With the roots of MMORPG’s being in Pen and Paper RPG’s, a great debt of gratitude should be left at the door’s the 1974 founded generation of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) games started by Gary Gygax (Chainmail) and David Arneson (Blackmoor). Without their, and David Wesley's (Braunstein) additions to the genre (Braunstein moved us beyond model wargaming and introduced the concept of the character actually having a goal; who would have thunk it!), the concepts of hit points, class levels, experience points, armor and dungeons as adventure settings really wouldn’t have finally made their way into modern MMORPG’s. Snow’s (2008) must read summary of the development of RPG’s actually reads like a shopping list of concepts which we take very much for granted today. My point is, so much has been taken from the, forgive the expression, “trad” games of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and in particular that early genesis period of the modern RPG, can MMORPG’s learn from newer RPG’s? Are there any developments in the last decade in RPG’s that MMORPG’s could learn from?
I suppose it’s also equally a valid statement or proposition to ask the question; have computer games, many of which started life as simple replicates of pen and paper systems, reached the point now that they no longer need many of the things inherent to RPG’s? And indeed, are there elements of RPG’s still present in MMORPG’s which hold back the development of better MMO’s? In particular over the last few years I’ve been increasingly exposed to the “indie” RPG market, mainly due to a close friend becoming involved in self publishing and marketing of his own indie game. This has made me, particularly over the last decade, as a gamer who, to be honest in the 1990’s was a very much “Trad” gamer, become very aware of the quite innovative things which game designers have been coming up with once you depart (or, to be fair, take a slight de-tour from, 4th Ed is a great game I’d happily play more of) the mainstream. Really my question is, can computer games designers, who’ve learnt so much from RPG’s early days, learn much from subsequent and newer developments?
To be honest, my first impression is no. Mainly because what computer games do well is translate hundreds of dice roles and hardwired system mechanics beautifully, with a graphics engine, to produce a quicker experience. Rolling a character in a pen and paper RPG takes an hour at least generally, a modern computer game like Dragon Age 2 or similar has you pretty much diving straight into the action within a minute or two. Then combat. If you think of how many player vs creature fights it takes to level up to exit the normal starting area in WoW or Rift, and how many quests are completed, that in a pen and paper D&D game would quite literally take days to reproduce. Computer games excel at taking a static rules system and crunching those numbers behind the scenes allowing players to do in seconds would could otherwise take minutes or hours. Why might more modern non-“trad” games systems (and I clearly differentiate systems from settings here, as indie games generally have some quite cool settings which computer game designers may very well want to play with) not be as much use to computer game designers? Well, mainly because they focus on player interaction experiences and storytelling. While a rules heavy tome (and there have been many of these still published in the last decade as well…) which defines everything a player can possibly do in a game setting is actually a good set of rules to follow for a game system, many “non-trad” or “indie” games, which have moved far beyond and away from the wargaming roots of RPG’s and attempt to produce a more dramatis persona or, to be honest, amateur dramatics, feel to the game. If I think of the most innovative RPG “system thingy” (technical term don’tyaknow) that I read lately, it’s the Coretex character interaction building system from Smallville, which I’m pretty much going to port straight into all my games; it’s not something however that you could ever apply to a computer game as it’s a story and player interaction system.
As noted though, new and modern most certainly doesn’t always mean non-crunchy! I’ve picked up some seriously rules heavy crunchy books, some of them even self published independent works over the last decade. Admittedly I’ve picked them up, flicked through, and quickly put back down… But honestly in some of these systems I’ve read about I do wonder if the RPG has much left to “teach” the computer game in terms of games systems. Certainly in terms of settings and worlds I can see a huge amount of possibilities, and I’d be ecstatic with a Shadowrun MMORPG etc. Is there anything beyond creative settings though that RPG’s have left to deliver? Or will current MMORPG writers, be the future writers of RPG’s? To say something quite controversial (to a very particular band of geeks like myself admittedly, everything’s controversial to someone on the internet…) even the “olde brand” D&D, in its latest 4th revamp, has taken quite significant elements that I, as a long time both role-player (since the mid-1980’s.. feel old now..), and RPG computer games and subsequently a MMORPG player can see rather interesting, well (how to say this in the least controversial way…), convergent or parallel “games system” themes in (in double dutch, I just said the controversial sentence that I think D&D learnt from WoW and improved their game as a result; GASP! NO!!).