Town scene from the game New World
Amazon Games

MMOs and MMORPGs are some of the most popular video games in the world right now. Let’s take a look at what they are, what makes them different from other games, and why they’re so popular.

Massive, Multiplayer, Online

MMO games stand for “massively multiplayer online game.” These are large-scale online video games where thousands of people are on the same server simultaneously and where there are often opportunities for players to interact with each other. Many of these games feature a large open-world environment with many areas for exploration and a progression system that rewards players for consistent play. The actual gameplay varies between MMOs, with everything from turn-based tactical combat to first-person shooters.

MMORPG stands for “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” and is a genre of MMOs primarily focused on role-playing elements. These often have complex leveling and item systems, elaborate worldbuilding, and questing, usually set in fantasy or science-fiction universes. Some of the most popular MMORPGs include World of Warcraft, Runescape, and Guild Wars.

Most MMOs implement one or a combination of three monetization schemes. Some games charge players a periodic subscription fee so they can continue to play. Others use a “freemium” model, where the base game is free, but you pay extra for boosts, power-ups, and unique items. Lastly, some titles have you make a one-time purchase of the base game and allow you to play an unlimited amount once you own the title.

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A Quick History of MMOs

Ragnaros character from World of Warcraft
Activision Blizzard

While developers were already creating MMOs as early as the 1980s, their popularity came in the late 1990s with the rise of MMORPGs. One of the first commercially successful MMORPGs was EverQuest, a 3D-fantasy game with a massive, detailed world, elaborate character creation, and a deep gameplay system, especially for its time. It was enormously successful and contributed to the increased interest in MMORPGs in the 2000s.

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One of the biggest MMOs in history is World of Warcraft, which launched in 2004. It is known for its remarkable strides in player interaction, guilds, quests, and the scale of its world. It’s still an extremely popular game to this day, mostly thanks to its continued development and massive active player base. The early 2000s also saw strides in browser-based MMOs based on Java and Flash. RuneScape, a browser-based fantasy MMO released in 2001, is one of the most popular games ever made, with over 200 million accounts created.

The late 2000s and 2010s saw a rise in popularity for MMO genres outside of RPGs. For example, vehicular combat titles such as World of Tanks and War Thunder rose to fame. There was also an increased interest in non-combat games, emphasizing socialization and creating friends, such as Second Life and the now-defunct Club Penguin.

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The Virtual Economy

EVE Online promotional artwork
CCP Games

One notable element of many MMOs is the existence of a virtual economy. Because of how elaborate MMO universes are, an economy will often build around the items and resources present in that game tied into some form of virtual currency. A great example of this is Eve Online, an extremely complex space MMO with a robust virtual economy. Its developer, CCP Games, has even hired several economists to manage the in-game economy.

The market sets the value of a particular item or service through various factors, including rarity, game impact, and demand. However, the single most crucial element is that how long it takes to get through playtime. The longer it takes to get an item through regular play, the more expensive it will be. Because of the intensity of the player base, many MMOs have offline interactions between players that can result in the exchange of actual money.

New Games on the Block

Cryo Skill in Genshin Impact
miHoYo Games

Interesting things are happening in the MMO space. In late 2021, you may have noticed two titles taking the online gaming world by storm: Genshin Impact and New World.

First thing’s first: Genshin Impact is not an MMO. While it is an online game that has some multiplayer, it’s almost entirely a single-player experience. However, it’s become one of the most popular games on any platform, owing to its free-to-play model and cross-platform compatibility. We will likely see MMOs adopt many things that have made Genshin Impact so successful, such as a mobile-first approach and the free-to-play business model with a heavy emphasis on gacha elements.

Amazon Games released New World in September of 2021, and it quickly became one of the most popular titles of the year. New World has many essential features in a big MMO, such as worldbuilding and player interactions, with other elements that feel completely different. Many players have praised the elaborate crafting systems, unique progression systems, and high level of immersion. However, many are unhappy about the long queues for players to get into servers.

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Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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