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Hey! You Got Your MMORPG In My Single-Player RPG!
by Bart Stewart on 11/10/09 03:53:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


One of the things I've been fascinated to see in BioWare's new Dragon Age: Origins is the obvious use of gameplay mechanics copied directly from conventional MMORPGs:

  • Area of Effect (AoE) phenomena (including "friendly fire")
  • "snare" abilities to briefly hold enemies in place
  • buffs ("sustained" abilities) and debuffs (reduction in enemy attributes)
  • aggro (including an actual "Taunt" skill)

Rather than getting into my personal reactions to this design choice, I'd like to focus on what -- if anything -- this may signal for BioWare's future single-player RPGs and possibly for single-player RPGs in general.

First, does it work? That is, does enthusiastically implementing standard MMORPG mechanics as the core gameplay mechanics of a single-player RPG feel right? Do any "old-style" mechanics from well-received CRPGs like Baldur's Gate or Fallout seem to be missing? Or were those really just MMORPG-style features from the beginning, and Dragon Age: Origins is merely making those aspects explicit?

Are the MMORPG-style mechanics so much better than the old-school mechanics (different for every gameworld) that DAO feels like an improvement to the genre? Or will MMORPG-style mechanics allow DAO to feel instantly familiar (and fun) to the millions of gamers enjoying World of Warcraft and the other MMORPGs who share the mechanics in the bullet-point list above?

The more important questions concern the future. Is DAO merely a one-off experiment to explore whether MMORPG mechanics can work in a single-player RPG? Or is it the harbinger of a new breed of RPGs that can no longer be considered "single-player?"

To put it another way, is this the beginning of the end for the single-player computer RPG?

Will Mass Effect 2 play like Mass Effect (only better), or will it be modified to use the MMORPG-style mechanics of Dragon Age: Origins?

Will the elimination of unique gameplay mechanics in DAO in favor of conventional MMORPG tropes be so successful financially that other single-player RPG developers copy this model?

Finally, who drove the decision to use MMORPG mechanics in Dragon Age: Origin -- designers at BioWare who wanted to try something different? Or suits at corporate parent EA who want to cater to the millions of MMORPG players, and who also want to force online authentication of single-player games? Or both EA and BioWare?


I have the feeling that BioWare's blatant copying of MMORPG mechanics for their single-player fantasy RPG is going to be either an "oops, oh well, guess that didn't work," or "OMG, this is The Future!" with very little middle ground....

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Timothy Ryan
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Mez'ing has been in RPGs since the pencil-and-dice days - sleep, blind, web and charm spells come to mind.

But to your point ... you don't innovate by throwing out what works. That would be like throwing out the control scheme on Mortal Combat and Streetfighter and starting fresh. You would risk too much by changing something fundamentally valued by your core market. You also don't innovate by just copying, so you have to be selective in what's different. Case in point, WoW is not all that different from EQ except for how it handled death and PvP and crafting - which largely explains why the game is more appealing to the mass market.

It will be interesting to see whether Dragon Age or Aion becomes the successor to WoW. I'm pulling for BioWare, but who knows?

Personally, I think the next big innovation will be in how encounters are staged and NPCs interact. Spawned and wandering mobs of beasts and NPCs that stand around like sign-posts are just not very compelling.

Christopher Wragg
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@ Bart

Timothy is right, those attributes you mentioned there as MMO-fare are traditional DnD effects, and all of them are in the older Bioware games. In fact having come from a DND -> Baldur's Gate, NwN background I remember playing WoW for the first time and thinking how similar the abilities were.

So basically your analysis is the wrong way around, MMOs rather have taken advantage of time honored single player RPG mechanics, with games like WoW taking a well loved and commercially successful World and combining it with a well known RPG system, then doing something new in bringing it all online (something you used to find only in NwN mods). So it's not really a case of anything new or a question of whether it works, it's all pretty much par for the course in old school single player RPGs.

Bart Stewart
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Timothy and Christopher, thanks for the comments.

I think there's some truth to the point you both make. It occurred to me as well; as a first edition AD&D player, I know that area-of-effect and "hold"-type abilities (for example) weren't invented out of thin air by any MMORPG. In a longer essay, rather than a typical blog post, I'd have explored that point -- in fact, I probably should have, anyway. Thanks for making sure it got said.

Having acknowledged that, though, I think my larger point still stands, and for a couple of reasons.

First is that although MMORPGs have copied older tabletop RPGs, they have refined the relatively random ability sets of those games into a specific set of conventional ability types -- the ones I listed -- that pretty much every MMORPG now adopts as a baseline. Where tabletop RPGs and single-player CRPGs have mixed and matched abilities, the ability types I described have become distinctive to MMORPGs.

If Dragon Age: Origins had used just one or two of the ability types I listed, which might have come from D&D, it might have been possible to reasonably think that BioWare wasn't basing its gameplay on MMORPG gameplay. But they didn't -- they used all of the MMORPG tropes I listed, and did so in an apparently very conscious way. It's the combination of all these design choices that makes me willing to conclude that BioWare deliberately set out to based the gameplay of DAO on MMORPG conventions.

And the second piece of support for that conclusion is aggro, which does not exist in such a sharply visible form in any tabletop RPG or computer RPG of which I'm aware. The notion of "aggro" -- more specifically, aggro management -- is pretty much exclusive to MMORPGs. Yes, certainly every tRPG/cRPG needs to implement some way for deciding which player character an NPC enemy will attack (even if that's just a DM picking someone at random). But the formalization of that concept into gameplay through which players dictate the internal state of an NPC opponent... that's unique to MMORPGs. (I discuss aggro and its discontents further in this blog post:
native_to_Aggro.php )

Because that specific mode of "aggro management" gameplay is implemented in DAO exactly as it is in MMORPGs, and because it's closely accompanied by the other conventions of the MMORPG genre that I pointed out, I find it very difficult not to conclude that Dragon Age: Origins's designers deliberately chose to structure the core gameplay mechanics to copy typical MMORPG mechanics.

Having said that, I want to stress again that I'm neither praising nor condemning that design decision here. In particular, I'm not mindlessly throwing hate at a game developer (as so many game commentators seem to enjoy doing). I'm asking people what they think about BioWare's use of recognizable MMORPG elements in a single-player game.

Even if one doesn't agree that Dragon Age: Origins has gone entirely MMORPG-happy, I think a reasonable person who's played the game could agree that it's consciously used more distinctive elements of current MMORPGs than has any other single-player CRPG in recent memory.

So the questions stand: What do folks think about that?

Is this likely to become the norm for single-player CRPGs? Or all of EA's single-player CPRGs? Or just all of BioWare's single-player CRPGs? Or will it wind up being discarded as a one-shot experiment that didn't pan out?

Mike Engle
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It won't be the norm. It's a fun formula which works, but it's not the ONLY formula which works.

The majority of mechanics are the basic building blocks of design - designers looking at each variable and the ways it can be manipulated. You decide your game has health, so you think: I can lose health (damage), gain health (healing), modify it over time (DOT/HOT), modify the health of multiple targets at once (AOE), and so on.

Aggro is the "new" mechanic and a fun game pattern, but it's not without a few drawbacks. It introduces a risk of immersion loss, when players notice the dragon has been conveniently goaded into attacking their warrior for 5 full minutes now, when it's clear she could turn and 1-shot the healer. Also, it only makes sense for group-based games, which not all singleplayer RPGs are. Lastly it's not the only fun gameplay pattern: in the Disgaea series "tanking" is to keep your flimsy spellcasters 7+ tiles away from the brutish melee enemy who can move 5 tiles each turn.

What matters is that players are empowered with sufficient control over the game. If you're playing Mass Effect and your flimsy spellcaster (er, biotic) comes under attack, you don't tell your Soldier to "taunt", you use Singularity to fling all your enemies into the air - or you use Barrier to give yourself a boost of temporary hitpoints. You're empowered with tools to handle the combat puzzles being thrown at you, and as long as the puzzle is interesting the game will be fun.

Nobody wants to play the exact same puzzle every game though.

Christopher Wragg
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Sorry for being disagreeable but I'd say you've got Aggro Management around the wrong way as well.

Aggro management has been around since Fantasy RPG 101 as well. Even if born from the arbitrary need for an NPC to select an appropriate foe in the Table Top universe, the very first computational rationales used to determine this traget would be called "aggro systems", just simply by another name. Some of the more basic games, used to simply use locked targets, so the first thing to hit it would have "aggroed" it.

In fact even DnD 3-3.5 has a few mechanics that force a target to focus on someone. So I would say that while aggro may have come into the common vernacular as a MMO trope, instead it's was birthed and used quite heavily in the early RPG days, just it was never introduced as a formal system (it simply used to be, "make the warrior go first").

Also the difference with Dragon Age is it's Tactical RPGish-ness. For instance, rather than using snares and the like as aggro management, instead these are actually associated with tactical uses (sure this isn't the case with the threaten/taunt abilities). For instance, paralyse the enemy in the aoe, or in the hallways and his friends cannot make it past him (combine the above two for lols). Things like position also matter a lot more than they do in MMOs. In this way the abilities stray far closer to single player/tabletop RPG fair than MMO.

Ultimately ask yourself this question(apologies but this is the best example I could think of), if I start celebrating the Winter solstice, am I stealing something of Christianity's or am I following an older tradition. Just because Christmas is best associated with the date, doesn't mean that any celebration that uses the date is taking from Christmas.

It's a bit up in the air, but I feel they've more tried tried to capture the feel of their older games than tried to move to take advantage of the MMO market. So it's not a case of;

"Is this likely to become the norm for single-player CRPG?"

But more a case of, it's always been the norm for CRPGs.

Bart Stewart
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No worries, Christopher -- civil disagreement is always welcome. (It's a nice change from the usual kind, actually. :)

I understand the point you're making, and again, I think you're not entirely wrong. I don't think there'd be much disagreement that MMORPGs got many or even most of their gameplay ideas from their tabletop/computer-based RPG predecessors.

What I'm trying to highlight is this: the widely varied gameplay features of tabletop RPGs and CRPGs have been distilled into a small set of gameplay conventions now used by virtually every new MMORPG -- in fact, they have become distinctly recognizable as "MMORPG rules of play." And it seems to me that this distinctive approach to the RPG experience has been adopted in a nearly unchanged form in Dragon Age: Origins in a way that no other non-massively multiplayer online RPG has done to my knowledge.

Here's a test of that theory: How many people have given the character Sten (or possibly Alistair, or both) "tank"-like skills?

If it's a meaningful number, that would support the hypothesis that people playing DAO recognize one of two things: 1) without their being aware of it, the structure of DAO's gameplay naturally leads players to create a tank character to attract aggro and survive long enough to allow the other party members to thin out the opponents, or 2) many people playing DAO also play MMORPGs, realize that the gameplay of Dragon Age: Origins is structured nearly identically to that of MMORPGs, and consciously create the same kind of tank character they'd want if they were playing a MMORPG with other people.

If a lot of people turn Sten into a tank, that wouldn't constitute "proof" of my conclusion that the gameplay of Dragon Age: Origins was deliberately designed around MMORPG conventions. But it would, I think, support that conclusion.

And if you'd like another piece of evidence, what if in, say, a year or two, EA were to publish a new MMORPG based on Dragon Age: Origins?

Wouldn't it be reasonable to think that the single-player Dragon Age: Origins is intended to serve as the gateway game to Dragon Age: Online in the same way that Blizzard's single-player Warcraft was used to attract gamers to World of Warcraft?

BioWare have, after all, explicitly said that Dragon Age: Origins is intended to be the first of several new forms of content based on this new IP...

...but they didn't say what *kind* of games that content might be. ;)

Basing the gameplay of the single-player game around the same MMORPG conventions likely to be used in a Dragon Age: Online would certainly ease the transition of players to the "we get more of your money every month" game, wouldn't it?

(As indicators that this might be one element of EA/BioWare's strategic planning, see for example:

Analyst: EA Betting Big On Online For Long-Term Growth

Muzyka Aims For Long-Term Dragon Age Community, Not A 'Fire-And-Forget' )

Christopher Wragg
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But apart from aggro management (something that can be argued about till blue in the face), and it's skill set (directly seen stemming from tabletop) what other MMO tropes has DA:O used? For one it lacks the grind nature of most MMOs and it's heavy emphasis on story and character relationships is another aspect that isn't associated with MMOs.

While I'm not saying that DA:O won't turn into an MMO (I'd actually like to see this...assuming they keep the game the same for the most part), with DA:O used to test the popularity of such an idea. What I'm trying to get across is that analysis based purely on it's characteristics wouldn't show that it was likely to. For instance the game is more than playable without the tank character, but the player would need to build his tactics around that, in a very similar vein to the way DnD players form their tactics around not having a warrior/barbarian/knight/druid from time to time.

The concept that the tank isn't required (or at least the tanking abilities) particularly strikes me as diverging from the path of traditional MMORPG. So I suppose to your core proposition (is DA:O a precursor to an MMO) I say, most probably, but your reasoning behind that proposal (that the characteristics of the game borrow strongly from MMOs) that I disagree with.

If DA:O leads to a MMO it would be a very different brand of MMO, they'd have to change a lot about it to bring it back in line with that stereotype, or it may break out into a realm of play where a team of mages can do the same content as the well balanced party.

Owain abArawn
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I was watching a show on the History Channel the other night, talking about medieval warfare. It featured a line of heavily armored infantry in front, and behind them a row of more lightly armored archers. At no point during the program did the thought occur to me, "Hey, how did they know way back then about standard MMO characters like Tanks supported by ranged squishy archers? My God, they had healers too! Who knew???"

There are only so many ways to skin this cat, and it didn't orignate with WoW.

Simon Lepine
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Hey Bart, did you play Final Fantasy XII? It was an MMORPG design as well, so Dragon Age isn't really trying something new there.

Iain Hendry
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Almost all of the concepts you're branding as MMO tropes also appeared in the Baldur's Gate games. The current MMO standards were just derived (and often simplified) from earlier computer RPGs, which were derived from pen and paper RPGs.

Dragon Age is a throwback to Bioware's own past. The frequency of these MMO comparisons only highlight the ubiquity of MMOs rather than any influence on game design.