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.

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

Featured Columnist

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.

Published Sep. 8th 2017
  • Tyrian_8767
    In WOW, why cant a player set up a stall and start selling stuff like an NPC would anywhere he/she would like to set his/hers business... or on the same game, have an Alliance player secretly working for the Horde, yes it will add alot more of a ? for the outcome for such freedoms but that adds to the excitement of breaking the norm of mmorpg. In SWTOR, it seems everyone(npc's) needs your help in their schemes, but it seem that you cannot veer off the tracks and have your own schemes. Were just force fed the same medicine over and over again.
  • Tyrian_8767
    I can relate to some of what the OP is trying to say. What is a MMORPG when you cannot break its constraints? I would like to see in mmorpg's no boundaries, and not just force fed the crap of what they devs think we should do, its is us the gamers who should decide what we can do or like to try to do within a game.
  • f3lcrow
    Good read. Just something I'd like to add.

    1. IMO the MMO genre in general is an oxymoron to RPGs (ironic I know). Even in an RP Realm, the existence of a massive community and limited game functions just takes away too much immersion and "realism."

    2. Video Games in general, as advanced as they may be will never match the tabletop experience. Even famous role playing games like Elder Scrolls can only provide so much. This is probably because no computer program can match the human imagination (least not yet).
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor
    I agree with you Mat, but from a designer's lens I can see a different aspect too. In the old days of pen and paper RPG's, the player was able to detail their actions regardless of the mechanics, and the mechanics only served as a means to check whether it could be done and if so, did it work.

    Unfortunately, computers do not work this way. They do not understand "I want to leap off the head of the goblin and slam my sword through the brainpan of the troll on the way down." unless they are programmed to.

    Mechanics of the numerical variety though are something computers can understand. You're random(100) = 67, you needed 68, you miss. Unfortunatly, unless you can figure out a way to translate human language into machine code in real time, it will never happen. If you DO figure that out, you will be too rich to worry about posting on here.
  • Joseph Rowe
    Featured Columnist
    I agree with you that MMOs don't capture the pen-and-paper RPG feel, but I'm sort of glad they don't. I mean, I'd like it if more people got into roleplay and that became the audience that developers focused on the most, but would you really want games to 100% capture the feel of a tabletop game? If so, what's the point in continuing to play on the tabletop? There's something about gathering in person to sit with each other and have that physical presence when you roleplay, whether you're playing a super serious campaign of Shadowrun or a Monty Python-esque 4e adventure.

    Although, that being said, you could have both. Anyway, good read, man. Glad to know I'm not the only one here into traditional games. Also, I totally laughed at the first comment being so far off the mark.
  • Mat Westhorpe
    Featured Columnist
    Cheers for the supportive comments folks.

    In answer to Lioso, I entirely agree with you with regard to not allowing gameplay to fall by the wayside. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that SW:TOR proves that the MMO isn't the best vehicle for the kind of content we're discussing. If BioWare couldn't make it work, who could?

    I just don't think a server population of hundreds or thousands is an ideal environment to deliver involved storylines and complex plots. Just the same as an epic movie still only focuses on a small number of characters, the right gaming vehicle for that kind of immersion is single-player, co-op or limited multiplayer. Massively multiplayer focused games can perhaps only ever deliver the mob-mentality/team-sports gaming experience.

    The best parts of The Secret World are ruined by the presence of some random bunny-hopping player passing through. I'd argue that the Secret World would have made a better co-op experience than an MMO.
  • Lioso Cadelanne
    Another great article Mat. I'd have to agree with you on this one. The feeling of character develop beyond increasing your stats does seem to be absent from many MMORPGs. I do however feel there has been an attempt to recapture the missing element of story and character development in a narrative sense. SWTOR attempted this, though the somewhat missed the mark on the multiplayer aspect. Even WoW is trying to push the narrative aspect of their game.

    Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, I do think that the gameplay aspect of MMOs can't fall by the wayside in lieu of an emphasis of story. After all, without decent gameplay we're left with a movie. There definitely needs to be a balance.
  • HorseJacker_
    Featured Contributor
    Agreed with everyone but @Konfess.

    Nice article as usual @Mat and the last line was thought provoking - "they're simply reselling us increasingly pretty but soulless team-based strategy games for mathematicians."

    Feels like they sell the same thing over and over to create new from scratch would take years of labor and costs only seen from NASA.
  • Rhys Bjornsen
    Try as I might, I can't make sense of @Konfess' argument.

    The way I think about RPing is that you're willing to take actions in a game which would be congruent with your character even though they are 'bad' in terms of gameplay.

    In a shooter, this could mean that as a Sniper you won't shoot Medics. In a MMORPG it could mean that you reject a peace offer from a superior force despite being backed into a corner, because your in-game ethos is to 'return with your shield, or on it'.

    I don't think that there much disagreement that these days, RP in MMORPGs exists only despite of the game mechanics, not because of them. And personally I think that the min-maxing players are a big reason why.
  • adainy_2284
    @Konfess: That was a weird comment to make in response to an article written by one of the most recognized and intelligible supporters of RP in the most min/max community of any MMO.
  • Mat Westhorpe
    Featured Columnist
    @Konfess: What a strangely aggressive and unnecessarily personal response. Also a complete misinterpretation of the article. I'm not even sure how you arrived at that conclusion, much less found reason to be so defensive. You're not a former rules lawyer turned game designer are you? Or are you speaking as a representative of the generation I mentioned that think achieving optimal DPS is the pinnacle of video gaming?

    In any case, I'm glad you gave me the opportunity to follow up on the piece and your comment.

    What I am hoping for in future game experiences is something more immersive, which pays more attention to plot, storyline and character development. That is what the pen-and-paper experience was all about: a more intimate, human experience.

    I am absolutely *not* concerned with "superiority" or "twitch gameplay" as you suggest (I can, as you point out, play PS2 for that). How the MMORPG mechanics play out is not my beef, it's that they are so obviously front-and-centre of the game design. I think it is restricting the development of the genre.

    I would like an online RPG experience which is about the world, the characters and the events, not about who is twinked with the best gear. I'd like something that is closer to the RPG heritage and is more character-driven and emotionally involved than teams of linebackers/central defenders/tanks working to optimise game mechanics.

    Thank you for your interesting interpretation though, I think you obliquely helped underline my point that the current MMO culture is breeding a generation of individuals that has little interest in or grasp of the concepts I've discussed here.
  • Konfess.
    Nope. The MMORPG does exist. What I and everyone that read your writing will take away, is that you don’t like the mechanics of pen-N-paper rpg applied to modern MMORPG’s. What you want instead is some kind of interpretation of your superiority over other players that is independent of statistics in a database. You want more twitch or FPS in your RPG. I and everyone can see through you little man. Go back and play Gears of Duty or whatever your favorite FPS was. If you don’t feel superior to others when you play an MMORPG like it is meant to be played, that is because you are not.

    BTW this is not the first time I have read this same thing before, and I don’t expect it to be the last. You are not original or unique. You are one of many failed FPS players who litter the MMORPG community and forums. Go play PlanetSide 2, it has the game mechanics you want, but you will still feel the same. There is no greatness in your future.

    I may sound harsh, but the truth always does.

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