Monthly Archives: November 2016

What The Secret World’s Rider has to Teach Us About Social Design

A few weeks ago The Secret World held its traditional and much-lauded Halloween event. The new additions for this year broke with tradition a bit by offering an event that was more community driven, instead of the solo-focused stories we’ve gotten in most years.

A group of worshippers during the Rider event in The Secret World.

The new Rider event required cooperation from the entire community — or at least a large section of it — and it was really quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in an MMO before. It got me thinking about the nature of social play in MMOs, and organic versus forced socialization.

A rider approaches:

First, let’s explain a bit about the event.

The entire event comprised a massive community-wide mystery that had players scavenging for clues, experimenting, and continually finding new layers to the investigation. The whole mystery is far too involved to get into here. That would probably take up an entire article on its own.

But for most people the meat of the event involved summoning and fighting world bosses, and that’s what I’d like to focus on today.

For the duration of the event, an untargetable Rider NPC would appear in one of the game’s open world zones, where it would stay for thirty minutes before moving on to the next zone.

Along with the Rider, event-specific mobs would appear across the zone. If they were all killed before the Rider moved on, it would summon a powerful world boss that players could then kill for sweet, juicy loot.

Mid-way through the event, though, players discovered there was more to the summoning process. A more advanced ritual could be used to summon even more powerful world bosses with improved loot.

The Rider, star of The Secret World's 2016 Halloween event.

To do this, a “summoner” player had to stay by the Rider and use several event-specific items during the brief window after the death of the last mob but before the boss spawns. In addition to that, groups of players had to use the /worship emote at specific locations across the zone. Only if those conditions were met would the empowered boss spawn and give up its coveted drops.

The first few days of the event were a mess. Players — including yours truly — spent most of their time running around like headless chickens, not knowing what to do or where to look for the mobs to kill. Often entire zones full of dozens of people failed to summon any boss at all within the time limit. It wasn’t a great time.

But things got better. As information disseminated through the community and players learned the ropes, successful summons became more frequent. By the time the secret of empowered summons was cracked, things were kicking into high gear, and by the latter half of the event, the community had become a well-oiled machine, summoning multiple bosses — usually empowered — every half hour.

In the space of a week or less, a community of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people had gone from individuals without purpose to something like a digital army, organized and efficient.

That’s pretty incredible when you think about it, and it all happened organically. And I can’t help but feel that this is what MMOs are really all about.

Joining the community:

Now, I have a confession to make: I’m one of those awful solo players ruining the genre that you keep hearing about.

A character participating in The Secret World's Halloween event.

I’m not completely antisocial; I do like to PUG dungeons from time to time, and I will occasionally join conversations in general chat. But I usually don’t join guilds, and I prefer to keep to myself more often than not. It is the virtual world aspect of MMOs more so than the social aspect that appeals to me.

I also don’t like feeling like I’ve been forced into something, which is often the impression I have from developers’ efforts to make MMOs more social. Purely out of pig-headed stubbornness, I refused to join a trading guild in Elder Scrolls Online even though it probably would have helped me with my crafting.

And yet I didn’t mind TSW’s Rider event, despite its highly social nature. In fact I enjoyed it quite a lot, and the feeling of community cooperation became my favorite part of the experience.

I think there are a couple of things that made this so much more appealing than, say, a more traditional raid.

Part of it is that the number of people involved was very high, and therefore the responsibility was very spread out. To summon an empowered boss was a complex, difficult affair, but you as the person on the ground didn’t need to worry about all that. It was very easy to contribute meaningfully without worrying about the big picture. If someone calls out that they need an extra worshiper at the Franklin Mansion, all you need to do is head to the mansion and /worship. You don’t need to worry about all the rest.

The event did somewhat necessitate people willing to take the responsibility of organizing things, but it only took a handful of organizers to keep the event running smoothly for hundreds of people.

It was an event with a very low barrier to entry. You didn’t need to apply to a guild or even a group. You just had to pay attention to event chat and participate as needed.

Fighting an event mob during the Rider event in The Secret World.

And once you did join in, it felt really good to be a part of something greater. Simply being a worshiper or killing a few of the event mobs may have been a small contribution, but it was crucial all the same. When a boss spawned, you would be rewarded not only by whatever you loot you got yourself, but by the gratifying knowledge that all of the dozens of people in your zone would be benefiting from your efforts.

It also helped that Funcom was careful to make griefing the event all but impossible. The worst thing you could do was simply not help summon, but even that’s pretty harmless unless it happens on a mass scale, which generally wasn’t the case. There was nothing a malicious player could do to disrupt a summoning, and the loot was on a personal basis, so there was no drama there, either.

All in all, the event managed to dodge pretty much all of the unpleasant baggage that tends to accompany social content in MMOs. Instead, it fostered a sense of fellowship and cooperation among the community, and it brought people together — even those of us who are usually loners.

Lessons learned:

The Rider event is something I hope the MMO community — and especially developers — take notice of, because right now a game with a reputation as a “single player MMO” is schooling the industry on how to make games more social the right way.

Too many MMOs try to artificially enforce social gameplay. You could argue the Rider event was forced socialization, too — nothing would be summoned if people didn’t work together — but it didn’t feel forced. It felt organic. It offered some rewards and left the players to organize themselves as they saw fit.

Again, the power being in the player’s hands is important. You didn’t have to shoulder a lot of responsibility or be particularly vocal if you didn’t want to. You could ease yourself into things. I started the event silently observing and barely contributing, but by the end I was not only hunting mobs and worshiping but also helping to organize worship groups and directing other players to lore spawns.

An empowered manifestation boss from The Secret World's Rider event.

Most MMOs have a very narrow definition of social gameplay. They enforce strict group sizes and roles. Player groups that don’t adhere to a developer’s vision of the “correct” way to play are viewed as invalid.

What we need is more content that doesn’t enforce hard limits on the number of people who can participate — at the low or high end — or a strict balance of roles.

The Rider event is one example of how we can do that, though it’s far from the only way. It would be nice to see more content that scales to accommodate different levels and group sizes, less rigid adherence to the “holy trinity” of group roles, and other ways to help people come together in-game.

And it would be good to see more community-wide events. For a genre supposedly based on massive socialization, most content is still targeted to relatively small groups of people. Even the largely defunct forty-man raids were really a drop in the bucket for games with playerbases that can be measured in the hundreds of thousands, or in some cases even millions. Let’s stop thinking in terms of groups or even guilds, and start thinking in terms of whole communities.

One Tamriel ESO Review

eso imperial city dungeon

The One Tamriel update for ESO (The Elder Scrolls Online) launched on October 18, 2016. If you frequent any MMORPG site, you’ve probably noticed Zenimax Online Studios advertising the hell out of their two and half year old MMO. This is the update that supposedly vaults ESO into one of the genre’s top MMOs. Is it really something to be proud of? The feedback I’ve seen has been generally positive, but I had to find out for myself.

I decided to reinstall the game a couple weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been playing pretty seriously for the first time since launch. For those unaware, the update’s two biggest changes essentially level scales all of the players and enemies and removes faction restrictions. As one can imagine, this has sweeping ramifications for the players of virtual Tamriel. And a blog seemed like the perfect place to deliver my thoughts on those ramifications in the form a One Tamriel ESO review. I’ll be focusing on what One Tamriel brings to the table and how it integrates with the current content available to Elder Scrolls Online players. But first, I’m going to backtrack just a bit.


I’ve been playing MMORPGs for over twenty years now. The last MMORPG I really invested time into was Black Desert Online. BDO had some great ideas that drew me, despite some serious concerns about the international version. I was cautiously optimistic about the positives when I made my purchase. It hit at a time when there just wasn’t a lot I wanted to play, and it took advantage of my weakness. I knew servers in other countries had all devolved into skill-less grindfests where only the top 0.1% could meaningfully impact the game’s vaunted guild vs. guild PvP system. I knew the cash shops were pay to win. I knew the game was relatively content thin, relying of players to generate content for this ‘sandpark’ game. I bring up BDO because with One Tamriel, ESO has cemented a drastically different route to succeed where Black Desert failed.

eso purple vampire thief

In One Tamriel, a low level purple vampire master thief IS possible.

Black Desert Online combined pieces of both the themepark and sandbox MMO subgenres into something that was supposed to improve the overall experience. Unfortunately, BDO did this in very contradictory ways. The themepark felt extremely repetitive and the sandbox extremely limited. Those are two huge no-nos absent from The Elder Scrolls Online. ESO’s sandpark-crossbreed has thus far delivered a more cohesive and clever subgenre merge than any ‘sandpark’ MMO yet.  Walking the line between sandbox and themepark MMORPGs isn’t easy. How much safety do you give up in the name of freedom? This question may sound political, but I assure you it’s entirely gaming-centric.

Sacrifice? Not in My ESO

One Tamriel frees up the game without sacrificing any safety. In fact, if anything the game is safer than ever. Every player can assist at any time. Your level will match any monster’s. The world is now a place to explore on your terms however and with whoever you want. Here, the endgame starts on install, not a hundred hours later. A specific quest is undertaken not because it’s the only path to progress, but because it’s rewarding. Every dungeon has meaning at every stage, and the world feels so much less monotonous for it. In one fell swoop, The Elder Scrolls Online has left tiresome themepark based questing behind and done something rare for MMORPGs. It evolved. Reviewing ESO’s One Tamriel update as essentially a new player really opened my eyes to how easily some themepark MMOs could be opened up.

Many sandbox fans will disapprove of ESO because of this very safety net. I would say they should not be so quick to judge. Yes, dying is pretty rare without open PvP or threatening monsters. That is to be lamented. After all, I love the adrenaline rush of a Dark Souls world or wondering if a nearby player will turn hostile. But what I also love is immersing myself in alternate world. Unfortunately, a corpse’s point of view doesn’t make a great vantage point for immersion. That’s the typical viewpoint for most open PvP players in a genre that caters to the few grinding elite. I’ve argued in the past that horizontal progression best remedies this issue. The Elder Scrolls Online makes a strong counterargument for vertical progression.

eso one tamriel map

Unlike true sandbox MMOs, there is no open world PvP in Elder Scrolls Online. Instead, PvP is available in the form of a three-way faction war. Time and Dark Age of Camelot taught me that faction war rulesets make for the best PvP system. In ESO, players can join one of a few campaigns, each with slightly different rules like length and level restrictions. Because players are level scaled, they can always contribute and level up purely via PvP. Sure, they’re nowhere near as effective as a true capped out player. That’s OK. No would expect a master fencer to lose to a novice. Fifty novices against a master fencer? That should be too much to handle. It doesn’t work that way in a lot of MMORPGS, but it does here.

Not All is Rosy

There are some bittersweet aspects of the implementation though. First, resources gathered have gone from zone dependent to crafting level dependent. That means that high level crafters simply can’t easily mid level crafting materials. They either have to pay to respec to actually lower their skill or rely on rewards for crafting quests called writs. It’s a bizarre system that goes too far. Level scaling would have made it easy to find the right resources in the zone dependent system. This would let master crafters easily find what they need to fill demand. Instead, mid level crafters might actually fare better because the supply of them is smaller. Natural resources shifting in such an unnatural manner feels too gamey.

While it’s really cool that players of any level can play together, it does have some potential drawbacks when it comes to the dungeon group finder. Veterans might find it frustrating when they are grouped with a complete newbie. Low level players can only access a small number of dungeons, but high level players can play any of them. There’s a daily bonus for doing a random dungeon, so getting arranged together isn’t uncommon. I haven’t run into any issues with hostile high level players, but this is online gaming we’re talking about. People get mad over trivial matters. We may just have to exercise patience and understanding in this new world order.

eso one tamriel crafting

Finally, in most MMORPGs it’s important but not essential to upgrade equipment. It’s not technically essential in the ESO overworld either since the difficulty is pretty muted. But the fact remains that equipped weapons and armor get worse when you level. Since all equipment scales based on its level relative to yours, not consistently upgrading makes you considerably weaker. For lower level dungeons and PvP, this is can be a noticeable hindrance. I personally don’t have an issue with how this plays out. Upgrading low level equipment in most MMORPGs is rather blasé so feeling some pressure to keep up is nice. I could see others disliking the rather counter intuitive system though.

One Tamriel to Rule Them All

Level scaling in MMORPGs isn’t entirely new. Guild Wars 2 did it (though with player deleveling in PvE zones). World of Warcraft did it (though only in the expansion areas). But Elder Scrolls Online is the first to fully commit to it. For the most part, it works. The removal of faction restrictions also opened up the world on a massive scale. There is so much high quality content that it was always a shame to limit it or repeat activities. ESO features some of the best quests in the genre, ranking just after The Secret World. The incredibly fun PvP, dungeons, and DLC no longer feel arbitrarily restrictive. For me, not only does One Tamriel render Skyrim obsolete, it’s given me the home that I wish Black Desert had several months ago.

In case it wasn’t clear, I give a hearty recommendation for my review of ESO’s One Tamriel. It’s also free to play from November 16 through November 20. Details here.

Is Blizzard Moving Away from Narrative?

This year’s BlizzCon had a lot of good news, but there was also a lot about it that disappointed me. In particular I was saddened by the continued lack of an expansion for Diablo III. Yes, some updates are planned, but they’re mostly pretty small, and they do nothing to expand the story.

A cutscene from Diablo III's story mode

That combined with other recent developments has planted a disquieting thought in my mind: Could Blizzard be giving up on narrative in its games altogether?

The shift away from story:

Up until quite recently, story was a pillar of every Blizzard game for the past two decades. All of the older Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo games featured extensive story-driven campaigns, without exception.

Now, in the space of a few short years, we’ve reached a point where fully half of Blizzard’s current catalogue has no in-game story to speak of.

In some cases this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone really expects a single-player campaign for Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’re silly games meant to deliver fun and exciting gameplay, and nothing else.

And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be some narrative-driven work of art. There is a place for games that are purely mechanical.

But then you get to Overwatch, and that’s more worrisome. Like Heroes and Hearthstone, it lacks any kind of story content, but unlike those games, it has lots of potential for a good story. That potential is simply being ignored.

Hearthstone is just a spin-off of Warcraft, so it’s backstory has already been fully fleshed out, and Heroes is just a ridiculous “what if” scenario throwing together random elements of Blizzard’s other games. Overwatch, though, has a pretty rich world, a detailed backstory, and some interesting characters, but none of this is leveraged by the game itself.

The tutorial for Overwatch

Overwatch has all the right ingredients to provide a fantastic narrative experience, but for whatever reason Blizzard doesn’t seem to want to try.

And now it seems like even Blizzard’s older franchises are beginning to leave story by the wayside.

Everyone has spent the last few years expecting a second expansion to Diablo III, but now it’s looking like that might never happen. There are some updates planned, but they won’t do much to advance the story.

This is despite the fact that the ending to the previous expansion, Reaper of Souls, left the story very clearly unfinished. Both the main storyline of the world and many of the characters’ personal stories have been left obviously unfinished. As with Overwatch, there’s plenty of potential for story here; that potential is simply being left to wither on the vine.

And then there’s the news that StarCraft II will not be producing any more mission packs following the conclusion of the Covert Ops storyline later this month — or at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in this case there isn’t a pressing need for more story content in StarCraft. There’s definitely potential for more stories within the universe — I’d been hoping for some mission packs around Selendis and Alexei Stukov, myself — but after three massive campaigns and a fairly substantive DLC in the form of Covert Ops, you definitely can’t argue StarCraft’s story fans haven’t gotten their due.

The lack of new mission packs for SC2 is mildly disappointing, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d get too worked up about under other circumstances. It’s only when viewed in the context of a potential shift away from story for the company as a whole that it becomes worrying.

A cutscene in the campaign for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

And then there’s the recent retirement of Chris Metzen to consider. Metzen was the main creative force behind the worlds and stories of every Blizzard game since the early days of the Warcraft strategy games. Blizzard has other writers, and of course the company can continue to produce good stories without him, but I worry his departure might signal a culture shift in the company.

Metzen, so far as I can tell, was the main voice within Blizzard that argued in favor of the importance of lore and narrative. In fact I seem to recall hearing he’d wanted to do a story mode for Overwatch but had been voted down.

Now, I don’t think Metzen quit because he disagreed with the direction of the company, or he was forced out, or anything like that. I’m not that paranoid. But with Metzen gone, I have to wonder how much desire for story there is within Blizzard. Who is left to argue for its importance?

Individually, these things might not be a great cause for concern, but together they seem to form a pattern, and that pattern worries me.

What remains:

Blizzard is still telling stories… but increasingly it seems to be happening outside of their games.

StarCraft just launched a new tie-in novel, Timothy Zahn’s Evolution, and Overwatch has been putting out a steady stream of tie-in content, from digital comics to animated shorts to the upcoming First Strike graphic novel.

I enjoy tie-ins like this — I fully intend to pick up Evolution. But it’s not the same as actual in-game stories. It’s not quite so satisfying. This is especially true for Overwatch. Normally tie-ins like this are meant to supplement the main story, which happens in-game, but when the entire story takes place outside the game, it feels thin and scattered.

A shot from the animated short for Overwatch's new Sombra character

With the way things are going, one could even envision a future where all of Blizzard’s story-telling takes place outside its games, and I think we can all agree that would be a pretty weird situation for a video game company.

Of course, the elephant in the room — as is often the case — is World of Warcraft. There’s no evidence at all that WoW is moving away from telling stories in-game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legion is probably the most story-driven expansion to date.

But it’s possible that the shift away from narrative simply hasn’t begun to affect Warcraft yet, or that WoW is a legacy of an older version of Blizzard and will continue on as it has out of a sense of tradition, even as the rest of the company’s games abandon in-game stories.

It’s also possible that I am seeing patterns where none exist, and that this entire post is nothing but paranoid nonsense. I remain open to that possibility.

Why it all matters:

“If the gameplay is good, the story doesn’t matter” is an attitude you’ll see a lot of in the gaming community. A lot of people view plot in gaming as an optional frill, nice to have at but hardly essential. That can be true for some people and some games, but I think the importance of a good story is often greatly overlooked within gaming.

You would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King purely because Arthas was dead, and his was the story they cared about. With him gone, they lost their investiture in the game world and simply moved on.

The conclusion of the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft, modified by a local void totem

Overwatch has been a big success despite its lack of narrative, but one has to wonder how much bigger it could have been if it had also appealed to story fans. I know it lost my patronage by focusing purely on PvP.

You can cite plenty of other examples of games that succeeded with little or no story, but then again I can also think of more than a few games that succeeded entirely based on the strength of their narrative. You’d hard-pressed to find much praise for the gameplay of the original Mass Effect, yet it’s still considered a classic. We’re even starting to see an increased demand for games that focus entirely on story with little or no gameplay to speak of, such as the much-praised Life Is Strange.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge of fan of the core gameplay of World of Warcraft. It is at best adequate. More than anything else, it’s my love for the world of Azeroth that always keeps me coming back. And this is far from the only time I’ve invested in a game despite lukewarm feelings toward its game mechanics.

Over the past twenty years, Blizzard has built some incredibly deep and vibrant worlds, full of beloved characters and memorable stories. That is a powerful resource, and it would be tremendously wasteful not to capitalize on it.

Blizzard is too much of a juggernaut for the loss of story to be a serious threat to its financial success, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose if they leave narrative behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find other games to play if they give up on plot entirely, and putting aside more practical considerations, games lose something special without story. I know I’m going to remember Arthas’ fall a lot longer than that time I got off a good gank in Heroes of the Storm.

BlizzCon’s WoW Announcements Are Very Encouraging

Back in September, I discussed how I was worried about WoW’s future direction, despite a relatively strong start to the Legion expansion. Now BlizzCon has given us a glimpse of what the future holds for WoW — at least over the next several months — and while my worries haven’t been entirely dispelled, the road ahead is looking quite promising.

The Tomb of Sargeras in World of Warcraft: Legion

BlizzCon offered all sorts of juicy details on Legion’s next major content patch, 7.2, but in addition to the wealth of new content you’d expect from a large WoW patch, there are a few particular changes and additions that stand out as indicative of a change for direction for the better.

Dungeons for all:

One of my biggest complaints about Legion to date is how it’s handled five-man content. Blizzard sold this as an expansion that would finally give dungeons their due after being neglected for years, that they would be a viable alternative to raiding.

Instead, what we’ve gotten is a situation where dungeons are pretty much turning into raids, only with fewer people. Two of the dungeons released at launch, the Arcway and Court of Stars, were limited to mythic difficulty and locked out of the dungeon finder.

Matters escalated with the announcement of the new five-man version of Burning Crusade’s Karazhan, a massive nine-boss mythic-only dungeon. In Karazhan the apparent effort to make dungeons exactly like raids reached its peak. Long, difficult, inaccessible, and time-consuming, Karazhan was intended to be progressed through over many days, and it was essentially out of reach for the sort of casual players who tend to be dungeon fans.

In patch 7.2, however, all this will change. Karazhan will no longer be mythic only, but gain a heroic mode that can be queued for via the dungeon finder. To make it more manageable for those with limited schedules, the dungeon’s heroic version will be divided into two wings that players can tackle separately.

Karazhan isn’t the only dungeon getting love, either. Both Arcway and Court of Stars will become join the dungeon finder, allowing players to queue for groups normally rather than relying on pre-established groups or endure the often toxic environment of player-made PUGs. While I haven’t heard it said in so many words, I assume this means Arcway and Court of Stars will gain heroic modes, while the mythic versions remain non-queue content.

Attumen the Huntsman in the revamped Karazhan in World of Warcraft: Legion

I haven’t heard any news about the attunement quests for Karazhan and the others, but I would assume they’ll no longer be a requirement come 7.2, at least for the heroic modes. It wouldn’t make any sense to make these things so much more accessible in every other way but maintain one major barrier to entry.

There’s also a new dungeon coming in 7.2, the Cathedral of Eternal Night within the Tomb of Sargeras, and it’s stated to be launching with normal, heroic, and mythic difficulties, making it a good choice for players of all stripes.

This is a huge course correction for Blizzard’s dungeon design in Legion, and it’s very encouraging to see. I had despaired of Blizzard’s ability to learn from their mistakes, but here they clearly have, and quickly, too. Of course, 7.2 likely won’t launch for several months yet, but by Blizzard’s glacial standards, this is a remarkably fast change.

Taking flight:

The issue of player flight has been a storm cloud hanging over World of Warcraft since Warlords of Draenor. This endless source of drama has not been entirely resolved by the announcements for 7.2 , but at least progress is being made.

Flight has been confirmed to return in 7.2 for those who have completed both the currently available Broken Isles Pathfinder achievement, and its second half, which will arrive with 7.2.

We don’t know exactly what the second Pathfinder achievement will entail, but it will focus on 7.2’s new outdoor content. I’m expecting it to center on a great deal of rep grinding for the patch’s new faction, Legionfall. Having been pretty burnt out by the Suramar grind, I’m not really looking forward to that.

A druid in flight form in World of Warcraft: Legion

But at least we now have a clear picture of when we’re getting flying back. They’re not going to just string us along endlessly with vague non-answers as they did back in Warlords of Draenor.

It’s also heartening to know they won’t be waiting until the end of the expansion to give us the use of our flying mounts back — 7.2 has already been confirmed not to be the final major patch.

I still think restricting flight in the first place is a spectacularly wrong-headed move, and I still resent the grind needed to unlock it, but all things considered, things could have been much worse. Blizzard has at least learned there are limits to how far they can stretch our patience.

Solo love:

It’s a small thing, but one other thing I found heartening in the announcements was the news that the new artifact appearances in 7.2 will come not from the group content or even from the new reputation grind, but from challenging solo scenarios tailored to your specialization.

I feel strongly that rewards should be based more on skill than on grinding, so having a prestige reward that is purely skill-based is good news, but what’s even more encouraging is that some love is being shown for solo players.

Soloists have generally not gotten a lot of attention from Blizzard, and even when they do, it’s usually in the form of mindless grinding with poor rewards. That they’re getting something challenging with meaningful rewards is a welcome change of pace.

An outlaw claims the Dreadblades artifact in World of Warcraft: Legion

This further strengthens the impression that the developers are trying to offer something for all playstyles in 7.2, something they’ve traditionally done a very poor job of.

What does this tell us?

A few months ago I was saying that Blizzard hadn’t learned from their mistakes, that they were still relying on faulty philosophies that would likely lead to another disaster like Warlords of Draenor sooner or later.

Now it’s looking like they might be turning things around after all —  at least a little. Their course change on dungeons is very encouraging, and bringing flight back sooner rather than later is… better than the alternative, anyway.

This isn’t quite the mea culpa I’d like to see, but it does show humility and a willingness to change. That’s encouraging.

MMORPGs With Good Roleplaying

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Considering what the acronym stands for, one would think more MMORPGs would entail at least some form of roleplay. However, RPG has become near synonymous with increasing stats through levels and equipment. This has carried into MMORPGs. The primary content in an MMORPG isn’t designed around immersion and living an alternate life. Despite a much greater opportunity for roleplaying, the gaming aspect perhaps gets overemphasized.

MMORPG Roleplaying - keep calm and roleplay

Of course there is nothing wrong with gamey features. Progression is a lot of fun. Many that play MMORPGs have a great need for achievement. Rewarding play with new abilities keeps a game fresh and compelling. Dungeons and Dragons, the prototypical roleplaying game, clearly understands this. But it’s able to do this in a way that doesn’t detract from players RPing. It accomplishes this through choice – every action is possible in D&D. Most MMORPGs are more linear, with a stepping stone progression. There also isn’t a Dungeon Master to help when the players do something ridiculous. So it’s understandable MMORPGs won’t match a tabletop session for roleplay potential.

Despite these limitations, some titles do offer compelling virtual worlds in which to engross ourselves. Roleplaying can happen in such organic ways that players may not even realize what’s happening. That might be roleplaying in an MMORPG at its finest. Stopping to consider how your character would react can bring detachment from the world. True immersion arises from instinctively responding to situations because your motivations are so clearly understood. To be fair, that is a hard feat to accomplish. Players rarely receive opportunities to deviate from intended quest lines. In such linear MMORPGs, simply giving the opportunities and tools to engage in RPing can also be rewarding. The inherent social nature of the genre can feed interactions more absorbing than the simple numbers game of the loot treadmill.

The point is that roleplaying comes in many forms. There’s active and passive RPing, group and solo RPing, and linear and non-linear RPing. So to it’s disingenuous to say one size fits all for MMO players seeking to add more roleplay to their lives. Below is a list of games that best fit the myriad of forms this activity encompasses. Many of these have even been played without its players realizing unintentional RPing was actually a huge component of the game’s enjoyment.

Lord of the Rings Online

lord of the rings online roleplaying

Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has three official roleplaying servers supported by Turbine. Unlike many MMORPGs that designate RP servers then throw them to the wolves, Turbine actually enforces a unique set of rules for LOTRO RP. The broad overview of these rules mandate lore enforced character names, in character usage of most chat channels, and harassment-free roleplaying. Trolls love to ruin RP server players’ fun, but LOTRO actually feels like a safe spot.

There’s also a wealth of content for players that synchronize with their characters. Emotes, music playing, cosmetics, and community events all offer opportunities for the budding roleplayer. For those that want it to be, Lord of the Rings Online is more than just an ascent of power to conquer Sauron’s allies. Middle-earth is steeped in rich lore, but there is no prior knowledge of this lore to enjoy oneself. The community is very welcoming, as long as you’re willing to try.

The Secret World

the secret world roleplaying

The Secret World (TSW) is one of those roleplaying games that forces you to roleplay without you even realizing it. This game has the best quests in the MMO genre with everything tied to the real world in a fantastical yet believable manner. TSW’s three factions offer a unique way of looking at the game world, and it’s hard not to feel enveloped in your organization’s machinations thanks to great storytelling. The game also provides other small group oriented options for more freeform roleplaying, but there are better options on this list for that. TSW proves roleplaying can exist without non-linear player choice.

The Elder Scrolls Online

elder scrolls online roleplaying

Now that One Tamriel is live in The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), players have been presented with an impressive degree of freedom not seen before in a themepark MMORPG. The latest update for ESO scales the player’s level up or down to match the level of the area. That means players are free to take on whatever good or evil quests best fit their character. Though One Tamriel’s primary purpose is to enhance open ended exploration to match the single player Elder Scrolls games, it additionally enhances the game’s roleplaying.

Prior to this update though, the roleplaying scene was already thriving in ESO. ZeniMax Online Studios, who runs ESO, actively praises and supports roleplaying. The game has one of the best community RP websites of any MMORPG. The social aspect is huge in ESO with giant guilds offering someone to roleplay with at all times.

Ultima Online

ultima online roleplaying

The first true MMORPG is still one of the greatest for roleplaying. Ultima Online (UO) is all about player choice. From character creation to progression, there are so many options that it can be overwhelming for new players. It’s the only game I’ve been able to play where I didn’t feel bound to combat. Of course, I still enjoy combat oriented characters, but craftsmen, thieves, musicians, and animal tamers all have their place. UO isn’t a freeing as it was when first released due to rule changes that lessened PvP (and the ability to be truly evil), but expansion packs have dramatically increased the game’s content. This has granted players access to more interactions that fall in line an imagined archetype. RPing is so great in UO because it’s inherently woven into simply playing the game.

Eve Online

eve online roleplaying

I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Eve Online in this list. Yes, it’s a sandbox game with a ton of different skills to learn that are up to the player. Yes, the players effectively run the game world. Yes, player interactions are numerous at the highest and lowest level. But the problem is that the game boils down to acquiring power. Whether crafting, manufacturing, or killing, every character feels like they’re reaching for the same goal through different means. Still, there is more to Eve’s universe than space, stars, and ships. That the game can create such memorable narratives points to a strong roleplaying element. After all, why else do we roleplay than to create memorable stories for our characters? I maintain that choice is the most important attribute for roleplaying, and Eve Online offers it in spades. This may be a borderline addition given that RPing is not officially supported, but I feel Eve Online belongs.

Putting the RP Back in MMORPG

It’s not realistic to expect a tabletop roleplaying experience in an MMORPG. Maybe one day someone smarter than I will create such an innovative system. For now, there are still some good options for immersive play. While other games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV do offer their own quality roleplaying communities, they don’t get the job done quite like the above games. There’s certainly more to finding your top MMO than RP-ability but, for many, it’s an important start.