Mrs Spinks goes to Orgrimmar

spinksbarrens

It took only a couple of months for the dream of settling down somewhere away from all the fighting and politics to run a small pub to die. Silverpine was, after all, packed to the gills with forsaken celebrating the fall of the prince of lordaeron with only emptiness in their hearts instead of …. whatever it was they were supposed to feel.

They were bad company and bad customers.

Polishing the bar for the 76th time that day in silence, the old warrior wondered privately if, in a sense, the lich king had won after all. There was never going to be a scenario where forsaken retired quietly to farm crops and raise children. Only silence, darkness, infighting, and waiting for the next inevitable war of aggression to divert the masses from any kind of civil disobedience. Repeat until dead. Again. Dark Lady watch over us.

She left the keys to the till with the uptight cellarman who claimed that he had once been a Baronet, in King Terenas’ day. “That’s nice dear,” she deadpanned. “Don’t forget to count the bottles on delivery day. I may be some time.”

It was a long trip to the Southern Barrens, where old battle companions had settled. The windrider flew silently, across green open plains. When Spinks arrived at the farm it was nightfall. She hesitated about going up to the farmhouse, instead watching shadows play across the inside of the curtains and laughter and warmth ripple out. It was no place for the dead.

After watching for awhile, she left, taking the long road through Thousand Needles to the Salt Flats. Another day passed, but neither she nor the horse needed to eat or sleep.

spinksracecourse

The racetrack was quiet, gnomes and goblins still busily competing to show off their engineering skills. No one there cared who wanted to bet on the races, living, undead, as long as their money was good.

Spinks bet on the goblins — “Always bet on green, at least I learned that from the orcs.” Sometimes she won, sometimes she lost.

It was some days later that the warlock arrived, his fine silk and brocades trailing in the dust of the desert.

“I hoped I might find you here,” he said dryly, steepling skeletal fingers.

“Congratulations, you get a special prize.”

“You may have noticed the earthquakes. Elementals are attacking, all over Azeroth. It’s been getting worse. They’re focussed on Orgrimmar. Garrosh has even called the horde to help defend – I know, couldn’t happen to a nicer orc.”

She eyed him, a flicker of interest in the depths of the sockets.

The warlock nodded silently to the unspoken question. “The inner circle asked me to find you. Mrs Spinks, we’re needed.”

Improving Roleplaying: Sharing our Stories

This is the fifth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts in the series were:

All roleplaying involves telling stories about our characters with other people. They may not always be exciting stories, but they are ours. Through those stories, characters change and grow. Farmboys become heroes, students get bitten by radioactive spiders, political movements rise and fall, love triangles form and reform, characters meet new people, destroy threats, and write their own histories into the story books.

Our characters and their stories exist in the same virtual world, so to bring that world to life, we need to share those tales. People need to know what other characters have done in the past or are doing in the present – it might affect their own story. If you ask any roleplayer what they’d most like to see in a game, it is very likely that they’d want to see their stories affect the gameworld around them. Since other players form a large part of that setting, this means finding a way to share those stories or at least the parts that might affect other people. If you engineer a revolution in a city in the woods and no one knows about it, did it still happen?

Keeping everyone up to date on everything is an impossibly complex task in a large game. Even with as few as 20 players, it’s hard work to keep the updates rolling. Even if you just focus on the parts that affect people individually. But we can take a leaf out of the real world and how we keep up with the news in real life. We can focus on picking out the relevant information and figuring how to let people tap into it to improve the RP experience. We can ponder opting in to information streams, and locating people based on their current plots and goals.

In the end, there are two main tasks here.

  1. How do we share our stories? This involves sharing events that happened before the game started (ie. character backstories or histories), sharing the history of events which have already happened in the game so that new players can catch up, and sharing information or collaborating about plots on which we are working at the moment.
  2. How do we get other people to read our stories and act on them appropriately? Most people have limited interest in other people’s stories unless they are personally affected (this is true of the RL news too). So how can we pick out the information generated by other players/ characters and show people only the parts that might affect them?

Why bother with character backgrounds?

In some games, players can write a few paragraphs about their character’s background (ie. what they did before the game started) and store it somewhere in the UI where other players can read it. I asked last week how many players actually read other character backgrounds. Quite a few people said that they did.

The purpose of a character background is to answer the questions, “Who am I, and how did I get here?” where ‘here’ is the point at which the character ‘goes live’. From a roleplaying point of view, the background also gives you a jumping off point for RP. It explains who the character is, and perhaps why s/he became that way. A publically accessible background can let other people hook into that story too.

  • For example: If you came from one specific town, then other players whose characters are from the same area can RP that they knew you as a child. (note: it is polite to whisper someone first to ask permission and check that they’re OK with the connection before launching into RP about it.)
  • Another example: If your character is a notorious crook and someone else plays a policeman, this might suggest RPing that you have crossed paths in the past.

We call these types of starting points ‘plot hooks’. So part of the purpose of a RP character background is to provide plot hooks for both yourself (e.g.. “my character is searching for her lost brother”) and for other people (e.g.. “I am a notorious con artist, anyone in law enforcement probably recognises my name and curses it daily. I might even have ripped your character off in the past. Contact me to work out a story.”) So backgrounds are not just self indulgent fanfic, they can provide useful RP pointers both for the player herself and for other players too.

Here are some things that make people more likely to read backgrounds:

  • the game rewards you in some way for reading/ acting on other player’s backstories (this happened in MUSHes)
  • background is short and easily accessible from in game. No one is asking you to read and memorise a novella.
  • background is well written.
  • background belongs to a character you play with regularly so you either like the player or think you might want to use it in RP with them
  • you are given hints that the background might be interesting
  1. character looks interesting (has a good costume)
  2. character acts interesting (maybe you see them roleplaying)
  3. you find the lore interesting and know that the other player does too (maybe they posted on forums or said something in a channel that caught your eye)
  4. the game itself tends to inspire interesting backgrounds (superheroes in particular often have strong backstories, it’s just part of the genre. hobbits in LOTRO probably don’t.)
  • You are bored or have some downtime and it’s something to do
  • You were asked to read it, or they read yours first and you want to reciprocate
  • You regularly read character backgrounds whenever you get the chance .. and you get the chance

So the background story can be both interesting and useful to roleplayers. If given the opportunity, more people read them than we otherwise might assume. Actually discussing how to write a compelling, non-clichéd backstory with which others will want to interact is a whole different issue and not something I’m going to cover today.

But a block of text on the screen is not the only way to introduce a character’s history to other people.

Towards more interactive backstories

The great advantage of freeform writing – the blank box of text – is that you can write anything. The problem with freeform writing is that people can write anything. It can be totally off-genre, it can be poorly written, it can miss the point completely (people who don’t understand that a backstory is history and use it instead to describe their characters’ clothes, for example), it can be wildly unbalanced or simply unbelievable, it may not fit with the game lore.

We could try to distill out the information that is useful to other players, while still giving people some room to just write about their characters. To do this, we’d need to think about what other people might want to know, and we’d need to encourage players to decide which of the information in their background might be publically known. (It’s silly to put information in your background that contains major spoilers or that you have to ask other people not to use.)

They might want to know where the character is from. You could imagine a game which put you through a series of questions while doing your starter zone. Maybe you are offered a map of the world and allowed to pick in precisely which region your character grew up. Then add in some kind of search function and it becomes easy to see who else is from the same region. Maybe even give them their own chat channel. Mark on the list which characters are new to the game so that more experienced characters can (if they want) make an effort to involve them.

They might want to know which in-game organisations you have been associated with. Is your character religious? Does it have links with the city guard? Was your character’s mother an army officer? Does it have criminal contacts? Again, being able to somehow associate yourself with those groups means other players wouldn’t have to pick through all the background information to find out who they might know. Instead they could just do a search, or even have the information delivered to them.

They might want to know what other plot hooks are associated with a character. In a MUSH it would not have been especially unusual for players to be asked to think up a couple of plot hooks for themselves to put into their background information.

Players also might want to be able to collaborate on backgrounds. If you have a great idea for a family of travelling players, you may want to find out if anything like that already exists in the game, or if anyone else is interested too. It isn’t as easy to find good collaborators as it might sound. Not only do you have to roughly share the same goals, you need to be on similar time zones, have similar play styles, and be able to get on OOC. You won’t know if all these things are true until you actually spend some time roleplaying with other people, so there’s a good chance that even if you could put up some kind of advert for people to join your band of travellng players and got some responses, most of them wouldn’t work out.

Having said that, sometimes it is possible to collaborate on backgrounds without committing yourself to a heavy RP schedule. You could agree to have been members of the same band of travelling players in the past, for example, and then collaborate to decide what happened to the group, why it split up, and whether there might be some good plot hooks there for people.

We can also make use of social media for our collaborations these days. It doesn’t all have to be mailing lists, bulletin boards, and IRC. I see this as a big trend in MMOs and it will be fantastic for roleplayers, who do need to coordinate with other players.

Bottom Line: If we abandon the totally freeform backstory, we can make it easier for players to hook up and interact in MMOs. I think this is true for a lot of MMO roleplaying – by narrowing the scope and limiting options, we can get a more productive and accessible RP environment.

There will always be room also for the totally freeform style of roleplaying. It may require small, disciplined groups, good GMs, and a lot of give and take, but it works just as well in MMOs as in chatrooms. However, it will never be accessible or massive. Complexity in sharing backstories and coordinating schedules is one of the things which simply does not scale well.

Recording our In-Game Stories

If history is made by the players in a roleplaying game, then where is the history recorded in a persistent RP MMO. Who knows about how the game has changed and what plots have been run? Even on a small scale, who can keep up with the social drift within a small RP circle? Who is sleeping with who? And why? What does a new player need to know to catch up?

Again, this is a huge and complex problem when large numbers of players are involved. Most people don’t want to be told to go read novel-length write ups of things that happened before they even joined the game.

So how can we get the news out and how can we record it? Wikis have been some use in this respect but have the problem of RL news outlets – who is going to keep updating them, who is going to keep them free from bias?

I don’t have a good answer to this one. In the past we have archived stories using player logs (in a text based game, it’s easy to store the log of a scene online), we have set up forums and encouraged people to keep their stories updated, we have allowed people to alter their character backgrounds to keep them current, we have seen people write in-game newspapers and news files or summaries.

So rather than run on, I’ll just say again that it is a huge problem. If lots of players are actively RPing then there are a lot of stories to keep track of, and no one can really hope to track them all. The best you can hope for is to channel players into a smaller number of larger plots and try to note any major worldchanging events that would affect large numbers of people.

Again, making good use of social media is where today’s MMOs can really start to shine. We’re on the cusp of this really taking off – we’ve seen integration with MMOs and websites, twitter, chat channels, achievement lists, and other information that can be accessed outside the game. You could imagine a newsfeed that is accessible within and outside the game and is updated based on in game world events and character plots.

Achievements in particular show the progress of a character’s story. As they are currently, they don’t do this in a very exciting or compelling way, but they do record the story of “I did this, then I did that, then I did that,” in a way to which other players can relate.

Fanfic

I will be honest, I am not a fan of fanfic. But writing stories about events that happened to your character in game is a time honored way of recording a personal history. Whether it’s a fully blown novella, a set of comedy sketches, or a blog/in-character diary, it is another way for players to find out what has been going on in game.

Allowing players to link somehow to external sites on which they can store fanfic, visualisations, family trees, descriptions of their character’s homes, or anything else that helps to flesh out the character and share its story would reward people for the extra work. It would also let them explore each other’s writing and character stories. It is something that devs could easily encourage, just by making it accessible from inside the game.

More mechanical methods to share stories and collaborate

Achievements, gear lists, calendars, automated scene logs, progression histories and guild histories can all be part of a character’s ongoing story. And these have the advantage of not requiring players to pour their souls into fanfic or spend hours working on a character website. Calendars and sign up lists in particular represent a form of online collaboration that is still in its infancy. We could have in game whiteboards, methods for people to collaborate on storytelling or working out backgrounds or organising RP events, and I expect to see more of these things as time goes on.

In particular there is a lot of work going on at the moment in tools for joint storytelling. It isn’t happening in the MMO field, but if it exists then players will use it. And if it is brought into the MMOs, people will use them in MMOs.

We could imagine scene schedulers, plot arc schedulers, co-operative NPC design (usually in MMOs someone will play the NPC as a low level alt) and so on.

But with all these complex character stories going on, who can stand back and see the long view of how they all intersect? This has always been an issue with scaling up roleplaying. So many stories going on in parallel and it’s difficult to see how things play out on the grander scale. The complexity involved is terrifying. You can’t code your way out of complexity, but you can look for ways to make it easier to manage.

Improving Roleplay: How to find other roleplayers?

This is the third post in a series about improving the RP experience in MMOs. Previous posts were:

So you’ve created your character, you’ve run it through the starting zone and had some ideas for a backstory and personality traits, and now you’re ready to go and interact with other players. So where do you go next? How do you find these other players? How do you know they’ll be interested in roleplaying with you?

There are two main types of roleplay in a largescale setting.

  1. Scenes that are pre-arranged. This could include huge scheduled events, the weekly RP guild meeting, or just whispering around a group of friends to arrange be in the Stormwind pub at 8pm on Tuesday. If you need to roleplay with specific people, then the chances are some of the key scenes will be pre-arranged to make sure that everyone can be there.
  2. Scenes that are not pre-arranged. You run into people, start roleplaying, and see how it goes. They may be people you have never met before. Or it might be that your group likes to roleplay around the same hangout (or guildhall if you’re playing a game that has them) so you know to go there and see who is around. Some people like to go to the newbie zones on RP servers and start roleplaying with people there.

Immediately you can see the similarities with any kind of group activities. It’s like the difference between pre-arranged raid schedules and PUGs. We have several mechanisms in MMOs to find other players to game with, but they cover instancing (and maybe PvP), not roleplaying as an activity.

Finding other players who want to do the same thing that you do is key to any social interaction in an MMO. So getting this right is a big deal. I’m going to look at how roleplayers find other roleplayers in game, and where the systems could help out.

Who is out there? LFG

Even if you could use LFG to find other players who wanted to roleplay, that’s not enough information on its own. You need to know what type of roleplay they’re interested in and whether it matches with the kind of stories you want to tell. This isn’t just so that you can avoid the guys who want to cyber (ie. roleplay having sex), but if you’re looking for light hearted gnome roleplaying about clockwork chickens, it’s not going to mesh well with the night elf hunter who wants deep dark RP about being possessed by a demon, or the dwarf guy who wants to RP a grizzled veteran and talk about beer.

(Note: people really do tend to play to racial types, which is why race-based RP guilds work so well in WoW.)

And this is really the big problem with just searching for other roleplayers. It’s much easier if you can find them because they’re going somewhere your character might go or doing something your character might do too, rather than just because they tagged their character as wanting to roleplay in LFG.

It would be possible to add extra switches to LFG – maybe light hearted RP vs serious RP. Or you could just whisper to the person and ask them before you arrange to meet. But I’ve never really found these kinds of switches useful in text based games, except in being able to avoid the people who are all about sex.

Roleplaying Servers

At the most basic level, a roleplaying server is somewhere you would expect to find roleplayers. In practice, a lot of people pick RP servers because they like the more social atmosphere and less hardcore focus. Neither of these things are guaranteed. And in another tragedy of the commons, the more non-RPers who gather on a roleplaying server, the less easy it is for actual RPers to find someone to roleplay with. So if you do pick a RP server, it’s polite to at least respond IC if someone addresses you IC.

Roleplay servers could benefit a lot if new players understood what they were about and were forced to at least create characters with acceptable names. They’d benefit even more if experienced RPers were motivated to go chat to the newbies and find ways to include them, but that issue affects all types of MMO activity.

Still, if devs want to support roleplaying, it’s not really fair to treat RP servers exactly the same as all the others. A little more time spent on approving names would go a long way.

Guilds and Alliances

Another way to find roleplayers is to join a guild that is all about roleplaying. A guild can do a lot to support RP and some of them have organised events, heavily lore based structures, in character guild channels (so that you can RP with the guild while doing something else in game) and support strong storytelling among members. It’s just a case of finding one that suits you, hoping that it’s active and people haven’t got bored and gone off to raid, and that you don’t end up hating everyone else who is in it. So it’s like joining any social guild really.

A guild can provide you with a pool of other roleplayers. The guild will also probably have a strong theme (race based guilds are common, as are guilds based around in game organisations) so that you should be able to find players who want to roleplay the same types of stories.

This is all great as far as it goes, but it is difficult to roleplay and to do other things in game. You won’t want to roleplay running every instance and raid, for example. It takes time to type and time to think about the story and your character’s response. And also, just because another player wants to roleplay doesn’t mean that they’ll want to do the other things in game that you do. For example, you might be guilded with a strong RPer who has no interest in levelling their character past level 10. That’s not a problem, but if you want to raid with your guild then it may not be realistic to expect a RP guild to provide enough people who want to RP AND who want to raid.

This is one of the reasons that RPers get a reputation as poor players. There are plenty of RPers who are also hardcore and as elitist as anyone else. But there are also players who are mainly there to socialise and RP and don’t care about learning to play the game. All that they have in common is that they enjoy roleplaying. So a strong RP guild can actually restrict you from doing anything else apart from roleplaying.

In practice, a lot of people play in RP guilds and then leave reluctantly because they want to do something else in game and the guild can’t support it.

Letting players join multiple guilds would go a long way towards solving this problem. ie. one for roleplay/socialising, one to raid, one to PvP, one to chat with people who come from the same area iRL, etc. Until game designers realise that it’s unreasonable to expect a guild to focus on more than one game activity, we will never get away from people feeling stressed because they have to leave their friends to be able to do some organised game activity. This is something that roleplayers need. But it would benefit other players too.

In the meantime, guild alliances can bridge the gap, in games that support them. A few smaller guilds can band together and raise a critical mass of members who do want to raid or PvP, even though the majority may still not be interested. I also think it’s an absolute travesty that WoW has never implemented guild alliances. I don’t think they really see beyond their raid guild model.

Location based roleplaying, and name tags

One of the things I noticed in EQ2 is that the game supports roleplaying name tags. You can make your character’s name turn a different colour if you are interested in roleplaying, and then go about your daily business as normal. Just other players will be able to spot you and may choose to engage you in roleplay.

I like this a lot, because it supports location based RP. A player could go to a location that fits their character (maybe their racial capital city) and if you see other roleplayers – who you will recognise from the colour of the nametag – you can interact with them quite naturally. And it is easy to find a good starting gambit, you can assume that their character has a reason to be there and go from that. It is much easier to roleplay in a location than in a vacuum. The location itself gives all the players some props to work with.

If you’re in a pub, then people can roleplay about booze and getting drunk and socialising. If in a guild hall, they can roleplay about guild business. If in the cathedral, they can roleplay about in game religion or church politics. If in a shop or auction house, they can roleplay about commerce. They aren’t forced to do those things, but it’s a good way to start a conversation. Just being in that location gives other people an idea of what you might want to RP about.

And this points to a glaring gap in the systems. We have a /who command to see who is online. Why don’t we have a /where? At least tell us how many people are in the hangouts or the cities.

Developers are actually pretty good at providing roleplay-friendly locations. There are usually in game hangouts (such as pubs or nightclubs), churches, shops, houses, town halls, parks, and other empty spaces in which to roleplay. But to be RP-friendly, these spaces need to be empty and quiet. People don’t want to be constantly interrupted by spam from the NPCs. They also don’t want to be constantly breaking off the conversation to go fight some mobs.

I have noticed that WoW is noticeably worse at this in Wrath than in previous expansions. Perhaps the developers have decided that players are bored with empty buildings and every single space needs to be entertaining.

So if the game MUST be this spammy with NPC chatter, roleplayers need a way to find a quiet corner in which to chat IC. Maybe side rooms with doors that close to keep out the noise, or corner tables at which players can sit down and have a private table-only conversation. Perhaps even a short-range version of /say which only lets conversation travel to people in the immediate vicinity would help.

Finding people to fill specific roles

In pre-arranged storylines, sometimes there will be space for a character to play a specific role. For example, if someone has a character background in which they had an argument with a friend and ran away from home, they might want someone to RP being the ex-friend. Or in a more mundane storyline, maybe two siblings are quarrelling about their father’s will and want a lawyer to help sort it out and may want another player to be the lawyer. Or perhaps a wizard wants to teach a class via RP and is looking for potential apprentices.

There is no easy way to do this on an MMO. If you’re in a RP guild and would put up a note on your guild bboard to see if anyone was interested. In practice, you’ll first ask round your friends and other people who you currently RP with. Then you’ll check the RP guillds and put notes on their bboards asking people to contact you if they are interested and hopefully go from there.

A looking-for-roleplay board on official forums can be useful, but only if people read it. Plus they tend to get spammed by people writing huge fanfic stories. Note: fanfic is NOT roleplaying. At best it is writing up an account of RP which you have already done. Feel free to write stories about your character. But do not spam my RP forum with them!!

Ideally what roleplayers need is some kind of in game mailing list or bboard which they can more easily access. Some games give players the facility to organise this themselves. For example, in WoW it’s easy to set up a roleplaying chat channel and invite other RPers to join it.

These are all things which support emergent play

So I’ve discussed: better LFG functionality, multiple guilds, focussed servers, location based gaming, name tags, in game mailing lists and boards

One thing they all have in common is that they wouldn’t just benefit roleplayers. Anything which is good for roleplayers is likely to be good for other social gamers, anyone who enjoys immersion, and probably lots of other emergent behaviour which we haven’t seen yet because current game mechanics don’t encourage it. If I had to pick just one thing that I’d like to see, it would be more support for multiple guilds and alliances. The crapshoot of trying to find a guild that does all the things you want to do, with a schedule that suits you, and where you like the people, is something that would be greatly eased if you didn’t have to look to one guild to do all of those things.

Tell Blizzard all about your character

In case anyone missed it, Blizzard are running a writing competition which is actually open to entrants outside the US (as well as inside it). What you have to do is write 3k-10k words and the story should be set in the world of Warcraft, Starcraft or Diablo.

Official entry page is here.

And just in case anyone was thinking of submitting their favourite slash pairing, the smallprint on the rules does state:

Any entries or submissions which depict or glorify overly graphic, lewd, obscene, vulgar or profane behavior, or which utilize lewd, obscene vulgar or profane language, either as part of the submission or as the name of the submission, will be disqualified at the sole discretion of Sponsor.

The prize is a trip to Blizzard HQ (in southern california) to ‘meet and eat’ with the Blizzard writers and pick up a copy of Frostmourne. I think there’s room for a joke here about the pen being mightier than the sword, but it’s too early in the morning for me to think of it.

Personally, if I’m writing publishable quality short stories (which is what the winner will be) I want a writing contract, not a  fake sword. Just sayin’. But I guess that’s the main point of getting some quality face time with the actual writers. That and the free lunch.

It’s not impossible that they are lining up potential writers for future writing gigs though. Again from the smallprint:

The Entry Materials include a survey that requires you to enter your name, e-mail address, and state of residence. By entering the Contest, you consent to Sponsor’s use of this information to inform you of open positions with Blizzard, and to associate your name with your submission in promotional materials for the Contest in the event that you are chosen to be a winner.

Also if I’m going all the way  to California I want to see cool stuff, not Blizzard HQ. I think I fail on the fannishness on some basic level ;) And joking aside, they only give 2 nights lodging which is a bit tight on the jet lag if you have to fly 11+ hours each way.

However, if you are a keen writer and want some free publicity and an ‘in’ on possible future writing work with Blizzard, it’s got to be worth a shot.

Amusingly, in Kotaku’s writeup of this story, they say about the winner:

He or she (but, since this is fan fiction, I mean, yeah, probably a he) will get a Frostmourne sword.

Wait. Someone  actually thinks more men than women write fanfic? Inconcievable!