What makes an MMO?

January 2, 2008 at 11:17 pm (Musings) (, , , )

I should have been back at work today however due to a family emergency I’m still 7 time zones distant from my desk. As a result I’m sort of telecommuting in an unofficial capacity whilst the slack is being taken up by my colleagues back in sunny Dublin. As I was looking forward to returning to work (and most certainly not looking forwards to the circumstances that are keeping me here), I’ve been doing a lot of work related stuff at my in-laws PC.

This enforced absence from actual productive work alongside my regular exposure to game related discussion has had me mulling over a few things recently. I’ve been trying to get things internally consistent before I put them down in writing but I figure that’s what the edit button is for so here, for those who care, are my thoughts on MMOs and why they are the way they are.

First off, I should begin by explaining that I’m really talking about Western style MMOs and specifically those which contain an actual game. Second Life-alikes, Micro-transaction driven ‘virtual worlds’, web 2.0 stuff and the like are outside the remit of this particular discussion. So we’re talking traditional MMOs or DIKUs (Don’t I Know You) here.

So then, let’s make a list of things that define an MMO:

  1. Massively Multiplayer play. Perhaps obvious but it’s the difference between Hellgate and Diablo. The ability to have a lot of players all affecting the same game environment simultaneously.
  2. A persistent world. The game should continue even when a particular player isn’t experiencing it.
  3. A game. Some kind of overarching framework that ties all the activities of all the players together and gives them meaning and a frame of reference.

That’s pretty much it as far as required elements goes. All of those points are pretty vague and open to a lot of interpretation – particularly the last item. When we talk about MMOs, the game we usually take as read for that genre is of course the role-playing game.  These come with a lot of baggage and conventions from their roots in pen and paper games which were all translated verbatim into single player RPGs when we all moved to digital made-up guys. So, just like their neolithic counterparts, MMOs tend to feature levels, experience points, quests, skills, spells, magic items and so forth. Of course for sci-fi MMOs you can substitute ‘advanced tech’ for ‘magic items’ and ignore or reinterpret the whole ‘spells’ schtick.

None of the items mentioned above are specifically needed for an MMO (or for that matter an RPG), they simply provide a well-known set of reference points that players can use to orient themselves within the game that is offered. Where they come from is a need for familiar landmarks and a certain amount of assumption.

Let’s list some assumptions that drive modern MMOs:

  1. The game needs to be deep. Without depth it won’t retain players – especially if they have to pay to play.
  2. The game needs to reward success. Success in this case can be anything from actual victory over enemies to outwitting game elements or simply spending time ingame.
  3. The game needs to provide a framework that allows players to compare their progress directly.
  4. The game needs to be playable within the constraints of technology and a median level of equipment for the user.
  5. The game needs to give you a reason to come back and try again if you fail.

Depth is an important point that is often overlooked. Depth in MMOs usually comes down to nested minigames within the over-arching metagame. For example the actual game might revovle around killing monsters to gain xp and advance in level but the process of doing that becomes defined by subsystems that are essentially minigames in their own right – pull the monster without getting all of its friends along too, time the special attack combo correctly, heal the party members without running out of power or letting any of them die, timing it exactly right to get the optimum number of ranged spells off before the monster reaches you, etc. Then of course you have the secondary minigames – crafting, guilds, building equipment sets and so forth.

Number 4 is an important point too. Many players bemoan the fact that combat in MMOs is still largely based on static RPG models rather than the more exciting and more interactive FPS type. Largely this is driven by factors that games developers have no control over – internet latency and the need to cater to a wide variety of client platform specs.

None of those assumptions however explicitly require the feature list for RPGs. Rather the feature list has expanded to fill the assumptions rather than a whole new set of mechanics being derived from new cloth. Some games might do away with some of those elements (EvE has no XP or levels as such for example) but, in general, they are all present to some degree.

And they don’t need to be.

How about a purely narrative game where you gained no XP for killing monsters but advanced instead based on an overarching storyline told through quests? It needn’t have levels or any of the other RPG staples either, you could grow in a non-linear, organic manner rather than along a narrowly defined track.

How about a game where you started off in control of a small group of characters (a tribe, gang, band of men-at-arms or so) and could play one of them at a time to build up their collective power? If your main PC died, you’d lose some of that advancement and would switch to a secondary character – who would have already experienced a degree of advancement thanks to your earlier efforts.

How about a game where combat is reduced to an arbitrary mechanism in which the stronger side wins and diplomacy is the main thrust of the game. Stronger in this sense doesn’t need to mean bigger, a smaller force can be the stronger side thanks to strategic positioning and tactics.



  1. Lee Saggers said,

    Do you count replayability (ok probably not a word but you get what I mean) as Depth or a concept on its own. A game someone wants to play twice because of Factions or sides doubles the length you could potentially keep your paying customer hooked surely?

    I am a huge fan of the no level mmo concept but players like to get close to their character, it’s them in a virtual world. Playing a tribe of Lee’s would A: be very concerning and B: I don’t get very attached to any of my Lee’s.

    Also I don’t really see Risk Online taking off to quickly either, I just don’t think a game like that would hold the young players bases attention for long, they crave excitement and “noobs to pwn”.

    EVE’s advancement is somewhat similar in my mind to early UO. Where you had a soft cap of skills not levels and what you did with your 750 skill points was up to you by going out there and doing it. Want to be a master swordsman, go stick a sword in gradually bigger monsters.

    Ok so someone in EVE can have millions of points to put into skills but it’s not that much better than a regular player. The space between poor and average is huge compared to average and elite.

    Logging on UO after work and finding one friend in my house pick pocketing a dummy in the back room and a Ghost of my other friend who had been practicing magery in the living room will stick with me much longer than 2 guys farming Orcs for a level.

  2. Iain Compton said,

    Replayability comes from depth. Not just in having different sides to play, but also being able to play the same side again in a different way. If a game isn’t very deep then you probably would play through it once and then drop it. If it was a great game then you might want to play through the exact same thing several times.

    Even if the player doesn’t want to play through it again, if the end game is sufficiently deep then they won’t need to, they can just keep playing their main and having fun with that, Not everyone wants to be an altaholic and not all games need to encourage it – EvE practically forces you not to unless you have multiple accounts.

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