Dial M For Massively

There was a mild kerfuffle on last week’s TWIMMO, where the question of whether the multiplayer aspects of Grand Theft Auto V qualify it as an “MMO,” since it only allows for 16 players at once. The debate naturally hinged on that first M — Massively — and the notion that “16″ doesn’t equate to “massive.”

Well, if you want to get all technical and semantic about it, then I will put forth that World of Warcraft isn’t an MMO, either.

What’s in a name?

Not an MMO?

Not an MMO?

There are still people today who dislike the use of the term “MOBA,” and as far as I can tell, it’s because they hate Riot for coining the term to describe League of Legends, and all similar games that came before it. One key part of the argument I’ve seen is that “MOBA” is a meaningless acronym, since a lot of games could be classified as a “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.” Team Fortress 2? Worms? A PvP battleground in WoW? They’re all multiplayer, take place online, and feature players doing battle in a closed arena. Thus, all are MOBAs and the term “MOBA” sucks. Use our term instead (which usually just shows favoritism to whatever their favorite game is).

Again, from a purely semantic argument, they’re right. But — likely due to Riot/LoL‘s overwhelming popularity and market penetration, which drives the anti-MOBAers batty — gamers in general have come to accept the term “MOBA” as meaning a certain type of gameplay, comprising some (but not necessarily all) combination of lanes, towers, minions, control points, and so on. Like art, I know a MOBA when I see one.

Let’s take another example: the RTS. Again, we know what an RTS is. StarCraft. Total War. Command and Conquer. But the letters stand for “Real-Time Strategy.” Well, when you’re taking down a raid boss in World of Warcraft, aren’t you using strategy? And do you have to make decisions in real time? Well, there you go: WoW, and pretty much every other MMO, is an RTS. (And this isn’t what I was even talking about when I said WoW wasn’t an MMO — that’s coming later.)

Of course that’s silly. In fact, you might even argue that “strategy” in this sense is used in the military sense, and most RTSes have a military bent. But even that’s off-base. Militarily, “strategy” refers to high-level goals, such as the assignment of troop strengths, the effect of long-term actions, and other large-scale decisions, the kind of which are exemplified in games where you play on a map of the world or other large region, like Civilization (which is accurately described as “turn-based strategy”). Coordination and action on the troop level is more appropriately referred to as “tactics.” So, more correctly, StarCraft is a “Real-Time Tactics” game.

One more silly example: RPG. Stands for “role-playing game.” We know that’s World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Dungeons & Dragons (Online or not), etc. What about Tomb Raider? It was a game. You played a role — namely, Lara Croft. Thus, it was a “role-playing game.” So is Super Mario Bros. See how far we can take this when we adhere too tightly to what the letters in an acronym stand for instead of their generally accepted — if not perfectly accurate — definitions?

“MOBA,” “RTS,” and “RPG” are fully entrenched in the gaming vernacular, even though all three could apply to a wider range of games than intended and the second is technically inaccurate. The acronyms do mean something, but we could just as easily call them “Phlegs,” “Klooxes,” and “Zorbos.” If League of Legends was a “Phleg” and StarCraft was a “Kloox,” what would be the difference? As long as we knew the intention and definition behind each word, that would be all that mattered and we could maybe minimize these silly debates.

Yeah, probably not.

Semantic antics

"Hang on, everyone stop! I lost a contact lens!"

“Hang on, everyone stop! I lost a contact lens!”

So why is World of Warcraft is not an MMO? Read this sentence: “World of Warcraft is an MMO.” Seems to make sense, right? Now, expand the acronym (and adjust the article): “World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online.”

A massively multiplayer online… what?

Sure, we know to subconsciously append “game” or “role-playing game” to that sentence, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s as grammatically inappropriate as saying you used the “ATM machine.”

Which brings us back to my first argument. If you want to stick it to me than a game isn’t an “MMO” because that first “M” means “massively” and 16 players isn’t “massive,” then I’ll stick it to you every time you call something an “MMO.”

As with the MOBA and RTS examples, we just know what an MMO is, at least on the most basic level. And maybe games like GTA V, along with DayZ, The Division, The Crew, and probably many others, don’t fit the classic mold of an MMO. I’d argue that the only key components of the type of game that is like World of Warcraft and other accepted MMOs are a persistent world and a concept of “being” — namely that you are your character, and that character has abilities, skills, and/or equipment that are separate from your overarching “player avatar.” (An opposing example would be something like League of Legends, where you “are” your summoner, who has a separate level and unlockable abilities that are different from the champion you play.)

I don’t think that the number of characters you have the potential to interact with should be a barrier to determining whether a game is classified as an “MMO” or some hybrid-MMO-type-game. Yes, you might argue that the games I listed above play differently for having fewer people in game (and I don’t know if you can randomly encounter other players at all in The Crew or how persistent the world is, so that one might be totally out), but that would be like saying an MMO(RPG) has to be fantasy, with quest-givers with !’s over their heads, and raids, and vertical progression, and so on.

o M g

Go ahead, tell them that DayZ isn't an MMO.

Go ahead, tell them that DayZ isn’t an MMO.

This is why I got a little feisty with the whole “How many players is massive?” line on TWIMMO. If GTA V allowed 100 people per server — and we’ll assume the game world was made larger so you had a little more room to maneuver — but was otherwise the same, would you then classify it as an MMO? What if it allowed 200? 500? 1,000? What does it take, if the underlying game mechanics are exactly the same and the only difference is the number of bodies? Should we let the limitations of that first “M” define what type of game it is, rather than, say, the game itself?

Heck, try playing on Amerish on PlanetSide 2 at 8 a.m., and then play again on Indar at 8 p.m. In the first case, you’d swear you were playing a game with only 20 people per server. In the second, you’d have no doubt that there were hundreds of people online. We’ve all played in some little-traveled zone in an older MMO and not seen another soul for an hour or more. Are those games not MMOs at those times because they don’t have enough people online/in your area? Heck most of the time, even if there are other people around, you ignore them and run dungeons with a small number of friends. As far as you’re concerned, that game might just as well only have four other people online.

I’ll admit that I’m not sure such games should be discussed on a show or website devoted to “MMO”s. The term is fairly well engrained in people’s minds to mean a type of thing, though that certainty is certainly eroding. Maybe they need another term, or maybe that would just muddy the waters even further. But I’m fairly sure that they appeal to and attract mostly the same audience and have essentially the same kind of gameplay. In the end, it’s about getting online and playing a game in a fantasy (or sci-fi or modern day) world with other people. Whether I’m doing that with two people or with two hundred shouldn’t make a difference. If you want to define them as non-MMOs, that’s fine, but don’t do it by hiding behind that one letter.

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5 Responses to Dial M For Massively

  1. You, sir, are no true Scotsman.

    Seriously, I think the people who argue over what qualifies as a “real” MMO are cut from the same cloth as those who get bent out of shape over calling a game character a “toon”.

    • jasonwinter says:

      Actually… I hate “toon.” :)

      I’d say they’re more likely of the exclusionary, “this is my special club and I get to define what fits in it” type. They’re probably more the type to deride “fake geek girls.”

  2. Good article Sir, I know massively is an undefined term but if all other components are there call it at least MMO-ish. Honestly i’d rather it have lower players due to lag and things other games have issues with.While I have yet to experience it myself at least maybe with 16 people you can have a social experience. I like the game Defiance but I never say THATS an MMO, the aspects of it boil down to shooting a few things, running over a few things and never speaking to other players. Hey at least if someone calls me a low life for crashing a plane into them in GTAO it’s more social then other supposed MMO’s? I’m a rebel…so disregard anything I may ramble about.:P

  3. If I look at the evolution of games, we used to have purely single player games, games with both single and multi player and then there were MMOs. MMOs were sort of an anomaly because the fact that you can only play online but with more people than in traditional multi player made it into the name. Other than that the subscription was a typical feature while today it only creates subtypes according to payment model.

    The problem I see is that more and more games also lack single player yet don’t move past the usual multi player format. An MMOs isn’t defined by the lack of single player, it’s defined by the multi player of unusual proportions. That’s why I wouldn’t call Unreal Tournament an MMO, it’s simply an FPS. If it had no single player it would still be an FPS but that implies some sort of single player with a storyline. That’s why Blacklight Retribution and TF2 are online FPSs, Defiance and Firefall are MMOFPSs, WoW and GW2 are MMORPGs, LoL and DotA 2 are MOBAs, and GTA 5, Saint’s Row or Payday are simply FPSs.

  4. Pingback: Fitting Square Pegs Into Round MMOs | Wintry Mix

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