[If you haven't read the quick Know Your Role primer, it might be helpful do that first, though it isn't absolutely necessary.]
It would be hard to talk about player roles in online role-playing games without first shedding some light on the origins of the parent genre. RPGs in their most broad interpretation are arguable the oldest form of gaming known to man. Strategy games and war games go back thousands of years, and what is a chess or checkers player if not a temporary "commander of the troops" for the duration of the game?
You see, that's what really inspires me to engage in, follow, and write about video games. They are the latest evolution of what people have been doing for ages: escaping life's everyday trappings and indulging in a bit of pretend-play. That's one of the very first and most common forms of play that kids participate in, and I don't anyone ever grows out of that. We just don't do it quite so obviously when we get older, but we all still do it.
From Fun to Fantastic
Obviously MMORPGs are a very specific and modern form of role-playing that has come a very long way from simple pretend play and millennia-old war games. At some point along the process some fictional embellishment occurred. As time has progressed the amount of immersion and story-crafting that has gone into role-playing has exponentially increased. Creating interactive narrative is an art in its own right and fiction played a heavy role in inspiring these fantastical back-drops to modern gameplay.
If I started listing author's names here, I'd undoubtedly be ruffling feathers, as there simply isn't time or room to list everyone. Whether it's fantasy, science fiction, or some combination of the two - authors have been writing epic fiction for thousands of years, even dating back to the earliest recorded history. Many works date back so far that many people debate whether some of them are fiction at all. Myths of old may very well have been just exaggerated stretches of ancient fact, as most any artist and author typically draws upon real-life experiences and the past work of other creative minds.
That giant, infinite, wormhole aside - all those works have created the foundation that each and every MMORPG today is built upon. I find it very hard to make it through this section without specifically singling out Dungeons and Dragons as a highly influential player in modern MMOs today. That early table-top game, drawing off of high-fantasy concepts passed down for centuries and popularized by Tolkien's "The Hobbit", was pioneering in many ways and still stands today as a fantasy gaming juggernaut.
Transitioning to the Digital Age
It's extremely difficult to look at any MMO today and not see reflections, reiterations, and even core concepts pulled directly from AD&D and other table-top games like it. These group-play games of old that existed both in board game, and handbook style formats were simply the Multiplayer RPGs before everything went digital. So many core components have carried on, and player "roles" is an enormous element that really makes them what they are.
Small group play is probably the singular core feature dynamic that these games were all built around, and early MMORPGs were built on almost identical role-based mechanics to what you see in Table-Top RPGs. But we're still getting ahead of ourselves. I haven't even mentioned MUDs yet, and those - by far - where the true transitory fossil evidence between TTRPGs and MMORPGs.
The Birth and Death of the MUD
Multi-User Dungeons were plentiful in the 80's and 90's and many of today's veteran MMO game designers have backgrounds in MUDs - whether they were making them, or just playing them. These games are such an odd piece of gaming history. They were at the forefront of brand new technology, yet at the same time carrying over so many traditional RPG elements and systems - inserting them into a digital format that was actually more limiting of the typical TTRPG experience people had been playing for years.
Interestingly enough, these games continued to succeed and thrive, due in large part to the one thing they offered that no other game format at the time ever had before: the ability to play with friends, family, and strangers hundreds (and thousands) of miles apart. If you really think about them in the grand scheme of things, that's the primary innovation MUDs brought to the table - and the surge in home-computing and development of the internet only refined and improved the end-user experience.
It was tough sledding in the early days prior to the internet we know today. Early on, player were paying by the hour for their online gaming experiences, until ISPs began to form and juggernauts like AOL and Netscape allowed users to pay regular monthly fees for access. All that aside, MUDs had their day and age, and although so many of them still persist today - they aren't the main avenue of online gaming today.
Graphical MMOs Arrive
Like the MUDs before them, the earliest Graphical MMOs were actually even more limiting than the games that came before them. Like most things in life, their greatest strength was also their greatest flaw. For all their visual beauty, Graphical MMOs were significantly more limited on what players could and couldn't do in them early on. You simply couldn't say or type out an explanation for what was going on, and just like MUDs you certainly couldn't change the code on the fly to bend or break the rules for truly epic moments.
Still though, we know that Graphical MMOs have thrived. Where MUDs opened the door for players to group up in the world at large with strangers from around the globe - early MMORPGs illuminated that experience. No longer were you just looking at walls of text and living out the temporary life of a fictional character. In early graphical MMOs you could actually see the world through their eyes. The experience was powerful - to say the least.
These games turned "pretend play" into something much more engaging, intimate, and visceral - as the first of our physical senses was finally engaged in the role-playing experience: our eyes. Today, I think we tend to take our vision for granted. And we shouldn't, because not everyone has the luxury of sight. It is a powerful sense and tool and it greatly enhances any role-playing experience. I tend to believe that seeing these epic worlds, characters, and events actually happening (albeit artificial and digital) is really what brought role-playing games into the mainstream.
Players no longer had to talk or describe what was happening to share the fun with friends. You could literally just see it for yourself; no explanation required. The old writer adage of "show, don't tell" rings true here. The experience was, in so many ways, complete. Players around the world were getting to experience their Table-Top inspired adventures visually, in real-time with other people all around the world. It was, and still is, a powerful experience - which probably accounts for the genre's massive popularity.
That alone makes understand these kinds of games both interesting and valuable.
Why Focus on Roles?
Given their Table-Top roots, and the group-centric style of role-based gameplay that has grown out of those roots, I believe it's equally interesting and valuable to understand this core mechanic and how it's changed over the years. If you've made it this far, then you should start getting excited - you just made it through the least interesting part of this mini-series. This was literally MMORPG history 101, in a highly-condensed nutshell.
Tomorrow we'll be cracking into the first few graphical MMORPGs and talking about what made them explode into the mainstream and become some of the most addicting types of games to ever exist.
While the first graphical RPG games never were quite as big as World of Warcraft at its peak - they were actually massively influential when you start to consider the fact that games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call are what motivated role-playing game fanatics to invest in the latest computer hardware and demand ever-increasing bandwidth to enhance their experiences. These games are the reason the internet gaming industry today is what it is.
That is why we should definitely be giving them the majority of the praise and credit for all the games we enjoy today.
To state it all as simply as possible, if you imagine the life of the MMORPG genre as one giant game itself, MUDs were the Alpha state, and 1st-Gen Graphical MMORPGs were the Beta. 2nd-Gen MMORPGs like EverQuest II, Lineage II, World of Warcraft, and all of their seemingly infinite clones are the release version - which is why nothing has really changed. This type of game has gotten about as good as it can get. Sure, there are new games that offer a handful of new features - but those are just expansions to an already complete experience.
By the end of this series I think everyone will finally begin to understand why a "next-gen" MMORPG will never exist without full-scale renovation of everything that these games are. Like the transition from Table-Top RPG to MUD, new games must take the core concepts of what makes these games fun and completely reinvent the process. Unfortunately that isn't quite as easy as it sounds, and in reading through tomorrow's entry, you'll begin to understand why.
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