In the video gaming vernacular, MMO is an acronym that stands for Massively Multiplayer Online and typically refers to the type of games that are designed for online play. In fact, MMOs make up the most popular genre of the modern gaming era, considering that most of the games that are released nowadays have online play capabilities.

In this article, we’ll discuss MMOs as a gaming genre, what it really is, its history and community, and what you need to play these games.

What is an MMO Game?

MMO games, often abbreviated as MMOGs, are online video games played by a large number of players, typically counting hundreds or thousands, on the same gaming server. It’s worth noting that some games feature several gaming servers to simultaneously accommodate millions of players at the same time.

More interestingly, though, some MMOs feature cross-server, or cross-realm play and progression, which effectively means that you’re sharing an in-game world with millions of other players across the globe. In most cases, this in-game world is a massive, persistent open world, although there are games that offer maps, like battle royal first-person shooters — a massively popular genre that we’ll mention later on.

For now, it’s worth mentioning that MMOs enable gamers to either cooperate or compete against each other on both small and large scales. They often allow people to interact with others around the world, sometimes even meaningfully, acting as social networks where both professional and casual gamers can socialize while performing their favorite activities.

So, even if this is the first time you’re encountering the term “MMO,” you’ve probably played or at least heard of an MMO game. Some of these include the insanely popular Fortnite, Minecraft, World of Warcraft — which is soon celebrating its 18th birthday — FarmVille, and plenty of other titles that fall under the MMO banner.

The Characteristics of MMOs

Most games nowadays feature complex multiplayer components that are used by millions of gamers worldwide, so, by definition, nearly all modern games can be considered MMOs. However, to truly be classified as an MMO, the game must have a persistent in-game world that resides on a remote server.

Gamers connect to these servers, usually those nearest to them, to minimize connection lag, allowing them to interact with other gamers in real-time. So, even when an individual player shuts down the game or disconnects, the game and its in-game world keep running indefinitely. This means that MMOs can’t be paused as regular games, and they never end — though some have massive story modes that can be completed.

In fact, World of Warcraft —probably the world’s largest and most recognizable MMO — has eight live expansions and more than 24,000 quests. Admittedly, not all of those quests are part of the game’s main narrative. This means that it would take an average gamer nearly seven years to complete all quests, assuming that they complete ten quests per day.

Most MMO video games have virtual economies, and in more massive gaming experiences, these economies may differ on a server-to-server basis, which only attests to the complexity of the overall MMO system. Players usually exchange virtual currency for in-game items, though there are systems in which you can exchange real money for in-game currency or items as well.

The History of MMOs

Some of the earliest forms of this popular class of games were known as MUDs, or multi-user dungeon games, which were first developed in the 70s. These primitive, often text-based multiplayer games ran on early internet servers and mainframe computers, such as DECsystem-10. Despite predating the commercial gaming industry and the internet by a decade, these games laid the foundation for modern MMOs, using the same elements widely used by MMOs today.

The first graphical MMO game was the 1988’s multiplayer flight combat simulator Air Warrior, which was later equipped with 3D graphics, making it the very first 3D MMO. However, these haven’t caught the attention of the vast gaming community because of their steep price of $10 per hour of gameplay. Additionally, the game was produced for Macintosh and Atari personal computers, which were soon superseded by Microsoft Windows PCs.

During this time, the MUD gaming community continued to flourish on university campuses, with gameplay mechanics that are similar to tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons. So, it’s not actually surprising that the first widespread commercially-available MMOs were also RPGs.

In fact, if you were to search “top MMO games” or “best MMO games,” nearly all top-10 search results are MMORPGs. Commercial MMORPGs gained worldwide acceptance in the early 90s, when Kesmai, the same company that made Air Warrior, made 1991’s Neverwinter Nights — the first graphical MMORPG that debuted on AOL.

Subsequent releases, like The Realm Online and Meridian 59 — the first 3D MMORPG — further popularized the MMO game class, which was, at the time, synonymous with the MMORPG genre. The further technological developments allowed game developers to increase the initial simultaneous player count from approx. 64-256 to 500 players by 1995, and by the year 2000, the most prominent MMORPGs were serving thousands of simultaneous players.

And though video game developers had previously applied MMO ideas to other video game releases, it was the growing popularity of MMORPGs that eventually gave rise to other MMO genres, including MMORTS, or massively multiplayer online real-time strategy games. Other gaming genres, like first-person shooters or match-based RPGs, also implemented multiplayer components into their gameplay.

However, first-person shooter games don’t typically feature a persistent in-game world, and despite having a massive player base, they aren’t really considered MMOs. Most of the genre had turned to the Battle Royale genre, which combines team-based online multiplayer or last-man-standing gameplay. These include titles like Fortnite, PUBG, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty.

The same can be said for RTS titles. Some developers mixed RTS and RPG elements to create a MOBA — standing for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena — subgenre, in which two teams of players compete against each other on a predefined in-game battlefield. These also lack a persistent in-game world, which makes them non-MMO multiplayer games.

Types of MMOs

As a class of video games, MMOs encompass several different gaming genres, so below are some of the most prominent types of MMOs.

Man playing video games MMOs on computer gaming
There are many different types of MMOs, as this type of game just refers to massively multiplayer games played on the same server.

Role-Playing

As stated above, the vast majority of MMO games are MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Most prominent commercial MMORPGs are designed as large-scale games with an overwhelming amount of content that offers diversified gameplay. Smaller MMORPGs are mostly focused on casual gameplay and community building.

It’s important to note that MMORPGs are some of the hardest games to make. Suppose the studio is making an MMORPG game that features both the first- and third-person modes, has archery as one of the weapon choices, and allows players to traverse the map using a flying mount. So, basically, the studio is creating a first-person shooter, a third-person adventure, and a racing game all in one. It’s no wonder the failure rate of MMORPGs is so high.

First-Person Shooter

Though first-person shooters like Call of Duty: Warzone, Apex Legends, and Battlefield V are played online by millions, they’re not considered MMOGs. Due to their team vs. team mechanics and the non-persistence of their in-game world, these games are defined as Battle Royale games instead of MMOFPS.

With that said, between 2001 and 2013, with the rise of the MMO class, some developers tried developing MMOFPS games. The list of these games is rather short and counts 11 games that are classified as MMOs. Unfortunately, these never caught the attention of the masses, and out of 11, only three have remained operational, with dwindling communities.

The 2012’s PlanetSide 2 was the largest and arguably most successful MMOFPS to date and currently holds the Guinness World Record for biggest FPS battle, where 1,283 players decided to settle their interpersonal conflict and severe lack of diplomatic solutions in a storm of bullets.

Real-Time Strategy

MMORTS combine the real-time strategy elements with the persistent in-game universe, in which the players always assume the role of a leading figure commanding an army into combat and conquest while gathering the necessary resources for such conflict.

These games often take place in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, and they’re distinguished from the small-scale and single-player RTS games by their large player base and frequent use of persistent worlds, which are typically hosted by the game’s publisher, and continue to develop and evolve even when the player is offline.

Turn-Based Strategy

MMOTBS are basically turn-based strategy games that include a timeframe system during which all participating players issue commands. All orders are processed, and the battles are resolved at the same time during one tick — which can vary in length from 30 seconds up to 24 hours.

Simulations

Some MMO games are designed to accurately simulate the real world. They tend to be very industry-specific, but most of them are actually focused on racing and other sports.

Casual

Casual MMOs are a sub-category of the MMO game class, as they can encompass all the previously mentioned gaming genres, with a strong focus on the social aspect of gaming and very little competitiveness — for the most part, since some are combat oriented.

What You Need to Play MMO Games

All you need to play MMO games is a reliable internet connection, and most developers advise a broadband internet connection. There’s also a matter of whether the game is free to play or if it requires a monthly subscription. Lastly, there’s the hardware issue, which mostly depends on the game you’d like to play. The MMO mobile game market is currently under massive expansion, and if that’s your jam, all you need is a smartphone or a handheld console.

Console MMOs saw a massive rise in popularity since 2006, with the rise of the seventh generation of consoles, but most have made a massive shift towards Battle Royale games. When it comes to PC, things are a bit blurry. MMOs, especially MMORPGs, are massive games that don’t typically require the latest and fastest gaming hardware.

Games with massive amounts of content usually trade off with subpar aesthetics to keep the hardware requirements within reasonable limits. For example, the current version of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands requires approximately 100GB of storage space, but its graphics aren’t something to write home about.

Admittedly, its developer could update the graphics, but it would probably double the storage space requirements and increase the minimum hardware requirements, preventing a large number of players from accessing the game. That would mean fewer subscriptions and less profit for the development company.

Fun Facts

  • MMOs draw their roots from 70s multi-user games.
  • The gamers’ jargon originated in MMOs.
  • Many celebrities, including Mila Kunis, Jessica Simpson, Cameron Diaz, Henry Cavill, and Vin Diesel (to name just a few), love playing MMOs.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve never played an MMO before, now is a great time to get started. In fact, there are thousands of friendly gaming communities within the game that are open and welcoming to new players, and more than willing to help them with their gaming journey!

What Does MMO Stand for? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What MMO has the largest map?

Minecraft easily tops the list with a total surface area of almost 4 billion sq. km.

How long does it take to make an MMORPG?

MMORPGs typically take 2 to 4 years to develop. The vast majority of MMORPGs will fail and therefore represent a risky financial investment.

How do MMO games work?

Most MMORPGs are deployed using a client-server system architecture. The server software generates a persistent instance of the virtual world that runs continuously, and players connect to it via client software.

What is the purpose of an MMO?

Entertainment! Most MMOs provide immersive narratives paired with a character progression system, in which gamers build up their characters in terms of experience, abilities, and wealth.

Is Minecraft an MMO?

Yes, Minecraft is an MMO. In fact, the game features the largest in-game world among MMOs.

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