Massively Multiplayer Misnomer?

I’ve come to a conclusion (drum-roll): the vast majority of all MMO players out there today are not in fact MMO players. Even less so MMORPG players. That’s right. We need a new name, more than ever.

What caused this insight? It’s not so new – in fact I’ve asked for a change of name-giving before. In the meantime though, things have moved on from there with considerable speed. Or as the Dude would say: New shit has come to light!”

Two cases against the “MM”

By now, the “massively multiplayer” label is a complete sham; a false premise, an empty promise. Think about it: what is the maximum of players you actually share your time with when online? When you run dungeons, how many do you need? 4 more people? 9? And how many friends have you made online the past 5+ years? With how many people do you effectively have regular exchange in your social group, guild or band of brothers?

A massive amount? I doubt that very much. If I think back on my time in WoW, some 6+ years of raiding, I have spent 95% of my time with the exact same 10 people. I don’t remember any fleeting acquaintances, I certainly don’t remember anyone from my friendlist that I stopped using halfway through TBC. What I do remember though, is all the downsides from playing on big servers: the headache to choose a guild or recruit, the over-camped outdoor bosses, the cringe-worthy general chats, the awful anonymous PUGs. Oh, there was quantity sure – but quality?

My recent thoughts on Skyrim and player-hosted servers has brought me to an inevitable bottom line: Online games don’t get better with bigger servers. Opportunity does not equal the need to play with others, nor does it improve matters for the individual player after a certain number and size. What is the effective difference between an online server with 50-100 players who play cooperatively together, know each other, benefit from more available space and resources and a server of 100’000 people? Wait, I know – the auction house. If a convenient economy is the only up-side, then I believe I have made my point. Any MMO player currently out there who is dreaming of the immersive experience, the role-play, the simulation, the story, the building of community down to player housing and whatnot, would be better off on a drastically limited size server.

My second argument against the “MM” in MMO is influenced by the current trend we can observe in popular games like WoW or SWTOR: NPC companions. Tobold draws a particularly dark image today of the future raidguild that hires bots rather than people for crucial raid spots. Maybe even most raid spots. Who needs flawed human beings when a program can do the job much better? What will happen if NPCs do not only look, talk and follow you like a best friend, but get an AI to out-perform even the best player?

The cooperation factor in WoW took a massive hit with the introduction of the anonymous dungeon finder. Already now, many players spend most of their online time solo with a companion pet by their side, doing the odd 5man run with mute strangers from a different server.

Are smart NPC companions the next step in the MMO-evolution towards player isolation? Like the vast cities of man where every individual sits alone in his apartment at night, tragically independent, surrounded by baubles and clutter?

Not so “RPG” either

Whether it’s MMO, MMORPG or online RPG – terminology has been in disarray for at least 5-10 years. The more online has entered the world of gaming on every conceivable platform, the more you could hear the term “MMO” used, misused or mixed up in various context. Frankly, I am not sure I know anymore. Anything since UO that has looked remotely like WoW has been called MMO, even Call of Duty and League of Legends are obviously online, cooperative games – just not the kind classic MMORPG players (who don’t exist by now) used to refer to.

It’s the same with “RPG”; less than ever does role-play actually define the MMORPG genre. What does role-play mean? Is it just to play a given character and control him, or is it to invent your avatar from scratch, to add a past, history and personality that defines him? Is it to be completely in character (and have the tools and means to do so) or to at least act in a way that is consistent with the setting and world you play in? If not, then any game where we just “steer a hero character”, Mario Brothers included, is a role-playing game.

…What makes WoW an RPG? Or is the online component maybe by nature an enemy of immersive role-play?

Rock bottom line: Uh-“O”

At this point I realize that I have completely disintegrated an entire definition and from there a genre I happen to love. I’ve stripped it, reduced it, lost it. One letter is all that’s left to me: “O”. That’s all I’ve got for you, one stinking letter! That one is a dime a dozen; the future is definitely online. I’ll happily invest in online shares.

As for the rest – it lies in darkness, doubt and uncertainty. Change can be a good thing, but I’m not sure I’m ready for too much change and re-definition. I can see the nice features along with the new….yet all the while I keep thinking that I really just want my rug back (peed on or not).


  1. There’s still the G! And maybe the P. They are PGOs. Playing Games Online. But the P sounds a bit redundant with the G. So let’s just call them GOs. GO GO GO. Yep, that fits perfectly.

  2. “GO GO GO”

    LOL… x)
    I wonder – what would be the anti-thesis to this? you know, not a game, not online, full of role-play and massively multiplayer – an MMRP?
    I just got an idea but it’s not worksafe.

  3. I’ve had a post idea called “MMOs are really MSOs” in my box for a while, so it’s nice to see I’m not alone in thinking this. I’ve felt more and more isolated in WoW from people other than my direct friends, who are fewer and fewer as they lose interest in WoW.

    In the McGonigal book, she talks about (I can’t remember the exact term) but basically that playing alone but alongside others who are playing the same game is about as comforting as playing together. She’s not advocating that, just discussing it. I wonder if developers are realizing that increasing those solo options is easier than solving the multiplayer issues; if people are almost as happy and don’t have to worry about relying on others, the devs will make just as much money, probably. Not a bright future, though, if you truly like the MMO aspect of these games.

    Only time will tell. Great post!

  4. I think the MMO label still holds water if you compare it a game like Toejam & Earl (1991). Back in the dark ages, multiplayer meant 2 people and, if you could play with 4, that was really social and no games were played online. 14k baud dialup anyone? Compare that to a 60fps persistent world with 40 v 40 AV battles and hundreds of players in the capital cities. Yeah, that makes WoW look like a massively multiplayer online game. The fact that everything’s online these days and that social media lets us bump shoulders with way too many people can make you jaded and forget how it used to be, but that’s where the MMO label started.

    As for the RPG part, I pretty much parse that as meaning a game with avatars and character progression, probably in a fantasy setting. Dungeons & Dragons is the grand-daddy there and WoW’s in the same ballpark. I don’t go in for the heavy RP stuff, but I do feel like my toons are “me” in a sense. It’s less theatrical role-playing than self-expression; either way, we do use our toons to express ourselves.

    Oh, and also:

  5. I think the MMO bit still rings true. Nowhere in any of them does it claim or state that you have to know, communicate (or worse still) like every single person playing. It just means that there are masses there that are available to build communities from. Unfortunately at least with Warcraft, the game design has meant that far less communication is necessary because simply, pre-end game, the difficulty has been wheedled out of the game. The elite quests are all gone and the dungeons have been diluted down to the lfg tool which propagates “go go” morons who aren’t happy if the dungeon isn’t cleared in a new record time so they can queue for another one. Previously even in PUGS it was necessary to communicate with one another, even with the runts of the litter, in order to make a run go smoothly. Blizzard decided to appeal to the lowest common denominator and this is why we’ve ended up with a massive multiplayer solo game pre-max level.

  6. @Stubborn
    “..increasing those solo options is easier than solving the multiplayer issues”

    This is definitely the case. in a way it’s odd to see that the console market is going the exact, opposite direction at the moment – what used to be played alone at home, goes online and coop (possibly even bigger). MMOs on the other hand, start downsizing. I’ve started playing more console games again lately, guess at some point we have more or less the exact same situation on all platforms (which makes sense if everyone would go for ‘optimum’). maybe classic MMORPGs will be back some day, far, far in that future and be a niche once more. 😉

    Cheers for the link which I will look into. You’re quite right, we forget how it used to be, although I still have most of my old console games on the attic, including that multi-tap (4-player wahey!). =) good times.

    I guess what vexes me is that we’re less multi-playing directly together than multi-playing “side by side”. if you look at how MMORPGs evolved since UO, you need less cooperation than before and partying up has been downsized – let alone massive outdoor PvP (if it’s even there). what I’m looking for is more enforced interaction on a grander scale. with today’s server and PC technology, this should be easier than ever. but then, I am looking forward to GW2’s realm wars.

    Ah, am not looking to like people, you know that! =D
    it’s as you say – the needs have decreased. the need to comunicate (well), the need to team up (soloability is way too high), and you’re too self-sufficient (be it on a class balance level, professions level / alts etc.) plus, there are a lot of features simply missing that build community (guild housing, player housing /neighbourhoods, big scale PvP or zone conflicts etc.).
    an MMO where you basically need nobody is no MMO to me. that’s just how it is. that way, being on a massively populated server has more downsides than upsides in my eyes. ofc WoW is the worst example here at the moment.

  7. I find myself wondering: are companions/mercenaries an attempt to change playerbase behaviour or a practical, if imperfect, solution to the problem that players simply do not enjoy grouping up?

    In Rift grouping cannot be easier and can scale up to raid size (20) very quickly. The experience generally hasn’t been a bad one for me, but then the grouping is so easy and impersonal it’s not very memorable either – hardly akin to the stories I read of epic Everquest raids for instance.

  8. @gamingsf: I’ve been wondering lately if the novelty of joining a game to find many other players from around the world present has worn off.

    I don’t think it’s that players don’t enjoy grouping. In fact, it seems they love it. They just want to bring who they want, when they want. It’s an interesting problem that only MMOs present, because so much of the gameplay depends on the presence of others …which makes the question emerge: other than scheduling play sessions, how else are you supposed to get things done when you login?

    Part of the solution has been floating around for years. Public questing and similar features are an attempt to help perfect strangers get group things done without begging someone or waiting online for an hour to group.

  9. Still hoping that Guild Wars 2 will deliver on it’s promises. They seem to think that they can design their world events so that they incentivise people who were playing separatly to play together. If it works, it could put the multiplayer back into mmo.

  10. I think the MM component all depends on the player. WoW (and possibly all the WoW-wannabe games) doesn’t FORCE social interaction on you as much as it used to – but even back in vanilla WoW, the official strategy guide specifically stated that it was possible to reach max level without grouping.

    And speaking of the past, you keep saying “anymore” as if the MM component used to be stronger and “better”. But the only examples you use from the past are “he headache to choose a guild or recruit, the over-camped outdoor bosses, the cringe-worthy general chats, the awful anonymous PUGs.” So do you like the MM component or not?

    Back to the player, if you don’t depend on the game to do all your social interacting for you, there’s a lot of MM. On my server, there are old school raids organized all the time in trade, weird events (like mammoth parades), massive PvP battles. I’d say there’s something MM going on every night.

    You can’t blame the game if you choose not to join in. (One could say the same about RPG as well)

    MM is a double edge sword. On one hand, it’s fun to cooperate with strangers and I’ve made friends from all over North America through WoW. But on the other side of the coin, the Internet has proven that “Lord of Flies” speaks the truth.

  11. Out here in the monkeysphere, we tend to work best in small groups. We’re largely interdependent on others, but they work out on the periphery. We don’t need to interact with them as long as they do their jobs.

    So yes, I think the “massive” misnomer should apply to the world, not the number of players. We simply don’t need a bunch of players to have fun. (The auction house does work best with a bigger population, though.)


    Incidentally, I do think that one factor of the popularity of StarCraft (the first one) was the ability to just play with friends on a LAN with spawned games. The online scene is big too, but there’s a significant market of players who just want to play on a smaller, more intimate and personable scale.

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