Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quick Hit: What makes an MMO?

By definition, we all know it means Massive Multiplayer Online Game. Yes, I'm aware that it should more accurately be MMOG but the "Game" is implied when you say MMO.

The Online part is obvious, the "Massive" part is subject to opinion. And the "Multiplayer" part is subject to interpretation. For example, some would argue that the "leveling" game in a MMO like WoW is not Multiplayer at all.  Whereas, I might argue it is Multiplayer by virtue of it being a shared world.

I was reading an entry over at KTR about Cultural Differences and I was struck with a thought.  I think, at it's core, the defining characteristic of an MMO is shared experience. Or more specifically, a shared gaming experience with hundreds of strangers.

Now traditionally, this shared experience is in a Persistent Online World (POW), but I don't think a persistent world is really the defining trait. Lots of MMOs have sharded worlds or very little persistence. In fact, I would argue that if you start with UO, the trend has actually been to move AWAY from persistence in MMOs.

But the one commonality in all these games is shared experience.


Scott said...

To be correct, the term is "Massively Multiplayer" not simply Massive, which can (and usually does to those who use so incorrectly) mean something else.

The phrase itself was coined "back in the day" (by the M59 guys, if I recall?) simply to differentiate "massively multiplayer" from "multiplayer" in terms of how many players could be in a game session. Back then, multiplayer games ranged from 2-16, occasionally reaching the 32 or 64-player mark. Hence, they wanted a term that automatically meant more than that many concurrent players could be in a massively multiplayer game -- and they meant it by your typical MMO capable of hosting 400+ to over 3,000 per server, depending on which game we speak of.

As for "persistence" I would be tempted to say that *for now* that falls strictly within the realm of MMORPG's (since people love to say simply "MMO" but not *all* MMO's are RPG's). And you are absolutely correct that MMORPG's are less and less persistent these days. At least by the definition we players use the word. If we use other definitions of persistent which mean "constantly repeated; continuing; permanent" and so forth, then yes, our MMO's are "persistent" in that they are completely "static" -- nothing changes.

As a side note, if you dislike MMOG because "'Game' is implied when you say MMO," then is not the "Online" also implied thereby leaving simply "MM" to be your preferred term? :p

Looking at the "shared experience" concept, that could in fact be a predominant factor in what makes a massively multiplayer game since traditionally a multiplayer game has all participants involved in the same activity. Whether it's an online card game, racing game, RTS, FPS, or even action RPG's like Diablo, every player logs into the game in order to directly participate in that one activity with the other players in either a cooperative or competitive manner. Massively Multiplayer games, on the other hand, allow hundreds to thousands of players to be logged onto the game server, but each could be off doing their own activity. In fact, the number of players we can *directly* interact with is limited to 5-6 maximum which is the normal group size. 6 is anything *but* massively multiplayer. Then we have raids, which are multiple groups but our *direct* interaction has been slightly limited in recent years by developers making several skills only apply to group members, which means they won't work on raid members in another group, and certainly not on random strangers.

Yet there are a handful of games which can offer a similar experience in a non-massively multiplayer environment as well. Crackdown (2 players) and Crackdown 2 (4 players) allow each player to run off and do their own activity anywhere in the game world, exactly like you'd see in an MMO. Stepping things up a notch is Red Dead Redemption which has up to 16 players per session (player hosted, not dedicated servers) and again, players can go off and solo their own activities or there is also a grouping mechanic as well, and both cooperative (PvE) and competitive (PvP) modes co-exist in a seamless open world. It's only lacking the persistence bit, but then it's not an RPG so is persistence necessary for it?

Anonymous said...

Professor Beej has an article up that touches on the same sort of things:


Oh, and Chris over at IHasPC noted a while back that even in an MMO like WoW, you really only ever play directly with at most 40 players for 99% of the game, and fewer than 6 (as Scott rightly notes) for 95% of the game. There just isn't much to rightly be called "massive" about that as far as day to day activities go.

Thing is, that's pretty common with normal human grouping behavior out here in the real world. Groups over 5 people start to get impersonal. Groups over about 25 people start to get unwieldy and inefficient. Groups over 120 or so tend to fracture into smaller groups of 25-40. And yet, "Real Life, the MMO" has a lot of people in it and plenty of shared experience. It's just asynchronous and localized. The one thing that tends to involve a lot of people, the economy, is more impersonal and anonymous than WoW's Auction House. That's almost the only way that it can really work at the scale it does.

Tangentially, this is one reason why I detest forced grouping. The "game play" that involves is only a small slice of the MMO experience, and it's not even the most important one. When it's an active annoyance, it gets in the way of the rest of the experience, especially if it's the focus of dev attention.

It will be interesting to see what the "Facebookization" of Blizzard does to its next MMO. WoW found a critical mass that tends to self-perpetuate, where it's more than a game or series of minigames, it's a shared experience across fansites, cultural conversation and the game industry (including the board, card and miniature games). I suspect the "social networking" angle will make the "shared experience" stronger... even as it further erodes the "virtual world" design.