Rags to riches

MMORPGs have a rags-to-riches problem.

It’s one found in the roots of the pen-and-paper games that inspired the MUDs before them. Life for characters in these games is a progression ladder. They start as young, skilless, penniless adventurers, over and over. They’re told to climb that ladder to improve their skills and fortunes and fame. Get experience. Level up. Practice. It’s like most people’s real lives, and it kinda sucks, so why would anyone want to do this? No one enjoys logging in and feeling like a crappy newbie, yet we do it anyway and pay for the privilege.

You can struggle against this meme, insist on roleplaying older, established people, with or without a character generator that provides wrinkles and greying hair and knowledge skills. I’ve tried it myself: My 40-something and 50-something characters have been among my favorites; I crafted backstories loaded with personality and history that I could use in roleplay. But until I’d gamed the game to become independently wealthy to back up those backstories, the characters lacked both skills and money, something we are forced to either explain in our character bios (“I’m awesome and worldly but, uh, down on my luck”) or hand-wave entirely (“no, really, I know I have on level 5 hobo armor, but I’m actually a notorious pirate/famous singer/acclaimed surgeon and I need to go kill some rats because of reasons”). Both lean almost wholly on the willingness of everyone else to accept imagination over stats, and so a lot of serious roleplayers will give up, reluctantly roll up that flawless teen hero, and start grinding. And thus every MMO world and setting is teeming with homogeneously strapping/lovely 18-year-olds setting out on the same tedious hero’s journey to adulthood.

MMO developers have proven repeatedly, especially in themeparks, that they are unwilling or unable to innovate beyond the dated rags-to-riches, rats-to-balrog trope when it comes to plotlines and mechanics alike. It’s become so ingrained and expected in MMO design that we are now presented with MMOs whose creators actively reinforce the castes that divide characters in figurative rags, who are new or poor in either time or money, from those in riches, who possess that perfect combination of time, extroversion, and luck (and/or masochism) needed to excel in this style of video game. In fact, some designers eagerly embrace the envy inspired by this rags-to-riches problem; they are convinced it’s the fuel that propels games to eternal stardom. Consider something WildStar’s Mike Donatelli once told an interviewer in regard to that game’s focus on raiding:

“Having people run around in that awesome raid gear that you’re like, ‘Holy crap, where did you get that?’ and then not seeing everyone in the city in the same stuff because you dumbed the raids down so any schmuck could do it.”

Donatelli was radiating dumbfounding elitism, of course, one that’s already brought the game to its knees, so I won’t rub it in. But I recoil from this pervasive idea that there is (and should be) an underclass of plebes in rags gaping in envy at the kit of hardcore raiders in the first place, the disconcerting idea that generating envy as a product of endgame achievement and rewards is a boon to an MMO’s long-term health rather than the toxic poison that spoils communities. (Of course, if WildStar is an example of anything in this genre, it’s that expecting 99% of your players to pay for the opportunity to envy the 1% doesn’t make for a solid game experience, and that’s without even touching on the problems it poses to the “roleplaying” part of MMORPGs so lacking in themepark design. Those “schmucks” pay the bills. Lesson learned, right, MMORPG devs? Right?)

No, envy doesn’t really inspire people to become skilled endgame raiders, no matter what elitists want to believe, at least not anymore, not when gamers have so many other ways to spend their money and time here in 2015. But that’s not to say that all forms of player comparison or friendly competition are useless.

Consider City of Heroes. Superhero MMOs like City of Heroes could easily succumb to the rags-to-riches trope and mechanics as many of their comic book inspirations surely have done, but they offer a way out of that trap because they emphasize character concept over gear acquisition — from name to age to clothing to powers — in a visual, visceral way, right from level one. City of Heroes to date is one of the very few MMORPGs in which you could create a newbie character with an awesome costume, name, and bio and generate respectful whispers even as you strolled the lowbie town of Atlas Park or broke free of the Zig. CoH players bought and sold character concepts on the forums, folks. The game wasn’t about gear or loot or drops or raids or elitism even though it technically had all of those things. With sidekicking, it wasn’t even about levels, except for memorizing what levels you got new costumes, capes, and particle effects. The game embraced imagination and attracted players who valued ingenuity over time and RNG. It was the game’s true currency, and every costume contest with hundreds of attendees crammed into a zone proved it.

I miss my little roster of characters. I miss that feeling of staring at the character creator’s thousands of choices as it dared me to think of something clever that would wow my fellow players, not because I had sat through 10 hours of a 40-man raid to get a glowing zweihander but because I had dreamed up something novel and impressive that they’d never seen before. Morrowind, the Earth/Storm Controller. Thistletoe, the Plant/Thorns Dominator. Mirror Maze, the Dark/Ice Tanker. Probable Claws, the Claws/Regen Scrapper. Glissando, the Sonic/Sonic Defender. Future Proof, the Time/Pistols Defender. Broken Toys. Dunewarden. Ghostmirror. Bullet Rhyme. Snowcastle. Monomyth. Terrormisu.

Yes, even Skycandy, the Storm/Dark Defender. And dozens more.

There will always be competitive games. There will always be games that succumb to rags-to-riches tropes and pit the haves against the have-nots, profiting from the uncloseable time-gap between them by way of both pay-to-win and cosmetic cash shops. What the MMO industry really needs is games that inspire not envy but admiration for other players. Envy doesn’t build communities, and MMO players have simply wised up over the last two decades: They won’t pay to be gankers’ victims, and they won’t pay to prop up endgamer egos. It might be fun to be Uncle Owen, but schmuck-gawking-at-someone-else’s-ubergear isn’t a role anyone wants to play.

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  1. Omedon says:

    An eloquent expression of thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head for awhile. It’s one of the reasons that RIFT is the only “traditional” MMOs me and mine have any use for any more. Most of our characters have had a sweet visible outfit, a conceptually relevant mount and a sprawling home before they even leave the “newbie zone,” and we refuse to start at the bottom of the envy ladder ever again.

    We play inclusive overworld PVE content because we feel no need to impress anyone with numbers, but I have received and given my share of “nice outfit” tells. That’s what it’s about, expression and interaction. The real world is a rat race, and I refuse to immerse myself in another one in my spare time, and in the robust gaming market of today, I can and do, happily, stick to those guns.

    • Bree says:

      Yeah, I think RIFT and lots of games with good cosmetic systems really help subvert the trope! I’d be tempted to give GW2 a pass too except that too much cosmetic gear is locked behind overt dungeon grinds and buyable directly in the cash shop. I’m also reminded of the outrage I read from some hardcore raider types in WoW when the tmog system went in and they could no longer differentiate the scrubs from the leets just by looking at them… they had to look at their gearscore instead. Oh the humanity! :D

      I wish I had used the word “expression” as you did because it’s perfect. Killing rats is so much more palatable when I feel as if I’m expressing myself through my character exactly the way I want to.

  2. I could understand that many games keep going with power creep and vertical progression because it’s how you sell new content and keep people in the game. What I don’t understand is that even now most people on pen and paper sites like Roll20.net want to play DnD or DnD based systems like Pathfinder. What wrote about is why I love systems that make the progression much more reasonable and don’t penalise people who enjoy playing new and interesting characters. It also helps that such systems are usually more realistic, lethal and prevent experienced characters from being a one man army.

    I’ve never played any of the superhero systems but you should look into something like GURPS and Shadowrun, or if you want something funky then Apocalypse World, Dungeon World or Numenera.

    • Bree says:

      Interesting that you’ve noticed this problem in a sister genre to MMOs. I’ve never been a D&D person, but I have played SWRPG and Shadowrun. You clearly know more than I do, but what you’re saying makes sense even with my limited knowledge: I know the Star Wars RPG franchise wandered very far away from the customization, story-driven D6 format when it went D20 under WOTC, and they tried to bring it under control and more story-driven with the Saga editions (and I don’t think it went over very well; they didn’t renew the license. And this is Star Wars!). Aside from some pockets of really hardcore, old-school D6ers, the rules-driven, number-crunching, formulaic rulesets dominate. And as you note, it makes no sense because P&P is the absolute ideal format for creativity-driven play. Was the current generation of P&P players raised on PC games first? Is this why we’re so obsessed with hard numbers and hard caps and preventing — gasp — character do-overs when we screw up?

      Shadowrun isn’t my favorite IP, but my DM and group were amazing and really made it fun. He was super lenient and fudged the numbers ALL the time if it made the story more exciting and dramatic, and he had zillions of house rules to let us get really creative with our characters. If we had wanted something with no wiggle room, we’d have gone back to the MMO we all met in. :D

      • House rules are difficult to implement while playing online with people you meet mostly because they are free at the same time and day as you are but it’s pretty much while PC games will always be inferior to PnP – you don’t need any practical skills to change anything you want about a system.

        Personally I don’t like fudging numbers but it depends on what you want in a campaign – sometimes campaign can be great because the GM drove it into a right direction despite the lack of agency. On the other hand, games like Dungeon World and Apocalypse World are base about the idea that players contribute to creating the world as you keep playing, plus you embrace how rolling can take the story to weird and awesome directions.

        To be honest I prefer formulaic rulesets but I don’t like DnD because it has silly mechanics (armour working as avoidance instead of mitigation…) and because levelling up makes you a lot stronger. The overarching problem is that players spend too much time metagaming and talking out of character which in combination with DnD creates pretty much an MMO-style grinding group.

        You can improve things by saying as much stuff directly as possible and describing your actions without mentioning game mechanics (this goes for both players and GMs). If you have a skill and want to ask if it’s any use in a specific situation, think about saying that without actually mentioning the mechanic. Also describing the situation in detail based on the rolls is important instead of just saying “you missed”. A good training tool is writing short summaries after each session, making it into a de facto novelisation of your gameplay. These issues and DnD tend to overlap so I keep blaming DnD… If you’re going to skip roleplaying, at least use a good ruleset! x)

  3. […] SkyCandy looks at the current overuse of the Rags-to-Riches trope and the limitations it has brought to the story, mechanics and ability to create a peronalised character and story within these worlds. […]

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