This post has been a long time coming, but it feels even more relevant in these last few weeks than ever before. With so few MMOs to look forward to, I think it is important that we each understand what it is we are hoping to look forward to. This isn’t a direct response to any one post in particular, though I know it is a subject that many of us have tackled time and time again. I had originally planned something larger and more epic in scope, but it seemed less necessary than this single part.
MMO means Massively Multiplayer Online. It describes a type of video game in which players play together with a large number of other players over the Internet. By itself, ‘MMO’ tells you almost nothing about a particular game, other than the fact that it requires the Internet and it is intended to be played (to some degree) with others. No matter what kind of MMO a game may be, its still the game’s genre which determines what players are doing.
While doing some cursory research for this post, I noticed the wikipedia article on ‘MMO’ specifically points out many examples of various MMOs, all with distinct genres. For example, a MMOFPS (First Person Shooter) like PlanetSide 2, MMORPG (Roleplaying Game) like World of Warcraft, or MMOR (Racing) like TrackMania: Nations Forever.
Wait, how massive is ‘massively’, anyway?
All of these games are online and multiplayer, but to be a MMO, they must also be considered ‘massively’. The term itself refers to having a large amount of concurrent or, arguably, consecutive players interacting in a shared space. Many MMORPGs allow for thousands of players to occupy a single server, but rarely can they all be in the same area without the gameplay being hindered by hardware limitations. At most, you may see several hundred players interacting at once (an open world boss or event), though in a more conflict driven MMORPGs, such as Eve Online, hundreds can turn into thousands during large-scale PvP encounters.
For other kinds of MMOs, these numbers differ radically. The MMOFPS PlanetSide 2 broke a record for most simultaneous players in a single FPS battle recently when it had a bit more than 1,100 players fighting it out, but that’s hardly a daily occurrence. The previously mentioned MMOR, TrackMania: Nations Forever, broke its own record in 2008 when it had 250 players racing on the same map against one another.
These games all exhibit elements of being massively, but the term is highly dependent on the genre, the intent of the developers, and hardware limitations. PlanetSide 2’s largest battle would be hard to match in most MMORPGs, but those games are more frequently designed around closed group content (raiding) with hubs being the only area in which a large amount of players often interact.
TrackMania hardly compares to the other examples. Yet, when you compare it to the 12 racer max of many modern, non-MMO racing games, its 250 players on a single map done seven years ago seems like a big leap even now.
I dunno, ask the hardware and software people.
Technology also plays a significant role in how massively a game can be. A MMOFPS like the original PlanetSide (released in 2003) would not have been possible on the same scale at the same time as the original EverQuest (released in 1999). PlanetSide 2 (released in 2012) benefited from a higher rate of broadband adoption, meaning a larger population of players could reasonably interact in twitch-based encounters without significant latency problems.
Evolutions in server technology have unlocked the player’s characters from their home server in many MMORPGs. Where once you were bound to a specific shard (to borrow Ultima Online’s term), more and more games are moving toward clusters of servers or single-server designs where players can interact across hidden server lines unimpeded. In doing so, these games have significantly increased the number of consecutive interactions with strangers possible, and created a more concurrent-feeling community.
Contrast that with the smaller, tighter knit communities of the past. During my tenure in Ultima Online, I played on a server that came into being as a special cross-promotion with AOL, and was exclusive to their customers. I cannot imagine the server ever held more than a few hundred people at peak hours. My memory may be hazy, but when they featured how many players were online on the EverQuest server selection screen, I recall seeing most at 1,500 or less.
For better or worse, changes in technology have knocked down many of the walls that once separated players. Even if it hasn’t led to significant changes in how many players can reasonably occupy a single space, it has made MMORPGs feel more massive and given players the opportunity to be truly lost in a crowd.
Doesn’t matter: everything is massive, multiplayer, and online now.
The definition of ‘massively’ is not consistent within a single kind of MMO, differs drastically from one MMO to the next, and is dependent upon both a game’s specific genre and the technology surrounding it. While I don’t think this concludes that the word is without meaning, its meaning is hardly strong enough to base an entire supposed genre around it.
Now that our world-at-large is almost always online through the Internet and social networks, the whole ‘MMO’ thing isn’t exactly unique. Watching a live broadcast of a television show while livetweeting is a form of play which involves many, many people online – that sounds like a MMO to me.
Nearly every AAA game has a multiplayer component these days, and the age of couch co-op is mostly behind us. If you want to play a game with friends, then you must do it online through servers or direct connections. While finding people with common interests in these games (offline or on, multiplayer or singleplayer) was once a more arduous task, the Internet has radically changed everything. Now these communities can quickly find one another and stay always connected via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, forums, etc. These networks provide much of the same socialization that always came so easily to MMOs.
No matter which game, the value of all MMOs rest in the connections they can make between players and the game, the gamer and players, and players with other players. We live in a world where those connections are an emergent part of our everyday online lives, and persistent worlds are no longer necessary to make that happen. Social networks have swept the emotional core behind the idea of ‘massively’ right out from under us and we are all left wondering why we spend less and less time in-game, hanging out, or searching for new friends.
The term MMO is redundant. The entire world – not just our games – is massively, multiplayer, and online now. MMORPGs are less special and not nearly as engaging as they once were because of it.