What’s an MMO? Our take

As the video games market evolves, how industry terms are defined has become increasingly controversial. A couple of terms, namely, free-to-play and MMO are continuously redefined as they are applied to a growing list of games and can mean different things to different people. To clarify what we mean by any given term, we include a list of definitions in every report and our entire terminology is available here. However, in an effort to be as transparent as possible, we felt it was important to also explain how and why we define these terms the way we do and provide our criteria for other relevant terms.

What makes a game an MMO?

Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games are titles with a shared persistent or instance-based world where players can interact in real time. However, as the space has developed, MMOs have adopted a series of common characteristics, like virtual currency markets and character customization, which are now staples of the category. Naturally, not every MMO will have every one of these features. Instead, we label a game an MMO depending on how many of these markers it has and how central they are to the game’s experience.

Hearthstone and League of Legends are MMOs.

Yes, we know neither allows you to join a ten-person raiding party, but let us explain. Trading Card Games (TCGs) or Collective Card Games (CCGs) are their own unique genre, which is we often analyze them individually. However, we also sometimes group them with MMOs. That is because in many ways, TCGs are precursors to MMOs, with a similar player base and many common themes. For example, players in TCGs often represent a character (Planeswalker, Pokemon Trainer, etc.). This means customizing a card deck is really customizing your character. Moreover, as TCGs transition into the digital space, many have adopted the trappings of free-to-play MMOs.

Likewise, MOBAs share a similar audience and feel, complete with customizable characters and microtransactions. A common critique is that the 4v4 style of play in League of Legends is not exactly “massive. ” However, the term refers to the number of players in one server or in a shared environment, not the individual lobby.

Why is Grand Theft Auto: Online not an MMO?

Action-adventure games like GTA: Online and Assassin’s Creed have begun to incorporate MMO-like features, including online gameplay and microtransactions. These changes could arguably place them in the MMO category, but there are a couple of differences. First, the online mode is an addition to an existing game, often separate from the main story. Second, although online play allows you to interact with others, it is not essential to the core experience. By contrast, MMOs are primarily online and how players interact is at the heart of the game.

Pay-to-play, free-to-play and everything in between.

Free-to-play (F2P) or “freemium” games, can be played free of charge but offer paid premium content. What that premium content is and what it costs varies from game to game, but the content must be acquired with virtual currency that is either purchased or earned through gameplay. On the other hand, pay-to-play (P2P) games are either purchased upfront or require a fixed paid subscription. While many games are clearly one or the other, the success of free-to-play games has prompted games to experiment with their monetization, creating hybrids of the existing options. Some hybrids can resemble both, but we only refer to a game as free-to-play as long as ALL essential content can acquired without paying. This means that games like Lord of the Rings: Online, which offer a free version but require a paid subscription to unlock further levels, are ultimately still pay-to-play. Non-essential content means cosmetic items that do not affect gameplay.