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The Tourist: That's Not an MMO

Column By Christopher Coke on September 13, 2013

MMOs. The longer I cover them, the more I see marketing teams glom onto the term like wolves on the trail. I find this strange. Are they chasing Blizzard money? Are they horning in on the next hotness? Either of those would be fine, except their games are often anything but. What's worse is that the gaming press seems complicit in all of this. Even dedicated MMO sites have begun talking about League of Legends in the same breath as World of Warcraft. This is a problem. Today I'm going to talk about what makes an MMO and it's not your stupid MOBA.

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Forgive the aggression here, but it's a bit irritating to see Massively Multiplayer shilled off on so many bullet-point lists. It's one more example of marketing teams assuming the ignorance of the average gamer. I resent the term “massive” being used to describe 16 players on a single map. By using “MMO” they are cribbing a term which had clear definitions and muddying the waters. Even attached to other genre signifiers, stealing the most important part of our acronym makes it more meaningless than ever before.

So what's not an MMO?

MOBAs: I'm sorry League of Legends, DOTA2, and SMITE. It doesn't matter how many websites put you into our category, you're not MMOs. You might be popular with MMO players, but your itty-bitty maps and bite-sized teams are anything but massive. And your playerbase... that's a bit disingenuous isn't it? Sure, there are a lot of players online but how many are in each match?

Action-RPGs: If you're copying Diablo, you're not an MMO. It doesn't even matter if you have dozens of players on the same map. When you're the mirror image of a thousand other players, wandering off into 20-player-capped towns and instances, you're not an MMO. You're trying really hard but not there yet.

Multiplayer Shooters: Unless your name is Planetside 2, you're probably not an MMO either. Take Tribes 2 for example. Just like MOBAs, players and press alike enjoy attaching the moniker to it. No! There is little persistence, no sense of world, and a whole lot of frag-and-forget that pushes it right out.

But now that we know what it's not, let's look at what an MMO actually is:

Truly Massive: Maybe it's because I've played enough MMOs to know, but when I think “massive” I think 1,000 players or more all connecting to the same server. You might not see them all but then again you may. You never know. There are enough players to make the world feel lived in, not simply populated.

Big, Persistent World: MMOs have huge, travel-able worlds that keep breathing when you're offline. You don't load into maps between rounds. You don't zone in with a fifty-player limit for fear of crashing the place. Even games with heavy loading screens, like the original Guild Wars, are closer to MMOs than any of the action-RPGs out there today. In a real MMO, you play in regions and zones, and these places are pieces of a larger puzzle: the one, true map of the entire game world. Most importantly, zones don't exist for the sole purpose of exploding mobs for loot.

Progression Based: Playing an MMO is a journey. You take your character from the merest beginnings to the reaches of power and renown. As you earn levels, you're rewarded with new gear and abilities, but these act in support of the character rather than the other way around. In an action-RPG, your character is meaningless; it exists solely as an excuse to fire abilities and be showered in loot. MMOs layer progression on top of itself: your character, your gear, your trade, your currency, your guild... the list goes on.

Real Players, Real Connections: Most importantly, MMOs allow you to connect with other people in meaningful ways. We can argue this all day long, but when was the last time you really got to know xXSniperKillzXx in Call of Duty? There are guilds, small groups, large groups, shared challenges, and functional chat. Connecting to other players has always been the cornerstone of our genre and that's still true today.

What's ironic is that as MMOs strive to be more like console games, console games are becoming more like MMOs. One need look no further than Halo-maker Bungie's Destiny to see so but you needn't even go so far. And that's the problem. If we're going to open up the term so much, what won't be an MMO over the next few years? No one can deny how massive Call of Duty and Battlefield are. If MOBAs can be dropped into our category, why not them? Why not Borderlands? Diablo? Grand Theft Auto Online?

The march of connectedness, even in single-player games, isn't going to stop. The Xbox One and Playstation 4 are more like PCs than ever before. Greater numbers of players are online than at any point in our history, and the mainstream populace is waking up to something we've long known: connecting to online worlds is fun. We need an identity.

The mainstream gaming press doesn't understand us. They are just as complicit in this whole mess as the companies themselves. For their part, it's mostly forgivable. It's not hard to see why they might have trouble finding the time for MMOs with so many other games on their plate, and it's only recently that there was even a need to understand us. After all, for years console gamers called us wierdos for paying monthly to have our “lives sucked away.” World of Warcraft forced them to stand up and take notice but there is still a lot of catching up to do.

At the end of the day, something needs to change. When “MMO” becomes meaningless, as it is on the path to doing, how then will we define our games; I don't think the second half of the acronym is any more future-proof than the first. Do we need to cannibalize one term to give rise to another? I may be a contrarian here, but I have really begun to dislike games marketing. Don't tell me something is “massive” if the only way I'll see that is in network logs. We MMO players know better and it's us that's being targeted with those bullet points. Instead of advertising harder, advertise smarter and you might avoid the initial eye roll before we've even clicked play.

Christopher Coke / Chris has written about MMOs for over four years and has played dozens of different titles. Hear him on the official podcast every Monday and follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight.


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Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.

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The Tourist
In this bi-weekly column, prolific MMO blogger Chris "GamebyNight" Coke takes a brief look at a different game each article, highlighting the goods and bads of a "tour" through every MMO out there.
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