In tabletop games, it’s important to maintain the gap between the player and the player’s character. These games hinge on the players roleplaying—the conflict resolution mechanisms are a big aid in the process. The quality of a game of D&D often depends largely on if the players can maintain a separation between themselves and their characters. When the players roleplay their characters effectively and don’t metagame too heavily, suspension of disbelief can take hold and lead to intense immersion. If the gap closes between the player and character, the game becomes a poor simulation with little soul.
MMO design, though it finds its roots in tabletop RPGs, cannot work off the assumption that there is a gap between the player and character. Social competition and cooperation force the gap shut.
How the Gap Closed
In order to compete most effectively against other players (i.e. take the path of least resistance at every possible point and maximize gain) the character is discarded. Roleplaying is significantly less efficient than playing as yourself, so a player motivated by competition will not bother doing it.
To cooperate most effectively in games, players use tools like voice chat that will erode the sense of talking to the character. The player’s interaction with the game world is no longer tightly bottlnecked through the game, it spreads out onto forums, vent channels, IRC, and IM clients. It becomes significantly more difficult to maintain a character-player gap under this diversity of contact—and most of this contact is necessary to cooperate most effectively.
If there is a not a social contract based around roleplaying, people will not roleplay. One or two people failing to roleplaying consistently leads to exponential numbers of players thinking it’s OK not to roleplay. So games cannot expect roleplay where there are a significant number of new players who are not familiar with the concept.
What Does It Mean?
Design games that don’t rely on their being any separation between player and character. Don’t limit the player’s ability to talk to other players because they are not on a certain character. At its most superficial level, persist guilds and friends lists across an entire account (perhaps on a server-per-server basis).
We can only safely assume that a player is roleplaying when he’s interacting with NPCs. MMOs should have a wider variety of NPC interaction choices. NPCs need to have lives that mean something to players—this alone will lead to a significant change in the meaningfulness of an MMO’s world.
The closing of the character-player gap doesn’t necessitate gutting systems of all immersion and stripping them down to their most addictive mechanics. The player character primarily needs more means of effecting the world that are affected by the character and not the player. We simply cannot rely on the player to roleplay in any form. We must fashion gameplay around this fact, not, as WoW and its descendants have done, in spite of it.
(When I present the design for the MMO I’d like to make, you’ll see more clearly how I intend to do what I say here.)