Free for All: So, what does "MMORPG" mean?

As a reader of Massively, you should have a pretty good idea what MMORPG means. Not just what it stands for, but what it feels like, looks like, and behaves like. The problem is, despite common definitions, the games keep coming in different shapes and sizes -- and from all over the world. While I receive many comments about the Western coverage that Massively features, I would only be doing half my job if I reported on only the latest half a dozen games to break the multi-million-dollar budget mark in America.

The world is a smaller place, especially now. And across the world there are MMORPGs that are being played and enjoyed in many different ways. There are PvP games, games that place players into instance after instance with only a handful of other players, all while offering the potential to hang out with thousands of other people. Is an instanced combat game still an MMO? How about a game like Mabinogi, which maintains a persistent world, but is broken into several invisible channels for players to skip in to and out of?

This is impossible, but I think I will try to define exactly what MMO means -- now, in this current market.

"Massively multiplayer"

It would seem as though defining this section of the term would be the easiest. But when we really look at it, it's not simple at all. First of all, the "multiplayer" is already defined by "massively." But what does massively mean? 100 people? 50? 1000? I think most of us would agree that this means that you have the potential to interact with hundreds of people, at least. Of course, you cannot participate with all of them at once, and in fact I will go so far as to say that most MMO players participate with the same 10 or so players over their entire time within the game. If you look at full-time players, especially raiders or endgamers, the amount of socialization outside out of the friends list or guild channel drops dramatically. In other words, if you are playing with the same guildies night after night for a year, what does it matter that 3,000 other players exist outside of that group?

"For other players, roleplay refers to number-crunching and stat-math. For them, creating a superhero or a fantasy character is an activity of basic arithmetic and has nothing to do with a backstory."

The best way for me to explain MMOs to non-gamers is to refer to the shopping mall: thousands of people around you, all within their own store or group, who create the potential for you to socialize with strangers. Many new free-to-play games use a sort of channel experience -- instances of the same world that hold only a certain number of players. Mabinogi, as I mentioned already, uses this system.

Then there are games like Guild Wars that use a very heavily instanced world, connected together by hubs of humanity -- shopping mall food courts, basically. To this day, as a matter of fact, players debate whether Guild Wars is even an MMORPG at all. Does the playerbase have to exist within the same non-instanced world in order for the game to be a legitimate MMO? How would instanced dungeons or phased timelines figure into the equation?


Again, this might seem like an easy section to cover. Now, though, many of us are playing on devices that utilize the "invisible internet" -- not an internet that you log into, or that you sit in front a PC to access, but an internet that is loaded automatically with the launch of an iPhone game or Droid app. Will "online" even exist if games are in a constant state of being connected? Even single-player games now have some sort of multiplayer mode or co-op mode, some even featuring dozens of players in one "single-player" game. Is O a needed letter anymore? After all, you can't have massively without it, unless you are talking about LARPing.

It's becoming a blurry line, isn't it?

"Roleplaying game"

"Roleplaying" is defined in more ways than "massively," unfortunately. For me, it is defined as a player acting as something else, or acting as if he is existing somewhere else. For other players, roleplay refers to number-crunching and stat-math. For them, creating a superhero or a fantasy character is an activity of basic arithmetic and has nothing to do with a backstory. I can see why many players have dropped the "RPG" part: it's just too variable. It could be argued that just logging in and participating in the game is roleplay. I'm comfortable with that. While I want to pretend that roleplaying in the "How art thou?" sense of the word is both commonplace and my favorite activity, it is neither. Technology has gotten to the point that we hardly need to describe what we look like or feel like -- emotes do that, as well as voice fonts and bios. Games have now become so immersive that we forget we are playing them. Even the "worst" game becomes a wonderful social experience, waiting to be taken advantage of.

Can we keep it simple?

In the end, no we cannot. Changes in technology, new playstyles, and a constant influx of new players with new ideas will keep the definition fluid, or will eventually force us all to shrug and log in. Personally, I'm tired of being paranoid about whether the game I am playing is, technically, an MMORPG. To use the mall scenario again, as long as I have the potential to find people, to hang out with people, and to possibly go kill a dragon with people, all within the same persistent world and lore (with or without instances) -- then I'm OK with calling it an MMORPG. One day, massive games will be the norm, simply because of new technologies. When I first started playing these games 11 years ago, did I ever imagine the same quality of game being held within my hand? Logic says that the problems with lag, graphical and otherwise, will no longer be an obstacle to multiplayer games that feature every player from around the world who wanted to participate. Real life might be the ultimate non-instanced game right now, but soon technology will make sure that even basic MMORPGs come in right behind that.

I attempted to define the term MMORPG, but found that it is now more undefinable than ever. I understand the need for a persistent world, but we must be honest about how few of us access players outside of our friends list, anyway.

What do you think?
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.