As is pretty readily apparent reading this blog, I play World of Warcraft... the world's biggest massively multiplayer game, as far as player population goes. I have considered switching to another MMO, and to that end, have tried quite a few other MMOs- I'll try almost anything that has a free trial. Obviously, none of the others have convinced me that they are better... though I admit, Warhammer Online came close. Thanks to my experience, I have a pretty good idea of what it means to be an MMO. And all of that was called into question when I watched a Developer Diary for the upcoming PS3 title Massive Action Game, aka MAG.
In the video, they repeatedly referred to the game as a massively multiplayer game... and I really didn't like that. Yes, it has 256 player battles. It's hard to argue that 256 people blazing away at each other is not massive. It most certainly is. And obviously, it's a multiplayer game. But to me, there are connotations, assumptions, heck, I would even go so far as to say the phrase "massively multiplayer" does not simply mean multiplayer with a lot of people. I don't think it should be taken literally. And from what I've seen of MAG, I don't think it should be called an MMO.
This comes at an interesting time for MMOs, where the genre is changing rapidly with the advent of free-to-play MMOs, which are bringing the genre's definition into question all the more. Originally, MMOs were pretty simple to define- large-scale multiplayer games that required a subscription to play. An overgeneralization? Sure. But if you were just trying to explain the concept to someone who'd never played one before, that explanation worked pretty well. Now... it means something totally different. Calling something a MMO indicates more than just scale and subscription- it means that the world is persistant, that it keeps on going after you've logged off, and that your progress remains. But there are persistant multiplayer games that definitely aren't MMOs- Call of Duty 4 allows your efforts in multiplayer to earn experience, and help you gradually gain in rank, thus unlocking the privilege for new weapons and abilities. Many other games have copied this style, but that doesn't make them MMOs.
Another significant trait of MMOs is that they offer progressive growth of character not just in equipment and abilities, but in statistics like strength or stamina, that they grow very measurably stronger as you play them in multiplayer. A level 80 player simply cannot lose to a level 1 player in World of Warcraft unless they try to- the same cannot be said between a private and a general in Call of Duty, not in the least. But again, there are exceptions to this rule. The Diablo series has been around for quite a while, and its multiplayer mode has the player starting a fresh character, gaining levels and gear in much the same way as an MMO. In fact, Diablo is perhaps the best example of how blurred the line can be- it has pretty much EVERY element of an MMO. Large, persistant world? Check. A character that grows in gear and strength as you play? Check. An abundance of other players? Check.
So what, then, makes a game an MMO? What makes it not an MMO? I think if Diablo 3 were to call its multiplayer mode an MMO, people would object... but they wouldn't really know how to prove it wasn't. There is sort of an insubstantial something to MMOs- a feeling that you are playing in a world, not just a virtual playground- that few other games have. Your actions have lasting effect, you grow and mature, you can make money and spend money, and you're not the most important thing in the world- you're just like everyone else, just one of the crowd. MMO veterans know exactly what I mean, and can appreciate the difference... but what about someone who doesn't play MMOs regularly? How would they tell the difference? And this is the industry's problem- it's agreed among the hardcore that free-to-play MMOs can't match the quality of paid ones, but in ways that the casual have trouble understanding and appreciating. That's why WoW's population has stopped growing, that's why games like Tabula Rasa find themselves closing down, why Age of Conan finds itself closing servers en masse. They drew in a decent crowd initially... and then just fell off the radar, because the casual just don't see what they're getting for their money that they couldn't get from a free-to-play game.
It's not that the games aren't worth the money... they just need to learn how to communicate the difference between them and their cheaper cousins.