I am so sick of people calling various online games "virtual worlds", or worse yet, "massively multiplayer online (games)". I hope to make a few distinctions, namely the difference between a virtual world and a virtual environment, and when a multiplayer online game actually qualifies as massive.
Damion Schubert noted the selling point of MMOGs compared to regular online games. That difference is "massivity", the potential for hundreds of users to interact in a virtual environment. Since Schubert's comment was in passing during his presentation, he doesn't seem to provide a formal definition of massivity, and I don't know him personally, so I cannot ask him for one.
Ultimately what an MMOG design hopes to achieve is a feeling of massivity. This is an aesthetic experience which cannot be easily quantified nor defined, but I will attempt to do so. Massivity is the feeling that the user is part of a large world which changes without her being there. It is the potential for hundreds of players to interact in some virtual space, all perhaps with different goals.
We can have games without massivity. But we cannot have massivity without a virtual environment, specifically a virtual world.
I like to use a layered definition when talking about MMOGs: virtual world + game = MMOG. Most people can identify a game or at least hazily understand that there are game systems at work when they experience them. But everyone from bloggers to journalists to game designers seem to forget what a virtual world is.
I define a virtual world to be a globally-accessible simulated, persistent environment in which users interact through an avatar proxy. A virtual world is a virtual environment with the following constraints:
- The environment must contain the concept of location. It must be able to relate entities in the environment to the user with positional information. A chat room is not a virtual world.
- The environment must persist between play sessions. It must convey the notion of a "living world" which advances while the user is not engaged with it. Any instanced encounter with an end is not a virtual world.
- The environment must be globally-accessible and consistent, meaning all agents in the environment could potentially congregate at a location. This is technically impossible, but the impossibility must be hidden to the user. Any user understands that as long as he is a part of the virtual world, he can meet (intentionally or by happenstance) any other user in the world.
Channeling is a solution to a technical problem which diminishes the feeling of massivity because the game replicates the same environment, breaking the consistency of the world, and no longer are the technical limitations of the environment concealed from the user. I am not saying that channeled zones are not virtual worlds; they simply break "immersion". As an aside, has anyone ever experienced a channeling system which wasn't annoying or confusing?
Studios are releasing many online games which are breaking molds. They call it a "hybridization"; I call it exploitation of the buzz surrounding MMORPGs. Facebook labels games like Farmville and Restaurant City as virtual worlds. Debates ensue on whether or not anything with character persistence (e.g. TF2) is enough to qualify the game as an MMOG. I find this talk very dangerous because it dilutes the definition of virtual worlds and MMORPGs.
Is Diablo 2 an MMORPG? By Farmville or Global Agenda standards, it would appear to qualify. It has privately instanced virtual environments, character persistence, and public chat rooms serving as lobbies. But there is no global environment where any one user could accidentally interact with someone else. The world does not evolve and move without the user present. Sure items are traded and bands of players do quests together, but is there really a persistent world anywhere?
Any of the recent shooters with character and item persistence, whether or not trading is implemented, still reside in game spaces, not virtual worlds. Games are played on maps which have a beginning and end. They are highly structured games with limited participants. There is no central gathering place where players can interact and put their mark on the world by simply standing around. Character persistence is not world persistence.
MAG or even a hypothetical game with more than 128 v 128 battles are no more an MMOFPS than TF2, i.e. they are not MMOFPSs. If a player logs off in the middle of a battle, his team may lose the match. But the buck stops there. There are no repercussions in the larger game world, because there is no larger game world! His guild doesn't lose land nor is his skeleton a terrain decal for the next week; the players lick their wounds or bask in victory, and they start a new game. Once again, character persistence is not world persistence.
Using today's weak definition, we could classify any online multiplayer game as an MMOG. That would defeat the point of creating genres at all, and we would be back where we started: what is the difference between Everquest and Dungeon Siege? Massivity.