Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs

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Updated August 2012

Typical Online RPG screenshot.

Throughout the world, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are getting more and more popular and there are new games of this genre every year. But what are they? What do people do every evening, pressing buttons at their PC? Do you miss out on anything if you don't play them? Is it really all fighting? How does it work?

Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs are played online - as the name already tells. The player connects through the internet with a game server that is run by the game publishing company. As many thousand people can connect to the same server at the same time and in this way meet each other in the game, it is described as 'massively multiplayer'. Other games that can be played online only allow a handful of people to play together at the same time.

The term RPG (Role-Playing Game) separates this genre from others like strategy games, racing games, shooters or puzzles. In an RPG, the player takes control of a character in the game. To a certain degree, the player becomes this character from this time on and feels for them as they would for a favourite character in a book, but with the ability to control the actions of the character. The 'real' role-playing in MMORPGs happens when players for instance dress their in-game characters in evening-wear and go to an in-game party or if people in fantasy games suddenly start to talk in a pseudo-medieval way. The frequency of actual role-playing is dependent on the player: nobody does it all the time, but equally, everybody does role-playing at least some of the time.

Often players do not read the texts in the game and therefore think that there is not a lot of story, while in fact games often do try to tell the player something. MMOs often possess a rich geography and history, with many historical figures, all of which are fictional, though some real-world correlations may be made occasionally.


Most MMOs require a monthly fee to play; the prices vary but are usually between €10 and €15 per month with discounts if more time is bought. There are also 'free' MMORPGs that often make money by selling (sometimes essential) in-game items in online shops and therefore are not always really for free. Some games do not cost any monthly fees but the game as such is bought like an offline computer game. Usually trial versions that give access to the game for a limited time or only to a certain area of the game are available.

A Short History of MMORPGs

The first text-based and simple graphic multiplayer games for a network of computers were written in the 1970s. Usually they were MUDs - Multi-User Dungeons - which players could explore alone or in teams, fighting monsters and finding various items. In the common text-based versions, the rooms of the dungeons had a description which players read; they then typed commands to interact. They could also talk to other players in chat. Although it was itself neither multi-player nor role-playing, the adventure game Zork, with its great underground empire, had an enormous influence on the games of this time.

The first commercial multiplayer games were available online in the early 1980s. They were expensive to play because of internet fees, but important features like classes and quests were already installed. Many of the games of this time were Roguelike games.

In the early 1990s, the first graphical MMORPGs were released (the very first being Neverwinter Nights in 1991) along with some more text-based games.

The first 3d first-person MMORPG was Meridian59 in 1996, followed by the first 3d third-person MMORPG Ultima Online in 1997 - a very influential game and a milestone in the history of MMORPGs. It was the first MMO that attracted a large audience and had to solve many of the problems that still exist in today's games, like for instance providing a working in-game economy. EverQuest was another important game of that time. Today, EverQuest is still online with an amazing 375 zones and 16 races and 16 classes to choose from.

In the new millennium, Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online - one of the rather rare sci-fi games - followed as the most important MMORPGs of their time.

Since then, MMORPGs have become more and more popular and today every second game seems to be online. Most of them require monthly fees to be paid by the players to get access to the servers the games run on. The most successful game of this genre to date is World of Warcraft, a fantasy MMORPG which first appeared in 2004. Today 'WoW' has over 10 million subscribers.

Generally there is a trend in the development of MMORPGs from long and complex games to faster rewards for the players. Everything is broken up into smaller bits. The same goes for travelling. In earlier games, a player could spend many hours just getting from one place in the game world to another, like for instance several hours of riding in Dark Age of Camelot. Today travelling is generally faster. Old games often have lots and lots of different classes and races, while newer ones are less complex with just a few to choose from. Gameplay has become easier over time to make the games more accessible, which is good for casual players but makes them less interesting and challenging for experts. Today, games are often designed to provide a quick win for all players, to keep them happy and continuing to play.

Game Worlds

There two types of area in today's typical MMO. The first is available to all players, and players constantly meet each other everywhere. The other, known as an 'instance', is generated only for a certain number of players. In the first case everyone experiences the same world and can meet everyone else at any time, everyone sees the same enemies - or not, if they have been killed by others. 'Instances' on the other hand enable a group of players to have an area of the game completely to themselves. All monsters are there and no 'outsiders' can interrupt. Another advantage of instances is that the game can restrict the number of players entering an instance, so players can never outnumber the enemies, keeping the game challenging.

Due to their size and the limitations of technology, the worlds are usually divided into different zones or playfields, which are large areas of landscapes. These are often separated by landscape features such as cliffs or water that cannot be passed; sometimes there are just invisible walls. There are ways to get from one zone to the other; often the whole connecting border of two zones can be passed through. While going from one zone to another, players usually experience a short loading time in which their character is transferred to the new zone.

To give the players something to do, the world is filled with monsters to kill and treasures to find. NPCs1 provide quests2, sell items, provide other services, tell stories or are just there to make the whole place seem lived in. Sometimes there are even ponds for fishing or ore to mine and a lot of other things.

Towns and outposts are also special places where usually no enemies can be found but instead there are shops to buy equipment, skill teachers, storage spaces for things the players don't want to carry around all the time (portable storage like backpacks have more limited space) and other kinds of infrastructure. Here players come together to chat, find teams for new adventures, buy and sell items (for in-game currency) and search for someone who can build a special set of armour out of the ore and jewels they just found. They are usually also a great place to socialise and chat with others. Some people are known to spend most of their game-time sitting in a city and talking.

Classes and Roles

At the beginning of a game, the player usually chooses the class (or profession) of the character they want to play. The names and appearances vary from game to game and are of course also dependent on the genre. In fantasy games, it is common to have warriors, rangers, priests and mages for instance (but not exclusively). The names of these classes already imply how they differ: while a warrior would probably fight with a sword or axe and be right at the enemy, a mage would attack with powerful spells, often from a distance. The ranger could be a marksman while priests usually specialise in healing their friends from the wounds the enemies have inflicted.

In addition to the class, it is also often possible to choose the race of a character - for instance human or elf. This determines physical and intellectual aspects. In many games, race and class cannot be combined freely.

In order to play together, people take on different roles. These may be permanent and chosen during character creation or only temporary, depending on the game and the character class. There are three main roles which define how a character reacts during combat and what way they fight.

  • The tank is usually standing in the front line, right at the enemy. His job is to keep the attention of the enemy so they do not attack any other player.

  • The healer is responsible for keeping the tank alive by using skills that refill the tank's hitpoints3. They also have to heal all other players that are accidentally hit by the enemy.

  • The damage dealer meanwhile hits the enemy as hard as they can, but ideally not hard enough to draw the enemy's attention away from the tank and onto themselves. Damage is anything that takes hitpoints away.

Attributes and Skills

There are various names for the following but in this Entry they are called Attributes and Skills. Even if different terminology is used in a game, you will recognise what is meant.

Depending on your chosen class and (if available) the race of your character, you will usually start out with a certain set of attributes that define physical and other statistics - for instance strength, stamina, agility and intelligence. These will increase in the course of the game, making your character stronger, faster and generally better within the boundaries of class and race. To stay with the example of fantasy games, a dwarf could have lots of stamina while an elf could be very agile or intelligent.

Skills on the other hand define most of what a character is able to do actively. This includes for instance: skills to deal damage, skills to improve your own and other's defence, skills to heal and skills to hinder enemies. Your character may or may not have skills from the start of the game; often characters start out with one or two skills and get a lot more later, while making progress in the game. This way, fighting gradually gets more complex.

Often skills are affected by one or more attributes or cannot be used at all if the attributes are too low. Most of the time, the players can choose which of a character's attributes they want to improve with attribute points that are usually gained when the character reaches a new level. A warrior, for example, may have the attribute 'strength' which influences a special attack skill, meaning the more strength he has, the more powerful the attack is.

Using a skill often requires a resource known as energy or 'mana'. Just like hitpoints, the available energy of a character is shown in a bar on the UI4. The amount depends on the class and race of a character and how much is spent on a skill depends on how powerful this skill is. The energy bar slowly fills up by itself or can be refilled, for instance, by using certain items. This system prevents a player from using too many powerful skills at a time and makes it necessary to think of energy management, because without energy no skills can be used. Additionally, skills like magic spells have a certain 'casting time', meaning the time between the player pushing the button and the character actually using the spell. These depend on the skill and can range from a second to over one minute during which the character can do nothing else - for instance not fight. This again requires the player to think ahead.


Equipment includes all the 'stuff' which you can carry around, such as weapons, shields, armour, headgear, and so on. These too have 'stats', which improve the attributes of the character who is equipped with them. In most games, characters start out with some basic equipment but better things have to be acquired during the game by looting from dead enemies or getting items as reward for doing various things.

In most games you can recognise types of players by looking at their equipment. If they wear the shiniest armour and carry the biggest axes but you know these things in fact have poor stats, the players may not be as good as they seem. On the other hand, many people may work very hard just to get something that looks good. Others go rather for practical, and consider effort against use. And then there are those who either don't bother or still lack experience and take whatever they can find.

Levels and Experience

For every enemy killed and every quest solved, the player gets experience which will be shown in a bar somewhere on the screen. When the bar is full, the character gains a level. This happens until the maximum level of the game is reached. It is usual that the more levels a character has the more experience is needed to fill the bar. But on the other hand higher level characters can kill bigger monsters that give more experience when they die.

Once the maximum level is reached, players try to get the best equipment that is possible - which can take a while. They usually play in teams or larger groups to achieve difficult goals together or compete in PvP (see below). They also often search for equipment for their lesser characters - because hardly any player has only one of them.

Player versus Player

Apart from killing monsters, players also kill each other to see who is the strongest, the fastest or has the best equipment. Being good in 'PvP' brings loads of kudos and admirers and makes you well known in the game.

Some games or some game servers even allow players to attack and kill each other no matter where they are or if they want to have a fight at any time. Others restrict this to certain areas like 'arenas'. Player versus player combat can take place with one player against one other player, in groups, or even by having big battles of hundreds of players.

PvP can be just trying to kill each other, but often there are different scenarios involved in which players have to accomplish other additional goals. Different areas or objects have to be taken and defended, for instance.

The Social Side of Gaming

As we are talking about MMOs, there of course is also a social side of gaming. The games are usually set up in a way that lets people easily play together in teams and form groups that frequently do things together - usually called guilds. They share means of communicating with each other and share various benefits. MMORPGs encourage people to play together in this way and become friends, because players who form a social network in a game are more likely to stay attached. In an ideal guild, people help each other by sharing knowledge and by doing things together. It is common that big raids in which the whole guild participates are organised by the players on a regular basis. This keeps everyone in touch and reinforces the feeling of belonging together.

On a bigger scale, the players not only identify with their guild but also with their faction - if such a thing exists in the game. The faction is usually chosen at the beginning of the game and defines which side of a conflict in the game world a character stays on. Once chosen, many games do not allow characters with different factions on one account on the same server, so you pick the faction once and then have to stick with it. Often it is something easy like playing either on the good or the evil side, but it can also be more subtle. All players of one faction will usually feel that they stand on the right side of the fight and the players of the other faction are wrong, stupid or just not worthy. Often players of opposing factions will not talk to each other and refuse to help each other because it would be helping the enemy.

Online games attract many different types of people. There are some who are known to everybody within a faction - sometimes even everyone of the opposing faction knows them. These are generally the best players but also those people who spend their time building equipment for others (often for in-game money) and who offer other services. There are those who spend all day talking in the public chat of major cities, keeping you wondering if they ever actually play at all and there are those you find in the strangest places, far from everyone else, exploring or doing whatever they may do. There are those who spend all day going to the same monster again and again to kill it and finally loot this special part that will finally make them 'uber', or fight round after round in PvP to improve their statistics. And there are the ninjalooters and killstealers - people who grab loot off monsters that other people have killed or who quickly kill them before the others get a chance.

Contrary to what many people think, most players of online games are ordinary people with a job, family and social life outside of the game. They can be teenagers or retired persons, managers, mothers or unemployed. While there are of course those who give up their real life for a game and spend all days of the week at the computer, this is not the majority.

In the Beginning

So, there you are now. You've chosen your class, gender and race; fiddled with the character's appearance for an hour (or pressed the 'random' button several times) and found a name that was not taken yet. You've watched the introductory video and now you are standing there: a level 0 character with bare hands and your older brother's clothes. What now?

Go to the guy with the question mark over his head, he will show you the way...

1Non Player Characters, being every character that is not operated by a real person but by the computer.2Quests are tasks that players have to do to get a reward of experience, in-game currency or items.3Hitpoints/HP: also simply called 'health'; every being in the game has a certain amount of it and every hit with a weapon or attack skill takes a certain amount of it away; when all HP are spent the player or creature dies.4User Interface - usually includes bars for hitpoints, energy and experience, buttons to activate skills, a compass, a map and chat channels for communication with other players.

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