The Firing Line: Defining the MMO shooter

The Firing Line header - various spiffy shooter avatars
Hello shooter fans, and welcome back to Massively's Firing Line. Last week's inaugural column hit the ground running with a visit to Hi-Rez Studios and a preview of the company's new Tribes: Ascend title. This week I'd like to pull back a little bit and lay the groundwork for some of the things we'll be talking about over time.

When I talk about MMO shooters with friends and colleagues, one of the first things mentioned is the definition of the term. Everyone knows what a shooter is (or at least what he thinks it is), and everyone knows what an MMO is (although thanks to MOBAs and the social networking explosion, the definition of the latter grows murkier by the day).

Can we all agree on the definition of an MMO shooter, though? Probably not, and to be honest, that's perfectly OK.

DUST 514 - running soldiers
So first off, what is a shooter? Wikipedia currently defines it as "a sub-genre of action game [that] often tests the player's speed and reaction time. It includes many sub-genres that have the commonality of focusing on the actions of the avatar using some sort of weapon. Usually this weapon is a gun or some other long-range weapon."

The entry goes on to talk about various optional characteristics including perspective, realism, number of characters, and more.

Moving on then, what is an MMO? Again looking to Wikipedia in the absence of a universally accepted gaming authority, we see that MMO is currently defined as "a multiplayer video game [that] is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously. By necessity, [MMOs] are played on the internet and usually feature at least one persistent world. MMOs can enable players to cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale and sometimes interact meaningfully with people around the world. They include a variety of gameplay types representing many video game genres."

A definition?
We can combine these two baselines to arrive at the following definition of an MMO shooter: It is an online action game, built around ranged weaponry, that tests a player's speed and reaction time and supports hundreds or thousands of players in some sort of persistent environment.

Granted, that's my subjective definition and it may differ substantially from yours, but the goal here is to foster a bit of discussion on what sorts of games you'd like to see covered in The Firing Line going forward. I've purposely avoided labeling the column as an MMOFPS column because I feel that leaves out games like Global Agenda, Grimlands, Tribes, and even more traditional MMOs with shooter mechanics like APB or Fallen Earth.

Many hardcore shooter fans that I know are convinced that Battleground: Europe (aka World War II Online) is the only true MMO shooter. PlanetSide never had headshots and is therefore disqualified, they say. Global Agenda mainly features 10v10 action and is therefore not massive enough, they say. MAG only supports 256-player battles and is similarly not massive enough. Is that really the case, though?

Global Agenda - pesky ReconLooking at our definitions above, PlanetSide features persistence, skill-based aiming, and support for hundreds of simultaneous players. Global Agenda features persistence (in the form of its Agency vs. Agency seasons), skill-based aiming, and support for hundreds of simultaneous players.

But Jef, you say, I thought you just said that most of GA's action happens in 10v10 instances.

Well, yes, yes I did, but here's the thing: Do the MMO shooter definitions above say that hundreds of simultaneous players appear on your screen at once? Do they say that large-scale battles must be part of the picture? What they say is that hundreds (or thousands) of players are "supported," and supported can mean any number of things including simply "available to interact with."

I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes at my craziness here, but think about your average MMORPG for a moment. No one argues that World of Warcraft is or isn't an MMO in terms of the number of players it supports. And how often do hundreds or thousands of those players appear together in the same zone?

The answer is rarely, if ever, elsewise the servers would be a lot less stable. WoW or Age of Conan or Lord of the Rings Online or any of the commonly accepted MMOs are generally played by small groups of people spread across hundreds of in-game zones and hundreds of physical hardware nodes. Some MMOs do lack zones (or do a good job of hiding the transitions between them), but the number of MMOs that support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous players in the same place at the same time is very small.

Taking that into account, then, I believe Global Agenda to be an MMO shooter because it has persistence, skill-based gameplay (yes, it has gear too, but you still have to aim and react), and hundreds if not thousands of people available for grouping and interaction at any given time.

This is just one example, too. I'm sure we can all come up with dozens of online shooters and debate whether they should or should not be considered MMO shooters. And that's one of the things I hope to accomplish with today's column and as we move forward. The Firing Line is your column, and with a couple of hard and fast exceptions, I'm open to covering (or not covering) whatever you guys suggest. The exceptions are PlanetSide 2, DUST 514, Firefall, and Global Agenda, as no matter how you label those four games, they're freaking awesome and will be discussed to death over the life of this series!

That's all I've got for you this week. Let me know what you think going forward and I'll see you next Friday.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.

This article was originally published on Massively.