Right.. let's start with the rambly backstory. I play MMORPGs for a while now (as pointed out once or twice before). The first one I picked up was Ultima Online which had no quests, no endgame and non-consentual pvp. There was technically no reason to do anything - of course back then there were also no chat channels, so you could only use it as a chat client as long as you were on the same screen as the person you were talking to. Roleplaying was about as effective as it is now on the Roleplaying Servers in WoW - some people did, others did not. There were no rules, and I have not heard of an instance where Origin had to install a Goldshire Patrol.
There were a few other games coming out later that I tried, starting in the proper three-dimensional playstyle common now - Everquest, Asherons Call and others come to mind. Graphics were getting better (compared to Ultima), but they were far from what we are used today. No surprises.
(Picture taken from here)
I already found it harder to play in those games - and didn't quite grasp why. Of course the usual excuses come to mind: wrong people, getting older, outgrowing a phase, etc.
Interestingly enough, my roleplaying phase came back with Star Wars Galaxies.
And it was good fun. There was all sorts of things you could do. They even had professions in the game that were completely useless in combat - pure traders, entertainers and image designers (yes, there was basically a hairdresser profession). Of course many players mixed and matched those with combat classes - if they were not going for the optimized flavour-of-the-month design (tri-master in pistoleer, smuggler and bounty hunter comes to mind).
Now that I am again finding time to wonder about "what's going on" in World of Warcraft I may have stumbled upon another reason I personally find it hard to roleplay.
There is a certain amount of munchkinism hidden in my friendly shell. I do love to optimize my characters and used to spend hours brooding over three character points at the end of a pen-and-paper session to find the optimal point to spend them. Depending on the game not even in something combat related (Combat in GURPS? Eek. You might actually get hurt!).
With time that also allows me to spin a backstory, to basically grow with the character. At the start of a game there will be a rudimentary backstory, but all the details, all the colour come with the game itself. After a while the character may have become quite powerful (or started there, for something like a Superhero game), but it's only with time that the story comes together.
Now this does transfer to online games as well. As long as there is a good amount of character development, a story is easy to find. And suddenly I find it more and more difficult to "justify" the story.
Let me post two pictures to point out what I mean:
An armed and armoured dwarf. Fabulous hairstyle, pornstar moustache. It's all there. This is not quite best-in-slot gear for a tank, but not too terribly far off either. Look at all those lovely big ... numbers! Mind and eyes up here, please!
Almost 4000 stamina, enough health to last roughly 48175 1-damage hits and 33k armour. A veritable brick wall.
The same dwarf, the same fabulous hairstyle but this time covered with nothing more substantial than a tabard. Again, I'd like to direct your attention away from the amazing physique and towards the numbers.
Only 174 stamina left (a 23rd, roughly), 9700 health (rounding generously - a fifth) and 218 armour (a 150th of the dressed amount). Not so much "Brick Wall" any more - more like moderately pudgy dwarf with a tabard draped over his shoulders.
Just because I can, there is also a screenshot of a new dwarf.
Again a drop in power: only 23 stamina left (1/8th of the amount at level 80), 70 health (a 140th, roughly) and 34 armour (1/6th).
So what does that show me? Well, I gained quite a generous amount of health from merely leveling up. Anything else completely pales in comparison to the amount of stats that my little dwarf gained from his gear. It's not the character that gets stronger, it's the equipment.
Still nothing new there - how does that tie in with me being unable to
cyber up some hot chicks in Dalaran roleplay the character properly? Well, improvements gained from gear somehow are less "real". To me, at least (There, that's the cunningly hidden spilling the beans on my state of mind).
It won't change - not in this game, anyway. The whole design is based on this "items" thing. Makes sense, if you are trying to get people to raid the same content over and over again.
It does affect more than games, though...
However much I like the Brent Weeks "Night Angel" trilogy, the main character only becomes as good as he is at the end by an artifact (or seven - let's not spoil everything here). I find it harder to identify with the character than with someone more gritty, who can just pick up a different sword and fight just as effectively. For a good example, I'd recomment Logan from the "First Law" trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.
What does that mean for me as a person? Well, probably that I'd rather be able to fight well (in the mud,
with naked elf chicks, with a sword) than to swing a "singing and dancing sword of superiour enchantedness" that mocks my slightly excessive weight and low stamina when I draw it.
So ... errr... let's try a quick summary: I don't like games/books/films that are based on items - I prefer personal power. The kind that cannot be stolen in the next village by a cruel thief/gamemaster.