Sunday, October 29, 2006

Are MMORPGs all the same?

In the thread about the other MMORPGs coming out in 2007, Wiggly asked the very good question how much all these games would play the same. With World of Warcraft having brought millions of players into their first MMORPG, there must be lots of people wondering whether the grass is greener in another game, or whether it would be best to stick to the game you know, because the other games don’t offer much else.

There is a basic structure behind all MMORPGs that defines the genre, just like there is a basic structure behind all racing games for example. You are in control of one character, who is defined by a bunch of numerical values describing how strong, intelligent, or skilled he is. By playing this character, these numerical values invariably go up, your character becomes stronger. This “character development” is what differentiates a role-playing game from an adventure or shooter game.

Generally “playing” a MMORPG involves fighting against computer-controlled enemies. Winning these battles gives you experience points, or something similar, like skill points. It is also likely to reward you with some items which you can either use to equip yourself with, or sell them and buy equipment.

The majority of MMORPG play in a sword and sorcery fantasy setting, in which you can play a warrior, a wizard, a priest, or other typical fantasy characters. You usually can play either alone, or in small groups of around half a dozen player, or at the end of the game even in very large groups of up to 40 characters. Combat usually consists of targeting a monster and starting some sort of auto-attack, swinging your weapon at it. But you always also have some sort of special attacks, fancy combat maneuvers for the warriors, spells like fireballs for the wizards, and healing spells for the priests.

There is a general flow of the game where you start in a city, go out and slay monsters, gather experience points and loot, come back to the city, sell the excess loot, train, buy other equipment, and go out again. In seemingly endless repetition. There is a brilliant parody of this gameplay out there, called Progressquest.

This basic description covers every game from Everquest to World of Warcraft to the upcoming games like Vanguard or Warhammer Online. So are these games all the same? The difference lies in the details. Different MMORPG all have different game worlds and settings, and you can also sort them into different categories according to what the gameplay is focused on.

Game worlds are often a matter of taste. There are many different fantasy worlds, some in a more cartoonish style, others more photo-realistic. And then there are non-fantasy worlds, games that play in historic settings, science fiction games, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and who knows what else game developers will come up with. Some worlds only exist in the MMORPG, but other game worlds are coming from other media. So you can ride a bantha over Tatooine, meet Thrall from Warcraft 3 in WoW, visit the world of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign, enter the Matrix, and soon even travel with the hobbits over Middle Earth. Obviously if you are a fan of one of these worlds, a MMORPG playing there has a special attraction over games playing elsewhere.

How to classify MMORPGs into categories is a matter of much debate. There is no unified standard, and thus unfortunately no label on the game box telling you what category a game belongs in before you buy it. But here are some often mentioned classification systems:

The first thing I always try to determine is how much a new MMORPG focuses on being a “game” and how much it focuses on being a “world”. Of course all MMORPG are a bit of both, but there are major differences on what the developers focused on. A more “game” like MMORPG like World of Warcraft doesn’t give the player much opportunity to change the game world in a permanent way, but it does have a solid structure of game goals, quests to follow, levels to reach, and so on. A more “world” like MMORPG often has features like houses or other structures players can build, thus changing the face of the world. Examples would be Star Wars Galaxies, or A Tale in the Desert. Often the game elements of these MMORPG are less well structured; there are a lot of open goals.

Another important distinction is whether a MMORPG is PvE-centric or PvP-centric. Again many games have both. But there are games like World of Warcraft where the PvE is the main game, and PvP seems to have been added as a badly designed afterthought. While in games like Lineage or EVE the PvP is the center of the game, and all the other parts of the game just serve to train and equip you for fights against other players. It is important to check whether PvP is voluntary, consentual, or whether PvP is free-for-all, with the possibility of lots of ganking and griefing.

The most difficult thing to determine is how easy or hard a MMORPG is. While single-player games often have adjustable difficulty settings, there is no such thing in a MMORPG. So some games are relatively easy, like World of Warcraft, allowing even the most casual player to reach the maximum level. But other games, like Everquest, need thousands of hours of play to reach the highest level, and have much harsher penalties for failure.

Besides the different genres and categories, MMORPG differ a lot in how they set up the details of gameplay. For example for players to buy and sell items to each other, every game has a slightly different system: There are auction houses, bazaars, player-controlled NPC vendors, or players opening up shop while standing around away-from-keyboard.

So in the end no two MMORPG are really the same. If you liked your first one, there is at least a chance that you’ll also like another one, but it isn’t certain. And you certainly won’t get bored after 5 minutes in the new game, MMORPGs usually take a long time to get into.

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