Virtual World(tm) vs. MMORPG (they ARE different and I’ll tell you why)

When we pick up a RTS game we know to expect a game where we have to think strategically while events occur in real time. Everything else is subject to the designers whim. Generally we collect resources to create an army and then attempt to dominate others through military superiority. It’s all pretty cut and dry. When we look at RPGs, however, there are no clear cut lines of what we should expect. Fable, Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo, Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect are all extremely successful RPGs that really have very little in common (although when I was watching Fallout 3 for the first time I could be heard saying things like, “I know how to do this! Of course you can block with melee weapons, this is Oblivion in space!!!” thanks Bethesda :D).

The important thing they all share in common is a story. (Fable doesn’t have levels… right?) If you take away the story you don’t have a game. Regardless of how little story you actually want to digest, it’s there and at the steering wheel the entire time. The “open ended” vs “run through my trench” debate is probably alive and well every time developers begin work on a new RPG, but the bottom line is that if players aren’t guided- at least at some point -by the story(ies) the developers have crafted then there will be no sense of direction for the game.  Roleplaying games put you into a specific role, and specific setting, and guide your character along a path of personal development that, hopefully, is enjoyable as much for its own sake as for the development of the story.

The appeal of a Virtual World(tm) is in creating your own role, and having the settings available to create your own story. Mass Effect is a great example of an RPG leaning towards Virtual World status (albeit a single-player version), but its RPG roots hold it fast in the main storyline. No matter what you do there is only one set of motivations and major events that progress and complete the story, while the open endedness gives you the freedom of not running down a trench you will always find yourself eventually returning to it. In a virtual world there are storylines, of course (without them it’d be pretty boring, in a truly living and brealing world many opportunities for heroism, bravery, deception, and destruction are readily available), but without a central plot your character (the role  you are assuming as an adventurer) is free to go about their business and “live life” however they wish.

We do like those large story elements in our Virtual Worlds, Epic Quests in EverQuest is a good example of interesting and exciting storyline that enriches the game, but having the game driven by a single storyline is a nono.

So we have two distinct breeds of MMOGames, MMOVirtualWorlds (what the blogs I read generally wish existed) and MMORPGs (WoW) that hold fast to their single-player roots and are essential created of a central story, where your only freedom is to select your character and distract yourself until you jump back into the trench that is the focus. They don’t need to be all story-focused, however, they can just be focused on loosely related events- enough to give you some semblance of a story -but at their heart be a video game where you want to level your character and crush bad guys.

Virtual worlds have some kind of magestic ideal to live up to as lands of adventure where the story is uncertain, while MMORPGs are games with a definitive story in mind.

Regardless of the designer’s intentions a lot of times we end up with games that become their own community, and where the community might not be focused on what the designers intended. Surely WoW is a great game, but is it a great MMORPG? I think we can all definitively say it is NOT a virtual world, and I don’t believe the developers would ever tell you they tried to make it so.

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6 Responses to “Virtual World(tm) vs. MMORPG (they ARE different and I’ll tell you why)”

  1. Longasc Says:

    Hm somehow I felt you wanted to say something more and then your entry ended!

    Before I forget it, there are some RTS games without base building and somewhat different formula! But in general you are absolutely right of course, I somehow feel compelled to add that.

    Regarding MMO-WORLD vs -RPG:

    Ultima Online (yeah, I name it again) did not even have Quests, some GM/Seer run events now and then. There was no main storyline or raid boss. It was probably still the closest to a virtual world. SWG was also along these lines.

    EverQuest on the other hand did not have that many quests initially, but the basic idea was grinding, questing, fighting together – raiding was not the main idea of the designers actually!

    But a certain group of friends who now have too much influence at a juggernaut named Blizzard, Rob Pardo, his friend Jeff Kaplan, and Alex Afrasiabi made raiding THE jizz of EQ over time. I guess we can be glad that they could not fill up the whole WoW dev team, or we would have pure world of raidcraft. 🙂

    I notice a decline of raiding in WoW. In the pre-TBC time it was raid or die, with Naxxramas being the wet dream of hardcore raid guilds – way beyond the reach of mere mortals, casual and not so casual players.

    The Burning Crusade had a very tough entry raid with Karazhan, but then suddenly something changed – the raids got easier, Kael, Vashj, Kiljaeden and Illidan were severely nerfed several times.

    Before WOTLK, Patch 3.0.2 boosted player char power and people could, at least on my server, even raid Illidan with (select-and-not-so-)random parties.

    WOTLK has super casual raiding.

    I wonder where the casualization of WoW will end.

    Will the next expansion be the next, ultimately hyper-organized guided bus tour with easy raids?

    People have already swallowed the easier content in WOTLK, even the hyper-casual new target crowd. Even Blizzard cannot deliver new content fast enough, it is just impossible.

    I hope they have an idea that brings the bus tour more in the direction of a virtual world. At least a little bit. It would be a blessing for the World of Warcraft. Or they just refine the bus tour even more and add another eye-catcher feature, like flight, a new hero class… and just refine the concept used in WOTLK.

    Which, despite Kaplan’s claims, is a bit more text intensive questing. I have the feeling that HE did not create that quests with lots of story and phasing.

    Maybe this speech was the final comment and the final version on bus tour questing a la Cruise Director Kaplan. 🙂

    Fewer, more complex and story driven quests could guide the player as well.

    I think Kaplan just did not speak out the consequence that nobody really NEEDS quests to shove them better items in the arse and to tell them go kill some mobs. In the attempt to eliminate lame mob grind he just gave the mobgrind a name, kill X of the Y, collect Z from the A and so on.

    These are the quests nobody will really read. They have no place in neither the virtual world nor the RPG.

  2. jedioftheshire Says:

    What I was trying to get at by bringing WoW into it is to show that they wanted WoW to be an mmoRPG. They wanted to push characters along on the “tour bus” to show them the great story they created, while giving them some leeway to have their own adventures.

    I agree that they’ve just renamed the old grind, but I also get the distinct impression that they were trying to make questing more than grinding, instead of the other way around. Oops!

    People get so caught up playing the game that is WoW that it loses the story focus that developers tried (are trying) to give it. It almost seems like a hopeless mess to me, but keep in mind that there are some people who can enjoy the WoW lore the way it was intended.

    —————————————-

    “Hm somehow I felt you wanted to say something more and then your entry ended!”

    It’s funny that you mention that, at about “[…]but without a central plot your character (the role you are assuming as an adventurer) is free to go about their business and “live life” however they wish.” My brother called me and I was trying to wrap it up and help him do something on his computer via phone. I was very confused and lost my train of thought 😦 I finished it up as best I could, but the inspiration had already taken wing.

  3. spinks Says:

    I think that you’re right, virtual worlds are not really the experience that games like WoW are trying to deliver.

    But (some) players are using the gameworlds in ways the designers never intended. So I don’t know if it’s really possible to say ‘these aren’t virtual worlds’, even though they aren’t designed as sandboxes. Because in some ways they really are — the world is immersive, consistent, contains towns and cities and ports and outposts. There are crafters and adventurers and soldiers, politicos who organise large guilds and grunts who sign up to attend their daily raids. There are (limited) options to dress your character the way you want, to hang out and roleplay/chat and build relationships.

    Many of the tools players need to create their own virtual world experience are right there. Just it underlays a more gamey, fixed narrative, quest driven exterior.

    A ‘pure’ virtual world is difficult because players have so little direction, I think the game side of things helps pull players together and give them a headstart on joint goals. So I think there always needs to be a blend of both.

  4. Wolfshead Says:

    Good article Jedi! I generally agree with you here except that I believe that it’s not “either or” situation rather it’s a question of the degree that they’ve decided to mix elements of both virtual world and games that ultimately creates the final product.

    WoW has many elements of what you would typically call a “virtual world” in that 1) it’s massively multiplayer and 2) persistent. Whereas a “game” is generally 1) single-player and 2) it’s not persistent. There are many other parameters that one could use to describe either a MMO or a virtual world such as story vs. no story, player ownership vs. no ownership, more social interaction vs less social interaction, etc.

    For me I think it’s like this:

    Virtual world —————-MMO—————Game

    I’d classify WoW as in between “MMO” and “Game”.

    “Regardless of the designer’s intentions a lot of times we end up with games that become their own community, and where the community might not be focused on what the designers intended. Surely WoW is a great game, but is it a great MMORPG? I think we can all definitively say it is NOT a virtual world, and I don’t believe the developers would ever tell you they tried to make it so.”

    I do respect the people at Blizzard but somehow I think you may be letting them off a bit too easy here. Granted WoW is a successful product that makes a huge amount of money but I don’t think it’s necessarily a “great” game. Rarely, am I challenged in WoW as a solo player. Skill doesn’t seem to count for much when I experience 90% of the content they provide.

    A great game is something that makes me a better player by constantly increasing the challenge for me. WoW only seems to do that when it decides *not* to be a single-player game at the level cap which equals group/raid game. Bottom line for me is that WoW is a rather weak game. Honestly I feel like I’m more of a laborer earning an hourly wage in WoW then a player. I log on, punch a time clock and proceed to do daily quests and assorted chores: check the mailbox, check my auctions, do my dailies, check the auction house, then log off.

    In closing, WoW is not really a true game and it’s not a true virtual world. In both cases Blizzard is selling the illusion of a game and the illusion of a word (remember their slogan…”It’s not a game, it’s a world.”) The truth is that it has just enough elements of a game and a virtual world to attract enough people to pay the subscription fee each month. It success hinges upon the fact that tries be all things to all people and perhaps that will eventually be it’s greatest downfall in that by trying to please everyone they will be pleasing no one.

    However I do think we are on to something important here that will help us make better virtual worlds/MMOs in the future — we are trying to figure out what a MMO like WoW really *is*, the intentions of the people that made it and why people seem attracted to it and why some are critical of it.

  5. jedioftheshire Says:

    “A great game is something that makes me a better player by constantly increasing the challenge for me.”

    I am acutely aware of just how subjective of a word “great” is, and I questioned myself even as I wrote it. I meant that WoW is a great game only in the sense that it is found very enjoyable by a large number of people. So what may be great for you and me, like a challenging game, might not be great for everyone else.

    The point I was trying to make was not specifically WoW-related though- I am trying to point out what I see to be as distinct and clear differences in the MMO-RPG format and the MMO-VirtualWorld format of games. RPGs are different than MMO-RPGs. There is a social element in MMO-RPGs, even if the entire game (pre-endgame of course) is soloable.

    And so the distinction I’m trying to make is between RPGames and Virtual Worlds in the MMO realm. WoW is just an example that I used as an MMORPG as opposed to the MMOVirtualWorld that everyone seems to think of when they hear ‘MMO’.

    —————————————————————-

    “So I don’t know if it’s really possible to say ‘these aren’t virtual worlds’, even though they aren’t designed as sandboxes. […] A ‘pure’ virtual world is difficult because players have so little direction, I think the game side of things helps pull players together and give them a headstart on joint goals. So I think there always needs to be a blend of both.”

    You have a very good point spinks. Regardless of what direction someone takes their MMO it’s still an MMO- and as such Virtual Worlds and RPGs share common ground in the MMO area. This common ground binds them together in the same overlying genre. Most social parts of these games overlap almost completely, and the only time you would see any differences is in behavior in these areas; In a Virtual World a player will feel compelled to engage in social interaction in different ways than in an RPG.

    My argument is that there are specific elements in MMOVirtualWorlds (I guess it’s about time I started referring to them as MMOVWs to make it easier to read) that force them into a genre apart from MMORPG’s. Having said that I’m not so sure that there are many games that come very close to being true (not necessarily pure- let’s take baby steps :D)MMOVWs. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are EverQuest and EVE (feel free to mention others if you think of them). WoW and LotRO are rooted so solidly in the MMORPG scheme it’s almost revolting to the part of my brain that lusts for a virtual reality.

    Now that I’m thinking about it more, we could probably say that EverQuest and EVE are MMOVWs (or maybe the one is an MMOVUniverse :D) not MMORPGs. I know I’m asking for you guys to alter your perceptions of MMOs and honestly my head is spinning trying to keep it all straight.

    We shouldn’t take WoW’s slogan ”It’s not a game, it’s a world” too literally I don’t think. Should we believe that Disney World really is, “The happiest place on earth”? It’s just what its title implies, a slogan. Call them false advertisers all you want- they just wanted something catchy to throw on the ads to make them stand out; (and I like it!) But I still don’t think we should take that to mean “It’s not just a game it’s an MMO Virtual World!”

    ————————————————————————–

    My Argument Summarized: MMOVWs are exactly what their name implies- just a world sitting there, letting players do what they want. MMORPGs put players into a prefabricated role of some significance to the main storyline that drives the purpose of playing the game.

    Yes there is overlap, they’re both types of MMOs after all- and in every RPG (MMO or otherwise) you have to have a world, and every world has to have a story. It’s in the development of these features in their extremes that we find the two separate sub-genres. When you play a hero purging the World of WarCraft of evil you are THE hero of the land in a (MMO)RPG. When you play EverQuest you are basically just another resident of the world (don’t talk to me about EverQuest raiding and post-luclin stuff, that’s not the EQ i’m talking about :P) in a (MMO)VirtualWorld.

    I’d also like to say thanks for the replies guys, and thanks for stopping by. You’re giving me more to think about and helping me to constantly refine my understanding.

  6. LPT » Yes Travis, Virtual Worlds Are Still Relevant Says:

    […] where multiple players can be allies or enemies.” So, they’re becomming MMOs; but, the debate on whether an MMOG is a virtual world is for another time. The announcement of Project Natal at E3 had everyone talking, too. Including […]

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