Imagine, if you will, you’re playing a medieval online role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons Online or Warhammer with all of your friends. This game, though, has no sound. No, not even voice chat. The only sound you’re hearing is whatever ambient noise is in the room with you. Maybe you’re playing some music that helps set the tone for the game you’re playing, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy soundtrack. Furthermore, this game has no graphics. In fact, the only thing on the screen is the text conversation between you and your teammates. It’s like one big dialogue window, ‘cause… that’s what it is. In any case, you’d be doing the same quests, have the same abilities, and achieve the same goals as you would in a game which has flashy graphics and 7.1 surround sound. With less to distract your senses you’d have to rely more heavily upon your own imagination to provide the imagery as the game progresses. In that case, you’d probably find yourself simply falling into the trap of role-playing. You might not even realize you’re doing it, but in typing your actions and responses, you might almost feel the need to play to the role of your character rather than simply clicking the right hotkey at the right time. If we take hold of that assumption we would also have to ask two things: 1) Why do we find those who do play their role within the game world as those to be ostracized, and 2) will playing to our role be more important in Star Wars: The Old Republic?
I found myself drawn to these questions ever since I started playing MMO’s, but especially lately I’ve heard and seen a lot of conversations in the course of my day and on our forums about various role-playing methods and practices. We even discussed it briefly as an aside during our first session of “MMO Loser” (Episode 39: A Pile of Dead Gungans). We mentioned how it’d be off-putting to be playing with someone who plays their opposite sex in-game and then we said how if it’s an RP server, then playing to that role would be appropriate. Of course, we all understand that not everyone wants to type or speak to their friends like someone from Middle-Earth. That would be kind of strange, but RP servers are around for a reason. There is certainly nothing different in terms of what’s to be found within the game-world between these different servers, but the RP aspect shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re not playing with friends at a given moment, but you run up to someone distinguishable as, say, a High Elven Ranger, wouldn’t you approach them as “High Elven Ranger” rather than “Stranger Sitting at a Computer?” Not that you’d say, “Good morn, to thee!” but you would gather that they came from a different place than you (let’s say you’re human) and by whatever they’re wearing that they’ve seen some action, or just the opposite, that they haven’t been anywhere. You know that this person, as you see them in-game, has a different story to tell than you.
I, for one, have always picked my species/class combinations based on their stories. I shy away from those that are rather one-dimensional and lack any kind of substantive narrative. Paladins, Shamans, and Druids have always been my choice. Now, by my saying that, I’m sure there are plenty of Warriors, Priests, Hunters, Mages, and Rogues who would argue against that, but why? Why would anyone argue that the stories of the latter classes to be any worthier than the prior classes? That is because each of us is attached to whatever story it is that we’ve crafted for ourselves. Even if you haven’t written your character a complete biography on a piece of paper you stained with coffee to make it look like old parchment, you take pride in your character’s accomplishments. Again, that’s your character’s accomplishments, not yours. I say not yours, because you personally don’t gain anything in your life because you’ve earned the title “Kingslayer.” Alternatively, when your toon walks through the streets of your capital city, you know that when another player sees your level 85 Warlock with the Kingslayer title above her head, they know you (the Warlock) killed the Lich King, and unless they know you personally, they’re not associating you (the player) with the one who felled the leader of the Scourge.
If we can accept that we do craft stories for ourselves within these characters and within these various game worlds, then why do we shun those who enjoy it all the more? And that’s really all it amounts to: a higher level of enjoyment. Not that anyone should or shouldn’t enjoy it on whatever level they so choose, but when you’ve taken the time to perhaps invest more into what makes your character unique than what the next achievement on your list is, more people might understand why others play the role of their character. I keep using the phrase “play their character” because we may have associated the term “role-play” with something a bit more, um, adult. That is what is it, but it is certainly not the point of discussion here. Getting back to my point, what is it that makes my character any different than yours? If we choose the same species, class, and character model, what makes mine special? Nothing? Is it the gear I equip or the talents and powers I choose? Or is it something less tangible? Is it something I give to my character?
Perhaps it’s all in the name, which was a topic of interest for me on our forums recently. The question was actually whether or not people would likely choose more appropriate Star Wars universe names for themselves or if they’d use the more common screen name approach, which often involves l33t nicknames like Crash 0verride or Acid Burn (yes, I love the movie Hackers). Overall, the response seemed to be that universe-appropriate names would be more likely. Is it that fans have a deeper connection to the SW universe than to other MMO game-worlds, or is it the built-in story element that requires you to spend more time thinking about how your character should respond depending on the outcome you desire? Maybe it’s both of these, but then I also wonder if all of these factors will result in a much deeper character immersive experience for players. We keep hearing about how The Old Republic will be the most immersive MMORPG we will have played yet, but immersive how? I certainly can’t quote the dev team, but I think they do intend for players to feel more for their characters than they may have in past games. I’ve read articles in gaming magazines about how everyone has their own personal version of Commander Shepard from BioWare’s Mass Effect games and how they can’t wait to see how THEIR Shepard handles whatever’s to come in Mass Effect 3. Another factor for this deeper feeling may appear in the form of the personal quest(s) that your character will embark on, the choices that you’ll have to make, and the consequences of those choices, be they good or bad. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m definitely the type who saves their game right before a momentous event takes place in a role-playing game, and if things don’t go the way I want, I load from the previous save. Not having that option will make these moments of choice all the more personal and lasting.
Obviously, I’ve made it clear that I love tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars RPG Saga Edition. Last year, I had the privilege to play with a group of friends who enjoyed creating characters and worlds as much as me. During our initial session of Mutants & Masterminds (a superhero RPG), our DM gave us each an origin story. This became the spark behind the idea for our Deceived contest: getting our listeners to think about not only the class they want to play, but the type of character, the type of person, they’ll be playing as. I wanted those who participated to look at their Day One character through the lense of the narrative they’d constructed for them, and, I hope, at least, that they feel more willing to put more of themselves into their first character and let it show in how they play in Star Wars: The Old Republic.