I think this is a much simpler formula than it sounds -- sort of. A "real" MMO is defined by a good number of people (enough to make a large neighborhood, but that's up for debate) interacting and leaving a lasting imprint on a virtual world. People get hung up on the world needing to be three-dimensional, but that's short-sighted and leaves out the MMORTS, for example -- games that have multiple layers of interaction and world impact.
A semi-MMO or pseudo-MMO (or whatever you want to call it
) has the same interactions and world impact but has smaller groups. Die2Nite
is a favorite example. The player cities in that game host only 40 players at their largest, but each player can leave such a lasting impact on the (smaller) world that it's worth a look.
Non-MMOs are games that offer either play like instanced combat (MOBAs) or social games that offer interaction but with NPC-like versions of your friends. The players who enjoy games like this don't care about the definition because they are also on Twitter, another monitor, or a tablet (just examples) while they enjoy these games. Massive hasn't been redefined, but the players who care about massive worlds have declined thanks to the always-on nature of our lives that we can enjoy now.
To me the term massive is about how big the game feels population-wise rather than how many people are actually around. Most of the old-school MMOs that folks would consider "true" massively multiplayer games were usually instanced, sharded, or otherwise terribly limited in terms of the numbers of players you could interact with, anyway -- who didn't love being vortexed out of a city battle on Asheron's Call
's Darktide because it had too many players for the game to handle, am I right?
Ultimately, I think the economy and the roleplay/PvP meta are the key to making both modern and classic MMOs feel massive. Even a lobby-based MMO like Guild Wars 1
feels massive compared to more themepark offerings that have lots of bodies but provide little motivation or method for them to connect. A game that lets me trade, roleplay, PvP, and otherwise interact with people on the other side of the world simply feels more massive than a huge game with loads of people but empty zones and no reason to interact with anyone.
There's a lot of ways that you could define massive: by a number threshold ("1000 people on a server"), how many people you can encounter and group with in your game world on a daily basis, concurrency numbers, the size of the world, any systems that connect us to a large number of people (i.e., economy, crafting, chatting), and so on. But for me, it's kind of a much more subjective feeling. Some MMOs feel massive and some don't, and sometimes that has little to do with the actual numbers around me. I mean, I could be playing a game with a million people, but if most of them are in endgame zones and I'm all alone in the beginning zone, it won't feel massive. Sometimes just the larger community surrounding the game can make an impact in making it feel massive.
I'll put a footnote here that "massive" does not always equal good. Sometimes intimate is better. Sometimes smaller, more passionate, and more friendly communities can make for more enjoyable gameplay.
I'm not big on number restrictions, so I'd call "massive" anything that feels massive. This usually means a persistent world with other people running around. It means a world where you can run over and join your friends without worrying about what instance or server they're on. It means a world with little or no restrictions on group play. I'm kinda tired of studios putting the "massive" label on games with four- or six-person team limits.
I always thought of the term as being "maybe more than you can shake a stick at, but definitely more than can be played with in a typical console game." While many console games have multiplayer functionality, they still aren't created with the interactivity between dozens of players in the same universe. However, I see those lines blurring tremendously within the next decade. More console games will become what we currently define as massively multiplayer universes, especially with the increasing popularity of mobile connectivity. MMO developers will, and have already begun to, integrate tablets and phones as a means to access their games. Console manufactures/game designers are beginning to open their doors to allow more and more players to connect where there used to be limits of two-to-four players. And MMO developers are beginning to integrate single-player aspects (like crafting in Neverwinter
or the Duty Officer system in Star Trek Online
) into their traditionally MMO worlds.
The business of gaming, like the greater entertainment industry it is a part of, is experiencing the first stages of a paradigm shift as the internet, and therefore the consumers' ability to demand and access the content they want continues to express its influence on an expanding market.
What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.