The party is an almost inevitable feature of any CRPG. The genre, whether computer or pen & paper, is predicated upon a group of heroes (or whatever) setting forth together to battle the forces of evil (or whatever). How partying works within an RPG, and to what end, then become fundamental to how the game itself plays.
There is no one true approach to the party. There are some extremes, with enforced partying at one end, and no partying at all at the other end. Online and offline RPGs take different approaches. In most offline games, the party is required, though only one character (yours) actually matters. The party is a necessary part of playing the game, but your role as the player is two-fold: develop your character, and manage the party, much like a sports manager or coach. Get the balance of skills and abilities right, and you?ll have a winning team. Some offline games emphasise the single player RPG experience, but these are few and far between. Diablo and Diablo II are about as close as you get to sole character play in CRPGs, and even Diablo II has mercenary followers.
One game that did the party very well was Baldur?s Gate. I still remember the first time the good and evil members of my party quarreled so much they lost their tempers and fought to the death! I watched in stunned amazement as the thoughtless party choices that I made caused mayhem. When the dust cleared, I needed a new wizard and a new fighter. I resolved not to mix Chaotic Evil with Good ever again. I remain impressed that Bioware wrote such detailed and characterful party interactions into their game.
MMORPGs, by their nature, have had to take a different approach to the party. None of them have got it right so far. This is because most MMORPGs are too simplistic, offering nothing more than a level/loot treadmill. Known in the old days of pen & paper RPGs as a “Monty Haul” dungeon, giving players ever-greater loot to fight ever-greater monsters to earn ever greater loot?. Such shallow gameplay tends towards the individual or small group level only. Widescale cooperation is not beneficial in this kind of environment.
Worse still, groups in such environments become quite aggressive as to who can and can?t join. If your character is judged as non essential, you won?t be allowed in. A character is only useful to the group if it improves their chances of killing the best monsters, and finding the best items.
Some MMORPGs have tried to move away from this problem by widening the conflict, to be greater than just player versus monster. None have really done this correctly, finding themselves unable to move away from the tried and true level treadmill. It worked for Everquest (supposedly) and so MMORPGs that follow after find themselves compelled to include one. The level treadmill is also very good to developers, as it allows them to place less content in their game. Forcing two or three character types through a path that means they have to kill the same powerful creature to advance, and having that creature spawn just once a week, is a great way of slowing players down. When you?re charging people by the month, and there is nothing to do other than kill monsters and gain levels, this kind of feature is gravy. As a player, you should expect it in any MMORPG that places emphasis on the level treadmill.
The level treadmill does appeal, but only for a certain time, and only to certain players. Once you reach the point of asking yourself why are you doing this, the game has nothing else to offer you, and you will soon stop playing. As an older gamer, I went through this phase years ago, with CRPGs like the Bard’s Tale series. Younger gamers just starting out are going through the same thing now with games such as Everquest and Diablo II. Regardless of the game; the outcome is the same—once you decide that collecting items and raising character levels holds no more appeal; you will stop playing, as the game has nothing else to offer. It probably won?t surprise any of you when I say that I don?t pay a monthly fee for any of the level treadmill MMORPGs. Paying money every month to do what I could do online for free with Diablo II, or offline for free with a game like Demise, does not appeal. I still play treadmill games, but at the end of the day I?m playing against myself. If I want more social interaction I look to other types of games (or indeed, other activities altogether).
Some of the best CRPGs of our time have been those that place little or no emphasis on the level treadmill. Character levels were a background feature of Ultima games for example, and similarly the Baldur?s Gate adventure was crafted so that you advanced as you needed to, for the most part. Level treadmill games can still be fun in their place, but these are primarily a solitary experience, other people mostly just get in the way of your goal. This is not good for a game that is supposedly promoting team play. You see better examples of organised team play in Counterstrike or Battlefield 1942 than you see in most MMORPGs. People on the treadmill work together only when forced to. Adventuring parties are there, but these appear in spite of the gameplay, not because of it.
How I?ve spent 900 words having a whinge about all of this, which means there is no room left for talking about solutions. Don?t worry! The Ninth Circle is not about to turn into a wholly negative column. I?ll look at some potential solution in the next column, “What I?d Like to See in an MMORPG.”