Massively Overthinking: Just how massive is massively multiplayer?


Recent tweaks to the taxonomy structure of Massively OP and coverage of what we formerly called “Not-So-Massive” games prompted a resurgence of internal discussion about the types of games we cover and just what the genres mean. MOBAs are easy to separate out, but the line between “multiplayer” and “massively multiplayer” is just as hard to define now as it was five or 10 years ago when we were first struggling with blurring lines. Are Marvel Heroes, Trove, and Devilian, for example, massive “enough” to make them more like EverQuest and World of Warcraft than they are like Diablo III and World of Tanks? Do we care whether a developer has adopted or shunned the word “MMO” when covering a game as one? What precisely makes a game massive — what’s the magic quantity or quality?

I posed these questions to the Massively OP writers for this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): At this point in my life, “massive” as a game term means little to nothing. It’s a too subjective, like “fun.” “Persistent” in terms of worlds is more meaningful to me. Animal Crossing feels more “massive” to me than League of Legends because players’ personal towns can be impacted by player actions and change over time even when the game is left alone. Minecraft and even Rust (when servers work and don’t reset every day) also feel like a better fit based on this idea, as even though they’re on a private server, the environmental impact we have as a player can be better felt, which leaves a bigger impression on me as a player when compared to the usual “murder simulators” we have. It’s not just that we’re playing together but that we’re creating and environment and stories together, and you just don’t get that with Battlefront no matter how cool it may be to play as Vader for awhile.

Look at WoW. Most of the game’s content is instanced, limited to a set number of players. The “massive” (read: 40 people) content has become less popular, and Blizzard caters to this, a lesson WildStar had to learn the hard way. Combine phasing, personal harvesting nodes, and the need for the art team to destroy/build towns based on the current developer narrative, and the whole thing comes off as anything but massive. And this is from the game that largely stands out as almost the symbol of the genre to the outside world.

“Massively Persistent Multiplayer Game” (because really, there are so few offline games now!) would be more useful as a moniker as it hints at that “many people” factor while including lasting changes to the environment, as opposed to instancing that exists solely for a quick match or series of challenges before being restored and replayed. I think for fans of the genre in its early days, it might better encompass what we’re looking for in games when compared to lobby shooter fans.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): We started grappling with issues of terminology, genre and persistence on Massively-of-old as far back as our 2009 Redefining MMOs series, and I summed up my own views on what precisely is and isn’t an MMO in an opinion piece in 2013. My take on it is that I think people misunderstand what the “Massively” part of “Massively Multiplayer” actually means and conflate it with just having a lot of players. The word “Massively” in this phrase is a qualifier on the word “Multiplayer, so it’s saying that the multiplayer component is massive in scope or scale when compared to what we would consider standard or average for multiplayer. If I tell you I’m “massively rich” but I only have an average amount of money, I’m obviously lying. That’s how that word works, and it shouldn’t change just because World of Tanks’ marketing department wants it to.

The key distinguishing factor in what makes something an MMO or not is how many people the actual core multiplayer gameplay typically lets play together simultaneously in the same shared online space. If that number is sufficiently higher than you’d expect from a standard multiplayer game mode, then the game qualifies as Massively Multiplayer by definition, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not an MMO. League of Legends has millions of players, for example, but its core gameplay is limited to 10 people at a time, so it’s clearly not an MMO. Standard multiplayer games currently tend to host matches of up to 10, 32, or even 64 players in some cases, so a good common sense boundary beyond which there’s no doubt that something is massive in scope would be somewhere in the hundreds.

I think it’s a pretty good common sense rule that sets up a clear dividing line between MMOs and standard multiplayer games, providing of course that we correctly identify what the core gameplay is and how many people can play together in that core gameplay in the same shared online space simultaneously. Guild Wars 1 wasn’t even considered to be an MMO by its developers because the core gameplay took place in 8-player instances, for example, and Elite: Dangerous isn’t really an MMO because it takes place in dynamic instances limited to 32 players. I think the bigger problem is that people, studios and gaming blogs chronically misuse terminology either by mistake or even deliberately for marketing purposes, and you can’t really stop them from doing it. At this point, it may be impossible to get everyone to agree on a definition of MMO and so the term may be losing its practical application as a genre descriptor.

League of Legends

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Generally, I side with those who believe MMORPGs are dependent on a degree of world and/or character persistence over those who believe a game with more than X players is an MMO and a game with fewer than X is not. “MMORPG” is about gameplay intent, feel, and vision to me. The vast majority of traditional MMORPGs, including the founding games of the genre, would fail if it were just about the numbers, since it’s rare that more than a few dozen people would convene at any given time. I don’t believe that the existence of solo-oriented play or instanced play disqualifies a game from the MMORPG label, either, as long as some part of the game as a whole is persistent and designed with some form of RPG character development in mind.

Classic Guild Wars passes my internal MMORPG test easily because it wasn’t designed to be played as a lobby game; its instances are a conceit, the same conceit used in any other game with instanced dungeons or chained servers or overflow zone spawning. ArenaNet just didn’t work as hard to mask that conceit.

Truthfully, I wish we as gamers could move past unwinnable massive/not-massive turf wars and focus more on the concern that we’re losing the RPG part bit by bit.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There are three main questions I ask about any game when it comes to the question of “multiplayer” vs. “MMO”:

  • Online status – is this a game that is meant to be played online-only, or is offline play just as valid as online play? Does it even have an offline mode?
  • Persistence – are there elements of the game that continue running whether you’re on the game or not? Can someone enter the same space as you without any input from you?
  • Nature of the game – by far the most debatable and subject to personal reasoning, but still – is the game meant to be a big multiplayer experience, or is it really a single-player venture?

To look at two obvious examples, let’s pick on Diablo III and Guild Wars. Both are clearly online-only games, so they both wind up in that situation. Guild Wars has several persistent areas and elements, but it could be argued that Diablo III has nearly as many persistent elements – no central hubs for large groups of players, no, but it does have some element of persistence. But looking at the nature of both games, Guild Wars is very clearly designed as a game that rewards interacting with other players, even indirectly, and you wind up losing out on several major parts of the game if you were somehow the only player of the game on the planet. Diablo III, by contrast, would run just fine without any other players to interact with, directly or otherwise.

I’m not in favor of limiting the definition by the number of people playing at once or the like; the point of an MMO isn’t simply how many people you have in the same space at once, it’s about creating a space that multiple players share rather than one which others can jump in and out of. There are always going to be corner cases, naturally, and things that raise one’s eyebrows, which is why I think the nature of the game itself needs to be considered. It’s possible to play huge amounts of Star Wars: The Old Republic while solo, but I don’t think there’s really any way to argue that it isn’t an MMO; it just doesn’t necessitate direct interaction with other players at all times. Conversely, these days I play Saints Row games chiefly in multiplayer mode, but I wouldn’t argue that the games themselves are meant to be MMO-style spaces (also the world there isn’t persistent, but that’s a different element altogether and I’m using an example to make a point, dang it). There aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but there are pretty clear guidelines, and it’s not too hard to trace those lines.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): As far as I’ve always read it, the first “M” of “MMORPG” defines everything that comes after it, not just the multiplayer — it’s a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Most of the proto-MMOs back in the day weren’t “massive” except in ambition, with world and party sizes in the double-digits. But how things have grown, and then shrunk again.

If we had to put a magic number on the design of an MMORPG game world and the size its population to be considered massive, I would say that you need to at least have zones where you can see other players running about (i.e., not purely lobby-based) and would have to handle at least 500 players in the game as a whole. But I hate putting any sort of hard number on it because each game is its own entity and you have to evaluate it on its own and see its approach to the number of players it can hold, the number of players that can appear in any given area, party sizes (or lack thereof), grouping and other social content, and if these players share a single world or if there are scads of private-run servers.

For me, “multiplayer” alone means two to 32 players, tops, with the purpose of temporary matches or adventures but not an ongoing, shared, persistent experience.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): To be Massively, or not to be Massively — that is the question:
Whether ’tis better in the mind to believe
That 60 or hundreds or thousands define
Or to take arms against the cry of Massively,
And by opposing end the term! To fight- to argue-
No more; and by to fight to say we end
The debate, and the thousand petty arguments
That gamers are heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To fight- or login.
To log in- perchance to play: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that time of games what fun may come
When we have shuffled away from this silly fight
That gives us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Multiplayer the important part.

Patreon Donor Archebius: This is a rough one! Personally, I would just lump most things into the “Multiplayer Games” category and be done with it, but if someone asked me to define the word – like you just did – then I can get pedantic with it. ARK is a multiplayer game, and not a true MMO. Guild Wars 1 I would characterize as an MMO. Even Destiny, which has a far smaller number of players in any given area (16 is the max, even at the Tower), I would characterize as an MMO (though it’s stretching the term).

I would say that what characterizes an MMO is a persistent (existing on a scale of weeks or months, at least) world and characters, one in which you don’t have full control over who you run into or what the world around you looks like. It’s not so much about the number of players present in an area as the fact that there are players you don’t know running around. Additionally, the maps must exist in an accessible state even when you are not participating in an activity. You must be able to progress in said game in some fashion (levels, skills, buildings). This definition removes most shooters, where the map only exists for a match; it also removes most survival games (like ARK), since it is allowed (and encouraged!) for players to set up their own servers and play by their own rules.

When I log into an MMO, I expect to be able to meet new people, play an activity together with them, make some definite progress through that activity, and know that (barring a cataclysm) that world is going to be roughly the same the next time I log on – that’s the magic quality.

Your turn! Soliloquies receive bonus commenter points.


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Rick Balkins

In my personal opinion, I would just no worry so much about the word “massively”. That has no single official definition aside from a typical definition in a dictionary (eg. Webster’s dictionary). MORPG, MORTS, MO***, and in general MOGs (Multiplayer Online Game(s)) as the umbrella term for ALL multiplayer online game. In my opinion, a game is multiplayer if there is TWO or MORE (up to INFINITY) number of players.

Historically, the context for ‘massive’ did imply some element of the term to refer to number of concurrent users playing the same game together online. It is more than that. It has to do in large part in context with the historic development of video games including the evolution of multi-player game play from 2-4 or so players back in the 80s and consoles for years to come after the 80s which were largely limited by the number of game controller ports or joystick ports. You then will have to consider the precursor evolution to online multiplayer game play. Before the advent of high speed broadband internet of 1 Mbps or faster internet connection, early internet connection was dial-up or ISDN connections for the average person. At home, and in some other places, people began to employ ethernet connection between computers at home. Some games took advantage of that to go into LAN Party style multiplayer game play.

“MMO” and Multiplayer Online Gaming (beyond MUD) became popularized in large part a result of the adoption of cable & DSL and other broadband internet services offering over 1 Mbps services. When people moved from dial-up or even ISDN (which was only a little better than dial-up) to higher speed megabit to now even gigabit per second internet, MMO or simply multiplayer online gaming became increasing popular with ever more sophisticated graphics. Such games can be 2d, 2.5d, or 3d.

The word “massively” in MMO implied the online game would support concurrent users in excess of what a typical home based (regular consumer grade) router would handle. The average consumer router supports up to about 255 computer devices (255 users?) but most have some firmware limits that limits to about 30 or so. Seriously, in a home, you probably don’t need more than 32 devices.

MMOs were implying a server platform that would be servicing over 250 concurrent users when using the servers at full enterprise level scale. While some MMO developers releases a user capped version of their server for private servers, often limited down with built in cap on total number of users….. meaning private servers would not be intended or designed to compete with the main game servers of the MMO company. Duh…. why would they want you competing with them with their own server program.

I do find some comments are often way off the question about other things that isn’t what defines the term ‘massively’ in MMO.

If I was developing an MMO, I would just call it an MOG ( Multiplayer Online Game) and mayber I may describe if the game is persistant world based or Instanced based or a hybrid based.
I may describe if it’s RPG, RTS, etc. Maybe even more sophisticated diversity of game type which can include many traditional game type descriptors. For example, Multiplayer Online Adventure Game or Multiplayer Online Action Game, or whatever other descriptor tied in with the descriptor that the game is A) multiplayer (more than one player) and B) the game play between players is facilitated online.


I watched this “Extra Credits” video today about Western games vs. Japanese games. It made me think back to this article about defining a genre. The author contends that a game’s genre is defined by what the player wants to get out of it– the player’s core reason for playing it. So, if you’re playing a ‘massive’ game for its shooter aspects, it’s a FPS. An interesting watch:


No where in massively multiplayer online does it say persistence. Mmo only refers to the quantity of players.


Massively Multiplayer Online was first used to describe and separate Ultima Online from the other standard multiplayer games that existed. Ultima Online has hundreds of players simultaneously in one world.
So basically I just answered the whole question. If the game does not support hundreds of players together in one world/instance than its not an mmo. How one could even say World of Tanks is an MMO is beyond me.


schmidtcapela FacelessSavior  Even E:D’s galaxy simulation is mostly non-persistent. You and I can go to the same space station in the same star system and we’ll both see completely different missions on the bulletin board. If I see items to the market or sell a ship part in the outfitting screen, they won’t appear on your game. You can even log out and switch game modes in order to generate a new set of missions etc.
It’s obvious that the game is generating personal content for each of us, and the only elements that could be described as persistent are things like the influence levels of the various factions (literally a handful of numbers). The end result of those factors in terms of mission availability or NPCs and bounties in the area are generated separately and differently for each of us. All E:D does is ensure an extremely limited form of consistency between players’ games, not persistence of the game universe.
Regarding WoW and similar MMOs, they usually don’t delete NPCs when they go out of view of a player. Your client won’t be rendering the NPC once it’s outside view, but they are still there on the server. Server optimisations may pause the NPC’s activity when there’s nobody in range to interact with it or even stop simulating the entire zone when it’s empty, but it typically won’t lose its state and can resume activity when it’s needed. The world/zone state persists even when you aren’t there, so if you log out and in again the state of the world or zone does not magically reset like it does in Elite: Dangerous.


schmidtcapela Robert80  See, I don’t get that.  I don’t get the idea that somehow people doing noteworthy things halfway across the game world and it being news where you are isn’t cool.  I don’t get the idea that everyone has to have access to all the content in a stagnant world.  It just seems so dull to me.
That said, this is why I have said so many times than not all games should be the same, and that not all games are for all people.  I’d hope that we see a variety, where those of us who enjoy the idea of a virtual world that moves around us can enjoy our own games, and those who don’t can enjoy theirs!
I’d note that the issue with PvE vs. PvP is far deeper than merely a world where the player actions drive motion in the world around you.  In fact, the truth is that both are stuck in stagnation, with PvP affecting PvE via ganking and ability changes, and PvE affecting PvP mostly with ability changes and gear.  The problems there are that another gameplay style is virtually required of you to deal with what other people have done.  However, instead if the game world notes that a battle trampled most of the current cabbage crop in an area, spiking cabbage prices… that I find cool.
Deeper trading options, store ownership, non-zoned housing with massive options, interdependent crafting processes that actually matter and are consistently relevant (rather than 1 or 2 recipes here and there to be annoying while leveling crafting,) NPCs that move around and seem to actually have lives and interests, etc.  That’s what I’m talking about here… not ganking/resource theft/forced PvP/PvE.  I know it isn’t for everyone, but what I’m wanting doesn’t force you to change your gameplay style constantly.  It merely puts us in a world that moves around us, rather than us moving through a static and unchanging world.


Star Wars is an interesting example in that even its genre isn’t that well defined. On one side you have ships, androids, space battles, aliens, etc; on the other you have knights, sorcerers, princesses in distress, a mystical field encompassing all, an evil empire, etc. It gets to the point some define its genre as Sci Fantasy.


To me, an MMO is a world that you share with others, without the power to decide who you share it with. The size doesn’t really matter all that much, because I don’t think the Massively in MMO actually means anything. Game companies just wanted a snazzy acronym :P It’s kinda like the iconic name of a franchise, for example Star Wars. The words have lost their meaning, and it’s now it’s just a title. I don’t think about wars being waged around stars when I hear Star Wars, I think of the characters in the story. I mean, does anyone actually think of twilight, the time between dawn/sunrise or sunset/dusk, when they hear twilight? Google certainly doesn’t think so.


So it’s persistent like most FPS’s now with Gear leveling and achievements? The things you describe, instancing, and areas not being created till someone is in that area, those are only staples of the genre since Warcraft. And since Warcraft, the genre has gotten farther and farther away from what made it unique. Wow and its ilk are a cancer on virtual worlds. If the persistence is only tied to your character being saved, and that’s what we’re using as criteria to decide if something is an MMO or not, everything is an MMO.


I agree 100% Robert80, which is why I can’t really find an MMO to play. I want a virtual world, with depth, immersion, and choices that matter to You, me, and the world itself. Every generation we get further and further from that, trying to draw in a wider audience of Single Player/Solo people.
Schmidtcapela, I’ll never understand how people of your playstyle even got drawn into this genre. Why not just find a good single player game you like, then play it while you have a chat room or forum dedicated to that game open to socialize in? Instead of expecting a genre that was not intended for single player to cater to your playstyle? The idea of playing in a world with other people and interacting with them and the environment, that was the fundamental starting point for MMORPGS. I feel like I’m in some kinda Twilight Zone episode now. The Majority of people who play now don’t want anything to do with anyone else, except to chat with, and I guess flex their E-Peen showing off their cool armor and weapons at the Bank or Auction House?