Defining the Traditional MMO
The MMOG, or Massive Multiplayer Online Game, is a gaming genre that is both easy and hard to define. We know that it is an online multiplayer game, but there are three defining characteristics that separate the MMO from, for example, an online poker lounge:
- Persistant World, Persistant Characters. This means that the world, and its characters, are not reset when a player logs out. Characters remain advanced as they were left by the player, and the world remains online, available, and "unchanging" whether one player is logged in or five million. By this definition, characters should also have some form of advancement (levels, etc.)
- Community Size. The community – or number of logged in players at any one time – should be "massive." The definition of massive in context, however, is vague. For instance, MMORPG.com defines it as the ability to support "at least 500 congruent users on a single server."
- Community Interaction. The community of the game should be able to interact via more than a chat room or lobby. There should be a way for player characters to interact with each other; otherwise this detracts from the multiplayer interactivity of the game.
Do Facebook games meet any of these requirements? And if so, how do they differ from more traditional MMOGs?
Most Facebook games clearly have understood the persistent worlds requirement. Consider the following examples:
In Pet Society, a player’s character (a pet) will lose cleanliness, happiness, and while their player is away. Gifts and messages will also arrive while the player is offline, and be waiting for the player when they log in.
- Fish World, in which a player tends fish in aquariums to then sell, will build algae and fish hunger while a player is gone – the fish also grow. It also goes so far as to kill the fish (leaving them floating upside down in the tank) if a player has not logged in to sell them.
- Zynga’s YoVille allows players to decorate their own apartment, and other players can visit this apartment whether the player is offline or online.
These games also have a leveling component. While some games offer leveling via experience via various in game missions or actions, many also offer experience and leveling via interacting with friends in game. These levels are persistent and permanent, although some games allow for character resets.
Consider this: Zynga’s FarmVille has 11 million active players every day, adding on average 1 million new users a week from June to August, 2009. Playfish’s Pet Society has a daily 12 million active players. Meanwhile, World of Warcraft boasts 11.5 million accounts worldwide – and that figure doesn’t measure how many players are active on a daily basis.
That’s right: Facebook games are on par with the subscriber numbers for World of Warcraft.
In fact, most Facebook games boast at least 500 players, often within the first day of launch. Facebook games are often spread virally; players are encouraged constantly to invite their friends, often for in game benefits. These benefits include a stronger character, a "crew," being able to share gifts between friends, and being able to earn extra experience or coin via visiting their friends. Some players encourage others to install the application just so they can get these benefits, regardless of whether the friend decides to play the game themselves.
Where Facebook games tend to steer away from the traditional MMOG model is in character interactivity. Most games – with the exception of a few, such as YoVille and FarmTown – don’t have any way for players to directly interact within the game while online. Instead, most games offer the following methods of interacting with other players:
Sending gifts.This is the number one way of game interaction with other players. Facebook friends can send each other gifts that are useable in game, whether it’s decorations for their personal space, or useable items that can make their journey in game easier, such as items that restore health or energy. These requests are sent to the user whether they are offline or online, and can be accepted on an individual basis at the player’s own time.
- Visiting a friend’s "space." Many applications also utilize this option, where a player visit’s a friend’s space, whether it be a farm, aquarium, apartment, house, or so on. The friend will not be present, even if online, but the player can still view their saved area, and often interact with it to gain experience, money, or just to leave a note.
- Chat lobbies. These are most often used in games with limited player interaction, like slot or card games, and allow players to chat with any player currently playing the game, even if they are not Facebook friends.
Are Facebook Games MMOGs?
As the examples above show, there are a few Facebook games which clearly qualify as MMOGs using the three characteristics we’ve defined. Most games, however, lack a form of traditional community interaction. It’s not clear whether these games don’t offer this kind of personal interaction because of difficulties or costs in being able to host multiple online characters in a single space, or whether they simply don’t see a need to break the "instancing" of player worlds.
However, the fact that players can interact with each other – to a mutual benefit – does indicate a stretch beyond simply a multiplayer online game, even if that interaction is different than what traditional MMO gamers expect. Either the industry must adapt the definition of an MMO, becoming more accepting of games played on social networks, or we must find a new definition of games like these that seem right between the definition of online multiplayer games and MMOGs.