Where Did the ‘RPG’ in MMORPG Go?

July 31, 2013 in Features by Christopher Hendricks

I by no means claim to be an expert on the MMORPG genre, and for simplicity’s sake I will refer to it as just MMO for the rest of the article. But don’t be fooled, I know that there is a massive difference. Hell, by definition Farmville is an MMO. No, the question(s) I am asking refer to the fantasy and sci-fi worlds that have claimed hundreds if not thousands of hours of gamers lives. The Azeroths, Tyrias, and EVE Universes just to name a few. The roleplaying aspect of these games and many like them were the original enticing factor to the genre. Yet over recent years it has come clear to all of us that the ‘RPG’ in MMORPG is slowly disappearing. What does this mean for the genre as a whole and is it something that its’ fans should be worried about?

 The Beginning

Firstly, we need to see where we came from to understand where we are now. Like I said before, I am not an expert on the history of the genre so I am simply going to use my own personal knowledge. Ultima Online is the first game I saw that had a massive amount of concurrent users in the game at the same time. I had some (little) experience with the Ultima series, with most of them coming out years before my introduction to gaming. Yet, what I saw was something I would never forget and still link to my initial interest in the genre.

To put things in even more perspective, the game came out in September of 1997. I was nine and up to that point my gaming brain had only been privy to the likes of NES for the most part. When I first saw the game I really didn’t understand what was going on. So many sprites on the screen at one time! And when I found out that all of those images were actually different people, needless to say my mind was sufficiently blown.

(Really, what is this madness?)

Not that the game needed it, but with its’ somewhat recent transition to the Origin platform it has seen a resurgence in numbers and still has a very diehard community. When people talk about the games’ positive aspects, the truly full customization of the characters usually is the first thing they say. The “open” world and choices you are able to make to mold your player character give you almost complete freedom to have the gaming experience that you want to have (provided that the other players don’t kill you first). When it comes to a solid definition of MMORPG, there are few games that fit the bill better than Ultima Online.

Now, move forward a couple of years and Everquest hits the scene. Anyone who played (or still plays) the game know that the oft joked moniker of EverCrack wasn’t given facetiously. This game truly changed the genre forever. Not necessarily because of any singular mechanic of the game, but more so because of the visual overhaul the game provided over other games of the time. Coming out in November of 1999, just a two year difference allowed for a complete 3D environment the drove players in nonstop for years. Then, getting into the game players were given the choice between 14 (eventually 16) classes and the introduction of hybrid classes. A robust player market/economy and unique player companion feature were just a few more things that still keep people coming back for more, 14 years later.

EverCrack, (sorry bad habit) took what Ultima Online had laid as solid foundation and truly took it to new and unheard of heights. According to Sony Online Entertainment, peak subscribers to the game topped out around 700,000 in late 1999, a figure astronomical for its’ time. Also, the dungeons in the games were taken mostly from old text based dungeons popular in Dungeons and Dragons and similar games. The roleplaying aspect of the game was never in question, with many people not just playing, but becoming their online persona. I still have binders of dungeon and raid information, maps and character interactions that I should get rid of, but for posterity’s sake I just can’t seem to do so.

(Yes kids, these are awesome graphics for 1999)


If you want to see what all of the original fuss was about you can still play the game today and the 19th (19th!!!) expansion came out less than a year ago. A caution to those who have not played it before however, going from a polished (or at any rate, new) game to this will prove annoying at times, and difficult at others. But then again, figuring out the subtle nuances of this game and its’ engine was some of the allure anyhow.

Star Wars Galaxies. Need I say more? If so, I’ll start with how Sony Online Entertainment took the success of Everquest and partnered with Lucasarts to create the first MMO based in the Star Wars Universe. By no means the first game that offered the ability to buy it before it came out, but 400,000 people had already bought access to the game three years before it came out. To be fair, they thought the game was coming out in late 2001, but various issues pushed the release date back to June 2003. That’s the other amazing thing, SWG came out 10 years ago. I won’t go into the backlash caused by the NGE debacle, but instead focus on the main things that SWG brought to the MMO genre. Sandbox. This game didn’t guide you from the beginning. You chose your race and your class and then made your own history. You were free to do anything you wanted and many of the professions were geared towards that. You could make furniture to sell to other players they could use to furnish their player houses (still one of the best player housing systems ever, LOTRO is up there as well) or you could be a dancer and give people buffs for tips.

How much more do you have to do to entice your playerbase to roleplay? SOE provided the world and the players filled it with their own heroes each with their own story. That is usually what most people want when they play an MMO. Not necessarily a sandbox experience, but at least the ability to have as much control over their characters’ story as possible. Although the games’ servers were shut down in late 2011, there have been various emulators and private servers in development since then.


(I’d start running, but that’s just me.)

 Where we are now

Now I know I have skipped many, many worthy games, but my point in this article was to explore how the RPG aspects of MMORPGs are slowly disappearing. So before you lash out and say “how could you keep ‘X’ off of the list?” please realize that this isn’t a ‘best of’ article. The three games I did talk about, I did so for a reason. Ultima Online was the first game that I experienced that provided players the ability to play in an ongoing world with thousands of players simultaneously. Yes, there were the Diablos and Baldur’s Gates but those were still instanced to only a handful of players at a time. Also, it allowed players full customization over their characters, a staple of true RPGs. And when I say full customization, I mean over everything, not just how they looked but their abilities and basic skill scores as well.

Everquest took this experience and thrust it into the 3D world. And with a massive (for the time) budget behind it and a progressive community, the amount of content and new mechanics left players speechless. Huge server-wide events and raids and an insane amount of classes gave people the differences in play styles they wanted and made each person feel unique and important.

Star Wars Galaxies took the best of Ultima Online and Everquest, put it into the Star Wars universe, and made the game worlds a true sandbox. It seemed like while playing SWG, that the only thing that would keep you from accomplishing something you wanted was the game engine itself, nothing else.

These games (and yes, others) paved the way for our current generation of MMOs. World of Warcraft, SWToR, Guild Wars, EvE Online, Tera, Rift, The Secret World, Maplestory, etc. Pick a type of MMO and it can trace some part of its’ gameplay and mechanics back to the three games I mentioned. Yet, even with these games popularity, there has been a noticeable decrease in the amount of roleplaying aspects in games that have come out in the past couple of years. I don’t mean RPing and playing as your character, though that is important too, I mean being able to customize your character and have near complete control over the story you experience. The community of gamers I listen to is always clamoring over more control of their games yet the developers of the genre that championed these aspects is seemingly avoiding them altogether.

World of Warcraft is almost 9 years old and no one can deny the success it has had. Yes, I played the beta and picked up the game during Vanilla and invested years of my life to the game, but that doesn’t mean I am biased. Yet, The Burning Crusade was one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had. The facts are there, it had 12 million peak subscribers and even after years of people claiming it was dying when those numbers dropped to around 5 million, the most recent expansion saw an increase in subscribers back to around 9 million people. But that isn’t the point I am trying to make. The game during Vanilla was bugged to hell and many features that people always point at other games cloning weren’t even in the game for over a year after the game launched. But even then, as geeked out as I was about being able to play in Azeroth in an MMO, I was disheartened by the amount of choice I had as a player. This got even worse as the years progressed, to the point that if you wanted to play in end game or do PvP, there were some classes that were simply not a viable option. This effectively eliminated those players until patches or expansions came out to address the balance issues, many of which the developers had caused in the first place.

The races weren’t an issue, they were set in place by the lore available to us at the time. The classes were lore based too but compared to the games I mentioned earlier, they were lacking in number. Then there was the repetitive gameplay and “on rails” play style. I had to do what the game wanted me to in order to advance in the game. Detractors to my argument point out that if I didn’t like that type of game that I shouldn’t play it, but I was still playing SWG at the same time so I got my sandbox fix there. I think the polish that WoW garnered over the years may have been enough to trick people that the game was getting better, even though even more of our RPG options were being taken away from us. The industry as a whole is making the MMORPG genre geared more and more towards younger players.

From a business standpoint this makes sense. They are the largest player group and will be the ones playing the games of the future for the longest. But at what point do we as the older guard stand up and say enough is enough? I have played all of the games I have mentioned in this article and more that I haven’t mentioned. Most all of them have taken away the ability to actually play a RPG during my MMO experience. Do I want developers to take the best aspects of my favorite games and meld them into one? Of course. Am I surprised or upset that this hasn’t happened? No, I am not that naive. Does the definition of RPG or MMORPG need to be changed? Perhaps. Yet, I would like developers of games that were not originally designed with the casual gamer in mind, to stop changing their games to cater them as much as they do. It has made the entire genre churn out unfinished games that have some sort of gimmick that tries to keep the players happy. After about a month goes by these new tricks prove to be just smoke and mirrors for hiding the rest of the games faults. Age of Conan is still doing well since going F2P, and still has some of the best (if not the best) initial gameplay ever. But it still doesn’t change the fact that after level 20-22, there was nothing to do in the game. So many games that have come out in the past couple years have had that problem. There is always something glaringly unfinished about them, and the only ones that last are either completely F2P (which allows for the most young “casual” players to participate) or the ones that are easier to learn and subsequently master.

WoW’s grip on the genre will always be an issue. It has been so successful that everything since has been viewed as either a clone or a potential “WoWkiller”. What that actually means is always up for debate, but it doesn’t change the fact that the genre as a whole has been saturated for a few years now. And it has gotten to the point that people who are playing the older games aren’t willing to give up the years of investment and money to try all of the new games that come out. Many in the community agree that the only thing that might give the entire genre a jolt are game mechanics and engines simply not available to us with the technology of today. Will the next-gen consoles allow us to do more? PCs will always be more powerful, but no developer would risk creating a new MMO that requires such an expensive gaming PC, essentially alienating what those very developers have decided are their “core” group of players. (Another reason for WoW’s success, it can be played on almost any machine available today).

Some games that are out today still have a ton of RPG aspects but then lack in the MMO area. Technically EVE Online is a MMORPG, but it has such fewer numbers than the other MMOs that until you get really deep into the game you will seem like you are alone. Now, all sandbox games will flaunt a plethora of RPG aspects, but most prove to turn into a less than optimal playing experience. Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 were/are more instanced experiences than MMOs and the RPG aspects are rather non-existent. Most people (read the “core” casual players) think that being able to create a character in a fantasy world, decide what they look like and what kind of “job” they have is playing an RPG. Then, being able to choose from a few different spells or abilities and picking your own skill points must mean it is an RPG. True, those are all RPG traits, but then log into the game and be told at every turn what you have to do and how you have to do it and it quickly becomes clear that the role you are playing isn’t yours, but one that the developers have chosen for you.

 The Future

 No one can really predict the future, and most people look at the MMO genre as still having the stigma that Everquest gave it back in the last 1990s. It is a type of game only played by adolescents or middle aged men who live in their basements and have no real world friends.  Even though this is still true, that can be said about all gamers to some extent, but I think they are the minority anymore. But for that to mean that when the community at large, and expanded to non-gamers, think of WoW as being the only “good” MMO, things get frustrating and confusing. Those people said that the next “good” MMO was going to be Blizzard’s Project Titan. Now that that has been scrapped back to square one, what do we have to look forward to? And is it up to Blizzard to change the genre again? Does it even need changing or saving? The amount of players of these games would say that the genre is fine, but that is from the outside. From the inside, the number of disenfranchised gamers off MMOs increases as more and more games come out that treat us as simple-minded players, incapable of handling harder mechanics or assuming that we don’t care about having to make more choices about how our stories play out.

This is the point that gets to me the most. All of the games I mentioned in the beginning of the article were played by older, more mature gamers who were willing to help one another succeed and create their own lore and weren’t afraid to question things that the developers were doing. And WoW’s insane rise to success was only made possible by the initial core of hundred thousand players that tested it, and persevered through the first year of issues. Why then, once any of these games reaches that next tier of success do developers always rush to dumb down their games? And why are the games coming out so limited in what we as players are allowed to do? Where has our RPG in our MMORPGs gone? I want it back, and soon.