The Soapbox: My MMORTS is more MMO than your MMORPG

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The Soapbox: My MMORTS is more MMO than your MMORPG
Golden Age screenshot
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Have you ever played an MMORTS? No, I'm not talking about a single-player PC strategy game or city sim; I mean an MMORTS. There are so many to choose from that it would be hard for me to even begin to list them all, but I'll try. There's Illyriad, Ministry of War, Evony, Call of Gods, Dragons of Atlantis, Thirst of Night, 8Realms, Lord of Ultima, Golden Age and many, many others. Either you recognize some of those titles or you do not. Oddly enough, I've found that many standard, three-dimensional-world explorers do not consider MMORTS titles to be MMOs. I'm not sure why, but every time I stream an MMORTS live or write about one, I have to answer, at least once, the concern from the audience that what I am playing is not really an MMO.

The reality is that the MMORTS, as a design mechanic, genre, and style, is very much an MMO. I'd like to explain why in the hopes that many of you might grow to enjoy the genre as much as I do and that some much-needed light shines on the fact that the MMORTS is actually one of the last true MMOs around.

I think the task is to define "MMO" and to show how MMORTS fits in. We've attempted it before, but for a quick refresher, let's go over what I consider an MMO to be. You can add your own definitions in the comments section. I have no problems admitting that my definition could probably use some tweaking.

Illyriad screenshot
First, we must have shared persistence. That means that there must be something that goes on while the players do not. If Bob logs out, does the world turn off the lights or does it continue to change? Is the world alive? When Bob logs out, do the other players continue to work away in the same world? The MMO world is the playing board that remains at all times. The pieces might come and go, but the board remains constant. In an MMORTS, the board is there, for sure, in the form of a world map or large area. When a player logs out of an MMORTS, however, her village, town or city stays right there on the map, open to possible attack and still affecting the environment. Most MMORTS games that I play force this mechanic. I cannot think of one that allows players to log out and take their city with them. In that way, persistence is even more standard in the MMORTS genre and is forced upon each and every player.

"Next we need massive player interaction. I'm not talking about being able to visit your friend's city to help grow their crops or to watch an automated version of your friend tend some pumpkins. I mean interaction as in you and your friend can do things, together, at the same time, while in the same persistent world."

Next we need massive player interaction. I'm not talking about being able to visit your friend's city to help grow his crops or to watch an automated version of your friend tend some pumpkins. I mean interaction as in you and your friend doing things, together, at the same time, while in the same persistent world. Now, I understand that it seems like players should control a literal avatar or three-dimensional character for the game to be considered an MMO. I hate to be the one who breaks this news, but there has never been a rule that says a player must control anything as literal as an avatar. The city in an MMORTS is the avatar. The armies, caravans of goods, or influences on the gaming board are the arms and legs of the avatar. The brilliant thing about many MMORTS titles is that they add on yet another layer of MMOness by offering literal avatars to decorate, outfit and to send into battle. Some MMORTS games even allow the player to control the avatar commander and his battalions while in combat, making the game basically a standard MMO that's been zoomed way out. An easier way to explain player interaction in the MMORTS genre would be to ask you, the reader, to imagine an MMO that has you controlling a standard avatar -- let's say an elf character. You can put armor on him, tweak his stats, and trade with players often in real-time or more realistic time, but when you log out, your character literally finds a bed and goes to sleep, leaving his snoring self open to the rest of the playerbase. An MMORTS forces player interaction simply because the "character" never leaves the world.

We should also mention communication when considering what an MMO is. It might seem like a minor thing, but the ability to communicate and coordinate with your fellow players is crucial to the game. Most MMORTS games offer not only a standard chat box with different types of chat but messaging services, many of them represented by actual messengers. Communication is needed for an MMO, and the MMORTS has it.

Dragons of Atlantis screenshot
I think real trade, although part of player interaction, is of such importance that we have to talk about how it works in most of the MMORTS titles I come across. In a standard, three-dimensional MMO, players might send gifts to each other in the mail, trade them in person, or offer them for sale in AFK shops or auction houses. A general design idea behind the MMORTS is that the city, base or village needs goods to build with. This constant need for items forces players to find them. Yes, in many of these games, the goods are found right within the same walls of the player city or land holding, but some of the better titles have real player-to-player trade that takes realistic amounts of time. Basic building blocks become essential and often force players to seek each other out. Unfortunately, there are many MMORTS games that offer a cash shop that sells goods for real-life cash. In fact, I have found more that offer this sort of unrealistic virtual trading than not.

I will be the first to say that many entries in the current MMORTS market are, for lack of a better word, crap. They are games that seem to do nothing but encourage players to "farm" each other. These yucky titles want to offer a player the chance to grow a village into a mighty empire but rarely punish a player when she finally attacks or is a victim of attack. I want my MMORTS to be a dangerous place, or else it just feels like I am playing a game of tag. One of the reasons I do not enjoy many modern sandboxes is that they aim for a "realistic" feel in many ways, except for dying. Dying is a simple pause and is rarely more than a few seconds' delay between death and respawn. Many MMORTS games allow players to protect so much of their city during an attack that being attacked is nothing more than an annoyance. Since there is no major price to pay for attacking another player, attacks can have all of the impact of being killed in many sandboxes -- rarely costly.

There are a few titles that go further with their death penalties, make trade between players more realistic, offer real communication, and truly make players feel as though their little villages or massive cities are permanent and make a real impact on the world. Most standard, three-dimensional MMOs I play are filled with players who spend the bulk of their time in instanced dungeons or ignoring the world around them. Playing an MMORTS means playing in the world around you because you are the world around you. The MMORTS might be the last, true persistent multiplayer genre remaining. Now if we can just make sure that the quality goes up and stays that way, we can all reap the rewards.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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