What the hell is an MMORPG?

(Warning, late night rant)

I have so many pet peeves about the game industry I should probably start selling a few. Buy a “Peeve™” now for only $19.95. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m going to stick a “Peeve™” in the next RPG I work on and make it one of the most irritating mobs ever. Just watch me.

Anyway, the point of this evening’s rant is a bit of an extension of something I wrote about the importance of names (well, sorta). Ok maybe not so much names as definitions. Arguably the most critical aspect of communication is having a set of words or terms which are well defined and act as a frame of reference. Otherwise when I ask you to “watch out for the truck” you think I am saying “Throw a slimy fish at me”.

In our happy little game industry, evil and radical elements have been striving for years for our downfall. Of course this sort of thing is a constant element in politics, education, and the youthful culture of today. The weapons of choice of these dastardly agents of destruction include obfuscation, misdirection, redefinition, outright lying (the word “leading” in front of “developer” or “game” is used so much my eyes bleed when I see it), and of course “baffling with bullshit” and “dazzling with drama”. The one I want to address today is redefinition.

Redefinition, in this context, is either applying a term to something (incorrectly) so many times that its meaning eventually changes in colloquial speech or simply eschewing what a word means and redefining it for our own devious or illiterate purposes. The same applies for acronyms that are used as words.

For example, MMORPG is an acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. I emphasize “Role-Playing Game”. Yet it the term has experienced a subtle shift in usage to apply to just about any online game that isn’t exclusively single player. Even worse, half of the games that are branded as MMORPGs don’t even have role-playing as a key gameplay feature or element. Why does this occur?

There are many reasons, but one of the big ones is rather ironic. We mislabel things when we try to describe them to someone else, and we simply don’t have the words to do so, or we fear that if we accurately describe it, the person we are talking to will completely misinterpret and misunderstand and “not get it”. For example, how many times have you heard someone call Second Life a game, or even worse, “a MMORPG like World of Warcraft”? It is clearly a virtual world, and most certainly *not* a game, but to the general non-gaming public (more irony), they don’t understand the difference and they probably know someone that plays World of Warcraft. So, some people (notoriously news anchors, columnists, and analysts who have a hard time with facts to start with) simply take the easy route and muddy the waters in an attempt to be clear and succinct.

So, what the hell is an MMORPG? What should it be? What other terms should we add to our vocabulary to help us describe things?

A MMORPG should be defined as an online game where thousands of people can simultaneously interact in the same shared environment where role-playing is a key element of the experience, and interaction with other players and the virtual world itself is based on gameplay rules and mechanics.

As I’ve said before, ALL MMORPGs are virtual worlds, but not all virtual worlds are MMORPGs. The word “persistence” used to be used when describing a MMORPG or virtual world, but that isn’t so much of a solid indicator anymore. Persistence or “persistent world” meant that:

1) when you log out, the game/world sticks around and doesn’t reset and

2) if you moved something, it was still moved when you returned…unless someone else logged in moved it.

All MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds meet the first case, but very few these days meet the second. The reason for this is mostly due to technical limitations…can you imagine if every item you ever dropped when your character’s inventory was full actually stayed around in the game unless someone else picked it up? Crikey, there would be trash everywhere.

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself here. Back to my definitions.

MOG: Multiplayer Online Game. Any online game with two or more players at the same time, but not Massively. This includes stuff like Chess, Neopets, Quake, Unreal Tournament, and a billion other titles.

MMOG: Same thing as MOG but with an extra M for Massively. This should mean that thousands of players are interacting in the same world/environment simultaneously. People that are on different *web pages* at the same site, or a game that has thousands of multiplayer games going at the same time do NOT count as massively multiplayer.

MMO: Massively Multiplayer Online. Commonly used as an abbreviation for MMORPG and doesn’t necessarily mean there are role-playing elements.

MMORPG: I already gave you a good definition for this one above. Use it.

Adding letters to the beginning of MMORPG, like “U” for Ultimate or something is pretty stupid in my opinion and nothing more than a cheap attempt by marketing to differentiate a title. If it is really ultimate, it will speak for itself.

It would be nice if everyone started adhering to my definitions and started using them regularly.

Another area where things have gotten a little muddled in our industry is in the title designations of who does what at a publisher. Let’s have a little survey shall we? What exactly does a producer do? How about a designer? A writer? Haha, that last one was a joke, when was the last time you saw a game developer or publisher hiring a writer. Weird huh?

The “producer” has responsibilities that change from one developer to another. As far as I can tell, it isn’t too uncommon for them to act as a project lead or even what we would all call a “game designer”. From my point of view, I’d define a producer as the guy that keeps everything and everyone on track and acts as a high level facilitator. I’m curious to see what the readers of this post are going to say about this one…

What about “designer” or “game designer”? Wow, this is the proverbial holy grail job in the industry. Most of you will be as shocked to learn (as I was) that these days, the “designer” is probably the guy doing level design (art job!) or maybe doing NPC scripting, writing flavor text for items and quests, and probably a reasonable amount of testing. Either that, or the designer is likely a programmer or producer that was given a concept and told to design a game around it. Of course, this changes from company to company, but my point is that the designer isn’t always the creative guy in the background that is actually designing the game. It is more than writing stories and coming up with cool gameplay ideas. If you want a job as a game designer, you better know your way around ALL aspects of game development, and get as much experience as you can.

But I digress…my ultimate point here is that our industry lacks a common glossary that we can all refer to. In some areas it is a cause for confusion, misunderstanding, and false perceptions, while in other areas it simply muddies the waters…publishers mean one thing, developers are thinking something entirely different, the marketing guys are on mars drinking too much vodka, and the users ultimately buy something that is nothing like what they were expecting for so many months while they were waiting for the game to launch.

Maybe it is time for our industry to stop “making” games and start “crafting” them. We keep saying that games are a form of art and should be treated the same as literature, cinema, theater, sculpture, and so forth…yet we lack some of the same basic standards and common language that other areas of art confidently boast.

One last point…our standards suck. Thousands of games are made every year (yes, thousands), and the grand majority of them simply suck. All together, we have a giant black hole trying to suck us all in. It is time to stop playing around (pardon the pun) and try to start making great games that, well…have worth. An impact on the player or on our culture. No, I don’t mean like pac man or pokemon, but a true impact. We must raise our standards (hiring better writers is a start), define our common language, and aim to provide memorable experiences for players.

What do you think?

~ Robert / Nicodemus

PS: If you know anyone that has the ability to manufacture mass quantities of plush “Peeve™” toys, have them email me.

36 thoughts on “What the hell is an MMORPG?”

  1. Second Life is a bane to the gaming industry, not because it’s a game , but because the mass media is, as you pointed out, so bad at actually reporting they lump it in with games. So far this hasn’t been too bad so far, when they (the mass media) finally start realizing the very very high amount of sexually related content in SL there is going to be fall out. Which if all it did was kill SL (we can dream) i’d be fine with, but since they keep lumping it with games some jackass in congress would immediately start calling for tighter restrictions on all games.

    Oh and you left out a term that is floating around. MMOFPS which gets used for games like Planetside, and Huxley. I’m not sure if they warrant their own seperate terminology really, as they meet the requirements for being called a MMORPG. The only difference being that if you see something to shoot at in Planetside it is always another player(Huxley even less deserves it’s own since it has NPC mobs in it).

    As for terminology for the gaming industry, I myself, and I think most other players, gave up on trying to figure out who does what long ago. Instead you all get lumped in to the generic term of “developers”. The problem with that though is that players tend to lump people under the developer umbrella when they are in fact not developers.

  2. /cheer Nicodemus.

    Very nice, I agree. Reminds me of something I wrote years ago on the subject that I can’t find right now :(

  3. JoBildo…hire for what? People always ask me if I am hiring and my industry colleagues are always asking me if I know people looking for work. It would help if people stopped asking, and just started sending me resumes and portfolios. Even if I don’t have something open, I usually know someone that does.

    Rand’al: Ok, a huge second life rant has been brewing for quite some time. The big hold up is that I hate it. To do a proper rant, I need to spend more time in there. You know, like you can’t really evaluate a MMORPG if you just have a level 1 fighter.

    Maybe I’ll start selling anti-SL t-shirts in the meantime.

  4. I was kidding, Robert. :) I’ll keep in mind that I can send you a resume and portfolio, though. Nuh-uh, no taking it back. You said I could! *runs off crying*

  5. “To do a proper rant, I need to spend more time in there.”

    It’s not a proper game, so it doesn’t deserver a proper rant. Go for it.

  6. “The big hold up is that I hate it. To do a proper rant, I need to spend more time in there. You know, like you can’t really evaluate a MMORPG if you just have a level 1 fighter.”

    Well in an MMORPG there’s a lot more to how the game works. As soon as you step in to Second Life the sheer craptastic nature of the user interface immediately starts hitting you upside your head. Unlike an MMORPG where you can work around a bad UI because its not the entire game, in SL the interface is pretty much all you got.

  7. It’s kind of funny (and probably sad) that I found enjoyment out of the “trash” that littered the grounds of Ultima Online. I was a scavenging fool when I first started. I grabbed books, runes, candles, or anything that people dropped and tried to sell it off. Later on in my UO life I actually created a character named “Garbage Man” which I would pick up garbage at Brit bank and then dump outside my house. I would then return with a load of runes to the pile of junk and watch as people came and went :P

  8. Heartless, that is a very interesting observation, which begs the question…what if MMORPGs bring back true persistence?

    1) You could hide and stash items anywhere. Like pirate treasure. Of course, someone might find your stash so you have to protect it. Like with a dungeon and hirelings haha.
    2) There is a need for “garbage men”. Maybe some cities in game become totally cluttered and nasty with discarded items, thus prompting more laws or a citizen effort to clean up. This would also make scavenger types useful…heck this would be a good role-playing opportunity as well I think.
    3) Skills that are related to searching would be a lot more useful. Imagine stealing a powerful relic from an enemy country and hiding it in the mountains somewhere. It might take them months or years to locate it again…unless they bribe some really high level scryers to find it for them.

    The downside to all of this is the database. Man, that would be a nightmare.

  9. In Asheron’s Call, people used to spell things out on the ground by dropping items. In fact, most people used to transfer items from one character to the other by finding a remote place and “drop muling”. Drop the item, log out and then log in your other character that is already at the same spot.

    Many of my more valuable items had been obtained by coming across a veteran dump. Players quitting sometimes dumped all their goods on the ground before deleting the character.

    I imagine UO had people doing the same sorts of things, but I never played that.

    Turbine did add some sort of timer to make items disappear after a while if I recall correctly.

  10. Let’s go with MMOA, A for Adventure, or MMOE, MMO Experience. That particular qualifier satisfies just about any large-server game or poorly interfaced griefing experience out there, while lengthening the acronym to the minimum four letters required to keep the marketing team happy.

    Side Note: Acronyms for the actual names of games seem to be immune to this requirement, ie: WoW, CoX, EQ(2), AC(2), AO; as well as moving into the clumsy long ones like LotRO and ATitD.

  11. PS: Can’t we come up with something more syllabic than MMORPG? Morp’g doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

  12. how about MORG.

    Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game.

    Yeah, I know role-playing isn’t one word. However…I could argue that it has been used as one word for so long that it pretty much is now.

    I also don’t think we need to refer to large scale online games as “massively” anymore. It seems redundant and it diminishes the sense of massive. Massive, to me, is like 50,000 people in the same city at the same time. And no shards.

  13. Well said indeed. It would be great to see a gaming company drop as much cash as possible into creating/producing a game that made us all drop our jaws in amazement. I doubt we will see that for quite some time.

    The company I work for spends a shit load of money marketing our products, and very little money on polish. Our specs are wrong on many products, delivery times are inaccurate, and the amount of people who actually work here vs the amount we should have is downright sad at times. My point is that while every gaming company claims they want to make a great product, they also want to cut as many corners as possible to keep costs down. WOW should have taught the gaming industry a lesson when it came to creating a highly addictive, well polished game that will run well on a POS computer, but it seems to me that many of the new MMORPG’s slated for 07 are going the other way; they are requiring high system specs, and pushing their buggy/laggy products out the door as fast as possible.

  14. Everyone is in awe of what can be pulled off with a directX 10 system, dual core, tons of ram, 64 bit, HDR, etc. Look at Project Offset, Unreal, and the CryTek engine screenshots to see what I mean. Honestly, it is pretty damn impressive. Visuals are the best way to get people to drop their jaws, and open their wallets. The problem I have been trying to point out to a lot of people for a long time (and you would be surprised at the amount of people in the industry that disagree with me), is that graphics are not as important as what is “under the hood”. It may be harder to get people excited about a game if the graphics aren’t absolutely stunning, but I think the markets (as a whole) have reached a point where everyone is starved for something *good* for a change.

    Polish is a key starting point here, and goes beyond how a game looks.

    I think the majority of existing studios, and the new ones (look at all of the announcements in the last 12-18 months) that are getting funded are going to fall into the same trap…emphasis on marketing and graphics, with a lot of “dazzle” about features and gameplay that will never really be implemented. Title after title launches and disappoints. Why aren’t they delivering?

    My challenge, or at least something I am working toward, is to whine, rant, and complain until people feel embarassed about putting out crap and really strive to craft something worth the tens of millions of dollars being invested or to simply do it myself.

    Now, I realize I’m not perfect and I don’t know everything, and even with an unlimited budget and the best people on the planet, there is no guarentee that anything I could get cobbled together would be any better or more successful than anything else. I think the differentiating factor is that I want to try and honestly strive to craft something evocative and engaging and fun as hell, whereas other efforts are just trying to make a MMORPG to tap into the “money tree” that a successful title can be. My point here is that when you have a team that is dedicated and ambitious to reach a higher level, then you have a reasonable chance for success, whereas for a regular studio that simply has a mandate to make a title (from scratch or based on an existing IP) you don’t necessarily have that spirit.

    I am also of the opinion that you don’t need to double your dev budget simply for marketing. To be sure, marketing helps get the word out and can rocket you to massive subscriber numbers, but I think that it is ultimately a waste of money. I would rather a strong steady build, and manage the growth. Word of mouth is cheap and powerful, and if it is supported by smart and efficient marketing, a lot can be accomplished.

    Besides, I think that having to wait in line to login to a MMORPG that I am paying a monthly subscription fee for is absolutely insane and an insult.

    Make it fun and engaging, and people will love it.

    One last comment…I have rarely been able to play the majority of games I have ever bought with all of the bells and whistles turned on. I think that if someone took the time to do a study, there is actually only a small percentage of people that have the specs to run things all the way in ultimate graphics mode.

  15. “One last comment…I have rarely been able to play the majority of games I have ever bought with all of the bells and whistles turned on. I think that if someone took the time to do a study, there is actually only a small percentage of people that have the specs to run things all the way in ultimate graphics mode.”

    This is another area were Blizzard excelled at. WoW manged(still manages to) look good without needing a super PC to run it, even when it was first launched. They realized exactly what you want others to. The majority of people online aren’t running around with a DX10 capable PC (hell i’d wager most are still running older DX8 cards) especially overseas in other countries. They have had 8m people running their game, no way did a majority of them have high end PC’s.

  16. I think we have strayed off topic some, but who cares?

    I’m glad you mentioned polish Nicodemus. Everyone keeps commenting on Blizzard and the polish they gave WoW before release. I think CoH also had a good deal of polish but it hardly gets mentioned.

    I predict that no MORG will do near as well as WoW has unless they at least equal the polish Blizzard put into it. Then they need to add more “features” to the game than WoW has. There has not been a MORG released since WoW that comes even close to the same polish level. Vanguard? No way. Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar? Not even. Nothing.

    WoW is the baseline for mechanics, aesthetics and polish all MORGs should start from. You must make a game at least as good as WoW and then go beyond. Being “different” will not be enough. You have to be better.

    WoW is a pretty basic MORG as anyone that has played a variety of them can attest. Some think WoW can’t be beat. I disagree.

    Now this does not mean every MORG should be trying to beat WoW. There is a lot of room for smaller, more focused MORGs. As long as they can survive on a smaller subscription base and the game type has less broad appeal, more power to them. There is room for more games like EVE Online out there.

  17. I’m kinda surprised noone is arguing about the definition of RPG… ;)

    But I agree that standardized job titles would be a godsend. I do have to wonder how well you can pigeonhole some of the higher-up positions, though…what if your producer IS your product lead? Or your writer (assuming you have one, of course) is doing level design on the side?

    Is anyone really surprised that a well-polished game is attracting and keeping more attention that the shoddy competition that’s available? And are they surprised that marketing and it’s somewhat incestuous relationship with business management have no clue when it comes to something that isn’t pure shiny?

  18. I think that if the only food for sale is rotten eggs, people will buy the best rotten eggs they can find. Even if the shells are shiny and some marketing guy says these are the industry leading rotten eggs.

    I also think that polish shouldn’t be the hallmark of a great game. It should be as standard and expected as something ubiquitious as a login screen. A game with no polish should be derided as amateur piece of crap and it should be shunned like Charlie the Unicorn. I get the feeling from some of these comments that polish is one of the key reasons for WoW’s success. What does that say about WoW or the rest of the industry?

    Gamers are too easy on the game companies out there, but we are gamers and we want games, so we keep buying the crap, and it just helps continue the cycle.

  19. I wouldn’t say polish, but rather accessibility. WoW doesn’t give the average player much crap. Don’t get me wrong, the crap is there if you dig for it, or if you are a more serious player that goes through all the way, but the mass of casual/semi-casual players sees little aggravation at all. WoW is a pretty friendly game, with friendly requirements and attractive gameplay if you don’t want too much aggravation.

    But that’s accessibility, not polish. A polished game doesn’t break mods and addons left and right with every point release. A polished game doesn’t have a huge chasm running right through the (formerly) most populated area 24/7 for players to fall into when they lag. A polished game has a LFG interface that’s worth a damn. True, all small things, but they add up.

    WoW is moderately glitzy, easy to get into, attractive graphically and runs on pretty much whatever rig you put it on. It’s no surprise it did as well as it did. It’s an MMO-lite done right, that’s about it. Nicely done, and and honest GG Blizz.

  20. OMG pingback! //waves to brandon at gamingmmo.com//

    Ok, so we started with definitions and ended on polish. Its partially my fault, but it is a testament to the somewhat lively commentary we get, as well as some really bright readers.

    Just remember:

    MOG: Multiplayer Online Game. Any online game with two or more players at the same time, but not Massively. This includes stuff like Chess, Neopets, Quake, Unreal Tournament, and a billion other titles.

    MMOG: Same thing as MOG but with an extra M for Massively. This should mean that thousands of players are interacting in the same world/environment simultaneously. People that are on different *web pages* at the same site, or a game that has thousands of multiplayer games going at the same time do NOT count as massively multiplayer.

    MMO: Massively Multiplayer Online. Commonly used as an abbreviation for MMORPG and doesn’t necessarily mean there are role-playing elements.

    MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game: An online game where thousands of people can simultaneously interact in the same shared environment where role-playing is a key element of the experience, and interaction with other players and the virtual world itself is based on gameplay rules and mechanics.

    And just for grins:

    MORG: Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game.

    If we can get people to start using MOG and MORG more often, as well as making the difference between “next-generation” and “evolution”, I will feel like we accomplished something.

    Oh yeah, some standard definitions for job titles would be nice too. Speaking of which, if you are in the industry and want to help, email me your company’s definitions for job titles/responsibilities (emphasis on MMORPGs). I’ll mix it all up and try to start a base for everyone to use. Yep.

    ~ Robert / Nicodemus

  21. Nicodemus wrote: “I get the feeling from some of these comments that polish is one of the key reasons for WoW’s success.”

    That’s exactly my point. WoW should be the baseline, where you start. The bare minimum standard if you will. The fact it matters so much is a sad comment on the state of the industry.

    My wife played Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar with me the other day and she quickly went back to WoW. Her comment was simple: this game is not done. All that based on just moving around in the game. She hardly played it beyond the initial impression which was all she needed.

    As a longtime MMO player I got used to playing buggy games. She started with WoW and won’t play anything that is not at least as well made as WoW.

  22. “Don’t forget MOCI: Massively Overrated Cybering Interface.”

    We just call that SL. :D

  23. I hear if you stand in front of a mirror and say “Second Life” three times, then John Romero appears and gets you from behind.

  24. You know, it took me a while to clue in to the homonym, but that could get awkward in conversation.

    “What’re you up to tonight?”
    “I’m going to HFC to loot the place clean!”
    “What’s that?”
    “It’s a morgue.”

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