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Why World of Tanks Shouldn't Have Won the Golden Joystick for Best MMO

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Games development studios seem to covet the Massively Multiplayer label, but what is the true definition of an MMO?

Nailing down a solid definition of a Massively Multiplayer Online game is surprisingly tricky. I'd not given the concept a moment's thought until I read that World of Tanks had won the Best MMO Award at the Golden Joysticks.

Without doubt World of Tanks is an outstanding game worthy of recognition and it is certainly an online game. But massively multiplayer? Thirty random players repeatedly fighting in teams of strangers for ten minutes is stretching the definition, surely?

Battlefield 3, which scooped the Best Shooter award, boasts 64 players per match. So according to the Golden Joystick definition, that's more of an MMO than World of Tanks by a factor of two (and a bit). Why were the two games not competing for the same awards? Really, they should both fall under the Shooter category, with the only real difference being aesthetic – in one the player is represented by a tank, in the other a soldier (who sometimes gets in a tank). This doesn't seem very consistent.

The continuation of this logic would mean that any game with large player support and even the vaguest online multiplayer element (and these days, few games ship without some kind of multiplayer mode) could potentially qualify as massively multiplayer. For example, Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers only allows four-player online games but is played by hundreds of thousands. So does that make it an MMO too?

Narrowing the Field

According to Wikipedia, an MMO is a “multiplayer video game which is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously.” Whilst this statement is open to interpretation, the essence of the definition is clear. In my opinion, supporting “hundreds or thousands of players” in a pre-match lobby environment doesn't qualify unless those same hundreds or thousands can all interact in the same active game environment at the same time. Parcelling them off into small groups to take part in closed matches instantly removes the massively element of the MMO label.

It's not simply a numbers game either. There's little sense in drawing a line in the sand and claiming that any game that provides an environment in which X number of players can interact qualifies as an MMO. The massively concept equally applies to the environment as much as to the number of players. Closed maps and time-limited matches surely negate the principles of the massively label. There needs to be a degree of persistence and a massive world environment. Wikipedia's definition states that an MMO should "feature at least one persistent world".

Granted, technological limitations present a development barrier to providing truly singular persistent environments, with common workarounds for this being dividing worlds into zones or repeating identical versions of the game environment on multiple shards. Although not perfect, this still provides massive gaming spaces for those “hundreds or thousands” of players and goes some way toward Wikipedia's MMO definition of enabling players to “cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale, and sometimes to interact meaningfully with people around the world.” The key phrase is “large scale”. Aside from meaning 'very heavy', the Oxford Dictionary definition of massively is “exceptionally large, substantial, impressive”.  

When Could a Shooter Qualify?

Gaming environments which provide a wider backdrop and meaning to the outcome of small-scale player engagements as found in World of Tanks and other shooters could provide strong arguments for qualification as MMOs, the upcoming Planetside 2 and DUST 514 being perfect examples. If every battle between small groups of players affected a grander campaign map in some persistent way, then certainly that could be seen as a massive concept.

But to claim that a pick-up-and-play shooter is an MMO renders the whole definition meaningless. As much as I love World of Tanks, winning the Golden Joystick for Best MMO makes as much sense as giving Star Wars an Academy Award for Best Period Drama.

Published Nov. 9th 2012
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