Are they the same thing? How do I tell them apart? Which one am I playing right now, and what does it have to do with Rocket-Propelled Grenades?
You have probably asked yourself at least some of these questions at one point or another. To be completely frank, the answer to all these questions is quite simple: an MMORPG is a type of MMO.
But to really understand this answer, you first need to know what exactly MMOs are.
An MMO is a “Massively Multiplayer Online” game.
To put it in simpler terms, an MMO is a game which a large number of people can play simultaneously. You don’t play with or against just a handful of players, but thousands, sometimes even millions of them at the same time.
MMORPG stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.”
Another somewhat comical definition is “Many Men Online Role-Playing as Girls” (it’s funny because it's true).
Some might say that all MMORPGs are easily recognizable by their fantasy settings, but that's not at all the case. Though the majority of RPGs do take place in the realm of elves, orcs, and dragons, a lot of them choose different worlds to explore, like far-away planets or post-apocalyptic wastelands.
The keen observers among you may have noticed the two types of games have very similar definitions, but not quite the same. That leads us to the key difference between MMO and MMORPG.
When someone asks what a game is, they often refer to its genre or subgenre. A game “is” a first-person shooter, a survival game or a role-playing game. It’s the same thing with MMOs.
No game is just an MMO. It’s like saying a game is a “multiplayer game.” That’s well and good, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the game itself, apart from the fact you can play it with (or against) other people. The game has to belong to a specific genre.
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs, are MMOs that belong to the RPG genre.
They are role-playing games that can be played online by a large number of players simultaneously.
The difference between MMO and MMORPG is that all MMORPGs are MMOs, but not all MMOs are MMORPGs.
It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. It can be a bit embarrassing talking to a fellow gamer about the new MMORPG you’re playing, only for them to realize you’re actually playing a hardcore Multiplayer Strategy title with a deep base-customization system and no RPG elements whatsoever.
It might sound a little trivial, but gamers can be pretty sensitive to these kinds of mistakes.
Breaking down the MMORPG genre to its core components - the MMO and the RPG. We’ve already covered what an MMO is, so let’s define RPGs.
RPG video games borrow a lot from their pen-and-paper ancestors. For example, they have the same level of character customization. Players can create and customize their characters, represented by a digital avatar.
They can control pretty much anything, from their appearance, race, and sex to their profession and skills. As the game progresses, players have a chance to improve and evolve their adventurer, making them more and more unique and powerful.
Most modern RPGs give the player not only control over their character, but over the world they inhabit. Players’ actions have a direct impact on how the story progresses, and how the world changes around them. It can simply happen by advancing the plot and seeing the story unfolds, but it can also be because of player choice.
The best RPGs allow players to tackle problems and advance the plot in multiple ways, so each playstyle is respected.
An elementary example would be getting past a guard that is guarding a door. The player can choose whether to distract the guard using magic, lie and pretend to be someone famous, or draw a sword and attack.
There should be a different consequence to each of these choices - maybe you’ll get to meet the guard you deceived later on in the game - now out of work and begging on the street.
Then you have all the technical stuff: quests, experience points, loot, skill, and combat. Each of these is tied directly to the core mechanics of character customization, player agency, and a rich narrative.
Take all of this, and put in an environment where dozens, if not hundreds of players interact at the same time, and you got yourself an epic MMORPG!