MMO Win, RPG Fail

MMORPGs are pretty spectacular things. When you consider the amount of effort, scope, money and time that goes into one, they are truly the giants of the gaming industry. However, as much as I love them, I don’t think they are necessarily true to their RPG heritage and perhaps calling them such is an injustice to such traditional single player games. You see, MMORPGs do the ‘massively multiplayer online’ part very well but often implement the ‘roleplaying game’ half very poorly.


Ever since I first played Everquest, I was stunned and amazed by it’s vastness and immersion. For the first time I was actually able to exist as an online persona and interact with thousands of other players in a vibrant world.

By their defining nature MMOs do, well, the massive online part very well. It’s their main characteristic and even from games with separated servers to ones like EVE in which everyone exists in a single galaxy, the breadth and scale of the genre is breathtaking. The interactivity and socialising in these microworlds is second to none and the main attraction, for me at least, to these games.

However, as they succeed in being ‘MMO’, they fail in being real RPGs.

RPG Fail

Most MMORPGs should really be renamed something like MMO-acquire-points-level-up-press-button-action-games. Even by the loosest definition of roleplaying, MMORPGs fail completely. Roleplaying games are about becoming a role, immersing yourself in the character, and customising yourself to be individual. When was the last time you were even allowed to assign you own statistic points in a MMORPG? Most now offer only the simple choice of picking a race and class and then deciding which of three specialisation paths you will follow. Hardly unique customisation in my book.

And then we have the questing and interactivity. RPGs are meant to be about undertaking epic quests and shaping the world you reside in, not just about skipping through some text dialogue and then killing X mobs in order to affect absolutely nothing in your surroundings. If I play a RPG, I want to be a holy guy or a malevolent guy or a charming guy or whatever-I-feel-like-guy. I don’t want to follow a pre-deteremined path through a series of events that I have absolutely no control over.


Although we can act anyway we want in a MMORPG and pretend to partake a certain role, I’d find it much more satisfying if my conversation was actually embodied in my character. Let my Warrior have high charisma and speech abilities so he can talk his way through a quest rather than fight it or let my Rogue actually be evil and murderous, using underhand tactics to receive his reward.

I don’t mean to be overly critical of the MMORPG genre but after playing intoxicating single player RPGs like Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Oblivion and Fallout 3 it’s refreshing to exist in a world that has so much choice and consequence.

There is a glimmer of hope though as even games like World of Warcraft invest in new technology like phasing to try to create alterable situations and replacing the predictable “everything will reset in T-minus 6 minutes” environments. I also have hope when I read about forthcoming games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and the developers renewed efforts and focus on story and character.

These games have conquered the MMO aspect, now it’s time to return to their roots and resurrect their RPG half.

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  4. Do We Expect Too Much From MMORPGs Now?
  5. Joining The Horde


  1. Marchosias says:

    Interesting observations, with which I tend to agree. I think the closest MMO-RPG’s that I’ve run into are EVE and AO. EVE pretty much lets you skill up whatever you want to dedicate your time to. AO had a totally open skill tree, where you could dedicate points to any trait you wanted to, but if you were skilling outside your initially picked class, the traits cost more.

    Plus AO paid far more attention to said traits than to “levels.” In a way, it was similar to Diablo, where if you were a min/max player, you often had to put your armor on in a particular in order to be able to wear it because one piece boosted a particular trait in order to wear another piece, which boosted yet another trait in order to use something else. AND you might even have to cast a spell or two to boost some traits in order to get your armor on, or use even higher level spells.

    It was deliciously complicated – and I mean that in a good way. It wasn’t so complicated that one couldn’t figure it out, but it was complicated enough to really make you think about how you selected everything from traits, to implants, to skills, in order to make a synergistic whole.

    This kind of mechanic just isn’t done anymore in the name of accessibility – which is too bad, really. I understand the desire to make a game accessible, but does that preclude any and all complexity?

    • Gordon says:

      EVE stands apart from most MMORPGs in that it’s a sandbox games and gives players the tools to create their own experiences. You can truly create the character that you desire to be and roleplay them the way you want. It’s pretty great for that.

      Games like WoW on the other hand are very limited in terms of their roleplay ability. Pick your sex, race, one of six faces, and a class and that’s you, following the trail until the end. You have very little choice and don’t really get to play any sort of role at all. It’s fun, absolutely, but it’s not roleplaying.

      • Dblade says:

        But not many people roleplay in EVE either. If anything, its more min/max than other games out there. I see more roleplaying in CO than in EVE.

        If anything, the game itself tells you zip about any lore when playing it. There is no story at all to EVE, nothing overarching. It’s one of the least story-driven games period, all those news items are just whatever non-rpers do.

        • Gordon says:

          I can’t decide if the min/maxing thing is just human nature or that people do it because they are so competitive. Do people min/max as much in single player games or do they enjoy it more and not care because there is no one else around to see them, judge them or compete against them?

          I know EVE isn’t perfect but it at least offers tools to roleplay that other games don’t.

  2. Longasc says:

    I wonder if “story” is the answer. I am quite sceptical, but Bioware made a lot of the RPGs you mentioned. I am not sure if WoW is going to be the glimmer of hope in this regard, they were at the forefront of casualization, streamlining and dumbing down things by far too much. You are right though, the DK starting experience and WOTLK showed that they also want some more RPG and story back in their world.

    • Gordon says:

      I skeptical too and I don’t want to see “story” just being another buzzword like “3rd generation” etc. However, Bioware have a repuation for creating excellent RPGs so I’m hoping they are bringing some of that experience to SW:TOR.

    • Tesh says:

      I think story is the key, but I think, like Wolfshead, that it’s the *player’s story* that will be key, not the game’s narrative. Players who have power to tell their own story via a changing world (not “I downed Sarth 3D like thousands of other players”) will really be pushing the RPG in MMOs.

      • Gordon says:

        I agree. Every player wants a story that they themselves can experience, not just a overarching narrative that means nothing to them on a daily basis. In games like Dragon Age, I am the story. In WoW, I don’t have any idea how I’m contributing to it.

  3. This is why I call them MMOGames now.

  4. openedge1 says:

    You know…i love the endless playability of the MMO genre…but, it does always leave me high and dry in caring what happens in the world or even myself.
    Age of Conan ALMOST had it, with the cutscene, choose your answer style dialogs…but, then they made the answer only one way (I had no choice to be bad or good).
    Since I went back to RPG’s, I see myself missing that part of the genre in the MMO.
    I still will play AoC as it is the closest I have gotten to an action game where I control some major aspects of my character and have a story to boot.

    As to the MMO, I will go back, as I always do, as the entertainment value for the money seems to always win me over.

    Of course, The Secret World could be the ticket, with no specific classes and allowing you to choose your own path and powers…(yet, it IS Funcom, which equals a screwed gameplay system and launch…ARGH)

    Interesting thoughts and one I share. The secret to changing the MMO genre lies in story and getting rid of the level or die syndrome.

    Lets hope for the best down the road.

    • Gordon says:

      AoC did have a lot of immersion, I’ll give it that, especially in Tortage. When you first started that game you really felt like you were existing in a living and breathing recreation of REH’s world. It was amazing. The story line was pretty decent too and I liked the different elements for the different classes.

  5. Borror0 says:

    I’m not sure it’s a win on the MMO side, either. It’s clear that the last two letters are indeed there, but I’m not sure I would concede the ‘massive’ part to most so called MMOs.

  6. [...] something a bit different By suzita Leave a Comment Categories: eq2, everquest 2 and everquest II Tags: fave zones I’ve been pretty slack posting over the last few months,  its mostly because I’ve been busy in RL and playing EQ2 rather than writing about it  Anyway… onto my new idea (which I’m know isn’t actually new… just new to this blog )  In one of my previous posts I was saying what a nice change it had been playing Dragon Age and being fully immersed in a world and Gordon, over at We Fly Spitfires also wrote a post a while back wondering what had happened to the role play in MMORPGs. [...]

  7. Homer says:

    Having been an RPG fan in early years, I do like what the computer revolution can and has brought to making the otherwise more tedious tasks transparent or even interesting. Remember trying to draw on a character sheet when you had a great idea but no artistic skill whatsoever?
    I think a good answer to this is GM-moderated group content.
    GM’s would be made up of other players that want to be GMs, have shown good behavior, perhaps crowd-source voted by others, characters at a certain level, etc.
    Then a GM could look through character write-ups, behaviors, chat comments and, using existing content (perhaps ’special’ limited content for GM-managed games) and begin to invite individuals into some themed events. They moderate the chat and if people play/chat in-character, drive some mission choices to create a semi-custom set of events for the group. This could be done periodically, as an award for teams, etc. I think it would really revolutionize the MMO world. Finally, the GM could do some one-paragraph write-up and work with other GMs to link teams, stories, show newspaper headlines with their victories – keep the players feeling like they are actually changing the world.

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