Wanna Be My Friendster?

Wanna Be My Friendster?
The Contrarian: Growing Out of the Stone Age

John Scott Tynes | 28 Feb 2006 07:04
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In my last column, I wrote about roleplaying at the tabletop and online, and how the latter experience falls short of the former. I don't think that's a gap technology can readily close - the two experiences are fundamentally different - but in writing that column, I kept wondering: What could technology do to improve the experience of roleplaying online?

I soon realized that was the wrong question to ask. Technology's impact on roleplaying is limited for the foreseeable future. Making your voice sound funny on Xbox Live doesn't make you a better roleplayer; neither do RP servers on MMOGs, which aggregate more roleplayers together but have no effective ways of enforcing RP through game mechanics. Shadowbane has its RP server where factional hatreds are actually obeyed rather than relegated to closet drama, and most online games are happy to encourage roleplayers as long as it doesn't cost anything. But the conventional wisdom is that good RP experiences require good in-game GMs, nannyish supervision, or both, to ensure that Everyone Has The Right Sort Of Fun.

The hell with that. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons around 1983, and we learned quickly in those days: Good gaming needs a good group, period. The rest is optional.

Back when TSR, the original publisher of D&D, cranked out the first adventures in the Dragonlance series, I really bought into it. I obsessively studied the modules, recruited players, photocopied back-story and gave everyone packets of information about their characters, the world and the awe-inspiring story of epic grandeur we were about to undertake.

The first session lasted about 45 minutes, at which point the group I'd gathered was so bored, we watched TV instead.

The problem wasn't Dragonlance, despite its death grip on fantasy clich├ęs and exuberant ambition. The problem was with the group I'd assembled to play: We sucked. They weren't into it and I did a poor job of getting them into it. We really were better off watching television.

Since then, I've had a lot of gaming groups, good and bad, and what I've always found is the group makes the game, not the other way around. The biggest impediment to tabletop gaming being a bigger hobby is the need to find a half-dozen people who are smart, creative, engaged and punctual. Good luck with that.

That's the real problem with RP online. It's not the lack of tools for roleplaying - it's the lack of tools for finding and maintaining good groups. Groups are self-selecting by definition, whether they are guilds or ad hoc clusters of players doing the same mission. If players want a better experience in online games, they need better tools for groups.

What they need are community-building tools. They aren't getting them.

The case in point is World of Warcraft, whose own official community site lays out the depressing summary of its offerings: "The official site containing news, trailers, gameplay videos, wallpapers, screen shots and the official forums." There's only one word for this kind of community support and that word is "yawn."

Sure, it's fine. And admittedly, when you want a bold, original vision in online gaming, the place to go is not Blizzard. So, let's give them a hand. Let's talk about what they could do to better support online gaming communities.

Blogs: I'm talking about in-game, in-character blogs. You log in and while you're waiting in the server queue, you can access your blog, guild blogs, friends' blogs, etc. The interface is inside the game client, not on an external web page. You don't have to be in the game, but you need to be in the client. There, you can blog as Thundarr the night elf to your heart's content.

Bolting an HTML window onto the game client is easy. But you want to give players a reason to use your in- game blog tool instead of something on the web. So, let's snazz it up a little with some features you won't get from LiveJournal.

Blog Waypoints: Embedding waypoints in your blog means other players can follow your footsteps. If you found some really cool corner of the gameworld, you can share a waypoint for other players to go there, too. If you're organizing a dance party, you can point everybody to the right location.

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