Back in high school, one of my crazier teachers once posed the class a philosophical question: What is the difference between a chair and a stool? "What kind of philosophical question is that?" we responded as one. "A chair has a back, and a stool doesn't." Aha, said my teacher, but what if I took a stool and added a one-inch back? Would it be a chair then? What about two inches? Can you give me a concrete point at which a stool becomes a chair?
In that vein ... when does an Multiplayer Online Game become a Massively Multiplayer one? That depends on the measure of an MMORPG: What sets it apart from its non-Massive brethren? Well, that could be a column in and of itself, but for convenience's sake, let's use the Wikipedia definition: "MMORPGs are distinguished from single-player or small multi-player RPGs by the number of players, and by the game's persistent world, usually hosted by the game's publisher, which continues to exist and evolve while the player is away from the game."
The more I look at this definition, the more I think that Cryptic's Champions Online is a major step towards blurring or abolishing these lines - in fact, the game is barely an MMOG. Oh sure, Champions definitely has the trappings of an MMOG: You create a character, do quests, get experience to level up, and collect phat lewt. However, when you look at it in the context of the above definition, it doesn't quite fit the bill - and the reason for this lies entirely on how the game splits up the playerbase.
Let's rewind a bit to see why. Back in the days of yore, when the first MMOGs started popping up, hardware and bandwidth limitations resulted in the concept of a "sharded" universe. A sharded world would be exactly what it says on the tin: A playerbase divided into server "shards," with a smaller population to play with. Your servers might not be able to handle all 5,000 players at once, but if you made ten shards with 500 apiece, that was much more reasonable.
This is the model that almost all MMOGs have used since then, because it makes sense. Not only does sharding your world make it significantly easier to cram a population of several hundred thousand into virtual real estate the size of Central Park, and lighten the load on your servers, but it also helps foster a sense of community. "Oh hey, you play on the server Skull Throne? I have an alt character there - I'll send you a /tell next time I'm leveling him up!" You make friends and enemies simply by existing in your little shard of Norrath or Britannia, or wherever you are.
Champions, on the other hand, doesn't do that. In fact, the entire game is actually instanced - when you move from zone to zone, it gives you a pick of "Millennium City #49" or "Crisis in Canada #14." You can see how many players are in each little instance, and you can choose whether or not you want to join a zone packed full of hustle and bustle, or want to go someplace more sparse where you'll have less competition for quests.