The point of races

[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.

Still not over the line yet… working towards it, though…

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’s Races

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?

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20 Responses to The point of races

  1. Kdansky says:

    Well, DnD 1.0 didn’t have “Elf” as a race. Elf was one of the classes. But leaving nitpicking aside, Elves later on were just there to give a base choice other than class. Note how many beginner Roleplayers use the following line to talk about their character: “I am playing a Chaotic Evil Elf Bard.” It’s an archetype, or just a cliché. It’s also completely superfluous. I’ve been in games where I couldn’t tell if someone’s character was anything but “a dwarf” after five sessions, because there was so little character to begin with.

    Das Schwarze Auge actually did races well in their current (fourth) rules iteration. Elves do not even share professions with humans or Dwarves. At all. They have their own list, depending on their culture and rites. Gorgon obviously can’t go this route, because it requires way too much implementation.

    Visual diversity? That would be great. Couldn’t you do something easy (mechanical-wise) like -10% to +10% exp on every stat, depending on the race? (Dwarves get +10% Axe Chopping and Smithing, Elves get +10% Singing and -10% Fishing) Sure, it gives people an “ideal” race to choose for certain builds, but the difference hardly matters, as it is temporary.

  2. Armanant says:

    Hmm judging by the note to alpha testers, if we simply got no response at all that’s a “you’re not in”?

  3. Josh says:

    One of the things that bothers me most about picking my race is that I feel locked into a race by the stats or bonuses that are offered. I just started playing KoA:Reckoning, and I remember choosing the race by looking over the stats and choosing the one that had the best stats that fit my playstyle. A friend of mine asked which race I was after playing and I had no idea, I had to look it up (and I found it by looking for the race with +2 lockpicking).

    To be honest, when I pick a race in an RPG, the first thing I look at is height. For some reason, I always play gnomes/dwarves and I don’t know if I’m alone in this or not. There is something magical about the perceived velocity of little people as opposed to some hulking giant that takes 2 steps for every 10 that my gnome takes. It actually makes me sad when I have to pick a “human”-like race, or even worse an “ogre”-like race. If I can’t find something small, I usually go for something exotic, like the Khajiit in Skyrim or Frogloks in EQ.

    In some MUD games, I remember agonizing at the race select screen, because I had to spend 20+ minutes research the pros and cons of every race before I could pick my class and start playing. The 1 thing I remember about MUDs though, was that certain gameplay styles that were not directly related to my class or playstyle were controlled by race. For example, some races had nightvision, which allowed you to wander the world without carrying torches/lanterns. Some races could see hidden, so you didn’t have to search for hidden players. Kangs were 100% immune to poison.

    So, in summary, my thoughts are that visual tweaks are great and they give the player a sense of identity expression. Minor stat tweaks are a waste of time and add unnecessary overhead to race selection and end-game gameplay anyway. Unique abilities/traits that do not restrict your class playstyle are fun ways to add uniqueness to race, just make sure they have some value past level 10. (+1 smithing at level 100 with 351 smithing skill, yay!)

  4. Jason says:

    You came upon the main points of Races, both pros and cons. Players in the West like that visual distinction and uniqueness. EQ2 does this well, yes, though the races don’t play all that differently. They just look different which can be nice.

    However, the big drawback (and this is why MMOs are moving away from very distinctive races) is that you make a player pick a race at the beginning of their journey. However, they have no context with which to pick so if the choice matters to gameplay then the odds favor them picking something that may hamper them at a later date. Forcing a player to restart a character is a good way to lose players. This is why the starting stats are so meaningless.

    Oh sure, you get a minor bonus to X and maybe a small penalty to Y, and an ability that can be used once in a while, but by and large that only matters to the min-maxers or the hardcore players. For the majority of people (aka the casual players) the appearance, visually, is what matters.

    To use an example of bad, lets look at Vanguard. Lots of races, but every single race looked like a human with slight modifications. It was bad. You were right about EQ2, some races actually look very different (pixie, frog) while some look just like a human, only furry, or pointy-eared, or short.

    The other issue, and one that we wrestled with for years with Istaria/Horizons was two VERY distinctive races and the totally different gameplay for each. We had bipedal races (your usual high-fantasy spread) that had their own set of 20+ classes for Adventure and Craft, but we also had Dragons which had their own set of Classes that were completely different than the Bipedal ones. While this created almost two-games-in-one in terms of experience for players it was a nightmare for the Design Team and not one I would recommend… ever.

  5. Kirk Spencer says:

    You hit the main issues. I’ll hit some peeves and thoughts.

    a Peeve: one size fits all, from gnome to ogre. Not just armor and clothes; an ogre’s dagger is still a dagger for a gnome.

    a corollary peeve: Even though they may be very similar height, when an orc (husky) wears a tunic made for an elf (near-anorexic) the seams should split.

    a thought: Classically, the elf potentially lived forever but did not have a “soul”. At one point I contemplated letting elves have better stats all around with the simple cost of being unable to resurrect. That was a little extreme, but led me to the idea of a “cost” for resurrection. Humans are nearly free. “Better” classes resurrect with human-level skills, and gradually recover their advantages. (I liked this better than XP or level penalties.) Oh – practice makes perfect. The advantages didn’t recover by laying in at a nearby inn for a few days.

    A frustration. Neither pass through nor movement resist work right in any game, yet. A hefty warrior should be able to block a door to most passage, but she can be knocked back AND there can be gaps for that gnome to slip through. The thought: I’ve often thought the short-cut physical model of a standing being should be an ovoid (egg-shaped), and if your character’s cross-section is small enough and can get lined up more-or-less properly you can get through the gaps.

    In the end, my common problem with races (which parallels your own) is that the things that make the race different don’t matter at certain scales. Either they’re too subtle, or they’re too much work to model, or if you stick them in players will complain about being gimped (that 3 foot gnome keeps up with the 6 foot human when strolling down the streets how, again?). Or some/all the above.

    In the end, then, in most MMOs my reason for selecting a race is a stat I really, really want followed by a look I really prefer. Backstory, racial culture, these rarely come into play for me.

    huh. before I go… with one exception. WoW’s undead. I don’t – didn’t when I played – play undead characters. Something about them, their appearance and specials (cannibalism in particular) made their story come to life, and there were several quests that weren’t “human in different clothes”. They so came to life for me, even when not role-playing, that I couldn’t keep one going past early levels. Perhaps that, then, is where I’d point you. They’re still a bit “more than human” but they, more than any other race in that game, are a distinctly different race.

  6. Sandra says:

    Kirk Spencer: It’s interesting that you mention WoW undead. When I was thinking about Eric’s questions I realized that they are probably my favorite MMO race … for very similar reasons.

    Their appearance and backstory give them a wonderful hat that gives you an idea for roleplaying them without constraining their personality too much. You can take any human character and put it through the process that creates the Forsaken and … see what you come up with.

    It’s true that you can put other races through shared trauma but it doesn’t have the same effect. I’ll use WoW races as examples: So what that the playable trolls are a tiny tribe almost wiped out by the other trolls? So what the the orcs went through that whole demon blood enslavement thing and then got thrown into prison camps by the humans?

    Those histories, if you imagine them affecting your character at all, do not have the visceral impact of imagining your character dying and being brought back to life in a rotted shell of a corpse with the ocassional desire to eat sentient flesh. (And that’s leaving aside the whole mindless Scourge thing some of them went through.)

    In fact, it’s easy to ignore the history of the other races unless you pay particular attention. But undead … every time you look at the character screen, the fact that you character has personally been through hell is there staring back at you. It’s easy to relate given that we’re human and have probably thought about death at some point.

    Unfortunately I wasn’t able to come up with any other really solid examples of distinctly different humans. The easy ones don’t quite work for me: vampires are too sexy and stereotyped, ghosts are too – pardon the pun – flimsy. The closest I came up with off the top of my head was werewolves (in the classic sense, not the sexy paranormal romance version that annoys me so much). A vicious attack ruins your life and then you start killing your loved ones.

    … which makes me wonder why Eric didn’t mention werewolves as a ‘race’ in Gorgon.

  7. Anjin says:

    I know that this is sad, but I tend to pick races based on which race looks nicest to me. I normally play female characters because I’m a fan of the Hot Amazon trope. So I end up playing a lot of humans (or blood elves in WoW) because I can’t stand monstrous races. So as long as I can play some version of dress up with my character, I’ll be happy. :)

  8. Juzaba says:

    Races also roll into factions, which is a point I feel like has been left out of the discussion. Sure, many games flub up factions, but I feel like there is room for a dynamic faction system and races could play a significant role in that.

  9. Sandra says:

    Anjin: I have trouble playing blood elves in WoW. The female animations annoy the hell out of me, and if I play a male I end up staring at my character instead of fighting. *drool*

  10. Kiryn says:

    I feel that if a game is going to bother giving me races as an option, they’d better make them extremely graphically different from each other, or don’t even bother. This is one of the main reasons I dislike RIFT. It technically has multiple races, but all of them are basically “human with pointy ears and different skin color” so I don’t really see a good reason why I’m being given a choice between them.

    I make lots of alts. I started playing MMOs with WoW, and I really like having options of different-looking races to have replay value rolling the same character multiple times. For some reason, even if I’ve played a class before, playing it as a class that has different visuals and animations makes it feel new. Allods does this really well, with its mechanical undead and its group-of-three-little-critters races. I’m really looking forward to Guild Wars 2 for largely this reason.

    I think Star Trek Online does an incredibly bad job of this. They give you a ton of race options, each one of which has only minor graphical differences and MAJOR gameplay ramifications, when you have no way of understanding the choice you have made until much later. Some races are downright awful to play unless you’re using them for roleplaying. (What’s the point of making Pakleds playable, anyway?) Many of the best traits are tied to specific races, so if you do happen to want a specific look, you can’t just go build it in the custom race creator and still get the traits that you want. Eventually you just give up and don’t care about your character’s race any more.

  11. Steven Gosling says:

    I love the Elf racial – even sticking to core trinity/whack-a-mole MMO styles, I love the idea of Elves preferring to be healers so they don’t have to wash off this stupid debuff as often. I think that works really nicely – no mechanical “research at level 0 noob” penalty, works well with the everyone can be everything model, and I think it would just be grand to be playing the game thinking about nothing in specific and suddenly realizing why Elvish healers are so common. I think it’s also a lot more elegant than beating players over the head with something like Gift of the Na’aru, and won’t leave as much room for penalizing players (I chose a class that could/couldn’t heal because of the racial, and now you balanced it for the opposite playstyle).

    I wish I had more ideas for you, but unfortunately I don’t. I’d love it if one of the races also went a non-standard route, but there’s a limit to your awesome.

  12. As a player, I like races for customization. I played a Kerra in EQ2 because it was the most interesting looking model to me (and I have black cats, so I named my character after one of my cats). I also tend toward certain races, too; I tend toward Dwarves as my beard and iron stomach are notable qualities people notice in me. ;)

    I also like juxtaposition. My Kerra is a necromancer, because it doesn’t seem like a combo that “fits” exactly. I’d be the type that plays the Half-Orc Bard precisely because it’s not going to be a popular option. (In D&D 3.x, I might have -1 modifier to my Charisma skills, but I get +1 over other character types in Strength and Constitution. I just figure out ways to emphasize those positives if -1 is a hindrance.)

    Further, I think this stat obsession is a pernicious flaw in the way MMO players approach games. The overwhelming need to have strictly the best advantage gets tiresome after a while, especially when someone judges my character for not having that +1 in exactly the right place; player skill can make up for a lot of sins.

  13. Caspar says:

    Personally, having such a little effect appearing on an Elf I was playing every now and then would really piss me off. I already obsess to the point of doing every quest in an area before moving on – tapping in to that kind of thing more would end up making me pick a race based on which has the “least annoying” tweak.

  14. Mavis says:

    I thought a out it and realised I really don’t care about races at all – for all that I live dwarves……..

    I suspect that the suggested solution will mean only people who are totally unconplusive will play elves……. Now reverse it and let them have plus 5 power if they have just washed and you’ll get them played by obsessive complusives….

  15. captainmission says:

    I’ve always chosen races for largely aesthetic reasons, and have never like racial abilities as they are either to neglibale to make a difference or your asked to make them when you don’t understand the mechanics of the game. One solution i’d suggest to that is that you don’t make a race choice at the begin of the game. Everyone starts off as baseline human but as they develop can go visit a geneticist (or in a fantasy setting an alchemist) and graft on ‘racial’ features. For example adding a cat tail , pointy ears or bull’s horns. Doing it that way means you’re making the decision after being reasonably informed about the mechanics – so you can have powerful racial abilities with out gimping yourself (if your unhappy with your choice just redo them). You can make also yourself look visually distinct (or have a recessive gene- so you get the ability without the appearance change)- want to play a ‘cat race’? chose furry skin, claws and a tail.

    From a role playing perspective i think races are a real detriment to developing fleshed out characters. Even if you design your races completely against type (tech loving, metropolis dwelling elves and free-wheeling sky pirate dwarves etc) unless your mmo is going to have a greater cultural impact than tolkien or D&D most people revert back to the legolas and gimlii archetypes.

    Character development/backstory comes from conflict. Races in mmos (or fantasy setting in particular) tend to unified society where conflict is external. Humans at war with orcs, elves hating dwarfs , the good kingdom banding together against the evil necromancer. Where internal conflict exists its pretty much superficial – one racial leader is a bit more hawkish than another, there’s a snobby noble etc.

    However in rl your sense of identity comes from conflicts or tension internal to your own society – your gender, class, social status, educational background, religious or political beliefs, ethnic background etc. It generally doesn’t come from war against a foreign army.

    A good basis for roleplaying is a society that is as much as war with itself than any other nation. Races are to often lazy shorthand for conflict.

  16. Nitnatsnoc says:

    Why not make the primary differentiator be social or RP abilities? SWTOR did this I believe. There’s no primary game play differences between the races, but each race has a unique social action.

  17. kenny b says:

    There’s one bit everyone is forgetting about the “visual look” aspect of races: you can also make function follow form. Team Fortress 2 famously does this, making everyone have distinct silhouettes which hint heavily to their play style. It’s easy to guess that a Krogan is intended for brutal combat while a Salarian is not. It’s also pretty obvious a Hanar or Elcor isn’t going to be shooting anyone anytime soon. This not only makes it easier to pick a race to match an intended class / play style, but easier to size up opponents. A big hurdle in MMORPG PvP is proper threat signaling; it can be hard to tell how dangerous someone is just by looking at them.

    Ultimately I think removing gameplay consequences from race choice is the safest route, because so much time is invested in a single character in MMORPGs, the consequences for making a bad racial decision are too dire. I figure a lot of other players aren’t as alt-crazy as I am, it might be useful to find some statistics about how often people make alts. I bet a lot of people, because it’s a Massively Multiplayer game, identify closely with a single character as their projection into the virtual world, with their alts being merely alter-egos or utility characters. This makes a bad racial choice even worse.

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  20. I think the cost/benefit of having choice of playable races is really low. To make them worthwhile you have to make the choice significant in some way and then it’s hard to balance. Personally I’d rather choose a backstory than a race, and have quests build on that. That’s one advantage of WoW’s races, each of them have this big backstory to encourage role play. That wasn’t easy for blizzard to develop let alone an indie developer, and even then there was several prior games in the series to build up the fiction.