January 12, 2010

Role Playing Games, Social Media Games, and the Shared Fence

I've been thinking alot about role playing games and how they will be evolve in the next few years. I posted about this last December, but I just can't seem to let it go. Keep in mind that I'm no expert on game design and I generally keep these ideas to myself since I generally regard whatever knowledge I have about the subject to be limited, short sighted, and un-studied. Nevertheless, I've been thinking about about RPGs, and where our hobby might venture next. Then something struck me regarding the types of games I see people playing today.

At a very base level - role playing games are about creating a imaginative space where the player assumes the role of a character or avatar. Dice or no dice. Computer game or not. Miniatures or no miniatures. Gamemaster (DM) or not - the one thing all RPGs have in common is that each player assumes this role, and seeks to "win" or survive the game but there's often no clear or uniformly agreed "winning" scenario. We can define what "winning" means exactly later [1,2].

When you step back and think about it this way - all sorts of games might be considered role playing games beyond the stock pen and paper dice games like Dungeons & Dragons or Savage Worlds. This is probably obvious to most of you, but... indulge me for a minute. Obvious first steps away from the table include live-action role playing games and murder mystery party games (as examples). You will probably also include computer based RPGs such as MMORPGS like Warcraft or single player games like Final Fantasy. Or perhaps even Modern Warfare 2.

But... by extension (and going in a different direction), you might soon find yourself wondering if social media games are RPGs. Games like Mafia Wars and Farmville?

Are they?

Players in these games definately assume the role of a character or avatar[3]. There's certainly lots of social interaction too. There's also elements of chance (dice) and aspects of improving your avatar over time (leveling). Can you win? Well, perhaps - but I would venture a guess that most of the players of these games don't consider them "winable".

So on the surface, these games might be considered role playing games too. What then do I mean by the Shared Fence?

It may be simply an issue of vocabulary, but to me it seems that social media games are NOT role playing games. There's something fundamentally different about RPGs and social media games that lies in the names themselves.

"Role" implies a singular frame of mind. It starts with YOU and you alone. Everything else comes second. A RPG is about each player first, and their social interaction second. RPGs place a very high value or priority on the individual player experience. Whether you play RPGs face to face or online with a group, or play solo on your PS3 - it's all about you and your role and you having fun playing that role. The fun of the group, while still important, is nonetheless secondary to the fun of the individual.

"Social" implies a group mentality. Social media games (SMGs) place a priority on the GROUP, and how the group interacts - either antagonistcally, cooperatively, or both. The form of interaction doesn't matter. Niether does who exactly is playing. The game itself exists in the absence of the individual, it supercedes the importance of the individual. The goal or point of a social media game it to promote group connectivity and nothing else. If you have have fun playing them - great! but that's a secondary goal of the game itself.

So herein lies the Shared Fence. RPGs and SMGs share much in common, but they also have a fundamental difference in the priorities players instinctively have while playing them. "Role" vs. "Group". The fence that they share though is tied up in this very difference too, since niether game could be what it is without both of these. I am perhaps being a bit muddled or vague here - so I'll say it a different way:
What is a roleplaying game without the player character or avatar? 
What is a social media game without the group interaction?
I'm not sure - both answers might be "a strategy game". But that's not the point [4]. The point is that social games and RPGs are evolving as we change with the way we interact with each other. I think we are finding that most people like being (overly) connected to others, to categorize their group connections to with them, and to have fun through those connections. The group network - not the avatar fantasy - is what is engaging people more so than ever. That's the draw for games these days regardless of what game you consider [5].

So, this suggests another question: are SMGs the next great RPGs for the next decade?

Or perhaps something more interesting to consider: How might the (pen and paper) RPG industry step out of the creative silo that it is stuck in?

What might a RPG/SMG crossover game look like? How might be play a real RPG that is a real take anywhere, iPhone/SmartPhone, facebooking, tweeting, table top, dice rolling, avatar playing, social networking, play anywhere RPG that coos and woos to my 2010 tech'phile heart? What would such a game look like?

I'm definitely way way out of my comfort zone on this post - so I'll refer you to an excellent post over at MobUnited.com for more thoughts about that ("Next Gen RPGs"). Or you could leave a comment here and we could chat it up...

Or am I just completely off base and maybe should just head back to my cave?

[1] I'm stealing the "footnote while blogging" idea from Rob Donoghue (rdonoghue.blogspot.com) - whose blog I'm a recent convert of - becuase it jives with my academic roots.
[2] Winning in an RPG is generally up to each player. All players, IMHO, play to win - its just that each player has their own goals they would consider winning. It might mean just having fun for one, or defeating the BBEG at the end of the current adventure, surviving the night, or becoming the overlord of Sardonia. Failure might mean getting mad at the other players, being defeated or killed in game, loosing your immersion, etc. It all depends on what you expect to get out of the game.
[3] You're a mobster. or You're a Farmer. You're a thrall of Facebook... Meh...
[4] Not today at least. It's a rhetorical question.
[5] This also brings to mind something that might be worth exploring later: why are PnP RPGs unpopular (relatively speaking) nowadays compared to other gaming mediums? That's a complex question with probably a more complex answer - but... D&D might be less popular than it used to be, but it is still the most popular table top RPG out - so perhaps the problem is not that the industry needs new games; but the industry needs a new medium.


  1. I posted something a long while ago when I was philosophizing about RPGs, a definition of sorts. One of the points I deemed a necessary component of a roleplaying game is the ability to freely interact with the imaginary environment.

    So, according to my definition, all the social media and computer games I am aware of (beyond chat interfaces) are not true RPGs because you limited to what a programmer has allowed you to interact with.

  2. Well... that's a fairly narrow definition of an RPG - the only requirement is that you play a game where you assume the role of a PC/avatar. The medium doesn't matter - it's the role that matters. IMHO.

    Differences aside -- what I'm keening in on here is that what RPG (pen and paper) companies/developers should do is think about a medium that embraces the technology, and allows for a free-wheeling RPG environment (one of the imagination, not the screen), and allows for that 24/7 always on, group/swarm feeling that those gdmn FB or other social media apps require.

    14 million people are signed up for Mafia Wars. That's the kind of draw a stupid game like MW has; and it's (from a programming point of view) a relatively simple game to implement. WotC or White Wolf needs to embrace the Web 2.0 / Social Media Web of this next few years and re-create the table top experience.

    Imagine if you were able to game, with a GM, whenever you wanted. Maybe you wanted.. I don't know what kind of form such a game would take: its a embryonic idea at this point... but all the signs are there for something awesome coming down the pipe. I'm not saying replace the table top experience - I'm saying extend it, enchance it, create a structured medium/game platform that allows you to continue your game away from the table, then when your group meets up next week... the game still goes on.... I'm rambling. ... sry

  3. You assume the role of Mario in the original Super Mario Brothers game, but I wouldn't consider it an RPG... but that might be a discussion for another post.

    This may be me with my narrow definition of RPGs, but there are already technologies that support 24/7 roleplaying (IRC, MUDs, Skype, VTTs, etc.), the problem is having GMs available at all times.

    And even if you had GMs available at all times, they may not:
    1) run the game you like
    2) use the setting you want
    3) allow the options you want
    4) interpret the rules like you
    5) have a compatible personality

    Those are just limitations I thought of in a few seconds.

    You want to know why millions of people play Mafia Wars? There isn't much involved. RPGs take a lot of WORK. That's why they're not popular. People are lazy and want to just mash/click buttons.

    Sure, you could attempt to automate the GM position, but you'd get something like D&D Tiny Adventures. Which is not what I think of when I imagine RPGs. You know what's missing? That freedom to interact with the world I mentioned. And in order to interact freely with the environment, you need a human referee to be able to parse the infinite amount of actions a player can take.

    Anything else isn't what tabletop roleplayers want in an RPG... it becomes an MMO.

  4. MB - I think this is still thinking in the silo. I'm obviously having a hard time articulating what I mean here... I'm not saying nix the GM; or make RPGs into MMOs or Mafia War click fests... I'm saying that there exists the technology for a company to develop a new kind of RPG that fosters some kind of PbP / PbE / Wave RPG that is distributed across platforms. Wheter we sit in the same living room and game face to face, or play online 10000 miles from each other the game would be the same. It would be an RPG supported by software, but that is still "played out in our heads".

    Imagine for moment if there was an RPG that was built from the ground up with this sort of tech in mind. Let's call it "Alpha".

    Alpha is available as a book, and you can buy dice for Alpha which it uses at the game table. Alpha also can be obtained as an interactive eBook. Playing Alpha at the table in my dining room is fine. But, players in BFE can join in too because,

    There's a website for Alpha, where players can create accounts and GMs can register campaigns. The website offers a virtual whiteboard, dice rollers, some VoiP features with a voice logging service, perhaps a webcam pluggin, and other tools to help with online play. Players can join in games regardless if they are in my house or in BFE, and so can players who are traveling... because

    Alpha is also available as an iPhone App where you can store characters, manage combat on the fly, receive updates from the website's whiteboard, listen in via the iPhone's speaker phone, send text or voice messages privately or to the whole group, manage NPCS, adventures, plot hooks, maps, story notes, etc. This App includes all the rules for Alpha, and allows the user to create an arbitrary number of campaigns to GM which players can join. In addition, users can

    Join in to play Alpha on Facebook. The Alpha facebook App interfaces with the Alpha website - receives all the updates from it and sends updates it - allowing people to stay in touch with the game via Facebook Connect. It also lets people play Alpha with their friends through the Alpha iPhone app which communicates with the Alpha server, which also connects with Alpha on FB and the users logged into Alpha's website.

    Playing Alpha can happen in real time. Or via turns, like in current day PbP games, or both. It's asynchornous, the GM can stay connected with the players at all times, and the players are connected to the GM at all times. The game is always moving forward, and there's never any point in which a player can't "poke" the game and participate. There's never any waiting for Monday Night Gaming (lol) and the story continues between face-to-face sessions. This all results in "immersion play" where you are basically gaming all the time. You are never disconnected from your GM, and the players can drive a story forward at whatever pace they want - whether that stays at once or twice a month face to face, or hourly to daily updates via all the technology that Alpha supports.

    Sure, all this technology is available now. Sure, you could probably cobble together some kind of game / campaign using whatever rules system you want and work very very hard to make something like this work... but what would rock; what is ripe for picking is for someone to come along and develop a _platform_ dedicated for this purpose. A single app that has many faces (website, facebook, iphone, ebook, laptop tools, etc). The rules might have to be different - it might not even play like D&D or whatever game - but the goal is to make a Next Gen RPG that embodies all this tech out of the box to help facilitate play.

  5. This would probably jive with your academic roots too: International Journal of Role-Playing

    Check out the article entitled The Many Faces of Role-Playing Games

    May give you some food for thought on your question of "what IS a role-playing game?"

  6. I have nothing very useful to add except that I think this trend is happening as a slow migration.

    MMORPGs are limited because you are captured within the space of the 3d environment. You can't do anything within the "character" or "game" outside of that 3d environment. Your means of accessing it is via the MMORPG client.

    Tabletops are limited to the paper and tabletop space. It's been extended to email, play by post and play by Wave, but you're still limited to the space of that document environment. Your means of accessing it is via the paper or the document/browser. Your phone could, and your extent can be via FB/Twitter via automated clients or your own manual input.

    All of these have elements you're looking for. MMORPGs and SMGs have a never-ending environment that you can drop/out of. I think the thing is that you'd have to separate out the means of accessing the space: post, email, tweet, graphic "click" from the means of managing the space: a computer managing mechanics or allowing a human GM to override or manipulate mechanics, setting up the scenarios, or people managing their groups/interactions.

    I could go on about this for awhile - I'm looking forward to seeing more comments.

  7. I think the point you are trying to hit is accessibility. It's not about having some sort of sovereignty over an imaginary space but about having tools that will allow people to easily and "accessibly" collaborate within that same space.

    It's not that people are lazy, it's that people only have so many hours in the day to dedicate to a simple task. Simple games can be interpreted however the user wants it to. I've seen people make up complex back stories based on a character who there only interaction with the game world was limited to two buttons.

    I've never seen people just mash buttons in a social media game once they've understood how to play it. After learning the rules it takes on a meta game which is akin to role playing. sure controls to interact with the environment is limited, but the emergent experience from interacting with humans is what links a social game and an rpg.

  8. Well, here's one important distinction to differentiate the two: there's a world of difference between a character and an avatar.

    See, when an SMG (haha, love that abbreviation, by the way) is played, the player has an avatar, i.e. a "character" who is pleasantly distant from them. Sure, you can "roleplay" as them, but what tends to happen is that with that distance, you project merely yourself into the role. This is reinforced by the fact that in many of these SMGs, your profile picture is used for your avatar's image. SMGs aren't about friends/people coming together to play as characters, they're about friends/people coming together to play something that is more akin to a board game.

    Now, something cool that I think these games tap into is the viral social nature of sites like Facebook. These are games that you play with your friends, and against other people. I think there's definitely a lot of potential there, but there's one missing element.

    Story. I think what would help SMGs the most is to have a coherent story available to the players in enough chunks for them to sculpt out their character. Sure, we have vaguely defined worlds in these games, but so what? These worlds don't leave many "plot hooks", so to speak, for players to interact with. That would take these games far above, into a new realm. That, and increased capability to roleplay outside of the game rules. That's as simple as providing in-game "forums" or "walls" for people to post on. Sure, a lot of people will ignore these, but it'll give an opportunity there.

    Not only that, I'd love to see some exploration of more meaningful topics in SMGs. For instance, you're banding together with your friends to go and compete against strangers way out yonder in cyberspace. Why are these people your enemies? Why are your friends your allies? Sure, the easy answer is "It's an SMG", but what if there were other, underlying reasons for these?

  9. This is something I've been bringing up for a while. I'm glad that someone actually sees things my way... so I guess that means both Jonathan and I are equally insane.

    One thing I've said when WoW came out was that I honestly expected you to be able to own a farm in it. I've gotten laughed off-stage a few times for saying that, with replies like: "Playing Sim-Farm in WoW would be boring as hell."

    Yet somehow Farmville rakes in stupid amounts of users and money...

    The thing is, allowing a character to have a chunk of digital landscape to groom and make money from not only extends the avatar, but also ties the PC to the landscape in a very real way. This also encourages some teamwork if the game creates logistic challenges associated with this digital land asset. What if orcs might raid your wagon getting grain to office? What if those orcs can actually burn down your farm? How can this be dealt with? It leads to entire sections of interaction and replayability that involves smacking gremlins with swords over and over again.

    This leads to other sorts of interesting stuff that was scratched with the original iteration of Star Wars Galaxies. Mining, owning cities, capturing cities, governing cities... protecting countries...

    So then we take all this one step further. The players already have their own little slices of custom content... now what happens if someone within that custom place is given the power to create events? Suddenly you've dropped the boundaries altogether... a person can create a unique experience for himself and others beyond the constraints of what was programmed initially.

    That's just one idea I've been pondering. The other is what you, Jonathan mentioned to mike with the interconnected RPG... I even talked with Mike about an iphone interface for something akin to that a few weeks back. Made sketches and everything.

  10. @Jonathan, et al: I had another long comment... but decided to turn it into a 1000+ word post. Look for it tomorrow morning.

    @Helmsman: Now that you have it sketched, you need a prototype!

  11. Just in case there is an interest in my ramblings:


  12. @nanobri - thanks for the link. I think I'm subscribed to the IJRPG via RSS or something. Looking forward to its next issue!

    @chogwiz - excellent point about the separation of access vs. management. Both are huge tech hurdles to overcome in a way that wouldn't alienate the typical table-top gamer.

    @Keosdad - yep! My own experience with Travian was similar. I was basicaly roleplaying my kingdom in the forums etc - it was more than just a strategy game becuase there were so many people involved. Same was true when I played WoW - it was the group(of humans) that was the draw (until I figured out that I wasn't really having FUN playing WoW - it was leading the 400+ guild I had that I enjoyed).

    @Helmsan - never played SWGalaxies.. didn't know you could do that... sounds cool; and also sounds like it probably was broken as hell once the first adopters got established...

  13. Galaxies did a bunch of resource gathering in it's first version... but then they revamped everything and dropped a lot of it.

  14. Interesting, I am all for murder mystery party games, but when it comes to like larping, I say no way! Larping is weird, mostly because the people get way too into it. Party games however are fun once every 5 years or so.


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