[Note to pre-alpha testers: a new version is now live! Among other things, Psychology and Art History skills now have content. Probably the biggest improvement is that monsters can now path-find to reach you instead of running into trees and such, and they also run home when they get bored. On the down side, some monsters and NPCs are now floating about a foot off the ground, due to a complication of the path-finding system. Also, your characters may have been partially reset by mistake. Oops... Two steps forward, one step back...]
Races in MMOs
So let’s talk about races. Specifically, why do we even races in MMOs? That’s not a completely rhetorical question. I’m not 100% sure of their value. Let’s walk through the obvious parts.
Races Can Add Stat Complexity
Since the dawn of role-playing games, races have been a way to offer different stat tweaks. On one level, this is good: I believe roleplaying games should use mechanics to help you role-play. But the way it’s always been done has been more about game and a whole lot less about role-playing.
All too often, racial stats are either super good, drawing people to the race even if they think the races’ personality sucks (e.g. in 1st edition AD&D you would be dumb not to be an elf for most classes), or the stats are specialized for only one class, so the race ends up being even more pigeonholed. “You made a Half-Orc Bard as a fun roleplaying challenge? Good job, now you’ll never be as good as the other bards, ever.”
Modern games try not to let you shoot yourself in the foot too badly, so they would literally make it impossible to be a Half-Orc Bard if the stats were too damaging. But that’s not really a lot better. Why does a Half-Orc Bard have to suck? Well it has to suck so that some other combination can be awesome. If everybody’s homogenized, then the stats don’t matter.
And indeed in modern MMOs the racial stats generally don’t matter. This is both to protect you from screwing up and to keep you from having to do a bunch of research and thinking before you even start the game. In WoW, most every race can be most every class and the stat differences are basically pointless. So it would seem that we’re moving away from having races tied to meaningful stats.
On the one hand, that’s okay with me. I think we can offer plenty of stat complexity without tying it artificially to your character’s appearance and personality.
On the other hand, I don’t want these races to just be graphics tweaks. I want the game to offer special mechanics that help you get into the role you’ve chosen… to help you role-play, in other words.
Races Help Role-Playing
Most gamers aren’t good at role-playing, but races can help because they give you some guidelines. Races are generally stereotyped to an extreme extent. (On TV Tropes they’d call this Planet of Hats.) Typically, Elves are peaceful, tree-hugging, and passive. Or if you want to mix it up, you could make elves war-like, have them talk with an accent, and add weird quirks like they hate snacking between meals. But the point is that they’re two-dimensional at best.
So when you pick Elf from the race menu, you’re getting a free two-dimensional character to roleplay from. You can flesh that stereotype out, or you can play against type: you can be the elf who hates nature and loves cities, or whatever. It gives you an easy place to start from.
But it’s worth noticing that all the most popular “racial traits” are very human. Dwarves are stubborn, elves are aloof, halflings are curious, orcs are violent. Humans could be any of these things, and many more — humans always have the widest array of possibilities.
So what would a race look like if they weren’t a caricature of a tiny subset of humanity? If they had traits no human has? I dunno what that would be like, and that’s the point: they’d be alien, hard to understand, hard to role-play.
Races Add Differentiation, Especially Visually
Western culture puts a high value on uniqueness. We want to be different from other people. Games often use races as a way to do this. It’s not a strong effect, but it’s better than nothing. You look a little different, and you’ll think about your character a little differently.
EQ2 has a ton of races, with relatively small differences between them. Obviously their main goal is visual differentiation.
Visual differentiation is a fine goal but it presupposes a fairly high level of graphical difference. If, for instance, all the EQ2 races looked like humans with different ear and forehead creases, it wouldn’t be good for differentiation.
The races in Star Trek Online suffer from this problem. STO has lots of races and even lets you create your own custom race from prefabricated traits. But aside from the well-known races (like Vulcan and Klingon) that were heavily stereotyped on the TV shows, players are at a loss about these races. What the heck’s the point of roleplaying a Bolian, a race that never had a strong stereotype in the TV show? The only value: they’re kinda bluish and they have a weird line down the middle of their face. Woo.
Contrast to the races in EverQuest 2: cat people, frogs, pixies, giants, all sorts of shapes and sizes. This is better for differentiation. Many of the races look very different from each other.
Making Races Work For Gorgon
So we’ve got three reasons to have races: roleplaying, differentiation, and stat-fiddling. Let’s toss out stat-fiddling because it doesn’t really fit Gorgon very well. (This is a game about exploration of hidden game systems, and no player could possibly have enough info before they make a character to figure out how to stat-fiddle optimally.)
Visual differentiation isn’t going to be a strong point for Gorgon’s races, either, because I don’t have the money for it. All races will need to be able to use the same clothes and weapons, because I simply can’t afford to have too much divergence. Which means basically they’ll all be human-esque but with pointy ears, alien skin tones, and the like. A big yawn, differentiation-wise. It’s better than nothing, but not too exciting.
As for roleplaying, I don’t imagine everybody in Project Gorgon running around saying “thee” and “thou” and pretending to be at a renaissance fair, but I do think having strong personality sets for the races is good. In AC2 there were just three races, but they had very different personalities, and that could definitely help color your experience of the game.
So since this seems to be the one aspect of races that I can do relatively well, let’s explore the roleplaying angle a little while longer.
Reinforcing Personality Quirks
Given that the races will have to look relatively similar, I want them to be distinguished strongly by racial or cultural stereotypes.
For instance, right now Elves are sex-addicted neat-freaks. They often end up hysterical when over-stressed. They’re inherently very generous, even if they often come off as haughty and aloof. They live a long time and end up learning a lot of skills, and they’re often a bit smarter than humans, but they’re usually not big jerks about it.
I already explained why elves are sex-addicted in the alpha: it’s because the alpha artwork has them clad in ridiculous get-ups, like wearing bras and high-heels in the forest. But as I worked with it, it seemed to fit better than I expected. Everybody knows that Elves “frolic in nature.” What could that mean besides lots of sex outdoors?
Getting the tone of “sex-addicted” is pretty hard, though. I’m fine with the game being “adult” (no sex will ever happen on screen, but characters talk about it, and they may have sex in the classic fade-to-black way). But even so, I don’t want elves to come off as too creepy or it just feels… icky. I’ve been working on the tone, and it’s tricky. It will take some more practice. But I think I can get there.
I don’t think I need to play up the “sex-addicted” part of being an elf too much. But what about being a neat freak? I think I want to reinforce this one with some game mechanics.
I’m thinking that occasionally when you kill something or work in the garden, you’ll get an effect on you called “Dirty”. It’s just an icon in the effects GUI; it doesn’t do anything much (just a tiny token effect, like -5 to your max energy). But it just sits there, taunting you. If you get a particularly bad case of dirtiness, stink particles will start coming off of your character… but they are stink lines that only you can see. To remove the effect, just jump in some water.
Does that mechanic sound too annoying? It doesn’t sound too bad to me, as long as it’s not constantly happening. And it will definitely help players get the OCD cleanliness angle really well.
That’s the sort of “game mechanics” I mean: minor tweaks for each race. I might do something for elven hysterics, too, if it seems entertaining. And for humans I might do a wanderlust effect: if you stay in the same areas too long, you start to feel itchy and need to go exploring. Maybe also a Human Greed effect, if I can think of a good way to do it.
Gorgon will only have three or four races. Aside from budget constraints, that’s also what psychology suggests it’s the right number. Players can easily get their minds around that number of options, and then they feel empowered and confident about their choices. If you offer them twenty races, it’s very stressful and players may never really feel they can make an informed choice. (But of course if you asked people, they’d always say that more is better… even though in reality, more options would not make them happier. That’s psychology for you.)
The actual lore of the game — which amounts to a spiral-bound notebook of scribbles and a half-finished novel set in this world — has three races: humans, elves, and rakshasa. I may also make goblins a playable race. (There are other sentient creatures out there, such as dwarves and pixies and minotaurs, but you just won’t be able to play as them.)
So since the number of races is small, hopefully each one can get a nice set of attributes and personality quirks to help make the game more immersive.
What do races mean to you?
I’m really curious what you find exciting about MMO races. What’s your favorite race and why? Do you revel in the choices or just go for the same favorite race in every game? Help me out here: what’s the point of MMO races for you?