There has always been division within the gaming community as to what truly designates a game an RPG. Is it the CRPG (computer role-playing game), hewn from the monolithic archetype that is Dungeons & Dragons, affording players absolute agency in their actions while abstracting their interactions with their environments and opponents behind a numeric system? Is it a JRPG (Japanese role-playing game), with a linear storyline and menu-based combat, the equipping of weapons, armor and accessories being the only place in which the player is offered true choice?
Is it any game with a party? No, because that excludes solo dungeon crawlers. Is it any title in which the player "levels up" or otherwise increases his character's skill through gameplay? Not unless we're willing to include the multiplayer components of Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 under the RPG awning.
These are murky waters. The proliferation of RPG elements throughout action games has come to the point where the genre itself has become a nebulous, malleable thing with a multitude of colorful variations, from the traditional style of Dragon Age: Origins to the more action-heavy Mass Effect 2. The line that separates RPGs from the other game types out there has become blurred with time.
The one thing you are not likely to find in a single-player RPG, however, is a multiplayer story. From the Elder Scrolls series to Alpha Protocol, from Final Fantasy all the way to Tales Of, very few RPGs offer a multiplayer component with any sort of true agency for the second player. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Diablo series and Borderlands, but these are built upon what amounts to almost a light MMO framework, hamstrung only by its lack of support for thousands of players at once. After all, what's an MMO without the "Massively"?
If we take the MUDs (multi-user dungeons) out of the equation, the first true MMO was probably Ultima Online. The one that really set the genre ablaze, however, was Everquest. It was only in the wake of Everquest's success that dozens of copycat games and less traditional variants on its formula sprouted up. In time, World of Warcraft came along and dominated the field, becoming the standard MMO framework. Every MMO that comes out has to justify its existence not only on its own merits as a game, but based on how it compares to WoW. Is it overly similar? Does it ignore the lessons developers learned from Blizzard's behemoth, both its missteps and its triumphs?
Yet, as much as they strive to differentiate themselves from Azaroth's MMO heavyweight, players are generally being provided with a very similar experience, regardless of which game they play. Gameplay consists of running from quest giver to quest giver, going out and killing or collecting whatever creature or object is the focus of your task, and returning to claim your reward and further your way through the world. Some games have tried to do it differently, such as Planetside and Tabula Rasa, neither of which was particularly successful, but they introduced solid action elements to the persistent world archetype and tried to make questing more organic.
By and large, MMOs live or die by their "end game" content. While a single-player RPG, regardless of how much choice it offers, is generally about the journey, an MMO is about what you and a large band of other players can accomplish once you get there. It's only then that you're privy to the greatest spectacle, able to obtain the most powerful equipment. It's this level of play that most distinguishes an MMO from a single-player RPG, and it's the only point at which avoiding the game's social component, the "massive" aspect of it, becomes impossible. But why would you play an MMO if you wanted to avoid socialization?
Well, let's look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. It's out now, but people have been playing it for months in the beta and en masse over the week-long head start. I was fortunate enough to play in one of the near-release closed betas for the game. In that time, I was treated to BioWare's trademark storytelling flair. They're remarkably skilled at pulling players in on an emotional level, investing them in the goings on of the universe. This is, in part, accomplished by making your story a deeply personal one. Thing is, it's a deeply personal story that every other player of your class is also experiencing. When you play a single-player RPG, you know that, even in the most open-ended of games, other players have gone through many of the same story beats as you have. Everyone who plays Skyrim will be unveiled as Dovahkiin, for example. This doesn't matter, though, because, when you play, you're the only experiencing those beats in that instance of the game. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the deep-rooted story experience is somewhat cheapened when you see other Sith Warriors running around with their twi'lek companion and more smugglers trailed by Wookiees than you can count.
RPGs, all the way back to their pen and paper origins, have been about casting the player or players as the central actors in their story, one crafted specifically for the aforementioned characters, whether by your close buddy behind the DM screen or a game developer you know only by the company for which he or she works. MMOs are hit with a Catch-22: they can either create a story that sets the player's character in the limelight—something Age of Conan and Star Wars: The Old Republic have both attempted—or they can trivialize the importance of each individual player, using them all as cogs in the machine of a greater story that they all work to influence, in theory, but without a true "hero" among them. The latter is far more common, since it avoids the cognitive dissonance begotten of the other: namely, socialization in a story-heavy, player-centric MMO actually hurts that story and weakens one of the game's pillars.
It's not that either MMORPGs or single-player RPGs are the "better" choice, the "greater" game-type. They serve different purposes, have different merits. The issue comes about, however, when an MMO tries too hard to mimic the sort of experience a single-player game provides, undermining itself in the process. Contrarily, more traditional RPGs sometimes ape modern MMO conventions and it tends to beget a less engaging experience for that standalone player. Which you fancy will fall to your priorities as a gamer and the strength of your desire for socialization in your gaming.
By Shelby Reiches
CCC Contributing Writer