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State of the Game: Who's afraid of the big bad MMO word?

Shawn Schuster Posted:
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Remember a few years ago when every new upcoming game had an MMO connection? Simply tack on the "online" word and you have yourself an instant hit! Right?

Well, things have changed. In fact, things have changed so drastically in probably just the last two years that studios are even denying that their upcoming large-scale multiplayer online role playing game is anything close to an MMO. It's as if "MMO" has become a dirty word.

Although a harmless gesture at the time, I think this whole MMO-denial thing started with ArenaNet and its "CORPG" (Cooperative Online Role-Playing Game) label the company gave to Guild Wars. You get a bunch of disgruntled former Blizzard designers together to make the anti-WoW, and they're going to think of some cute term that bucks the trend.

But it was the pre-hype that surrounded Bungie's Destiny that really drove the point home. The studio set out in 2013 to make sure that everyone knew that they never called the game an MMO, despite the fact that several members of the media were already throwing the term around.

"You'll embody a character that evolves on that journey," Bungie said in a weekly update post from last November that answered a fan question asking if the studio gets tired of people calling the game an MMO. "Unlike an MMO, the entire experience is built around heart-pounding action that you'll see through the eyes of your hero." Wait, what?

The latest game to be in MMO denial is Tom Clancy's The Division. Announced during E3 2013, Ubisoft made sure to say that the game is "in an MMO setting," while not really committing to calling it an MMO. Granted, the four-player co-op mode doesn't exactly scream "massive," but Ubisoft's Rodrigo Cortes made a bit of a dig at MMO gameplay in an October interview with VG247.

"In many online RPG games there are people disturbing your experience," he said. "We took the decision early on to create the experience to compliment 1-4 players. We don’t want an emotional experience ruined by a guy with a weird name dancing in front of you."

So that's what MMOs represent now, I guess. I can't really blame him for thinking that way, because the social aspect of virtual worlds might be too much for the shooter crowd to handle, but weird names are ruining his emotional experience? Really? Has he ever even been on Xbox Live?

The way I see it, MMO is a simple label to understand. Does the game allow for two or more people to play together? Yes? Then it's multiplayer. Is it played over a series of tubes? Yes? Then it's online. Does it have role-playing elements like character progression and customization? Yes? Then it's an RPG. The "massive" part is the sticky point in most cases, but where's the cut-off? Is a 100-character region limit considered massive? How about if only five people are currently playing in that region? Does phasing disqualify the "massive" scale? So then World of Warcraft is no longer an MMO? What?

We MMO gamers are a unique bunch. We started off as a fringe element of fantasy tabletop gaming and BBS fanatics and were quickly shuffled off into a quiet corner by the "cool kid" gamers playing Madden and Mario Kart. But when senators and doctors and your brother-in-law started talking publicly about their new Blood Elf Paladin, more people wanted to know what this whole MMO thing was all about.

We often feel resentment about the spotlight that our favorite hobby has enjoyed over the years because we feel like it was something that we discovered and loved before Disney and Nickelodeon got their Kool-Aid-stained hands all over everything. And now it seems a bit unfair that the MMO term is being denied right after the big publishers came through and pillaged our genre for the most interesting parts.

The bottom line is that there is no set rulebook to let us all know what's an MMO and what isn't, and that's not really such a bad thing. Genres are mixed and label boundaries are blurred every day, but that's just called innovation. As MMO gamers, we have to accept the fact that just about every other genre out there has borrowed our multiplayer online ingredient and added it to their own stews. Why? Because it works. But we can't really fault them for evolving video games past sectioned-off categories and combining the best parts to make today's quality games.


Shawn Schuster

Shawn Schuster is the former Editor-in-Chief at Massively.com and founder of the indie gaming review site Shoost.co. Shawn has been writing professionally about video games since 2008 and podcasting about games since 2005. When he's not leveling yet another alt, he's running his organic farm with his wife and four kids.