What is an MMO, and why should I care?

 (Edit: I’d fire my proof reader but I need the work)

Strictly speaking, an MMO is a “Massively Multiplayer Online thinymajig“.

There aren’t any games out today, though, that from a player’s perspective are really “massively”. WWII Online people will want to say “the map!” and Eve players will want to say “one server!”. But those are sleights of hand – in neither case is the game running on one single server computer – they use clusters of servers to create a single world and Eve’s hefty player count means one hell of a lot of computers.

A lot of effort gets invested into making today’s MMO compartmentalized; keeping people apart. Sort of the opposite of “massively multiplayer”, more “slightly multiplayer”. The “massively” scale only applies to the back-end systems. Players just don’t want to be in a room with 7 million other WoW players trying to get at the auctioneer.

In the effort to sell their progressive-advancement, MMOs seem to have become locked into a strict one-way flow of storyline that goes against the trends in other sectors of the gaming market. I find the linearity of most games today tedious to frustrating to nauseous.

These issues have arisen from generation X+1 MMOs mostly just solving problems that existed in generation X games. The result: an escallation of the wrong solutions. Today’s MMO design is based on a sweep of flawed premises about what’s necessary to solve yesterday’s problems. Look at the amount of effort that goes into making these “massively multiplayer” games play like a single player product or a shoebox game or the variety of systems that have gone into place to “deal with” camping or mob stealing rather than finding a way to avoid creating the problem that causes those problems.

So for a moment lets throw away all the trappings of a modern MMO:
1. No, or very few, levels. MMO levelling is pretty stupid because at the end of the day the equi-level fights are the same or harder when you level up, not easier, but the scaling effectively disqualifies you from re-consuming the earlier level content.

2. No “servers”; one world, many instances. Let players choose a home town or a middle name from a list for their character so that there can be 100s of “gandalf”s. If I want a separate character to play with different people, that should be my choice.

3. Avoid linearity. Without levels, I should be able to try and particular piece of content I want. Perhaps as my character evolves, I can come back and encounter a different telling of the story of any given piece of content. Many MMOs have distinct raid, group and solo versions of dungeons: plan the content for replayability through variation.

4. Let me play. If a player asks “can I play with my buddies” the wrong answers are “No, you’re not high enough” and “Yes, but they’ll have to carry you”. If your buddies have played for 3 years and you are just starting, you might get your butt kicked, but there should be no reason I can’t spawn in a new character and go adventuring with my friends, if not immediately, within a very short amount of play.

5. Let me play. If a player turns up late for the dungeon, why can’t he join his buddies? If the general philosophy is an open one you could give the players a choice between closing the doors and having a “full” story experience in an encounter, area, dungeon or zone; or they could keep the doors open and go around or somewhere else or maybe experience a dumbed-down version.  But tackled situation by situation.

6. Let people who want to explore a big massive world go play Second Life. Seriously: don’t waste your time building europe at half scale or mile after mile of rolling hills. Less is more. There’s no reason your zones shouldn’t be big, especially any you intend to be communal, but offer me TiVo service. Let the guys who love world exploration and travel go play Second Life or Asheron’s Call. You need large enough areas to satisfy the explorer in the rest of us and so individuals can have a little “prestigious” territorial knowledge to show off now and again. But forcing me to spend 5, 10 or 15 minutes travelling as part of my regular play session violates 3, 4 and 5.

7. I am not your content. If you make another “vast” PvE game, full of hills and valleys and fields and deserts, that is so big that you wind up having to force me to go out and gather materials by travelling from zone A to B to C to D so that the world doesn’t look empty, I am going to pay someone to give you a rhesus enema.

What do people take away from playing an MMO? Some scale of accomplishment in an environment where they canlink up with friends and get a good, beefy dose of what amounts to multiplayer coop. Unreal Tournament 3 can boast up to 128 players on a mapthese days, which is significantly above the average zone population that most MMOs try to aim for.

Of course, those of you who I appear to have just consigned to Second Life and Asheron’s Call (neither of which I consider to somehow be a terrible or even bad fate), are probably thinking “but those are just your particular opinions on what is fun”. I make no claim to have spent countless aeons researching this post. I’ve spent a modest amount of time working on this theory, but more than a little of what I propose here goes against my own niche interests: I’m an explorer type.

I’ll spend hours in an empty zone learning it like the back of my hand, making up my own story line for this hill or that bit of ruin. One MMO developer took me on a tour of one of his zones and it was explorer paradise for me when my mentioning one area in particular as my favorite lead to him explaining it was hand-modelled after the real world beach-front on which he’d met, engaged and finally married his wife after having met her in a previous MMO where he’d happened to comment to a random passer by that it reminded him of a nearby beach and discovered they lived a few streets apart…

But if an MO is going to be MMO, the developers need to start with the mentality of dropping folks like us. Our inclusion will have to be a luxury. The same for those people who hate instancing because “it splits the world up”. The sharding already does that, dummies. If you do away with shards and let instances free-float, then it will actually make it easier for you guys to see a contiguous seeming world.

If you start with the premise of an entirely instanced system, you can re-create virtual sharding over the top of it. For example, you might allow a guild of people to have their own guild-exclusive experiences so that they might never see anyone who isn’t in their clique. Or they might, from time to time, invite in friends or perhaps even rivals. Two competing guilds might decide to share a single world so that they only instances they ever see are common to players in the two guilds.

You can add the option for a player to say “this is my role play character” at creation and have it assigned a permanent shard ID so that his experience is exactly like playing on a sharded game. Or you could call that “strict role play” with a lesser variant that has different shard IDs and prefers them but will happily use a “public” shard when things are busy.

The first challenge for such a game design is going to be that 10+ years of bedding players down to MMO has trained them to weigh up any solution against their existing experiences. I don’t think yet-another-orcs-and-elves fantasy MMO would be the right place to start.


How would you see progression taking place in your idea of an MMO Ol, if at all?

Excellent article.

Its all about How interactions are divided in MMO’s into smaller pieces that we dont run into problems with the computing power of the servers or clients. Architectural decisions –
not just IT but conceptual too.

If its done by instances, gameworld “slices” or plot linearity – this ends up to be just MO.

When game is really “open” l. MMO, there’s always hotspots somewhere and things are limited for players by other means like – you see just what is *important* to you. If you can see only 128 players of the 500 gathered on a bridge with statues, this looks like similar limitation to me.

MMO BQ could be like: “Can all players gather in one location and see all others and interact with anyone they like?”

Instancing is a good solution for two things in our game:

Tutorials, to include new customer instanced battles.

Realism events.

I consider that the realism event server can provide a fully alternative style of gameplay if it gets a new set of tools to make easy and fast to set up historical battles with small units TOEs and easy deployment of those groups (fireteams/squad/platoons).

How would you have a rival guild if you never saw anyone else. IS the assumption made that a group of people will not seclude themselves?

Given the problems you have stated it is amazing anyone has made money in an MMO (very few have, I know)

When I think about what you have said and try to apply it to a WW2 semi-realistic war simulation (or even a modern sim), I see all kinds of pitfalls.

Consider that: Massive means lots of people. Heavy combat requies lots of people. This business model requires lots of people (subscribers).

also, modern weapons, espeically aircraft require lots of space. But lots of people in lots of space simply creates an impression of not enough people – in fact – the diffusion of players creates MANY bad consequences, such as people wandering around saying, “how do I find the battle?”

IN a fantasy game, or maybe in “vietnam online”, a small party of people could go adventuring in a huge area and have a good time, but it just wont work here.

I had a point but I lost it……


This post has percolated out of my thinking on a game design in progress, so I find myself wanting to be guarded about some of my responses.

I’m projecting this beyond myself to where I see the big catches for the mainstream segment of this market. There’s still an aspect of self-interest – I’m tired of people who want the WoW market thinking I’m in it and hyping a game up to me that has no business trying to cater to me. Screw us, I say, make the game for your target market and maybe I’ll enjoy it on their grounds anyway. Don’t piss both them and us off by making me part of your launch baggage that is subsequently cast off as you remind me that I’m a minority niche interest.

Laccy: I have a very specific notion for that in terms of the game concept I’ve been brewing; but in broader terms I think the true “massively” market are probably looking for bragging rights, trophies, achievements, titles and variations and stuff that can extend well beyond the inner game world. You may well come back to a simplified version of the level concept, although it might be as trivial as “difficulty level: easy, normal, hard”.

JJ: I was listing possibilities which included the extremes: a guild could entirely isolate them and, if that’s what they actually want, then you brought people into your game who otherwise would have stuck to playing UO on their own private shard with no detriment to other players. But I would imagine you would have something external to the game augmenting people’s bragging rights — like our WWIIOL gazette, I would imagine you’d have rankings and forums and announcements etc, so that your secret little guild has reputation beyond their isolation allowing them to compete from secrecy. Or if the game has a PvP component, they might actually be getting face-off challenges from guilds who are equally selective.

Again: I was making the point that throwing away the server concept and using “virtual sharding” gives you the option of server-based play and all those other potentials.

Trout: I’m not remotely thinking about this in terms of a WW2 game :) Infact, WW2 actually already does several of the things I described. Yeah, we have Rank, but it’s only just barely comparable to “levels” in an MMO – it’s more like achievement unlocks in a console game. You certainly don’t gain skill by ranking up, the skill all comes from the player themselves.

As a whole, I’d say that many devs dont understand the market they want, or the market they have. Johnson and Johnson knows more about its toothpaste users than your typical game developer does about his customers. And once you gain these people, they are leaving their DNA all over your product – there is so much data (too much) data to be mined.

Good luck with your project KFS – tell us what you can about it, it could be fun..


Actually, there are a good numbers of MMOs and devs who do a phenomenal amount of data mining. Most of the big name MMOs generate incredible amounts of data for that exact reason. The problem is that unless they provide an executive grade powerpoint presentation explaining their data, analysis and conclusions on a datum-by-datum basis, the players treat it like a daily-show soundbyte and discount it. Especially if they don’t like what it says.

World of Warcraft, for instance, is often maligned as “dumbed down”; yet MMO devs are trying to recreate it’s success.

Take, for instance, the much hated overstocking that people used to have to do in our game. When it went away, there was much rejoicing. And yet, in one of our current in-game polls over 60% of players responded that they miss overstocking, 30% responded neutrally and under 8% responded negatively (figures so far but our trends usually form within the first 100 votes and stay that way, heh).

Actually, almost everything in this thread already has a solution. You will see it on the shelf in 4 yrs. The you will be amazed at how easy the solutions are. When you find yourself getting deeper and deeper into a hole, the first thing you need to do, is STOP DIGGING.

Like I originally said, though:

These issues have arisen from generation X+1 MMOs mostly just solving problems that existed in generation X games. The result: an escallation of the wrong solutions.

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Virtual Shards « kfsone’s pittanceOctober 3, 2008 at 3:33 am

[…] been ticking away at the back of my head now for years. Having server clusters and instances just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: it produces games that are only “massively” from a back-end perspective. If […]

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