Let’s be realistic here, “MMO” as a term covers a whole lot of different game styles. I know this is a particular topic that I’ve touched on before, but the reality is that the whole reason behind calling a game specifically an MMO is that it allows for a whole lot of different games to coexist under the same general banner of… well, online title. That’s kind of the fun of working here; there are a lot of games that fall under that header.
So today, I wanted to take a look at some of the major distinctions in terms of subgenre within that larger overall genre header. It’s inevitable that I’m going to miss some, but I thought it’d be at least mildly fun to take a look at the many, many different options within this overall expansive set of different games that all follow the same basic template of being primarily online games. There’s a lot of stuff in here.
Type Specimen: Guild Wars 2
Really, any of the big five could go here just as easily, as well as a lot of other titles. The point of listing one as a type specimen here isn’t as the best example, just a solid one. And we all have a pretty good idea of what is meant by an MMORPG: It’s a big, living, breathing persistent world in which your character levels up, fights stuff, crafts other stuff, talks, adventures, and so forth.
You would kind of hope that people would stop acting like this is the only type of MMO that counts, but you would also kind of hope that people would stop gatekeeping which MMORPGs count as “real” MMORPGs based on wholly conjured standards, so your hopes being dashed are perhaps to be expected.
Type Specimen: League of Legends
Based on a highly popular map for Warcraft III, for a while this was the mold for making a new MMO before it turned out that one breakout hit in the subgenre didn’t mean that every single example would be a breakout hit. It turns out that fighting on lanes amidst rows and rows of warriors isn’t necessarily something that’s easy to make work in more than one title! Who would have guessed?
3. Survival sandbox
Type Specimen: Conan Exiles
At the best of times, these games feel like the low-calorie version of MMOs, with a whole lot of interlocking systems and persistent characters on a given server as you try to build your character up from nothing with housing, gear, weaponry, and so forth. At the worst of times, they’re featureless boxes that are mostly notable for their PvP. Of course, when you go down that route, you can often wind up at…
4. Battle royale
Type Specimen: Fortnite
Similar to the prior option, this is a game in which everyone is tossed into a box with no real weaponry or tools and expected to fend for themselves. Unlike the prior genre, the goal here is to ensure that you’re the last person standing while everyone tries to blow up everyone else. It’s kind of shallow, and for a while this looked like it would be the next big thing before another dose of trend-chasing made it clear that there was in fact a limited audience for this stuff.
Granted, it’s a big limited audience, but most of them already have big games to play and don’t need another one.
5. Looter shooter
Type Specimen: Destiny 2
Much like survival sandboxes, these games are kind of like MMORPGs in distilled form, except instead of distilling the game down to “build yourself up” it distills it down to “kill thing, get glowing object, use that to kill a bigger thing.” If you need to understand the game, picture the Loot Cave from the type specimen’s predecessor, a hole in the ground where you just empty ammunition into the blackness and occasionally collect more loot… forever.
6. Hero shooter
Type Specimen: Paladins
It’s like a normal shooter, but instead of picking up guns and such, you pick a character with specific capabilities (and often very specific weapons) and play out matches as a group. The line between this and the “classes” in a lot of other primarily online shooters is kind of thin, though, which means you might argue that both should be included… which is kind of an ongoing debate, yes.
See, that’s the thing about MMOs. Online games have fuzzy boundaries, and a lot of stuff comes under the header of being an online game that may not have a lot in common with other games of a similar pedigree. But that’s also part of the fun.
Type Specimen: Hearthstone
It’s a card game… but it’s online! With fake cards! Thereby removing the incentive to take your friend’s deck and threaten to run it through the paper shredder after you have a particularly contentious match, not that I ever did that.
No, really, I didn’t.
I may have thought about threatening to do it, though.
8. Augmented reality
Type Specimen: Pokemon Go
This one doesn’t seem to have super caught on, although to be fair right now wandering around in public is something no one is doing. But the core idea is overlaying the real world with various digital objects that the game on your phone can interact with, and Pokemon Go seems to have done all right for itself using this particular model.
Other games going for a similar approach have done less well, thus implying that what really got people with the type specimen was the idea of being able to catch these things specifically rather than the concept. But Niantic is still going to keep trying.
Type Specimen: Gemstone IV
Graphics can be difficult, text is easier, and sometimes it’s a lot easier to design a whole lot of complicated interlocking systems when you don’t have to worry about how all of these things are going to be represented on a screen. It’d be wrong to claim these purely as the antecedents of more modern games, though; many MUDs and MUSHes are still running today, new ones are being brought out, and players who don’t mind doing the graphical work in their heads still have plenty to enjoy in the textual online space.
10. Other online titles
Type Specimen: Path of Exile
Yeah, here’s the fun part where we get to the vast variety of different options that have nothing to do with any of the above options. Heck, they don’t always have much to do with one another! It’s pretty clear that all of the multiplayer options in games like PoE make for what is clearly an online game, but then there are even more out there titles like Fall Guys that are doing totally their own thing.
Some of those titles will go on to inspire other titles, and then the next thing you know there’s a whole expansive subgenre of online games that fall into a similar space and have certain genre conventions as a result. And that’s the fun of MMOs. Anything can become another subgenre of game. There are always new potential surprises. It’s an endless series of remixes, changes, and new ideas. And they all call the same overarching distinction home.