This Ain't Your Pa's Role-Playing Anymore
Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games
Copyright Aaron Smalley 2003
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
There has been a new trend in RPGs in recent years, the development of an ever-increasing number of Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (or MMORPGs). The number of these has been growing nearly exponentially since the first one (Meridian 57) came out only a few years ago, with more scheduled for release this year than were in existence prior to the beginning of this year. The variations within these games as far as setting and system vary greatly, nearly as much as conventional RPG's (Paper and Dice Role Playing Games, hereafter referred to as P&DRPGs). As with P&DRPGs, the MMORPGs have settings that vary from very realistic alternate versions of our own world to fantastic fantasy and sci-fi settings of epic proportions.
Having been an active RPGer for nearly two and a half decades, I have been asked by many people over the years what RPGs are and what the point behind them is. The best way to describe it is that it is a way to experience a different life without the risks of doing so, a way to do what you otherwise would not, to play an active part in a story for a short time. After all, most people at some point in their life will read a book or watch a movie or television program and think to themselves, `I would have done that differently', and this is where RPGs really shine. As a player you have the opportunity to take part in a story of some type, whether it be an epic adventure, a murder mystery, or even a romantic comedy. However unlike reading a book or watching a movie, you get to decide how the central figure (or at least one of the central figures) of the story acts and reacts to various situations. You determine their personality, their values and beliefs, their desires and dreams, as well as their appearance. With several players this can result in very interesting twists that the GM may not have been able to come up with on their own. These games or "stories" as they are sometimes referred to can become a nearly living extension of your imagination, and as such you strive to make your "character" or the persona that you play the part of successful.
This concept is sometimes referred to as escapism. Like some people spend endless hours watching a particular sport, others spend hours tending their gardens, while many will spent much of their free time reading fantasy books; Gaming is a hobby that many people enjoy. While some people will go to a casino once a week for enjoyment, gamers will often get together one evening a week to work together to create and in their imaginations live out an epic story. This raises the question: "Do MMORPGs fit into this same category of escapism?" The answer to this question is a resounding "Yes". However these massive online computer moderated games have some major differences, some good and some bad.
Like the classic RPGs, the player can "escape" into another imaginary world and spend hours or more experiencing adventure and thrills. However one of the major differences is the fact that instead of a friend spending hours preparing and organizing a story/plot for a small group of local players, MMORPGs take place over the internet through a server that operates around the clock. As such the game is operated ("DM'ed" or "GM'ed") by a complex computer system that is programmed to simulate this alternate world/setting; which a huge number of players can participate in, from around the globe. This creates a totally different social environment from P&DRPGs, as well as removing the GM's very heavy burden of developing and maintaining an extensive plot and story line around an imaginary world that he/she has created. Below I will go into more detail about these and other aspects of MMORPGs as compared to classic RPGs, and what they mean for the player.
The first item is that unlike P&DRPGs, all system mechanics are handled jointly by a server and your home computer in some form or another. Thus there is no need to roll dice and consult charts to determine the outcome of various actions. This can make MMORPGs much more immersive than conventional RPGs as all the workings take place in the background where the players do not normally see them. This tends to speed up play dramatically and as such makes these types of games more attractive to those who have a short attention span or who want quick gratification. However a side effect of this is that the system can only handle what has been programmed, resulting in a lot of limitations as to what a player can do or try. For example in many of these MMORPGs it is not possible to climb (walls, trees, mountainsides, etc.), as well as some of them not allowing swimming, or moving stealthily to sneak up on someone or something. This is one of the areas where the classic RPGs have a very distinct advantage, as the only limits are the players and GM's imagination; whereas the MMORPGs are limited to what the preprogrammed system allows. However if there are certain types of activities that you wish to pursue in such an online game, it is simply a matter of finding one that offers what you desire. For example, Anarchy Online allows for stealthy movement and swimming, but not climbing, whereas there are others that allow climbing but not swimming.
The next big difference is the social aspects of MMORPGs as compared to P&DRPGs. With a classic RPG, you get together (usually) with a group of friends who all know what to expect and who will (usually, but not always) work together to create a story that is interesting and enjoyable for all involved. Admittedly this has become much more flexible and less local with the Internet through message boards and email-based games. However with online games, you usually do not even know the other people who are participating due to the huge numbers of participants and their remote locations, such as with Everquest, one of the early and by far the largest of these online games (http://everquest.station.sony.com/), with nearly half a million monthly subscribers. This results in some interesting social situations and interactions, as explained by Nick Yee, who is doing an extensive study of these various social factors of MMORPGs at: http://www.nickyee.com/. Some of these include the ability of someone who is normally shy and introverted to become a hero and sometimes a leader of a large group of people within the game setting, as they do not feel threatened due to the distance and anonymity of the situation. It is possible for someone who is not very adventurous to risk their virtual life on a regular basis, thus allowing them to experience the thrills of dangers situations without actually risking themselves. Another occurrence that is often seen, is what in MMORPGs is referred to as a "Griefer" - someone who's only goal is to annoy other players, or cause them grief. This type of activity is often the result of someone who has little experience with responsibility and is a way for them to exercise a sense of control over others or to lash out against society without risk of punishment. Despite this, it is not uncommon in MMORPGs for players to also become very good friends over time with people who they have never met and would never have talked to outside of such an environment. Likewise, some people will openly talk about their personal lives and give out more personal information than is appropriate in such a situation, often because their inhibitions are lowered since they are not interacting with these people face to face. This of course tends to remove some of the immersiveness of the game, which is countered by some of these games offering "Role-Play" servers where you are not even allowed to talk out of character. Examples of this are the Guinevere, Nimue, and Percival servers for Dark Age of Camelot (http://www.darkageofcamelot.com/), the second largest MMORPG in terms of monthly subscriptions with nearly a quarter-million.
This also brings me to another social point, since communication within an MMORPG is done through a keyboard (most of the time), it is not always easy to get a feel for someone's attitude due to not having the advantage of visibly seeing body language. This can make the use of humor and sarcasm difficult. On the other hand, many of these MMORPGs offer an assortment of "e-motes" or commands that you can type that will cause your character or avatar to perform various movements or activities that are intended to mimic body language. For example in Asheron's Call (http://www.asheronscall.com/), the use of ":doh" results in the following:
One of the things that I know draws a lot of people to MMORPGs over classic RPGs is the graphics. Instead of sitting around a table with a paper map and lead miniatures (or in many cases even less in the way of props), players can see a physical form which they can usually design and customize to represent their character. This allows for those who do not have a vivid imagination to experience adventures that they would not enjoy so much if they sat in on a tabletop RPG. You can also see the environment, some of which is amazingly beautiful or breathtaking. You can also see how your adversary looks and acts (sometimes referred to "mobs" or "spawns" when they are server controlled). They also tend simulate physics very realistically. All in all, this is one of the biggest things that draw in people who would probably try but quickly grow bored with classic RPG's.
Of course you need to be aware that many people become addicted to these games, as explained by Nick Yee in his Ariadne report at: http://www.nickyee.com/hub/addiction/home.html. The companies that put these games together usually have some sort of reward system that encourages extremely long hours of time in-game. These often occur through rewarding people's need for immediate gratification as well as the flow of adrenaline that some of these games can generate. Yes, believe it or not, with my 24 years of RPGing experience, the 10 most stressful situations I have been in 9 out of 10 were while playing in MMORPGs. What often happens is you get into a dangerous situation and somehow manage to come out of it in once piece, and feel great. The emotions can be much more intense with these games because of the visual and sound effects making you feel more like you are really experiencing these activities. This is, in some ways, similar to the thrill that skydivers feel when they jump from planes (or so I've been told). In any case many people who get involved with these games can sometimes spend incredible amounts of time in-game. In some cases it can result in neglecting real-life responsibilities as the player takes less interest in real life activities, family involvement, and world events. However not everyone falls into this, as a fair portion of people remain as casual players, only going on-line occasionally.
Another reason that some friendships within these games become so strong is due to the fact that organized groups of players often help each other out regularly. This can vary as to how it is done, but nearly all of these games have some mechanism to allow social groupings, which benefit the members in some way. For example in Anarchy Online (http://www.anarchy-online.com) players can form a "Team" which is a temporary group that works together to accomplish some task, mission, or quest. Some games also allow for longer term (often semi-permanent) relationships such as guilds or monarchies, where the players who are members will share some sort of advantage that is given to these groupings.
Despite several positive aspects of MMORPGs, there are some things that tend to make them very frustrating at times. One of these is what in the online game community is called "Lag". This primarily refers to latency within the communications stream between a player's computer and the game server. However most of the time the "Lag" is actually the result of slow communication on the client side (slow communications between the hard drive and the processor of the player's machine or other local hardware). This is especially apparent in the games that have the best graphics due to the heavy processing power and internal communications burden on most machines that result from these complex renderings. Many hardcore MMORPG players have started to upgrade their video card every six months, just so they can stay ahead of the increasing complexity needed to utilize the top of the line graphics engines employed by some of these games. However the problem isn't just that your display can't keep up with the changing environment, but that it tends to hit at the most inopportune times due to the increased graphics needed when a player encounters the nastiest of foes within these games. Those are often the scenes containing the most stunning graphics, but at the same time, this is when you need for your machine to be able to keep up so that you can deal with these nasty critters/beings or "Boss Mods" as they are sometimes called.
For example, this past weekend I was playing EVE, the Second Genesis, a Sci-fi MMORPG (http://www.eve-online.com/). In this game I am part of a "Company" (this game's version of a "guild" or "monarchy" as described above) and we have taken up residence in a very remote part of the EVE universe, where the mining is extremely profitable, except for the fact that some of the most powerful NPC pirates in the entire game also occupy this solar system. A couple of our members have figured out how to maximize our mining while avoiding most pirate incursions. I was about to try this technique, and warped to one of the asteroid belts in the outer regions of the solar system... however just prior to reaching the target asteroid belt, my screen locked up temporarily. Me being the patient type I simply waited and watched till my machine caught back up. But when it did I found myself no longer in my ship, but instead sitting in my escape pod with a message from another member of our company saying "Watch out" followed by "get the hell out of there". I responded with the common "Damned Lag". He then proceeded to tell me how I had been attacked by a group of roving pirates that destroyed my spacecraft within about 2 seconds, and worst of all, I didn't even get to see the light show.
Which brings me to my next point. With P&DRPG's most GM's allow ways for characters to either be resurrected or avoid death so as to keep the game going without losing a character that you have grown a personal attachment to. Likewise with the risk of character death being even higher due to computer moderation (and the fact that computers are not capable of "Fudging" numbers and results as quickly or believably as a good GM), all of them (that I have seen so far anyway) have a way for characters to reappear after "death" (one exception to this is the upcoming Star Wars Galaxies game, in which if you are one of the lucky few who is able to play a Jedi you will also need to start over when your character gets killed). The explanations behind this virtual immortality vary dramatically from one game to the next, but all of them have it to some degree, otherwise no one would ever progress very far within the game. However with the classic RPGs sometimes it serves the story to allow a primary character to die, and some GM's will utilize this as a plot tool, but in MMORPG's this is not an option, unless it is an NPC.
Which brings me nicely to my next point. NPCs within most MMORPGs tend to have very little depth or personality, whereas in a P&DRPG, the NPCs will have as much or as little personality, history or depth as the GM wants. This results in NPCs tending to play a more important role in the classic RPGs whereas in the online games they tend to simply be a decoration or an impersonal supplier of equipment or services. However some of the sci-fi MMORPGs have solved this problem by replacing such NPCs with automated machines that supply these services or goods. This at least helps to suspend a player's sense of disbelief, as you don't expect a machine to have any personality or charm (in most cases).
With the social nature of these games, one of the biggest things that the companies putting them out look at is how to handle Player versus Player combat (is it allowed, encouraged, avoided, not-allowed, limited to certain servers or areas, etc.). There are huge variations between them regarding this topic. This is something that a player needs to seriously look at. If you work for three hours to complete a quest of some type and another player comes along and kills your character (your character is not gone, but they will usually reappear or "re-spawn" somewhere depending on how character death is handled within the game), they may be able to take the items that you just worked so hard to get. However some of these games protect this from happening through the design of their system, and others do not allow player killing (referred to as "PK" or Pking") to occur at all.
As with the classic RPGs, those players who spend much time in these MMORPGs have also developed their own terminology that may look nearly foreign. However this language (of sorts) allows for quicker typing of ideas and communication within a chat type of interface. These vary from game to game, but the bulk of terms are used across many different MMORPGs.
One last item of note is the marketing and pricing of these online games, as that is a big factor to most people when it comes to purchasing MMORPGs. The vast majority of these games charge a monthly subscription rate to access their servers, which can vary from around $5.00(USD)/month to upwards of $15.00(USD)/month, in addition to a possible up front cost (for the higher end games). This may put off many potential players due to this reoccurring cost – it did discourage me at first. However after thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that this is not that expensive for entertainment. After all, an evening of P&DRPGing can cost that much in food and drinks for each session, meanwhile this allows you unlimited (in most cases, although there is at least one MMORPG that charges by the hour rather than a flat monthly fee) access to the server(s). Some months I will put in only about 10-15 hours playing these games, but that works out to about $1.00/hour, while there are months where I will spend upwards of 50 or more hours in-game, making the investment mere pocket change. Then there is Project Entropia (http://www.project-entropia.com/) which neither charges an up front cost to download the game, nor a monthly fee to play. This is great as it allows someone who is unsure about spending money on a game the opportunity to see what a MMORPG is all about (at least the basics anyway). However they are not donating their effort either, as unlike other MMORPGs where when you start a character you have at least a little basic starting equipment to get you going, on Calypso (the world of Project Entropia) you start only with an orange jumpsuit. This gives you a chance to get used to the user interface before worrying about not getting your moneys worth, and then when you are ready to purchase equipment you have two choices. You can either pester and beg others for handouts (and probably make them angry and thus not sit well with those who are already "living" within this beautiful virtual world. Or you can exchange real money for virtual money. This involves purchasing PED's (Project Entropia Dollars) using real US dollars on a 10PED for 1USD rate. However you also need to realize that a PED will go much further than a US dollar, as you can buy a fair amount of starting equipment with an initial investment of $10.00(US). Then if you are industrious you can earn the money that you need to survive in-game and may never have to invest any more real money into it (although I doubt that many people manage to do this with an initial investment of only $10(US). However the possibility does exist. Then when you get to the point where you can actually make PED currency through your adventures or through in-game crafting of items for sale (the games economy is almost entirely player-driven, something that only a handful of other MMORPG's have managed to pull of), you can actually exchange virtual money for real money (in other words it is possible to actually get paid for playing this game). However I would not recommend quitting your day job, as this appears to be very difficult to do. On the note of Player-Driven economies, the only other MMORPGs that I am familiar with that have implemented this even half-way decently are Asheron's Call 2 and EVE, the Second Genesis (which has done an excellent job with it). There are also two other games that I know of that will offer this when they are released, and those are Star Wars Galaxies (http://starwarsgalaxies.station.sony.com/) and Atriarch (http://www.atriarch.com/).
All in all, with current technology and graphics improvements, this segment of the gaming industry is here to stay and appears to be growing rapidly. Mythic Entertainment (producer of Dark Age of Camelot) recently received a substantial investment for expansion. Sony, the makers of Everquest, will soon be releasing the much-anticipated Star Wars Galaxies as well as another in a long line of expansions to the Everquest title. And Turbine Entertainment recently signed contracts with Vivendi Universal Games to develop "Middle-Earth Online" to launch in 2004, and another with Atari to develop "Dungeons and Dragons Online" slated for release in 2005. Meanwhile Funcom (producers of Anarchy Online) are currently working on their third expansion of the game, as well as starting conceptualization work on a fourth expansion. However I do not see these online games ever replacing the older paper and dice type role playing games, as the personal involvement and imagination of a good GM and players can not be matched by even a massive computer system. Hopefully we will see some new fans of the rapidly expanding MMORPG market bleed back into the classic RPG market as well.
The following is only a partial list of MMORPGs that are either currently on the market or that are expected out in the near future:
Ultima Online (fantasy)
Meridian 57 (fantasy)
Asheron's Call (fantasy)
Dark Age of Camelot (fantasy/alternate reality Europe)
Anarchy Online (sci-fi)
Earth and Beyond (sci-fi)
Asheron's Call 2 (fantasy)
A Tale in the Desert (Egyptian flavored fantasy non-combat)
The Sims Online (alternate reality)
Project Entropia (alternate reality/sci-fi)
EVE, the Second Genesis (sci-fi)
Star Wars Galaxies (sci-fi)
Priest (fantasy/alternative wild west)
City of Heroes (superhero)
Sanctuary Portals (fantasy/variable/customizable player added "pocket worlds")
Face of Mankind (sci-fi)
Pirates of the Burning Sea (Caribbean islands of the 18th century)
And too many others to list here. However the best resource that I have found for keeping up on what is going on in the MMORPG market is Multi-Player Online Gaming Directory (MPOGD) at: http://www.mpogd.com/games/massively.asp