Start up the computer, go online and explore a strange fantasy world using a gaming character you've created on your own: the idea has become a familiar one thanks to the mass phenomenon known as World of Warcraft.
It may surprise some gamers to learn that the principle is hardly new. The first online role playing games started appearing as far back as the 1990s. Success would have to wait for the developers, however. It wasn't until 1999 that the title Ultima Online and the near-legendary Everquest helped the genre break through.
MMORPG is the unwieldy abbreviation for this entire category of games. It stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Games of this type involve developers providing a digital world with cities, landscapes and sinister crypts for players to freely traverse with their fantasy figures. Players are free to join together into groups or clans to make quests or wicked monsters easier to defeat.
It's an appealing idea even if it was the technology that acted as the draw in the early days.
"It's hard for players today who are accustomed to the idea of flat rate internet access to remember how complicated this kind of stuff was at the time," says Karsten Lehmann, a spokesman for game publisher Ubisoft.
His company produced Everquest for the German market. Anyone who wanted to play needed a powerful computer and a willingness to pay quite high online costs.
By 1999, those costs had sunk sufficiently to lure some people - frequently technology fans to at least try out the online world once.
"Everquest at its apex reached a subscriber count of around 500,000 worldwide," says Karsten Lehmann. The subscriber base is important because the providers of online games usually centre their business model on monthly fees paid by players.
Brad McQuaid is a big name in the world of online role playing games. He was the leading figure behind the development of Everquest at Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) in San Diego. The success of the online game made McQuaid into a household name in the gaming sector. Some people even referred to him as a gaming god. In 2002, McQuaid left the company to work on a project of his own.
In the interim, other companies had recognized that online role playing games could be a success. And to the accompaniment of a marketing roar, game developer Blizzard launched World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2004. It differs at first glance from Everquest in its comic book style graphics, but otherwise retained the rest of the game play principle: a fantasy world and gamers tasked with quests to bring in experience points necessary to achieve higher levels.
The real innovation was in the significantly easier learning curve: "The biggest difference is surely the accessibility," says Christian Beer from WoW's German publisher Vivendi.
For many players, WoW appeared to be precisely what they were looking for. The game currently has 8.5 million subscribers worldwide, Vivendi reports.
Several other providers have attempted to siphon off that base of potential gamers by providing even easier access to inexperienced games. American developers Turbine recently achieved success in this way with their Lord of the Rings Online game, which has enjoyed best-seller status since it was released earlier in the year.
Yet not everyone learned their lesson from WoW; Brad McQuaid for once recently made headlines again, but in a less positive way. For five years, his California-based company Sigil had been working on a successor to Everquest. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, reported to be a game that did everything better, was released in early 2007. It was notable mostly for numerous technical flaws and its blocky game play.
Vanguard flopped and Sigil was bought out by SOE, whose developers then attempted to smooth out the flaws enough to preserve Vanguard's small user base.
And the beat goes on: the next wave of online games is expected in the coming months, bringing with it both tried-and-true, innovating ideas on how to reach new customers.