Designing Goals for Online Role-Players

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mmorpg; role-playing; persistent world; larp; goal; rule; meaningful play
theoretical analysis

The increasing popularity of massively multi-player online role-playing and the rise of the role-playing-related pervasive gaming create a new challenge for the digital gaming industry. The role-player audience is growing in addition to the digital gamer audience. Catering to the both crowds requires re-thinking in the game design. In this paper I propose that one of the most fundamental differences is the difference in goal structures and the idea of "meaningful" play between the two gaming mindsets. Björk and Holopainen (2003) divide goals (and rules) into endogenous and exogenous goals - the goals made explicit in the rules and the goals brought to the game activity by players to give it meaning, respectively. For role-players, who pretend to be their characters and pretend to perceive the game world from the character perspective [1] the only meaningful goals are the goals set by the characters for themselves - i.e. goals not chosen by the players as players, nor goals endogenous to the game system, but goals chosen by players through the character constructs they pretend to be. The voluntary and emergent nature of these diegetic goals means that it's problematic if game design or game master tries to enforce [2] them. Creating quest hooks luring the characters voluntarily on interesting adventures is a classical challenge of pen'n'paper role-playing. In this paper I use three-layered model of role-playing (modified from Fine 1983, 185-187, with Montola 2003), where the players [3] participating a game to pursue exogenous goals form the primary layer, the gamers pursuing endogenous goals form the secondary layer, and the characters pursuing diegetic goals form the third, diegetic layer. Every role-player constructs her own diegesis [4] subjectively, and these diegeses constitute the diegetic layer. Only role-players construct diegeses in this sense. Traditional role-playing games have no endogenous goals. In the formal sense, dying is not losing and character survival is (only) a diegetic goal (compare to Costikyan 2002, 11-14) - though sometimes death may be a diegetic goal as well. Accomplishing diegetic goals is not endogenous goal either - often accomplishing them is not even the intention of the player. Maybe player wants her character to fall in tragic love with a girl, where the exogenously desirable tragedy is accomplished by consistently failing in achieving the goal. Looking formally, Salen and Zimmerman (2004, 353-355) see that meaningful gameplay arises from the relationship of actions and their outcomes, pleasure emerging from players understanding how their accumulating actions move the game forward, towards the [endogenous] [5] goals of the game. Even role-players need goals for their characters to keep the game interesting, although accomplishing them is not necessary. Goals produce conflicts, which produce emotions (see Lankoski 2004, 140-141) sought by role-players. Salen and Zimmerman's definition has to be seen from the angle where the players' pleasure emerges from the playing characters having goals and experiencing their emotions whether they succeed or fail. For a role-player the process leading to success or failure is more interesting than the accomplishment itself. Providing diegetic goals for MMORPG characters is a tricky business where endogenous goals need to be successfully translated into diegetic goals. Having played Star Wars Galaxies for less than a week, the galactic emperor gave me a mission of escorting a guest to him from a forest a couple of kilometres away from his secret retire. In ten minutes the mission was completed, and his majesty gave me half a dozen more, one by one. This kind of situation breaks the coherence of diegesis built on the expectations on the genre and logics of Star Wars fiction [6]. The contradiction of expectations [7] used in constructing role-playing diegeses and the virtual game world has lead many MMORPG role-playing associations to implement their own rules to provide meaningful consistency to the game. For instance ECRA [8] has denied one of the most critical elements of the game from it's members: ECRA members are not allowed to resurrect their characters by cloning them, as they feel that their community makes no sense if characters can't be killed permanently. They don't want to diegetically cope with the inconsistency brought to the system by cloning technology. In the point where the players create their own rules systems (another endogenous layer) counteracting the meaning-killing structures of the games, the certain thing is that there is a player group not served by the game. In the case of groups like ECRA, the players seek to use their environment to role-play despite its failings. Providing Diegetic Goals The problem with providing diegetic goals is that the players must voluntarily adopt them for their characters. In traditional role-playing games, the goals are usually implicitly or explicitly negotiated between players and game masters via the player characters and the non-player characters, making the players committed to the characters' goals. In the article I will focus on creating guidelines on how to create goals that players would adopt. Basically there are two ways for this; creating goals within the diegetic level, and creating endogenous goals to be adopted by the players. To create quests that players would really adopt as their characters' diegetic goals, they should fill criteria such as: plausibility in the world context and the diegetic genre, allowing solutions for different characters, allowing avoiding actions unfit for character, avoiding identical quests or narratives for different players, connecting the quests to earlier actions of character, rewarding social play and teamwork et cetera. In practice, generating enough meaningful quests randomly may be not possible. Hence, we may be forced to look for the diegetic goals from the more-traditional role-playing end. This means quests created by game masters, and quests created by and emerging from the social systems in the play -- both being diegetic methods. The economical methods of game master based content creation involve volunteer game master networks, and game mastering player communities instead of individuals or teams. Diegetic goal-creation methods tend to create goals that are also accepted on the diegetic level. All in all, catering to the role-players is a huge challenge for the MMORPGs. However, as the player base gets more experience and matures, the increase in role-playing can be predicted. And according to Mulligan and Patrovsky (2003, 219-220), the realistically playing role-players both encourage the others to follow the suit, and keep other players in the game longer. Referred Games Sony Online (2003): Star Wars Galaxies. An Empire Divided. References Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2003): Describing Games. An Interaction-Centric Structural Framework. (ref. 25.10.2004). Originally in Copier, M. & Raessens, J. (eds.) (2003): Level Up - CD-ROM Proceedings of Digital Games Research Conference 2003. Costikyan, G. (2002): I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games. In Mäyrä, F. (ed) (2002): CGDC Proceedings 9-33. Tampere, Tampere University Press. Fine, G. (1983): Shared Fantasy. Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. Heliö, S. (2004): Role-Playing: A Narrative Experience and a Mindset. In Montola, M. & Stenros, J. (eds.) (2004): Beyond Role and Play. Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination. 65-74. The book for Solmukohta 2004. Vantaa, Ropecon. Lankoski, P. (2004): Character Design Fundamentals for Role-Playing Games. In Montola, M. & Stenros, J. (eds.) (2004): Beyond Role and Play. Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination 139-148. The book for Solmukohta 2004. Vantaa, Ropecon. Loponen, M. & Montola, M. (2004): A Semiotic View on Diegesis Construction. In Montola, M. & Stenros, J. (eds.) (2004): Beyond Role and Play. Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination 39-51. The book for Solmukohta 2004. Vantaa, Ropecon. Mackay, D. (2001): The Fantasy Role-Playing Game. A New Performing Art. London, McFarland. Montola, M. (2003): Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses. In Gade, M., Thorup, L. & Sander, M. (eds.) (2003): As Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp 82-89. The book for Knudepunkt 2003. Mulligan, J. & Patrovsky, B. (2003): Developing Online Games. An Insider's Guide. Indianapolis, New Riders Publishing. Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004): Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts, The MIT Press. Footnotes 1 I see role-playing as a mindset of game playing (Heliö 2004, 70-71). Theoretically any game could be role-played, but practically the three subgenres of role-playing games are pen'n'paper role-playing, larping and virtual role-playing (Montola 2003, 82-89, compare to Mackay 182-183). 2 The designer can enforce the gamers' avatars to perform actions on the endogenous level, but they have hard time forcing the players to accept these things into their diegeses. 3 Fine uses people/players/characters. I use players/gamers/characters, respectively. 4 Diegeses are constructed subjectively based on virtual (MMORPG) or physical (LARP) reality as well as arbitrated consensus of the players. See Montola 2003, Loponen & Montola 2004. 5 Salen & Zimmerman 2004, 258. 6 Mackayan "imaginary-entertainment environment" (Mackay 2001, 26-33). 7 See Montola 2003 and Loponen & Montola 2004 for more about the importance of communicating the genre of the diegeses to players. 8 Europe-Chimaera Roleplayers Association is active on Europe-Chimaera server of Star Wars Galaxies ( (ref. 29.11.2004)).

Contact: Markus Montola, Hypermedia laboratory, University of Tampere,
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