Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are online games with large numbers of players, typically from hundreds to thousands of concurrent players, often on the same server. These game types feature huge, persistent worlds, also known as "open" worlds, as the player is generally allowed to go in any direction they wish, regardless of the direction they are given, and the world varies based on the game. These games often include virtual in-game currencies that allow players to purchase items in the game. They feature complex social arrangements, which, depending on the game, can include guilds, tribes, or teams. To facilitate collaborative play, they include various tools, such as live-audio feeds or online chats.
MMOs require an internet or network connection, meaning for a long period they could only be played on computers. As game consoles began to include internet connections, MMOs have extended to consoles. And as mobile phones have increased in complexity, mobile-based MMOs have also increased in popularity. These games are further characterized by emphasizing multiplayer gameplay, with very few having any significant single-player aspect or client-side artificial intelligence. Because of this, many MMOs are not "beatable" in the way many single-player games are, but rather evolve and provide different tools and aspects through development and expansion games to keep players interested.
Although MMOs are considered, in themselves, a genre of video games, the MMO is better understood as a different way of playing a game. Rather than playing a single-player, non-connected game, which could have a multiplayer of up to fifty players (often connnected over local area networks [LAN]), MMOs offer similar game genres in an MMO's style. Meaning, instead of a role-playing game (RPG) in which the player interacts with artificially intelligent non-player characters (NPCs), while playing an MMO RPG, they interact mostly with other players and the necessary NPCs, such as vendors or quest-givers, to complete the experience. Other types of MMOs include the following:
- MMO Role Playing Games (MMORPG)
- MMO Battle Arena (MMOBA)
- MMO Real Time Strategy Games (MMORTS)
- MMO First Person Shooter Games (MMOFPS)
- MMO Sports Games
- MMO Racing Games
- MMO Social Games
- MMO Puzzle Games
- MMO Alternate Reality Games
- MMO Turn-based Strategy Games
- MMO Simulation Games
The strong social aspect of MMOs suggests they can be a kind of social media or online communication tool. Often players form friendships, create communities, and work together to accomplish a variety of communal and solo goals. This suggests that players can learn lessons in MMOs around effective and efficient communication, team building, and leadership skills, which can be transferred to real-world scenarios. Studies conducted into the possible positive effects of MMOs, particularly in light of the dearth of positive research around video games, found a significant positive relationship between playing MMOs on social well-being, irrespective of the player's age or gaming patterns, such as casusal gaming patterns versus immersed gaming patterns.
Behind an MMO, there is a lot at work. The game itself is hosted on one or more cloud data centers, which can be located around the world. When a player connects, they access the closest data center to them, which works to improve their game experience by offering the lowest ping, or fastest response time. When connecting, they go through a firewall designed to monitor and control user traffic, defending the cloud data center from threats and thwarting illegal access. Gaming traffic moves through a load balancer, which determines where the player resides, to ensure the consistent performance of a game for all players.
Once connected, gamers log in through a login server on which they can access their account and any saved game progress and player stats. MMOs often use game servers where the game instance is played, usually with more computing power than other servers in a data center and capable of accessing the non-changing world data from a static web server and real-time data from a dynamic web server. These databases store information—everything from players' login data, loot, health, and latest progress. Data are fed to the game server, which will determine outcomes and rankings. Often a final piece of these infrastructures is a payment server protected by several firewalls, for secure payment of initial game access and in-game purchases.
Game developers rarely care about cheating in a single-player game because the actions of the cheater do not affect anyone except the game experience of the cheater. However, in MMOs, cheating can be a problem, as they often have competitive scenarios in which cheating can give the player a competitive advantage and ruin the game experience for other players. One of the first ways for developers to deal with the problem of cheating is to never trust the player. This is made easier when the game takes place in a central server under the developers' control, creating an authoritative server that gives the server full authority over the gameplay.
The authoritative server is not a perfect solution, but it can prevent a wide range of cheating, such as a local copy of the value that tells the player it has 1000 percent health, while the server knows it has 10 percent, and the player will die when attacked regardless of what the client may think. Third-party, anti-cheat software options can be required for players or entire game types. However, these can slow down gameplay and have been criticized by players.
Before MMOs, there were multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. During the 1970s, these were fairly primitive text-based games that offered multiplayer play and ran on early internet servers. Most MUDs were role-playing games with mechanics similar to the popular tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. As noted above, these early games ran on personal computers with internet access. Even as the MMOs became more sophisticated, it would take ready internet access for game consoles and mobile phones before they would create new areas for game developers to develop MMOs.
Launched in 1997, this game is considered the grandfather of modern MMOs, being one of the first 3D MMOs that went beyond the text-based MUDs. The game became a popular success, allowing players to play different classes, including warriors, thieves, and merchants. The game inspired a sense of community without the tools that have become ubiquitous to allow players to communicate. However, players could steal, cheat, and kill each other, and over time, reputations were formed in the game that resulted in heroes, villains, and everyone caught in between.
Launched in 1999 by John Smedly, EverQuest was inspired by the earlier MUDs and used 3D graphics to bring the game's fantasy world of Norrath to life. Though the game had modest expectations, it became the most popular MMO of the decade and would go on to release twenty-two expansion packs. The game features sixteen different races and classes and allows players to be anything from frog necromancers to ogre shamans. Many of the ideas of the game would become archetypes of the genre, such as teaming up with friends to raid dungeons and kill bosses.
EverQuest is a difficult and obtuse game that requires the player's patience and persistence. Little is explained, and death means losing valuable equipment and experience points. However, this atmosphere motivates people to invest in the exploration of Norrath. Some have suggested EverQuest was the game to popularize grinding (the act of repeatedly killing monsters for experience points). At the time, grinding seemed exciting and required players to play with others to kill monsters and level-up their characters. This was the only method to level-up a character, and through collaborative play, EverQuest has inspired relationships developed by players growing and surviving together.
Before Anarchy Online, most MMOs followed the successes and were developed around fantasy worlds. Instead of a fantasy world, Norwegian studio Funcom placed their game on the distant planet of Rubi-Ka, full of megacorporations and separatists that fought for control of the planet's resources, exchanging magic and swords for nanotech and guns. Besides the thematic changes, Anarchy Online has also offered some technical innovations. Instead of the quests being rigid, they feature a dynamic system allowing players to tailor combat encounters based on their needs. These quests also popularized "instancing," which segregates a group of players to their own isolated version of a zone. Instancing is used often in modern MMOs.
Launched in 2001, Dark Age of Camelot took the act of killing present in other MMOs to a new level. This changed the short-sighted killing for stuff into killing that became a contest between players, including teamwork, strategy, and glory for the winners. This inspired all-out war through a structured form of player combat known as "realm versus realm." The game laid the groundwork for new kinds of player vs player (PVP) gameplay. In the game, three factions battle for control of various zones, establishing outposts that would have to be protected from opposing forces.
At the time of its release, the player-driven battles were new and unparalleled in scope, creating drama from the conflict themselves. Besides the new type of combat, Dark Age of Camelot also featured forty-seven different classes, each unique to a faction that drew from Arthurian lore. Each class was designed to excel in a specific role and depended on others to offset its weakness, which created a game in which the players meshing their classes together well created strength. This format would be repeated in later MMOs.
Launched in 2002, Final Fantasy XI became one of the first MMOs of the franchise, which expanded on the character classes by offering a nuanced and robust system offering players a new job system and Final Fantasy classes, such as White Mages, Dark Knights, and Dragoons. In the game, a player chooses one of the twenty-two jobs, a primary class, and a secondary job, which grants the player access to half of the job's spells, creating a deal of diversity and enabling the use of specific game mechanics.
However, players can make bad class combinations, which require a player to restart; but the game allows the player to do so without losing the progress on their previous jobs. Restarting while keeping progress has been a mechanic that has not been repeated in other MMOs of the same style, which often require a player to create a new character, start at the beginning, and repeat many of the same quests.
EVE Online is an MMO launched in 2003 that some feel could have a few more elements stolen it. It offers a space-faring sandbox, which acts as a social experiment. EVE Online encourages players to make their own objectives and tell their own stories. Often, this would result in a chronicle of war and violence. The game is anchored in a player-driven economy, with a diverse ecosystem of industrialists, merchants, criminals, and soldiers coexisting. However, beyond the safety of high-security space, the game became a massive ecosystem of player alliances moving the weight of actual nations, and when the alliances clash, they create momentous conflicts. Though the game is intimidating, it allows a new player to rise through the ranks and gain respect and fame through playing.
Launched in 2002, Second Life asks the question—if a player could live their life without limits, how would they live it? Often, almost entirely, the game allows players to explore sexual subcultures. The game had none of the progression or development of other MMOs. Instead, players can engage in their fantasy of living a different life. Since there is no objective, the game gives players tools to create their own fun, which, for the majority of players, is exploring a side of their sexuality that would be impossible in real life. This MMO is different because rather than asking its players to participate in a fantasy, Second Life allows players to bend the MMO to bend to their imagination.
No other MMO has had the level of success or impact as World of Warcraft, which was developed by Blizzard Entertainment. It has presented a pop culture phenomenon as much as an MMO videogame. The game was released in 2004 and was successful enough to transform the genre, steering it away from innovation and largely towards imitation, in hopes of recreating the success of the game. If Blizzard was capable of turning the RTS game into a successful MMO, then developers figured they could take other game properties and do the same.
However, Blizzard put two decades of innovation into a single game. And while other MMOs were better at specific game assets, such as PVP, none had as strong a whole package as World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft also made the genre accessible by removing many of the barriers and difficulties of earlier MMOs, giving players a start where they could quickly go through a couple of dungeons and feel as if they could accomplish something. The start would be criticized for removing the sense of tension earlier MMOs had but remained successful because of its ability to ease players into the game.
One of the more popular and enduring MMOs, Minecraft was first made public in 2009 before it was fully launched in 2011. The game was different than other games, requiring players to gather resources to build structures while also being a survival game. Players progress through the game through an achievement system, and they have to survive hostile mobs and other dangers while exploring the vast world and its dangers. The resources a player collects allow them to craft new materials and help them survive longer.
Minecraft was also an MMO that began as a small indie game, and it would go on to become one of the biggest games in the world. It has been played at a similar or greater level of popularity as World of Warcraft and has shown that MMOs can go in many different genres and places.
The Elder Scrolls Online was launched in 2014 as an attempt to unite game fans from the Elder Scrolls universe (Skyrim) and MMOs. It was not popular upon release, with many feeling like it was unfinished. It offers a flexible class system, and quests were hampered by technical issues and a narrow storyline, which funneled players to locations rather than encouraging exploration. However, fundamental changes were made to the game, the subscription model was removed, and the endgame was redesigned to offer more diverse activities, while further updates removed level restrictions, offering a more open-world feel to the game. Following this were more expansions that added new ideas, such as thieving, and it would become one of the most robust MMOs.
Launched in 2017, Fornite was another MMO to find the pop culture ubiquity and success of World of Warcraft and Minecraft. This game built on the more modest success of an earlier MMO battle royale game, PUBG, but it eschewed the more realistic and grounded art style of PUBG in favor of a more cartoonish art style with more cartoonish violence that made the game more accessible to players of all age ranges. Fortnite also introduced the concept of game seasons and Battle Passes for each season, offering players an assortment of in-game cosmetics and emotes, which makes the game a lot of its money. Players who have purchased a Battle Pass earn V-Bucks, an in-game currency that can be put towards the purchase of next season's Battle Pass.
Much of the success of the game has been its availability. It can be played on a computer, game consoles, and mobile phones. This brought more players into the Fornite world. Further, the game developers change the game map between seasons, change weapons used in the games, and make tweaks to various locations over time. This has brought players back as the changing world and refreshes the game. Companies have also launched new merchandise, trailers, and sneak-peaks in Fornite, and virtual concerts have been held in the game as well.
Other games that have reached around thousands, or in some case millions, of concurrent players at one point in their history, and have in one or more cases defined the development of MMOs, include the following:
- Club Penguin
- DC Universe Online
- Final Fantasy XIV
- Star Wars: The Old Republic
- The Sims Online
- World of Tanks
- World War II Online
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