There is a particular comment we get on a semi-regular basis, and it is always wrong. It shows up on a wide variety of different games, and not consistently, but you have definitely seen it at least once or twice. It sits there, and it comes up, and every time it’s still wrong and unhelpful. And what comment is that?
“This doesn’t count as an MMO.”
I like to imagine that at least most of the people who comment with this particular bon mot are at least vaguely trying to be helpful, even if the actual result is anything but. So today, I want to explain why this is wrong, but in a larger sense why it’s wrong simply because we’re having the debate in the first place. And to do that, we’re going to start by taking a detour through Transformers fandom in the early ’90s because that’s when the fandom suddenly had to face an entirely new paradigm with the release of the now fondly remembered Beast Wars. (I promise, I’m going somewhere with this.)
Prior to the release of Beast Wars, Transformers continuity was… fairly simple. There were the comics, and there was the cartoon, but that was about it. Sure, there were the odd bits of ancillary material like storybooks and the like, but there was an accepted and fairly narrow window for what counted as “Transformers” and pretty much everyone accepted it as a prerequisite for being in the fandom at all.
Beast Wars, however, was a big break from the existing setup. It involved a totally new cast of characters, a new setting, a new conflict and new names and new everything. About the only thing it retained were the basic principles of having robots turn into something else, and considering that they all transformed into fleshy beasts? Suddenly there was something like a real-time schism in the fandom over people who considered this new Transformers material and those who saw it as wholly contrary to the older material.
As an aggregate, though? The former group won out handily, because there wasn’t really any basis for rejecting all of this aside from creating some arbitrary rules about what was or wasn’t Transformers. The fact was that it was meant to be a part of the same ongoing franchise and even if you didn’t like it (which was hard to do – the show was well-written), the fact remained that it was still a Transformers show.
“MMO” literally just means “massively multiplayer online.” It’s shortened from MMORPG, which is a more specific term. There are lots of games out there that are accepted as MMOs but also unambiguously not MMORPGs (League of Legends), games that are definitely MMOs but may or may not match your definition for MMORPG (Destiny 2), and games that are definitely MMORPGs (Final Fantasy XIV). All MMORPGs are MMOs. Not all MMOs are MMORPGs. And our particular site covers MMOs in a lot of different permutations.
It’s been argued before that for various reasons the terminology here is a little bit fuzzy or carries unwelcome baggage, a sentiment I don’t personally agree with but one where I can at least see the argument. But the fact remains that there are two distinct buckets here, with other buckets to sort some additional subgenres (battle royale, MOBA, survival sandboxes, and so forth).
That’s the thing: It’s just never useful commentary when it comes to any piece. It’s inviting a debate about something that’s already been decided on a definitional level, and perhaps more importantly, it’s requesting a justification for something being included on a site covering MMOs when the reason for coverage is obvious. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily of interest to you personally, but there are a lot of things I write up on a regular basis that aren’t of interest to me personally but still constitute legitimate news taking place.
In a way, this is sort of an extension of the point I made a while back about how it can sometimes just not be your personal story. Things that are not relevant to you may be relevant to other people.
But if you’re used to me and my writing, you probably know that I’m interested in the why. Why shouldn’t we worry about it? Why wouldn’t genre definition matter? And the answer is remarkably simple and one that I don’t think we collectively internalize often enough.
Because when it comes to game design and genres being accepted? MMORPGs won.
Realistically speaking, we are all aware that video game genres are not actually in direct competition with one another. But just as realistically speaking, we have to recognize that there is a certain degree of internal competition for which overall advancements become so ubiquitous as to earn their own descriptors and consistent ideas. There’s a reason Dark Souls has become a unifying ethos for an entire subset of assumptions about game mechanics while Armored Core didn’t. We refer to certain things as “bullet hell” even outside of the scrolling shooter genre. There is selection pressure within the overall video game sphere.
And in the wake of that pressure, MMORPG systems have been widely, even wildly adopted.
Look at Genshin Impact. There’s a lot of that game that is single-player, and if you want to play it solo, you can absolutely do that consistently. But even if you’re playing it completely solo, there are a lot of basic assumptions about presenting its quests, challenges, and structures in MMO-like ways. You have your daily login events, your regular spawning daily objectives, your quest presentation, quest markers, and so forth.
Too online to count? Then let’s look at Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, a game that is most decidedly a single-player romp that also incorporates a lot of online functionality right down to giving you a central base location to adopt and improve. Ask yourself this: Would the game need much more than seeing other actual people run around to make it feel like an MMO? Even with the game otherwise remaining identical?
A lot of the genres that have risen up recently are inherently attempts to bring in aspects of MMORPGs without carrying all of the baggage they entail, survival sandboxes being a particularly notable example of this effort. There are lots of ways in which Red Dead Online doesn’t make its way to full MMORPG status, but it’s clear that the developers were aiming in that direction from the top of design on down.
And this isn’t even counting the many games that don’t make it to online play but still are clearly aping the style, structure, and design philosophy of MMORPGs in general. The point is that this is a genre that has expanded… a lot.
There are games that are not MMORPGs, of course. And if you all know me, you know that’s my preferred genre as a whole. I might enjoy my jaunts into No Man’s Sky, but it could never be my main game like FFXIV is. But that doesn’t make the former not an MMO, and it doesn’t mean bad things for the genre to see that. Quite the opposite.