Tobold's Blog
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Are MMORPGs all the same?

In the thread about the other MMORPGs coming out in 2007, Wiggly asked the very good question how much all these games would play the same. With World of Warcraft having brought millions of players into their first MMORPG, there must be lots of people wondering whether the grass is greener in another game, or whether it would be best to stick to the game you know, because the other games don’t offer much else.

There is a basic structure behind all MMORPGs that defines the genre, just like there is a basic structure behind all racing games for example. You are in control of one character, who is defined by a bunch of numerical values describing how strong, intelligent, or skilled he is. By playing this character, these numerical values invariably go up, your character becomes stronger. This “character development” is what differentiates a role-playing game from an adventure or shooter game.

Generally “playing” a MMORPG involves fighting against computer-controlled enemies. Winning these battles gives you experience points, or something similar, like skill points. It is also likely to reward you with some items which you can either use to equip yourself with, or sell them and buy equipment.

The majority of MMORPG play in a sword and sorcery fantasy setting, in which you can play a warrior, a wizard, a priest, or other typical fantasy characters. You usually can play either alone, or in small groups of around half a dozen player, or at the end of the game even in very large groups of up to 40 characters. Combat usually consists of targeting a monster and starting some sort of auto-attack, swinging your weapon at it. But you always also have some sort of special attacks, fancy combat maneuvers for the warriors, spells like fireballs for the wizards, and healing spells for the priests.

There is a general flow of the game where you start in a city, go out and slay monsters, gather experience points and loot, come back to the city, sell the excess loot, train, buy other equipment, and go out again. In seemingly endless repetition. There is a brilliant parody of this gameplay out there, called Progressquest.

This basic description covers every game from Everquest to World of Warcraft to the upcoming games like Vanguard or Warhammer Online. So are these games all the same? The difference lies in the details. Different MMORPG all have different game worlds and settings, and you can also sort them into different categories according to what the gameplay is focused on.

Game worlds are often a matter of taste. There are many different fantasy worlds, some in a more cartoonish style, others more photo-realistic. And then there are non-fantasy worlds, games that play in historic settings, science fiction games, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and who knows what else game developers will come up with. Some worlds only exist in the MMORPG, but other game worlds are coming from other media. So you can ride a bantha over Tatooine, meet Thrall from Warcraft 3 in WoW, visit the world of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign, enter the Matrix, and soon even travel with the hobbits over Middle Earth. Obviously if you are a fan of one of these worlds, a MMORPG playing there has a special attraction over games playing elsewhere.

How to classify MMORPGs into categories is a matter of much debate. There is no unified standard, and thus unfortunately no label on the game box telling you what category a game belongs in before you buy it. But here are some often mentioned classification systems:

The first thing I always try to determine is how much a new MMORPG focuses on being a “game” and how much it focuses on being a “world”. Of course all MMORPG are a bit of both, but there are major differences on what the developers focused on. A more “game” like MMORPG like World of Warcraft doesn’t give the player much opportunity to change the game world in a permanent way, but it does have a solid structure of game goals, quests to follow, levels to reach, and so on. A more “world” like MMORPG often has features like houses or other structures players can build, thus changing the face of the world. Examples would be Star Wars Galaxies, or A Tale in the Desert. Often the game elements of these MMORPG are less well structured; there are a lot of open goals.

Another important distinction is whether a MMORPG is PvE-centric or PvP-centric. Again many games have both. But there are games like World of Warcraft where the PvE is the main game, and PvP seems to have been added as a badly designed afterthought. While in games like Lineage or EVE the PvP is the center of the game, and all the other parts of the game just serve to train and equip you for fights against other players. It is important to check whether PvP is voluntary, consentual, or whether PvP is free-for-all, with the possibility of lots of ganking and griefing.

The most difficult thing to determine is how easy or hard a MMORPG is. While single-player games often have adjustable difficulty settings, there is no such thing in a MMORPG. So some games are relatively easy, like World of Warcraft, allowing even the most casual player to reach the maximum level. But other games, like Everquest, need thousands of hours of play to reach the highest level, and have much harsher penalties for failure.

Besides the different genres and categories, MMORPG differ a lot in how they set up the details of gameplay. For example for players to buy and sell items to each other, every game has a slightly different system: There are auction houses, bazaars, player-controlled NPC vendors, or players opening up shop while standing around away-from-keyboard.

So in the end no two MMORPG are really the same. If you liked your first one, there is at least a chance that you’ll also like another one, but it isn’t certain. And you certainly won’t get bored after 5 minutes in the new game, MMORPGs usually take a long time to get into.
Categorizing different MMOGs is certainly not a particularly well-defined task.

Other aspects are character customization, skill set customisation, if the game is item-centric or not. Also type of control mechanisms - e.g. more active targeting and action a la DDO or Neocron, or traditional button-pushing.

There are probably a number of other distinctions that can be made. Still, the answer to the question "is it fun?" will in most cases be left unanswered until one has tried the game, and found some other players to enjoy it with.

Regarding the difficulty settings - there are MMORPGs with difficulty settings, just have a look at City of Villains/Heroes. It works quite well in that setting.
In retrospect.. from own experience, WoW is .. "dumbing down" what some people are willing to do to actually get into a MMO in the first place - IE: Upon logging into WoW its fairly simple, inuitive and easy to get going.

Whilst some of the new MMO's, Like Archlord, etc, just seem far too complicated, as if they've tried to do everything and just a little bit more, I took 2 minutes to try and understand it and just quit and uninstalled it.

But MMORPG's are a ill seperated lot at the best of times, I enjoy a fair few of them - but some are just trying too hard to be "unique" and fall into the "nothnx" category.
You've also left out the geography of it all - does it have instances? zones? seamless loading? Some of the Old EQers couldn't handle the idea behind instances as being something that you could apply well to a genre where the first words are "massively multiplayer". Anarchy Online royally screwed up on instances, but I think WoW applied them very well.

There's also environment interaction that people get worked up about - "Can I walk in through every door? Are there house models with nothing inside? Can I own land and build on it?" These are, ironically, the same people who want their fantasy games to be as realistic as possible, which brings the irony to a new, deeper level, when thinking about how realistic it actually is to be able to walk into any building in the world that you desire to enter.
I do feel like I repeat myself a ton of the podcast, so yes, your theory holds some water, sir.
Great article! You rightly point out that "death" is often the main drive and motivation for character progression. Kill 1000 of this or that mob. Pick "X" up but you have to kill a boss for it. Or kill several dozen other players online for a rank.

But it's important to remember that there are other ways to measure character advancement that do not necessarily involve killing mobs. In WoW it's trade skills and secondary professions like alchemy, engineering, herbalism, mining, and first aid to name a few. So if you don't feel like killing a million boars, you can try and increase your cooking skill instead. You'll feel like your time was spent productively and it provides flexibility in the game.

The attention to this element, or lack thereof in some, indicates how much thought was put into exploring, developing, and offering different opportunities to play MMOs. I'm just beginning to find is a helpful way to distinguish one MMORPG from another.
Whilst some of the new MMO's, Like Archlord, etc, just seem far too complicated, as if they've tried to do everything and just a little bit more, I took 2 minutes to try and understand it and just quit and uninstalled it.

A friend of mine and I recently had a discussion about whether it is better to play a MMO that is hard or easy. We both play WOW, and after 8 months, the community inside that game has really started to annoy the both of us. His argument for playing a difficult MMO was that if the game is hard, children will be less likely to play thus the community is more mature. I haven't had a chance to test his theory as of yet, but trying a difficult MMO is something we are both going to try.
Ha Wolfgangdoom I'm thinking about the same thing. I have been playing on an RP server, which in general has older players, and more actual females playing females, but still a lot of annoying kids especially as the server got older.

Now I can barely enter the cross realm BGs with all the potty mouthed brats screaming at each other. I swear the mouths on these kids ... I would have gotten smacked if I talked like that. Even our official server forum has degenerated due to these brats, when it used to be ok with actual RP and friendly posts (until server transfers started and now cross realm sealed its fate).

I tried DDO but it just didn't do it for me. The "world" was just too small, I didn't really feel like I was in a world with others. Though I understand they changed a lot since then so maybe I'll go back or try one of the new games.
I would question the difference between harder (kill 1000 rats instead of 10) as opposed to "more complex".

Totally agree that WoW is simple, simplistic even. Like Doom with spells. Now I am not suggesting this is turned into some sort of flight sim / mech warrior thing with 45 different buttons just for walking. The simple beauty of the "Doom" like way of moving is a winner (and no doubt why so many games work the same way). But is WoW complex enough ?

It can be, goes back the "adult" question, but I am one of those sad people that likes to use Excel to solve problems, and yes I have modelled a few WoW things in Excel ! Quick fingered, time rich kids get themselves to 60 fast enough, but then moan they have no money and say "where is the fun in that" when you suggest checking out the AH for profit margins etc.

I tend to seek out complexity where the need not be any. Is it worth my while farming STV for Kingsblood for the TB Incendosaur turn ins ? No, better to go to Azshara and pick up Dreamfoil. Can buy more Kingsblood for 30 mins work than I could pick up etc

Question is, how to make the game more complex without the answer being a mere google away. Guess we all remember the text based adventure games (and having to write off to the BBC games dept for a hint of you were stuck - no internet in the days of the BBC Model B) - "Use Rubber Washer on Rabbit" "The rabbit eats the washer and turns into a red key". Eh, that is just silly.
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