Graphical roleplaying games (RPGs), which owe a lot to pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, have seen explosive growth over the last few years. They invariably involve creating a character or small group of characters and improving their skills and equipment by completing tasks in the game.
The PC is the leading platform for playing this type of game online, but like their single-player counterparts, they are sure to become increasingly popular on consoles in upcoming years. As with 3D action games, some recent RPGs feature advanced graphics that require a pretty good computer, and you would be well-advised to look up the game's system requirements before making a purchase.
Multiplayer Roleplaying Games
Limited multiplayer options have been available in certain graphical roleplaying games for quite a few years. Using methods similar to those of strategy games, it's possible to undertake adventures with small groups of players. Where online play is supported, connecting with other players is accomplished through an in-game interface which allows you choose a map, place a limit on the number of players, set a password, and so forth. This interface varies from one game to another, but there are usually instructions to get you on your way.
Games of this kind don't usually charge monthly fees or provide persistent worlds to play in. Neverwinter Nights is one notable title in this category because it comes with tools that allow the community to create and host their own content.
As you would expect, the technology behind Internet games is constantly changing, and online RPGs have started experimenting with features that blur the line between multiplayer and "massively multiplayer" gaming. Guild Wars, for example, provides virtual cities within the game that serve as meeting places from which small groups of players depart on quests rendered exclusively for their party.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs)
Games that allow hundreds or even thousands of people to participate in an online world are refered to as massively multiplayer games. For the most part these titles can only be played online, and a monthly subscription fee is the customary revenue model for these products.
As mentioned above, the PC remains the prefered platform for MMOGs. A number of MMOGs for consoles have become available in recent years, however. One such title, Final Fantasy XI, allows PC users and PS2 users to play in the same world, and it's coming to the Xbox 360 as well. With the next generation of consoles, I expect to see a trend toward making cross-platform MMOGs.
While the variety of MMOGs is always growing, at this point in time RPGs are the dominant genre for this kind of game, hence the widely-used acronym MMORPG, which stands for massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. In a MMORPG your character has a persistent identity and it can take months or even years of regular gameplay to advance to the highest levels of the game.
EverQuest and World of Warcraft have been instrumental in making MMORPGs mainstream, but there are plenty to choose from, including a handful of freebies.
Servers, Realms, and Shards
Unlike standard multiplayer titles where the community can set up their own servers, game servers for MMOGs are operated strictly by the developer. While a server for a multiplayer shooter is typically a single computer, the demands of massively multiplayer gaming require that each "server" is actually made up of a cluster of computers working together. They are often called "realms" or "shards" rather than "servers." If the game has more than one server and you want to play with a friend, make sure that you both create characters on the same server.
Popular MMOGs are inevitably reverse engineered by hackers, who then set up "emulators," which are free servers operated without the developer's consent and are generally considered illegal. It may be tempting to avoid the monthly fees attached to most of these games, but emulators tend to have very poor server performance, small player populations, an abundance of cheaters, and no customer support to speak of. Given the number of hours most players put into their favorite MMOG over the course of a month, you would have a hard time finding a better value for your entertainment dollars.
Patches and updates are a way of life when you play MMOGs. These games get frequent fixes and updates, so they almost always have an automatic patcher integrated into the client. When first installing a MMOG, expect to spend a considerable length of time downloading updates, which are often hundreds of megabytes, before you can play. If the automatic patcher gives you problems, sometimes you can get a manual patch through the developer's site or one of the many independent file distribution sites.