In theory, MMORPGs are my favourite PC games in the world. Exploring strange new worlds, dressing up in shiny armour, and kicking butt are my primary gaming motivations and MMORPGs have those in spades. Richard Garriott sold me the dream of a living fantasy world to inhabit in my early PC gaming days and it's a dream I've never quite given up on.
Yet the genre has become stagnant, like the fetid dregs of your drink once you've dragged yourself to bed after an all-night raiding binge. Everquest became popular, then World of Warcraft ridiculously so, and the desire for all that subscription money cemented the theme park MMO as the One True Way, with only EVE Online achieving success while stubbornly flying the sandbox flag. Which isn't much good if you prefer dragons to spaceships. I believe that MMORPGs need a good kick up the arse and I'd like to propose an unconventional Boot of Inspiration: live-action role-playing, better known as LARPing.
Even if you've never swung a foam sword in anger, there's a chance you're familiar with concept of live-action role-playing from one of its depictions in popular media, such as this, this or, if you're British and of a certain age, this. This promotional video for the recently-launched Empire LARP is something a little more aspirational.
LARP is essentially pen 'n' paper role-playing unhitched from the dining table; instead of describing your characters actions, you perform them. Rather than rolling dice to determine the outcome of a combat, you don armour, grab an axe and do it for real. Want to impress that elven princess with your wit and charm? Good luck, honey.
LARP systems come in all shapes and sizes, but I'm going to be concentrating on festival, or fest, LARP; large-scale weekend events with hundreds or thousands of participants, generally with a broad fantasy theme. With that many players, the experience is naturally very different from your typical Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party scenario.
Fest LARPs and MMORPGs are remarkably similar. For example, both feature lots of people inhabiting the same place with different ideas about what makes for a good time. There are MMORPG players who just want to kill stuff and become powerful. Others want role-play full of intrigue and romance. Some just want to shank up other players. Some want it all. LARPers are very much the same and event organisers have to cater to all tastes, without the benefit of being able to give everyone the same “Kill boars for fuzzy scrotal sacks” quests.
The way they get around this is to focus the game on players interacting with each other, just as EVE Online does and all those other MMOs don't. You have to wonder what the point of developing an open world is when everything revolves around instances.
How do we get MMORPG players to play with each other? The first step is to build game elements that require interaction. The aforementioned Empire LARP, as the name suggests, casts players as representatives of ten nations that make up a vast empire. The ruling body is the senate, which is made up of about three senators per nation. Each uses a different method for selecting its senators, ranging from a conventional ballot, to anonymous interviews, to straight up buying the position.
A similar system could be implemented in a MMORPG. Different factions could select representatives through PvP tournaments, elections, crafting prowess, or any number of other common MMORPG elements. The chosen representatives could then decide on various issues: what improvements to build for the server, allocation of limited crafting resources, what punishments to mete out to player killers.
Another simple way to gently “encourage” co-operation is to beat players with the plot stick. A near-universal component of LARP events is a Big Threat which requires a good chunk of the players to defeat. This doesn't mean they all gather round and smack it in a fashion reminiscent of the “Don't Stop Me Now” scene in Shaun of the Dead. Instead, smaller groups will need to go out and discover information, scholarly types will piece it together and formulate plans, crafters may bang together Macguffins to take down the Big Threat and spell-farters gather to perform a big ritual while the meatshields protect them.
There's no reason why this shouldn't be the case in MMORPGs. WoW has attempted content requiring server-wide participation, but that's not the same is co-operation and generally boils down to individuals completing daily quests for a few weeks. Spelling everything out for the players isn't necessary. Give them limited information and let them figure out what they need to do. Let completely cocking it all up be a distinct possibility. Any game designer worth their salt should know that failure can be just as interesting as success.
Open PvP and player killing are always contentious in MMORPGs. For some they are the prime source of enjoyment, for others they are an annoyance, with more powerful PKers ganking lower-level players for no reason beyond their own perverse amusement. Many LARPs have open PvP, without anything artificial in place to stop you strolling up to someone and killing them. Indeed, randomly stabbing people up in the dark is so commonplace that “toilet murder” is an established LARP trope. Friends don't let friends go to the portaloos on their own!
To prevent all-out slaughter, murder has consequences. It's nigh-on impossible to know the capabilities of a given player, so that lady you tried to off might be a considerably better fighter than you and turn the tables. You may be tracked down and executed. And shuffling off this mortal coil actually matters. Resurrection exists in most LARPs, but is rarely cheap or easy. Death usually means creating a new character. Scale and social pressures further discourage disruptive behaviour. With over a thousand players on the field, even a hypothetical group of a hundred dedicated player-killers would quickly get shut down and shunned. Repeated problem behaviour of any kind can eventually result in banning by the event organisers, but it's rare that things get that far.
What if the same things were true in MMORPGs? Making gear more of a personal aesthetic choice and less of a visual power indicator would immediately make PKing a riskier prospect, especially if the game had broader, flatter progression, narrowing the power gap between lower and higher level players. Make death matter. Permadeath is a possibility and is far less of an inconvenience than in LARP. In a computer game, it just means loss of progress. In LARP, it means putting together a new costume. It's often joked that you should never declare your character's costume finished, because that guarantees your swift death! Flatter progression and the natural variance caused by a detailed sandbox structure would make starting a new character a considerably more interesting proposition than grinding through the same theme park content again.
Looping back to the political structures I discussed earlier, those in power could cast judgement on those found murdering their fellow citizens. Imprisonment is perhaps off the table (does anyone really want to spend their free time sat in a cell?) but fines, compensation, or the restriction of access to services could all punish lawbreakers without preventing them from playing the game. These systems would organically create new play opportunities for others. For example, what if banishment from towns was an option? Assuming that certain necessary goods could only be obtained from towns, you can guarantee a black market would soon spring up. Which would cast players in the role of smugglers. Which would then create more opportunities for law enforcement. And that doesn't even touch upon the idea of paying someone to assassinate your rivals.
Not only does the more organic nature of a LARP with human referees make all this commonplace, but LARP designers are well aware of certain players' love of nefarious deeds and systems are designed with the scope for illicit activity built into the framework of the game. One notable example is found in the Outcast system. It sets up the players as broadly co-operating against demonic enemies, but includes a skill which allows players to sacrifice other PCs or NPCs to those demons in exchange for undefined powers.
All of these ideas make role-playing a more natural part of the game. Many people have an image of role-playing being about talking in cod-Shakesperian English, full of clumsily-inserted thees and thous. One look at LARP would show you that this couldn't be further from the truth. While many players do like playing diverse, complex characters, others effectively play themselves with a lick of fantasy paint. As long as you're not discussing real-world sportsball or Swift Tailors or something, it doesn't particularly matter. If players do breach this etiquette, simple social pressure is almost always enough to get things back on track. Interference from referees is rarely needed.
Of course it's easy when you're communicating naturally and simply talking about what's going on around you. However, if the game mechanics in an MMORPG aligned with the reality of the setting, even players with no interest in explicit role-play would find themselves talking in a more realistic and less immersion-breaking fashion. MMORPGs are heavy on stats, jargon and explicitly out-of-character topics of conversation. Players need to discuss raid bosses, tanking and strength bonuses, all of which fall outside of the fiction of the setting. If the essential topic of conversation was assigning guards to protect Lord McSnobbybritches from assassination by House Non'morgoth, it immediately becomes more immersive.
Games are a much broader medium than the electronic ones found on our PCs and consoles. While the same tired tropes and mechanics get wheeled out again and again, there are plenty of good ideas that don't get stolen enough, especially once we look outside of the games we're more familiar with. MMORPGs may be the most popular multi-player fantasy RPGs, but they're not the only or even the first game in town and designers could profit greatly from a little walk in the woods.