MMObility: Trying to find real MMOs on the app market

Nexus 7 games list screenshot
If you spend as much time as I do scouring your favorite app marketplace, you know just how frustrating it can be to quickly download a new "MMORPG" only to find out it's not really an MMORPG. Luckily, the Play Store makes it relatively easy to get a refund on a newly purchased games, and uninstalling is easy enough. It can still be very frustrating to become excited for a title only to find out it's nothing like its description.

The fact is that there are a lot of great MMOs on the mobile markets. Most are available on both Android or iOS as well. I also search on Google a lot, but the results from the search giant can sometimes be more unreliable. When it comes down to it, the only way to know whether a game is a true MMO is to download it and try it out.

Or, of course, keep an eye on columns like mine.

Little Empire screenshot
Let's look at a few examples of confusing titles. I don't want to suggest these are bad games because they are actually really fun titles. But are they MMORPGs? Let's check it out.

We'll look at Little Empire first. I'm familiar with this title but never really got into it. It's a combination of tower defense, city-building, and real-world location gaming. I had a friend recently suggest the game to me on Twitter, so I downloaded it again. Check out the description from the Play Store: "Play the World's first LBS (Location Based Services) mobile MMO game in 3D." First of all, I'm really not so sure about the "World's first" part. Massively has written about location-based games for a while now. Unless this title was out in its native country much earlier than the games we have talked about before, it's hard to believe that this is a "first." Of course, any gamer or games writer who's spent a good amount of time searching for titles or sorting through press releases knows that claims like "the first game to..." are made by publishers and developers every day. Still, you can see how claiming "first" might be false advertising. It might be comparing itself to older Mafia-styled games that employed real-world locations but were not done in 3-D.

The part we have to concentrate on is the "mobile MMO" bit. As many of you might know, I'm sort of a stickler for defining MMORPG properly. I've written up sets of rules, attempted to define it, and have refused to cover games that are MMO-like unless they present some interesting design ideas that would be something that MMO designers could learn from. Die2Nite or Minecraft, for example, are fantastic examples of MMO-like games that feature brilliant multiplayer designs.

Little Empire description
I've now been playing Little Empire all week. There is a chat in the game, a sign of of actual MMOness, but other than that, I have spent all of my time locked within my instanced city or within an instanced arena-style combat mode. Essentially, I attack other players and watch as the two armies clash, tower defense-style. I haven't come across anything to indicate to me that I am using a real-life location. It's possible that the LBS part will come up in a tutorial soon or that the game does not come out and say who my real-life neighbor is. Perhaps the selection process is automatic and hidden? Even then, I do not see how this game offers any persistence beyond instanced cities. An MMO must have a shared persistence, something that's still there for all to use even if most players are logged out. The persistence cannot be only in a player's instance. That's not persistence; that's a single-player game. It would be one thing if Little Empire offered even a non-instanced meeting area or a place to trade with others. I'll keep it on my Nexus 7, but I will not write about it as an MMORPG.

Arenas description
Let's look at Arenas: Trial of Valor next. Again, I want readers to understand that this seems like a pretty cool game so far. But is it an MMORPG? I have barely played it outside of the initial tutorials so far, but I'm not seeing how it is anything more than MMO-like. There are towns and a larger map made for traveling between those towns, but the persistence does not step out of the instanced arenas that the game's title mentions. There is a group mechanic that allows players to team up in order to fight in the arenas, but outside of instant messaging, there's no way to communicate in real time. If I am missing something, let me know, and I will cover the game as a proper mobile MMO later on.

But there it is in the description: "Arenas is an ONLINE tactical fast MMO / RPG turn-based game SET in an unique and original heroic fantasy world."

"Within a few years, players might be completely unaware of the fact that MMOs were once supposed to be persistent, virtual worlds, not instanced combat areas."

The title costs 99 cents. While that it is a tiny amount for what is actually a pretty cool mobile game, we can see just how false advertising or stretching the truth could lead to one very angry customer. It's unfortunate to see the mobile market become as confusing as the standard client market. I get emails every week that make me scratch my head and wonder, "Is it an MMO or not?" I often have to investigate by downloading or logging in to the game myself. While I have no problems doing this normally, these confusing or false descriptions mean only one thing: more time spent investigating titles. I am proud of the fact that I often cover MMOs that no one esle wants to touch. Indies, browser-based and mobile MMOs deserve as much coverage as any other. But lately, I get confused or burned by a title's description more often than not. Seeing how much developers throw around the term "MMORPG," I know that the famous acronym will soon mean something completely different. Within a few years, players might be completely unaware of the fact that MMOs were once supposed to be persistent, virtual worlds, not instanced combat areas.

I don't want to imply that I dislike single-player or even multiplayer games. Some of my favorite games are standalone titles. I just wish there were a stricter policy against listing titles as MMORPGs when they are only skirting the edge of the description. Unfortunately, the popularity of social games and multiplayer titles that allow for some form of social connectivity will ensure that the "MMORPG" we know, love, write about, and complain about will continue to change until it simply means "a lot of players."

Until that day, I promise to keep looking.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
This article was originally published on Massively.