What is an MMO? What Defines An MMO?

The word "MMO" has been redefined countless times since the early days of MUDs and social games. It’s a contentious term with personalized definitions, and as the market has grown so has the scope with which the label is applied. Narrowing down a definition of "massively multiplayer online game" that is still broad enough to encompass the growing range of titles cannot rest on one concrete definition. But in the interest of clearly labeling games, the following features are highlighted as possible indicators of an MMO. Not every MMO will embody each of the listed marks, but it will feature some of them. And depending on how many and how central they are to gameplay a title is considered to be an MMO.

Persistent or Instanced Based World

MMOs typically have persistent or instance-based worlds, allowing players to interact in real-time. Ultima Online and EverQuest are popular examples of early persistent world MMOs. Their environments are linked together so that players seamlessly travel from one area to the next. Or more recently, in World of Warcraft players can run from the Ruins of Silvermoon to Booty Bay without loading each zone—but I don’t recommend the journey.

Other MMO’s employ instanced worlds. Players join a central hub and then branch out to zones. Each area is not connected but exists independently from the rest, such as in The Secret World, so that players must load each zone. Although, many open world games also rely on instanced zones for dungeons, PvP battlegrounds, and specialized areas for other events. So that, many MMOs end up with a melange of both persistent and instanced worlds.

Common Characteristics

Along with shared world building traits the MMO has evolved common characteristics. Oftentimes an MMO has a virtual economy, where players trade in-game goods. There are various degrees of markets depending on the particular game. Eve Online has a robust player-driven economy, where some players manipulate the market for their own financial gain. Whereas other games rely on simpler auction houses. But not every game has a market either. Diablo 3 disassembled their auction house, and in its current state there is no form of trade, even directly between players.

Character customization has also become a hallmark of MMOs—the option to create a distinct avatar; whether it be a ridiculous mishmash of human anatomy in a game such as Perfect World, or the polished realism of Black Desert. But avatars are not restricted to personifications of people.

MOBAs and TCGs

Games like League of Legends and Infinity Wars are part of unique genres but they are often grouped under the umbrella of MMOs. They don’t offer instanced dungeons or persistent worlds, but they embody characteristics typical to the genre. Players in trading card games often personify a character, whether it be themselves immersed in the world of the card game or by taking on the role of an avatar inseparable from the game’s world, i.e. Jaina Proudmoore in Hearthstone. And customizing a deck is akin to designing your character. Instead of stats and character traits you design a deck that distinguishes your play style from other players, and your deck evolves as you unlock new cards and become further acquainted with the game’s mechanics.

Many MOBA’s also offer customizable characters through items, skins, and abilities. As well as a leveling system that serves as a sign of one’s skill. But they also feature microtransactions, a typical trait of free-to-play MMO titles, although not exclusive.

About “Massive”

A typical rebuttal is that 5v5 matches are too small for a MOBA to be considered an MMO, not deserving of the term “massive.” But in the context of MOBAs massive isn’t used to describe an individual game between players, but the shared server in which everyone plays, or the environment in which players are grouped together. And with 540,000 concurrent players on average each month, Dota 2 seems to qualify as "massive."

It is difficult to narrow down a strict rule when determining how many players constitute massive. Ten players may not be enough to embody the term but what about 32? Where is the cutoff? If I start with one grain of sand and keep adding one grain every second, at what point does it become a pile? The same issue exists with the terminology. A satisfactory definition of "massive" cannot be exclusively based on the number of players. If players can play a game where each instance of play is potentially  grouped with new players, then enough players exist for the game to be considered massive.

MMO Features But Not An MMO

Many games are beginning to feature MMO characteristics, but they’re not considered MMOs. Grand Theft Auto V’s online play includes microtransactions, levels, and a massive world, but it is not an MMO. The core experience of an MMO is online play, but the online features in games like GTAV are secondary attractions, not the focus of the game’s narrative. Also, the interactions between players are not the driving force behind the online experience of Grand Theft Auto V. It is possible to play the online portion of GTAV without working with other players. Whereas, in order to achieve a win-state in Final Fantasy XIV (in terms of item collection) players must group and coordinate together. And player interaction is a core element of any MMO.

Buy-to-play VS. Free-to-Play

Surveying the landscape of MMOs it's apparent there are two camps. Free-to-play MMOs, abbreviated F2P, offer players content without the need to spend real money on the game. But they feature premium content, that comes in a variety of flavors, and varies from game to game. Numerous F2P titles offer cosmetic items, whereas others offer powerful items that give players an advantage over fellow players. Regardless, premium content must be acquired with an in-game virtual currency, purchased with cash. Or, players may be able to purchase items with currency earned in-game.

On the other hand, pay-to-play games are either purchased for a flat cost, such as The Elder Scrolls Online, or require a monthly subscription to continue playing, such as Dark Age of Camelot. Although the latter seems to be a dying breed, as more developers transition to a flat cost or free-to-play model.

Many new titles are hybrids of both genres, whereby a pay-to-play game may offer premium content such as cosmetics, or a free-to-play title has the option to purchase a monthly subscription for additional perks, such as Skyforge. But free-to-play only refers to games that allow players access to all core content without paying. Games that offer free-to-play elements but require paying to proceed through later game content, like Wizard101, are not truly free-to-play titles. But keep in mind that essential content does not refer to items such as experience boosts or cosmetics.

MMO is still an evolving term that is sure to include new features in the future. Many survival games have are now grouped as MMOs, by offering persistent worlds, microtransactions, a massive amount of players, and a core experience revolving around online play (i.e. Rust). As with any word, the term will change, but the previously listed features are guiding themes to be used when dissecting a particular game.

If I missed any features you think define an MMO, leave a comment below.

From Mega Man II to Ape Escape, I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. I've spent months killing porings in Ragnarok Online and more recently lived a second life in Eve Online. I usually play as gUMBY, gUMBLEoni, or gUMBLes in-game.

  • Deyirn Skysand

    IMO it's the initial feel the game provokes into you once you launch it, if it's a cheap one, it's easy to notice, but only if you have experience with MMOs. If a person's first MMO is a cheap asian knockoff, he will believe that all MMOs are like this and once he experiences a quality MMO, he will be overwhelmed. If it's the other way around and the player's first MMO was something of high quality, he will compare all the rest to his first one and he is most likely to feel jaded about MMOs.

  • A lot of people are sticklers about this term, but people don't seem to realize that language evolves. MMO is a much more broad term today than it was 15 years ago.

    • Doc Holliday

      And if you fail to understand what it actually means and try to make it broad enough to include games like LoL, literally every online multiplayer game ever made becomes an MMO, and you may as well just stop using the term altogether because it means squat. Terms only mean anything when they define something specific.

      • I replied to your previous comment. LoL can be an MMO but online Tetris cannot, because League shares many of the common characteristics of an MMO, while Tetris does not. You could design a version of Tetris that could be considered an MMO though. The problem is you're telling me what you think an MMO should be. We don't dictate what the industry/society consider MMOs. I'm just telling you how it is today, you're telling me how it ought to be.

        • Doc Holliday

          This is the last time I'm gonna bother wasting time saying this, because I've already explained it fully and completely. YOU ARE WRONG. PERIOD. FULL STOP.

          Just because some people lie about their games and gamers are ignorant enough to be confused by those liars, doesn't change what it actually is.

          • Marcelo Monteiro (Lyzern)

            I like your arguments a lot.


        • Tyler Witham

          So Halo 2 was an MMO? How about an online Tetris game? I'm sure I can find one that supports two players. Is that an MMO? You said yourself, player count doesn't matter. Dictionary.com says plainly: massively multiplayer online game: "any online video game in which a player interacts with a large number of other players."

          Now we can argue to define "massive", but I think any rational person would define it as being larger than or on the higher-cusp of multiplayer player populations in a single instance. That would include Planetside, WW2 Online, and Arma. That would not include Battlefield, Dirty Bomb or Dota 2. Why? Because the former games are the absolute peaks of player numbers in a single game. Hundreds, sometimes thousands. The latter max at 64, and some at 32 and even 16. That 64 to 256 jump is a far greater and clearer distinction than a 64 to 16.

          We can also make the distinction between these two sets of games in player interaction. The former has base building, deployment equipment on large scales and tiers of command. Battlefield for instance has some of these, but is a run and gun affair, WW2 and Arma are certainly not and their gameplay is fundamentally different. A Battlefield is far closer in a gameplay-sense to World of Tanks, than it is to an Arma.


      • Volt

        I agree 100%. The term MMO is being applied to often to games that are not massive in sale. It should not be based on an active player base size but on the game design and how many players are supported in the instanced world at a time. As technology improves and the standard for multiplayer games increases from 12 to 20-60 on average with some shooter peeking in the 120 range, to be a MMO the game needs to exceed those numbers as the MASSIVE title indicates. Otherwise it is just a multiplayer game.

        • DocHolliday13

          It's truly amazing how many people can't grasp this. I honestly don't know if it's more pathetic or hysterical the lengths they go to put their ignorance on display and rationalize their stupidity. The designation of "MMO" is simply a description of the scale of multiplayer a game is, nothing more, nothing less. Just because certain genres and subgenres of games tend to be more likely to be made MMO does not make features of those genres features of an MMO. You could make an MMO that is nothing more than running around picking up rocks, or a massive poker tournament. No quests, no levels, no massive open world. Just a massive number of players playing an online game together.

    • Dan X

      Geez you two had some mad discussion lol , I personally can't really choose a side since I get both of you ... but personally the only aspect of mmo to me has to be the ability to interact with other players , without that I can't call it a mmo. But yeah you could argue with how mmo means 1 game where a lot of people are playing at once but that's just my opinion ...

  • Here's a question for you guys, are action RPGs like Diablo 2/3 and Path of Exile MMOs? I've always thought so even as a kid playing Diablo 2. Heck, Diablo 2 was more immersive and the economy more player driven than most persistent worlds we see today...

    • Doc Holliday

      No, they are not.

    • HikuMAtsune

      Coming from a year in the future 😛
      I've always thought.
      Diablos are not.
      Hellgate London isn't
      Basically, Internet optional

      PoE is
      GW1 is
      DDO is
      Hellgate global was
      Internet required (i stuck ddo in there cause technically its lobby based like everything else there)

      is kind of how i define those games. whether they're mmo or not

      • 'Internet Required' is a good rule of thumb, but it can not be a definition of MMO, at least not in 2017. Too many single player games are internet-only these days while too many MMORPGs can (and are) played solely as solo-experiences (the story content in SWTOR/ESO for example) never requires player interaction.

  • Doc Holliday

    What a meaningless, irrelevant, and completely inaccurate article. There are exactly two "features" that qualify a game as an MMO, no more, and no less.

    1. It has to be online
    2. It has to be massiveLY multiplayer. This means a massive number of players have to be able to play the damn game TOGETHER. The ONLY thing up for debate here is how many players it takes to qualify as "massive", but you can be damn sure 5v5 ain't it.

    Everything else you wasted time on in this article is completely, utterly, and in every way, irrelevant. If you could build a Tetris game or a card game where a few thousand players all played in the same game online together, it would be an MMO. Or to be more specific, an online poker game with a thousand people at the same table would qualify. (Wow, what a snore waiting for all 999 other people to place their bets.)

    • I think you missed a few key points. No one aspect makes a game an MMO. It shares certain key characteristics that define the genre, as the author explained.

      You seem stuck on the term "massive". By your arbitrary definition, hub based games like Guild Wars, Dungeon Fighter Online, and Vindictus can't be MMOs either since play outside a few persistent areas are instanced. These games label themselves MMORPGs, are they all wrong too? Oh since they share a hub they count as massively multiplayer? By that logic if a moba shares a big lobby chat, it's massive too.

      So, no - online Tetris would not be an MMO since it doesn't share many of the common characteristics of an MMO. The point is, language evolves - if you want to strictly look at the acronym "massive" is however you define it. MMOs however encompass a much broader genre of games whether you like it or not. I'm not the only one that sees this - many game developers label their games as MMOs even if a single lobby supports 8vs8 gameplay.

      • Doc Holliday

        I didn't miss any key points, as the author didn't make any.

        "By your arbitrary definition"

        It's not MY definition, and it's not arbitrary.

        MMO is an acronym that stands for Massively Multiplayer Online.

        It's not some nebulous buzzword that you can redefine however it suits you.

        Massively is an adjective, that describes the multiplayer. Therefore, through simple logic, we can determine that the multiplayer must be massive for a game to qualify. While it is not possible to put a specific number to "massive", there are some things that are certain: Five-player multiplayer is not massive. Thirty-player multiplayer is not massive.

        Other than the number of players playing the game together, and the Online requirement, there are no "common characteristics" of an MMO. None. Nada. Zilch.

        If you think otherwise, that is a fault in your understanding.

        • Suggesting that multi-billion dollar companies like Nexon/NCSoft are just lying/improperly using the term MMO is ludicrous. There are literally dozens of huge games that don't conform to your definition, but label themselves as MMOs. The author correctly points out what an MMO is today according to society/industry, while you're trying to argue what an MMO should be. You're free to disagree with the way the industry is using the term today, but the reality is what it is. Language evolves and the term MMO isn't the same today as it was 10 years ago.

          • Doc Holliday

            I don't care what they label their games, it doesn't make them MMOs. I'm not "suggesting" that they're lying about the term, I'm flat out stating it.

            The term MMO means exactly what it always has, because it's not merely a term, it's an acronym, composed of words that mean specific things. The definition of those words has not changed, and therefore, neither has the definition of the acronym.

            LOGIC. IT'S HARD.

            But hey, keep on arguing with your dictionary.

          • Sorry to burst your bubble, but words can and do change in meaning over time. The word "Awful" used to mean literally "Full of awe" or "Awe Inspiring", but it means something radically different today. Language isn't static - it evolves. I recommend not getting upset over the evolution of language, especially when you have no control over it. It can't be good for your health.

          • Doc Holliday

            I didn't say that words don't change. I said that the words in the acronym HAVEN'T changed.

            The logic is weak in this one.

          • In this context they did change, which was the whole point of the article. MMOs used to be exclusively games like EverQuest/Ultima Online 10-15 years ago, but they encompass many more games today, whether you pout about it or not. It is what it is.

          • Doc Holliday

            "In this context they did change"

            No they didn't.

            "which was the whole point of the article"

            And the whole article is wrong, as are you.

          • Your ad hominem attacks are childish and only discredit you (I moderated some of them to save you from the embarrassment). You're free to pout and complain about the reality of things all you want, but unfortunately it doesn't make you right. Whether you like it or not plenty of games are MMOs that don't fit your definitions (Dungeon Fighter Online, World of Tanks, Guild Wars, Vindictus, etc).

        • gumby

          While the word "massive" is up for debate you have not presented any guidelines for determining its value. "Massively is an adjective, that describes the multiplayer. Therefore, through simple logic, we can determine that the multiplayer must be massive for a game to qualify." Your logic is circular. I presented an interpretation that avoids reliance on a number, because numerical interpretation is vague and impossible to form a common consensus, running into the grain of sand issue that's typically discussed in any intro to Logic class.

          Two adjectives does not mean there are only two common characteristics to an MMO. Categorical terminology typically encompasses multiple characteristics that are not necessarily shared by members of its set. There is no unchanging axiom that binds MMO to only the words within its acronym .

          There are common traits to MMOs. "None, Nada, zilch" is not a rebuttal.

          I was looking forward to an intelligent debate, not emotionally charged dismissal. The one point you did prove is that the word is undoubtedly contentious.

    • Matt

      I think something we have to keep in mind is that the word "massively" used in the term MMORPG actually is completely meaningless. Someone, somewhere along the line, coined it as a marketing term to try and simultaneously set their game apart and draw users in with promises of playing with that many more players. Prior to MMORPGS were MUDs. Do you notice what's missing from the term "multi-user dungeon" despite having the same level of concurrency and interaction as MMORPGs? That's right, "massively."

      So, while the connotation is changing, as this article is trying to cover, there is no set denotation because, as with many buzzwords throughout gaming history, the word was originally a meaningless ploy to make the game sound more interesting. Wikipedia says that the term was first used by Richard Garriott to describe Ultima Online, which makes sense, largely being regarded as the end of the "graphical MUD" era and the beginning of the MMORPG era.

    • Mr. Yum Yums

      I think that you definition makes more sense (like FPSs and match-based games I don't see as MMOs) but both sides are pretty toxic. The article did not provide much insight as it kind of put games with large playerbases as MMOs, and I don't think that is accurate as there is no such massive scale interaction in such games. I mean, online Tetris all at once multiplayer (somehow) would definitely be an MMO, I don't see the mod's argument. The term *is* thrown around a lot with vague definitions so denotation shouldn't be very solid. I'm not really sure, with online play being so mainstream in so many games today, whether MMO is actually a very useful term to describe a genre.

  • MSC

    We, the community of gamers need to help define this term a bit better. It is turning into a lame catch all tag/description for games that do not fit the mold.

  • Excess Evil

    The genre hasn't changed, the term hasn't changed, it's the people misusing the term.

    The true definition of an MMO or MMORPG is that of a game where hundreds or thousands of players play on the same server in an open world, able to interact with each other and the same objects within the said virtual world.

    LoL has nothing to do with MMO whatsoever, neither does any of the other MOBA type games. The pure term MOBA speaks for itself. MOBA and MMO are two completely different genres all together.

    When you think of an MMORPG, you think, World of Warcraft, at least i do, or Meridian, or AVALON. The latter is a MUD, for those who aren't old enough to remember. Meridian was the first MMO to offer real 3D graphics.

    If you want to write about something, you need to understand what you are writing about. What you've written, is something everyone is well aware of, and it is actually a problem, when someone, such as yourself, post something that agree with the mindset of the clueless people out there that doesn't know the meaning of the term MMO or MMORPG.

    There's nothing Massively about a MOBA. Games such as LoL/HoTS etc are lobby based squad games with a RTS feel in the lines of Warhammer Dawn of War.

    Nothing massive about 8 players playing a game of tag in a top-down view game.

    Some even claimed that Diablo 3 was an MMORPG, but Blizzard actually shut those people down quite fast.

    Some developers have started using the term "MMO" as a sales pitch, which i think is just plain stupid.

    MMO is not defined by how many people play the game at the same time, it is defined by how many players that can interact with each other on the same server, in the same virtual world.

    I read on Steam every single day as well, and the level of stupidity there is off the charts.

    I look up 'MMORPG' and i get freaking CCGs and TCGs and JRPGs and on top of all that, i get RPGmaker titles that are pure single player games..

    As i said, the genre hasn't changed, the term hasn't changed, it's the people misusing the term.

    You're just helping all these clueless people become even more clueless with your lack of knowledge on a very, very, simple subject that everyone understood perfectly fine until 5 years ago. The past two years have seen a climb in the rate at which gamers label every single online game as an MMO or MMORPG.

    • Language evolves. Even developers call their games MMOs even when they don't fit the definition you described. Plenty of Korean lobby based shooters have called themselves MMOs in the past as have countless other games.