MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) is a genre of online computer role-playing games (RPGs) in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. As in all RPGs, players assume the role of a fictional character (most commonly in a fantasy setting) and take control over many of that character’s actions. MMORPGs are distinguished from single-player or small multi-player RPGs by the number of players, and by the game’s persistent world, usually hosted by the game’s publisher, which continues to exist and evolve while the player is away from the game.
MMORPGs are very popular throughout the world, with combined global memberships in subscription and non-subscription games exceeding 15 million as of 2006. Overall, revenues for MMORPGs exceeded half a billion dollars in 2005 and are expected to reach over a billion dollars by 2009.
Though MMORPGs have evolved considerably, many of them share some basic characteristics.
- Traditional Dungeons & Dragons style gameplay, including quests, monsters, and loot.
- A system for character development, usually involving levels and experience points.
An economy, based on the trade of items such as weapons and armor, and a regular currency.
- Guilds or clans, which are organizations of players, whether or not the game actively supports them.
- Game Moderators or Game Masters (frequently abbreviated to GM), which are sometimes-compensated individuals who attempt to supervise the world.
- A client-server model, in which the “world” software runs continuously on a server, and players connect to it via client software.
- Large communities of players, and social networks.
The majority of popular MMORPGs require players to either purchase the client software for a one-time fee or pay a monthly subscription to play. Most major MMORPGs require players to do both. By nature, “massively multiplayer” games are always online, and require some sort of continuous revenue (such as monthly subscriptions and advertisements) for maintenance and development. Games that feature massively-multiplayer functionality, but do not include roleplaying elements, are referred to as MMOGs.
Economics of MMORPGs
Many MMORPGs feature living economies, as virtual items and currency have to be gained through play and have definite value for players. Such a virtual economy can be analyzed (using data logged by the game) and has value in economic research; more significantly, these “virtual” economies can have an impact on the economies of the real world.
One of the early researchers of MMORPG was Edward Castronova, who demonstrated that a supply-and-demand market exists for virtual items and that it crosses over with the real world. This crossover has some requirements of the game:
- The ability for players to sell an item to each other for in-game (virtual) currency.
- Bartering for items between players for items of similar value.
- The purchase of in-game items for real-world currency.
- Exchanges of real-world currencies for virtual currencies.
The idea of attaching real-world value to “virtual” items has had a profound effect on players and the game industry, and even the courts. Castronova’s first study in 2002 found that a highly liquid (if illegal) currency market existed, with the value of the in-game currency exceeding that of the Japanese yen. Some people even make a living by working these virtual economies; these people are often referred to as gold farmers.
Game publishers usually prohibit the exchange of real-world money for virtual goods. However, a number of products actively promote the idea of linking (and directly profiting from) an exchange. Some players of Second Life have generated revenues in excess of $100,000.
However, in the case of Entropia Universe, the virtual economy and the real-world economy are directly linked. This means that real money can be deposited for game money and vise versa. Real-world items has also been sold for game money in Entropia.
Some of the issues confronting online economies include:
- The use of “bots” or automated programs, that assist some players in accumulating in-game wealth to the disadvantage of other players.
- The use of unsanctioned auction sites, which has led publishers to seek legal remedies to prevent their use based on intellectual-property claims.
- The emergence of virtual crime, which can take the form of both fraud against the player or publisher of an online, and even real-life acts of violence stemming from in-game transactions.
One reaction to the virtual economies has been the phenomena of “private servers,” which are servers operated by individuals and groups who have reverse-engineered commercial MMORPG products. Anyone who sets up their own private server has complete control over the virtual world existing on that server. Typically, these servers operate in violation of publisher’s end-user license agreements. In November 2006, NCSoft and the Federal Bureau of Investigation shutdown a prominent private Lineage II server that had claimed 50,000 active users.
Private servers are mostly run by volunteers, and most of them are free. However, some private servers may wish for people to donate money, sometimes in exchange for a bonus in the game. Private servers remain markedly less popular than the official servers, with player numbers usually in the hundreds, though popular private servers may reach up to one or two thousand online players and even up to ten thousand in terms of player registrations. EQEmu is a server emulator for EverQuest; others exist for World of Warcraft, Lineage II, Ultima Online, Ragnarok Online, and many other MMORPGs.
Psychology of MMORPGs
Since the interactions between MMORPG players are real, even if the environments are not, psychologists and sociologists are also able to use MMORPGs as tools for academic research.
Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist, has conducted interviews with computer users including game-players. Turkle found that many people have expanded their emotional range by exploring the many different roles (including gender identities) that MMORPGs allow a person to explore.
Nick Yee, a Ph.D student, has surveyed more than 35,000 MMORPG players over the past few years, focusing on psychological and sociological aspects of these games. His research can be found at The Daedalus Project. Recent findings included that 15% of players become a guild-leader at one time or another, but most generally find the job tough and thankless; and that players spend a considerable amount of time (often a third of their total time investment) doing things that are directly-related to, but outside of the game itself.
Many players report that the emotions they feel while playing an MMORPG are very strong, to the extent that 8.7% of male and 23.2% of female players in a statistical study had had an online wedding.
Other researchers have found that the enjoyment of a game is directly related to the social organization of a game, ranging from brief encounters between players to highly organized play in structured groups.
Also, Richard Bartle has classified multiplayer RPG-players into four primary psychological groups. His classifications were then expanded upon by Erwin Andreasen, who developed the concept into the thirty-question Bartle Test that helps players determine which category they are associated with. With over 200,000 test responses as of 2006, this is perhaps the largest ongoing survey of multiplayer game players. (Wikipedia)