MMORPG Trends: Where Have We Come From? Where Are We Headed?
Nicolas Chua (Raiyne), Onrpg Journalist
MMORPGs have been around for more than a decade. Since the beginnings of this humble genre of video games, developers have been following a set of rules when it comes to developing an MMORPG, few daring to take risks. Adhering to the nature of RPGs, the pioneers of this genre have laid the foundations for generations of MMORPGs to come. However, we have seen many interesting developments in the features that MMORPGs offer.
First off, how do you define an MMORPG? Well, the first and most important feature required would be the a online world where all the avatars of players go about their business. A large world linking all who inhabit it, hence the massively multiplayer part. Most of these online worlds are seamless but some MMORPGs such as Ragnarok online and Age of Conan split the world up into zones.
Ever since World of Warcraft’s huge success in the MMORPG market, many developers have made use of instanced dungeons. Instanced dungeons are a copy of a dungeon created solely for every player or party who enters one. Although World of Warcraft is not the first to come up with this idea, it popularised this feature and every single dungeon in World of Warcraft is instanced.
Dungeon entrance of an MMO instance
This has drawn criticism from players for detracting from the gameplay experience as it isolates the player or his party from the rest of the virtual world, thus breaking the image of a living, breathing online community. Despite that, it has proven to be an effective way of preventing kill stealing, competition for bosses and creating rich dungeon crawling adventures that would not have been possible with the inteference of other players.
Do your job!
The second most important feature, would be the theme of character progression. There must always be something for a player to do, a goal they can strive for, or they wouldn’t play the game. In the case of an MMORPG, the player strives to improve his character, be it in wealth or in power. Basically this would be earned through earning experience, gaining levels and selling loot, similar to how a typical RPG would play out, what most gamers would be familiar with. Early MMORPGs in the form of MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons) played combat out in a automated, turn by turn combat sequence, but the MMORPG that heavily influenced this gameplay aspect was Everquest.
In 1999 Everquest was release by Sony Online Entertainment. It took many gameplay elements from previous MUDS and traditional RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. During character creation, players chose from a wide variety of races and classes to define their character, distinctly defining each person’s role in a team.
Depiction of different classes in Everquest
For example, the ‘Tank’, would be a player who is capable of taking the most damage for the team due to his vitality and would have to draw the enemies towards him to p rotect his more delicate team members. A damage dealer would be a character who is able to deal massive amounts of damage per second, now often abbreviated as DPS. A DPS character would more likely have less health and protection than a ‘Tank’ character to balance out. These archetypes are now commonly known among MMORPG players. One thing to keep in mind is that this also restricted each player to a certain style of playing.
As combat grew harder as the player progressed to higher levels, players were basically forced to group up to progress further as the monster got too difficult to take down individually. This is where players fit into their roles in the team nicely, where each class is vital to the party’s success.
In World of Warcraft, everyone has talent!
Later on, with the advent of World of Warcraft, the concept of ‘talent trees’ added diversification to the progression of an MMORPG character. In World of Warcraft, players start adding po ints into their talents each time they level up, from level 10 onwards. Each class has 3 different ‘talent trees’, basically a path of talents to follow, which enhance the character in different ways.
Other games implement this in a different fashion, examples such as Guild Wars, Dungeons & Dragons Online and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. In Guild Wars, the typical RPG stats such as Strength and Dexterity are done away with. Instead, players puts points into different attributes which improve its related skills. Every class has different attributes and is able to use every skill availible to them, with the limit of bringing only 8 skills to battle. Given the extremely large amount of skills available to the player, this amounts to many different skill builds that a player can play with. The introduction of this feature in many MMORPGs gave players more options to choose their gameplay experience without being too restricted by the character archetype while maintain ing the basic intended role of the class.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The most recent upcoming trend in the genre is action oriented combat. Originally, graphical MMORPGs use a point and click control system where hotkeys would be used for special skills, largely adapted from the Hack N’ Slash RPGs of the late 90s. Later on, with technological advances, WSAD movement was implemented, allowing for slightly more dynamic combat. This movement of action oriented combat is another step in the progression of improving the MMORPG genre. Some take a more subtle approach to this while others take on a completely new system of combat for an MMORPG, at least.
A game which introduced an interesting feature in their combat system was Age of Conan, where you have to dictate the direction of your attacks and movement has an effect on avoiding your opponents attacks. The idea was good in theory, however the execution was subpar and players complained of a compl icated and difficult system to control.
In the extreme section, an example of a radically new combat design would be in Darkfall Online. In Darkfall Online, combat is entirely in real time and the player controls exactly when he strikes, or casts a spell. This is reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls series of games (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind onwards), featuring such action oriented controls. Upcoming MMORPGs in this category are Mortal Online, Mabinogi Heroes and All Points Bulletin.
Total Immersion (I’m sure you never look like this)
What does the future hold?
As we advance in technology, developers are able to create richer, more engaging experiences for MMORPG gamers. What I personally see in the future is the avatar truly being the embodiment of the player’s actions, being so responsive that the player is completely immersed in the game and is able to further enjoy the experience that of inhabiting that online fantasy world and with better technology, we will be able to enjoy such games. It is pretty impressive, how technology has improved in the past 10 years, I have no doubt this future is not far off. The future looks bright indeed.