Races in massively multiplayer games seem to have lost their “umph”. Besides cosmetic differences of, “Oh look I’m blue!” or “Oh look, I’ve muscly and green!” there’s very little in modern MMOG’s that separate one race from another. With hit boxes across all races equalised so that height plays has no advantage and with racial abilities forgettable or neutered to the point where they are fundamentally pointless, why even bother having races?
Besides the obvious cosmetic differences: orc, human, elf and so on, it’s an area in the genre that is tragically under utilised and one which offers significant opportunities for role play, conversation and faction rivalry. At a very basic level, most racial differences tend to just provide a skill or two, minor attribute differences or bonuses (+5 with melee weapons) and that’s about it. Games such as Elder Scrolls Online attempted to take things a little further by heavily restricting certain races to certain factions (though that’s gone out of the window due to the explorers pack) as well as adding clear itemisation benefits, while Guild Wars 2 attempted to tailor your story based on the race you chose. For the most part and although both games attempted to make races count, they both fell pretty flat.
Where Elder Scrolls Online is concerned, adding clear benefits to playing one race based on play style pigeonholed certain classes. Ensuring Orcs are awesome in heavy armor puts players off who might, for example, wish to be a medium armor bow user. In contrast, Guild Wars 2 added no racial benefits but opted for several skills that, although initially strong, were severely nerfed during the course of the Beta. Players bemoaned the fact the Sylvari root was too strong or the Norn transform too flexible, so ArenaNet simply chose to make all of them pretty rubbish.
While I fully appreciate that developers don’t want one race to be more popular than another, I think there is much more that can be done to define a race. For example:
Much of this might seem minor but it simply doesn’t occur in modern MMOG’s. It’s partly because developers are too afraid to exclude players from certain aspects of the game (even though they’d have their own benefits through choosing their favourite race) and also because it’s a lot of work. It’s far easier to level the playing field and ensuring everyone can do everything, irrespective of race, than it is to segregate or customise the player experience.
I’ve often felt that from a play and lore perspective that relationships races would inevitably forward towards certain alliances is completely lost due to the sterilisation of the leveling and play experience. With developers so concerned about ensuring equality they lose sight of the gameplay benefits gained by creating clear racial differences. I’m not suggesting we need to implement these racial differences and play equality to encourage individuals to invest in alternative characters, but from a lore and immersion perspective it surely has to be better than what we have now.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore the game world only to come across a hidden NPC, whom happens to be the same race as you. He then provides you with a quest line that leads to a unique location (not on the world map) that only your race is allowed in. Sure there would likely be some players pissed off at the fact they couldn’t access such a place or annoyed that they would never own racial specific armor or items as a reward for such quests and discoveries, but it would inevitably create a unique dynamic as to what races people chose. There’s so little consideration that takes place when it comes to choosing a race, other than: “Do I like the look of this?”.
Interactions between races should be filled with treachery, hatred, jealousy and admiration but none of this seeps through in most of the MMOG’s I’ve played. With the exception of the Asura in Guild Wars that regularly abuse others for their lesser intellect, I honestly can’t remember any other racial combinations that showed a degree of individuality. The implementation of Storybricks in EverQuest Next leaves me hopeful that races and their uniqueness play a key part in content (it’s well documented that Orcs motivate themselves through gold) but it has to begin at the character select screen. If that means that I’ve to make a sacrifice based on what race I pick, all the better for it. There are too few difficult choices being made in the genre already and if one of the first you make is the hardest, I think we’ll all reap the rewards even if it does mean we can’t have everything.
What are your thoughts on races in massively multiplayer games? Do you agree that there should be clear differences? Do you enjoy everyone being equal? Let us know!
The only game to have distracted Lewis away from MMOG's over the last 15 years was Pokemon Red. Despite that blip, Lewis has worked his way through countless games in the genre in search of something that comes close to his much loved (and long time dead) Neocron. Having written for several gaming networks before Ten Ton Hammer, Lewis likes to think he knows a thing or two about what makes an MMOG and its player-base tick.
Lewis writes the weekly column "The Underfoot" published every Monday and "Hammer and Nail" when a good topic arises!
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