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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