How Ashes of Creation Can Succeed Where Others Have Failed
Part V – Merely Players
Intro: The Game World’s a Stage
When I was growing up, I was fascinated with the arts – specifically creative writing and acting. I developed a passion for storytelling in grade school. My first story that I recall was pretty off the wall in terms of content and if I remember correctly Christie Brinkley was a key player. I suppose you can chalk that up to watching National Lampoon’s vacation a few too many times. I’ll leave the plot of the short story to your imagination! During this time, I also did a decent amount of reading. My tastes weren’t necessarily so refined early on – I was content with pop culture fiction more than more sophisticated works. Regardless of the subject matter or literary refinement of the material, my imagination took flight. When I started college, I decided to study theatre, which my parents weren’t too keen about. However, my grades were good enough to get me a tuition waiver, so they didn’t give me too much grief over the idea. Some of my most cherished memories happened in those four and a half years but also some with a tinge of “road not taken” regret as my pursuits ended up elsewhere. Nevertheless, college was the place I was first exposed to Stanislavsky and the technique of method acting. I can’t adequately describe the rush of adrenaline that filled me when I connected with a character using what I learned from my study of “An Actor Prepares,” but suffice it to say it was one of the most awesome miracles of the human imagination I’ve ever experienced. Scared the crap out of me how real it felt too. I’ve been thinking about that time in my life now more than ever. While I grew up playing video games as well, I never really appreciated the level of depth that went into building an internal narrative until my college days. As a result, my gaming experiences and love of MMORPGs leaned heavily on character immersion. I never considered myself a true role-player, but merely a player who enjoyed taking on a role in the game world. Be that as it may, I’d like to share my thoughts on how Intrepid can enhance player engagement, facilitate character immersion and create a positive role-playing experience in Ashes of Creation. As this article progresses, I will be discussing three areas of opportunity – World building, character creation, and tools I have seen in other games that work well.
Setting the Scene
As you might have gathered, I am a self-proclaimed character nerd. I also love diving into the lore of a game – assuming it’s engaging enough – and finding a place for my character to exist there. It’s very important to me for my character to have purpose. I don’t just mean utility from a game mechanics perspective. I’m also talking about relevance in the overarching story of the game universe. I don’t mean I need my character to be a hero of the story – you can get away with plot devices like that in a single player experience, but its plain immersion breaking in an MMO. So, what I’m trying to say is I don’t need to be important, just a relevant part of the narrative. Two games that come to mind when I think of a lore experience where this is done well would be City of Heroes and early Star Wars: The Old Republic. In the former, it was more up to the player to create their personal narrative if they chose to do so, which as you probably figured out… I was all over that sh*t, and the latter gave you a very in-depth arc to pursue based on your class choice. One could argue Old Republic gravitated to more of a “single player with friends” design, but that’s a conversation for a different article series. If you’ve experienced either of these games and are into personal character development as much as I am, you’ll get what I’m saying about the satisfaction of a good personal story, whether internally created or game design guided. I’m sure there are those out there that could give a rip about good lore in the MMORPG
experience or think that the value is only marginal at best. If that’s the case, this is not the discussion for them. Without a good basis, the experience will end up being empty. How exactly would I describe this? Well, it starts and ends with world building. Just like a great book series or engaging movie, you need something to pull you into the events of the imaginary setting. This could be done in several ways, the most obvious being visual variety with a cohesive style or at least one where the differentiation between biomes make sense. Other ways to do this could be in points of interest or interactivity that rewards exploration. How many of us have trotted around a MMORPG and stumbled upon a brand-new area that has interact-able books that give us a snippet of lore. For those of us who are interested in story, this is like pure gold. Exploration and event-based sequences that provide story exposition excite us about the story. One of the things that I’ll give World of Warcraft credit for is the fact that they are the kings of the MMORPG cut scene. There were many times throughout the years I played that game that I was visibly moved by what unfolded. The next way I feel world building contributes to the success of an interesting narrative is through character development as part of the broader plot. The characters I’m speaking of are those that are a part of the narrative – for example, Arthas in World of Warcraft, Lord Recluse in City of Heroes, or Darth Malgus in The Old Republic. Well-developed characters as part of the plot only makes the world more immersive and richer. The last part of MMORPG world building that sometimes gets overlooked is key themes. There must be something that propels the plot forward and helps the narrative make sense, intertwining in the story. Just think back once again to great novels you’ve read or cinematic experiences that felt emotionally charged. They were as much about a theme that resonated as the series of events that occurred in the storyline.
The Character’s the Thing
I’ve talked at length previously about how important establishing player identity in an MMORPG. Like me, some of you start building your online persona’s story ahead of actually experiencing the game itself while others look to the character creation options as their inspiration. In either case, the experience of bringing that idea in our head to life in the game world is a fundamentally important building block for player immersion and engagement. A game could do many other things right, but a limited character creator is a huge missed opportunity. Now, maybe the graphics are a bit dated by today’s standards, but having recently revisited City of Heroes’ character creator, I’m struck with the sheer orgy of choice that it brought to the genre. Granted not every option was available at launch, but even the baseline system was a dream come true. It set a high bar for MMORPGs to come and I’ve seen very little that comes close to being a rival. Being unique was super important in that game and the developers delivered on that requirement by giving players a very modular system for the base costume, but also the ability to configure auras that followed their character while idle or in combat. Players were also able to colorize their power/ability animations as they saw fit. The end result was that no two players looked exactly the same. In addition to the initial character creation, players were also given options to configure additional costume slots so they could continue to design to their heart’s content. Also, players had a chance to receive drops in the world that would allow them to craft new costume pieces. After seeing the work-in-progress version of the character creator this year, I am very excited to see that Intrepid is setting a high bar and even leveling up the experience from past MMORPGs. Granted a larger number of visual differentiation options in Ashes won’t be available in the character creator but will be based on gear drops we get, costume skins we find in the world, craft or purchase, which is expected, but regardless the core design of this feature is quite impressive. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is still a lot of room for visual differentiation in character creation as a starting point. Given what they’ve shown as the first iteration, I am extremely optimistic that Intrepid is either consciously or subconsciously taking a page out of earlier MMORPGs like City of Heroes, adopting a
modular design for character appearance. This approach will deliver a similar or better level of customization than past games, making the experience that much richer.
We’ve covered world building and character creation as means for improving character immersion and overall role-play experience, but there is one more aspect I mentioned I would cover – cryptically referred to as “tools” I’ve seen work well in other games. The first is the inclusion of a character biography option. Sure, most games give some sort of textual or visual queues to determine what race or class an individual is, but there’s more that I think would add value. One of my personal favorites is the character bio. In City of Heroes, each character had a free form text box on their character profile for the player to write up a character biography. I loved that because it gave me a medium to share all of that creativity I poured into my character with others. Players could inspect me and know what drove me to save the city as my alter ego. I’d love an opportunity to do that in Ashes of Creation especially since my impression is that it’s going to take a more significant investment to progress a single character than in other current games. If I’m going to be investing a lot of time in a character, I want to check all the boxes and flesh out personal lore and tie myself into the larger world. The other thing that I find to be a huge boon as a tool in MMORPGs are emotes. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones that are personal in nature. I’m also thinking about possible combination emotes you can do with other players – dance together, hold hands, play music together. Yes, these could be fairly advanced adds but I’m not clamoring these be in at launch but at the very least it would be great to see them on the roadmap. And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention custom emotes where a player can type “/e” and text and this text would indicate an action or thought in the chat window. I know for a fact, in addition to myself, that this would make for some very happy role dedicated role-players and casual role-players alike. That said, it seems Intrepid has anticipated that and do have plans to include this feature. I just have one thing to say to that…. Glorious!
Outro: Curtain Call
As a MMORPG player, one of the biggest sources of fun for me is character creation and immersion. The games that allowed me to do just that, even though they are decades old, are forever imprinted in my memory. That’s true longevity. As I’ve tried to demonstrate in this article, they are also great guidance for future development in this space. What makes an MMORPG good isn’t just limited to the systems that we experience as we progress our characters, it starts with the first opportunity we have to bring life to the avatar we imagined, it evolves as we discover more about the world we find our chosen character plunged into and is further refined by other tools at our disposal in the game UI. As always, I encourage you to reply and share your thoughts on this topic. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about how all of us who are merely players can create immersive character experiences in the next great MMORPG.
This is your Ashen Herald…wishing you the best.
Have an idea for a topic to cover? Add me on Twitter @theashenherald and let me know!