Do MMOs Have to Be Massive?

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Recently, a new MMO has caught my attention - Sea of Thieves by Rare. It’s a game about adventuring together with friends on a pirate ship in a vast world. The catch is, you won’t encounter many other players while sailing the seas in search for treasure, mainly to help preserve that sense of exploration and discovery. There’s nothing more disheartening than following an old map to a desolate island only to find 50 other crews all digging for the same treasure. That got me thinking - is it still an MMO without many other players sharing the same virtual space?


We all know that MMO stands for Massively Multiplayer Online, with "Massively" usually being the most important aspect of the genre so far. Classic MMOs, like World of Warcraft and Stormfall: Age of War, have millions of players in-game at the same time, occupying the same virtual world. In other words - a massive amount of players are playing together simultaneously. Wherever you go in the game world, you’ll always find other players around you in real-time. But is the number of players all that defines an MMO? Can these games fulfil the “massive” criterion in different ways? Must they even be massive at all?
I believe the word “Massively” doesn’t necessarily apply to the number of players, but also to the size of the world. Any huge world shared by a decent amount of players can be considered an MMO (as long as it’s online, of course). You don’t have to constantly be surrounded by other players to feel like a part of a huge online community. I would argue that the mere possibility of encountering other players is enough to make you feel like you’re in a living world, where other players' actions are just as important or meaningful as your own. Naturally, you still need to have a relatively large number of players in the world at any given time, but what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need to constantly see them to know they are there. 

There’s a recent trend of big online games where you don’t see a lot of players around you at all times. I can point to popular games like Destiny and The Division as good examples of that, though MMO purists might not agree with me on the second one. Heck, there are even some Survival MMOs that let you encounter very few players, but these encounters are so jarring, and so unpredictable, they are more than enough to be significant. These kinds of games prove you can scale down the amount of people each player interacts with, and as long you have a rich world to explore and plenty of content to engage the player with, your MMO will be just fine.

The smallest MMO's 

What about the extremes, then? What if we take "Massively" out of the equation altogether? Well, then I can safely say the game is no longer an MMO. Let’s say you have plenty of players around you, but the game world is confined to a small set of rooms. That’s basically the situation in many competitive multiplayer shooters or MOBAs, and they are definitely not MMOs. On the other end of the spectrum, you have games with huge world, but very few other players to engage with, if any. Well, these are sandbox games, and there are plenty of stellar examples of single-player sandbox experiences.
Bottom line is, you can’t really take the "Massively" part out of an MMO, but you can play with it a bit. You can either have tons of players adventuring together in a large open world, or you can reduce the number of players to just a few groups, and still retain the signature MMO and MMORPG experiences. I don’t think it’s wise to do the same to an MMORTS, since the more enemies and allies you have, the more fun you can have. Nevertheless, I think we establish one important notion: when it comes to an MMO - every letter is important.