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MMORPG.com’s Weekly Watercooler: What’s in an Acronym? The MMO Definition Debate

William Murphy Posted:
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Let’s start a fire on a dead horse, folks. This week’s Weekly Watercooler topic is… "Should we still be arguing about what qualifies as an MMO?"

To get back to basics, we first asked Portalarium’s Richard Garriott to put in his two copper. Who better than the guy often credited with inventing the term?

Richard Garriott: We are often credited with coining the term "MMO RPG" during the development of Ultima Online. At that time, we were trying to explain what was unique about UO in contrast to both solo player RPGs and graphical MUDs that had obviously existed since near the dawn of computer gaming.

We felt that the term "Massively" was the key. So when people debate the applications of the term MMO to a variety of game types, I still believe that is the real differentiator. Persistence in your characters presence and growth was also clearly a part of our intention with the full "MMORPG".

In my mind an FPS can be an MMO, if it strives to put all players into a single grand world versus the more common dozens into innumerable sessions. Depending on if the character state grows and remains between sessions could either limit my descriptive to "MMOFPS" or start to blur into an action MMORPG.

Likewise RTS games could become MMORTS games under similar conditions.

While part of this debate could seem academic. I think clear broadly agreed and applicable terminology can prove useful. In another part of my life, I constantly fight to be described as a "private astronaut" vs a "space tourist" as one who built the company that arranged my flight, completed full training alongside other professionals, and generated significant professional income with my time in space. My summary for gaming then is that an MMO must attempt to put massive numbers, if not all players into the same reality. Our new game Shroud of the Avatar, succeeds at this even better than the original UO and many that followed, as we had to invent "shards" of reality to hold the unexpectedly large number of players. Shards to me, violate the original MMO intent.

Persistent growing characters again complete the MMORPG aspects of the original intent.

Thanks Richard! Now, we less-accomplished geeks hash it out among ourselves…

Hannah Richardson-Lewis: I feel kind of divided on this topic. Primarily, I want to roll my eyes and just enjoy games for what they are because when playing a game, I couldn't care less if it's an MMO, MOBA, CCG so long as I'm enjoying myself. But on the other hand, it's human nature to label things and when one person's label doesn't fit in with another, I do understand why debates and arguments arise from that.

Bill Murphy: I think some of it stems from pure nostalgia. People have an ideal in mind, and they can't easily let go of that ideal.

The acronym is just a label. Now, yes - there are games that aren't what one should call an MMO, and especially an MMORPG, but what's the strict criteria, and why is it unwavering? Things change.

By the very nature of our jobs here at this site, we must be willing to alter the definition as time goes on.

Gareth Harmer: What is an MMO supposed to deliver? Is it being able to hang around with other players in a town or city, interact with them and so on? Is it just a chat programme with a pretty interface?

Is it about going on adventures with friends? And if so, how many? A small group of 2 or 3, or a small army committing Kobold Genocide in Elwynn Forest?

Thing is, we want a whole crowd of other players.... except when they break our immersion or kill our quest mobs or mine our ores or pick our flowers or....

And feeling almost alone - part of a small band of rare heroes - is a direction taken by some MMOs. Destiny - Guardians are a rare breed. Warcraft, heroes and mercs are somewhat more common. EVE Online -  tens or hundreds of thousands of capsuleers in a vast universe.

Bill: One of our forum users said something pretty on point in response to another user.

CrazKanuk said: "… many MMORPG developers should take a good, hard look at Destiny, The Division, etc. because they do a lot of MMO features MUCH better than many MMOs do. Despite not having the social features, the focus of Destiny is to bring friends together. The barrier to entry for MMOs is the grind. Both Destiny and The Division blew this grind out of the water and Bungie, specifically, has said that their focus is creating a game which makes it easy for friends to pick up and play together. What a fucking concept, right?

Read more at the LINK.

Gareth: Massively Multiplayer refers to the number of people playing a game, not the fact that you'll be able to give the World's Biggest Group Hug in Stormwind.

Hannah Richardson-Lewis: It's good to have these things open to interpretation. The differences between Destiny, WoW, and EVE, as Gazimoff said, make the genre that much richer for being so different. And we've all seen what happens when MMO designers stick to a formula.

Gareth Harmer: Agree with 'not sticking to a formula'. You can't hammer people for trying to remake WoW with one hand, and doing something different with another

Bill Murphy: That's a wonderful point. Diversity is GOOD. But if we want diversity in game systems, we need to be willing to accept that the acronym can't have a strict set of requirements.

Markus Rohringer: To be fair, that is not necessarily a discussion that changed over time. The term was always vague. Back then, when calling yourself an MMO was a positive thing, there were lots of cheaper/casual lobby-based games where the developers called them an MMO while the purists cried out "but you can play the actual game only with 8 people. How in the world is that massively? The lobby doesn't count." And I would have agreed with them. The irony I see now is rather that a lot of games that would have been called MMOs back then try to avoid this labelling by all means because of its negative connotation and rather invent new ones.

Gareth Harmer: That's true. How many racing games came out that were supposed to be MMO, but only catered to a few people at a time?

Bill Murphy: No one can ever take Auto Assault away from me. But yes, The Crew wasn't really as MMO as they lead on, but let's think about that. You drove in a world with the potential to run into thousands of other people at any time, but you only ever saw a handful at a time. Is it less of an MMO, because they "phased" people in and out of your shared space? You still played "with" thousands of others in a persistent online world.

Hannah Richardson-Lewis: Well it's a different experience, which isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but if you're looking for a world that feels "massive" and lived in, only being phased in with a few people at a time doesn't really give that experience 9 times out of 10.

Bill Murphy: True. But in some worlds, having hundreds around can ruin the idea of the world - imagine one of those car games where you have finite space and hundreds of people just running amuck? The limited amount of people you see makes sense for that experience. It depends on what the developers want the experience to be.

Markus Rohringer: Yeah but then the old question arises in which such a game is more massively than let's say the normal multiplayer mode of other games? In which way is there even a persistent world besides maybe a common lobby and a player market that you might also find in non-MMOs?

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William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.