As someone whose job it is to follow both the development and player sides of the MMORPG industry, I get paid to think about a lot of strange things, some of which might seem irrelevant or not worth too much thought. This topic, I’ll admit, may be one of those but while (finally) playing Dragon Age: Origins, I had a thought. What you expect an MMORPG to be probably has a whole heck of a lot to do with how you interpret the last three letters of the acronym. While the fact that it stands for Role Playing Game isn’t in question, the exact meaning of that term obviously is.
First, there’s the loosest possible definition, stating that any game wherein you take control of a character and adventure for the purpose of gathering loot and/or experience points actually constitutes a form of RPG. This is often how games that don’t seem to outwardly meet the RPG criteria often squeak into an MMORPG classification. We’re not going to spend too much time here because anyone that follows this definition clearly isn’t particularly discriminating about the genre (though they may be in their own personal tastes).
Next, there are those who believe that a video game RPG should mimic, as closely as possible, the original pen and paper RPGs from which they evolved. This tends to be the crowd that believes that the only true MMORPGs are sandbox MMORPGs where players are able to make their own fortunes and affect the world around them with their actions.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this view. It’s actually what I believe was first envisioned when online fantasy worlds began to become a reality. Unfortunately, while the pen and paper system works very well for small groups of players, the whole thing begins to fall apart when you start to bring the numbers up into the thousands or tens of thousands. That’s where it becomes a) difficult to create enough content within the world to satisfy that many people on an individual or small group level and b) even more difficult to allow each quest completed or action taken affect the game world as a whole.
It was tried, but in the end the genre seemed to evolve more toward catering to people who fall into the third category of RPG interpretation: The video game RPG.
When the idea of an RPG was first introduced to the graphical gaming space, it came in the form of single player adventures. In these adventures, the game designers were able to provide a simulated world experience wherein the play was guided through quest after quest, adventure after adventure in a pre-determined story with their character as the protagonist. In this way, the developers are able to easily control the environment and story.
For better or for worse, it is this model that has emerged as the predominant structure for today’s modern MMO, either because of the convenience of developing in terms of quest design, the popularity of a computer RPG modeled game like World of Warcraft, or because more players look to the computer roots of the MMORPG than the table top roots.
So, what does RPG mean to you?