The virtual gaming world has exploded in recent years with the advent of social gaming and social networking sites. By proxy, so has the gaming market. Somehow – whether in search of a new label for a growing genre of games popping up across the Internet, or by creative planning by producers who want to join a bandwagon – many games and virtual worlds are getting labeled as MMOs and vying for attention from the press and consumers among more classically defined MMOs. The definition of MMO is being stretched.
Take Mytheon, for instance, which is being reported on by several MMO news sites. Mytheon is an online adventure RPG in the style of Diablo and Torchlight. Mytheon will offer several multi-player PvP modes, including a Co-Op mode which pits two teams against each other as well as standard enemies. Mytheon never ventures to call itself an MMORPG. It lacks a persistent world, and it lacks any sort of social hub or interaction beyond the multi-player modes. Unlike other lobby-based MMOs, multi-player isn't even required to advance in the game. In short, Mytheon is highly similar to Diablo with Battle.Net attached. So if Diablo isn't an MMO, why is Mytheon being treated like one? Better yet, what is an MMO?
Defining an MMO(G) should be an easy task: simply take apart the components of the abbreviation. Massively Multi-player Online Game. Language, however, is a tricky beast, often used to the advantage of those who wield it. How do we really define these components?
First of all, what constitutes “massively”? The massive refers to a quantitative assessment, an adverb applied to the word multi-player that follows. Oxford's English Dictionary defines massive as “exceptionally large, intense, or severe,” which doesn't help us at all in defining the word as it applies to online gaming. Sure, “massively” means “a lot.” If we're to use MMORPG.com's own example, we'd only require the capability of 500 congruent users on a server, which really isn't a whole lot if you think about it. Which brings up another good point: do you judge a game's “massively”ness on its actual population, or its technical capabilities (i.e. server capacities); and, if by capabilities, on a wide-scale (an entire server) or a local scale (i.e. a zone, or players within viewing distance). The term “massively” sounds definable in an objective manner, but its true nature is subjective and manipulable.
Next on the list is “multi-player,” simple enough: more than two players can play the game simultaneously. Even before MMOs existed, we knew that multi-player could be either competitive or cooperative. Do two players who exist on the same server, but in completely different areas, count as 'multi-player'? No, I'm not talking about the solo-versus-group content debate. Consider a game like Farmville, for example. It's certainly massive in scale, in that thousands can play simultaneously on shared servers, and it certainly has multi-player content, as players can visit and help their friends both through the game interface and by the sending and receiving of gifts. Players can't spatially interact with each other however; you can come see my withered crops and I can go feed your chickens, but we'll never co-exist in each other's worlds on a graphical, tangible basis. In fact, I wouldn't even know that you had visited if it wasn't for the power of the Facebook notification; I could keep my farm open all day, and never see the dozens of people who dropped in to fertilize my crops.
Farmville makes an easy target, but many games that define themselves as MMOs have similar conceptual issues; namely, the lobby-based games. These MMOs are usually sports MMOs (Shot Online or MLB Dugout Heroes, for example) or shooter-combat MMOs (such as Combat Arms). The key difference about this style of MMO is that it has no persistent world; players choose to match up in a lobby, meet up in a virtual space created just for them, and when they are complete, return to the lobby. There is no virtual environment in which players co-exist outside of their game session. So what is a persistent world, aka a virtual world? That's a Terrible Idea, a game-design blog focused on MMOs, defined a virtual world as “a globally-accessible simulated, persistent environment in which users interact through an avatar proxy.” The blog goes on to say that the environment must offer a concept of location (chat rooms don't count), must persist between play sessions (that golf course must continue to exist when we're not putting on its greens), and it must be globally accessible and consistent (anyone and everyone could go theoretically go to a single place at once). That is to say, a lobby-based MMO, with no virtual participating world, is no MMO at all. Of course, this means Farmville is out of the running too.
“Online” is thankfully a binary concept; a game is either online or not, and games that have tried to straddle both boundaries (à la Cities XL) have not called their offline modes MMOs. “Game”, on the other hand, is somewhat subjective. A game is something that a person engages in for fun, although the level of amusement a game provides is completely relative to each individual. So does a virtual world, with no goals, constitute a game?
MMOs have shown us that a game doesn't require an ending to be won. In an MMO, winning and losing is simply a measure of success versus failure. I “win” when I defeat one of ten goblins required to win the princess' prized ring, I “win” when I craft a backpack, and I “win” when I defeat a super raid boss; likewise, I “fail” if by death or some other misfortune I fail to defeat my enemies. In both winning and losing, however, there is a tangible provided goal to be met (a boss to kill, a quest to complete, a player to pwn) in addition to personal goals such as obtaining a rare pet. So when I enter a virtual world, where I am given a virtual persona but no tangible goal to achieve, no condition by which I can win or lose, am I still playing a game? The saying goes “it's not about winning or losing, but about having fun;” but does that actually define gaming, or only an attitude to approach it with?
My take is that the definition of an MMO is fluid. It has the certain properties discussed above, but those properties can conform to many shapes. Like water, the definition of an MMO can fill many differently shaped vessels. It's the vessels that can't hold the definition within that cannot be classified as MMOs. That means if a game doesn't offer true massively multi-player gameplay, or simply isn't a game, then it falls outside the definition of MMO and needs to fall under its own definition, whether that's virtual world, online multi-player game, or something else.
This isn't an effort to create a hierarchy of online games and worlds, where “true” MMOs come out on top and lesser games get shuffled off lower in the food-chain. Many of these online environments are enjoyable, classy, well-developed; many deserve awards over some of their MMO brethren. What it is an effort to do is to properly classify online games, to provide proper descriptions of games to prevent players from being misled or abused by advertising terminology. In a genre where every developer seems to want to jump in on the money-making MMO train, it might just be a protection we need.