Free for All: Massively single-player does not an MMO make

Sims Social screenshot
Oh, the constant attempts at defining how we play. While many of them might seem strange or even laughable, they are all attempts at defining something for the sake of streamlining the sale. If you cannot describe your product to someone, especially in very few words, then it probably isn't going to sell. A while ago I attempted to define what MMORPG means, but I would never pretend that I'm the first one to attempt to do so. After all, the games have changed, the way we connect to them has changed, and the interactions we have with each other have changed. So why not the term?

Nintendo seems to think that "Massively Single-Player" makes for a good description. It's a slightly odd one, if you ask me, for many reasons. But let's look at it anyway and see how it might fit into the world of MMOs.

Click past the cut!

Mabinogi screenshot
I know what you are thinking, dear reader. Despite the fact that I am often someone who speaks out for the odd ideas or fringe design concepts, I am not in favor of applying single-player anything, massively or not, to what I do here. Let my tone be clear, however. I am not speaking against it in the same way people might speak out against the opposite political party or illegal dolphin-hunting. I speak out against it more like you would against public displays of affection or getting stuck behind a very lovely yet very slow old couple on the sidewalk. Those things are all fine and good, but I don't really want them in my world right now.

Let's consider the source of the term "massively single-player." It's from Nintendo, the maker of all things Mario and Luigi. For years, the company has made millions by repackaging and reissuing the same titles. Now, with multiplayer everything bearing down on it, Nintendo needs to find a way to allow players to connect. After all, it has shown that it is very aware of the mobile gaming market's lower prices, so I am sure the company is aware of the mobile market's ability to not only connect people but give them a sheer boatload of games to choose from.

What Nintendo is attempting to do, in my opinion, is attract new players to its games. The entire industry has to know about the success of cheap social games that allow players to jump in, interact with their friends or their friends' online representations, have a blast, and fit it all within a working schedule. Hardcore gaming has become more of a niche than ever before, and Nintendo wants to go where the money is. By using a term like "massively single player," the company could possibly attract players from MMOs, FPS fans, or even RPG gamers who think the interactions between players will give the games an element that wasn't quite there in games like Oblivion.

It's a smart move, but it could be confusing for many of us. MMORPG fans are already bombarded with games that feel a bit like MMOs but are not MMOs. Every week I have to dedicate some time to figuring out whether the latest game I was just told about is a "real" MMO or simply a game that allows players to visit each other's farmlands, or in the case of a game like The Sims Social, gives players the ability to visit their friends' avatars. My wife and I logged in to the game and visited each other's house, and we both interacted with a different instanced version of our significant other. I was having a Simlish conversation with her avatar, and on her screen she was interacting with some other copy of my own Sim. It was very odd.

Wizard 101 screenshot
The problem is that these social or MMO-like games are some of the most popular on the planet. The Sims Social recently overtook FarmVille for daily player numbers. Why wouldn't Nintendo's corporate leaders see that and think, "We should really get a piece of that!" Will this new gaming style invade MMOs? It already has in some ways, in the movement driven by players who insist on playing with the same limited group of people, usually doing the same activity.

The difference between those players who maintain a very limited social circle in an MMO and those players of games like The Sims Social is that the MMO players are existing in a world that presents the option to branch out and explore new relationships in real time. Of course, many of these differences between the genres are the result of technological barriers. It must be more expensive to maintain servers to host worlds that exist 24 hours a day, whether or not players are spending much time in those worlds. As the technology becomes cheaper and the internet morphs and changes the way it delivers content, massively multiplayer will be the default, or players could choose to switch between the genres with the push of a button.

Until that time, however, I plan on delivering information to our readers about only massively multiplayer gaming. I will occasionally use single-player games or social games as examples in good design that might be applied to MMOs, but I will remain firm in my dedication to games that are trying to recreate a real, living world for us to escape into. That escape is important to me. It's therapeutic, helps spread information, and allows for us all to exist on equal ground with each other.

The differences are becoming more and more subtle, but they are there. If you take a moment to consider the real difference between a "real" MMO and any other game, you'll find that it's quite easy to spot the difference. I know I can immediately. I get contacted every week by different developers who ask me if I want to take a look at a number of different titles. Most of the time, the term "MMORPG" is avoided if the game is not an MMO. Sometimes, though, they will be sneaky about it and make it seem as though the game is a celebration of real-time interaction between more than two people. I go to the site, check out the screenshots and maybe even make an account. Within minutes I can see the difference.

Keep your eyes open. While I fully appreciate (and in a lot of cases enjoy) massively single-player and social games, they are not what I was asked to write about in this column. Don't worry... only MMOs will be discussed here.

By the way, if you would like to visit my Sims house, you can add... I'm kidding.

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.