The Soapbox: Actually, that really isn't an MMO

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In last week's edition of The Soapbox, Mike Foster argued that online gaming has evolved over the past few years and that the term MMO should be expanded to cover other online games like MOBAs. He examined the blurred dividing line between new online games and the classic MMOs of yesteryear, and he made the controversial argument that Call of Duty and League of Legends should now fall under the MMO umbrella. I found myself disagreeing with many of Mike's arguments and wanting to make additional points of my own, so this week I'd like to offer a few counter-points on the same topic for debate.

The MMO market has certainly evolved since Massively was founded, with some pretty big innovations in gameplay and new ideas like the free-to-play business model taking hold. As much as people like to complain about a lack of innovation in the games industry, the same level of experimentation and evolution has hit industry-wide. Call of Duty has borrowed unlock and XP systems from the world of orcs and dragons, and League of Legends came from nowhere to be at the forefront of a global MOBA revolution, but neither of them is an MMO by any stretch of the imagination.

In this in-depth opinion piece, I break down the definition arguments surrounding the term MMO, offer a reasoned view of where the line can and should be drawn, and look at why Massively covers games other than MMOs.

Game side imageOnline games have a diverse history

One of the first points Mike made in his opinion piece was that in years gone by, "there was really only one type of online game," and it involved "leveling, looting gear, and slaying dragons." Mike implied that MMORPGs were once the only type of online game and that genres like MOBAs branched off when developers realised online games could work in other formats, but that's not really how it happened. Most genres of online game were being played on local networks long before going online and made the leap to the net at the same time as MUDs thanks to consumer trends in internet usage.

The trend in games before the turn of the century was to focus on singleplayer and LAN play since most consumers didn't have readily available access to a fast, reliable internet connection. As broadband swept the western world and the internet began to invade our everyday lives, more and more games switched focus to online multiplayer, with some titles dropping the standalone singleplayer mode altogether. MMORPGs are just one of the game types that resulted from this trend, spawning initially out of fantasy text MUDs previously played over BBS networks.

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"As broadband swept the western world and the internet began to invade our everyday lives, more and more games switched focus to online multiplayer."
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First Person Shooters like Quake, Doom, and Half-Life were also played online extensively, with the latter of the three giving rise to the popular multiplayer-only mods Counterstrike and Team Fortress Classic. Action RPGs like Diablo II went on to develop large online communities, and what we now call MOBAs emerged from the world of real-time strategy games several years later. These were all games played primarily online; they evolved alongside MMOs rather than branching off them.

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The debate over what exactly makes a game qualify as a "massively multiplayer online" title is as old as the term itself. One commonly cited argument is that any game with online multiplayer and a huge userbase should technically qualify as it's both massive and multiplayer, but this is based on a faulty premise. The word "massively" is a qualifier on the word "multiplayer" and so refers to the scale of the core multiplayer gameplay and not just the title's popularity. To be an MMO, then, a game has to allow hundreds of players to interact in the same multiplayer environment simultaneously.

Mike made the valid point last week that communities, forums, and the MOBA competitive metagame are technically persistent parts of a game, and I concede that FPS stats and unlocks could fall into the same category. But it's the multiplayer gameplay environment in which the main game actually takes place that defines what genre that game is, and if that involves less than a few hundred people, then that's not an MMO. The requirement for so many players to interact simultaneously in the game's core gameplay draws a very clear and sensible line between traditional MMOs and lobby-based games.

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"The requirement for so many players to interact simultaneously in the game's core gameplay draws a very clear and sensible line between traditional MMOs and lobby-based games."
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If we absolutely have to draw a line denoting how many players a game needs to put in the same gameplay environment to be considered an MMO, then I would defer to commenter rayko74's argument on last week's article. The inference was that a massively multiplayer scale must simply be measured relative to that of a standard multiplayer game. As lobby games like Battlefield and Call of Duty continue to increase the size of standard multiplayer matches, then, the scale to be considered massively multiplayer in most people's minds will naturally rise proportionally.

Game side imageWhat else isn't an MMO?

The original Guild Wars limited players to groups of eight when adventuring, and the town hubs were so heavily instanced that they were essentially just 3-D chat lobbies for forming parties. ArenaNet itself marketed it instead as a "competitive online roleplaying game" and explained that it wasn't a true MMORPG as its main gameplay occurs in limited-size instances. This is the exact same reason that Diablo III and Path of Exile aren't called MMOs despite both having sizeable playerbases that can interact through chat and trade.

It's worth noting that World of Tanks is similarly instanced and lobby-based and probably should never have been called an MMO in the first place. In both of the above cases, lax usage of terminology by gamers and the media have led to the respective games being sometimes referred to as MMOs when they don't really meet the gameplay criteria. The misuse is so widespread that the first and second places for the 2012 Golden Joystick Award for Best MMO went to World of Tanks and League of Legends repectively.

Game side imageWhy does it matter what we call an MMO?

The names of genres always convey some essential information about a game that helps us discuss it accurately and make decisions about whether we'll probably like it or not. Everyone knows the difference between a first person shooter and a roleplaying game, and just hearing either name gives you an idea of the expected features and gameplay. If we suddenly call every popular game with multiplayer an MMO, then the term conveys no additional information over just saying the game has online multiplayer. And since practically every blockbuster game now has online multiplayer, that would be a particularly pointless thing to do.

Right now, we have a situation wherein a minority of online games have been misidentified by players, the media, and even the game's own developers. But these cases seem to have begun to change public perception of what an MMO is, and if enough people use the definition incorrectly, then it will eventually change. Language is ultimately defined by use, as we were all reminded recently when the Oxford English Dictionary literally redefined the word literally to mean "not literally." If developers and members of the media aren't careful to use the correct terminology and put games into the right categories, we could lose the ability to refer to MMO-based genres by name and be immediately understood by the reader.

Game side imageWhy Massively covers non-MMOs

Last week's article started some intense debate over the types of games Massively as a site should be covering, which is a topic that comes up frequently in Ask Massively. The truth is that Massively isn't just an MMORPG news site any more, and we're not the only site that's branched out. Over the past few years, practically every MMO news site and blog has started covering MOBAs and other popular online games like Star Citizen and Diablo III.

We initially kept all the news on other online games in the weekly Not So Massively column, but the biggest of those proved to be far more popular than expected. They're simply big news, and covering them in addition to more pure MMOs produces extra hits, which ultimately keeps the site running and helps pay for all the other content like MMO columns, opinion pieces, and livestreams. What I find more interesting is that this change is indicative of a trend in the industry itself and in the choices of gamers.

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MMORPGs had a brief period as possibly the most popular online games in the world thanks to World of Warcraft being such a breakaway hit, but that reign ended in 2011 when League of Legends reportedly passed the giant in number of hours played per day. Today there's no doubt that LoL is the most-played game on the planet, other online games are getting massive, and WoW's subscription numbers have fallen. The industry is going full steam ahead making alternative online multiplayer games, and we can either go along for the ride or keep those games at arm's length just because they don't quite fit in our favourite box.

There are more variations of online games today than ever before, and the overlap with MMO audiences is growing. I don't think the definition of what makes an MMO will fundamentally change any time soon, but perhaps there's room in the box for a few more letters.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.