In the comments to one of my recent posts, I admitted to a deep dark secret: I regularly play and enjoy World of Warcraft. In many gaming circles, not just old school ones, WoW is viewed as the Devil's own tool. Ritual denunciations of the most successful MMO in history are de rigeur for these gamers, as a way of establishing their bona fides as "true" gamers. Heck, even game designers go out of their way to bash WoW, to ensure that we know they're "one of us" and not one of those guys.
Well, I'm one of those guys and I make no bones about it. I play World of Warcraft and have since shortly after its release in November 2004. I'm even among that rarefied sub-set within WoW players -- a raider, which is to say, that I get together for several hours every few nights with twenty-four other people scattered across the globe to take on the most difficult encounters the game has to offer.
I find World of Warcraft a great deal of fun. I'm not much of a video game player and had never touched an MMO before WoW. I'm still far from certain that, when WoW loses its appeal for me, I'll seek out a replacement. WoW is, quite frankly, a brilliantly designed video game and anyone with an interest in good game design of any sort would be wise to familiarize oneself with what WoW does and how it does it. Like all such things, it's not for everyone, but I also think that there's little to be gained by sneering at it -- or indeed any MMO -- as if the very idea were somehow repulsive.
The simple reality is that, for a lot of gamers out there, WoW scratches a number of itches that tabletop RPGs either don't or can't. First and foremost, WoW is very easy to play, both in terms of its actual mechanics, but, perhaps more importantly, in terms of the time investment needed to enjoy it. Lots of people will tell you that MMOs are massive time sinks and, for many players, they certainly are. Raiding at the level I do does take lots of time, but most MMO players don't raid and have no interest in doing so. These "casual" players simply want to play a fantasy character in a beautifully presented world, where they can fight bad guys and quest with their friends -- or alone -- for a few hours. That's it and WoW accommodates that style of play superbly -- no more 20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours.
No, MMOs like WoW do not allow you to go anywhere or do anything. There are "walls" in the world that you can't surmount, no matter how hard you try. Likewise, the main storylines of the Warcraft world -- and make no mistake, there are storylines -- are all pre-scripted and follow trajectories determined by the good folks at Blizzard rather than your own imagination. But, frankly, these storylines are (mostly) extremely well-done and engaging and use technology effectively to give the impression -- a false one, to be sure -- that your individual character is a unique individual whose actions have forever changed the world. For many gamers, this is more than they get in their tabletop games -- and they can play whenever they want for as long as they want without the need to schedule a mutually agreeable time to get together with their friends. That's a powerful advantage of MMOs, particularly for gamers who work, have families, or are otherwise unable to drop everything to game as they did in high school or college.
So it's true that MMOs are not flexible or as open-ended as tabletop RPGs, at least not yet. On the other hand, gamers are by nature inn0vative and clever. Roleplayers have found many ways to create their own stories and use the tools MMOs give them to do in a virtual environment what they might do on the tabletop. There are still limits, of course. For example, some in-game characters are unkillable and others, though killable, don't stay dead. This tends to limit the extent of roleplaying that is possible, but it doesn't wholly preclude it and anyone who claims that "you can't roleplay in an MMO" is either trying to sell you something -- probably his RPG -- or has never played an MMO for any length of time.
For myself, I see World of Warcraft as a video game. I enjoy it primarily as tactical combat game with some roleplaying elements, much like a first-person shooter game, but in a far more complex environment. It's a great way to unwind with friends I've made online, much in the way some people watch TV. I don't see it as an alternative to tabletop roleplaying, at least not for me. Rather, I see it as a complementary entertainment that more than satisfies my need for flashy special effects -- "better graphics than my imagination," in the famous words of a friend -- and exciting "gamist" play. That is, I never once think about why my WoW character's powers and abilities work as they do or what their impact would be on the game's setting. It's just a fun diversion, nothing more. (I won't say "mindless," because most high-level raid encounters require a lot of thought, planning, and skill)
Despite all this, MMOs clearly cause a lot of apprehension in the hobby. Beneath of a lot of the contempt for the medium, I sense a fair bit of envy. World of Warcraft is the D&D of the 21st century -- a huge fad that makes the RPG boom of the late 70s/early 80s look utterly insignificant by comparison. I think there's also an implicit acknowledgment that the future of fantasy gaming belongs to computer games and MMOs. As technology gets better and the capacity for open-ended, individually customizable games becomes ever more possible, tabletop RPGs will seem even more "quaint" than they already do and no amount of harrumphing about how MMOs are as much fun as banging your head against the wall will change that.
That's why I believe, if tabletop RPGs are to survive and prosper, the last thing they should be doing is conceding computer games a home field advantage. Tabletop RPGs will never be able to beat video games when it comes to exciting combats or flashy graphics. Computer games own those things and always will. But what tabletop RPGs have always done best is provide context and continuity to those combats that are emergent properties rather than carefully designed ones.
Tabletop RPGs are notoriously "swingy" things, sometimes uproariously fun, sometimes mind-bendingly boring. Their fun depends almost entirely on intangibles -- personal chemistry, mental nimbleness, and random chance -- that simply cannot be boiled down into algorithms and mechanized. There is no way to guarantee that any given tabletop RPG session will be fun or even tolerable. Many sessions, in my experience, are painful and yet, in retrospect, those painful sessions can often lay the groundwork for the fun that emerges later on. And there's nothing even the most talented and determined game designer can do to lay that groundwork or ensure that there is ever a payoff in the end. Sometimes it happens; often it doesn't. When it does, though, it's glorious and no technology will ever be able to duplicate that.
For me, it's this that RPGs should focus on and teach people to expect and enjoy. Anything else is just ceding the field to the machines.