The only thing I can assure you of is that Massively (and that includes me, of course) knows the true meaning of MMORPG. When I say true meaning, you either know what I mean or you don't.
Having said that, I'd like to ask whether community and the multiplayer aspect is really that important beyond the reason that it must be considered in order to categorize games. Is having many other players around you really that big a deal?
I want to bring up a few types of players, player types that illustrate just how little multiplayer-ness affects the games they play. I don't want to pigeon-hole anyone, but the fact that most of my readers will know exactly how common and important these types of players are will be proof enough to show that I am not just making up an example or two to prove my point.
Raiding, in my opinion, should be defined as an in-game activity that requires multiple players and the forming of tight-knit groups in order to conquer linear, often predictable (thanks to online guides and strats) content that is released only to entertain these type of players. Sure, high-end guilds might still attempt to protect the strategies they deploy in order to conquer a high-end boss, but it's easy to search and find the answers almost immediately. Yes, there will always be a first few guilds that conquer the toughest content, but eventually the information gets out. Most of the raiders who come to this site are not those who consistently nab a server first. Most raiders benefit from predictability, not chaos. Please note that I am not claiming that this predictability makes all raiding easy.
So does the rest of the MMO world that these players live in actually have any effect on these guilds? Could they continually exist in a game that is nothing but raiding? Does the fact that these players had to burn through PvE content only to get to the point of raiding preparedness mean that they played that content only to get to the endgame, dissolving the reality of that earlier content?
MMORPGs have never been the ultimate place for competitive players. Sure, MMOs are good for competitive play and do provide a lot of opportunities for competitive play, but the act of competition -- of playing against someone else while weighing that play against a set of rules -- is not what MMOs are all about. To me, this explains why MMOs, even with their many good opportunities for engaging PvP, will never be able to compete with instanced PvP match play at e-sports events.
In other words, when you try to make such a stiff, competitive "game" out of an MMO, it stops being an MMO in its purest form. This same definition applies to real life. If we place competitive rules on living and tell humans that they can succeed only by approaching problems that can easily be defined in an online wiki, life ceases to be life. Life is chaotic and wonderfully so, but life with such rules is called sport.
To these PvPers, does the rest of the MMO world exist?
Roleplaying is a lost art; we know this. Personally, I had to give up on much of my roleplay simply because so many others did as well. Luckily there are many games that still foster good roleplay although roleplay fans have to search hard for opportunities. Roleplayers are often some of the most "dramatic" (in more ways than one) players I have ever met. I've witnessed more players leaving favorite worlds because of roleplayed drama turning into real-life drama than I have caught PvPers or raiders leaving due to other reasons. Generally, the competitive, defined set of goals help to keep raiders and competitive players glued to games they claim to hate. Roleplayers can burn out much more easily.
These roleplayers are often as secluded and insulated as a raiding guild. Even though many of them can recite pages and pages of official lore, does the fact that they are often so wrapped up in real-life drama and emotions (ironically due to made-up characters) disconnect them from the world they are roleplaying in?
I admit this topic is starting to sound like something that should be covered on the PBS Idea Channel, but it's something I think about a lot. I write about MMOs. I love MMOs and owe a lot to these virtual worlds. I have been playing them long enough to see them change into the wonderful games they are today, but during that time I have seen as many MMOs have been released to a batch of yawning players who think they have seen it all before.
It is very possible that the boredom many players feel and the "meh" response we see in comments sections across the internet are a result of the way we interact with these games. We interact with these games so much that they become a set of activities, not worlds to be explored.
Still, I want to answer my original question by saying that, yes, community is very, very important to MMOs. Having other players around is a big deal, and I believe that even to these secluded types of players I have been discussing, the existence of other players and a virtual world is very important.
I will never judge someone so harshly simply for his choice of playstyle. Heck, I do not even like my own playstyle because it has me jumping from game to game so much that the only way I get to really know a game is when I succeed in revisiting it many times over months. These raiders, PvPers, and roleplayers could play their way inside other non-MMOs. There are tons of games that allow for multiplayer play without the bother of massively multiplayer play. Yet, here are those players, chugging away at content inside virtual worlds.
My guess is that the living world of an MMO affects different players differently. It makes me feel as I would at a real-life new location like a state fair or museum. I want to explore and just let things happen. Others see a visit to a new area for a chance of acquiring some new knowledge or achieving a goal. The truth is that you don't get very far in virtual life when you play as I do, so I might have a lot to learn from the player types I have mentioned.
Community and the existence of other players and even those incredible virtual details like trees or houses are all important to MMOs. They make these virtual worlds worlds, but what you do in them and who you do those activities with are both OK with me.
Just keep doing those activities in an MMO!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!