The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.
The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.
MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.
When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.
Early Graphical MMOs:
Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”
This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.
WoW and Its Clones:
There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.
In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.
WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.
The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.
The Free to Play Revolution:
For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.
Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.
Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.
Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.
Maturity and Diversification:
That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.
Some things just never get old. No matter how old we get, no matter how jaded we become, there are some things in life that will never fail to bring a smile to our faces.
As it is in life, so it is in MMORPGs. If you play such games long enough, it’s easy to become bored of their standard tropes and numb to things you once enjoyed… but there are some things whose appeal is ageless. Some things just never lose their thrill, no matter how many times you experience them.
This list might be a bit different for different people, but to me, the following are those moments in MMOs that I will never tire of.
I’ve been playing MMOs for close to ten years now. In that time, I’ve become jaded to almost everything this genre has to offer. That’s not to say that I don’t have fun anymore, but it’s very hard to wow me these days.
But if there’s one thing that always makes me catch my breath in wonder — even now — it’s that moment when you first set foot into a capitol city within an MMORPG.
I’m not talking about mere towns or quest hubs. I’m talking about proper sprawling virtual cities. Your Stormwinds, your Elden Roots, your Pandemoniums. Places whose streets are choked by NPCs and players alike, where your chat window blows up and your screenshot key gets a workout.
Whenever I enter a new in-game city for the first time, I invariably wind up losing at least an hour or two as I walk down every street, investigate every nook and cranny, and talk to every NPC. A good virtual city is almost as full of color, flavor, and character as a real city, and I make it my mission to soak it all in.
Growing up in the world of DOS and pixel graphics, it never ceases to amaze me that video games can now produce environments as big and beautiful as MMO cities.
Creating a New Character
I am an unabashed and unapologetic altoholic. In The Secret World — a game that provided no good reason to ever play alts — I had five characters. In other games, my character select screen gets even more bloated. I just can’t seem to stop making new ones.
And I think at least part of the reason for this is that there’s something strangely addictive about creating a new character. Every time I start building a new avatar, my mind fills with the infinite possibilities of the adventures I might one day have with them. Each new character promises new experiences and new memories to be made.
For role-players, creating a new character is especially exciting, because it’s also an opportunity to forge a new backstory. Character creation almost becomes a form of story-telling unto itself, as you spin yourself the tale of this new avatar.
But even if you’re not into role-play, creating a new character can still be addictively alluring. Trying a new race, class, or faction lets you experience an old game in a new way. You can recapture the excitement you felt when you first started playing, if only for a time. It’s a way to keep things fresh almost indefinitely.
If there’s one trump card the MMO genre will always have over single-player games, it’s in-game events.
Not just the generic, canned holiday events every MMO trots out. Those tend to be pretty lame. I’m talking about the big, epic events that only come around once. Events that change the game, or bring the community together in a unique way.
In the old days, in games like Ultima Online or Asheron’s Call, it was common for game-masters to take on the roles of NPCs and play out major story events with the community. Nowadays that’s much rarer, but live events have not entirely vanished. Guild Wars 2 has made in-game events a major selling feature of the game, with somewhat mixed results, and World of Warcraft has its pre-expansion events, as well as other occasional one-time story events.
There’s just something uniquely thrilling about major in-game events. They bring the community together, forging bonds and memories that will last a lifetime, and they transform simple games into evolving virtual worlds that almost feel like real places.
Live events make memories in a way that nothing else in the gaming world can. Even years later, we can find some joy in looking back and saying, “I was there.”
These days I find the best way to recapture the feeling of excitement I felt on Christmas morning as a kid is to keep an eye on MMO expansion announcements.
Content patches aren’t the same. They might be exciting for avid players of a game, but expansions are a good way to attract the attention of the entire MMO community.
An expansion — a true expansion — isn’t just a content update. It alters and enhances the way a game is played forever. Expansions are literal game-changers. And that is exciting in a way little else in the gaming world can be.
A good expansion can bring in a total renaissance for an MMORPG. Legacy of Romulus got me to give Star Trek: Online a second chance after writing it off entirely. Knights of the Fallen Empire changed me from someone who didn’t care about SWTOR at all to someone with all eight class stories completed.
And so for this reason I continue to follow expansion announcements with anticipation, even for games I don’t play. Expansions can change everything, and that never stops being intriguing.
Helping Another Player
MMOs are a social medium, and oftentimes the best experiences they offer are the bonds we form with other players. For me, there are few things as satisfying as simply doing something to put a smile on another player’s face.
Of course, lots of people may think of major accomplishments they helped their guild achieve, or assistance they’ve provided to long-time friends, and those are very good things, but I think there’s something very special about offering random help to strangers.
Back in TSW’s heyday, I used to use the cash shop currency stipend from my lifetime subscription to buy the event bags that granted loot to everyone around me. During one such bag-opening, someone on their free trial got the Revenant Polar Bear, a rare pet that was one of the most coveted rewards from that event. It honestly made me far happier than if I had gotten the pet myself, and I like to think it helped give that person a positive impression of the game.
It’s memories like that that stick with you. Good feelings like that are timeless.
Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.
Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.
The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.
Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties
Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.
If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.
This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.
We spend a lot of time here criticizing MMOs and their community. And that’s not a bad thing. Constructive criticism is crucial for growth, and there are many mistakes and challenges dogging the world of MMORPGs. Those should be criticized.
But there is a danger in becoming too bogged down in the negative. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and appreciate what we have. MMOs have problems, but there’s also a lot about them that’s truly special. We wouldn’t be so passionate about them if that wasn’t the case.
So let’s take a moment to celebrate the things that make MMOs good, the things that no other type of entertainment can offer. The things that always bring us back for more.
If you’ve been following my articles for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed I take an extremely cynical view of the MMO community as a whole. The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” does come to mind.
But even if the MMO community is a foul place on the macro scale, that doesn’t mean there can’t be positive stories on a more personal level. While toxic players fight gold sellers for most hated player group, guilds, friends and family groups, and other small factions of players are forming and renewing relationships, making connections in the digital space.
Spend any length of time in the world of MMORPGs, and you’ll find stories of people who met their spouses in-game, or who have forged lifelong friendships in MMOs, or reconnected with old friends via gaming. There are those who have used these games to keep in touch with distant family members or friends in foreign countries. Of course, MMOs are good for socializing – it’s arguably the best digital medium for the activity.
Whatever flaws the greater community may have, there is tremendous value in those smaller connections, in the intimate bonds formed between players.
MMOs are good at giving us things to do. They’re big. Like really big. While large-scale single-player games like Skyrim and Fallout boast about their huge game worlds and dozens of hours of content, MMOs are sitting in the background like, “That’s cute.”
Even relatively small MMOs tend to rival or outstrip the largest single-player games when it comes to sheer volume of content. Just playing through the story content to level cap can often take weeks, or months. That’s without any grinding or repetition — just playing as you would a single-player title.
And then of course when you do factor in the endgame activities, the number of hours of gameplay available to you balloons even further.
Then you consider larger, older MMOs. Someone new joining World of Warcraft today would probably take at least a year, if not more, of regular play just to experience all of the content that’s currently in the game — again, without resorting to significant grinding or getting into the endgame treadmill. And that’s just one game. There’s also uniquely massive good MMOs like Eve Online, where servers house tens of thousands of players simultaneously on their monolithic servers.
Furthermore, whereas single-player titles are largely static — perhaps with a trickle of DLC that quickly runs dry — MMOs are constantly growing and evolving, with regular infusions of new content for so long as the games operate. Not only are they big, but they’re only getting bigger.
Longevity and Persistence
As I covered earlier this month with the MMOs that died piece, they don’t last forever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t possessed of incredible longevity. EverQuest is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Ultima Online has already passed that milestone. World of Warcraft has been around for over a decade.
And there are people in all of those games who have been playing from the beginning.
By comparison, even if you’re the sort of person who likes to replay games many times, most single-player games aren’t likely to last you more than a few months at best. The difference in longevity between the two categories is night and day.
This has value beyond the obvious, beyond the raw number of hours of play you’re going to get out of an MMO. Being able to play a single game for years fosters a sense of history, a sense of belonging, that’s impossible to replicate any other way.
My oldest video game character is my rogue in World of Warcraft. She’s old enough now that if she were a real person, she would have just started third grade. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. When I created my rogue, my life was completely different from how it is now, but she remains, virtually unchanged after all this time. She’s become one of the few permanent fixtures of my life, and playing her feels like visiting an old friend.
Similarly, logging into a game you’ve played for a long time can feel like coming home. This, for me, is one of the greatest appeals of MMOs. The social element has never been a perfect fit for me, but I love imaginary worlds, and whereas single-player games only let me be a tourist in their settings, MMOs let me set down roots. MMOs are good at providing a permanent virtual world to feel at home.
That’s something I truly love.
One can also look to more practical concerns. If you’re worried about keeping a budget, MMOs provide one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment around.
Think about it. Going to see a movie will usually cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $15, and that will only keep you entertained for at most two to three hours.
That same $15 can buy you a month of subscription to an MMO, which can potentially provide dozens of hours of entertainment.
And that’s with a pay to play game. When you consider the current prevalence of free to play MMOS and buy to play titles, the potential for entertainment on the cheap becomes virtually infinite. MMOs are good options for the cheaper or poorer players, especially combined with their quantity of content. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay for just a minimal box price, or even for nothing at all.
Yes, you may be held back in some ways if you never give in to micro-transactions, but take it from a longtime MMO player who’s had some lean times in his life: You’d be amazed how far you can get without paying a cent, even in games with relatively restrictive business models. Even the greediest games will still usually offer most content and rewards to free players; it just might take a little extra effort.
The “I Was There” Factor
If there’s one thing that no other genre of game can replicate — not even smaller scale online games — it’s the ability to say, “I was there.”
Every once in a while, something will happen in an MMO that those present will never forget. Some huge in-game event that will be forever famous… or infamous. Sometimes it’s something carefully scripted by developers. Sometimes it’s something orchestrated by the players. Sometimes it’s a total accident. But it’s always unforgettable.
If you’ve never experienced a moment like this, there’s no way to adequately describe what it’s like, but if you’ve played MMOs for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced at least one, and you know how special it is to be able to say, “I was there.”
For me, my favorite took place during the first anniversary celebration of The Secret World. I happened to find myself in the same zone as a streamer who was interviewing the game’s director at the time, Joel Bylos. When the anniversary world boss for that zone spawned, Joel used his GM powers to blow his avatar up to Godzilla size and join players in beating the tar out of the boss.
He then danced Gangnam Style for a few moments before vanishing without a trace.
It was equal parts epic and hilarious, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.
Oh, and that streamer? We’re still friends to this day.
That’s my favorite, but I have other “I was there” moments from across my MMO career. I was there when the Legion hit Westfall. I was there when Bacon Squad took the fight to the Karka. I was there when Gaia’s chosen drove back the Whispering Tide.
We all have our own moments, our own stories. That’s what the scale and the unpredictability of MMOs offer, what no other genre of game can replicate: The chance to be a part of virtual history, the chance to experience once in a lifetime moments that will never come again.
The chance to say, “I was there.”
What’s Your Reason?
We all have different feelings on different mechanics, but there’s no denying that MMOs are good and well. Some might play MMOs for the social connections. For me, it’s about the opportunity to fully inhabit a virtual world and bear witness to its history as it unfolds.
What’s your reason? What is it that keeps you coming back to MMOs?
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Considering what the acronym stands for, one would think more MMORPGs would entail at least some form of roleplay. However, RPG has become near synonymous with increasing stats through levels and equipment. This has carried into MMORPGs. The primary content in an MMORPG isn’t designed around immersion and living an alternate life. Despite a much greater opportunity for roleplaying, the gaming aspect perhaps gets overemphasized.
Of course there is nothing wrong with gamey features. Progression is a lot of fun. Many that play MMORPGs have a great need for achievement. Rewarding play with new abilities keeps a game fresh and compelling. Dungeons and Dragons, the prototypical roleplaying game, clearly understands this. But it’s able to do this in a way that doesn’t detract from players RPing. It accomplishes this through choice – every action is possible in D&D. Most MMORPGs are more linear, with a stepping stone progression. There also isn’t a Dungeon Master to help when the players do something ridiculous. So it’s understandable MMORPGs won’t match a tabletop session for roleplay potential.
Despite these limitations, some titles do offer compelling virtual worlds in which to engross ourselves. Roleplaying can happen in such organic ways that players may not even realize what’s happening. That might be roleplaying in an MMORPG at its finest. Stopping to consider how your character would react can bring detachment from the world. True immersion arises from instinctively responding to situations because your motivations are so clearly understood. To be fair, that is a hard feat to accomplish. Players rarely receive opportunities to deviate from intended quest lines. In such linear MMORPGs, simply giving the opportunities and tools to engage in RPing can also be rewarding. The inherent social nature of the genre can feed interactions more absorbing than the simple numbers game of the loot treadmill.
The point is that roleplaying comes in many forms. There’s active and passive RPing, group and solo RPing, and linear and non-linear RPing. So to it’s disingenuous to say one size fits all for MMO players seeking to add more roleplay to their lives. Below is a list of games that best fit the myriad of forms this activity encompasses. Many of these have even been played without its players realizing unintentional RPing was actually a huge component of the game’s enjoyment.
Lord of the Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has three official roleplaying servers supported by Turbine. Unlike many MMORPGs that designate RP servers then throw them to the wolves, Turbine actually enforces a unique set of rules for LOTRO RP. The broad overview of these rules mandate lore enforced character names, in character usage of most chat channels, and harassment-free roleplaying. Trolls love to ruin RP server players’ fun, but LOTRO actually feels like a safe spot.
There’s also a wealth of content for players that synchronize with their characters. Emotes, music playing, cosmetics, and community events all offer opportunities for the budding roleplayer. For those that want it to be, Lord of the Rings Online is more than just an ascent of power to conquer Sauron’s allies. Middle-earth is steeped in rich lore, but there is no prior knowledge of this lore to enjoy oneself. The community is very welcoming, as long as you’re willing to try.
The Secret World
The Secret World (TSW) is one of those roleplaying games that forces you to roleplay without you even realizing it. This game has the best quests in the MMO genre with everything tied to the real world in a fantastical yet believable manner. TSW’s three factions offer a unique way of looking at the game world, and it’s hard not to feel enveloped in your organization’s machinations thanks to great storytelling. The game also provides other small group oriented options for more freeform roleplaying, but there are better options on this list for that. TSW proves roleplaying can exist without non-linear player choice.
The Elder Scrolls Online
Now that One Tamriel is live in The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), players have been presented with an impressive degree of freedom not seen before in a themepark MMORPG. The latest update for ESO scales the player’s level up or down to match the level of the area. That means players are free to take on whatever good or evil quests best fit their character. Though One Tamriel’s primary purpose is to enhance open ended exploration to match the single player Elder Scrolls games, it additionally enhances the game’s roleplaying.
Prior to this update though, the roleplaying scene was already thriving in ESO. ZeniMax Online Studios, who runs ESO, actively praises and supports roleplaying. The game has one of the best community RP websites of any MMORPG. The social aspect is huge in ESO with giant guilds offering someone to roleplay with at all times.
The first true MMORPG is still one of the greatest for roleplaying. Ultima Online (UO) is all about player choice. From character creation to progression, there are so many options that it can be overwhelming for new players. It’s the only game I’ve been able to play where I didn’t feel bound to combat. Of course, I still enjoy combat oriented characters, but craftsmen, thieves, musicians, and animal tamers all have their place. UO isn’t a freeing as it was when first released due to rule changes that lessened PvP (and the ability to be truly evil), but expansion packs have dramatically increased the game’s content. This has granted players access to more interactions that fall in line an imagined archetype. RPing is so great in UO because it’s inherently woven into simply playing the game.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Eve Online in this list. Yes, it’s a sandbox game with a ton of different skills to learn that are up to the player. Yes, the players effectively run the game world. Yes, player interactions are numerous at the highest and lowest level. But the problem is that the game boils down to acquiring power. Whether crafting, manufacturing, or killing, every character feels like they’re reaching for the same goal through different means. Still, there is more to Eve’s universe than space, stars, and ships. That the game can create such memorable narratives points to a strong roleplaying element. After all, why else do we roleplay than to create memorable stories for our characters? I maintain that choice is the most important attribute for roleplaying, and Eve Online offers it in spades. This may be a borderline addition given that RPing is not officially supported, but I feel Eve Online belongs.
Putting the RP Back in MMORPG
It’s not realistic to expect a tabletop roleplaying experience in an MMORPG. Maybe one day someone smarter than I will create such an innovative system. For now, there are still some good options for immersive play. While other games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV do offer their own quality roleplaying communities, they don’t get the job done quite like the above games. There’s certainly more to finding your top MMO than RP-ability but, for many, it’s an important start.
RMT. Real money trading. The nasty three letter acronym associated with gold farming, pay to win, and bots. It’s existed in MMOs for the better part of two decades, back when Ultima Online gold traded at higher exchange rates (200 gold to $1 USD) than the Italian Lira, Hungarian Forint, Indonesian Rupiah, Vietnamese Dong, Colombian Peso, and several other real world countries (250 to 14,000 units to $1 USD). This was in era where all real money trading took place on eBay (sometimes facilitated by company employees), before more specialized shops opened their doors.
People will kill to become a Colombian millionaire.
Eventually, massive inflation sets in because wolves somehow drop coins and MMORPG NPCs print money on demand to buy player trash. Money sinks like repair costs and auction house taxes never offset the constant printing of game currency. Even the loss of capital when ships blow up on Eve Online can’t compete with the universe’s infinite resources. The effects of MMO currency inflation on RMT is as multifaceted as it is unclear. The obvious impact is the increased cost of goods. This drives players with more real world money, less time, or both, to seek out-of-game methods to acquire in game currency. And where there is demand, there is supply.
MMO RMT carries a host of problems. The chief issue being the devaluation of the most active players’ time. What’s the point of grinding for hours on end when top gear can be purchased for a day’s paycheck? Diminishing the reasons to actually play the MMO is a major negative for anti-RMT folks.
At some point it’s too lucrative of a money making proposition to pass up. In 2005, over 100,000 people in China reported working as full time gold farmers (“gold” acting as a moniker for all virtual MMO currency). These “players” contribute nothing meaningful to the game, mindlessly killing creatures for loot. At it’s worst, gold farming creates violations of human rights. To increase efficiency, gold sellers use bots to generate even more gold. This unnatural crowding of high end areas pushes real players out. Even if players can avoid the bot infestation, constant channel spam for “BUY GOLD $5=5000G WWW.CASH4GOLDMMOSTYLEYO.COM” ruins actual human communication. People need to be able to gripe publicly without fear of the bot takeover. The effect of the supply side absolutely damages the average player’s experience. That doesn’t even take into account the ethics of gold buying.
Inflation occurs quickly.
MMORPGs are first and foremost games. It’s even part of the acronym! Real money trading is essentially cheating. Imagine playing a board game with friends. You offer to take another player out for the price of $5. They accept and cruise to victory. What’s the point in playing when money will decide the outcome? More topically now that the NFL season has begun, imagine paying $5 to a fantasy football leaguemate for Antonio Brown. That’s a big change that affects the fair competition of the entire league. At the same time, these examples ignore a major difference between MMORPGs and other games. MMORPGs are also virtual worlds with real economies and thus, inherently valuable currency.
In the cheating examples, the time commitment for those games is significantly less than in top MMOs. You also play to win, which is rarely part of MMORPGs, despite the oft-used “pay to win” label. Competition of a sort still exists, but ultimately time dictates who sees the greatest success. When top guilds in World of Warcraft spend a full time job’s worth of hours raiding, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone can compete. Here, money is the great equalizer. After all, time = money. Does that justify real money trading? I think it’s at least a fair argument.
As evidenced by just how many RMT stores exist, a significant number of players obviously agree. It may not be fair that players can use real money to purchase virtual goods. It’s also not fair that players have more time than others. This is what happens when progression is based on primarily on time rather than skill. Players don’t really improve at MMORPGs, they just dedicate more time. The only way to advance is to play more, and that’s simply not an option for many people. How else can these individuals keep up with top players except to turn to RMT? Admittedly, some are also the cheater types who will do anything to get an unfair edge. They’re not looking to just level the playing field, but to beat out everyone else at whatever cost. RMT doesn’t change that. There’s always hacks, exploits, and bots for cheating.
Let’s take away the negative indirect affects of RMT: gold farming, chat spamming, increased customer service expenses, and bots. If we could do away with those, is the time = money defense a good enough reason to support RMT? I can see both sides. It is cheating, but it’s not like all players are playing by the same rules anyway. Putting more time into an MMORPG is like getting more moves in a board game. I think it’s up to MMORPG developers to design a game that limits the appeal and usage of RMT.
Even though World of Warcraft is rampant with gold sellers, I feel it’s designed well enough to limit RMT. The best gear must be earned in challenging raid environments and cannot be traded. The items people can buy with gold minimally impact other players. I’m not going to fault someone for spending $10 to buy a mount instead of hours of mindless grinding. Guild Wars 2 launched with the mantra end game gear should be easily attainable. Real money trading mainly leads to cosmetics in Guild Wars 2. I’m good with that. They also implemented their own developer-run RMT shop, which drastically cuts down on RMT’s outright negative ramifications. Horizontal progression may lessen the need for RMT given that there’s little to vertically separate players.
Virtual currency will always have real world value. MMORPGs will always require time to advance. Real money trading will always exist because of these perpetuities. I do not dislike RMT inherently, but don’t enjoy the environment it creates. I doubt even active real money traders do. Still, I think it has a place to eliminate tediousness. It just takes foresight to build an MMORPG with RMT and it’s effects in mind. After all, we’ve come a long way from buying gold in Ultima Online.