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Design Principles for Building Your Roleplay Community

Eight tips for tailoring your game design to the comfort of players that are oriented more towards personal expression than achievements.

Tanya X. Short, Blogger

April 22, 2013

19 Min Read


When creating a community, designers often want to support players telling their own stories, but may not be sure how to achieve this admittedly amorphous goal. Based on my experience as a multiplayer content/event designer for Age of Conan, The Secret World and Aetolia: The Midnight Age, I have observed a few elements of basic game aesthetics that can make a huge difference to the vibrancy and imagination of a game’s community.

NOTE: For the purposes of this article, I’ll confine myself to observations about roleplayers in online games, as that is my professional expertise. It's possible they apply in some way to tabletop, cosplay, single-player, fantasy sports, and other creative individuals, but I'll leave that to your judgment.


Who is a Roleplayer?

Roleplay is treating your character in a game as if it were a character in a play or a film, talking and acting in the game as if the game world were real. Rather than saying, “I only have 10 hitpoints,” someone roleplaying might say, “Ugh, I’m  hurt real bad over here.”

At its simplest, it is pretending. In World of Warcraft, when a player makes their orc character say “For the Horde!”, they are roleplaying. At its most extreme, it is collaborative improvisational storytelling, complete with character development, narrative arcs, and climactic deaths -- a group of players essentially perform a play together, while simultaneously writing it on the spot, for hours at a time.

Compared to other players, people who roleplay can be especially imaginative, articulate, and social[1]. They are attracted to activities that involve novelty, creativity, writing, innovating, and tend to like showing off.

Let’s take a look at roleplayers at their most extreme to understand their playstyle. This is not your average community member, but it helps to contrast their unique interests and motivations with other consumers.


The Softest Hardcore

In virtual worlds, self-identified roleplayers have the unique distinction of being measurably the most hardcore in some ways, and in other ways the least. These people often have very long total played times, play sessions, and subscription periods. They know your game world inside and out, to a level of detail that defies any wiki. They are an extremely vocal minority that sticks together, becoming social leaders in game, in forums and on social media.

Yet many of these so-called “hardcore” players will never complete all of your content, never reach “max level”, and never become particularly skilled at your combat system.

They might not need new PvP maps or dungeon bosses, but roleplayers still need your attention. There’s a reason these people are playing your game and not others, and not chat rooms. They like your game world, and they like your playerbase. But for how long? What will make them settle in and call it home?

Please note: For the rest of the article, when I refer to “roleplayers” or "creatives", I am not referring to the players who spend 18 hours crafting their character’s intricate soap opera. I am referring to any imaginative, social player who has the potential to contribute positively to your fan community, if given the chance. These people might never roleplay. They might become fan artists or cosplayers; they are the kind of people that are the backbone of your game's creative community. This person might be more accurately called a roleplayer-in-waiting, ready to flower under the correct conditions.

So many kinds of art! Consider 'Happenings' as only one kind of roleplay

Roleplay is Happenings?

Taken from the University of Maine's explanation of 'Intermedia' studies.


Design Principles

Without knowing your game’s details, here’s a few ways to enhance your game’s aesthetic to be more creative-friendly.

These principles could also help you get a feel for how many roleplayer-types might be interested in your product -- the answer may surprise you!

1. Don’t Expect Hard Numbers

2. Connect Players, Create Relationships

3. Familiarity is Golden

4. Provide Emotional Conflicts

5. Take Their Ownership Seriously

6. Establish Authenticity

7. Expand Their Cliques

8. Slow Your Expectations

1. Don't Expect Hard Numbers

Some games, such as Star Wars Galaxies and various MUDs, build elaborate tool suites to support collaborative player storytelling. These kinds of systems almost certainly enhance retention and engagement, but good luck proving by how much.

You can’t focus test something this intrinsically multiplayer, and you will have serious trouble harvesting meaningful metrics. Roleplay tends to occur completely divorced from game data, almost entirely in your game’s chat or other communication systems, which means that it may be difficult or impossible to quantitatively prove ANY results. Unless you build in an actual coded system, and somehow enforce using it, you will end up with a few great anecdotes at best. The cost:value ratio is doomed to be fuzzy.

Working with this kind of gameplay, I feel closer to an art director than a systems designer. Similar to an elegant interface, good roleplay aesthetics increases the standard of living higher in your world in fundamental ways, with knock-on effects for your word of mouth and retention. And like aesthetics, community designers should always consider how best to keep your most passionate, loyal players engaged in the world you’re providing, even when you can’t prove their effects concretely.

So, from the very beginning of your design, set a certain quality standard to your roleplay aesthetic. At a gut level, how comfortable do you want creative-types to be in your world? This must be what guides your changes to design and development, not an expectation of metrics and ROI charts.


Cost:Value Fuzziness Example: The Albion Theatre

I oversaw the creation of the “Albion Theatre” of The Secret World, a toolkit that allows players to stage and perform in-game theatrical performances. It’s a bit meta, asking players to be actors and directors. You can read more about it here. 


A marketing image used to promote the Albion Theatre


When I’m asked whether it was a success, I can only answer, “I think so?” It has its problems, but it adds depth and breadth to the game and players hosted some elaborate shows. But the effects can’t be quantified. How much does The Secret World subscription rate or microtransaction conversion improve based on a great performance of “The Tell-Tale Heart” in the Albion Theatre? The world may never know.


2. Familiarity is Golden

My first roleplaying experience was in a Wheel of Time game. This is not a coincidence.

Even more than other audiences, roleplayers flock to known IPs -- not just due to brand loyalty, but because there’s already a wealth of back-story to tap into when creating their characters. The more familiar the setting, the better, because this translates into less “learning” players have to do to understand their character’s place and context. Mastery and familiarity are known to increase rather than decrease creativity and innovation; I believe this is also true in game settings.

This doesn't necessarily mean you need to go out and buy an IP, or change your world completely. A setting that’s close to the “real world” is the ultimate in familiarity, and therefore relatability. In The Secret World, anyone can roleplay by just making (a stylised version of) themselves. If you can tie your game into the real world directly, such as having modern or historical (or strongly analagous) locations and characters, great, that’s like using the IP of “planet Earth”. If random players accidentally roleplay because “orcs/Americans/zombies just talk that way,” so much the better. That means it’s natural.

Locations and player characters are the most important of these. If you’re creating an all-new world, you probably want to create dozens of innovative species and kingdoms. You want to avoid cliche, right? Sure. But at a minimum, include a human player character species and locations that normal humans would understand at a glance and naturally socialise in: markets, bars, housing, etc.

Bottom line: The more bizarre, alien, and/or individualistic your setting is, maybe the more interesting it is to you, but the worse it serves as a framework for others’ creations. Thus, the less welcoming it is for would-be roleplayers.


3. Connect Players, Create Relationships

Do not separate players after they’ve learned the basics of the game. Don’t ever let them isolate themselves permanently. It’s bad for your community, whether they roleplay or not.

The more meaningfully players can interact, especially with strangers, and the more complex those relationships can be, the more roleplay-types will sink their teeth in. Family systems, marriage, rivalry, political power, mentorship, employment -- without coded systems, roleplayers will invent these connections, but your setting can be more or less alienating to this kind of “relationship-oriented” thinking. An online world primarily about sexless, isolated identical clones will have many problems, but one of them will be a lack of a roleplaying community.

MMOs from Asia, such as Aion, tend to push this envelope more than Western games, building in coded family trees, astrological kinship, friendship bonds, mentor systems, etc. I expect their retention benefits across the board, but especially among roleplayers.


4. Provide Emotional Conflicts

So, if everyone has a relationship with everyone else, everyone’s friends, right? Care-bears galore and cybersex time?

Wrong. If everyone’s friends, without any chance of subterfuge or power struggles, there’s very little drama to keep roleplay alive. Make sure there are reasons for players to have different character motivations that would conflict with each other; don’t let non-player characters have all the fun. The most extreme roleplayers are literally the kings and queens of drama; they can and will invent something on their own to fight for, or fight over (“How could you cheat on me?”), but that won’t last forever.

Systems to support player-generated conflict and narrative arcs are ideal, but require more complexity than your average leaderboard. Think in terms of social currency. What will keep your players’ relationships changing, month after month and year after year? In their ongoing “Flame and Frost” updates, Guild Wars 2 opts for the twists and turns of a game-wide living story, with non-player characters of evolving allegiances and problems. E.V.E. is built around economic player conflict, with famously dramatic results.

As a corollary, make sure all of the information on your world and its conflicts (whether static or player-generated) is readily available from a central source, ideally within the game. If the player cannot quickly find and understand your game world’s conflicts, the conflicts might as well not exist.


5. Take Their Ownership Seriously

These players spend time and energy building up their characters. They enjoy being imaginative, coming up with endless challenges, victories, and tragedies. They may play in your world, but they have a serious ownership of this character -- the longer they play, the stronger the attachment.

It’s unusual to actually build a system to reward roleplay extrinsically, but it happens. I’ve done it. IF you do this, take them seriously. Give them topics to digest and express themselves in relation to, but don’t give orders. Achievers want orders; roleplayers want inspiration. They do not want you to tell them (or their character) what to think and feel, and how to act.

You might have the impulse to think, “I will design a system that rewards people who roleplay EXACTLY this response to this problem.” -- it’s easy to know who to reward. Easy to script, easy to quantify. But this won’t work! The would-be roleplayers will lose interest and you’ll only get the achievers who jump in to figure out the goodies. If there’s a war with two sides, sure, make players pick a side and reward them for doing so. But don’t exclude characters who feel angry or sad or psycho or whatever the heck they decide to roleplay about choosing that allegiance. Similarly, don’t reward consistently choosing the same type of response -- just because a character acted compassionately once doesn’t mean the player should be penalised if that character isn’t compassionate in *every* circumstance.

Bottom line: if my character is just doing and feeling whatever you script her to do and feel, I’m not really roleplaying at all. Maybe I should go find a game that lets me do that.


Ownership Battle Example: The Twitterverse Experiment

We discovered early in 2013 that dozens of players from The Secret World had made “in-character” roleplay accounts on Twitter. To encourage this, I created “Twitter Tuesdays”: a writer and I would give out missions on Twitter through an in-game character who also had their own Twitter account. These missions alternated between ARG-style puzzle-solving and creative contests, but typically the player must go into the game client within 24 hours, complete a task, and report back on Twitter with proof in order to complete the mission and get a prize. For one mission, we even incorporated the player-run radio station, Radio Free Gaia, trying to get the community as involved as possible.


Radio Free Gaia, community-builders originally from Anarchy Online (we love you guys!)


One of our early missions was internally called “Spy vs Spy”. Since The Secret World is all about conspiracies, we thought it’d be hilarious to ask players to “report on” their friends’ “shady activities”. We expected them to take faux-compromising screenshots of each other giving briefcases to villains, hiding in alleys, etc. And we did get a few amusing results, but most roleplayers didn’t engage. Why? I believe that the majority of players were uninterested because it essentially required them to roleplay in a very specific way: someone who would betray their friends for money, OR to treat their whole character as a joke, a satire of a spy comedy.

In subsequent missions, we made “creative contests” much more open-ended. If we ran this same mission again, we would probably re-tool it to instead ask players to look for in-game proof of ANY spy activities ANYWHERE that might be suspicious, not just their friends. Then they can make up their own justification and take themselves as seriously (or not) as they want.


6. Establish Authenticity

As the designer, you are the ur-storyteller. What you say, through your world’s setting and components, is law. You are the natural forces of the universe that the roleplayers must improvise around. So, like any good storyteller, be consistent and involve your audience, but also make it very clear when YOU are speaking, and not the players.

Be impossible to impersonate. It's tempting to democratise and crowd-source your lore, but if anyone out there can create wrong or downright toxic information about your world, and do it with your authority, this will be a problem. Even if nobody takes advantage, the possible existence of these people is enough to kill your roleplayers’ immersion. Paranoia and trust are both contagious.

As a small example, in the Twitterverse Experiment I described earlier, some key community members refused to play along. They believed that other players had assumed the role of important setting characters, and were justifiably irritated at what they thought was an unfair playing field. As soon as we publicly identified which Twitter accounts were run by developers, engagement was suddenly much higher. Authenticity was established and trust was restored.


7. Expand Their Cliques

Roleplayers generally form smaller groups than other player types. Due to the unique motivations of their character, and their inclination towards complex relationships, they usually form tight cliques. When key personalities from these cliques quit, these small groups are likely to collapse and completely disappear rather than incorporate new members. This is obviously a problem for your game’s longevity.

One of the key resources roleplayers need in order to remain loyal to your game is a steady stream of new players to play with. However, left to their own devices, they might naturally avoid your new players and stay in their clique, to their own detriment.

As a designer, ask yourself, “After I make a few friends, what incentivises meeting someone new? What is there to gain, strategically or politically?” If you come up empty-handed, this will eventually be a serious yet difficult-to-diagnose problem across all of your communities, but especially for your would-be roleplayers.


Clique-Growing Example: Guild Renown

The “golden” number for guild stability (least likely to disband or become inactive) is different from game to game, depending on your guild management tools, communication ruleset, etc. [2] In Age of Conan, we found the most stable multiplayer guild size was about 50. By contrast, roleplaying guilds in AoC tended to be 10-20 -- small enough to be high-risk.

When designing our guild leveling system, I deliberately chose to piss off our roleplayers for their own good, just a little bit. Gain caps, leaderboards, and progression curves were all balanced towards guild sizes of 50. I also included system rewards that would primarily interest roleplayers -- new costumes, companions, city decorations, etc. We didn’t outright disallow small guilds; we just provided a reason for them to grow outside their comfort zone.

After the initial fury died down, we saw several roleplaying guilds decided to band together, recruit more, or even joined larger, non-roleplaying guilds wholesale. We considered this a victory, improving the longevity of our roleplay communities. A few decided to accept the difficulty spike and stick it out together, but this put them at no greater risk than before; if anything, strength through adversity, right?


8. Slow Your Expectations

In MMOs, we talk about “content locusts”, rushing around, eating up all of the hand-crafted developer goodies. The good news is that these players are NOT content locusts. They are just about the opposite; they are incredibly slow.

Not slow like stupid. Slow like a healthier heartbeat, compared to other players. They are not collecting all the coins and getting all the points. They are storytellers, enjoying themselves.

As a designer, handle time-sensitive activities carefully. The more time-pressure you add, the less your players are permitted to act like roleplayers and the more you are pressuring them into the content-locust pattern. If you run a community event with a task for players to complete, most players will eagerly set about completing that task immediately and return to you. Depending on their skill and exploratory nature, they may take more or less time. However, roleplayer-types can take even longer than your slowest “normal” gamer, sometimes to a factor of ten. They are meeting up with their friends, deciding how they feel about it, expressing this feeling, and maintaining a running commentary as they complete the task. As Jenova Chen put it in a Gamasutra interview, "Empowerment distracts you from socializing."

So how do you make these players feel more comfortable?

Design with patience and flexibility built in. Avoid strict timelines that assume players will focus on goal-completion. For example, don’t make a multiplayer plotline that advances as soon as someone/anyone completes the task, or alternately, don’t make the plotline advance for everyone all at once.

Warn everyone involved when a time-limit is introduced, so they can make decisions with it in mind. This time-limit should be as forgiving as possible.

Design optional activities and extra challenges for players that are ahead of schedule. Think of it like the bar at a scavenger hunt basecamp -- if achievers “come back early”, make sure there’s something for them to do.

This kind of padded-timeline design may not be as intuitive as, “As soon as the invading monster is killed, begin Stage Two,” but it will be more inclusive and ultimately enjoyed by more kinds of players. Guild Wars 2 is way over on this side of the spectrum, as the stages of each conflict in their living story takes a full month before moving on, giving creative-types plenty of time to chime in and participate on their own schedule.

The good news is that roleplayers are improvisational by definition, so as long as you communicate what’s going on and give them room to adjust accordingly, they’re likely to play along rather than rage-quit.


In Summary

1. Don’t Expect Hard Numbers

2. Connect Players, Create Relationships

3. Familiarity is Golden

4. Provide Emotional Conflicts

5. Take Their Ownership Seriously

6. Establish Authenticity

7. Expand Their Cliques

8. Slow Your Expectations


Sub-motivations within Openness to Experience (see http://www.darklorde.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/5_Domains_of_Play_GDC2012.pdf), colored by relevance

So what’s a roleplayer’s dream product? At a glance, your world should be familiar. But as the players dig deeper, they uncover novel, ever-changing interpersonal conflicts that give them the freedom to respond on their own terms, in their own time.

To the right, you can see that a majority of the sub-motivations of Openness to Experience (from the Big 5 personality traits theory) describe the player-type I've suggested targeting throughout this article. For further reading in gameplay design for the comfort of different player personalities, make sure you check out Jason VendenBerghe's 'motivational ergonomics' research at Ubisoft.


With these aspects of your gameplay aesthetic taken into account, a roleplaying community will feel much more at home, making your world ever more detailed, vibrant, and evolving.



[1] In case you were wondering how much of someone's online personality is "real", yes, socialites in virtual worlds also tend to be extroverts IRL. Yee 2011.

[2] Academics specialising in MMO guilds have been suggesting since 2004 that "increasing the level of organizational support to guilds could help promote vibrant, self-sustaining player communities".

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