to join in. If you’re a diehard video game fan, you’ve probably been ducking these friends, but believe me, with the right group of people to play with, there is nothing quite like classic RPGs (as ALL tabletop roleplaying games were once called; we didn’t have fancy videogame RPGs yet).

CAVEAT: I’ve actually designed a number of RPGs myself², so I’m a bit of a geek about them. That said, I haven’t preached the gospel of tabletop RPGs in a very long time, so I’m probably not the most likely person to launch into a sermon now. But in case I do, just keep a towel handy, and I’ll try to keep the foam and flecks of spittle to a minimum.

To be honest, I’ve played (quite) enough RPGs to know that they’re not for everyone, and it certainly is dependent on the group and Game Master you play with. Everyone has to be highly imaginative, respectful, cooperative, and most importantly, open-minded³.

WHAT ARE ROLEPLAYING GAMES?
Essentially, they’re turn-based quest games where you and a group of friends (it’s best if they’re friends; trust me on this) portray adventurers in a fictional setting, while a designated Game Master organizes the campaign, sets the scenes, presents the challenges, and referees everyone’s reactions according to their abilities and the likelihood of their success. It incorporates world-building, improvisation, character development, inventory management and copious probability charts and tables, all in the service of of creating a completely collaborative storytelling event.

Now, we’re not talking about team work, necessarily. Unlike MMORPGs, this isn’t precisely Team Sports for Geeks. You can be your group’s antagonist, if that’s what floats your boat (like our old friend Scott Hickman generally was in most of our biggest campaigns) and your Game Master is cool with that (which Derrick generally was, until Scott derailed the session and Derrick regretted ever listening to him). You can also have opposing teams, aiming for either the same or opposite objectives. But you all need to have a love of collaborating to tell a great story, or it devolves into a very dull session of Yahtzee: the Lawyer Edition⁴.

The next thing you need to know about RPGs is that there are almost no visuals. You have a small pile of often-funny-shaped dice. You have a piece of paper with columns of names and numbers written on it. The piece of paper may or may not have a drawing on it, showing us roughly what your character looks like when it’s not bleeding copiously or stripped naked by yet another gang of goblin bandits.

You may have splurged and got a nifty little lead miniature that your game master moves around on a map, for those groups that need to have maps and miniatures to show where everyone was when the blue dragon breathed a cone of ice at them (or more likely who was closest when the incompetent thief unlocked a boobie-trapped treasure chest and got everyone nearby killed).

Your Game Master may have a pile of books and tables stacked behind a big glossy fold-out cardboard screen with troll armies or storm troopers shooting lasers printed on it to keep you from seeing his dice rolls, so you won’t know when your number is up⁵.

There may be music involved. Some game masters love playing movie soundtracks⁶ while they GM. However, if there is video involved, you’re not really playing a roleplaying game anymore. It’s probably called How to Host a Murder or something like that. There’s some roleplay involved, but it really takes truly interactive storytelling out of the equation. Shout as loud as you might, but the actor on the screen will never learn the identity of the killer until it’s over… or far too late to save them.

WHY NOT?
So why don’t people play them, if they’re so cool? Well, for one thing, they’re a pain in the @$$ to organize properly. Writing for a roleplaying session isn’t like writing for… well, anything else, really. You can write bits of flavour text, but you can’t really effectively plot a session, unless you have no intention of actually letting your players do anything but what you tell them to do, in which case your career as a GM will be brief.

See, the only way to really learn how to run a roleplaying session right is by playing under somebody who has been doing it for a while and has gotten really good at it, which has never been easy, even when they were the only (roleplaying) game in town. Many have GM’d; few have proven themselves worthy of the mantle.

This is starting to sound like a recruiting pitch. It’s not. I’m not planning on starting a gaming night, even if you do live close to Limbo. Go to Piet’s house.

Still, if you ever want to have a truly interactive, collaborative storytelling experience, nothing we have today will ever come as close as good old fashioned Tabletop RPGs. They’re not as wild and woolly as getting up on stage at the local amateur improv night, but they’re easier to make mistakes in, and you can bring snacks.

Video Roleplayinggame interface confusing; A.I. allies dumb:

tl;dr Version: Link Wuz Here!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: In the late 80s, when most of us nerds were playing with our paper and dice, kids who weren’t into sports or group gaming were given Nintendo systems, and discovered the 8-bit delights of Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Video RPGs (which I will be calling vRPGs from here on out) are a LOT more sophisticated these days, but the basic principle is the same as the originals: gather items, buy better weapons, and increase your skills to defeat stronger and more fearsome opponents, until you rescue the princess or drive away the evil hordes.

Boring Version: Alright, I’ll confess, I’ve never much of a taste for these games. I played some Final Fantasy on Derrick’s SNES back in the day, and I also played a bit of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, both of which I liked to an extent. However, the cod opera feel of the FF stories always left me a little cold (I have never really been a fan of the Zelda games either, for more or less the same reason… well, that and the graphics, at least in the older games), and Oblivion just came to me at a time in my life when I was kind of burned out on medieval fantasy. Plus, I was playing a lot of WoW at the time, so there really wasn’t enough game time left for Oblivion.

That said, I’ve dreamed up a video game idea or three (hey, who hasn’t?), and one project (which was actually in the early stages of development until the programmer and I had a falling out; more about that later) is definitely intended to be a vRPG. So I’ve given the genre some serious thought, even though it’s not my favourite.

The cool thing about vRPGs is that the graphics can be really sweet, and you don’t have to depend on the storytelling skills of your GM to make the scenes believable or exciting. The counter-argument of course is that they leave far less to the imagination, and those fond of such arguments generally agree that the video rendition rarely lives up to the power of the imagination. Now, I’m funny on this subject; I agree with both sides of the argument. I’ve seen games that missed the mark completely, either story-wise or immersion-wise, and games that have more than lived up to my expectations. I’ve also argued fruitlessly with those who refused to concede any such thing.

To some, nothing can surpass the written word. Others the spoken word. Or black and white film. Or classical animation. Or 3D animation. Some prefer pencil rendered art. Some ink. Still others prefer paint on canvas. I imagine there is a pretty good argument for sculpting in human waste materials, but I have yet to go that route myself. Courses for horses, I suppose.

Point is, some folks prefer video RPGs to the original pencil and paper variety (and vice versa), but it’s really a matter of preference, rather than some inherent superiority of one medium over the other. Some people are more visual, and others more aural, and there are those who just prefer playing alone to playing with others. Which leads us once again to the question…

WHY NOT?
Now, the thing about vRPGs is that you generally play them alone or with one to three other people, depending on the franchise and the delivery system (i.e. console vs computer). Like tabletop RPGs, they’re traditionally turn-based and often require you to gather cohorts (either multi-player or A.I. party members) to take on opponents that are too powerful for you to defeat ‘solo’.

However, unlike RPGs, vRPGs don’t allow you to do much of anything that isn’t in the script. Oh sure, you can usually wander around aimlessly and get caught up in numerous side quests, but there usually isn’t too much meaningful plot/character progression unless you stick to the main quest chain, which generally don’t offer much room for variation. Even the fight sequences can seem a little choreographed at times. You definitely don’t get to verbally berate your opponents (as some spirited RPG players have been known to), unless your spiky-haired avatar says something Heroic™ during the obligatory cutscene that plays out just before the boss fight.

Some people prefer vRPGs because of the pace, but really, that’s a storytelling thing, and RPGs told by a good storyteller can be pretty captivating, too. Arguably, they can never be as fast as vRPG, but then, when a game is largely turn-based, how fast can a vRPG really be⁷?

One area where vRPGs have their predecessors beat is the special effects, be it realistic blood spatter or explosions or those really mind-blowing area effects so popular in any game containing superheroes, magic spellcasters, or warriors with enchanted weaponry. Even science fiction-based games have had to incorporate such spectacular atmospheric effects to offer the right level of intensity and cathartic release. The most your GM can offer is wild hand gestures and whatever sound effects they can make with their mouths and/or hands.

However, the SFX department is only as effective as your computer or console/home theater system. Your favourite GM never has to be upgraded. Although you may do a fair bit of trading up until you find a good one. GMs, that is. Nothing can save you from regular hardware upgrades, if you’re a gamer; they’re like death and taxes, really.

Ultimately, the thing that keeps people away from vRPGs is simply a matter of degrees of preference for realtime action versus the level of immersive storytelling involved, and frankly, both of those metrics have been blown apart by the degree of hybridization that has occurred in the vRPG genre in the last few years. What was once a fairly universal truth was that the better the gameplay, the weaker the interactive storytelling. Games like Metal Gear Solid attempted to ramp up the level of storytelling, but the argument was that using excessive cutscenes to tell all of the ‘real’ story broke the immersion and bored the players who just wanted to get to the next fight, and couldn’t have cared less about the overblown melodrama.

Now game developers are bending over backwards to make sure that all of the pertinent story segments get told in the midst of realtime gameplay, but the development time and the hardware requirements make this such an expensive and intensive proposition that most games hit the shelves severely truncated, both in terms of playing duration and in the overall shape and size of the plot development as a whole.

What this means to vRPGs is simply that a new game stays in production limbo for years before the producers dare to announce its imminent arrival, for fear of being slagged off as vapourware and dismissed long before the first screenshots or gameplay videos are posted. The cost of production and the inevitable production hold-ups, coupled with design team burnout and the ever-present spectre of having to retool after newer, better engines and design software become available (and make the last three years of work look like they were done on a Pentium II in your mom’s basement), make it impossible to turn out a quality piece of original product with anything less than a three year turnaround… and certainly not to be sold for under $60 retail. Anything shorter or less resource-intensive may be sold for as little as $20-$40, but they will inevitably receive the tired criticism that they were too short or light on production values to receive a better-than-average rating.

Oscar Wilde once coined the phrase ‘Nothing succeeds like excess’, and while it’s also true that ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’, it’s rare that a low-budget production hits a home run these days. This couldn’t be more true of vRPGs, where expansive environments and quest chains that take weeks to complete are not merely an asset but a requirement. Then, once the last of the DLC has been issued, the remains of the development team hunkers down and starts quietly brainstorming on the sequel, which probably won’t be mentioned at E3 for at least two to three years, when a slick-if-not-entirely-informative video can be uploaded to Youtube in the hopes that it goes viral… or at least whets fans’ appetites that they refrain from blowing their entire gaming budget for the year several months before release.

All this talk of money misses the point, but it touches on what really keeps folks from jumping on, which is the risk of getting let down by the big ticket game they’ve been made to wait half a decade for. An interesting side effect of the way the industry works now is, most folks steer clear of any new franchise vRPGs, preferring to save their sheckles for the big ticket games made by the brands they trust, which they only pray will have been released in such a way that they can afford to buy them all before their friends or the internet have spoiled them thoroughly.

At the price most AAA games are sold at, only the most reckless of gamers will buy more than a half dozen such games in a year. And of course, if/when the game doesn’t live up to all the hype, the player can either squander more money on cheaper, equally disappointing games to fill the gap in their gaming time, or they just go back to watching The Pillars of the Earth with their family after dinner.

Also, because most of the successful franchises have been making sequels for a decade or more, the casual gamer has no idea where to jump onboard, and very little is done to make vRPGs look newbie friendly, which I assure you drives plenty of new players away, even as shiny trailers and word of mouth draw in dwindling numbers of fresh meat.

Finally, I suspect that at least some fans of classic vRPGs have probably started to feel disenfranchised as more RPGs go to full 3D realtime combat controls. It’s certainly not as pronounced as the similar situation faced by Adventure Gamers, because vRPGs have always had a certain amount of combat, where AGs have largely eschewed it for going on twenty years. However, something a lot of modern developers take for granted is that most gamers are cross-genre players who adapt to different play styles with ease. This may be true for some dedicated gamers, but I know a number of friends who have avoided many newer vRPG titles simply because they don’t ‘feel’ right.

I feel it necessary to say that my opinions on this subject are completely unscientific, and I’m more than willing to look at better research than my own. However, while my data is largely anecdotal, it is borne out be a number of people I know who class themselves gamers who have a preference for this style of gameplay, who nevertheless have moved on to less involved games and passtimes. The days of waiting for the next Diablo expansion are over for many of them. Except Mike. He’ll play anything.

Speaking of Mike, that brings me to…

Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplayingsubscriptions/pay content; time-intensive; Hardcore Gamer ‘Tude; bad netiquette:

tl;dr Version: Die, Piggy Piggy, Die, Die!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: The great thing about MMOs is, you get to hang out with all sorts of people you might never have known otherwise and help each other play some of the most immersive RPGs in existence, and you never have to dig out your bag of funny-shaped dice or do arithmetic to play the game. However, you do need an understanding ISP and an average minimum of 4GB of RAM, a quad core processor and 20GB of free space to start, plus the hottest video card money can by, or you’ll be looking at what the developers were looking at during the first six months of development.

And you have to enjoy pointless quests involving either killing or cleaning up after hostile pigs. I’m not sure why; it just always seems to work that way. Perhaps it’s a union thing:
“Occupation?”
“Adventurer.”
“How many pigs did you kill this week?”
“Uhh… what?”
“Pigs. You know, smelly, flat-nosed things that say ‘oink’ a lot, bathe in mud, and eat absolutely anything not nailed own. You answered ‘adventurer’, so I need to have your pig kill total for this week if you want to get paid.”
“Oh… well, I don’t kill pigs. Not my line, you see. I only kill ogres, trolls and dragons, and rescue scantily-clad maidens with unbelievably large bosoms.”
“Right. You need to go over to that line marked ‘Insurance Claims’ and fill out a DF-61/A. Then take it next door to the Department of Dead Men Walking and have it notarized before we can issue a payment to your next of kin. Have a nice day. Next!”

Personally, I think those Angry Birds have got the right idea; just send in a kamikaze troop to knock a house over onto them until every last one of the damned things is being served up as bacon sandwiches. Mmm, bacon…

Boring Version: If I have to explain to you what an MMO is, perhaps you found this site by accident whilst looking for more tee shirt designs featuring Frogger in a GTA spoof. That design is coming soon. Keep your shirt on (did you see what I did there?). I’ll give you a working description in a minute.

For those that have some idea what an MMO is but haven’t actually played one, I’ll just say that I’ve had many happy hours of gaming in these fantastic virtual worlds. I’ve also had many hours of heartache and disappointment at the run-off effects of playing any MMO that’s been a success for too long. Take that as you will.

CAVEAT: I’ve played a number of MMORPGs, and not badly, at that. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, I’ve done some healing and DPS, but I’ve mainly played as a tank, which, for non-MMO people, is a rough designation for that big lug at the front of the line who takes most of the hits while everyone behind him/her lobs fire, rocks and ice at the opponents in the hope of dropping them before the tank gets flattened and all the ‘clothies’ die horribly. It’s not a terribly glamourous position, I assure you, though friendlier guildies tended to lob gear at me to help me keep them alive longer.

My wife and I call MMOs ‘Team Sports for Geeks’, and this analogy bears out pretty well. As a tank, my position is essentially that of a linebacker, or if you’re into hockey, soccer or basketball, a tank is the defensive line. In some ways, a tank is like a short stop in baseball, though he’s also the pitcher, depending on the specific sub-class and its inherent playstyle. If you’re looking for a tank analogy in any other team sports, you’re probably playing it wrong.

Alright, so the really cool thing about MMORPGs⁸ is that you get the best of both worlds: groups interactive storytelling with slick 3D animation and special effects, in a persistent virtual world that you can play any hour of the day or night (except Patch Day), whether you can get your group together or not. Plus, you can play naked. If you have never played an MMO at home alone before, you have no idea how wonderfully, sinfully decadent it feels to be in Vent with your favourite Aussie priest, with a glass of single malt scotch in front of you, and not a stitch of clothing on as you duo down mountain trolls, evil warrior monks, or really tough dragons⁹ (is there any other kind?).

With such ringing endorsements, one might be persuaded to wonder what I can possibly say about MMORPGs that would explain…

WHY NOT?
Well, it’s simple, really:

It’s not the money. Most of the newer MMOs don’t require monthly subscriptions anymore; they make their real money from their hardcore player base, which is, to my mind, the way it should be.

It’s not the impersonality. Sure, there are millions of strangers out there that piss you off for being rude idiots. However, the level of friendship you can forge with some people playing an MMO is surprisingly strong, varied and rich. I count certain of my former guild mates as some the best friends I’ve ever had, and if you’ve never made a real connection with someone online before, you can’t imagine how normal and perfectly healthy it feels for me to say that.

It’s not the technical requirements. Sure, modern MMOs are far more resource-intensive than they were a decade ago, but they also offer a lot more scalability of visual components. You don’t need to have all of the specular effects and bells and whistles running to play the game. A respectable video card can keep you running for a few years without any serious change in your experience, and while top-of-the-line video cards are still the single most expensive component you can put into your computer, you can get by with less-then-best, so long as you spend a few bucks on RAM, which tends to be much cheaper to upgrade.

And it’s not the lack of interactive storytelling. Sure, the quests are fairly set in stone, and some of the strategies needed to safely take down some of the biggest instance and raid bosses can feel so predetermined that you almost feel like you could be replaced by anybody of a similar level of experience and gear and no one would really notice the difference. However, you can choose which quests to take, you can choose which gear suits your playstyle or fashion sense best, and you can interact with fellow players in virtually any way you choose (so long as it doesn’t conflict with the TOS agreement). It’s not as narratively direct and effective as either RPGs or vRPGs, but it certainly gives you a great deal of agency, even in how you handle all but the most technically challenging encounters. Heck, even the big boss fights can be handled in unconventional ways, though they may not be as successful or as easily repeatable. Some leaders just get hung up on copying other guilds’ proven strategies, rather than risk the repair bills trying to come up with your own variation.

When you weigh the addictiveness of the most successful MMO gaming experiences, added to the strong social interaction component, it’s easy to see why MMO players turn a blind eye to the repetitiveness and lack of narrative resonance of many quest chains. They also make few bones about upgrading their machines periodically to keep up with the latest content patch or expansion requirements. A successful MMORPG doesn’t just offer virtually unlimited gameplay; It offers a surrogate lifestyle, spending time with people you hand-picked as your new family, whose sole reason for spending time with you is because they enjoy playing with you, no matter what you look like, sound like, do for a living in real life.

So, what’s the catch? Well, to be honest, the only catch I can think of is, the further in you go, the more time and energy you wind up dedicating to your online friends
and activities, which can really eat into your availability to your real life friends and family. People leave certain MMOs for lots of reasons, but the main reason they refuse to even start playing is simply because they can’t imagine making that much time for it, and that’s also the most common reason people take breaks or ultimately quit certain games they’ve established themselves in.

I haven’t done the hard math to show how many people leave because of the boy’s club mentality that exists in most MMOs, or because hardcore players and entitlement whores have sucked the fun out of it for you, or the devs have screwed with your favourite class(es) so many times, you just don’t enjoy playing your toon as much as you used to. But I’ve made, kept and lost as many friends in MMOs as I’ve made anywhere else in the last twenty years, and I’ve heard enough excuses to know that the general consensus is, when the game stops being fun and starts being work, it gets hard to justify whatever time and money you’re continuing to invest in the game. Sometimes it’s just time to take an extended break. And sometimes, no matter how much it hurts to say goodbye to some of the friends you’ve made, it’s just time to go.

____________________

¹ I like the Mighty Mouse, but it still bugs me having to remember which key to simultaneously press to get the menu that right clicking gets you with a PC mouse. I’m typing this on an old G4 MacBook, and I’m using a Logitech mouse; works just fine, which leads me to the argument, what’s the big deal, anyway? That’s a rant for another day, though)
² only one was actually printed and distributed. It was called LINK: West. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it; due to forces outside of my control, it didn’t turn out to be a very good game. I’ll probably talk a great deal more about that project in this blog some day soon; call it my long-overdue post mortem)
³ something that lots of people I played with really had problems with: you need to leave your prejudices and preconceptions (and ego) at the door when you’re roleplaying. Playing fictional characters in a fictional universe is something few people are capable of… without bringing their personal baggage along. Boys playing girls, or girls playing boys, or your best friend playing a hermaphrodite who constantly proposes marriage and babies to your hard-boiled detective, or anything involving breaking  with standard gender roles is something most teens—and quite a few adults—with already-shaky senses of identity just aren’t equipped to handle well. But that’s a whole other messy can of worms, and definitely not confined to RPGs, so I’ll save that for another day. There’s definitely an article in it, though. *Makes a note for future topic*
⁴ which is not to say Yahtzee doesn’t have its charms. Just, y’know, don’t ask me to explain them to you, because I personally can’t stand the game; no narrative value whatsoever, you understand. You have to really love probability games to get any serious enjoyment out of them, and most of the people I know just aren’t wired that way, myself included.
And by Lawyer Edition, I mean a session where every player who has ever seen the inside of the Dungeon Master’s Guide starts quoting chapter and verse, arguing for why either a) you can’t do what you just said you did, or b) why they CAN do what they just said they did. These sessions are not for the faint of heart, and I strongly recommend that you take the sensible route and pack up your stuff and leave when the game devolves to this stage. You’re guaranteed to lose at least a half hour before the next minute of actual game time elapses, and frankly, life is too short, and no matter who wins the argument, everybody loses. Best to register your disapproval and go out for burritos and beer with your Significant Other.
⁵ or more likely when he/she has decided to throw you a bone after a really bad saving throw; I was famous for that, rewarding my best players with grace points they had no idea about, just because they’d kept me amused. I’ll explain my philosophy about grace points some day, as well. Loads of fun, honest.
⁶ I used to love making 110-minute cassettes of progressive rock music to fuel my sessions; there’s nothing quite like epic Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons, Tangerine Dream, Yes, Genesis and King Crimson pieces standing in for battle hymns and creepy dungeon crawl anthems.
⁷ unless it has realtime gameplay elements to it, making it more like an action or shooter game, at any rate.
⁸ most folks online just call them MMOs these days, even though technically there are lots of other genres that can and have been made into MMOs. However, most folks still think of medieval fantasy vRPGs as the standard for MMOs, and most MMOs have certain vRPG aspects to their gameplay, almost as a concession to the expectations of those who think all MMOs have to have character stats and gear progression to be a real game.
⁹ Technically, I don’t know how it feels either; I was wearing clothing on that particular night. I mentioned it simply because it probably would have been a great night for naked gaming. However, there WAS that night Kharma raided Crossroads on our naked level 1 gnomes… good times… good times…

____________________

Well, there you go. It took far longer than it needed to, but I am hoping to get started on to the next part (Strategy Games) by the weekend. However, I seem to be developing carpal tunnel, or perhaps arthritis, in both of my wrists; I’ve been typing this article with my wrists heavily bound in tension bandages. So I’m gonna take a handful of days off from computing and focus on making music and drawing logos for my upcoming interactive graphic novel. Stay tuned for more news on both fronts.

Lee.

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