There was a time when "online" told you everything you needed to know about a game because there was really only one type of online game. You knew in picking up an online game that you and some friends would be leveling, looting gear, and slaying dragons. It took a while for developers to notice that online play was actually a thing that could work in more than one particular format.
Nowadays, online games range from traditional MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and RIFT to MOBAs like SMITE and League of Legends. There's no clear definition for what an MMO is or isn't because so many games are massive, multiplayer, and online.
Maybe it's time to embrace MMO as a broader term than previously thought.
"Why is this on Massively?"
One of the most common negative comments we receive comes in the form of one person or the other attempting to define for everyone else what MMO means. Here are some examples from the last couple of weeks:
Commenter uohaloran on our coverage of the GTA Online reveal:
This has zero business being on Massively.Commenter CthulhuDawg on our coverage of the Nether announcement:
IMO there is nothing massive about games that only allow 64 people to play. That hasn't been massive since 1997.Commenter JesseCocker on a post about Hearthstone:
I don't think this belongs on an MMO site, the only MMO thing about it is that it's set in the same universe as World of Warcraft...While it's likely true that these comments are made with the best of intentions (i.e., not to troll), it does help illustrate a major problem in the world of MMOs and the commentary surrounding them: People don't seem to agree on what exactly an MMO is. Because opinions vary, debates rage about what games qualify (and what we here on Massively should and should not cover).
I'm not here to tell you why we post what we post or why we cover games A, B, and not C. Brianna Royce, our magnificent editor-in-chief, has answered those concerns and more in several Ask Massively columns. However, I do think we could all benefit from worrying less about which games we consider MMOs and more about what those games actually do right and wrong.
Drawing a line
I've said this before and I understand it's not the popular opinion, but I believe that any game with an online component is a massively multiplayer online game. World of Tanks, for example, is a common target of the "not an MMO" jab, but the title has over 40 million registered users and the world record for concurrency. It doesn't really get more massive than that, whether or not all 500,000 players happened to be in the same room.
"But Mike," you might be thinking, "by that logic, Battlefield and Call of Duty are MMOs." And you're absolutely right. They are. Call of Duty is a massively multiplayer online game. I'm sure that stings the delicate sensibilities of a few herb-picking, leather-clad elves out there, but it's the truth. It's online. It's massive. It's multiplayer. So is League of Legends. And Grand Theft Auto Online.
The common argument against classifying a game as an MMO is the definition of "massive" in relation to the number of players simultaneously sharing a space. For instance, purists might claim a game like Dota 2 shouldn't be considered massive because only 10 players occupy a match at a time. The problem here should be obvious to anyone with a critical mind: Where do we draw the line, and who decided it was up to us?
Is 16v16 massive? One hundred on one hundred? Yes? No? Why not? What is the magic number at which a game becomes massive? Is it the size of a server? How big of a server? EVE Online's entire playerbase is on one shard; is it more of an MMO than Aion? Is a 64v64 fight in Battlefield 3 more or less massive than raid content tuned for 25 players or fewer in World of Warcraft?
Do you have an answer?
Another frequently cited qualification is the presence of a persistent world. Traditional MMOs take place in a persistent universe that exists whether or not the player is online. But there is nothing in the phrase "massively multiplayer online game" that promises persistency. And why does the persistent world have to be something rendered in-game? Can't an argument be made for the idea that the persistent world of MOBAs is the competitive metagame, while the persistent world of lobby shooters is in the player community and forums?
Why does what we call a game matter so much to so many?
Some classifications in the games industry are solid and tight. "First-person shooters" are in first-person and have shooting. "Real-time strategy" games force you to strategize in real-time. But "massively multiplayer online game" is a little harder to pin down. "Multiplayer," "online," and "game" are straight yes or no questions. Something either is or isn't a game, online, and multiplayer. "Massively," however, is a nebulous term that is open to interpretation.
Perhaps our time is better spent discussing game features we like and dislike or innovations we hope to see in future titles rather than bickering over how many pixels have to be on-screen at once for a game to earn the hallowed distinction of "MMO." Maybe instead of leaping on the tiniest technicality we can find to dismiss a game, we can take issue with its actual failings. And maybe, just maybe, we can stop pretending that "MMO" and "MMORPG" are interchangeable terms with identical definitions.
Standing on semantics prevents us from truly engaging one another, and that's kind of a bummer for everyone.
Thoughts? Email me: Mike@Massively.com.
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 and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!