Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are a Lie

A discussion about how MMORPGs have missed the point of their own creation and evolved into something else entirely. The spirit of pen-and-paper has been strangled by an industry-wide obsession with preserving old mechanics.

A discussion about how MMORPGs have missed the point of their own creation and evolved into something else entirely. The spirit of pen-and-paper has been strangled by an industry-wide obsession with preserving old mechanics.

Today’s entertainment technology is capable of delivering a phenomenal gaming experience; multiple processors work to deliver breathtaking visuals, atmospheric audio and a gazillion calculations every second, providing the tools for proficient storytellers and world-builders to immerse their audience.

The internet – a genuine wonder of the modern age – allows unprecedented levels of communication and opportunity for shared experiences.

Yet, for all these advancements in this brave new world of interactive media, something is missing, especially from those titles claiming to be “roleplaying games”.

Before this discussion goes any further, let me clarify what I mean by roleplaying game, because, in the loosest sense, every game is a roleplaying game.

Unless the game you are playing is an exact replica of your everyday life with you as the avatar, you are stepping into an unfamiliar role; as a soldier, a vehicle, a manager, a military general, an energetic italian plumber or an animated yellow circle with phagomania. You are playing a role.

But I think we can agree this isn’t what anyone means by “roleplaying game”.

The Creation of Character

By “RPG” we tend to be referring to a more specific genre of gaming – one in which the player has control over the development of the main protagonist. Any good story, whether told as a book, movie or video game, will see well-established characters go on some kind of journey, responding to events and overcoming obstacles, before the story arc comes to a climax and the hero is forever affected.

With the rise of home computer technology, storytellers have never had more tools at their disposal to involve the audience.

The traditional roleplaying group provided an engaging way of being able to describe such a world, convey themes and encourage character development. The Gamesmaster would be able to respond to player actions dynamically and intelligently. Players would feel special; their characters were important and unique within the world with which the interacted. They could truly feel they were a key part of something epic and they could indulge in their character’s development, responding emotionally to challenging situations and enjoying the journey.

Critical Hit

Yet in the translation from pen-and-paper to digital, this point has often been missed in MMORPGs.

In principle, the greatest lure of the MMO was the opportunity to create a more convincing game world. Rather than a single Gamesmaster instilling what realism he could into his non-player characters and the surrounding world, then relying on the imagination and suspension of disbelief from his players to do the rest, the MMO would enable so much more.

Players could focus on the personality and story of their avatars, letting the technology worry about the intricacies of the statistics. The landscape would be laid out in all its glory before them, the challenges would be created by an army of designers and the world would be full of characters controlled by real humans who would provide more diversity, colour and immersion.

But that’s not what happened.

Critical Miss

To use a term coined by the late Gary Gygax, father of modern roleplaying; the rules lawyers took over.

Instead of replacing the over-simplified numerical measurements and basic systems necessary to make a manually maintained pen-and-paper RPG manageable, the games designers decided that those very elements were the key selling point for RPGs. I would argue otherwise – those game mechanics were just the necessary evil to give structure to the fundamental essence of the RPG, they were the framework, not the substance. It was the one thing that could have been vastly improved upon, but it was the one thing to which they chose to cling.

It’s understandable. Every pen-and-paper roleplaying group had a “rules lawyer” – the one player who failed to grasp the spirit of an RPG and instead broke every layer of immersion in a desperate attempt to be the one whose character gained possession of that +5 vorpal blade. It is these stats-obsessed min/maxers who were also the most likely candidates to go on to be computer programmers and games designers.

The Transparent Curtain

This has given rise to a gaming culture where a generation of “roleplayers” think that it’s all about optimising your stats to be a good “tank” or give effective “DPS”, completely missing the spirit of the roleplaying game and its persistent world. This is compounded by the supposedly great idea of filling a massive fantasy world full of these min/maxers, achieving the exact opposite of what the massively multiplayer concept was meant to. A triumph of technology but a failure of concept.

So now, decades later, despite having machines capable of processing billions of calculations per second, it’s still considered the “RPG way” to have a few stats measuring hitpoints, strength values and explicit levels instead of something worthy of the technology.

Physical strength, mental ability and endurance aren’t constants, nor are they something that can be given a single value. Progress through life – or a story – certainly can’t be boiled down to simple levels, unless we’re talking about advancing age and the final act there isn’t great. Gygax and co. only used such methods to make game mechanics workable with dice and paper. Surely game design can and should evolve beyond that.

So I put it to you: the massively multiplayer roleplaying game isn’t just a failure, it doesn’t exist. Instead, MMORPGs have evolved into something else entirely.

Somewhere along the line, this grand concept of a shared roleplaying experience got corrupted and the designers lost their way, never managing to move beyond the technical test which was Everquest.

What they make now aren’t roleplaying games; in the ongoing industry-wide obsession to preserve out-dated mechanics, they’re simply reselling us increasingly pretty but soulless team-based strategy games for mathematicians.


Header Image: Guild Wars 2

Image 1: Gauntlet II

Image 2: Dragonlance by Larry Elmore (AD&D)

Image 3: Just Waiting for the Horde to Attack… by Zartec (World of Warcraft)

Image 4: Dice and Character Sheet by Puggles (Flickr)

Image 5: Guild Wars 2 character sheet from Musings of an Obsessed Mind

About the author

Mat Westhorpe

Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.