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Justin Webb: How Soon Until Everything is an MMO?

Columns By Justin Webb on February 02, 2010

How Soon Until Everything is an MMO?

This week I have mostly been playing Mass Effect 2, Borderlands, and Star Trek Online (and wondering how Scott is going to wrap up his epic two-parter tomorrow).

Doing so has highlighted, for me, a trend that has been slowly growing throughout all of gaming: RPGs are becoming more like shooters; and shooters are becoming more like RPGs.

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For example, Mass Effect 2 is a wonderfully streamlined third-person shooter with a lot of its previous incarnation's RPG-ness excised; while Borderlands is a joyful shooter that is almost indistinguishable from an MMO. It's getting hard to know what MMORPG "means" nowadays. The lines between genres are blurring. Which one is the RPG: Mass Effect 2 or Borderlands?

I suppose you can blame micro-transactions to some extent. The big console FPSs want to make as much moolah as possible. They've seen the shedload of cash that WoW makes, and want more than just the $60 retail-box cost you shelled out, but can't apply a subscription model to their games. The next best thing to increase revenues is to sell stuff. Hey kids, wanna buy a fancy new gun or maybe a tea-bagging emote? Players don't usually respond very well to this kind of double dipping unless there is a valid gameplay rationale. So, say hello in your favorite FPS to levelling and ranks; semi-persistent worlds; and character progressions. Suddenly, FPSs became thinly-veiled RPGs.

Borderlands is the perfect example. Now, I love Borderlands. It's a very, very competent shooter with extremely robust multiplayer options. The dynamic loot-generation system is sublime (I intend to steal large chunks of it). Borderlands has a bank vault (if you pay for it); it has quests; it has levels; it has grind; it has classes and talent trees; it has WoW-style loot. I can play it in a group with my closest friends. Sounds like an MMO, right? Traditionally, no. But, Borderlands is an example of one of the current crop of games that can exist on both sides of the fence. And the Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield franchises are all neighbours.

So what does the term MMORPG mean today? Are we sticking to our DIKU roots and branding all shooter hybrids as heretics? It's a fair position to take, I suppose. The only thing that Borderlands doesn't have as an MMO is a built-in lobby in which you can see and interact with everyone who is currently playing. It's definitely comforting to know exactly what "MMORPG" means, even if the exact meaning of the term is becoming further diluted with every major FPS release that hits the shelf.

To add confusion to our ever-diminishing definition, some upcoming releases seem to want to bamboozle the matter even further. And there is no bigger upcoming release than Bioware's Star Wars, The Old Republic. From the released marketing videos, it would appear that the game is a heavily-instanced co-op/single-player story-driven game played online with some kind of massively-multiplayer lobby area (where you can go shopping, make friends, auction stuff, etc.).

Is SWTOR an MMORPG in the traditional sense? Given the information that has been released so far, I would say "not". Where are the other people (the two Ms in MMO) in those videos? It's just a single-player game played online, right? I've mentioned this to some EA folks and they have assured me that this isn't the case, but wouldn't spill any juicy details as to why not. Bah! Curse their NDAs!

Does it matter if SWTOR isn't an MMORPG? Or at least an MMORPG in a shape that we recognize? Of course, not. In fact, it's a breath of fresh air that there will be a major MMO coming out that is trying something new(ish) and isn't just trying to clone WoW. But it does beg the question as to whether we need to change our definition of what an MMORPG is.

Are we on the cusp of a change in the types of games that the industry is prepared to make? Will companies stop expecting to be successful when trying to make "WoW killers" while WoW is still making the money that it does? Are we about to soon see games that challenge the shape of what an MMO is? God, I hope so. However, I fear there are still a couple more years to go of games made by people who should know better.

The convergence of game types/genres into the amorphous blob of "online games" (shooters = RPGs and vice versa) is the most exciting thing to happen in online gaming in years, and potentially the biggest injection of originality so far into a genre that has become jaded and tired.

There will be some resistance to this gradual evolution though. Will we want to consider FIFA or Madden 2011 as MMOs? Or the next iteration of Halo? Or Borderlands 2? These games are only a couple of features away right now from being indistinguishable from the current batch of MMOs. Have we crossed the line where online play is the "norm" for a game? Are single-player games in the minority now? I think so.

When I play Borderlands with friends online, it triggers all the same "enjoyment" synapses in my brain that fire when I play established MMORPGs like WoW or LoTRO. It appeals to all the things I love about online and MMO gaming. However, my recent experiences with Star Trek Online have had almost exactly the opposite result. So far, in that game, I haven't interacted with a single other player. Star Trek feels like a single player game. Is it a sign that something cataclysmic is about to happen in the world of MMOs when a console shooter exploits the genre better than a major AAA MMO release from an established industry "playah"?

Will this site embrace the inevitable convergence as almost everything becomes an MMO? Or will some bastion of Tolkien-esque arbitrariness define the genre as far as this site is concerned? With the current emergence of online play, what does MMORPG "mean"? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions in the forums.