I’ve been studying and playing massively multiplayer online (MMO) games for years now and the most fun element of all of them is having and seeing in-universe human cohabitation in that virtual world. In fact, this is the particular definition that separates an MMO from something that’s just massive and multiplayer. This E3, Sony, Microsoft, and Ubisoft appear to be trying to change that definition by tweaking it just slightly.

I’ve heard more than once the marketing buzz “blurring the line between singleplayer and multiplayer” and while this isn’t satisfying, it’s a fair definition of what’s been presented.

I see it splitting into two different facets: one that attempts to draw more players into the game who otherwise couldn’t interact–such as the use of tablets with Microsoft’s SmartGlass–and that of allowing small-multiplayer games (masquerading as singleplayer in their own instances) mix together with other multiplayer instances. In the MMO world we’ve seen games appear that certainly have persistent worlds, but when it comes down to the game there’s a lot of single-person story going on, the so-called “massively singleplayer” effect.

As consoles, and players, get more and more connected people are going to seek out other people to experience content with and enhance their gameplay.

Joining in when you’re not “there”

Virtual worlds provide an interesting effect in that they’re “joinable” in a way that the real world is not. When you or I walk into a night club or a cafe, we must enter with my own body. I litereally walk through that door and interact with the people beyond. My identity, or who I am, includes my physical body and all the baggage that carries with it–virtual worlds eschew this problem and who I am is less connected to where I am. Much of the rest remains intact.

For video games the “who I am” that is presented to other players, as an identity, is a virtual avatar–a symbolic representation of the person, a virtual soldier, a pixelated silhouette, etc.–and for game purposes that soldier often is a soldier, especially if we’re playing a game about a post apocalyptic US like Tom Clancy’s The Division.

What we saw during the E3 demo of this game was a team of players in full-on soldier avatars fighting it out in an urban landscape with guns versus badguys. Each of them was “there” in the critical sense of having a full persona in the game, virtual bodies under threat from virtual bullets. And then the extraordinary thing happens: a friend logs into the game from a tablet. Instead of joining as another soldier, he joined as a little quadcopter drone.

Using a tablet, he lacked the rendering capability and the sheer speed to keep up with framerate and abilities of a normal player, so he gets a drone instead of a soldier. However, due to being a drone not only is he not out of the fight: he’s taken on an alternative role. In the demo, the drone player plays recon, calls out enemy movement, and even paints a target for the other players to take out.

That’s not all.

During the Xbox One demonstration of Call of Duty: Ghosts, a player with a tablet or smartphone was given commander capabilities and the ability to assist with calling in an airstrike for comrades. Not the sort of “in the fight” support that we saw in The Division, but even in this extremely limited role it’s another way for a player to join in even if she isn’t “there.”

Mixing the single player and the mutliplayer: where worlds collide

In the MMO world there’s been a lot of attempts to produce something more compelling for players than World of Warcraft–a game produced by Blizzard that has yet to be toppled as one of the most immersive massively multiplayer experiences ever produced. It’s ripe to be toppled too, WoW has updated and upgraded for years to stay ahead of the curve but it’s still an old “feeling” game–although it clings persistently to its well earned crown.

Compared to the PC, MMOs have not grown well on the console, they exist but they are few. The best ones are games such as DC Universe Online and Final Fantasy XI for the US and in Japan MMORPGs in general rank very highly on the Xbox 360. On the PC market, MMOs tend to grow like weeds.

Amid displays at E3, demos of games such as Sundown Overdrive and The Crew suggest that games that run simple multiplayer are working their way into persistent worlds that allow many people to play many games in the same space. Or, it could be some other mechanic that’s been played out this sense of blurring the line between singleplayer and multiplayer that works by merging instances of the world rather than providing a single (or even sharded) persistent virtual world.

Tom Clancy’s The Division shows this at the very end (after the whole tablet-drone thing) when the 3 person squad finishes a short mission at a police station and head out back for extraction. However, extraction isn’t as smooth as they’d hope and another team finds them causing the game to throw them together against another squad. Now, either The Division is a true MMO and these people were in the world to begin with–or the two instances of the world merged when the two teams came into proximity, allowing them to engage in player-vs-player combat.

The same is visible in the demo for Bungie’s Destiny. In that demonstration we saw players gather together into a small 2 (eventually 3) person fire team and run through a short mission; but the real fun began after they’d passed through some combat and some ruins to find a vast ship flying overhead in the big wide, world.

Once the ship became visible a notice appeared that a world event was occurring and one of the team members mentioned that another fire team had joined (and a third would join later.) While it appears that fire teams work alone in the open world, instanced away from everyone else, when a world event occurs those instances collide and fire teams find each other. Otherwise they never see each other out there in the world–even if ten or ten-thousand fire teams are running through the same content.

With this, Destiny can gain the advantage of an MMO enabling large group fights against superior enemies, all the while still providing the atmosphere of a world that has very few people in it.

Blurring the line and making the grade for a new type of social gaming

The interaction between these new mutliplayer to mutli-mutliplayer and allowing players to join without being “there” adds a variation we haven’t seen before in gaming culture.

Having singleplayer mixing fluently with multiplayer will make games that are traditionally a solo experience open up new possibilities using the new social paradigm. The tablet/device addition will give players who cannot be “there” a chance to join in and assist their friends (and support them) even from on the bus or at work, and that might even increase camaraderie between gamers and keep the games relevant longer.

As these designs unfold we’ll know more. Right now these demonstrations and the press from these companies can only lead us to guess how these quasi-MMO games function and how that design will affect gamer culture and the market in the future.

[Cross-posted from SiliconANGLE.com, “A New Era of Multiplayer Gaming As Seen at E3 2013” by Kyt Dotson]