Defining an MMO

Massively has asked Bloggers to ‘Re-define’ the MMO Genre. So, like a diligent sheep I set out trying to think of a good angle to approach this from, only to find that I had trouble actually defining the MMO Genre in the first place.

6 Current MMOs

6 Current MMOs

Look at the range of MMO’s we have today. World of Warcraft, Champions Online, Fallen Earth, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, Guild Wars, Free Realms. Look at how different each one of these are. WoW is considered the benchmark for current MMO’s to follow, with Champions taking that benchmark and twisting it around, bending it and freeing it. All the while never really breaking it. Fallen Earth, with the back-to-basics combat, the steep learning curve and excellent crafting system. W:AR with it’s focus on PvP/RvR combat. Guild Wars and it’s bite-size morsels and Free Realms with it’s kid-friendly easy-to-play mini-game fest. Each play with the genre and come out unique in their own ways. They have alot in common with each other, naturally, but are so wildly different that it’s hard to pin down one thing that makes a game an MMO. Alot of these things are shared with bog-standard Multiplayer games, and even some offline games.

For example, saying all MMO’s have Player Progression in some form is ordinarily true, but the same can be said for normal MO’s and more so, Single Player games. For all the Levelling, Crafting and Gear upgrades in MMO’s there are single player RPGs that do the same. I’m just scanning my collection of games and everything from the likes of Oblivion, Dark Messiah, even X2 and X3 – The spiritual successors to Elite – have a definite sense of Progression with it’s Player Ranks and ship upgrades. Then you have Diablo 2, which is the closest any MO has gotten to an MMO.

Maybe it’s concurrent players then. Diablo has a limit of Eight people playing together, whereas MMO’s have only as many as the servers can handle. So what number is that? Champions Online has a limit of between 30 and 100 people per maps (depending on size). The smaller, earlier maps (Tutorial and the Crisis maps) are normally 30 (at time of writing) and the bigger maps are 100. World of Warcraft also put a limit on the number of people participating in Wintergrasp (the Open-world PvP area) of 100 players. Now correct me if I’m wrong but even games like Counter-strike can handle 100 people in the same map. Infact, Source games have a hard cap of 256 players per server (despite having never actually seen that number on a server), while you rarely see more than 32-player servers, I have seen 64 and even 128 player servers around. So the number of concurrent players in an area isn’t solely an MMO phenomenon.

The only difference, server wise, from games like CS, TF2 and Left 4 Dead, is that the servers are hosted by the Developer or Publisher of the game. Even this factor is replicated in MO’s. Blizzard’s games in particular (Diablo 2 popping it’s head up again, along with StarCraft) are all hosted on Blizzards servers, barring LAN games. So is that it? MMO’s are hosted Centrally with no hope of LAN play? Well, Blizzard come in again with the future Starcraft II. That’s right, the most played LAN game will be shipping without LAN support, or atleast, Players playing locally will be required to authenticate with a server first. So MMO’s aren’t in that exclusive Internet-only club now.

You can see why I’m having trouble pinning down what makes an MMO and MMO and not just another Multiplayer game. So far I’ve really just focused on the games basics and behind-the-scenes hardware. What about the actual in-depth gameplay? Is there anything there that’s Exclusively and Ubiquitously MMO?

Every MMO I’ve played has a dynamic economy that can be directly affected by the player. From selling unwanted items to ‘playing the market’, MMO’s Economies can be a game in themselves (in the case of EVE one can argue that the economy is the game) – but it’s not exclusively so. the X-Series (as mentioned before) is such a multifaceted game that you can go the entire game not killing anything and purely trade. Setting up factories, churning out wares, having NPC’s buy and sell them. If anything it’s more of a spreadsheet than EVE ever was. An economy that can be warped and manipulated by the player, or just casually as an aid to blowing more things up. Again, Diablo 2 has this too.

X3 has an excellent Economy system for a non-MMO

X3 has an excellent Economy system for a non-MMO

*frustrates* Okay! What about Crafting. Is there an MO or a Single Player game with the depth of crafting of any MMO? *Bangs head on desk* Okay, Diablo 2 does it as well. Oblivion has Spellcrafting and Enchanting. There are MMO’s that don’t have any crafting at all – for example, up until recently atleast, City of Heroes had nothing in the way of crafting.

Gathering places! Cities! places to congregate in large numbers, places with utilities, Banks, Auction Houses, Trainers, Vendors. The one place where everyone gathers and you can just sit and people-watch, or indeed, have people watch you. Surely every MMO has those, and no normal Multiplayer game does. Diablo doesn’t. It’s got a lobby chat room, but that’s it, and certainly any in-game vendors are located in maps where the maximum is still only 8. So Gathering in large numbers to show off your hard grafted characters to others. That’s something only MMO’s have. City of Heroes had Atlas Park, WoW has Dalaran, Champions online has… well…

It’s early days, but I haven’t really seen anything in Champions Online that would be analogous to this. Sure, there’s the Renaissance Center, but few people spend any real time there, and it’s so big that the few people who do congregate there are so spread out that posing for others is a rather non-issue. The most people I’ve seen gathered together is at the Tailor, and you can bet your arse they’re all in the Tailoring screen and can’t see you breakdancing in your hot duds. There are so many different places to gather in CO, more than any other MMO I’ve seen. The Ren Center, Club Caprice, Project Greenskin, Ice Station Steelhead, and the 9 different Crafting centers take the total up to 13 different places where people congregate, and not only that, but the people who do gather in the same place may not even see each other due to instancing. They need to plan where to meet, and that kinda breaks the purpose of random people watching.

Oh, and I forgot to mention EVE, which doesn’t have anything like this either. Too many people in one place and it’s not so much peoplewatching as people pew-pewing each other.

So we’ve got Single player games and Multiplayer games that have all the same characteristics of MMO’s, and we have some MMO’s with features other MMO’s do not.

Well, I can think of one thing that every MMO has that no Single player or Multiplayer game has. Payment plans.

WoW offers Pay-for Gender Reassignment

WoW offers Pay-for Gender Reassignment

I can think of no game genre in existence that requires some form of continual revenue before it’s green-lighted. Free Realms and DDO, for all the ‘Free to play!’ shouting, they’re not, not really. If you want the best items you have micro-transactions, extra payment options. Even WoW has this for Server Changes, Faction Changes and *ahem* Sex Changes. CO has – in time-honoured XBLA tradition – the CO store, where points bought with cash can be spent (on not much at the moment, but will surely come up soon).

Sure, other genres have their extended content, their Expansion Packs and Downloadable Content, but this is large extra chunks of content, not some [super sword of lolcats] or a vanity pet. It’s not a monthly fee and it’s not a 30-day free trial.

So is that what defines the MMO? Money?

Is money not only what defines the MMO Genre, but the motivation behind it? Churning out content patch after Expansion Pack, offering services of limited use for extra readies? Is that the state of the Genre, that everyone wants to make an MMO because of the piles of cash successful ones rake in? I don’t think so. It’s certainly not putting anyone off, but in hindsight and what I’ve seen on the horizon, each new MMO coming out is looking unique in one way or the other. If money were the sole motivator, new MMOs would be homogenous piles of nonesense, with a setting change and a new colour pallete. As it stands I don’t think we do.

We’ve got Jumpgate Evolution which is looking to combine the best bits of EVE and WoW, making it an easily accessible space-combat game, with a shallower learning curve than EVE (Always a good thing). It’s not just a transplant of WoW in space, nor is it a straight dumbing down of EVE.

Star Trek Online looking purdy and sturdy. With two different types of Combat, Space-ship battles and Away-mission battles, it could be something very special indeed.

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Made in Scotland, from Girders

Star Wars: The Online Republic focusing on the single-player experience, with it’s own player-centric epic story threads.

and yet another Star-based game, Stargate Worlds that (if it finds some more financial backing) sets to storm us with a new MMO Shooter.

APB, which is GTA online in everything but name pits gangs against vigilantes in a world of violence and gang symbols with some pretty nice looking customisation tools and ‘most wanted’ leaderboards.

Recently Released and looking fine we have Champions, Fallen Earth and Aion. Having played the two former I can say they’re set up for a good run, as for Aion, there are definitely mixed feelings with it. Some saying it’s the best thing since WoW, and some saying it’s exactly the same as WoW. Either way, we’ve got three new MMOs to play with, and atleast five more to look out for.

Each MMO on that list has done something new, or something slightly different. It’s less ‘Lather Rinse Repeat’, but again, it’s not quite ‘Impliment, Expand, Innovate’. Perhaps in 10 years time we’ll look at the MMOs of that day, compare them to the MMO’s of today and see not only obvious similarities, but see also the directions they’ve taken away from the norms.

No matter how far a branch is from the trunk, you can still tell it’s part of the same tree.

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