While a discussion on this topic could go in just about any direction, I believe that careful consideration provides only one clear avenue of progression. While any one could talk about mechanics until they're blue in the face, the reality is that this argument is much more simple than that (or infinitely complex - depending on your perspective). The point I'm making here is that the one thing which will always add tangible depth to any role-playing game (which includes MMORPGs) is character. Plain and simple.
Defining the term "Character"
That word can be misleading. Mechanics, after all, can certainly give a game character. However, the character I am referring to is much more literal. When it comes to role-playing games, it's all about the character. I know there is that pesky factor of needing a good plot and all - but as human beings, we don't relate to plots; we relate to the characters that live inside them. Plenty of good stories with elaborate and beautiful plots fall by the wayside all the time, but stories with amazing characters almost seem to transcend them. Don't they?
I mean, when you really think about your favorite fiction characters (video game, story, film, etc.) they're the kind of beings that it if they had been hypothetically thrown into a completely different chain of events, you'd probably still enjoy them just as much. The characters always come first - because the characters are our touchstone. They are an extension of us inside any story. They are our eyes, ears, nose, and all our senses; and the really great ones can sometimes feel as if they're an extension of our inner-selves.
If you haven't ever picked up a fiction book and completely connected with a character in mind, body and soul; then I might argue that you've never truly experienced fiction. It isn't exactly common for such a thing to happen. I mean... you definitely have to be open to the idea of fully immersing yourself; but I can assure you the satisfaction of the journey will be everything you thought it could be (and usually much more). As a writer who is a very avid fan of video games (or games of any sort), I don't believe they're much different. Well, if they are - they don't have to be.
Designing a Complete Experience
Single-player games have the advantage in the fact that the developers generally have complete control over every action any non-player character will make... but technically the developer is usually also controlling the player character - to some extent. Through the designed mechanics and reward systems, the creators of any game generally know what you're going to be doing (although there are plenty of true "sandbox" style games that allow players to travel down paths developers might never have seen coming). In any event, my point here is that while single player games might make it easier to design a world around an in-game character... that doesn't necessarily mean multiplayer games can't have compelling plot, story, and characters too.
All supporting elements aside, it still boils down to believable three-dimensional characters that players naturally gravitate towards. There is plenty of science which supports the concept that humanity isn't just a physical thing, but an ideology as well. I mean, haven't you ever heard the phrase "no longer human"? It isn't just talking about alien transformation (although that is brilliantly accurate, even as a metaphor).
Characters need to be believable, and they need to feel "human" - regardless of their fictional genealogy. In the writing world we typically aim to ensure any feature character meets three distinct requirements, which are often referred to as dimensions:
The First Dimension of Character: The Surface Level
This dimension covers a lot of things. Things like outward appearance, quirks, habits, unusual tics, and pretty much anything that could generally be referred to as cliché if left on its own legs. Consider a few recently played games and I'm sure you can already think of a several stereotypical main characters that fit only inside this first dimension. They've got a unique look and feel to them, but too often that's usually all they've got going for them.
The Second Dimension of Character: The Inner Level
This dimension can also cover a wide variety of things, but it is most specifically talking about a character's backstory or their inner demons. These are the things that are the root causes behind their surface level quirks, traits, and mannerisms. Once a character reaches this point, you can finally start to see them coming off the page - granted, it's still a bit of an optical illusion at this point; but they're getting closer.
The Third Dimension of Character: The Agency Level
This is where outer and inner facets collide. Characters don't ever truly reach the third dimension until they start interacting with the world around them. I'm not talking just physically here. They've got to mentally and emotionally interact with the world as well. They've got to draw upon their inner level and use their surface personality and traits to start changing it. It's important to explain that characters don't really fill-out this dimension unless the world, story, and events that occur around and to them actually change them as well - which shouldn't be limited just to external change. Ideally, even their thoughts, opinions, and worldview should shift over time - especially if the plot they're experiencing is dramatic, epic, or in any way meant to be meaningful.
Applying those concepts to MMO games
How many times have you played through a game boasting a fantastical world, spectacular sights, and dramatic events only to see the main character come out the other side almost identical to where they first started? It almost feels hallow doesn't it? Once you're through the credits it's all over and you typically move on to the next poorly designed experience, with hardly an afterthought to spare.
It's not really a problem for non-persistent games. For most console-style games that are usually a one-shot experience (or episodic at best), having a truly compelling experience with believable and loveable characters doesn't particularly matter. After all, it might even be important from a marketing standpoint to ensure that you don't want to replay that game too much. After all, the developers are probably working on another product that they're going to need you to purchase. So each game experience needs to be good enough to be worth buying, but not so good that you're not continuously craving something more. I won't get into the psychology of that too much, but you probably see where I'm going with this.
Now consider an MMORPG (a term a slightly loathe in the current state of the industry), which typically refers to a persistent multiplayer game-world where players take on the role of a specific character and immerse themselves in a massive, long-term experience. These games generally launch with a minimum of a 100 hours of gameplay (if you do everything there is to do in the game). For past MMOs that are still active, an argument could be made that there are at least a thousand hours of potential gameplay to be had. Ultimately the design goal for the developers is to provide a sustained experience (usually funded by monthly subscriptions or the modern micro-transaction model) that keep players entertained and engaged.
Yet is seems like more and more often, players just come in consume the base content, and depart. Typically the only thing that brings them back around (if they ever come back), is a new patch with more content to consume. It's a fundamental flaw that is gnawing at the success of the genre. If left uncorrected, it will eventually be whittled down to the bone until the prospect of creating an MMO is no viable because the cost outweighs the return. Players aren't sticking around because there is no attachment. MMORPGs over the last decade have largely become destination-based, rather than journey-based.
Why This Really Is A Problem
If you applied the same process to reading a book, it would be like a reader coming in and reading the first chapter to meet the characters - then reading the last chapter to understand the conclusion; effectively achieving the "knowledge" of what happened. The problem is, they didn't really find out what happened - because they skipped ninety percent of the events! But when it comes to video games, the middle chapters are just terrible.
To date, most developers still haven't found a way to marry the character's journey to a multiplayer experience. MMORPGs today generally fall into one of two major pitfalls:
1) They aggressively pursue the character experience, story, and plot, which usually ends up being a shoddily stacked multi-verse where everyone's character is doing the exact same things, and has a near-identical story. This outcome either completely destroys the immersion by having a giant game of clones or turns it into a heavily instanced and massively solo-player online experience.
2) They push character, story, and plot off to the side and focus primarily on the multiplayer mechanics, which all too often creates a very bland experience with no meaning and where players feel very little (if any) attachment to their characters. Games that lean towards this extreme typically have a very weak character creation process, which mostly amounts to selecting predetermined courses for your character (race, class, and occasionally alignment).
While the two above extremes can make for enjoyable experiences, I think they are largely missing the mark and come up far too short to support and sustained experience (which is typically the thought process going in). The earliest MMOs had a much better balance when it came to merging a compelling experience with multiplayer gameplay, but many technological advancements and mechanical trends in gaming have all but eliminated this balance. You basically get one or the other. Both offer replay value, as story-driven experiences keep you invested in your character or re-rolling alts; while multi-player driven experiences have social interplay that builds personal connections and bonds players as parts of a bigger community. Both are essential qualities for an MMORPG to thrive.
I think it's very fair to say that these kinds of games over the past decade have diminished greatly, as developers have leaned towards one extreme or the other and any real, immersive depth has been stripped away by either a collapsed illusion or a complete lack of community. For these types of games to be successful, people need to have a reason to come back (or never leave to begin with); and to me that means a reemphasis on character.
True three-dimensional player characters are a great starting point to solving both issues. For suspension of disbelief, getting fully immersed into a unique character creates attachment and provides a firm platform for a compelling game experience. From a multiplayer aspect, what better way to build solid communities than actually giving players a unique role and position to fill within a larger community?
You might be asking yourselves why, if it really is this simple, haven't developers already followed this method? Well, just because it's simple - doesn't mean it's easy. Giving players a lot of customization and more individual agency is difficult to do without breaking the game in half. If you think about it as an algebraic expression, the more variables you have - the tougher the equation is to solve. Customization and player choice both add variables, which add a lot of complexity and challenge to the design process.
I'll leave you with a closing video by one of my favorite YouTube channels. While it isn't saying exactly the same thing I am, it illustrates (quite literally) why story needs to be designed hand-in-hand with mechanics and even points out that irritating flaw in almost every MMORPG you've ever played.
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