I started early with online gaming, not just serial-connecting together a couple of Atari ST computers in different rooms – that barely counts – but using a creakingly old 2600 modem to get that same Atari ST to hook up to Avalon, a pay-to-play MUD, though I never progressed very far and fell afoul of one of the moderators, playing the ‘God of Justice’ when I said ‘TANJ‘ and meant it. As it turned out there wasn’t, as he repeatedly turned me to stone, exploded me and otherwise used his moderator powers to fuck with my character sheet in a manner that would get you suwed for psychological assault these days.
That – and the expense – put paid to my online forays for a while, at least until the days of the 56k modem (and then cable) came around and something Science-fictiony rather than the same ol’ fantasy came along. That’s when I dived into Anarchy Online for another dabble in online play. The world was engaging, the music great, it was crippleware on launch but it really catered to roleplay with nightclubs, clothing and RP props which, of course, the overwhelming majority of the populace never used. I ended up falling out of love with Anarchy Online almost as quickly as I had fallen in love with it to start with.
I continued to dabble a little bit here and there and I got my online RPG fix mostly from IRC play and e-mail play through The Camarilla. While characters were able to jet-set their way around the world us poor players couldn’t, so online play was a good compromise whereby you could get some players and a Storyteller together and play out your international scenes without any real problems. That seemed to work well since the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules were fairly light and easy to use, attempts to play other RPGs over the internet weren’t quite such a resounding success, fiddliness of rules and dice rolls, coupled with the relative slowness of text chat really slow things down to the point where it’s almost impossible to play. For social RP it works fine, but anything too heavy or structured and it seems to break.
Then along came the game that would actually manage to drag me back into what I had presumed to be an RP vacuum, Ryzom. The Saga of Ryzom is a French-developed MMORPG with a truly alien world – Atys – and a very freeform form of play. The world is indescribably gorgeous and the storyline – what was revealed of it – was interesting and still took a back-seat compared to the player actions. Virtually everyone here RPed to some extent and role-playing events actually attracted people to play them. There were no quests or missions, you set your own goals, did your own socialising and somehow it all just worked.
Of course, the problem there was that they launched at the same time as EQII and World of Warcraft and, thinking they could also make a hojillion dollars, the company tried to follow suit with the big success story. Bringing in PvP, some heavy handed metaplot and otherwise boning the existing RP community within the game with badly thought out measure after measure they tried to claw them back with a half-hearted ‘create your own mission’ add on called The Ryzom Ring, but it was too late and they went bankrupt. Since then the game has been through another owner that didn’t seem to know what to do with it either and it’s now been bought again, but seems to still be making the same mistakes.
Still, for a brief moment there was the holy grail, an MMORPG where people actually roleplayed! I was so enamoured of the game at the time I got hooked into doing volunteer service for it and created some plotlines and missions for the system, moving the story forward. I got hooked. Here was a way of bringing role-playing to a mass audience and it was fantastic.
Since Ryzom went pear-shaped I’ve tried a few other games, but nothing yet has matched up to Ryzom at its height. Lord of the Rings Online is steeped in Tolkien’s lore and a fun game to play, but there’s no RP aside from cybersexing fiends in the Prancing Pony. I play World of Warcraft with some friends but there’s no RP there, it’s more like a team sport.
I think they’re missing a trick in MMORPGs, there’s definately a niche of creative people who want something more from their games, a lot of them seem to migrate to Second Life (and I don’t just mean the furries and sexual deviants) but they’d probably play a properly done, RP heavy game where they were invested in what went on. If such a thing existed.
Everything is moving online and, lately, I’ve been working with a company called Socialgears trying to inject some of that creative, RP sensibility into a type of game that’s even less obviously welcoming to it than MMORPGs are, the social media ‘app’ game, with mixed success.
There’s definately some sort of sweet spot here and some new audiences to be reached by RPGs, forums and social sites are full of ‘RP’ forums with people re-living Twilight, ‘Playing house’, engaging in cybersex of the most creative sorts and playing RPGs without really understanding that they are playing RPGs.
Gaming’s not dead, it’s changing and so are people’s expectations of what a game is or should be. That’s something even traditional RPG Games Masters need to be aware of as well as games companies.