Wednesday, August 30, 2023

What is a MMORPG, and why does it matter to me so much?

I think many if not most online multiplayer games have become MMOs in the broad sense.  To me MMORPG is a narrower concept, and seems to be the pretty much the same thing that Tipa means when she says MMO in this recent thought provoking post.  I articulated "everything is a MMO, MMORPGs are different" much more fully in a post here a few years ago.  However, I inadvertently typed 99% of a blog post in the response to Tipa's post, and I have never really explored where I feel the limits of MMORPGs here.  So here we go!

To me what distinguishes a MMO from a MMORPG is not really any particular mechanics but a design sensibility.  If the one of the central design goals is to create the illusion of a shared fantasy world (or fictional world in general), with at least some of the expected entertainment coming from social interactions with other avatars being run by players (even if indirect like an AH or looking at other player's outfits when you run through town) it's a MMORPG. It's more of a "I know it when I see it" than a hard limit, and any two observers might disagree on the edge cases.  But if there is a straight line in the design history from the game to UO or EQ (or a MUD) I likely consider a game a MMORPG.   

Social interaction is also key. The only way to experience the game has to be to hang out in at least some areas where other people you don't know could also choose to play.  It's kind of like when you decide to leave your house and go to a store.  You might not see anyone, but you certainly could and it isn't your choice.  The only way to physically shop in the store is to take that risk.  The only way to play a MMOPRG is to engage in shared social spaces that could, and in fact almost certainly do, have total strangers in them.  

However that is far from enough, or Fortnight would be a MMORPG.  Fortnight is definitely not a MMORPG to me, and the main reason is that design goal of the game is different.  Some edge-case examples might give a better idea of where I am coming from.

To me DDO and Guild Wars 1 are edge cases, because the only areas that aren't instanced are villages, cities and keeps that lead either directly to quest instances or to wilderness areas that lead to more quest instances.  However a major design goal is to create the illusion of a shared world inhabited both by yourself and other player characters, so I tend to include them.  Diablo I-III don't count in my mind because you can get to the hub areas offline. It's by design that you don't have to fool with other players if you don't want to. Same with PSO, and any number of survival games like Arc Survival Evolved.  However,  a particular server of Arc that is always up and has a lot of players comes really close to being a MMORPG in my mind.  Especially if it has more active players than can be logged on at once.

Second Life is another edge case, but I wouldn't include it because the original design goal is not to create the illusion any specific fictional world.  The only reason I consider even an edge case that games made by users are now embedded in it, making a kind or proto-metaverse.  Location based games are yet another edge case, but I don't include them because our world is so integral to them.  I am on pretty shaky ground there with Orna or Magic Streets I will allow.  However, I consider LBGs in general something new.  

RPG is also a necessary part to me, but almost everything seems to have some RPG mechanics such as XP and levels these days, so presence of RPG mechanics is not all that useful by itself.  But in what I think of as a MMORPG the mechanics are there at least in part to help make the world feel more fleshed out, kind of like in a PnP RPG.  They aren't there purely to give players more things to grind towards. 

All this is a very long winded way of saying I consider MMORPGs a specific genre with fuzzy edges.  All bloggers and commentators seem to agree on what's in the middle, and there will probably never be a huge amount of agreement about where the exact edges are.  

Whatever a MMOPRG is is though, it's a genre that's really special to me.  They are a lot more enchanting and "sticky"  than almost any other type of game.  For me they have an indefinable magic that really makes them pop.  It's a genre that hints at endless possibilities to me.  However, it's a genre  that also often makes me somewhat wistful, because I believe the potential will almost certainly never be fully realized by any design team.  I'm not sure whether that's possible, even in theory, for a single game. 

That said, I certainly love seeing how different teams of designers have taken a crack at it!  Doing so most of my adult life has led to a series of fascinating journeys.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Creator appreciation week: all the teams running retired MMOs

I have been way too busy to post this year.  As I feared in my previous post, lurking on other people's blogs is about all I have had time for lately, though my "unusually busy" stretch is taking even longer to abate than I imagined it would back in January.  However, I couldn't resist joining in on Blaugust fun in a small way when I saw this post over at Inventory Full.  Developer appreciation week was always one of my favorite parts of the event back when I used to regularly participate.  

This year, my appreciation goes out to all the volunteer teams keeping defunct MMOs alive.  Off the top of my head there is the one for Warhammer Online, the one for Myst Online: UruProject 1999 that is keeping the launch era Everquest experience alive, the one for Vangaurd: Saga of Heroes,  a pile of them for City of Heroes (of which Homecoming is my favorite), a wide variety for Star Wars Galaxies, and the one for Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst.  

These teams are doing a great service for fans of these games, and for anyone interested in the history of MMOs in general.  Beyond that, they are often actually doing a better job with their games than some of the teams running "live" MMOs.  In general unofficial server teams are legally forbidden from doing more than simply breaking even on their server costs, and they have zero incentive to do anything other than create the best experience they can with extremely limited resources. These are people that care about making players happy first, and everything else second.  Their passion really shows in a lot of these projects.  

For an enlightening comparison, contrast the experience that MitchManix had in Champions Online vs City of Heroes.  One is full of interesting ideas but ruined by lack of developer attention and poor monetization.  In the other you can't spend money to play even if you want to, and the game absolutely thriving.  For a live team to not be able to keep up with what a bunch of volunteers can do in their spare time is absolutely embarrassing, and is a decent microcosm of what has gone wrong in some parts of the MMO space.  

These games can also be a lifeline to people that can't afford to keep up in a pay-to-play MMO.  A relative of mine is in the middle of a divorce, and has never been financially all that well off to start with. She has about enough money to keep her PC running and an internet connection going, and that is literally her entire entertainment budget.  I introduced her to Homecoming, and it has been absolutely wonderful for her.  We meet about once a week to hang out in the game, and it has been a blast for both of us.  

The fact that so many of these games exist is a constant reminder to me that most people are actually pretty decent.  So my hat goes off to all the teams that sink their time into these projects! They really are making the online world a richer and happier place.