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What Is a Massively Multiplayer Game?

An MMG is simply a computer game that is played over the Internet with many other people at once. There are many different styles of MMGs, but they share some common characteristics:

  • The player is represented within the game world, usually as an avatar or character defined by the player. The type of character is defined by the game's world; if the game world is set in Medieval Europe, the player's character may be a knight, a priest, or a wizard. If the game is set in a futuristic setting, the player's character might be a soldier in power armor or a merchant in a suit and tie.
  • The "story" of an MMG is usually that of your character's growth. Over a period of months, or sometimes years, your character will become steadily more powerful, from a new arrival to a mighty force within the game world able to defeat any challenge.
  • MMGs usually (although not always) have some conflict or contest at their core. The players seek to fight in a colossal war among themselves, or seek to defeat monsters and seize their treasure.
  • MMGs almost always have a monthly fee, charged by the company that runs the game. This allows the company that runs the game to pay for the game's Internet usage, server hosting, and frequent updates, known as patches, that often change the game's world dramatically.
  • MMGs run continuously, whether or not you are playing. If you have set up a storefront within the game, people will browse your virtual wares while you may be off doing other things.
  • MMGs usually don't have a clear goal. They are what you make of them; if you want to just log in once in a while to visit, or devote a significant amount of time to mastering the game world, the game will happily accommodate you.
  • MMGs never end. You will never see a "victory screen" or a "game over" message like in other computer games. The longest-running MMGs have been played for almost ten years now. If you tire of a game, you can take a month or a year off and your character will be right where you left it.

The most popular MMGs are fantasy worlds based loosely on paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Players assume the roles of heroes and, through the course of the game, gain levels, or ranks of power that allow them to face greater challenges and obtain greater rewards the longer they journey through the game. Other games allow you to fight other players in large-scale battles, or put together online shops that allow you to sell things to other players in-game.

The view from a typical MMG is similar to that in many online games, such as Doom or Half-Life. You are in a three-dimensional space, and objects such as trees and buildings are represented much as if you were looking into a world from your screen. Your character is unseen; the view you see on-screen is the view from your character's perspective. If your character begins walking in any given direction, the view changes to represent your character moving through the game world. A window near the bottom of the screen has important messages from the game world, such as what other characters around you might be saying. Other games might depict other characters' speech as comic-book style bubbles over their heads. Clicking on an object or another player with your mouse "selects" it, and may provide information about what you've selected in a window.

The things you'll need to play

MMGs have some basic requirements to start playing:

  • A computer: Although some MMGs now are playable via consoles (most notably Final Fantasy XI from Square Enix, which is playable on the PlayStation 2 and soon on the Xbox 360), generally playing an MMG on a console is more expensive due to the console's unique requirements (such as add-on hard drives or keyboards). The great majority of MMGs are played using Windows PCs. Two popular MMGs, World of Warcraft and Shadowbane, are also available for both Windows PCs and Macintosh computers.
  • A 3D accelerator video card: With the exception of a few older games (such as Ultima Online), MMGs require a reasonably fast 3D video card to display the game's 3D environments. Again, the best card on the market isn't necessary, but the better the card you have, the better the game will look. Newer games, such as EverQuest II, can be very demanding on your hardware and look their best only on the newest 3D video cards.
  • An Internet connection: Although a broadband Internet connection (such as cable or DSL) isn't required for most MMGs, it's definitely recommended, because a dialup Internet connection causes your gameplay to slow down dramatically when many people are on-screen. Due to the frequent delay of information from satellite to computer, a satellite Internet connection is not recommended for use with MMGs. The delay makes MMGs (or any other online game) unplayable.

"Wait a minute! I have to pay money? I already BOUGHT the game!"

One thing that surprises most new MMG players is that they have to pay for an account before even starting to play. Almost every MMG has a monthly fee associated with it, usually around $15.00.

Guild Wars, from ArenaNet and NCsoft, is currently the lone exception to this rule. Although you won't pay a monthly fee to play Guild Wars, the developers plan on selling expansion packs separately to add more content to the game. Still, if you really don't want to pay a monthly fee for an MMG, this is definitely a viable option.

You might think paying a monthly fee is somewhat odd — after all, you already paid for the game at the store. However, MMGs have a good deal more support available than other computer games. Unlike most games, a development team continues working on the game even after it's been released to the stores. This team, usually called the live team (so called because it's formed after the game goes "live"), is responsible for keeping the game updated, free of bugs and exploits (cheats, in other words), and every so often adding new content to the game.

MMGs also have a full complement of online Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) or Game Masters (GMs) who are on-call within the game to help with problems that might occur. Finally, there's the fact that running an MMG costs a good deal of money. MMG servers tend to be among the most demanding client/server applications on the market today, and MMG development companies learn quickly how to handle the demands of thousands of players logging into a game at once.

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