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Thinking Virtually

#15: The State of the Art

by Shannon Appelcline
June 4, 2001  

Last week I talked about my visions for how MCRPGs should work on the Internet, approaching things analytically and drawing a continuum from chat-room based RPGs to simulation-heavy total immersions environments. This time I'd like to look at the other side of the coin--to examine what has actually been done with computer RPGs. I'm mostly going to be looking at things in large classes, and from there try and draw out some of the strengths and weaknesses thus far introduced into the medium.

Family Games: The Big MCRPG Winners

Before I really get started, I'd like to briefly acknowledge the big winner in the MCRPG field--the game that attracts millions of players--tens of times more than anything else out there.


And bridge and poker and bingo. Family games. There are the critical successes of the net.

Yeah, it's a bit of a stretch to actually call them RPGs, but when people get online and play these family games--and chat--they do inevitably take on other personas. And the "multiplayer" and "computer" aspects are clearly there.

My point? Well, two really. First, popular isn't necessarily good. Second, even on the Internet RPGs are a very niche market. When I talked about Neverwinter Nights and the Vampire MCRPG in the forums many weeks ago, at least one respondent pointed out that they were even more niche games than Ultima and its brethren.

I agree, but they also have the potential to truly bring roleplaying to the net. And that's worth a lot.

Adventure & Baldur's Gate: Single-player RPGs

When discussing MCRPGs, you really have to take a second to consider the single-player RPGs that started things off. Adventure was probably the first, way back in 1976. Zork came along in 1979. Then, in the 1980s, the first single-player graphical RPGs appeared. Bard's Tale, the original Ultimas, and the gold box AD&D series are some of the stand outs that we still remember.Single-player RPGs are still alive today, with bestsellers like Might & Magic VII and Baldur's Gate ... but they're clearly on their way out. Not once, but many times, I've heard designers say that they're not even considering games without multiplayer components nowadays ... or that the costs of 3D graphics are getting too high for single-player one-time play. I predict they'll be gone within five years.

And, I don't think that single-player games are going to be missed, as long as MCRPG designers do their jobs right. A good MCRPG will be a simple superset of a single-player RPG, with players having the opportunity to adventure on their own or roleplay with others.

The Strengths of single-player RPGs, however, will be hard to match in the multiplayer arena. A game designer in the single-player arena had the opportunity to create monsters, plots, puzzles, and treasures, and know that a single person will be able to personally interact with all of these. In the multiplayer arena you lose all of these abilities, and you instead have long series of questions. What happens when one player has killed a unique monster? Taken a unique item? What happens when one player wipes out an entire species of monsters? What happens when a trap is disarmed? A puzzle solved? A quest completed? With multiple players all working in the same world, game designers have to make lots of sacrifices of game realism and continuity.

The Weaknesses of single-player RPGs, however, are somewhat solved by moving to the multiplayer format. The biggest problem in single-player games was ... you couldn't roleplay. It wasn't just that there wasn't anyone else to talk to, but the games were largely ... "gamist". The object was to kill monsters, find treasures, and become more experienced. No roleplaying required.

And as we'll see that latter fact has influenced most MCRPGs to date. MUDs & MUSHes: Textual RPGs

I talked about MUDs & MUSHes last week as examples of broad classes of games. In actuality there are lots of very real instances of these games. MUDs have been around since 1981 or so and MUSHes since about 1989. In the broadest terms, which don't do justice to either type of game, MUDs are almost entirely gamist, simply mapping the single-player gameplay to a multiplayer game. MUSHES on the other hand are almost entirely roleplayer-ist, with no opportunity to actually take changes or improve your character.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of these games are closely intertwined. MUDs don't have roleplaying components and MUSHes don't have gaming components. Sure, some games of each genre have started moving toward the middle (in fact "Eternal City" a game that fairly notably combines RPing and achievement has recently moved to Skotos), but there's still a long way to go ...

I should note that when you look at the systems of MUDs and MUSHES there are some sorts of each game out there that are much more state of the art that the graphical games that I'm going to get to in a second. They've been developing for twenty years and they don't have the huge development costs associated with 3D graphics. Thus you have very complex combat systems, intricate crafting systems, enormous worlds, and in some cases real integration of gaming and roleplaying. Graphical games have not caught up with the best MUDs and MUSHes and might never be able to due to the increased costs of graphics. The bottom line: don't write these games off just because they're just text. They've got lots of unique advantages ...

Doom & Quake: Multiplayer FPSes

Before I move on to multiplayer graphical RPGs I want to take a moment to note the influence of multiplayer first person shooters (FPSes). Castle Falkenstein 3D, soon followed by Doom, Marathon, Quake, and so many others created a new genre of video games, and then they took their success and leveraged it even further by offering the opportunity for online play.

These games are even less about RPGing then MUDs or single-player games or even Hearts. And, they're no longer state of the art, but they were still a vital stepping stone.

Ultima & Asheron: Graphical MUDs

I said a few paragraphs ago that MUDs and MUSHes are producing some of the most innovative game design in the entire MCRPG world. But I'll have to concede that when I say state of the art, most people think of what I call graphical MUDs: Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and the waves of competitors and copycats that are coming to market now and in the future. Why do I call these games graphical MUDs? In the case of EverQuest, it's obvious: it was based on the core gameplay of DikiMUD, one of the most gamist MUDs out there. As for the other two: they both tend to follow the same trends as single-player RPGs and MUDs. They're essentially about gaming--making your character better, fighting monsters, solving riddles ... all that good stuff.

And, the core Strengths of these games tend to fall into that same category. They're pretty good at addicting players to the idea of increasing their characters' experience as they move through their realms. Again, I'll contend that they're behind the curve of the top MUDs, but not too much. Each game has at least some systems that are innovative and exciting.

Ultima Online, for example, has a good crafting system that allows people to make new items out of components. Occasionally there's a rush of excitement that goes through the community when a new "formula" is discovered. And, though Asheron's Call is the least popular of the big three graphical MUDs, it's also the one that's the most oriented toward genuine roleplay. Through its factions and its pyramids of feudal-like power Asheron's Call provides great incentive for interaction with other players.

But, it's EverQuest which currently holds the crown as the graphical MUD winner. And best at what MUDs have always been best at: giving players opportunities for killing monsters, finding neat equipment, exploring new realms, and increasing the levels of their characters.

The Weaknesses of graphical MUDs tend to fall into the same exact lines as textual MUDs. I'll expand upon them a little more here: they have limited opportunities for roleplaying due to the achievement-based orientation of the game; they use as a foundation an unrealistic world which is the result of players not being able to create lasting effects in the game world; and they impose a limitation on what you can do, base on the fact that a computer program moderates things rather than a human being.

Vampire & Neverwinter: Graphical RPGs

And that finally brings us to the games that I talked about at the start of this article: the Vampire MCRPG and Neverwinter Nights. These are games that try and defeat one of the weaknesses that I listed in the last section: the lack of human moderators. These games try and create a hybrid, where the computer system does moderate lots of stuff--like combat--but where a human being can still have real-time interactions with the players, perhaps given them advice, perhaps just sending more monsters their way or creating new obstacles.

And that's the Strength of these games. Human intervention and oversight.

And the Weaknesses? Mostly that I'm not sure they're going to succeed. The Vampire MCRPG seemed to disappear from the RADAR screen almost as soon as it appeared. As for Neverwinter Nights? We'll see if it's ever released. The last quote I saw was Q2 2001.

The hardest sell for Neverwinter Nights is going to be discovering whether there are enough gamemasters willing to write scenarios for this new setting. Admittedly, they'll be supplementing a preexisting campaign, but without the player add-ons, Neverwinter Nights might as well be an Ultima clone.

So, the weakness? A totally different gaming model, really, where individual gamemasters create scenarios and run small groups of players through them. It's not at all what's been around before, but it is something that I think has a lot of potential.

So What is the State of the Medium?

Overall, good. Since the release of Ultima Online, which was in turn helped out by much more mass-market multiplayer games like Doom and Quake, MCRPGs have become much more mass market and much more widely available. And, at the same time we're seeing evolution in the medium--primarily in the primordial ground marked by MUDs and MUSHes, but also in innovative designs like Neverwinter Nights. We're really starting to see RPGs come onto their own on the net.

As much as I love my tabletop gaming group, I think that MCRPGs are going to be the place that roleplaying primarily occurs within the next generation.

Shannon Appelcline regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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