Editorial: Why the MMO Genre Has Succeeded

Bonjour, readers! The RPG has long been a staple of the gaming culture; indeed, it is hard to envision a world in which video games have reached the mainstream permeation they have today without Role-Playing Games as a key part of the genre. One subset of the genre which has hit the mainstream gaming culture more recently is the MMORPG. With the Internet’s user-base growing and with gaming becoming a more acceptable and popular hobby, the meshing of games and online was inevitable. Now, I freely admit to not personally being a fan of MMOs or the MMO gaming culture, despite my once hardcore and now very casual City of Heroes playing. Even I can clearly see, however, that MMORPGs have exploded into another major part of the gaming medium as a whole. Why is it, then, that MMOs have captivated so many millions of gamers? In this article, I would like to explore the six elements that I feel have contributed the most to the success of the MMORPG subgenre.

Why does he have a knife at his desk? The world may never know.
No picture more accurately sums up the MMORPG gaming experience.

The Social Aspect- The “MMO” in “MMORPG”
Admittedly, this one is a given. The key difference between the regular RPG and the MMO is the online social aspect, as the “Massively Multiplayer Online” title suggests. For many gamers, and particularly RPG fans, finding others with whom to game can be difficult, and the role-playing genre as a whole was never known for its multiplayer, at least not in the medium of video games. For RPG fans, MMOs provide a chance to socialize with like-minded gamers in a gaming context without having to deal with the trouble of finding a real-life tabletop gaming group.

The Neverending Experience
Another big draw for many gamers is the never-ending gaming experience. MMORPGs, or at least successful ones, receive constant content updates through patches and expansions. While individual storylines can and usually do draw to a close, the overall story of the MMO world constantly changes and grows as the game’s life goes on. MMORPGs are typically noted for their lore-rich worlds, and the vast size of most MMO stories allows for storyline depth that is rarely seen in other game genres.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never played WoW.
Dynamic worldbuilding, done right.

The Dynamic World – Making the Old New Again
This goes hand-in-hand with my last point. MMORPG worlds have the potential to change radically over time as the game’s storyline changes. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is perhaps the greatest example of this; much of the world of Azeroth saw a major revamp as a result of the expansion’s storyline. A lesser example would be City of Heroes: Freedom which, in both its pay-to-play and mixed-subscription days, has overhauled several of the less popular zones to make them more accessible and interesting. One advantage that MMORPG worlds have over other game worlds is their ability to change, and to change drastically. While offline, single-player games do often see expansions and DLC, these almost always add new content and very rarely change the main storyline of the game.

There Is Exploration (Unlike Metroid)
MMO worlds tend to be vast and interesting, and a major draw for some players is the ability to explore the game world and see what it has to offer. For example, the world of Vana’diel in Final Fantasy XI is staggeringly massive; players can and frequently will spend hours simply exploring the many large areas of Vana’diel. Large-scale exploration may not be unique to MMORPGs, but few other types of games have worlds as vast and rich as those seen in MMOs.

Addictive Goals and Long-Term Character Growth
Here is one of my biggest gripes with the MMORPG genre as a whole; the sheer time commitment they tend to expect of the hardcore player. MMORPGs gain much of their longevity from the huge number of goals set for players. End-game MMO play tends to involve large boss fights and questing for items and equipment that drop at ludicrously low rates. For fans of the games, this end-game content encourages them to continue by giving players upgrades and items in small doses. As a result, players are drawn in for more, always seeking to defeat the newest boss or obtain that shiny new pair of boots. Gear-driven MMOs in particular create a sense of character growth by adding new equipment for top-level characters, allowing stats and abilities to grow without having to add more character levels to the game.

FFXI is overwhelmingly big.
What this map of Vana'diel does not accurately show is the sheer massiveness of the explorable world.

Fun Gameplay
The last one, and perhaps the most obvious, is that good MMORPGs have solid gameplay mechanics. Giving players the freedom to pick their class(es), race, and character progression allow for variety in gameplay. Taking a tank up to the level cap is a completely different experience than a ranged DPS character, and in many online RPGs, even the same character class can have completely different styles of play.

Looking at these six aspects of the MMORPG subgenre shows two clear themes: size and freedom. In a sense, those two words sum up what it is that most separates MMORPGs from other game types, and what keeps players playing years after a game’s release. One can easily argue that most of these aspects can be found in many offline WRPGs, but very few games can capture these elements the way that MMORPGs, as a group, have almost universally done right. Of course, like any genre, MMORPGs certainly have their flaws; many would argue that the size and freedom present is overwhelming, that the vast openness, long storylines, and heavy character variety are too much. Regardless of one’s feelings on the genre, however, it is difficult to argue that MMORPGs are not successful. I ask, then, readers: are there aspects which you feel I have missed, or am perhaps wrong about? And what of the future of the MMORPG? Will the pay-to-play model is viable for genre going forward, or is “freemium” the way of the future? Discuss in the comments, readers!


  1. I also never got into MMOs of any kind, but a few of my friends played a ton of WoW a few years back. And from what I can tell through their experiences, the big draw to the game is principally LO0T!1 and secondarily the great difficulty of some of the boss fights that require huge and highly skilled parties to take down (usually after a long time of wailing on it), which then pays off in the form of….LUTE!

    But one thing that bothers me about MMOs is why that title stands for Massively Multiplayer Online. Why “massively”? Shouldn’t it be just “massive”? In this case the word is a synonym for “large”, and you wouldn’t say “oh this is a Largely Multiplayer Online game”, you’d say “this is a LARGE multiplayer online game”. This has bugged me forever.

  2. “Multiplayer” is an adjective, and “massively” in this context is used to modify the word multiplayer. In this case, it’s not necessarily the game itself that is massive, it’s the multiplayer aspect of the game. It’s kinda an odd distinction, but I’d say it makes sense.

  3. Yeah, I suppose it makes sense if it’s making that distinction. But I always think of “multiplayer” as a noun. So to me it’s like saying something is “massively chair”. Even if it’s correct as is, I think it’s a clunky title and an even clunkier acronym.

  4. @Mel: Multiplayer in this case is an adjective, not a noun.

    Massively is in this case an adverb, and modifies the adjective multiplayer, not the adjective online.

    Remember that MMO is just a truncation and reapplication of the formerly-used term MMORPG, where the actual noun is actually the G: game. Everything else which precedes it is just a modifier or a modifier of a modifier, thus:

    Massively Multiplayer(,)

  5. Yeah, I totally understand the logic. But personally I hear “multiplayer” as a noun because of its colloquial use as a noun in such common sentences as: I’ve been playing the multiplayer all day; or The multiplayer in this game isn’t very good, etc.

  6. @Mel:disqus : I have seldom heard such usage. It strikes me quite as awkwardly as, “I’ve been playing the online all day,” which I have also heard. Adjectives are not nouns. It is silly to use them as if they were.

    It is also useful to remember that adjectives can be (informally) used without their modified nouns if those modified nouns are understood. This does not mean that the adjectives are suddenly become nouns. The examples you give above (and which I reply with) are examples of just that. Multiplayer is still not a noun–it is an adjective whose modified noun (gameplay, component, service, campaign, &c.) is understood between the conversing parties.

    In any case, local, colloquial misuse is hardly justification for taking exception to a wider, correct usage.

  7. I do understand fully the syntax behind this. Perhaps I’m taking issue with the way it simply sounds? Something about the prefix multi- coming before the root “player”, decidedly a noun, makes the name seem terribly unwieldly. For instance, you could describe a battleship that has a particularly large array of cannons as a “massively multicannon battleship”, I suppose. But those wouldn’t exactly be the first words I choose for it.

    So, on a scale of derp to 10, how am I doing so far? lol

  8. We would certainly refer to things like a “forty-gun” ship (where forty-gun is a compound made up of a count and a noun, together serving as an adjective), as has been done historically for hundreds of years, with roughly the same effect.

    In a modern setting, we often say things like “multipurpose room”, which is constructed identically to “multiplayer game”.

    I think it is all in your head, mate! There is nothing awkward about it in terms of either grammar or use.

  9. I maintain that you’re slightly missing my point, but also they I was slightly bad at trying to outline what it was, looking bad on my comments again. Oh well. I’m too busy eating cocoa puffs to think about it any further.

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