Almost Massive: How Destiny and The Division are Changing the Online Future

Kevin VanOrd examines the online concept dominating E3 2013's multiplayer games.

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I've so often heard the phrase "massively multiplayer" used incorrectly in recent years that I've come to ignore the misuse. The MMO moniker has always applied to persistent worlds shared by numerous players occupying the same spaces. Hearing a game like Battlefield 3 or Diablo III referred to as an MMO game makes me cringe, but I've learned to grin and bear my discomfort.

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But it's probably time for me to let go of labels, because a new kind of multiplayer is taking hold, as has become clear at this year's E3: seamless grouping in which individual players move in and out of each other's worlds with ease based on the needs of the level, the mission, or the players. We've seen mechanics like this before in the likes of Fuel, Journey, and other games. But major upcoming games are furthering the concept, with Ubisoft leading the charge with Watch Dogs, The Crew, and Tom Clancy's The Division.

I suspect, however, that Bungie's Destiny is the game most likely to have people's attention at this stage. That game, too, seems to bring people together as needed based on the wants of the party and the size of the encounter. During Sony's press conference, the Destiny demo began as a simple two-person dungeon crawl, first-person shooter style, but as the duo emerged into a gorgeous open environment, a public event began, and other fireteams were integrated into the space. The teams took down a terrifying mechanical monstrosity called a firewalker as a single unit. The specifics of Destiny's multiplayer structure aren't yet fully known, but I suspect that this online game will not be an MMO game as we know it, but one that blends traditional and MMO elements into its own brand of togetherness.

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Heading back to Ubisoft, The Crew immediately grabbed me for mixing Test Drive Unlimited, Fuel, and Burnout Paradise into a special new flavor, characterized by a massive world in which players are brought together based on geography. Ubisoft says The Crew takes place in a persistent world, but again, nothing about the demo led me to believe that the geography is persistent in the way we usually mean it. Thousands of racers would crowd major city streets, colliding willy-nilly in pure chaos. No--this is the thrilling, barely charted territory where single-player, competitive multiplayer, cooperative multiplayer, and persistence merge. You hop about the United States to join your friends in races, but the vehicles you pass on the busy streets might be driven by the artificial intelligence…or by other drivers. Ultimately, the goal is for your crew to establish dominance in major cities across the country, but other crews won't be so willing to let you take over.

Another Ubisoft debut, The Division, proves that one of this year's E3 takeaways is the final breakdown in traditional online genre identification. The demo was structurally similar to the Destiny demo that came later in the day on Sony's stage, with a smaller strike team walking through exterior and interior environments. In The Division's case, however, the world is a near-future, high-tech world rather than an otherworldly science-fiction paradise. More intriguingly, the cooperative portion of the demo transitioned not into a public event, but a player-versus-player firefight. Well, in theory it did, since the demo ended before a PVP battle could begin.

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None of these games are traditional persistent worlds. Instead, they're using both synchronous and asynchronous elements (a little Demon's Souls here, a little Borderlands there, some Phantasy Star Online thrown in, perhaps) to create experiences that we don't yet have a vocabulary for. It seems that we found a solution for console MMO games by creating a genre of its own: the quasi-massive semi-persistent online driving/shooting/role-playing game. I'm sure someone else has already found a more eloquent name for the phenomenon, but we can all probably agree that we'll see more and more of these games, particularly with so many publishers and creators pushing harder for an always-connected future.

What more is to come, then? We have reached the point--and in fact, we've been there for some time--where game developers can bring us together and then separate us with ease, allowing their creations to be as solo-friendly or as massive as they like in turn. The bright side of the always-online services we've grown to fear is that developers have found new ways of being creative with how they connect us. There's no single-player campaign, no multiplayer mode: there's just, simply, a game.

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