A Case For Massively

James at MMOCrunch brought up the upcoming game, Borderlands, which he classifies as an MMO.  Borderlands is a self-proclaimed FPS with RPG elements.  (Zubon recently discussed the “RPG” misnomer.)  Borderlands is very similar to Diablo’s style of multiplayer where players can join others’ games and the first player’s game adjusts in difficulty.  Only up to four players can join one game, and there seems to be no true persistence (even in a player hub).  Yet, James insists that it is, in his opinion, an MMO.  Going through the acronym: (1) Borderlands is multiplayer, (2) Bordlands is online, and following whatever colloquialism “RPG” means now, (3) Borderlands has some RPG elements.  So the sticking point, as is usually the case when deciding what constitutes an MMO, is whether Borderlands is considered “massive.”

 The sage Nicodemeus wrote out a classification chart two years ago to describe the thin red line between a mere multiplayer online game and one that is “massive.”  Nicodemeus wrote: “[The term “massive”] 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.”  Borderlands clearly does not fall under Nicodemeus’ definition of a massively multiplayer online game.

Yet, does any game fall under Nicodemeus’ definition of an MMO?  EVE Online – which is by far the extreme, real-world example of a massively multiplayer game –  has tens of thousands of players online in the same universe (i.e., shard).  Are these thousands of players all interacting with each other simultaneously?  I doubt it, but it is nearly impossible to say that EVE Online is not a massively multiplayer online game.  I would want to separate the two major weasel words in Nicodemeus’ qualitative definition of a massive multiplayer online game: persistence (i.e., simultaneous) and interaction.  Then EVE Online does come closest to being the perfect candidate to define an MMO.  The whole game is perfectly persistent and any of the thousands of players can interact with any other player.

The next step away from this perfect example is mainstream MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, etc., which have servers to join.  Each server is like a university.  A player can attend any university he or she likes each with their own community, and for some extra work and trouble any player can transfer to another university.  Except for federal mandates from the developers affecting all universities, each university is largely insular from the other.  World of Warcraft might have had over 10 million subscribers at one time, but only small fractions could interact with each other.  Then one has to take in to account the fact that any large player gatherings in one campus building rallying against the federal developer mandates usually create university downtime anyway.  “Massively” quickly becomes a non-quantifiable term.

 Another step away from a perfectly massively multiplayer online game comes from the use of channels (a.k.a. worlds or neighborhoods).  Channels are like servers, but with painless, instantaneous transferring.  The content is the same for each channel, but the player density is not.  Tabula Rasa was the first to stick out in my mind for the use of channels, and Wizard 101 and Aion, are two live MMOs that currently use a similar technology.  Channels are still persistent playzones, but the persistence is only affected by people within the channel.  A server might have 5,000 players online, but when those 5,000 are split up into 10 channels the game takes one more step away from the perfect massively multiplayer online game.

Then we have Guild Wars, which many have argued is not an MMO.  In fact, ArenaNet tried to distance itself from the MMORPG term by calling itself a CORPG (competitive online RPG), which has no hint of being a “massive” game.  (CORPG is a horrible definition for a game where PvE is so popular.)  In Guild Wars, the only persistent areas are in the hubs, which are not themselves actual playzones.  It gets further away from being massive in that each persistent hub is itself split in to channels.  Additionally, the most people that can enter a single PvE playzone are 16, in two separate teams.  Guild Wars gets in to a very subjective zone of classification.  It may not fall under being a massively multiplayer online game by any stretch of Nicodemeus’ definition, but it feels like it belongs to that genre of games anyway.

Borderlands is one step away from Guild Wars in that it has no persistent hub.  Diablo 2 and others fall just inches away.  I do wish I had played Hellgate: London so I could include the game as well in this analysis.  Diablo 2 arguably had persistent “hubs” in the form of chat rooms, but it was not part of the actual game.  The hazy border between a massive online game and a mere cooperative online game is in my opinion somewhere around Guild Wars and Diablo 2.

If I had to create a definition for massively multiplayer online game, I would say that persistence and player interaction are more important than the quantity of active players and the number of active players that can interact at one time.  I would also separate the analysis of persistence and player interaction because things can get pretty hairy once mechanics like private instancing, public instancing, phasing, realms, and other population and interaction dividing mechanics are taken in to account.  Like “RPG,” I feel that “MMO” is also straying from the acronym’s most literal definition.  It will be interesting to see where it goes as the genre grows to include or disclude games like Huxley, The Agency, and others are released.

–Ravious
1.21 gigawatts

13 thoughts on “A Case For Massively”

  1. MMORPG is a term which has outlived its usefulness in any case. It’s over 10 years old and came to be at a time where there was one major game world structure under that umbrella. Two tops.

    What do we have now?

    – Large, completely seamless world.
    – Large, seamless world with instanced pockets.
    – Large, evenly instanced world.
    – Small pockets of shared space attached to large instanced portions.
    – Completely instanced worlds mirrored in shards or channels.
    – Worlds presented to the player as one or many servers.
    – Mere graphical chat room lobbies vaguely connected to scenario areas.

    … and so on, considering whatever people come up with next week.

    I say we drop the “online” already, because it’s implicit. Just like we don’t call our real life team sports “multiplayer” anything, because it’s also implicit. So drop the “online”.

    Let’s also drop the “Massively” because, one, we’ll never agree on where exactly does “not massively” become “massively” and, two, it’s a terrible word to use anyway.

    In fact I have half a mind to just not use any acronym, call them “games” and be done with it. But… if we absolutely, positively -must- have a label we should be looking at using words that truly matter. “Persistent” is a much better adjective and definition of what we’re trying to define. Gotta have “Multiplayer” there because a distinction must be made between single and many-player games, regardless of how many players are “many”. “Seamless” could be another nice term, since it indicates what type of world you’re getting into.

    Call them “PMS” games.

  2. But, how would you define the genre… not necessarily the games’ mechanics. FPS, RTS, turn-based strategy, platformers, etc. all fairly well define the genre through mechanics. Is that just not possible with MMORPGs because the genre is clearly there?

  3. I think that the “genre” itself was originally “created” to define games that did what other games of their time did not (ala, EQ, UO, etc). As the technology and capability to blend more elements into a game increase, and you’re able to include FPS, RPG, multiplayer, online elements over a broader spectrum of games, the actual “designated genre” that the acronym originally defined for those select games that included those elements that other games didn’t have is becoming watered down by the fact that all games are moving towards it.

    Another thing that typically defined MMORPGs was a “subscription fee model” — well as you can plainly see, even console users can indulge in this for a variety of games now. A lot of those “distinctive” elements that could only be found together in an “MMO” are now found together across the spectrum of genres, in a variety of formats. And in my opinion, it’s just going to continue going that way, kind of like how seperating “Rock” from “Alternative” and “Pop” and “Metal” and defining what “Metal” really is, is becoming more difficult by the day, because there are more kinds out there (ie, Speed, Death, Nu, Screamo, Heavy, Thrash, etc, etc, etc).

    I’m sure the arbitrary designations will remain, in a marketing attempt to appeal to people who want to play an “MMORPG”, but beyond the belief that the product honestly fits a distinctive definition that the consumer has in his/her head, as designated by the label, the distinction itself is naturally becoming more difficult to clearly define on a purely objective basis.

    At some point in the near future when bandwidth and hardware increase to the point that you can have lag-free, instantaneous recognition of commands even at the highest level of graphical settings, via whatever setup allows for this (be it “cloud” computing or something else), you’re going to have some developer somewhere that just comes up with the “Everything” bagel or cheesesteak, and people will just call it the “Everything” game. Not everyone will play, but it’ll be possible, and assigning a genre designation to that sort of thing becomes rather pointless, but I’m sure the company marketing the game will just call it an “MMO”, a “Sports game”, and “Adventure” game, an “FPS”, an “Action” game, an “RPG”, etc, just to hit as many consumer demographics as possible, and have their game under every list imaginable.

  4. Rav, I think defining the genre classically as we have been doing with “FPS” for example gets muddy when it comes to MMOs because of their natural borrowing from many other genres.

    Even the traditional definitions of classical genres, with the possible exception of “FPS”, are not really 100% comprehensive definitions or acronyms.

    RTS. Is it top-down? First person? Many or few units to be controlled?
    Platformer? Is it 2D or 3D? Does it include combat via skills or simple physical collisions between sprites/objects? Does it it include some sort of character customization?

    It’s an interesting exercise, but in the end it’s purely semantics. No acronym or genre definition can completely encapsulate the nature of a game or a genre. Not even “Board Games” or “Card games” – Blackjack is after all completely different from M:TG and they’re both quite technically “Card Games” if you wanna get gritty.

  5. How to define massive: For me this is simple. If I know player x is on my server, can I interact with him when he is online? If x is in X being the number of players on the server and |X| is large “enough” then we can say the game is massive. For Guild Wars since you can trade various ingredients for crafting with people in the hub and if someone you know plays Guild Wars, you can get together and run some PvE areas together and there is no sub-set then yes Guild Wars is massive. In that sense it’s better than WoW since there are less restrictions on grouping up (fewer servers = more of the world to gang with). Remember that from the point of view of raids in WoW, Guild Wars consists of nothing but a bunch of PvP battlegrounds and the entire content ouside the cities is basically instances. They just cut out the rest of the PvE experience. But if someone is online, you can meet up in the same city instance and group up to go run a PvE instance since there is free transfer between hub instances.

  6. Let’s not get confused between ‘massive’ and ‘massively’. The latter is an adverb that modifies ‘multiplayer’ and thus should not be taken separately, so the genre is about ‘massively multiplayer’ games, although I agree that the ‘on-line’ aspect is implicit in that description.

    Writing explicitly about ‘massively multiplayer’ games perhaps doesn’t make it any more straightforward to define, but it certainly gives more context than simply ‘massive’ does. Multiplayer games that were not on-line were generally limited to two or four players on consoles and home computers, although LAN play allowed for more players in some examples.

    I would say that the tag of MMORPG was created to distinguish between simple games where maybe a couple of dozen players could compete simultaneously and the new breed of game where hundreds, if not thousands, of simultaneous connections were made to a central hub that also allowed any of those players meaningfully interact with any other. That ‘shards’ or ‘realms’ were created to balance loads and make scaling feasible is not an impediment to the definition, as long as a sufficient quantity of players can meaningfully interact with one another on the same server.

    All this is not to say that the genre name couldn’t be redefined to become more descriptive based on the current style of games.

  7. Here is the solution: MMOG. Massive Multiplayer Online Game. This indicates the size of the world, that there are possibly many players, it’s online, and obviously a game.

    All we need to know. We’ll decide which games we want to play based on the information or experience with said games.

  8. Ravious, when speaking of what sort of OG (Online Game) I’m talking about, I’ve been using the “DIKU” term more recently. It’s a clear indicator of how the game plays, at least, if you’re familiar with the acronym.

    The terminology is definitely outdated and inaccurate, but these games are so wildly different in a lot of ways that the “big tent” term may well stick for a while yet.

    As Chris F over at ihaspc has noted before, even WoW, with its multitude of players, needs only forty maximum players to experience everything the game has to offer. There’s little “massive” about that number. The game *world*, rife with indirect interaction, ultimately houses more than 40 players, and those other players drive the economy, but the actual *game* of WoW really doesn’t need many people. Ditto for the rest of these.

    “Persistence” in these “virtual worlds” really is more of a relevant indicator of what overall “genre” these games occupy.

  9. The original term was created to distinguish games like UO and M59 from “online games” like DOOM or Quake that could only handle a smaller number of simultaneous players. Yes, Meridian 59 is a “massively multiplayer game” by the original definition; it could hold more than 32 (or 64) players.

    This distinction has been lost over the years as the games have evolved and changed. There were epic debates years ago on the MUD-Dev mailing list about if Diablo was really a MUD/MOO.

    Personally, I think the main aspect of these games is persistence. Persistent characters are one key element (implied by the RPG label), but what about the world? This is tricky, since a lot of games don’t preserve exact world state anymore. But, is there any sign in the game that another player did something in the world that didn’t happen in the current play session? Is a guild hall claimed? Is some territory owned by one team? Is loot for sale on the AH from other players? This is what sets a game apart as an “MMO” (or PSW as others used to say.)

  10. I don’t think MMO’s are best labeled according to the literal translation of the term. In the same way that RPG’s *rarely* involve the actual playing of a role (it’s actually about making little numbers go up…)

    Anyway.

    I agree that any Diablo-style lobby game should be thought of as just as “massive” as, say, WoW, in terms of number of people you will *actually* be interacting with at a given time.

    However the term MMO is more useful for saying what form the gameplay will take. If I was going to release a game in the current climate, I would bend over backwards to make sure nobody calls it an MMO, due to the ugly community I would undoubtedly attract (some rare havens of bloggery such as this one excluded of course).

    http://word-of-shadow.blogspot.com/2009/07/dont-call-your-new-game-mmo.html

  11. Melf and Psychochild have it in their sights.

    I think what once started as a term to encompass a lot (MMOx) has been outgrown, but it can still be used as a valid indicator… perhaps not of the world, but of gameplay, because by now most gamers know what kind of gameplay ‘MMO’ gameplay is, and generally what to expect. So personally I’m just fine with using ‘MMO’ as a gameplay description.

    When you get to the actual world it’s a bit trickier because there are huge differences here. If I were to draw a gross classification there are two major types:

    – Majorly seamless worlds with instanced pockets (WoW, LOTRO, etc.)
    – Majorly instanced worlds with shared pockets (Guild Wars, etc.)

    But the key here is that all of these worlds are more or less persistent, accounting for all the little differences in how they implement that persistence. So we should probably focus on that.

    They’re not elegant acronyms, but I think SPW (Seamless Persistent World) and IPW (Instanced Persistent World) do the job. Saying, for example, “It’s a Fantasy SPW-MMO” gives you at a glance not only a quite precise idea of how the game world is built, but also the kind of gameplay you can expect and what kind of ambiance and environment to expect, even. I don’t think we should even mention “Massive” or “Multiplayer”. It should be assumed by now, just like you say “car” and not “internal combustion engine car”.

    Not pretty, but an elegant solution that’s way more precise than “MMORPG”.

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