Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 September, 2005

What is an MMO?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:43 PM

The often insightful (inciteful?) Dave Rickey has posted an entry thinking about what “MMOs” really are. Using the metaphor of the blind men encountering the elephant, Dave advocates that we really don’t know what these beasts are.

I will, of course, politely disagree with Dave. These things are one thing: entertainment. What that means, of course, is the catch. As usual, the devil’s in the details.

Dave had a partial list of what MMOs are:

  • Games
  • Communities
  • Worlds
  • Escapism Vehicles
  • Story-Containing Dramas
  • Treadmills
  • Multiplayer Puzzles
  • Conflict Generators
  • Time Fillers

But, I advocate that all these are just facets of entertainment. So, let’s define entertainment. We can resort to a dictionary, but the basic definition of entertainment is an activity done for enjoyment, usually not related to the basic necessities in life (food, shelter, etc.) In our modern world, we put a lot of focus on entertainment because modern technology has provide us with a lot of free time. Therefore, entertainment is big business.

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at Dave’s list; I think the core element is Communities. Without a community, our online spaces are devoid of anything unique. But, as Dave mentions a community is nothing by itself because there are plenty of free alternatives out there. However, I think this is perhaps the most important element because our creations might as well be single-user experiences if we don’t have some sort of community. Note that there are different levels of community as well. Most games allow easy communication between people, but some games like ToonTown or Planetside encourage communication primarily through pre-recorded macros due to protecting other players or due to the fast-paced nature of the game. But, even these games have a sense of community as you interact with other people.

The other elements in this list really just support the entertainment aspect, which as a whole are just about as important as the community. These things can be Games or Worlds (or even a bit of both), but these establish the setting of the space and give it more depth than some random, free social site. Escapism is a classic motivation for seeking out entertainment, and as I pointed out escapism is one of the core things most current games supply. Stories help give context to a game, treadmills are how we provide cheap content to people in a game, and puzzles are one aspect of gaming; and, again, gaming is one form of entertainment. Conflict is the basis of nearly all good stories if you believe the writers, so this makes sense that it would be an important part of entertainment. And, “time fillers” is about an accurate description of entertainment as any.

Okay, great, but how does this help us make better entertainment? Well, I agree with Dave’s basic argument: that these things are complex because they have a lot of “moving parts”, so to speak, and it’s hard for some developers to wrap their head around all aspects of this. In addition, the focus of virtual worlds changes as they get older. At the beginning, it’s important to focus on the non-social aspects as people move into the space and establish themselves. It’s hard to push a community that hasn’t formed yet. As the virtual world becomes more established, then community starts becoming more and more important. “Come for the game, stay for the community,” is how most developers phrase this. Of course, you can’t forget the game aspect as it gets older, because you still need a hook to bring fresh faces in and keep the community going.

I think the other important lesson here is that everyone has a different concept of what these things are. Hell, you can look at the wealth of terminology (most of which I’ve used in this post, if you’ve been paying attention) just to see the differences: online RPGs, virtual worlds, online worlds, online games, massively multiplayer online [whatever] (MMO), social spaces, time fillers, etc. It’s the old cliche, “Ask 10 people what they get from online worlds, and you’ll get at least 12 different answers.” Unfortunately, just recognizing this doesn’t help much, because now we have to figure out a way to cater to all these tastes. Do you try to make a monolithic game and cater to a single, wide audience? Do you make niche titles and cater to smaller groups? Do you throw up your hands in defeat? Tough questions.

In the end, I’m going to disagree with Dave. I think we have a pretty good grasp on what these things are in their current form. I think the difficulty comes in trying to balance the hundreds of different aspects to make them appeal to people, and from doing the careful dance of adapting to the demands of the future. Although, I think it’s important for smart people like Dave to go back and start questioning assumptions every once in a while to make sure we’re on the right track.

Next Post: »


  1. Perhaps, we shouldn’t push, but pull people into our creative world.

    If we accept that we can not cater to everyone then why not follow the Steve Job model? Create something meaningful, perhaps even iconcastic, and pull people into your vision. Stick with your guns and not waver. The “create and they will come” applies if your creation is something meaningful. It could be stylish ease-of-use technology (Apple), it could be unadulterated massive PvP (Shadowbane), or old-school/neu-school MMORPGing (Meridian 59).

    How would you describe the conceptual position of Meridian 59? Does it touch the masses (as in an unversal truth or something like that)?


    Comment by magicback (Frank) — 10 September, 2005 @ 4:27 AM

  2. The problem with the Apple model is that sometimes you get a real dud. Consider the one-button mouse for the Macs, this is a terrible design because two buttons are just as manageable as one (not to mention that the scroll wheel is really, really useful). Or, consider the Apple Newton, which was too far ahead of its time to really survive. (Yeah, the Newton wasn’t Jobs’ fault, but it makes the point.)

    Further, you have the problem of a different audience. Very few iPod listeners would claim to be small device designers. On the other hand, about 110% of people playing online games think they would make a good game designer. Creating a “vision” and sticking to it was already tried, and the active and vocal members of the community weren’t happy with the result. So, despite the fact that the EQ developers created a highly successful game that kept people playing for a long time, all we remember about the game these days is how much people love to say it sucks. It’s not a stretch to say that this has negatively affected SOE’s reputation in the long run.

    M59 these days is more of an exception to the system than anything else. We didn’t resurrect the game to take the industry by storm, we brought it back to have it around for people to enjoy. We’re not going to be sending out press releases about 1 million subscribers anytime soon (read: ever), and we’re happy with the small but dedicated crowd we have now. Would we like more subscribers? Sure, but we have very modest expectations for the game. Talking about M59 in today’s market isn’t really useful, IMHO.

    But, let’s look at M59 another way. Besides terrible marketing, the thing that really kept M59 back was a lack of support for the community. The basic game design does not encourage community bonds: the hard-core PvP focus really made people wary of each other, and just about everything in the game can be done by one person. The only thing that absolutely requires multiple players is, ironically enough, in the newbie area. Since people never had to rely on others for any reason, community bonds were always tenuous. This means that while people came for the game, they didn’t stick around for the community all that much.

    Of course, these days people judge gameplay by production values, and M59′s, er, “classic” graphics usually encourage people to think the worst about the gameplay. So, not many people are really showing up for the game anymore.

    Personally, I think one of the best ways to do a modern game is to focus on the smaller scale. Find an audience that isn’t served by the current games. For example, there’s an audience for mecha games. Serve that niche, perhaps even going boutique pricing for this type of game. In the design of the game, plan to focus on the gameplay to start, but leave obvious paths for focusing on the community later. For example, start the game as a free-for-all to start, but plan to put in military units in one of the first patches. This allows people to play the game to start, then get organize into a community later. While it is tempting to put units at the beginning, this could cause people to focus on community too early. Perhaps allow people to form associations, but patch in things like ranks later when people change their focus to the community aspects of the game.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 September, 2005 @ 6:12 AM

  3. Ye gods, Dave waits until I’m absolutely dead certain he’s not going to update, and then posts enough text to fill up an inch-thick hardcover book while I’m not looking. Not that I’m complaining. I like reading his stuff. I’ll just, uh, comment on all this when I finally get caught up. :)

    Comment by Tess — 12 September, 2005 @ 2:50 AM

  4. This is why I stopped writing the column: When I have the urge to write, the words just keep coming. When I don’t, forcing it yields results I really don’t like. So I decided I’d only write the good stuff from now on, if that meant no updates for a month, so be it.

    Comment by Dave Rickey — 15 September, 2005 @ 7:18 PM

  5. Hehe. Well, it just makes us think you’re dead when you’re not posting, Dave. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 September, 2005 @ 10:19 PM

  6. The appeal of MMOs…

    Sara Jensen Schubert points to a recent Gamasutra article where, as she put it, “Former EQ GM complains that we keep rehashing the same old shit.” ( The blog entry is appropriately entitled “Not Aga…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 29 March, 2007 @ 7:26 PM

Leave a comment

I value your comment and think the discussions are the best part of this blog. However, there's this scourge called comment spam, so I choose to moderate comments rather than giving filthy spammers any advantage.

If this is your first comment, it will be held for moderation and therefore will not show up immediately. I will approve your comment when I can, usually within a day. Comments should eventually be approved if not spam. If your comment doesn't show up and it wasn't spam, send me an email as the spam catchers might have caught it by accident.

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Email Subscription

Get posts by email:

Recent Comments


Search the Blog


February 2020
« Aug    



Standard Disclaimer

I speak only for myself, not for any company.

My Book


Around the Internet

Game and Online Developers

Game News Sites

Game Ranters and Discussion

Help for Businesses

Other Fun Stuff

Quiet (aka Dead) Sites

Posts Copyright Brian Green, aka Psychochild. Comments belong to their authors.

Support me and my work on