How much is too much authenticity?

When you start talking about better authenticity in RPGs or MMORPGs, there is always at least one person you will have to convince that there really is such a thing in fantasy games too and then explain exactly what you mean. Because fantasy worlds are all about the impossible of course, y’know magical stuff going on, places and races that zomg DON’T EXIST and – so, what are you talking about anyway with your authenticity…?

I love that part of the conversation. It’s like with the person who tells you how “it’s all just a game” when you’re upset about something, which is another way of telling you to shut up really (which in return gives you every right to /slap them with a large trout in good old IRC style).

Authenticity is a big topic and issue for RPGs of all flavours; to pick just one example –

Even in a magical world of flying islands and ferocious dragons, most players don’t feel it’s authentic that characters should be able to teleport around anytime and from anywhere to any given coordinate. Mage portals or gateways are cool, but all the time? No, not very authentic. Way too imbalanced – too OP to be credible. We might be in wonderland but this ain’t the zoo, there are rules! Also, what about travel and exploration, two very essential parts of this genre? We all know what would have happened to the Lord of the Rings if old Gandalf had possessed such OP powers (yep, no book for you sorry!)

Or much simpler: it’s cool if there are firebolts coming out of that warlock’s hand, but it’s not very realistic if he can wipe out an entire army of foes with a wiggle of his little finger. It doesn’t work that way.

Putting rules into fantasy

So, how does it work? What’s the measure and leeway of fantastic rules and when do we feel that there are too many restrictions in place or not enough? What constitutes authenticity in an RPG?

Now, developers do have some leeway of course, not every MMO handles authenticity and realism in the same way – just think of the “anti-jumping front” in Final Fantasy Online for instance (there were long beta topics about to jump or not to jump before FF14 was released in 2010) vs. WoW, where players can jump around merrily whenever they please. Choices go all the way from there and become more crucial when it comes to a game’s encounter mechanics or ability and stat balance. Should anyone be able to solo a skeleton army? What hitbox should a worm have? For how long should an enemy of same level be able to chase you? Should death come with a penalty – should there be death at all? The answers to these questions are not only in a number or equation. Not for any self-respecting fantasy game.

I don’t know if game development teams have any department which is solely dedicated to “script writing”; meaning working on the theme, content credibility and overall coherence of the world, far beyond the point of lore writing or map concepts. I feel they should have.

To me personally, atmosphere and coherence are everything. I can live with a game that has sub-par graphics, crappy itemization or dodgy class balance (departments being dedicated massive amounts of time and money to), what I absolutely can’t live with is a fantastic world that lacks any atmosphere or credibility. That’s my very personal assessment obviously, I got my Bartle result for a reason; exploration, travel, danger and conflict are crucial aspects for my personal game enjoyment. Can’t care less for achievements, titles or gear (unless shiny) and chitchat and company are great but only as long as the world feels great too.

Even if we disagree on these points, there are things we will all agree on, the overall “framework” so to speak. We might approach RPGs a little differently, but we’re all looking for the full fantasy package. I’m heavily influenced by the so-called high fantasy or sword&sorcery genre which is based on the traditions of Tolkien to D&D or anything with a Wizards of the Coast label on, books, games or concept art. All of them of course going back on much older tradition and lore, medieval times, folk tales and mythology. But for western RPGs at least, it’s that corner of the creative world where many of today’s MMO archetypes, classes, races and even settings were established for a wider, commercial audience (and any alterations thereof). If you read through the profiles and influences of the Sons of the Storm for example, you realize just how big a part that tradition plays.

Too much authenticity or long lost sons?

Lately and ever since leaving WoW, I’ve found myself back to my roots more again. There’s many game features or aspects I haven’t seen in a long time and used to enjoy in classic RPGs. All of them are part of a good fantasy tale; but not everything is necessarily suitable for the online concept – maybe. In any case, three features currently on top of my wish list are:

  1. Player character age
  2. Sustenance and sleep
  3. Injury and status ailments

1) In Fable the Lost Chapters, your character will age through the course of the game and receive permanent battle scars depending on your combat focus. Fable was obviously also somewhat of a breakthrough in terms of player alignment and ethos at the time, offering not only the choice for good or evil but adding impact to that choice in terms of how players could experience the game from there and how they’d look.
I’ve always enjoyed that idea: that my character’s looks (and equipment) tell a story. I think I’m past the wish for eternal youth, too. But if we assume an average playtime of 5 years for the same MMO, how to solve the aging issue? The concept of aging forces the issue of a life-span and inevitably death.

2) Having to feed your character is something I haven’t seen since Dungeon Master on Atari – and oh, how I wish I had the old sound file ready to play (*GULP!*)! I definitely wouldn’t want to worry about breakfast, lunch and dinner in MMORPGs (keeping the fridge stuffed is bad enough in the real world); but I think the aspect of sustenance or at least having to frequent a tavern or innkeeper every now and then, either to eat or sleep, is something worth integrating in a game (certainly makes a lot more sense than all the empty inns all over the world). Maybe add beneficial effects to it, like useful buffs or removing harmful debuffs? Grant bonuses in form of a “revitalized” XP bar or reputation gain (“you are now exalted with iron-dwarf drunkards!”)?

3) I’d like to see battle injuries and/or debuffs that actually require a long time to cure or special services / ointments – and often. In classic RPGs your character will often need to carry a variety of curing and healing items with himself that either work inside or outside of combat only, curing a variety of negative status effects. If we assume a weaker or absent healer role in the same game, such items (or associated services) gain in significance. A lot of added value comes to mind here: how players will deal with their HP bar, combat tactics when facing certain foes, but also how useful a profession will be for example.
But it’s not just about that: an adventurer’s bagpack should carry meaning, not just act as portable bank slot for loot. If you’re out there exploring the world and facing its dangers, surely you would bring a full survival pack, from that trusted elvish rope down to flint and tinder, first aid items and spell ingredients? Yes, I’d like more of this in MMOs.

I’m not a devoted RPer but I still think features such as these can be enjoyable in any online game. The ultimate question is how they add impact to your world and gameplay and whether they create any meaning or choice; added authenticity or just an extra chore? For player aging, the issue is mainly a cosmetic one and yet not easy to solve for a potentially never-ending game. But I have faith in future development teams and that’s why I disagree with the fourth poster in this forum topic: Yes, we all play for entertainment (I hope), but not everyone defines “fun” in the same way. To me personally, rep grinds and daily quests were always a chore in WoW because they added very little. On the other hand, I was sad to see spell ingredients matter so little and disappear entirely in Cataclysm (although the loss wasn’t great with their meaning so small to begin with).

Online adventures shouldn’t simulate everything from the real world, no doubt – but they’re still heavily based on real experiences and concepts, from times past as much as the present. The way how a developer implements and integrates “authentic features” is essential; I’m sure that with proper context, we all gladly bring our rain coat and umbrella along.


  1. There are addons that forces you to feed your character, sleep and all those other important things, for Fallout 3. Might be worth checking out.

  2. Fallout 3 is still on my shelf, am not sure I will be going there soon tbh! but thanks 🙂

    For me the question is though, whether these features can work in an MMO or not; or rather, I’m already sure they can (some of them you can actually find in UO for example) but I’m not sure how widely they would be appreciated in today’s MMO audience. it would certainly take a dev some doing, he he..

  3. One of the authenticity topics that bugs me occasionally is player and monster power at low health. In WoW, anybody can fight at 1HP just as effectively as they can with rested, full health. It seems to me that if you are half dead, maybe your sword swings could be a little less precise; maybe your spells could occasionally go wrong. Of course this would change fights but it would be interesting, unlike eating to just eat.

    Rather than any one point — food or reagents or jumping — it’s the consistency that matters to me when it comes to a world being believable. Does it hang together? I don’t think it matters whether rogues need to train lockpicking or not as long as the world is one in which some minor skills are learned without conscious effort by the player. If the game supports a number of such skills, lockpicking looks ordinary but if the game is strict about explicit skill advancements, then it becomes exceptional and doesn’t feel authentic.

    My 2 schilling anyway.

  4. I agree that there is a need for features and mechanics to be grounded and credible, but it’s important that these aspects are implemented in order to better the experiece.

    I think that a major problem with adding systems like these is that they are prone to becoming a nuisance, detracting from the experience, and even when they are proper systems, it can be difficult to implement them in a way that doesn’t feel contrived.

    I like the ideas that you’ve posted because they influence the game without getting in the way of playing. Sleeping or taking a break at the tavern may make you stronger (maybe gives you a buff), but it shouldn’t be something that unnecessarily gets in the way of playing. I agree with the idea of needing items for certain healing procedures, but I don’t think that the absence of them should necessarily end the use of those healing abilities to some basic capacity altogether. Keep in mind that support is the sole purpose of the support role; they would have the particular burden of bearing the cost of being a support player (if these items need to be purchased), and this would add an extra boundary. That being said, the implementation in context is really what is important.

    This reminds me of a game in which an archer has to buy and restock arrows for combat. This makes sense in context of authenticity, and could add depth to the experience, but if there is a warrior class that does not have to restock items and does just as much (usually more) damage, then the arrows are hindering the experience for the archer.

    Dependencies can be awesome for game design though, if anything I want to end on that. An entire branches of gameplay, interaction, and entire economies can bud from the dependencies that players have on eachother. The first thing that comes to mind is a class that has the unique ability to warp people or a class that has a unique crafting ability: the players take on different roles within a deep system of interconnected dependencies due to their differences. The authenticities could leave room for a game to convincingly implement these dependencies; I think that is why they are so important if we are looking forward at game design.

  5. Authenticity is important to me, but more from a story standpoint. I want the characters, both good and bad, to behave realistically based on the situations they find themselves in. That does mean, perhaps, worse performance for injuries, penalties for starvation, and the like, but I’m also a staunch anti-bookkeeping advocate (three double letters in a row FTW). This means that unless the situation logically dictates that one of the above is true, it’s not something I want to spend game time thinking about.

    Mostly, I just want bad guys to have a reason for being bad. I want good guys to have a reason for being good. Cardboard villains (or heroes) ruin a game for me.

  6. Ah, food. I remember something about food in Ultima VII : The Black Gate. I can’t remember if you had to eat, but I remember that if you ate (or drank) too much, you vomited, which sometimes made the NPCs vomit. Ew, Barf-O-Rama!

  7. @ Anonymous

    I agree it would be nice to implement something like ‘relative accuracy’ or energy inside combat, it strikes me as not too hard to design such a feature. your spells or hits can already be resisted or miss in most games for other reasons, this would make it a credible one.


    Absolutely, it’s a very fine line between something adding authenticity or just being a nuisance. it’s a really tricky subject I wouldn’t wanna under-estimate. at the same time, like you said, it’s all about meaning and balance too; not just between yourself and the world but obviously also from one class to the next and so forth. I think a developer will never be able to get it right right away, but someone should dare going down that road once again sometime and give it a chance. I really enjoyed many of these game aspects in Ultima Online.


    “…anti-bookkeeping advocate”
    Now, if you can also rhyme that one with the next sentence, I’ll be duly impressed, hehe! 😉
    I totally agree with your notion on how good and evil should be presented and work in MMOs, it’s funny you should mention this because I’ve written a very similar article in the past where I pointed out that the concept of pre-defined, ‘warring factions’ is moot as there are no real motives, incentives and meaningful choices (that create impact) players can take. I always disliked this about WoW for example, I’d rather have players choose themselves how to play and take consequences from there. this would be a lot more dynamic and indeed credible. (once more I had to quote UO there which imo had a rather formidable approach in its earliest days.)

    for reference:

    @ Pathak

    LOL! sounds erm….great! 😛
    and why am I suddenly reminded of Zelda and hitting the chicken until the chicken army arrives??

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