The Massive Identity Crisis

GW2 Overlook

I often hear complaints about the ever expanding definition of an MMO, with sites like Massively using the term so loosely as to include basically any game with online multiplayer. Now I’m not overly concerned with what Massively chooses to call an MMO. From their perspective, the more they can cover, the better, and that makes perfect sense. No, what I think is interesting is that MMOs themselves are so poorly taking advantage of the medium that the ever expanding definition isn’t actually wrong.

Well, except for that one time EA tried to say SimCity was an MMO. That was ridiculous.

The Vision

In the beginning, MMOs did exactly what you would expect them to do – function as virtual worlds wherein player communities and interaction were key. After all, MMOs are uniquely positioned to deliver this experience; there is simply no other genre with the scale to do so, and it’s the natural path for a social game at that scale to take. Why else go through all the trouble of getting those players in a world together? Now in its eleventh year of operations, EVE Online continues to deliver the purest form of this game experience, so let’s use it for reference.

Simply put, EVE is a toolbox given to its players to create their own stories and gameplay as they interact with each other in the vast reaches of the game’s space. The developer created content really isn’t anything that special. If that was all the game had, it likely wouldn’t have made it eleven days, let alone eleven years. It’s the player interactions that drive the game, and it’s what’s kept players in the game for so long. Ten Ton Hammer’s (pt. 1; pt. 2) telling of The Second Great War should give you an idea of how complex these interactions can be, but even if you don’t read it, just think about the fact that there’s an MMO where a history is being kept of alliances and wars that are entirely player driven. That’s amazing. These interactions are why EVE has rightfully been called “the most thrilling boring game in the universe“. In EVE players don’t follow a story – they make it.

Thanks to PLEX in-game losses can be translated into real world money easily. In some battles, hundreds of thousands of dollars in value are lost.

This screenshot makes the actual gameplay look a lot more fun than it actually is.

While EVE represents an extreme position for player interaction, it is nonetheless a beautiful sight to behold. EVE is by all accounts a success, but it has struggled to gain broader appeal due to high barriers to entry and a heavy reliance on UI and spreadsheet elements that many players find unattractive. However, these unpopular features have nothing to do with its superb player-driven gameplay. It’s also worth noting that it would be entirely possible for a game like EVE to incorporate more guiding themepark elements without compromising its sandbox core if its development team were so inclined. EVE is near pure, uncut sandbox, while there’s a wide range available on the scale of sandboxiness.

The Modern Paradigm

The current generation of MMORPG is that of the traditional themepark, which found its beginnings with Everquest: II and the ground shattering success of themepark giant World of Warcraft. The MMO industry changed forever as more and more games have rushed to decipher and emulate WoW‘s recipe for success, and as the market progressed, the themepark model has become a polished developer created content delivery machine, where inconveniences like travel and community-building have been eschewed in favor of quick and easy static, solo friendly content. MMOs abandoned their roots as virtual worlds, and with it, player interaction driven content faded into insignificance.

To put it bluntly, this is a colossal waste. Players are being brought into large communities on sprawling worlds, but the games are in no way taking advantage of that situation. Questing is designed for solo play, and with a few exceptions, endgame content all takes place in confined instances. Most importantly, all of this is consumption of static content hand crafted by the developers, while the games themselves are so locked down that community and player interaction cannot affect the game in any way. The larger community has essentially been reduced to providing no more value than one does in Farmville – to validate players and their in-game accomplishments by giving them an area to stand about and display them. What’s the point of a shared, persistent world when the players have no power to influence it? Developers have settled for turning modern MMOs into amusement rides, when they could be entire worlds.

Every Game is an MMO Now

Which brings us back to the central argument – every game is an MMO now, and it’s not because other games have evolved. No, it’s because MMOs have stopped taking advantage of what made them unique.

I’ve been playing a lot of Diablo 3 recently, and it’s interesting how little of an adjustment it took considering I play MMOs almost exclusively. All of my usual MMO news outlets were already covering it, and all of my usual MMO friends were already playing it. This got me to thinking – why was that? What makes Diablo such an appealing game for the MMO community? Exploring this question lead me to a surprising answer; they really aren’t that different anymore.

Giant shoulder armor? Check.

Giant shoulder armor? Check.

What does a modern themepark MMO offer that Diablo doesn’t? The social features are all there – friends, groups, clans, and public channels. The world isn’t open or persistent, but that’s not really a requirement to be an MMO (Diablo‘s maps are probably still more open than Neverwinter‘s). Hell, Diablo has a destructible environment, so I’ll even give it the advantage for having some modicum of world interactivity. The only real distinction between the two is the limited group size in Diablo, but when 90% of your time in an MMO is spent in a similarly limited instanced environment, how meaningful is that difference?

The Next Paradigm

Fortunately, wasted potential is not the extent of the problems caused by the abandonment of player interaction in the medium. John Smedley, the President of Sony Online Entertainment, briefly addressed the business shortcomings of the modern themepark model in his blog post, The Sandbox MMO:

My belief is simple – the content driven model is not where we should be aiming as an industry. Why? It’s unsustainable. When we first began making these kinds of games 18 years ago (I mean no disrespect to the Muds and other games out before Everquest) there was nothing to compare our games to. Players were so excited about being able to be a part of these virtual worlds that just about any content was exciting. Over the years the quality has really been steadily rising to the point where we have some brilliant narrative and exciting storylines in many MMOs today. We still thrill at completing a quest to kill the dragon or save somse poor townsperson who was unlucky enough to get kidnapped by orcs. The real issue is a simple one – our ability to consume that content as players has gotten to the point that most content is done by the players nearly immediately after it’s released.

An industry leader championing the cause of player interaction driven MMOs is music to my ears, but he doesn’t appear to be the only one having these thoughts. Beyond SOE’s Everquest: NextLandmark, and H1Z1 titles, upcoming sandboxes like ArcheAgeBlack Desert, The Repopulation, Pathfinder Online, and Star Citizen all seem to be delivering exactly what the genre needs with varying degrees of balance between sandbox and themepark elements.

Will the MMO market return to its roots, taking full advantage of its large, persistent communities by bringing player-driven gameplay back to its core? Will players once again experience freedom and an ability to impact the game? God, I hope so. Let’s take back the word MMO by first taking back what it means to be an MMO.

#MMO #Sandbox #SandboxMMO

15 thoughts on “The Massive Identity Crisis

  1. Based on what we’ve been delivered recently, this sounds like a pipe dream. I think we get the theme-park content so frequently because it’s a lot easier in a lot of ways to provide a static experience. Once a game has a following and is viable, it’s easy to spend additional money providing expansionary content. It’s harder to spend more time and money in development pre-release to get the sandbox experience right when you don’t know if you’ll ever see a return on that investment.

    I would love to see a developer with the faith to do this, and the skill to do it well, and experience the results. Hopefully it will happen, but as long as theme park mmo’s continue to generate dumptruck loads of cash, it’s unlikely. Developers can only produce projects that the stake-holders green light and fund, and in my experience most boards don’t like to wander away from a formula that works. It’s the same reason we get so few truly unique and well made movies out of Hollywood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s some truth to that, but it does seem that the tide is turning away from themeparks in the industry, as new and promising sandboxes are constantly appearing on the horizon. While I’d like to attribute this to vision, and in some cases it certainly is, the truth is that themeparks really haven’t been generating as much of a return as investors are expecting. While the dumptrucks of cash are certainly there, the development costs to produce a AAA themepark are also astronomical, and as each new entrant continues to fall on its face, studios appear to be looking in new directions for games that will provide long term income instead of a short term injection.

      Still, there are undeniably serious obstacles to us getting new and unique MMOs, not the least of which is the habit of developers to license existing MMO engines, limiting their games to the same features as, well, every other MMO. It saves a lot of money, but it makes innovation seriously difficult and as we’ve seen, rare. That’s one of the things I find most promising about Black Desert. They wanted to make a game that wouldn’t work with existing engines, so they made their own. Hopefully we’ll see more of that as developers begin to learn that clones don’t have longevity.


  2. You’re right – AAA theme-parks are certainly seeming like less and less of a sure thing. The amount of money tied up in development, and the amount of time that money is tied up, is definitely steepening the curve and making it more difficult for these projects to show a good return on investment.

    There is another factor that seems to repeat itself with every new game: People scream for something new, then cry when it’s not familiar.

    I really like what I see from Black Desert, but I’ve seen other games that looked promising sell out the technology they developed instead of continuing on into release. I hope that’s not what is going to happen here.


    • Black Desert is still a long way out, so unfortunately, it’s still a real possibility at this point. That said, I don’t think it’s very likely.

      Hopefully at least one of these sandboxes will turn out to be a great success. If that happens, more will follow.


  3. The reason diablo isn’t an MMO isn’t because of group size. It’s because MMO means Massively Multiplayer Online. Which means a massive amount of people playing the game online together. IE; in one instance. Diablo is a 4 player game max. You will never see a massive amount of players playing the game together. Only 4 others and that includes you.


    • This is entirely obvious, but also hardly relevant. I don’t consider Diablo to be an MMO, and if I did my post wouldn’t make any sense. The point is that MMOs are so poorly utilizing their massive structure as to be nearly functionally equivalent to their co-op counterparts, because the presence of a massive, persistent community has zero impact on gameplay.


    • In all honesty though, this isn’t that different from what we see in most MMOs these days. Most of the content can be completed solo, and most of the rest can be completed in a small group of 4-5. Even the large-scale group content that requires 10 or 12 isn’t so far removed from the 4 player Diablo format as to be dramatically different. I agree that you will see more people in an MMO than you will in Diablo, but they’re not necessary or relevant to most of the experience, if any, and I think that is what Isarii is really speaking to here.


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