You’ll often hear an RPG referred to as a single-player RPG or a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (also known as an MMORPG).
In a single-player RPG, your character is the only character in the game world controlled by a player (you). In a massively multiplayer online RPG, you share the game world with thousands of other players, each controlling their own character.
Some gamers only play single-player games, some only play MMORPGs, and others play both. Single-player and multiplayer RPGs are similar in many ways, but there are some important differences between them. Let’s delve into those differences, so you can decide which type is best for you.
Both types of RPG usually have a story, but the depth and strength of the story tends to be better in single-player RPGs. Also, the game world can change in response to a player’s choices more effectively in a single-player game. It can’t do so in an MMORPG because everyone is sharing the same world.
This sometimes leads to discontinuity in an MMORPG, because when new areas of the game world are released, sometimes a character you’ve killed might suddenly have come back to life in the new area. In other words, the canon the developers decide upon for the world might differ from your choices.
The depth of the game lore can sometimes determine how interesting the story in an MMORPG will be. For example, two MMORPGs I’ve spent hours playing, The Lord of the Rings Online and The Elder Scrolls Online, are both set in established worlds with a lot of pre-existing lore, so the quests and dialogue are quite interesting. If I wasn’t already interested in the world and lore, the stories might come across as more generic.
You’ll have to read reviews to figure out whether an MMORPG is light or heavy on story. The same goes for a single-player RPG. Being single-player doesn’t guarantee a great story, but you’re more likely to get a good story in them.
MMORPGs usually have larger game worlds than single-player RPGs. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the MMORPG is a large game world. Because many MMORPGs use a subscription model, they need to keep players interested in playing, so they’ll continue subscribing. They don’t want players to run out of content too quickly. The game world will usually already be quite large when the game is launched. Over time, more areas are added to the world. Players buy DLCs or expansions to get access to the new areas.
Single-player RPGs can also have large worlds, DLCs, and expansions, but the number of new areas that will be added to the game is limited. Typically two or three areas or quest packs will be released for a single-player game, and then the developer moves on to another project. That isn’t the case for an MMORPG world, which will continue to expand until the game is shut down.
Here’s where MMORPGs shine. If you want to do quests and kill big baddies with other gamers, then an MMORPG is for you. You can quest with other players, chat with them, socialize in cities, role-play with them if that’s what you’d like to do, and even marry other players in game (some games have special support for this, others don’t, but there’s nothing to stop you from having your own ceremony and inviting your in-game friends).
Lots of people like companions in single-player games, but those companions aren’t real people. They’re NPCs. In MMORPGs, you’ll sometimes do things with NPCs as part of a quest, but you can also play with real people and develop a great friends list.
If you don’t know any other gamers in real life, don’t worry. You can join guilds. Even when you’re not grouped with other guild members, you can chat with them in the guild channel (by chat, you can type what you want to say to them, or you could actually speak to them if you’re using something like Discord).
Even if you’re a solo player, you might prefer to chat while you play, and you can do this by joining a guild and chatting to your fellow guild members.
If you prefer to do things on your own, you’ll definitely get that in single-player games, though you can solo in many MMORPGs too. However, if you solo (meaning you don’t group with other players when playing the game), typically you won’t be able to complete difficult dungeons and receive the highest-tier gear available in the game. Because you won’t be doing the difficult areas, you won’t need the highest-tier gear, so it usually doesn’t matter.
Having said that, some MMORPG developers do something really stupid: they’ll put some of the game’s main story quests in these difficult areas. In other words, to play the complete story, you must complete areas that require you to group with other players.
The developers do this in the hope that it will encourage solo gamers to group, but it rarely works. If story is important to you and you prefer playing solo, make sure you read reviews and any forums associated with the game to see if the developers have made this mistake.
The social aspect of MMORPGs can be a double-edged sword. Playing with other gamers can be a lot of fun. But having other gamers in the game world with you can also be annoying and prevent you from becoming fully immersed in a game.
If you’re primarily interested in playing with your spouse or a group of friends, you might want to check out RPGs that support co-op play. In these RPGs, you play with a limited group of gamers that must be invited to the game (if you’re playing on a console, it can be as simple as having 2-players). Of course, you can also just group with your spouse or friends in an MMORPG, but in a co-op game you’ll get the grouping aspect without sharing the game world with people you don’t know.
Player vs. Player
In MMORPGs, you can usually engage in Player vs. Player (PvP) activities. This means you’ll engage in combat with other gamers, either alone in one vs. one combat (in which case you’re dueling them), or as part of a group that’s pitted against another group.
In some games, PvP takes place throughout the world and you must engage in it. In other games, you can turn PvP off, meaning other players can’t attack you, or PvP only takes place in designated areas of the world.
In single-player games, PvP isn’t possible, of course.
If you’re interested in playing an MMORPG but you don’t want to engage in PvP, read reviews and information about the game carefully to make sure PvP only takes place in specific areas, or that you have the option to turn it off.
Character Progression and Combat
In a single-player RPG, there will be a way to grow your character so they feel stronger as you progress through the game. There will also be a combat system.
The same is true of an MMORPG, but there’s a twist. These things can change, and often do. Let’s say you have a favourite combat skill you always use. For a year, you have fun using it. But then the MMORPG receives a new patch, and guess what? The way your favourite skill works has changed. Maybe it doesn’t do as much damage. Maybe the time it takes to perform the skill has increased, or it used to affect three enemies, but now it will only affect one.
When a skill is made weaker, we say it’s been nerfed, and nothing upsets gamers more than when skills, or entire character builds or classes, are nerfed.
Of course, the opposite can occur. Your favourite skills could become more powerful. But the point is that the combat system and skills can and will change in an MMORPG, but they never will in a single-player game.
If the thought of a changing combat system and skills makes you break out in a cold sweat, stick to single-player games.
Single-Player Games are Forever (Sort Of)
When you buy a single-player game, you can play it forever, or at least as long as there’s hardware you can use to play it. This isn’t true for an MMORPG. Most MMORPG games are eventually shut down. The servers they run on are closed when the game is no longer profitable. You can no longer play the game. Your character(s) are deleted and that’s that.
Usually there’s warning signs before this happens, the primary one being a declining population in the game world. When a game is first released, the population will be high because many people are playing in the world. But over time, as other games are released, or players start to lose interest because they’ve run out of content to play or they’re annoyed at nerfed skills, the number of players in the world will decline.
Keep this in mind when deciding whether to start a new MMORPG. The game probably won’t be around forever. You won’t be able to play it for 20 years, like you can with Morrowind or many of the older games found at GOG.
There are some major differences between single-player RPGs and MMORPGs. I’ve only covered the more important ones. If you’ve never played a single-player RPG and want to try one, check out some “Best RPG” lists and pick one up on sale. You can get great deals on RPGs that are at least a couple of years old.
If you want to try your first MMORPG, many games offer a free trial period, though some only do it at certain times of the year. Some games have a free membership, meaning you can play for free, but usually your account is restricted in some way. Still, trying one of these free games would be a good way to get your feet wet without spending any money.