Working As Intended: What it means to be an MMORPG


I am amused and somewhat bewildered to admit that I have my very own pet troll. He follows me around on Reddit to hassle me, and from time to time he rolls a new account here on MassivelyOP, all to inform me that I, personally, am stupid and do not know what an MMORPG is.

I’m not mad about it. He’s right to the extent that I can’t give a universal definition of MMORPG that everyone everywhere will agree with. In the comments of any attempt at doing so, you’ll find people haggling over what counts as massively multiplayer, what’s sufficiently online, what’s acceptable roleplaying, what are the precise bits and pieces that make something more like EverQuest or Final Fantasy XIV than like Warframe or Destiny. You’ll see arguments over the sandbox/themepark continuum, Diku MUDs, PvP, raiding, grouping, community, questing, soloers, zone size, the Bartle quotient. It’ll start to look a bit granular and even bizarre to anyone not fluent in the genre – and pointless to those who are. I’ve been covering MMORPGs professionally for nearly 10 years and playing them more than twice that, yet every time I think I’ve finally got it all figured out, another game comes along and challenges my definition, so coming up with an answer feels about as productive as shouting “Guild Wars 1 was an MMO, fight me” into a crowd of MMORPG vets.

Maybe I am stupid. But I am not arrogant. Nobody really knows, definitively, what an MMORPG is. And that’s because MMORPGs are quite literally polymorphing before our eyes – and always have been.

I’ve been thinking about this since last weekend, when Raph Koster tweeted rather indignantly at a VR games journalist who claimed “the modern MMO has basically not changed in design since the original World of Warcraft.” Cringe.

“This is just… wrong,” Koster argued. “Most glaringly, Minecraft servers and Roblox are modern takes on the MMO. So are looter-shooters. This can only be true if you think MMO means Diku-style, which leads you by definition to conclude nothing has changed, & also identify the wrong start point.”

Raph Koster is literally one of the founding fathers of the MMORPG genre, having been one of the brains behind both Ultima Online, which coined the term MMORPG, and Star Wars Galaxies, a seminal MMO sandbox whose magic devs are still trying to recapture. There were (at least) seven years of MMORPGs before World of Warcraft. He will not be suffering any fools.

“For all the attention given to WoW Classic versus its modern day version, surely the most salient point about it all has to be how structurally *similar* they are (it’s like comparing 1970s college basketball to today’s NBA: same game, different minor details). Which is a good reminder that small details can change an experience enormously, but that big structural changes can often be hard to understand or see, and then we fail to see progress because we lump things into the wrong category. […] I very much agree there have been a huge pile of significant innovations [in East Asian F2P MMOs], but also tend to think of them as refinements. Other than the combat I’d lump most of those things under ‘filigree’ too; none of them are structural. […] There have been few major genre changes since long before WoW. But it’s also a mistake to discount the innovation in things like RotMG, One Hour One Life, Roblox, and many others. From that stuff will come evolution, it just won’t look like a diku.”

Someone out there reading this is already skipping ahead to the comments to inform a man who’s literally written books on the subject that he is wrong to consider Realm of the Mad God, One Hour One Life, and Roblox MMOs. I know this because people did the same thing a few years back when he suggested Pokemon Go had the fundamental elements of an MMO, and again last year when he said Fortnite is like an MMO. People declared him a quack. One commenter actually threatened violence.

Surely part of the problem here (aside from commenters who need anger management classes) is the terms MMORPG and MMO, which have been mutilated irreparably by two decades of game devs, players, marketers, and journalists, and it’s far too late to mend them. MMO is easily stretched into just referring to online games, while MMORPG often refers more to classic titles from our genre – but not always, so we’re stuck arguing those semantics, which I’d rather skip past. What Koster is saying, now and then, is that if you (erroneously) think MMOs are defined by World of Warcraft, then of course MMOs that were inspired heavily and specifically by World of Warcraft will still look a lot to you like World of Warcraft 15 years later. The takeaway is that World of Warcraft was just one type of MMO to begin with, merely one single branch on the tree.

Let me draw you the world’s worst diagram with a really crappy pen.

My taxonomy here is not meant to be remotely scientific; it’s something I sketched in like two minutes just trying to demonstrate what these branches could look like for a handful of early and modern and (mostly) Western MMOs. (In fact, if you can do something prettier, post it in the comments! I leave it to classification specialists.) Looking at my first draft now, I’d change some stuff around, even: add more games, move them to different branches, add more trees, and so on. Some games have changed dramatically over time, too; modern Ultima Online, for example, should be much closer to MMOARPGs than it was at launch 22 years ago.

But these details aren’t really the point. The point is these branches overlap themselves and with other trees, that WoW is just one branch of a specific type of themepark. The genre kept moving in lots of directions before and after WoW, including spawning and respawning new genres and subgenres: economy sandboxes, PvP sandboxes, RvR themeparks, hybrid sandparks, storytelling themeparks, creator sandboxes, and yes, hybrids like looter shooters, MMOARPGs, MMOARGs, and MOBAs, the multiplayer games we’d consider orbiting traditional MMORPGs – heck, I didn’t even put survival sandboxes on there, and I should’ve, tucked way out there in the grand sandbox lineage.

If you’re feeling pessimistic, you can do as scholar Ed Castronova did and refer to this phenomenon as the “unbundling” of MMORPGs, something we’ve talked about at length in the past, but I like to think of it as spinning up new satellites in orbit – in fact that’s exactly how we label the span of games we cover on MassivelyOP.

I think what infuriates Koster – and me, as someone who vividly remembers what MMOs were like pre-WoW – is that in allowing a very large game like WoW to become synonymous with MMORPG, as the quoted journalist did, we’re ignoring hundreds of MMOs and MMORPGs that don’t have anything in common with Diku-derivatives like EQ or WoW, including, absurdly, the MMORPG that birthed the term MMORPG. We’re ignoring the reality that the genre kept moving on without us, that it’s grown much bigger and broader than whatever our preferred corner of it happens to be.

It seems to me that the hullabaloo over WoW Classic has revived this misperception once again. How many gamers and journalists have breathlessly proclaimed that “the classic MMO is making a comeback” with the launch of WoW Classic, just weeks after unilaterally declaring the whole genre dead? I suspect that longtime MMORPG players would find that an odd take, and not just because classic MMOs have been making a comeback for years in the form of spiritual successors and progression servers. You don’t have to dig too far back into our pages to see long analyses of the genre and how World of Warcraft’s 2004 launch, specifically, derailed and homogenized the genre. That’s such a widely held opinion among old-school MMO players that it’s a bit boring to bring it up nowadays, yet clearly we should still be shouting it from the rooftops for those gamers who weren’t around or know no different. World of Warcraft is certainly an old MMO now, but I remember calling it a “third-wave MMORPG,” even at the time. It doesn’t have much in common with other games we’d consider classic MMOs, and indeed many MMO writers and readers blame it for breaking the genre rather than credit it for defining it.

Koster plainly agrees.

“Oh, I think the genre has been stagnant too. But the Diku style IS the stagnation, IMHO. Similarly, asserting that WoW2 is what could break the stagnation is basically prescribing the disease as the cure, since WoW’s dominance has been a large reason for the lack of change.”

Damn. I’m not even sure my contrarian side would agree Diku themeparks have stalled out; big modern MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and and Elder Scrolls Online have certainly (and successfully) forked far away from retail WoW, for example. But regardless of quibbles over “refinements” and “filigree,” he’s right that pretending no other style of MMORPG but themeparks exists or has value or “counts” does all of us a disservice. Thinking the whole genre is or should be locked into this one rather limited style of leveling-questing-raiding-gear-grinds has fooled us into ignoring games we’d otherwise like and tricked us into believing the MMO genre is dying when in fact it’s just incrementally inching away from a specific demographic: a very large, very vocal PvE themepark playerbase that most definitely doesn’t want to rethink its core assumptions and frankly until recently has never had to.

None of this is to say that I’ve never been tempted to tackle the “what is an MMO” question in spite of knowing there’s no clean answer, only approximations. Koster has too; last year, he even wrote a long list of all the component parts he thought ought to make up an MMORPG, which even in napkin math format should serve as a definitive guide for anyone who clicked on this article genuinely thinking I was going to provide a formal interpretation that would be (rightly) picked apart in five seconds by the commentariat.

But I’d be willing to bet – oh, let’s say all the gold left on my World of Warcraft account – that he would never, ever say a game without some of these features isn’t an MMO. His consistent refrain over all these years is that the MMO genre is much bigger than gamers stubbornly sticking to their questing and leveling treadmills have given it credit for.

Ultimately, anyone telling you he knows exactly and without question what it means to be an MMORPG is probably full of it and very likely about to feed you a Diku-derived description that is fundamentally bankrupt. Whatever definition we could come up with is changing by the day as our tree continues to grow new branches and our thermosphere fills with more satellites. And while I can do as Koster does and rattle off a list of features or even design a special chart that puts some games in the bin and some on the bubble, that’s just taxonomy porn in the end, and from it we would learn a whole lot more about me than about the actual genre.

But I will say this: Guild Wars 1 was an MMO, fight me.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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