Sunday, October 12, 2008

MMO Blueprint

1974 to the present. 34 years and counting. In 1974 Gygax and Arneson published the first version of this FRP concept, and are widely credited with creating it (although earlier, less refined forms certainly existed prior to 1974). Dungeons & Dragons took the gaming world by storm, and the starting point for the form had now been clearly marked.

Fast forward to 2008. Computers have of course become the gaming medium of choice. It’s a no-brainer, really. And thanks to the internet, the entire concept of gathering fellow gamers together for face to face gaming seems almost arduous. The modern form of FRP, nee D&D, is the Massive Multiplayer Online fantasy game. In fact, I would bet that World of Warcraft today currently has more players than D&D had at any one time in it’s glorious history. Playing a computer game is, well, somehow more accepted than gathering your buddies together in the basement, rolling dice, speaking in funny voices, and grazing on cheese curls and cola for an entire afternoon or evening.

This is neither a pro nor a con post. I do enjoy computer games, and I know that MMO's aren’t truly role playing as the term was originally set forth. Now, ‘role playing’, to the younger generations, simply means a game in which you control a single avatar, and progress through various challenges while accumulating wealth and power. It was a rude awakening when someone told me their favorite role playing game was Final Fantasy…“But, that’s a console game…isn’t it?” I retorted, naively.

It’s just that, well, computer gaming is easier.

Other than the medium, FRP hasn’t truly changed THAT much since 1974. The way the rules are applied, the sheer amount of rules, the published material available; yes, all of these things have evolved. But nothing has truly changed that much, in reality. The basic concept is still, and always will be, the same. Play a character, gain treasure and experience, feel good about overcoming obstacles (whether alone, in groups, face to face, across the internet, or in the basement). I’ve come to accept this over the years, despite my earliest protestations.

I look back with pride knowing that I was in on it in the early days. In fact, if given the choice in 1979, pen and paper or computer, I think the choice would’ve been easy. There was no such choice then, thankfully. I might have missed what was in fact a revolution in gaming. I was in on the computer thing, as well, and I am happy that Dungeons & Dragons preceded computer gaming. Why? I don’t think the game would’ve been able to grow and prosper as it has. Dungeons & Dragons, when played the way it was meant to be played, can never really fit into a boxed computer DVD game.

Nevertheless, I still enjoy seeing and experiencing the divergent path that the computer game versions of FRP have taken. In my own humble opinion, it’s to the point now that WotC is looking to MMO's for cues on how to increase profits. Which is fine, if that’s your thing go for it and I’m sure your gaming group will be able to make as many lasting memories of face to face, pen and paper gaming as my friends and I did back in the years BC (Before Computer).

The fact is, as computer games progress, the actual freedom afforded players under the truest form becomes more and more narrow. The pinnacle of MMO's (aside from Player vs. Player) is Raiding. Raiding is the antithesis of player freedom. Success in Raiding is dependant upon very exacting standards, and trial and error before a routine is established. Computer games are also all about repetition. And don’t get me started on player death in D&D vs. player death in computer games. But I digress.

The FRP evolution to which I speak now is the Archetypes. The D&D three-pronged crown of Fighting Man-Magic User-Cleric is essential to all of these MMO's. In fact, I sit in amazement now looking at how this innocent little trilogy published in 1974 basically set in stone the blueprint for all MMO's, even 34 years later. Wow, indeed. Add in a few fluff classes for flavor and variety to sustain player interest, and you have the basic MMO model. Tank-Caster-Healer. With Support and Hybrid classes on the periphery to supplement, fill-in or fight for spots in a group or Raid.

The bottom line is that you need these three archetypes to succeed in the most demanding parts of MMO's. Someone to take the brunt of the damage (Tank), someone to dish out lots of damage or control the encounter (Caster), and someone to keep everything moving along, or raise the fallen (Healer). What a simple, elegant system. 34 years and counting is the proof.

Support and Hybrid classes were added later in D&D in the form of Thief, Paladin, Druid, Monk, Bard, etc. Yes, even the Support/Hybrid concept was lifted straight from the works found in original Dungeons & Dragons. Not happy being a humdrum Fighting Man? Try a Paladin. Looking to outwit and elude the opposition? Try a Thief. Care to do a bit of everything? Try a Bard. It’s the same Class/Subclass system, all rotating around the three-pronged crown established in Men & Magic.

It’s funny when you look back at the genesis of the Cleric. I wonder how modern MMO's would look if there had never been a Sir Fang? One cannot simply assume that the Healer archetype would've arisen without being set in place in 1974. I'll echo my earlier post of the same name and once again say Thank You, Sir Fang.

For the record, I am looking forward somewhat to Wrath of the Lich King (even though I am never going to be a Raiding player again), but perhaps more so to Diablo III, which should suit my instant gratification computer gaming needs much better, while still allowing me to replicate D&D as best I can…in my basement, perhaps making funny voices between handfuls of cheese curls and sips of cola.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


James Maliszewski said...

I remain a big fan of World of Warcraft and will continue raiding in the expansion, but I'm glad I have my tabletop RPGs for when I want to exercise my imagination and not just my reflexes.

Sham aka Dave said...

Same here, but I don't think having two boys will ever allow me to become a real raiding player again. WoW is a fantastically made game, and I enjoy most Blizzard titles, including WoW, Diablo and Starcraft.

What amazes me is the MMO Blueprint that D&D crafted over three decades ago. Pretty neat stuff in retrospect.

David said...

I have heard a number of complaints re: the WoWification of D&D in fourth edition. I don't see that happening.

Certainly, the game is structured closer to an MMO, especially given the throwaway magic items and the inability to purchase useful items that are above your level from merchants. Nonetheless, tabletop RPGs have an number of elements that not only don't exist in computer RPGs, but intrinsically cannot exist therein. This is to say, originality and adaptability.

Whenever a player in WoW runs through, say, The Molten Core, they get the same dungeon, within certain parameters. Always. It's why it's called a raid, or a run. It's all the same, you run through it because you know what to expect and in what order and quantity. This is never the case in D&D, given a good DM that isn't just slavishly following prewritten modules. Secondly, in MMOs, despite the low costs of dying or having a raid spoiled by people leaving for dinner or what-have-you, it still happens stupidly and constantly, because the computer is a computer, and thus can't dynamically adjust itself for changing circumstances. A human DM can change the challenge of the dungeon for a changed party, arguments over that sort of thing aside.

Though I find videogames tremendously fun, and I play them nigh-constantly, I can't see them entirely replacing tabletop or human-run games entirely. It's just not the same game and can never be, barring some surprising developments in AI.

Just my two cents. Nice article by the way. Long-time reader.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks. The main thrust of my post is how D&D set the archetypes still found in computer gaming today. I do believe that WoW is this generation's D&D. I think we are in agreement as to the differences between pen and paper vs computer.

The two coexist now as different forms of gaming, but only to a certain extent. Whereas perhaps ALL of those WoW players might have been pursuing pen and paper in the past, D&D is only claiming a small piece of the each generation's crop of new gamers.

I enjoy both forms for different reasons.