The pseudo-MMO is a game which is similar to an MMO, but lacks things that an MMO often has, such as subscription fees, a truly massive environment (as opposed to a very large environment), a centralized server, or non-instanced zones. They aren't "real" MMOs, but they come very, very close. By offering persistent worlds, large amounts of players on a server at any one time, and sometimes even single-player, these doppelgangers can capture the "feel" of an MMO without (or with, in some cases!) a subscription fee. So let's walk down the list.
Guild Wars is not an MMO. It has more in common with the Diablo franchise than any other game or MMO, and I'm not referring merely to the gameplay itself. Where Diablo II had Battle.net lobbies, Guild Wars has towns. Where Diablo II had player-created rooms, Guild Wars has fully instanced environments. You could almost say that Guild Wars is Diablo's grown up brother, who finally hit puberty and developed the ability to speak to girls.
Another pseudo-MMO that often comes close to appearing as a real one is Hellgate: London. Some notable features that differentiate it from a real MMO are things like instanced wilderness but shared towns (something it has in common with Guild Wars), a single-player mode, and distinctly smaller-sized environments. However, Hellgate has such MMO content as persistent worlds, continuing gameplay updates, and a subscription fee (although optional). It's non-MMO features, however, place it squarely in the realm of pseudo-MMO.
But what about other multiplayer games that offer persistent universes that people don't consider MMOs?
Take a look at Freelancer. It offers a massive environment consisting of several dozen star systems (and that's not even considering the many mods added to it), a persistent character system, and both PvP and PvE play. Why isn't it an MMO? Well, the max amount of players runs somewhere between 64 and 128 on a server at any one time, there's a comprehensive single-player mode, and the servers are player run as opposed to developer run. And because of these things, there is no subscription fee to play online. It may not be as comprehensive of a multi-player space simulation as the almighty EVE Online, but it's not bad.
Another is Neverwinter Nights, which offers much the same things that Freelancer does. Huge environments, persistent characters, PvP and PvE play, but it also tacks on story-line quests (Freelancer only has randomized missions) and GMs that can alter and guide content and players. But it isn't an MMO for the exact same reasons, too. No subscription fee, no centralized server (main server index aside), player-run communities, a smaller player base, and quite possibly one of the largest single-player experiences out there.
These games are (hopefully) the future of MMOs. Massive persistent universes with any of the following: Player-run servers, no subscription fees, excellent single-player modes, or fully instanced environments. Let us just hope that developers take notice and begin developing more of these "pretenders", these "doppelgangers", and ease up on our poor wallets.
Next week we'll look at games which incorporate MMO elements into a non-MMO atmosphere, and how viable pseudo-MMOs are in the emerging market.
Each week James Murff writes Under The Hood, a deeper look at MMO game mechanics and how they affect players, games, and the industry.