What even is an MMORPG?

How massively multiplayer does a game have to be to be an “MMO”? Is a 600 player server enough? Is a persistent world a defining trait? Is an open world a requirement? How about quests and NPCs?

I remember a day back in the dark ages when there were vocal people out there in game forums insisting that Guild Wars was not an MMORPG, but I think you’d have a hard time asserting that now. What counts has changed over time, and there is a lot of gray area and overlap among MMORPGs, other kinds of MMOs, and other closely adjacent categories.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I am old school by virtue of just being old, and my basic mental models of what an MMORPG is are based largely on UO, EQ, and Lineage 2. (I am not sure if L2 was actually the first game in its category that I played, but it is a good example of the class of game I am trying to include.)

Those mental models are largely out of date, but still cover a lot of the games that are out there. They just aren’t sufficient for the broader world of MMO and MMO-like games that exist today.

I have played some games recently that have me reformulating my concept of MMOs as a genre or class of game. I only have half-baked ideas so far, but I have even questioned whether MMO or MMORPG are all that useful as designations these days. (Spoiler: I decided that they still mean something, even if that something keeps evolving.)

So… yeah. That’s what’s on my mind. This topic will be revisited.

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One thought on “What even is an MMORPG?

  1. I think back in the day even ArenaNet was insisting that Guild Wars wasn’t an MMORPG because, while the city areas were shared space, the content out in the countryside was instanced. Since then the use of the term has slipped quite a bit. DDO, which also has instanced content, called itself an MMORPG when it shipped about two years later.

    And MMO… that has been stretch to the point of lacking any discernible shape. Anything with a chat lobby where you can interact with other people counts there. If World of Tanks counts then pretty much any online shooter counts I guess.

    I try to be specific when I use the term… try, but sometimes forget… and will even hone in on “MMORPG with a shared persistent world in the spirit of UO and EQ” when pressed. That is what MMORPG brings to my mind, even if the usage has grown broad over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

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