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Two articles that popped up on MMORPG.com in recent days both touched on the same subject – roleplay servers in MMOs.

The first one, by Dana Massey, denounce roleplay servers as unenforceable, virtually identical to regular servers and generally a major pain in the ass for those who have to moderate them.

Sanya Weathers wrote a follow-up of sorts, a more interesting (IMO) article concerning the difficulties facing a developer when setting up (and maintaining) roleplay-servers in MMOs.

If you haven’t already, go read both articles, then come back here – I’ll wait.

*hums a tune to himself whilst waiting*

Done? Okay: First off, I’ll say straight out that I think the first article mentioned is too subjective, too extreme and too obviously meant to provoke – roleplayers in particular, I guess. This article doesn’t really give me anything, as I have quite the opposite view when it comes to the continued existence of roleplay-servers. I guess I’m part of the target audience for that specific article!

I find Sanya’s article much more interesting though, as she tries to lay out clearly the problems with roleplay servers from a developers point of view, and ways in which to make those problems less (of a problem). At the end of  Sanya’s article, she lists a number of things which she sees as the minimum required feature-list any MMO-developer should offer for roleplay-specific servers. Having been on multiple sides of that table already, both as a player and as a designer, I started thinking a bit myself, about what features a dedicated roleplay server ought to, well… feature.

Read on for my thoughts on the matter.

Things on the list I agree with

I agree with most (but not all) of the items on Sanya’s list, and would likely include those that I do agree with in my own list if I were to make one (and I likely will, at the end of this post):

  • Dedicated CSR staff around the clock, with special training in names and roleplay conventions
  • Object creator that creates items with no stats.
  • Regional chat moderation tools as in IRC – in other words, the ability to mute a region at will.
  • In-game bulletin boards and newsletters to share information.
  • A warning that must be clicked before entering stating that roleplay is subjective, that no CS tickets asking for a ruling on roleplay minutia will be answered, and that the player’s only recourse is the ignore button.
  • An unlimited ignore list

Having a dedicated CSR team available to rapidly deal with issues that arise from character names and behavior disruptive to roleplay should be an industry standard, at least for companies that actually offer roleplay servers. In reality, issues like this get handled by standard CS representatives who often have more critical issues to deal with such as “unable to complete quest X” or “being sexually harassed by player B” or “Player A is obviously cheating, he beat me in a fight!”, causing mere name and roleplay behaviour-issues to drift to the back of the priority-queue.

One of the things that offer a lot to roleplayers? Social clothes/accessories. Items with no other purpose than giving the wearer a particular look. Eye-patches. Orc skulls. Fancy dresses. Wooden legs. It seems strange to me that more games don’t pay more attention to this particular bit, as  it’s a relatively quick and easy way of giving something to the roleplayers without unbalancing the game in the least. In many cases the games already have a ton of potential social items already being worn by NPCs but not otherwise accessible by the players. Giving the players the ability to create such social items themselves somehow (could even be a tradeskill!) – such as through the object creator Sanya mentions – would be a great boon to roleplayers. Though the art for any items created using such a tool would have to be prepared for the use by players beforehand anyways, so might as well set some Art/GFX people to do it.

Letting players create social objects from scratch themselves, visuals and all? Eeeeh… two words: Flying penises. Though that might not be a bad thing, depending on the game’s setting…

In-game bulletin boards and newsletters can be used to provide lore-based information to roleplayers, information that otherwise would have to be provided through patch-notes or news-posts on web-pages. Take it one step further and allow the roleplayers themselves some access to these bulletin-boards and newsletters (moderated by the dedicated CSR team, maybe, if we’re talking newsletters sent to a large number of other players). Allow them to advertise their own in-game events through in-game means.

Things on the list I disagree with

I don’t think the following items belong on the list:

  • No OOC channel at all. Take it to PMs
  • No automatic access to zone chat channels or /yell
  • Dedicated community specialist to grant individual access to zone chat channels and /yell for planned events

OOC channels can assist the players in a number of ways, both when it comes to technical issues with the client or uncertain gameplay-specifics. This doesn’t mean you have to throw the OOC channel in the players’ faces from get go. Leave it in as an optional feature for those who’d like to use it. Rename it, if you think the name “OOC” has too much baggage. When they manually join the channel, gently inform/remind them what the channel is for and what it’s not, using popup text or whichever other means available ingame.

And needing “community specialists” to handle access to chat channels? That seems like too much micro-management from the staff – there will always be a time when there’s no such staff online, or not enough online, or times where the players will disagree with who is granted access to the chat channels and who is left out, leading to more work for the CSR staff.

Things on the list I’m uncertain about

Items from Sanya’s list that I’m uncertain whether I’d include in my own list or not:

  • Dedicated event team consisting of at least two community people and a developer
  • All names, personal and guild, to be approved by hand

Any decent event team that regularly provides live events on roleplay servers might very well be worth their weight in gold – at least if you ask the limited amount of players that usually get to participate in those events. Such events are a double-edged sword, in my opinion. They usually occur at a specific time of day as one-time-only events which will either be witnessed by a very limited amount of people, or – if advertised too much – swamped by so many players that the event itself will be hard to go through with without lag/connectivity issues and whatnot. Too little gain for too much effort, and besides, the players usually come up with better stories themselves, even though they don’t always have the same tools available to run their events as what an event team would have… Hmm.

Maybe have something akin to SWG’s “Event Helpers”, where you’d have official staff available to assist with in-game events that require some particulars beyond your powers – with restrictions on what sort of help they could offer, of course?

On some level, I do agree with the idea of forcing all names to be moderated and approved – I’m uncertain about how such a rule should ideally be enforced though. Do characters get to run around with their unapproved names potentially annoying the other roleplayers for hours until the moderators have time to get around to them? Or do you go the way of assigning every new character a “Mysterious Stranger 14”-name until theirs get moderated? Doesn’t sound like it’d work well on a roleplay-server, to me.

My own list of roleplay-specific features

My own list, quite apart from the points I agree with from Sanya’s list:

  • A harsher, more “hardcore” name filter
  • Custom chat channels, with IRC like moderation tools for those who create said channels – and whoever they give extra powers to. Ability to invite entire guilds, raids, groups or individuals into the chat.
  • PvP based on guild diplomacy features, restricted otherwise
  • Event/story Tools
  • Move disruptive players to other servers, as an option to banning them

A name filter seems obvious, and is featured in most MMOs already, usually featuring rules such as “no numbers, capital letters, no three similar letters after one another” etc. I want more though; Blacklist of the most popular fictious and historical names. I don’t want any Gandalfs, Skywalkers or Obamas. Other stuff could be blacklisted. Swear-words in different languages, words describing human genitals, etc. Limitations on the amount of Xs and Zs that can be used in any given name. Of course, players will always be able to circumvent name filters – but might as well try to do the jobs of the CS staff as easy as possible, and head off as many bad names as possible up front.

Custom chat channels are a must. Situations arise on roleplay servers that might require communication between multiple individuals who are not necessarily in the same guild or group, and without the option to create a custom chat channel and invite particular individuals to said channel, people are forced to join the same group, or find other, external means of communication. Ventrilo/Teamspeak, for instance – which then potentially intrudes on their ability to be on Ventrilo/Teamspeak with their guild/friends. This isn’t really a RP-specific feature, but the feature actually being there can help roleplayers immensely.

Open PvP is all well and good – but it takes away more from roleplayers than it gives them, and what it gives them can still be offered to them using other systems.  For instance a system for PvP between guilds based on guild diplomacy features. Guilds at war – free PvP between the guilds. Allied guilds – either free PvP – but with names and players highlighted in a different manner – or PvP with some restrictions. Guilds with no relations, peaceful or hostile – no PvP outside features such as /duel or the more and more common PvP battlegrounds/mini-games. “Gankers” and “griefers” would find themselves hard pressed to maintain diplomatic relations with guilds whos members they’d openly gank or grief.

Roleplayers in ERPA (European RolePlaying Association – I’d link it but it appears to have gone the way of the dinosaur) used such a guild-alliance system to great effect in the days of pre-trammel Ultima Online. There was still free-for all PvP, but all the guilds that were members of the “ERPA alliance” would highlight green to each-other, and the system would not give murder counts or criminal flags to members of the alliance that fought each-other. While the guilds technically were “allies” ingame, there were in reality many different factions who might not, from an in-game perspective, be on particularly good terms with each-other, but used the guild-system to get an easy method for making their dealings with other roleplayers easier.

SWG already features one of the items on my list – tools to let players create their own events and mini-quests ingame. Through Storyteller-NPCs players are able to purchase a number of different props, effects and mini-events that they can put into effect in the game world – from decorative props to hostile NPCs to battles occurring in the sky above. CoH/CoV did something similar in allowing players to create their own quest-scenarios, but in their case they included the ability to give out rewards for said quests, which of course instantly led to abuse by players seeking to min/max their way to fame and glory.

For a roleplay server, though, player-created quests and events wouldn’t have to offer any awards (apart, perhaps from “worthless” social items that the players could already get hold off elsewhere for little effort?), the combative NPCs wouldn’t have to offer any XP when killed, it wouldn’t have to affect character progression (in a skill or level-based game) at all. The event/quest in itself would be the reward.

Disruptive players who get flagged a certain amount of times by the CSR team for “illegal” behaviour on roleplay servers, should either get banned or – if that is too extreme –  get booted off the server and on to a different one (preferably a non-roleplay server).

Conclusion:

While it seems clear that roleplayers as a group are a minority in most MMOs, with numbers like 10% or 13% thrown around by Sanya Weathers and by commenters on her article, 10% of a million users is still a hundred thousand users, and with even a minimal amount of effort one could offer those 10% some good reasons to stick around by setting up and maintaining dedicated roleplay servers which offer those players “something extra” to support their play-style.

Roleplayers as a rule (yeah, no, I don’t have any basis for that claim other than personal experience… sue me (don’t, please)) grow more heavily connected to their characters than casual players, and if you get them to really adopt your game as a home for their roleplaying, they’re not likely to go anywhere else for a long, long time.

On the other hand, if they find that playing on the roleplay servers offer nothing more than a non-enforced “guideline for behaviour” when compared to normal/PvP servers, that they constantly get leet-names and immature chat/behaviour thrown in their faces, and that they have no tools with which to enhance their roleplaying efforts – well, chances are that they’re just going to pick up and leave for greener pastures.

One Response to “About roleplay-servers in MMOs”

  1. Caliga says:

    Wow. An interesting read. A topic close to my heart and one I could rave on about for hours. But to the point:

    Roleplayers will always find a server to congregate. If there is no dedicated RP server then you will almost certainly find an unofficial one. The problem with unofficial servers are those who might be new to the RP scene but eager to try it won’t know how to get started or how to find the RP server. Those RPers on an unofficial RP server will have to tolerate awful l33t d00dz names without any recourse.

    The problem with official servers is that someone has to police them and devote the resources to that policing.

    Personally, I’d like to see more stringent rules on a RP server. More strict and severe naming policy for starters. You mentioned no OOC or global channel; I’d like to see that. Let all chat channel conversation and all player to player conversations be only in-character, with anything OOC reserved for private chat or a “newbie” help channel.

    The official RP servers often tend to have very healthy populations. Let’s think outside the square and dare to be different.