How MMORPGs Work

Game Play

A group of players fights a dragon in Vanguard:
Photo courtesy Sony Online Entertainment

Getting around an MMORPG world is no small feat. Worlds tend to be large, and they're typically arranged into zones designed for players of different levels. When a new character enters the world, it starts out in a zone with low-level enemies and lots of quests. Once the player completes the quests, the character is usually strong enough to move on to a neighboring zone, which has slightly harder quests and enemies. While this gives most games a logical progression, some players find it repetitive and refer to the quest-and-level cycle as the level treadmill. Most games have several other features in common:

  • Classes and skills allow players to customize their characters. Different classes have different strengths and weaknesses, as do different skill sets.
  • NPCs offer quests, sell items, give advice and train characters in new skills.
  • Mobile objects, also known as mobs, give players opponents to fight. Mobs are any enemies that players can kill to gain treasure or experience.
  • Dungeons, also known as instances, give groups of players lots of mobs to attack and treasure to gather in a comparatively small amount of space. Dungeons aren't necessarily underground -- castles, space stations and even outdoor temples can all be classified as dungeons. Unlike the outside world, in which players must compete for monsters and resources, a group of players can have an instance all to themselves. The game gives each group its own copy of the dungeon, which no one else can enter.
  • Transportation methods, such as boats, space ships, mounts and teleportation devices allow characters to move over large distances in shorter amounts of time.
  • Containers, like backpacks and bags, let players manage their characters' inventories. Often, these containers display items in a grid. Some worlds allow characters to carry only a certain amount of weight. In many games, players can keep part of their inventory in virtual banks.

Each of these changes as players reach higher levels. In general, as players progress, they gain access to better abilities, higher-quality gear and faster transportation methods. But the game doesn't stop when players reach the level cap. Reaching the highest level often gives characters access to endgame dungeons. These dungeons are exceptionally difficult and sometimes require large numbers of players to complete. For some people, these dungeons, or raids, are the point of the game. But for others, the game is as much about socializing as it is about getting gear and loot.


Coordinating all of this activity requires lots of equipment. Next, we'll look at exactly how a computer and a server become a game world.