Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
What IS a MMORPG actually?

The MMO part is pretty accurate, it stands for massive multiplayer online. The G is also correct, these are games. MMORPGs are games that are played online with massive amounts of players. Massive meaning anything between 100 and 5000 on the same server. Of course a game can have lots of servers. The biggest MMORPG is Everquest, and it reputedly has 400,000 players. Each player is usually paying a monthly fee, between $10 and $15. Now multiply that by 400,000 and you can guess where the interest of the gaming industry in these games is coming from.

The RP part of the game is a bit misleading. Most players aren't really "role-playing" in MMORPGs. Its more a historical reference. It all started in the early 80's with pen & paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where you played the role of a fighter or wizard in a medieval fantasy world. This sort of game was then adapted to computers, and kept the name RPG, role-playing game. But although you still had a fighter or a wizard character in these games, the part where you actually play a role got lost in the transition from paper to silicon.

So in computer game terms, a role-playing game now means a game where you are represented in the game by a computer character (sometimes called avatar). And this character has a set of statistics, how strong he is, how intelligent he is, what skills, and what experience he has. And one of the goals of the game is to increase these statistics. This is often achieved with the help of experience points (xp) and levels. You do something, you gain experience points for that, and when you have enough of those xp, you gain a level.

At the start of a MMORPG you usually create such a character. What characters there are available depends on the type of game. There are many medieval fantasy world MMORPGs, where you can create your fighter, wizard, cleric, thief or something, usually offering several races, like elf, dwarf, or human. There are science fiction MMORPG where you have other career choices, like interplanetary merchant, bounty hunter, or star fighter pilot, and other race choices depending on the sci-fi world. You can play a Wookie in Star Wars Galaxies if you want. Then there are historical games and real world simulations, where you are limited to more conservative choices, e.g. you are usually limited to playing humans.

At the start of the game you get a set of starting stats and skills (depending on your character choices), and sometimes some starting equipment. Now as I said, one goal is to "level up", to improve your stats and skills. Getting better equipment and virtual money is usually also a goal. So to make that idea more attractive to you, you usually start out with rather bad skills and equipment.

To advance, you usually have the choice between different activities. In most games, combat is one of the main activities. Then there are often some sort of missions or quests, usually either involving combat, or bring something from A to B. Then there are "trade skills", where you transform raw materials into equipment which is usable by players.

It is easy to get caught in a cycle. You start out weak. Then you kill something small, like a rat, with your rusty dagger. For the kill you get a few experience points, and some items like a rat hide which you can sell for a small amount of money. You repeat that until you have gained enough xp to gain a level, and enough money to buy better equipment. Then you go out again, and kill something slightly bigger, gaining more xp and more items. Until you gain another level and even better equipment. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum. There is a brilliant parody of this called Progressquest. This "level treadmill" is a source of frequent complaints from players. But actually it's a trap that the players dug themselves.

The real interest of MMORPGs is not this pseudo-RP part, where you level up a character. The interest is the massive multiplayer part, where you are on a world with hundreds or thousands of other players at the same time. So one big thing to do is chatting. Now you can chat on IRC or other places on the internet. But the MMORPG provides you with a graphical avatar to do so, AND gives you something to chat about, the game. The other big thing to do is playing either together or against each other. For example forming a group of adventurers to kill a dragon together, which would have been far too strong for each of the individual characters.

So while frankly the RP part of a MMORPG is usually worse than an offline computer RPG (due to the lack of a story line), the combination between game and social interaction with other players is pulling in so many people. Groups of players form associations like "guilds". There is a player-drive economy, which is often so interesting that people have written scientific papers about it, like this paper about the Everquest currency. Online friendships form. Sometimes there are even online marriages. Some games allow combat between players, where battles and wars break out. So a good part of the game in a MMORPG is driven by players. Making it a lot more unpredictable and interesting than an offline game with a fixed story line.

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