MMO? Not? Who Cares?
Jan 21, 2010
~5 minute read

Those who know me know that I’m fairly actively involved in the community of the soon-to-release game Global Agenda. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s designed around a third-person shooter core gameplay that is manifested in large numbers of instanced battles on a single central server “shard” - including a larger Conquest system that uses such battles to allow agencies (GA’s “guilds”) to conquer territory on a strategic map and battle with other agencies for dominance.

Oftentimes when describing the game, it’ll be referred to as an MMOFPS. Gaming sites like IGN, Massively,, et cetera all tend to use the term here and there. This has lead to various people getting into giant drawn-0ut arguments over whether or not Global Agenda “is an MMO” (not to mention the fact that it’s third-person, not the First-Person Shooter that the latter part of the acronym would imply) and based on that, whether it can “justify a subscription fee”.

It’s honestly surprising sometimes how worked up people will get in arguing against the usage of the term, even when it’s mostly just given as a general description - and yet when it comes down to it, very few people will agree on what actually qualifies something to “be an MMO”.

The most common answer for the “defining characteristic(s)” of an MMO is that it has to support lots of players playing together. Yet where does this line get drawn? Even the most solidly accepted MMOs generally tend to break down (lag and/or crashes on both the server or client end) when more than a few hundred players are in the same vicinity. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s clear that single-player games are definitively not MMOs. So in this range between 1 and 1000 players in the same area, whereabouts does something become a “true MMO?” There doesn’t seem to be a strict definition here - in fact, it seems rather arbitrary - not to mention not reflective of the typical MMO scenario. Though I have to rely on back-of-a-napkin guesstimations, I’d say it’s likely that the average WoW player doesn’t have meaningful interactions with more than 50 people tops per play session. In fact, the only common exception I could think of to such would be the instanced PvP battlegrounds, which due to their nature bring players together temporarily.

Perhaps, then, number of players in the same area isn’t the defining characteristic of an MMO, and instead it’s all about having a persistent and open world. This leads us to another question, however: what exactly do you define as your “world” for such matters? The “traditional” MMO answer has always been zones - whether large or small (or called by other names, such as EVE’s star systems), worlds have always been divided up into areas. Why? Because in reality, the actions of a player tend to have very little influence beyond a certain limit; a character casting a spell on one side of the world means nothing to a different character on the other side. But what’s to say that one couldn’t think of the game world as being in another form, something more streamlined towards specific direct influences - such as individual battles? If those battles are part of a larger whole, is there really all that much difference, functionality-wise, between a larger set of smaller “zones” and a smaller set of larger zones?

The debate over exactly what qualifies a game as an MMO could continue, but when it all comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter. Some might argue that subscription fees are only justified for MMOs, but I’d have to call baloney on that - just as with any other product, the only rule for what is truly “justified” is what people are willing to pay. While some individuals might choose to draw an arbitrary line of only paying subscription fees for an “MMO” game, the real purpose of playing games in the first place is for enjoyment; if you get more and longer-lasting enjoyment out of a game you don’t consider an “MMO” than one you do, why would the former not be worthy of, at the very least, the same cost as the latter?

Suppose you had the option between living in a rented penthouse apartment or buying a house. If you would enjoy the house more than the apartment, and someone walked up to you and said “you can live in this house, but instead of buying it you’ll have to rent it for the same rate you would the apartment” - would you turn it down and take the apartment which you would enjoy less instead, simply because you were renting? Of course not - you’d be paying the same either way, so why choose the one you enjoy less?

The same reasoning applies to games. Why cling to a principle of never paying subscription fees for anything that can’t be rigidly defined as “an MMO” if, in fact, you find yourself enjoying a non-MMO game more than you would an MMO? Now, this isn’t to say that everyone will find a given game better than another - or even that most will. All I’m saying here is… weigh cost versus the actual enjoyment you get out of a game - not arbitrary principles. You’ll get a lot more fun out of your time in the end.

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