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Free for All: Does this qualify as "massive?"


I was interested in hearing some of the responses to my WURM Online column last week, so of course I went looking. It didn't take me long and I found mostly positive responses. Over the years I have noticed that some of my writings can be pretty misunderstood, and usually because the idea I am trying to explain is such a basic one that people just make too much out of it. In the column in question I was essentially trying to do one thing: to tell people that WURM Online is a lot of fun.

Still, some people seemed to think that I was saying something else, and some people even questioned why I would talk about it. In the words of one comment: "Is it even massive?" The person that wrote that seemed to be questioning whether or not the size of the playerbase in WURM dictated a "massive" title, or coverage in Massively. I can see why some players have this numbers paranoia, being that many titles are currently blurring the lines between single player, instanced and persistent worlds. Many of these games are free-to-play.

Facebook games, iPhone games, browser-based-turn-based-2-d adventures....all of these are helping to further the question "What is massive?" This website is all about massive, so the question is legitimate. And while we have covered it before, I think that it would be a good idea to re-examine the question since the technologies and the markets are changing so fast.

Let's pick apart "MMO" and use it to measure some of these new popular browser based and iPhone games.

"How many is massive? Thousands? Hundreds? I can guarantee that if I asked only that question, we would have many comments all stating different things. "


How many is massive? Thousands? Hundreds? I can guarantee that if I asked only that question, we would have many comments all stating different things. One thing I think is safe to agree on is that we are not talking about handfuls of people existing in worlds all their own. I typically use the example of the shopping mall; hundreds or even thousands of people milling about, doing their own thing. When you go to that mall, you might go alone with a specific quest in mind or you might go with a small group of friends. Generally, you will never have anything to do with those other humans walking around you. You might notice their noisy kids, and might even make eye contact or say "Hello" to one of them. But overall you are there with your group and never do you walk up to strangers to say "Hey, want to go see this movie with us?"

Of course, the potential to meet new people is there. There is a bustling at the mall that many of us like to hear, a sense of life all around us. Even if we might make fun of half of the people we see, deep down we enjoy that mall when it is full more than when it is empty. So, in order to be massive, we need quite a few people. We will never agree on the exact number of people, but I think we will all agree on the number it should not be.


Seems silly to have this word right after "massive." Aren't they the same thing? Not really, being that massive refers to numbers and multiplayer refers to those numbers doing something together. So, we need more than one player, doing something together, to have multiplayer. Let's be honest here and say that, again, while not agreeing on exact numbers, we need at least several players doing the activity to qualify. And in our mall example, there are a few examples of activities that might require the help of a stranger.


This is easy, this means playing the game through the internet somehow. This no longer only references your home PC, but to your console, to your phone or to your music player. The internet is spreading faster than we could all know. This could only be a good thing, allowing us to meet more strangers from around the world without ever having to leave our house or even our couch.

So when you log into a game such as "Lord of Ultima," a new browser based game by EA, are you really in an MMO? (For the record, I do not use the Role Playing Game part anymore. I gave up on players doing anything close to role-play a long time ago. Most players play MMOs as they would a game of poker, or as a job. That's hardly role-playing.) After all, you are playing with thousands, or at least hundreds of players, you are grouping up or forming alliances to achieve a goal, and it is online. Add on slightly better graphics and the sky is the limit. Sometimes, the best technologies use the simplest of techniques and add on a little modern flare.

But there is one constant that we are leaving off, and I would hope that we all agree on this. Where is the persistent world? In order to be a shopping mall, you have to have a concrete place that everyone congregates in. I have decided that instanced "meeting" zones as in Guild Wars are perfectly OK, for a number of reasons.

  • Many, many players spend the bulk of their gaming time inside an instance anyway. If not an instance in the literal sense, in a dungeon or battle ground, they exist in an instance of their guild list or friends list. It doesn't matter if you are walking around in the most immersive online world known to man if you are simply running through with your buddies just to grab some potions before the raid. I don't buy the cries for "immersion" anymore, most players want to simply get to work.
  • This is a sign of technology. And, out of sight, out of mind right? Once those strangers leave your vision, they might as well be locked off in a room somewhere. While it is nice to be able to see something on the horizon and go to it, this is the occupation of the explorer (frankly a dying breed.) I can understand why companies are more worried about making movie sets as compared to worlds, being that it is easier to do and why bother to set up amazing details in the sky when no one wants to fly there?
In many ways these browser based games are as persistent as any MMO , despite not being rendered in full 3-D. I don't think it is a prerequisite to be fully 3-D to be a "true" MMO. While some are instanced, Lord of Ultima is basically a giant tabletop battlefield, surrounded by hundreds of geeks. They build their armies, take their turns and attack each other. The persistent world, for them, is the real world. Even better, we could say that the persistent world is the wooden playtable they have setup, complete with tiny trees and hills. Or, we could always say that the persistent world exists in the rule and lore books that they buy with every new edition.

A browser based game, even one that is limited in number of players, counts as an MMO. Yes, the "massively" part is open to interpretation, but I think it's safe to say that the acronym is slowly changing anyway. One day it will all be just multiplayer gaming, being that technology will surely allow for even the smallest and cheapest of servers to hold hundreds if not thousands at one time.

MMORPG sort of feels like a bloated term anyway.

On a related note, catch me every morning Monday-Friday from 6:30 AM to 8:00 AM (Central time, USA) as I stream my game playing, coffee drinking and general discovering of new and unusual Free-to-Play games! See you then!

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