First Impressions: PMOG, the passively multiplayer game

We first reported on PMOG here on Massively back at the end of January. It's the product of a videogame startup called GameLayers, Inc., and claims to be a "passively multiplayer game." But unlike most online games, there are no clients or servers -- the game itself is played with just an extension for the Firefox browser, and instead of wandering a vast virtual world with dragons or aliens, you wander around the weirdest virtual landscape out there... the Internet itself.

It's an interesting idea, but does it work? I've been playing PMOG for about a month (the game is now in open beta), and I've amassed quite a stash of virtual cash and almost reached level four. Read on to see my impressions of the "passively multiplayer online game," and find out whether it's something worth extending your browser into.

Installation and Premise

The game is simple to set up and install, especially if you're already using the free Firefox browser. If you're not, you'll have to download and install that first. Otherwise, you simply go to sign up on the PMOG site, and then follow the directions to put the extension in your browser. Once that's all done (a simple restart later), you'll end up with a bar on the lower part of your browser window, which, after you sign in with the password from the site signup, will show off some standard MMO stats.

Your name is there, obviously, and clicking on it sends you to a player page on PMOG's site with a surprising amount of openly available info (perhaps the first of PMOG's security scares -- see below) -- other players can see how long you've been playing, what faction you belong to, how much money you have and have earned, your acquaintances, and what you've been up to in the game lately. This gives the whole "game" a social networking atmosphere, so it is very much an MMO. Even though you don't necessarily group up to take on monsters, there is the sense that you're working within a community.

And the other thing that fosters that sense is that PMOG doesn't really have a tutorial -- they more or less throw you into the deep end of the pool, and throw up notifications on your screen when you're swimming or drowning. The main "instruction manual" for players is the Codex, an online reference that obliquely explains basic things about factions or objects, but many things you're left to discover on your own. This can be confusing at times, but it's also very rewarding.

Blowing up people for fun and datapoint profit

Because even if you forget to go looking for how to play PMOG, it comes to you anyway. As you visit websites with the browser installed and active, you start to passively earn currency, called Datapoints, or DP. Those DP you earn also add to your XP, and they let you buy items at the "PMOG Shoppe." And those items, called Tools, are where the game is really played.

There are six types of tools in the game (and presumably, PMOG may be adding more at some later point), and each one interacts with your browser and the webpage you happen to be looking at when you use the item in some way. Crates allow you to store any other items (or money) on the page you've got, so if you happen to be at a page about philanthropy, you can drop a crate with some money in it, and then the next person who comes along (and is playing PMOG) gets a notice, right in their browser, that there is a crate there, and can retrieve what you've placed.

But not all tools are beneficial -- mines let you lay traps on certain sites, so the next person that comes along . Armor helps you avoid mines that are laid. "St. Nicks" (named, presumably, for the patron saint of repentant thieves) are special mines that you can attach on certain players to keep them from laying more mines.

Portals allow you to create special links away from the website you're looking at (one example I saw was a portal laid by someone on the main World of Warcraft site that went instead to the Warhammer Online site -- since PMOG is played by MMO players, there's a lot of Massively-type jokes like that). And finally, lightposts help you create "missions," which are PMOG's version of player-made quests.

Taking a mission or two

Missions are quite interesting, and this is where PMOG's real potential still lies. To create a mission, any player can put down "lightposts" (which are like bookmarks) on a series of URLs, and then link them together to make missions. As you wander around the Internet, then, you'll hit some of these URLs, and each one you hit will invite you to "take" a mission.

In the early days of PMOG, there weren't too many of these floating around. But as more people have started playing, there are more and more missions out there to take, and they're getting more and more varied. Unfortuantely, lots of them are still just like browsing people's bookmark folders -- the large majority of missions you find are some player showing off "Sites I Visit Daily" or "My Favorite Gaming Blogs." But there's innovation to be had here -- I took one mission that showed off "Obscure Web comics," and was really impressed by the variety shown off. And hopefully players will eventually get even more creative with missions -- as a player, I tried to create a narrative mission that got a pretty good reception.

If players can lay more missions in interesting places and come up with more creative uses for missions, then PMOG will get much more useful. There is a way to dismiss missions (whenever you visit Google or any other well-traveled web pages, you constantly see the same missions unless you dismiss them away), but finding a mission that really does take you away from your well traveled corner of the 'net is the real fun of PMOG, and if the designers can work out a way for that to fix the signal-to-noise ratio on the missions that pop up, then it'll make those experiences happen more often.

Leveling up

The other cool part of PMOG is that it really is passive -- as you lay mines and put down crates and use armor and all of these things, you'll earn XP without actually working towards a direct goal. Even just browsing around with the addon in gives you XP, so even if you get busy and forget about the game for a few days, you can look down a few days later and learn that you've earned a new level.

Levels give you slight benefits, but mostly they just let you earn Associations. The game has seven, one for each tool (Destroyer rep is earned by using mines, Benefactor rep is earned by leaving crates around, and so on), and a newbie Association, called a Shoat. You don't choose your association -- it chooses you based on the actions you take. And while the lore in this game is pretty thin, the various flavor texts and graphics for the Associations are very well done -- I especially like the Pathmaker image, which really shows off the steampunky feel of the game's assets.

Keep your armor on, there are mines around

Unfortunately, while PMOG does make browsing more fun, the game is not without drawbacks. First and foremost among these is the concern of privacy -- the game, by its very nature, monitors and tracks the URLs that you visit online. PMOG does have a very in-depth privacy page to try and answer some of these player concerns: they don't ever track secure URLs, and they don't monitor or track user input to webpages (comments entered, passwords used, or blog updates). But they do track URL visits, and while there are options to keep a certain URL from being tracked (you can turn off the browser, or erase your own information on their sites), there is a chance that if you visit an unwanted URL with the browser extension on, it could get tracked in their database.

So if you do a lot of browsing that you don't want anyone to know about, PMOG is not the game for you. For their part, GameLayers says they'll keep your info secure unless it's absolutely necessary, but if another company comes along with enough money to buy the database up, your browsing information could fall into the wrong hands. If you want to keep secrets, do it with a different browser.

The other major concern with PMOG so far is simply stability -- I and other PMOG players here on Massively had Firefox crash and lock up much more frequently with the PMOG extension installed. In fact, wouldn't you know it, while I was writing this article, Firefox crashed on me, and I lost a good part of what I had already written. If you depend on your browser staying up without fail (if, for example, you're a blogger who often composes pieces in a CMS, ahem), you may want to wait until the game gets out of beta (as of this writing, it's in version .410), or avoid it completely until it's more stable.

Passively multiplayer fun

I really enjoy PMOG -- at its best, it turns random Internet browsing into something more fun, and it will show you some websites that you've never seen before. It's still got a few half-baked ideas floating around (to be fair, these impressions are for the beta version), but what's cooking smells great. The more players get in there, the more datapoints that get left out in the web, and the more creative things will be done with this "exo-virtual" world.

The privacy and stability concerns will leave a lot of people out of the game (and if you aren't already using Firefox, you may not be interested in switching to it just to play the game), but those who do install the extension and let themselves be passively involved in the game world will find a lot of fun floating around. And the larger the game gets, the more fun players will have -- they'll be able to organize large-scale missions like keeping Jack Thompson's Wikipedia page mined up completely or hiding secret prizes around the web (I've hidden one at a webpage about bovines with rifles -- good luck finding it if it hasn't been found yet).

It's definitely an interesting mix of browser-based casual gameplay and social networking. If PMOG can iron out the kinks (and figure out some way to actually pay for themselves -- there's potential for placing ads on the extension bar or within portals), we'll be hearing lots more about the passively multiplayer online game and its players.
This article was originally published on Massively.