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Think Big. Move Fast.

We are continuing to see plenty of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) and Virtual World startups. GigaOM recently listed the ten most popular MMOs (abridged description excerpted here – click through to the original for the full text):

1. World of Warcraft, released 2004 – 8.5 million subscribers.
2. Habbo Hotel, released 2000 – 7.5 million active users.
3. RuneScape, released 2001 – 5 million active users.
4. Club Penguin, released 2006 – 4 million active users.
5. Webkinz, released 2005 – 3.8 million active users.
6. Gaia Online, released 2003 – 2 million active users.
7. Guild Wars, released 2005 – 2 million active users.
8. Puzzle Pirates, released 2003 – 1.5 million active users
9. Lineage I/II, released 1998 – 1 million subscribers.
10. Second Life, released 2003 – 500,000 active users.

Of these ten, five are MMORPGs (WoW, Runescape, GuildWars, Puzzle Pirates and Lineage) and five are virtual worlds. The two types are discussed together so much that the lines are starting to blur. But I think that there is some value to clarifying the distinction

Virtual worlds are primarily about social activities. But this doesn’t distinguish them from MMORPGs. There is plenty of purely social activity going on in the MMORPGs as well. Indeed, for some players, MMORPGs (Bartle‘s “socializers”) are PRIMARILY about social activity.

What makes an MMORPG a game is something else. Wikipedia quotes several definitions of a game (italics mine):

* “An interactive, goal-oriented activity, active agents to play against, which any player (including active agents) could interfere one another, and which is designed to make money for the creator.” (Chris Crawford)
* “A form of play with goals and structure.” (Kevin Maroney)
* “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” (Greg Costikyan)
* “An activity with some rules engaged in for an outcome.” (Eric Zimmerman)

Crawford in his book Chris Crawford on Game Design says that a goal is what distinguishes a game from a toy. Games have a purpose. To borrow the title from Rick Warren’s best selling book, an MMORPG is a purpose driven (virtual) life.

In stark contrast, the virtual world Second Life is explicitly not a game, and explicitly does set goals for its users.

To push the metaphor a little further, Warren’s Christian “anti-self help” book tells its readers that they were put on earth to fulfill five purposes as defined by God. Similarly, a game player is placed into the game’s virtual world to fulfill purposes that are defined by the game designer. This can take all sorts of forms, from leveling up to achieving certain defined quests. But they are all defined and pre-ordained by the game designer, and I think that may be what distinguishes a virtual world from an MMORPG.

Is this just semantics, or are there differences in the way users behave in MMORPGs and virtual worlds? I’d like to hear what readers think, and will give some of my opinions in a later post