['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the mainstream legitimacy, or the lack thereof, seen by the Massive genre.]

Bill Gates at Xbox 1's Times Square Launch.World of Warcraft has sold a kabillion copies. Something like 1% of America is playing it, and pretty much everyone in South Korea. Great news for the Massive industry, and even better for gaming as a whole ... but why are games still not 'legitimate'? Brian "Psychochild" Green had the chance to debate that very question last weekend at the Project Horseshoe event in Texas. His ruminations on the question prompted an interesting discussion on his site, and one of the commenters linked to a fascinating IRC chat log that explores the issue in-depth.

But, to go back to WoW, where does that leave Massive games? Does a machine that makes money hats and a South Park episode make you socially relevant? Today I'm going to talk about why I don't think Massive games are 'legitimate' in America, why that isn't as true in other parts of the world, and a little bit about what I think needs to happen in order for the Massive genre to gain relevance in American society.

Oh My God. You Rezzed Kenny!

Yes, I've seen the South Park episode about World of Warcraft. Yes, I thought it was pretty funny. No, I don't think that means Massive games are 'legitimate'. Actually, as a brief aside, I'm prone to thinking that we're pretty darn close with gaming in general. Even if the now-fading "Greatest Generation" doesn't get gaming, the "Baby Boomers" raised kids right alongside console games. My mom is looking forward to giving the Wii a try, and that has to be a step in the right direction. What my mom couldn't care less about, though, is these 'online thingies'. In fact, when I discuss them with my in-laws, it's a battle just to explain the concept. "You play a game where you kill these orc guys? And it's not just you, it's lots of other people that help you out. It's ... umm ... fun?"

Screenshot from the South Park WoW episode.That, right there, is why MMOGs aren't mainstream. Even the aforementioned WoW episode skirted the very essence of the game. The plot of the episode was about the boys banding together with their friends, and then when that didn't work, coming up with a dumbass plan to make a jerk pay for being a jerk. With the exception of the amazing machinima, it was pretty much a rote episode for South Park. The first 'legitimate' Massively multiplayer game will not have you banding together with your buddies to kill kobolds. Dragon Kill Points will not enter into the equation, and acronyms like LFG, WTB, and STFU will not be the primary form of public discourse. The gap right now is too great between American culture and the culture of the noob-bashing, epic-lusting Bartle-typed ( achiever) MMOG gamer.

StarCraft Battles On TV Sounds Like Heaven To Me

There are countries, however, where this is not the case. I certainly hope that I'm not the first to tell you that South Korea is the promised land for the benighted gamer. A country where StarCraft is a national passtime, pro gamers make millions just from product endorsements, and people are willing to die for their hobby is a lot closer to mainstream MMOGdom than these United States. South Korea is perhaps the culture where this is most prominent, though other Asian nations have similar proclivities. Japan passed a law in 1991 prohibiting games in the Dragon Quest series from being released on a day that wasn't a holiday or weekend. The Chinese gaming market will quickly overtake the U.S., and is projected to be larger than some nation's GDP by 2010.

I'm not a scholar on the cultures of these nations. I'd like to apologize in advance if my analysis of South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese attitudes towards games vs. my own nation's seems grossly out of touch. The best I can come up with is that that, unlike in America, the Asian definition of 'art' is not rooted in the European vision of art as a 'plastic' thing. Additionally, the artistic imagery integrated into many Asian written languages may lend itself to seeing the visually unique more positively. As a result of both of these elements, Asian cultures may have less of a need to see art as something on a canvas or sculpted from marble.

The appreciation in Japanese culture of manga may be a natural outgrowth from this, and may also have added to that nation's wholehearted adoption of gaming and games. Perhaps from a more sociological perspective, the concept of a driving work ethic may have made nations of 'achievers' out of whole populations. The need to work hard at work and work hard at school may extend into pastime situations, where driven individuals enjoy an experience that can be quantified. It's hard to 'win' at knitting, after all, but getting your character to a new level is fairly unambiguous. These are just stabs in the dark, and if you have a better handle on this phenomenon please leave a comment below. I know U.S. culture a lot better than that of these countries.

Screenshot from a pro StarCraft tourney.I can point out some stunning examples of how MMOGs have been accepted in these cultures, though, which leads nicely into how they could work here. The biggest difference in games here vs. games out east is probably content, which I'll touch more on below. For example, in many 'traditional' Massive games in Asia, PvP and not PvE is the focus of the game. There's a reason Lineage is *still* one of the biggest names in the genre. Mostly, though, I believe that Asian cultures can more easily latch on to MMOGs as something other than 'kiddie stuff'.

Bigger than WoW or Lineage is a not-so-little game called Habbo Hotel. Essentially nothing more than a glorified chat room where you can design an avatar and play games, Habbo is enormously popular in Asian countries and is quickly becoming so in the U.S. as well. The size of Habbo's population is mind-boggling, but its popularity is easy to understand: hook people up with other people playing simple games. Make it funny, and make it fun. Not gamey enough for you? How about a Massively Multiplayer Dance Game? Audition offers the two great tastes of rhythm gaming and the Massive genre in one delectable meal. Strange, but, again, very popular.

Next Up On Oprah - Is Timmy A Griefer?

On that note, then, what will it take for MMOGs to gain acceptance in the United States? What will have to be done so that we can see games like Audition succeed here? Some art forms have had a breakthrough moment, where a single work of art or series legitimized the entire form for a certain audience. For the sake of argument I'll assume that here, and break the challenges down into three hurdles.

The first hurdle is the most basic element of all: gameplay. WoW has set the high bar for accessible Massive gaming, but even Blizzard's UI guys are thinking too esoterically for the majority of Americans. I'm going to reach for The Sims now, because Will Wright's genius is never spoken of enough. While The Sims is often lauded for its content, the game's interface is the reason that moms across America got to that content in the first place. The Sims puts it all right out there for you via context-sensitivity. There are no confusing menus, no hidden windows to muss around with. The first legitimate MMOG will not have users hunting around for the 'do stuff' button; everything will be doable just by clicking the mouse on that one guy. The goal here should be to think PopCap games instead of Gears of War.

The second hurdle, then, is content. The first legitimate MMOG (which because I'm lazy I'll now abbreviate to LMMOG) will not have you hunting rats in a sewer for the first ten levels so you can join your friends. In fact, LMMOG probably won't even have levels. Or, if it does, they'll be mostly hidden from the user. What LMMOG will be about is, in fact, going to be people. LMMOG will be like Habbo hotel in its sociability, but a real game attached. Instead of Habbo's disparate mini-games, perhaps LMMOG will be about a collaborate project? Like A Tale In the Desert without the sand, or like Harvey Smith's social justice effort described at GDC 2006's Game Designer challenge.

Unlike the GDC challenge, though, I imagine the LMMOG's collaborative project to be somewhat less socially conscious. Especially if users are allowed to direct some of the projected effort, we could see LMMOG 'raids' to swing an American Idol vote, or perhaps keep a television show on the air. Whatever the content will be, you won't be spending 8 hours in-game to kill a dragon.

WoW Coke CansThat, of course, is the last hurdle: investment. The traditional "MMORPG" which defines the Massive genre is an enormous time sink, one which most Americans simply can't stomach. If it's a good game (and there's no guarantee the first legitimate MMOG will be any good at all) some days you're going to want to play LMMOG for five or six hours, of course. Just the same, for most players two or three hours is all they'll be able to manage. There's also, more directly, the question of in-game and real world money. Monthly subscription fees are already a terrible idea for traditional MMOGs, and by the time LMMOG comes along they'll probably be long gone for orc-killing adventures too. Selling blocks of hours, or a very low hourly rate, will be how LMMOG's designers make their money. Most importantly, there will be a lot of options, for people on every end of the LMMOG spectrum. In-game currency is important to mention, too, because it's going to be a really big deal.

As much as it pains me to say it, the system used by underwhelming virtual world "There" is probably something we'll be seeing a lot of in the future. Microtransactions are already proving themselves on services like Xbox Live, and the idea of paying 50 cents for a new shirt or a buck for a new car is going to be old hat by the time LMMOG comes around. If any single LMMOG gets popular enough, I could even see a future where a kid might find nothing at all under a Christmas tree. He's dejected ... until he finds out that his parents have made him a virtual playboy in LMMOG. Tons of in-world cash (or points, or whatever), new clothes, a new virtual house, etc. In the end, that's another element LMMOG will need to come about: appeal to the consumer's greed instinct.

So, when will Coca-Cola be advertising with World of Warcraft here? Not any time soon, I'd imagine. Just the same, there's plenty of reason to think that someday down the road Massive games will take their place alongside console, offline PC, casual, and mobile titles in the vaunted halls of mainstream society. Today, South Park. Tomorrow, the State of the Union from a virtual world.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]