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Redefining MMOs: Developers weigh in

Tracey John

What does "MMO" mean anymore?

When we launched our "Redefining MMO" series over the summer, we began with a look at the terminology behind the games we play -- what the term "MMO" encompasses and what kinds of games it describes. But with the online games market expanding into new genres and incorporating new gameplay and social elements, the definition of "MMO" has changed.

So is it time for a new word?

We reached out to developers working on different MMOs. We asked what they thought about the word "MMO" and if it's time to eschew the term and come up with something new. Read on for thoughts from Cryptic's Bill Roper, Metaplace's Raph Koster, Mythic's Paul Barnett, Nexon America's Min Kim, Sony Online's Laralyn McWilliams, Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel and many more.

Paul Barnett, Senior Creative Director, Mythic Entertainment:

"I don't use the term right now; I think the game space is moving around a lot. ... There are strange things happening with entry to the old MMO space, from games that require less hardware to play, to games that require less input to excel. These sort of dynamics put pressure on the title of 'MMO' to cover and correctly explain them all. ... I am unsure what will replace 'MMO' or if it will be replaced at all; perhaps we will still be calling it that in years to come. What I would like is to still have interesting games being created that try to fire imaginations and allow people to adventure with a smile on their face."

Joshua Drescher, Warhammer Online Associate Producer, Mythic Entertainment:

"Seventy-five percent of the titles on the market that claim to be 'MMO' are actually single-player or limited group-oriented games that just happen to have lots of other people running around, doing the same things and having no impact on one another. In my view, to truly be a 'massively multiplayer' experience, the extant population of the game world has to have some sort of impact on you – regardless of whether or not they're in your raid group or guild. Otherwise, you're basically just regarding those thousands of other people as window dressing and they might as well be NPCs at that point...

"I certainly think we need a new term for all the things that are currently being called 'MMO' that aren't actually doing anything interesting with those massive populations. For other, 'proper' MMOGs, I think the term is perfectly acceptable as-is.

"I've heard 'massively single-player' batted around by various people, and I think that's close. Or maybe 'Massively Multiplayer Online Disney Land' – safe, clean, simple and predictable with lots of polished, shiny goodies that never, ever change. Ya know, assuming Disney Corp. doesn't mind the trademark dillusion."

Scott Brown, President, NetDevil:

"Well, by now most people know the acronym stands for 'massively multiplayer' but that has really evolved over time. I think now it refers to not only thousands of players in the same environment but also things like long-term advancement, end game content and meta games. I think that the big thing that makes MMOs stand apart is that they contain public spaces and persistence. There's a real sense that the MMO world is 'out there' as opposed to a single place inside the player's computer. ...

"I think over time people have come to expect much richer, more immersive worlds. Players also demand that their worlds continue to expand and that they have a greater sense of control over it. The other things that have changed is that the variety in players is much larger. Most MUD players tended to be more hardcore college students, most of them in the Computer Science or Engineering schools. Today the demographics continue to grow which means that as developers we have to expand our offering to appeal to those groups of people. It's great to see the genre gaining in popularity so much.

"[Regarding a new term for 'MMO'], I'll leave that to other people to decide. Naming is important for people to understand what it is that is available. Perhaps 'massively multiplayer' doesn't make as much sense as 'virtual world' or some other term. As long as the games are compelling and interesting I think people will come up with terms that make sense."

Calvin Crowner, Ultima Online Producer, Electronic Arts:

"I played the beta for Meridian 59 ages ago ... even played around when Sierra had its little foray into the space -- yes, I am that old -- but when Ultima Online hit the scene it blew out of the water all the previous attempts at a continuous, thriving world. Expectations changed, and the bar was set. Massively and multiplayer: I thought was about sharing user experiences and adventures. That somehow became carved into let's kill dragons together and get cool stuff. The social aspect and the option to choose the way you play diminished. UO stayed true to the original vision of a massive user experience with few boundaries.

"Yes and no [as to whether or not we need a new term for 'MMO']. The MMO for what it was still exists: Getting thousands and millions of players together to have adventures. What I think has yet to emerge is more of a 'community' social experience that is a bit more 'meta.' Massively, in my opinion needs to extend beyond just the wired connection, and have the capacity to interact with your avatar in the virtual space and have semi-seamless interaction with other players. For example: having direct connection to your vendors -- which exist in Ultima Online -- getting market updates in Luna on going rates of your wares, having the capacity to change your prices remotely ... or even queuing up for Champ spawns 45 minutes away from home.

"As UO has always been so open-ended, it lends itself to trying newer things in the space, where I think changes to things that are now tried-and-true ... players of those other games may balk. From this standpoint, I think UO is very well-positioned."

Ryan Dancey, Chief Marketing Officer, CCP Games:

"Then: ['MMO'] was a shortcut for massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, but it came into common use because saying/typing 'MMORPG' sucked, and virtually all of the games it referred to were elves and orcs and swords and sorcery avatar-based quest games. Now it has broadened its definition to mirror the broadening scope of the games on the market ­ and the market is now much, much more diverse in terms of genre and systems.

"It's a great term because it's not confusing. It doesn¹t make any sense (a massively multiplayer online what?), but as a term of art it encompasses a meaning that is widely shared and familiar to millions of people. These products are not 'virtual worlds' because their primary focus remains their core gaming elements; they are 'virtual worlds +,' and the '+' carries more weight than the 'virtual world' part.

"We joke about calling EVE Online an SMMO. 'S' for 'Supermassive' to denote the difference between typical 'MMOs' where a couple of thousand players share a server and the only 'SMMO,' where 300,000 players are on one server. [It's] the difference between servers that have peak capacities around 3,500-5,000 players, and EVE, which has a peak concurrent record on one server of more than 50,000 players."

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