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.