With the help of industry legends, we've reverse-engineered the magic of the "great MMORPG".
What Makes an MMORPG a Great MMORPG?
MMORPGs are amongst the most beloved and divisive of games. They can create lifelong friendships and unforgettable memories, yet they also have the power to incite burning rage, real-world vengeance, and enough hate-mail to make an incel blush.
What is it about the genre that alights such passions? Perhaps it is the dedication to a single character's progression over years of gameplay. Perhaps, as the EVE Online directors recently suggested, it is that the players rightfully feel that they have contributed to their game worlds and so feel a sense of earned ownership over them.
As much as we all have issues that make us passionate about the MMOs we love, be it Alliance vs Horde, Amarr vs Minmatar, instanced vs non-instanced, seasons vs expansions, tab-targeting vs action combat (the list goes on), all these issues pale beside the one question that burns harder than the Burning Crusade...What makes an MMORPG a great MMORPG?
We'll be putting aside factors that make all RPGs great; it's safe to say most RPG players want UE5 graphics, in-depth character creation, colossal bosses with unique mechanics, diverse biomes, sharp dialogue, and thrilling combat. Instead, we want to know what the magic of the MMORPG is so we can discover how to get it back.
We've set about answering that question with the help of MMORPG studio CEOs, creative directors, and streamers.
Community and Home
An undeniable ingredient in MMORPGs' marvellous medicine is socialising. From the dawn of Multi-User Dungeons all the way through MMORPG history, the ability to share an adventure with strangers and friends has been the MMO's USP. This ties into the theory of friend-of-MMOGames.com & MMO streamer-extraordinaire Bazgrim:
"A great MMORPG is one that gives you ample opportunity to immerse yourself in whatever type of activity you enjoy - whether that be crafting, role playing, PvP, or adventuring. The best MMORPG will have it all, and enough of it to keep you occupied for a long time until it feels like home. This should also attract a healthy community, which is ultimately the special sauce that'll keep you coming back."
Yet not all communities are born equal. Or if they are, they don't always evolve equally. World of Warcraft, the most iconic game in the genre, has one of the most toxic communities around. It's rife with racism and misogyny (a culture that has also long permeated its studio too). There are myriad memes about WoW players making the switch to the ever-friendly FFXIV and being stunned by their hospitable welcome.
Kinship Through Challenge
In fact, from its beginning, World of Warcraft was criticised for detracting from the genre's hardcore player bonding. Before there was auto-grouping, players had to introduce themselves to one another, breathing life into tavern-downtime and catalysing kinship.
The challenge of older MMORPGs, such as EverQuest and Ultima Online, was another factor that bonded players. There's good reason many of the hardest MMORPG bosses are from the genre's golden years. It's perhaps for the best that bosses no longer take 18-hours to defeat, but strong are the friendships forged in the fires of repeated raids late into the night.
Many older MMORPG players still wax lyrical of the meaningful guilds and alliances of the genre's good old days. It's part of the reason that excitement lingers around indie MMORPGs like the eternally in-development Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen - it promises a return to the hardcore social gaming of the MMO's heyday. Its creative director, Chris "Joppa" Perkins made a beautiful argument for the feelings this style of MMO can instil:
"That's the kind of magic that calls to the deep places inside of us, that resonates with what I believe MMORPGs are most uniquely equipped to do - make us want to be adventurers again."
And yet, the future of the MMORPG cannot lie solely in the mechanics of its past. As Bazgrim argued in his State of the MMO interview, "MMOs will reach their prime when they effectively tap into the best aspects of those classic MMORPGs that heralded in the 'golden years' but seamlessly incorporate them with fresh systems and ideas. There's little value in constantly trying to reinvent the wheel, but there's also little value in only trying to look backward."
The Joy of Freedom
While open-world RPGs have dominated gaming for years, none can rival the sheer scale of MMORPGs. That includes both the size of the world and the scope of activities outside of the main storyline. Take the surprise-popularity of Old School RuneScape, a game with so many activities any sane person would never consider trying to max them out. But, hey, no one ever called MMORPG players sane -- yes, we're looking at you Lynx Titan.
A great MMO game should have a world so full that it's a joy to get lost in. It should be a delight to explore for no other purpose than the call-to-adventure, wanderlust, and the promise of secrets. It's something many of today's high-budget MMORPGs forget. As beautiful as New World's Aeternum is, there is little-to-no incentivisation to explore it. Developers would be wise to remember Tolkien's words "Not all those who wander are lost."
Meaning and Impact
Instead of linear progression, MMORPG players want meaningful choices that impact on a living-breathing world. Granted, those terms have become genre cliches in 2023, but like so many cliches they became cliched because they're so relatable. In worlds simultaneously inhabited by hundreds of thousands of would-be heroes, it is the freedom to choose one's own destiny and feel like it matters that makes a great MMORPG shine.
The CCP Games directors often describe themselves as just the caretakers of EVE Online's New Eden. Part of the reason that they've had 20 years of success is that they are constantly looking for ways to step back and grant more power to the players. Of course, MMORPGs constantly need new storylines, characters, bosses, dungeons, and events. Yet the more say players can have in shaping the economy, lore, and narrative, the better.
The true mythology of the genre, the campfire tales eternally retold, are not those of Arthas Menethil or Aliafya Mistrunner. They are instead the stories of EverQuest PvP players banding together to slay the supposedly unslayable Sleeper Dragon; WoW players kiting Kazzak of the Blasted Lands on a trail of destruction to Stormwind; or EVE players attempting outrageously expensive gambits like Operation Enho.
At a recent Black Desert Online event in the Netherlands, we asked Lybee Park -- CEO of Pearl Abyss Europe -- what she thought made an MMO a great MMO.
"That it is the actual players that create the world together. Even though we offer them really beautiful graphics and freedom, it is the type of society they build with it that matters. We need to give them all the proper tools and the foundation, but it is the community that build the game."
Think of developing an MMO like building a library. The developers are the builders laying the bricks and plastering over holes; but it is the authors who fill its shelves with stories that give the library its meaning. And in an MMO, every player is an author of their own story.
We asked one more champion MMO streamer, RedbeardFlynn, what he thinks makes a great MMO. We'll leave you with his answer:
"Balance. Balance between how you go about completing tasks in the game so it stays fresh and interesting. Balance in focus between the casual and the hardcore player or between PvE and PvP. A great MMO to me isn't an MMO that tailors just to me, but one that creates a living world that appeals to a variety of players and a variety of playstyles."
"It's a hard thing to achieve without creating something bland and soulless that tries to cater to everyone and ultimately fails at reaching anyone, but I think it's an important thing to look for as the epitome of a great MMO. A raid scene that challenges and excites like EverQuest, a gameplay loop that engages the player who will never see a raid like Guild Wars 2, a crafting system that feels rewarding in the way it did in Ultima Online, PvP that provides competition and accessibility like World of Warcraft. I'm kind of asking the world here but that's what "great" means to me."
So what makes an MMORPG a great MMORPG? A welcoming community that feels like home, trials that bond strangers into brothers and sisters, a combination of old gems and new features, biomes dying to be explored, a world meaningfully impacted by players, and a balance of systems that work for all styles of gamer. Good luck MMO devs, we believe in you.
Alex Sinclair-Lack is MMOGames' Head of Content and a freelance writer. You can track him down on Twitter and fill his DMs with hate-mail if you need to.