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Terminology: Defining an “MMO”


Ever since World of Warcraft skyrocketed the genre of MMORPG, it’s become a buzzword of sorts within the game industry. If your game is going to feature deep storylines, suggest that the extensive character development is like an MMO. If you are going to feature a repetitive multiplayer with mass appeal, claim it’s kind of like how an MMO community operates. If you are doing something that a lot of people will enjoy – odds are eventually someone will make a comparison to an MMO.

But what is it about these 3 (and the less used 5) letters that has come to indicate a desireable game? Is it merely the shifting focus that the industry has placed on this (sub) genre over the last decade, or is it that MMORPGs became so popular so quickly that in becoming such an integral part of gaming we have lost track of what exactly these letters are supposed to mean?

Well let’s take it back to basics.

Most gamers could tell you that MMORPG stands for a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. As RPG games like Mass Effect, Skyrim or Dragon Age: Origins are still around in abundance – this means that the focus must be on those first three defining letters: M, M and O.

So, let’s break it down even further.

Multiplayer and Online are pretty obvious. In fact I would go so far as to say that most games these days usually have an aspect which is multiplayer (with games like Bioshock: Infinite being the exception, and games with tacked on multiplayer like Tomb Rader being the rule) and virtually all of them use online in some sense, even if it’s just the occasional bug fixing patch or piece of downloadable content. Of course we could go on to say that MMOs require both constant multiplayer and a constant online connection to fit the definition – but let’s not muddy the waters just yet.

See, what I’ve found is, the problem seem to stem from that crucial first word – “Massively”.

Sure, it seems to be pretty obvious at first glance. Massive is a synonym (see: word with the same meaning) for large, indicating that this game has a feature which is larger than you might expect from other titles. By following it with multiplayer and online, we are further suggesting that these are the two features which it relates to – this is a largely multiplayer and largely online game.

But I’d like to take a step further, and reclaim what I believe is the original intention of these three words. For a game to be an MMO it needs to be massive (as in a large game), massively multiplayer (as in it has a lot of people playing in the same online space) and massively online (as in, it has a large online community).

How does this differ to what most people think is an MMO? Well more and more these day people seem to think games which have a lot of multiplayer, or have a lot of people playing their multiplayer are MMOs. This definition makes Call of Duty an MMO. This makes Halo an MMO. To some extent this would even make RTS games like Warcraft III or Starcraft 2 MMOs.

Even worse, there seems to be a divide in the industry where even the professionals are misusing the term MMO and the inherent subterm, massively. Nowadays we have games like League of Legends or DOTA 2 which would have, in my day, just been called “DotA Clones” (not the most complimentary term I’ll admit) – now they are called “MOBAs”.

Taking aside the fact that MOBA (Massively Online Battle Arena) doesn’t even accurately describe what is going on, using the terms Massively and Online here is just short of fraudulent. These are games with matches of up to 10 people –not the 10,000 active players one might find when logging into a server on WoW.

So let’s stop the bastardization of this genre and the general confusion this term creates. MMOs are MMOs because all of the letters (and those so-important words they stand for) are coming into play, other games which might have similar features (and even that is with a grain of salt) might be online or multiplayer or have a massive amount of people playing them – but that's not what the term refers to.

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