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Redefining MMOs: More developers weigh in


In 2009, the staffers of Massively were more than aware of the changes happening in the MMO industry. The game was changing; technology was allowing the MMO to step out of its turn-based comfort zone and take on new challenges. We began to see the MMO-shooter, the MMO-RTS, and the MMO-does-that-even-fit-in-a-genre. The staff penned a series of articles called Redefining MMOs. Have things changed in two years? On the surface, I'd say no. We still can't figure out exactly what an MMO is. If you ask six different people the same question, you'll get six different answers (if not more). In fact, while I was at PAX East, I did just that.

I spoke to six different designers: three from the most anticipated games of this year, two from studios that have been doing this MMO thing for a long time, and one from a studio that refuses to label its game as an MMO. After the break, find out what developers of Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, City of Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Firefall have to say about the new definition of MMOs.

"Massively multiplayer games are games where you can have massive amounts of people playing a game at one time, whether you choose to play with them directly or not," said Adam Mersky, Turbine's Director of Communications, in his quick take the definition of MMO. Colin Johanson of ArenaNet spun the definition around a world: "With the concept behind an MMO, you create the ability for these people to play together wherever they are, and you can build a world for them to explore and play around in together." But the definition of MMO is changing, right? How do developers redefine the genre? If you were to ask Mark Kern, the CEO of Red 5 Studios and former Team Lead for World of Warcraft, he would tell you that "the potential of MMOs is so much broader than the tag would indicate. You can't change the MMO genre simply by calling yourselves a different type of MMO. I think you've got to change everything about it, including the terminology that you're using."

Must we rethink the possibilities of going "beyond the tag"? James Ohlen, the Lead Creative Director at BioWare, has made some of the most groundbreaking games in recent years -- Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age -- and he's currently working on what is arguably the most anticipated game of this year, Star Wars: The Old Republic. If anyone can go beyond the MMO label, he can. His take was this: "If technology weren't a barrier and you could build anything you wanted to, you'd do what they had in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everyone would have a holodeck. You'd be able to go in and live a completely virtual life in whatever fantasy world or scenario you wanted to -- be the hero and make all the choices."

While we wait for our holodecks and jetpacks, we'll let Ohlen discuss how choices redefine the MMO. He believes that the first step for a developer is to make sure that the player feels he has his own personal story, "because without that, people just aren't going to be attached to the overall story." The second step is creating a multiplayer dialogue system that allows the players to be involved with the overarching storyline. And lastly -- and most importantly in my mind -- come the social aspects of the MMO. "What defines an MMO is when you have thousands of players in a game at the same time engaging in social activities together. If you want to be successful -- and we want to be successful -- you have to have that social glue that holds people together and keeps them coming back month after month," Ohlen said.

Another developer sees social aspects as one of the way in which MMOs separate themselves from other games. City of Heroes Lead Producer Nate Birkholz suggested that "ultimately, it is a game that has the community built into it. What I mean is taking a game that has the community built in and using it to enhance the gameplay -- enhance not just what people are able to get out of the game but also what they bring into the game." Turbine's Adam Mersky echoed that sentiment, noting that community is a big part of what Turbine is doing for its games. "We are building up ways on our community site to keep track of all your kills and stats online, so you can share them with your friends. The gaming hours are usually in the evening, but we are building ways to engage players during the day. Whether they're at school or work or wherever, they want to check up on their kinship for that night. I think those tools are more powerful." I guess that goes back to the holodeck idea, right?

Rather than focus on building a community via a website or interactive storytelling, ArenaNet seemed to take a bit more of an organic approach to getting people to play and do things together. "There are some players who really don't want to communicate with each other -- they just like doing their own thing. By having those natural benefits, it's like, 'OK, I want to be near that person, but I don't necessarily want to talk to him,' because there's a lot of unspoken language going on with how you're playing the game, like the cross-profession combos. It just becomes a part of the routine and the natural flow," commented Mike Zadorojny, Content Designer for Guild Wars 2. This was echoed by his boss, Colin Johanson: "I don't think you need to 'make' them [group up] -- encouraging the social player to group up is good. Anyone who says you need to force them to group is making a huge mistake and not recognizing that there are a lot of people who just don't want to play that way. What you need to do is make it a rewarding experience to play with other people to the point that you actually want to do it."

These things are great! Storytelling, community, social interaction... but what's the downside? Why do certain games not want to be called an MMO? Mark Kern answered this question regarding his own game, Firefall: "If we had called it an MMO, I think people would have thought about dice rolling and equipment vs. skill -- and massive amounts of grinding content." That makes sense to us, and Colin Johanson agreed: "I think one reason is that there is a definite stigma that comes with the term MMO for a lot of gamers. I think a lot of people hear that, and they think, 'Oh, that's a game that I have to dedicate my life to playing.'" Johanson insisted GW2 will avoid that pitfall. "You get to the end of our game in a very reasonable amount of time, so it feels like an epic RPG, but it doesn't feel like you have to dump your entire life into this game to be able to play it."

Maybe we can derive a single answer from the combination of these insights: We want a multiplayer game that we can play solo or in natural groups, a game that makes us feel like the heroes of our own stories, a game that has an impact beyond gameplay itself, and a game that encourages rather than forces us to dedicate our time to it. That would be one hell of a game. Are we ever going to achieve that? I think Adam Mersky answered that question: "The number one reason people play online games is because their friends do. We don't make games to tell players what to play. We make games that players want to play." Ultimately, the definition of an MMO is you, the MMO player. What do you want? You want the games you play, the games you encourage your friends to play. That is what will finally define an MMO.

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