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Dispelling the Myths of MMOs

Monumental's Paul Mayze explores the three key myths surrounding MMO games

In an exclusive editorial for GamesIndustry.biz, Monumental COO Paul Mayze explores three of the most prevalent myths surrounding MMO games.

Monumental is currently working on its first Facebook title - a 3D MMO called Little Horrors - which is scheduled for release this summer.

When you hear "Massively Multiplayer Online" (MMO) attributed to a game, it immediately conjures up images of a certain type of video game with a particular style of game play. Some would argue that it is these preconceptions that give what is still a relatively niche gaming platform its ability to sell high value products to a smaller but more dedicated fan base.

However, we think that these preconceptions are in fact restricting MMOs from reaching a wider audience and attracting new fans. If MMOs are to go truly mass market, some of the myths about them need to be blown out of the water.

Myth One: MMOs are Hardcore: MMOs seem to be synonymous with the hardcore, a result of their origins in the obscure Multi-User Dungeons of the 1980s. World of Warcraft may be extremely accessible and have 11 million users, but it is not a mass-market title. It is still the domain of 'geeks', there just happens to be millions of them about – ourselves included.

We don't really understand this. We don't understand why MMOs have to be set in fantasy or sci-fi worlds, why they have to have a quest system, or why words like 'grinding', 'griefing', and 'farming' are seen as inevitable aspects of the genre. In fact, we don't know why MMO is thought of as a genre at all.

As I write this, a group of Monumental Games designers are running around a gigantic virtual playground as a bunch of pixies playing something akin to hide-and-seek. It's massively multiplayer and online. It's even a 'persistent' world, where you can drop in and out at any time, and when you change something in the world it remains changed. But it runs in a browser, and the gameplay is every bit as compulsive and accessible as hide-and-seek was when you were a kid.

There’s no reason for MMOs to be hardcore except force of habit.

Myth Two: MMOs are the 'third rail': Due to a succession of noble, high-profile and extremely costly failed MMO projects, developers now use the term MMO at their own peril. But the notion that MMOs are the third rail of game development (i.e. like the electrical conductor in a railway – touch it and you're dead) is again founded more on historical performance than the innate qualities of a MMOG.

A MMOG is certainly a more complex beast than single player or simple multiplayer experience – just think of how much information might need to travel between thousands of clients and multiple servers each time a character takes a few steps, for example. But once you have an MMO engine handling this complexity, the prohibitive costs and extensive development timelines come from the belief that MMOs require vast teams to produce.

This reasoning is typically stated as: "I need to keep players interested in order to keep generating revenues, so I need an army of artists and designers and games masters working around the clock to generate content for these players to consume." Except in certain cases, such as the typical World of Warcraft RPG, this is a non-sequitur. The most enduring and appealing content comes from the infinite variation of human experience and intellect being brought to bear by the players themselves. Provide an environment, the tools, a clearly defined set of rules and objectives and let the players do the rest. Think Chess. Bridge. Hide-and-seek. How much did those games cost to make?

Myth Three: An MMO is a kind of game: I imagine everyone working in MMOs – including ourselves – occasionally falls into the trap of seeing MMOs as a game genre, game type, or at least something more than a feature, and understandably so.

Typically, development studios specialise in a genre or game type, and anyone working in MMOs had damn well better specialise in them; your tech and staff need to eat, sleep and breathe MMOs if you're ever going to get from concept to launch. But just because the 'MMO' tag brings design restrictions, technological challenges, and changes everything you thought you knew about development, that doesn't mean it's anything more than a game feature.

The irony is that the MMO tag becomes less useful when it's applied in the literal sense. A text-based Facebook game might be called an MMO (thousands of players in the same online 'world'), and yet it would be unrecognisable to a player of Eve Online. Conversely, some games have the spirit of an MMO but may have a low player cap that calls the term 'massive' into question.

The term 'MMO' suffers the same problem as labels everywhere: it aims to neatly compartmentalise but ends up muddying the waters. It was ever thus in videogames – I recall disputes over whether a game was a 'shoot em up' or a 'side-scrolling platformer'.

In the end, only one thing matters when it comes to MMOs – whether or not the players are having fun.

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