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What the MMO Can Learn from the RPG & Vice Versa

Columns By Ryahl Smith on February 05, 2014

What the MMO Can Learn from the RPG & Vice Versa

A few weeks back I penned a column discussing 10-things I missed from older MMO’s.  A number of you participated in some very interesting discussion, for which I am greatly appreciative.  Instapunish, in the Reddit discussion of the article, observed that “I've been comparing Diablo 2 to MMORPGs for years and people usually make fun of it.”

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking over that comment.  In part because I have made similar observations before, but largely because his comment led me to think through just how much these two market segments had converged.


In this article I want to talk about the convergence of the MMORPG and the Action RPG (ARPG) genres.  My point here is not that they are fully converged, nor that they ever will fully converge.  There are fundamental differences between the MMO and the ARPG.

However, there are also a number of ways that the two genres have converged.  This is ultimately not a bad thing and I don’t intend to present it as a terrible occurrence. I will also point out that there are several things that the MMO could stand to learn from the ARPG and there are several things that the ARPG could learn from the MMO.  There’s no monopoly on good ideas in life and borrowing some of the better mechanics and systems from alternate genres can be useful.


Both genres emerged in the middle 1990’s.  Diablo, starting in late 1996, was the initial entry into the ARPG field.  It built off ideas found in games like Rogue and Nethack.  In Diablo the adventurer traversed an infinite variation on a handful of procedurally generated dungeon instances - all in the name of loot and exploration.  While multiplayer was present, play over the Internet via Battle.Net was accompanied by direct dial to a friend or LAN play.  Partially influenced by its single-player roots and partially by limits to technology, gameplay emphasized single player or very small group experience.

The modern MMO was born a short nine months later, with Ultima Online launching in September, 1997.  The MMO itself extends from a number of MUD’s, MUSHes, and multiplayer gaming experiences on paid online networks like America Online.  Here the gameplay emphasized the persistent nature of the world and the interactions between its players as they developed lives in that persistent world.

The genres have always shared common RPG game elements.  In each, the character advances through levels or skills.  Through advancement, the character increases their abilities, powers, and equipment.  Throughout its evolution the ARPG has provided a gear-centric game focused on small-group gameplay in procedural instances.  The MMO by comparison has generally emphasized interdependency between players (be it economic, PVE, or PVP) and particularly in its early years spent a great deal of time trying to figure out just what could be done with a massive amount of players.

The Convergence

In recent years, the MMO has gradually converged with the ARPG.  Interdependence between players and world activities requiring massive amounts of players have been replaced with instances, emphasis on solo content, and content more easily consumed in shorter stints.  The traditional subscription model of the MMO has shifted towards the Buy-to-Play model typical of the ARPG.  Similarly, the slower paced combat of earlier MMO’s has gradually drifted towards the spammy, movement heavy ARPG model.

While I am not deeply versed on ARPG’s, I have some experience with them.  I played a significant amount of Diablo back in the late 1990’s.  I similarly played through a large amount of Diablo 2 when it came out.  More recently I completed a full run through of Path of Exile and I can often be found bouncing around in both of Gazillion’s ARPG games, Marvel Heroes and Suphero Squad Online (a great game to play with your kids).

The typical endgame (maxed level character) gameplay in an ARPG generally involves going to a lobby or gaming hub, forming a group or setting up a solo instance.  Running that instance, gathering loads of loot, money, and game tokens, and bringing them back to the hub.  From there loot is used, sold, or traded with other players. 

The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants attack the Xavier Institute in Marvel Heroes

That paragraph also largely describes my end-game MMO experiences in Final Fantasy XIV, the Secret World, Star Wars: the Old Republic, DC Universe Online, and much of my end-game experiences in RIFT.  It’s also a reasonable depiction of my endgame experiences in Everquest II circa the Shadow Odyssey expansion.  My understanding is that this description is also a reasonably good depiction of end-game for World of Warcraft

While each of these games open with vibrant, persistent worlds, their end-games largely devolve into hitting a group-finder and running instances.  The persistent world, while still out there, rarely contains content for the end-game player. 

Indeed, the real differences between the genres, in my recent experience is that the MMO locks me out of their best zones each week.  The MMO caps the amount of game tokens I can earn in a week.  Each of these tend towards game play which boils down to “burn lockouts on Monday and Tuesday, log off until next Monday.”  Eventually that becomes, “log off on Tuesday, find a different game, don’t come back.”  Matt Miller’s recent column asked about exit points in MMO’s, the lockout and token system has been the gateway to my exit point in every MMO I have played in the last six years.

Just another Manic Monday in Midtown Manhattan

While some, myself included, have lamented many of these shifts, there is no arguing that the popularity of the genre has largely peaked over these changes.  The convergence of ARPG elements in the MMO have been good for business.  However, given the trajectory of MMO’s away from living worlds and towards theme parks, I would argue that the modern MMO would actually be a pretty poor ARPG.  There are a lot of things ARPG’s do very well, for which the MMO counter feature is lacking.

What the MMO can learn from the ARPG

If the end-game of the modern MMO is going to include instance running for gear and tokens (used to buy gear), an examination of more recent ARPG’s is very informative.  The entire game of the ARPG is running instances for gear and there are a lot of great ideas at play there.  Some of these ideas map over to the MMO reasonably well and would improve game experiences.

Observation #1: Procedural Instances may be a good idea

The first time through an epic instance in an MMO is always an amazing experience.  The tenth time, not so amazing.  The fiftieth time, not remotely amazing.  Indeed, by endgame, the defining characteristic of an MMO instance often becomes “how fast can we run it? 15-minutes?  Can we possibly squeeze that down to 12-minutes?  That way I cap 14 minutes faster and can alt-tab over and watch Netflix while waiting for the next queue.”


The ARPG, by contrast, uses primarily procedurally generated instances.  Each run of a dungeon is a bit different.  The bosses may be the same, but the locations change.  Further, chests and bonuses land in different areas making exploration a bit more interesting and at the very least making each run slightly different than the last.

ARPG’s demonstrate that a few set-piece tiles for bosses, intertwined with randomized tiles for the dungeon produce more varied treks.  In fact, this seems to be the design idea of EQ-Next with their procedurally generated undergrounds which will reset and shuffle after periodic earthquakes.

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