As games start crossing platforms and genres the lines of what made a Massively Multiplayer Online game different from just regular multiplayer games is getting more and more blurry.
There’s a lot of debate going around with newer MMOs regarding if they are “real” MMOs and astonishingly it isn’t all debate created by the players. Recently Matt Firor, Game Director of The Elder Scrolls Online referred to ESO as being more of a multiplayer game than a MMO. Just a couple of days ago Division was announced and people are already debating if it is actually a MMO or not. So what makes a MMO?
The first characteristic, which seems simple but isn’t, is there should a massive number of real people playing in the game world. The crux here is massive is sort of a subjective term, and what does it mean in terms of numbers of people who play the game or the numbers of people you see in game?
For me the key here is there needs to be people who can just run through your game without you having to invite them. Part of what makes Diablo 3 and SimCity not MMOs is because you only ever will come across another player if you invite them to play with you. In a real MMO even if you choose to play through all the content solo, you will still encounter other players out in the world.
Must have an open world!
Another argument some people make is “a MMO needs to have an open world”. Open world refers to a world where you can roam around and not have to zone everywhere. When it comes to MMORPGs the number of truly open world MMOs is staggeringly small (when you consider how many MMORPGs have or do exist). An example of a totally open world MMO is Asheron’s Call. You could wander from one end of that game to the other without ever seeing a loading screen. Even World of Warcraft forces you to zone into certain areas of the game. Sure it’s mostly when you are switching continents and it is done to speed up travel, but it does make it not a fully open world game.
On the other hand there are games like Neverwinter where the world is almost completely instanced. You can’t walk from say Protector’s Enclave to the Black Lake District without going to a loading screen first. Another current game with a lot of loading screens is Star Wars: The Old Republic. SWTOR does have some larger zones than Neverwinter, but you still have to go through loading screens to go between zones. In fact the list of MMOs which do not have an open world is longer than the list of those which do.
Give me levels, classes, and roles!
A criticism many people had with Age of Wushu is there are no classes or levels. This is also something people are pointing to in Division to say it isn’t really a MMO. Now if your experience with MMOs consists of games like WoW and Dark Age of Camalot then it might seem like a valid complaint. However, let us recall a little game called Ultima Online. In UO characters were advanced through improving skills not by selecting a class and leveling. I’m not sure anyone would even bother trying to make the argument Ultima Online not only was a MMO but also was a successful one… Well Strauss Zelnick probably would but that’s a whole different thing. Classes and levels merely give players one way of playing their characters, not having these things actually opens up more play options and definitely does not disqualify a game as an MMO.
MMOs are played on computers not consoles!
The most baseless criticism of some MMOs is they can’t be MMOs if they are played on consoles. I don’t even get why this is a thing. Final Fantasy XI was one of the first MMOs to be played solely on a console and it was pretty successful. IT reached 500,000 subscribers in April 2009 which is a really good showing for any MMO outside of WoW. There is also another point of view to consider when thinking about console MMOs. By more MMOs going to both PC and Consoles developers are complicating things a bit, but what they are also doing is increasing their pool of people who would play their games which in the long haul makes it more likely for more MMOs to be successful. Which is a big part of why i don’t think we should be discounting consoles MMOs.
Must have endgame!
What about endgame?? Endgame is one of the few things I don’t think we can really hedge on when talking about MMOs. One of the amazing things about the whole MMO genre is the game never ends. You fight a boss, but then you can go do it again or do something completely different. The issue comes in when people say there is no endgame, but what they really mean is there is no endgame they want to do.
Guild Wars 2 has had its fair share of the misdirected ‘there’s no endgame!!” complaints thrown at it. Examples of things to do at max level are finish the storyline if you didn’t do it while leveling, explorable dungeons, fractals, WvW, sPvP, working on making a legendary (which can take a lot of time if you don’t toss real money at the game), and there are regular content updates (that are free!) which add new things to do. I get if these things aren’t appealing to you, that’s fine. Making the claim there is no endgame in GW2 however is just not at all accurate.
However not all complaints about a game not having an endgame are unfounded. When SWTOR first launched its endgame was a complete mess. Its heroic flashpoints were far more difficult than the ops were to start with, but at the same time doing ops was a pain because there were so many bugs. As a result people ignored heroic flashpoints, finished gearing up in ops pretty quickly, and then didn’t have much to do. The PvP was fun but that was about all there was to do. There were no mini games to pass the time but there were dailies. The real issue was there just wasn’t enough things to do after 50, which was partly related to the Developers thinking it would take players five months to reach 50.
What really matters for a MMO?
Clearly there are many other categories I could break things down to, and there are many games I haven’t mentioned. I have tried to hit most of the big points with the most appropriately fitting game as an example, and I haven’t even gotten into what makes a good MMO. As far what makes a game a MMO, I have narrowed the important qualifications to two main categories. Many other players and a game that doesn’t end are the two foundations all MMOs should be built on. If either of those things are missing you don’t have a MMO.
When do you consider a game a MMO?