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Not a Meaningful Label?

Jon Wood Posted:
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I read something recently that made me first immediately defensive and agitated, and then got me thinking. The “thing” that I read was an open letter from former LEGO Universe developer Ryan Seabury wrote that was published on Kotaku.

The long and the short of the piece is that Seabury won’t be looking to work in the MMO market again anytime soon. He lists three reasons for this. The last two reasons seemed, in general, a personal taste issue. 2) He doesn’t like the crazy amount of development time an MMO takes and 3) it sucks to be working on the same projects for that long a time. Both are completely fair statements and are in fact ones that I’ve heard from other game developers as well. Making MMOs, it is said, is like the Triathalon of game making. You need to be able to hone and employ a wide variety of skills over a long period of time, and it’s exhausting.

I get where the man is coming from. The thing that initially bugged me about the open letter though was his first point, which he labelled: Joe Public: "MMOMGWTF?  Birds and pigs?  Sounds fun!"

In it he says, and I’m wildly paraphrasing here, that there really is no MMO space for him to be backing away from, that everything these days is online and that (quoting directly now), “it’s not a meaningful label”.

So, my first reaction was anger. After all, just because he didn’t have the world’s most successful and fun-filled time making MMOs doesn’t invalidate the genre, does it? Just because everyone and their cow is making multiplayer games doesn’t invalidate the MMO market. Just because “social feature layers and persistent aspects” are buzzwords right now that everyone is barking out doesn’t invalidate the industry. Making sweeping statements declaring the irrelevance of the MMO label on your way out the door of the industry doesn’t invalidate the industry either.

But I’m not angry anymore. After giving it some thought, I realized that Mr. Seabury’s perspective is one that is shared by a good portion of the game development community: Take any game, slap some multiplayer on it, give it customization and levels and you’ve got yourself an MMO, or at least that’s how you can market your game.

That’s all it seems to take today for a company to call its game an MMORPG. I know that from our end, it’s been a constant struggle to draw the line between respecting the evolution of the genre (whether we like it or not) and rejecting games that just slap the MMO label on their non-MMO titles. It’s a square peg in a round hole sort of situation.

Even though you know full well that something isn’t a round block that’ll go through the round hole, people will still go out of their way to hand you that square peg telling you “Hey, this is round.” Over time, with all of those people forcing that square peg into that round hole, the hole starts to break down and you’re left with a beaten-to-crap roundish hole that a square peg will fit through. The term MMO has become that out of shape hole. It used to be a very specific something, and is now a beaten, former shell of itself.

So, I say this in the nicest way possible, in the hopes of maybe bending the hole back into its original shape. The following list of things on their own do not make a game an MMO, even if they are classic examples of MMO features (READ: I’m also not saying that games with all these aren’t MMOs, for what it’s worth):

  • being mulitplayer
  • having levels
  • having quests
  • player housing
  • having multiple servers
  • charging a monthly fee
  • character customization
  • an MMO-esque UI
  • persistent “aspects”
  • “social media” features

So, I’ll say it again: just because your game has one or two of the above features doesn’t make it an MMO. Stop calling it that, for your sake and ours. Things have gotten so very confused because of this that I think that games that are genuine MMORPGs are getting shafted and players are getting disheveled. I think part of the problem is that the real definition of an MMORPG can’t be found in a definable list of features, or a couple of quick sentences, but rather in the spirit in which the game was designed.

So then what, in an ideal world, should the term MMO be used to describe?

In my opinion, MMOs should be games that are about a world, and not about a single character. The persistent world should be changeable, and the adventures that the players have within it should be as well. It doesn’t have to be a sandbox, but needs to have a sense that players are within a living, breathing world and not just collectively moving through a new adventure game. An MMO should have social aspects, sure, but they can’t feel tacked on or artificially added. They need to be as much a part of the game world as everything else.

These are the things that set MMOs apart from other multiplayer games with social media features. I think that many developers, Mr. Seabury included, may be stuck in the headspace that lists an MMO as a game with a specific list of features. That’s just way too clinical an approach to take with this kind of game.  In any case despite claims to the contrary, the term MMO, while a bit co-opted these days, is still alive and well and is by no means a “meaningless label”.


Jon Wood