Bless Online – #Hype or /Ignore

Bless Online is the next big MMORPG we’re getting our hands on. The May 2018 Early Access date is quickly approaching, resulting in the plethora of MMO souls clamoring for more information. Is Bless Online worthy of a hype hashtag or will this be another game to safely ignore? No doubt fanbois and detractors will be at odds from now until the game’s final server closure. For the average Joe though, this is what’s worth looking forward to and what’s worth worrying over.

bless online bloody screenshot

#Hype

B2P

This happy medium bridges the gap between F2P and subscription and has turned out financial successes for Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars 2, and Black Desert Online. Regardless of what’s best for players, I do think this is the best model for Bless Online’s continued success. More revenue for the publisher and developer should translate to more content for players. Theoretically, it also means less scummy or spammy revenue generation tactics. Ideally, B2P results in fewer bots too. That’s been rather insignificant in my experience though.

No Loot Boxes

In an interview with MMORPG.com, the developers of Bless explicitly stated there would be no loot boxes. There will be the standard fare selection of goodies such as cosmetics, advancement boosts, and mounts but nothing that’s currently on the commonly accepted MMO no-no list. Of course whether or not they stay more pure or descend into Black Desert’s P2W practices remains to be seen.

Fresh Combat System

bless online old combat

Truth be told, we don’t know exactly what Bless Online combat will look like when Early Access launches on Steam. The developers are really pushing a narrative of a full rework for the game so we can only guess what that will entail. Currently, it plays like something akin to the combination of Guild Wars 2, Revelation Online, and Black Desert Online. It’s action oriented but with tab targeting. It also feels clunky with limited build options, so I imagine that’s what they’re targeting to “fix” rather than radically alter core gameplay mechanics. For example, there’s a combo system in Bless Online but it feels about as interesting as a standard ability rotation in World of Warcraft. If active tab targeting is something you’re interested in right now, I’d recommend trying out Revelation Online to see if it’s worth getting hyped over. Revelation handles “classic” tab targeting combat exceptionally well.

Horizontal Endgame

At level cap, Bless alters progression from a strong vertical experience to horizontal advancement. Guild Wars 2 manages this fairly well, but I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. My hope is that Bless Online’s endgame will reward players who see the value in switching builds depending on the situation (a big deal for its PvP centric gameplay). This does mean the development team has to be on the ball with balance changes, and that’s not particularly easy even for seasoned veterans like Blizzard. I love this idea in theory, and greatly prefer horizontal progression to never-ending item level progression.

Unique Racial Storylines

Apparently each of the game’s seven races will tell their own unique story. This reminds me of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s approach to storytelling. Reports from players on the Russia and Korean servers tell of a diverse questing system with a passable story. Whether this will translate well depends on localization efforts, but Bless Online seems to be going the distance by implementing full voiceovers. Good stories can go a long way for MMORPGs so if Bless Online succeeds here, they will be one of the few.

Party Buffs

hyped for bless online group buffs

Tyler Bro and I tend place different values on solo player MMOs vs. group MMOs. While we see the merits of each side, there’s no denying the industry has catered more towards solo players lately. Bless Online seeks to change that with their party buffs. Depending on the makeup of a party, leaders can select one combat and one non-combat affect to apply to all party members. Whether these buffs will actually encourage group play in any meaningful way remains to be seen.

/Ignore

Not F2P

The merits of B2P are clear, but there’s a serious problem with the model. With so many substitutes in the space, it can be challenging to convince friends to pay for and pick up yet another “MMO with potential”. My general preference now is something akin to Guild Wars 2 – a limited free experience and introduction to the game with enough gameplay to get players hooked.

Pay to Carebear

If you want to avoid PvP at max level, you are going to have to pony up regularly for a cash shop item. I doubt it will be too expensive, but it’s a noteworthy additional cost. Additionally, the game will clearly be designed with PvP in mind so PvE players may find content updates more lacking than something like the well-balanced Guild Wars 2.

Two Faction PvP

Bless Online is pushing a heavy PvP narrative, promising 100vs100 battles. That sounds great with the exception of no MMORPG has ever balanced a two faction system, which Bless will be using. Inevitably one side pulls ahead on a server and draws players who crave to winning. Games like Aion that have rewarded players on the “losing side” still haven’t succeeded in a truly balanced experience. I’d argue Dark Age of Camelot during its peak has offered the best massive scale PvP, and it did so primarily because with three factions, two of them can also gang up on one if the one pulls too far head.

Current State

The biggest concern is that we’re hinging a lot of hype on Bless Online’s ability to radically alter their combat system. As I mentioned above, combat right now is not a strength of the game. Fighting enemies feels rote and mundane. While quests offer diversity more than most F2P MMORPGs, they still lag behind immersive offerings such as Elder Scrolls Online and World of Warcraft. Bless Online did post about key changes last Tuesday, but the new dynamic combat system is suspiciously sparse. The The lack of concrete gameplay videos showing these massive overhauls with a month left to go should be concerning to anyone that’s followed an upcoming MMORPG before.

My recommendation is to avoid the hype trap but continue following the game. Bless Online could develop into a worthwhile experience, possibly even as soon as the Early Access launch. It’s just that MMORPGs are notorious for missing the mark, especially at launch.


Black Desert Online: When Pay for Convenience is Pay to Win

I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.

black desert online cash shop

BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”

The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.

Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.

This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.

black desert online pets

Pets – the most important investment in BDO

There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.

The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.

But hey, this is just convenience, right?


Should MMOs Encourage Altitis?

fry mmo alts

Fry doesn’t know what to do, and very often I don’t either. Altitis is a very “real” illness that affects millions of MMO players worldwide. Urban Dictionary defines altitis as a “mental disease of making too many alternate characters.” The good news is that it is treatable. The bad news is that only the disease’s very creators have that power.

It’s easy to understand how altitis has become so common place in our world. New characters mean new classes mean new abilities mean new experiences mean…well, this could go on for a while. Altitis generally develops naturally, but some MMOs provide boons for splitting time between characters. Features like rest XP and limited respecs contribute to this international phenomenon.

Those who suffer from altitis report the inability to stay logged into a single character for more than two hours. The greatest victims are unable to ever reach max level. For them, there is no endgame. There is only new game. How will they ever see the glory of raiding when stuck on an endless loop of starter quests? Some developers even take advantage of the infected, limiting free character slots and selling them for a premium.

There are MMO developers who have decided to fight back though. They seek to attach players to the life of a single character. Final Fantasy XIV is one such bastion of hope in the field to cure humans of altitis. In an effort to curtail this epidemic, Square Enix’s MMORPG lets players level any class on a single character. Is this right? Or does it go against the natural order of MMOs? On a deeper level, we must ask: is altitis a blessing or a curse? Perhaps this disease is actually a strength hidden in plain sight.

Developers Should Encourage Altitis

There is a school of thought that increasing alternate character density will serve to enhance the quantity and quality of gameplay. The logic goes something like this – if playing through the game once is fun, playing through ten times is ten times the fun. And it’s not the same game because players are experiencing everything from a set of fresh eyes.

Even if exploring a world for the second or tenth time isn’t as fun as the first, it allows players to combine the homey feeling of an MMORPG with the discovery bug of a new game. In games with multiple factions like World of Warcraft or EverQuest, playing a new character really can feel like experiencing a new game. This leads to a train of thought that many consider but rarely actually discuss.

wow alts

MMORPGs would be better if people focused more on the journey than the destination. There’s such a huge focus on leveling up and gaining more power in MMORPGs that actually playing the game can turn into a secondary activity. Are gamers really more interested in a high item level score than actual, sheer enjoyment? I’m sure some are, but deep down are you one of those people?

Altitis reinforces the idea that we’re here to experience the game here and now, not look at the results of our merits in a trophy case. I would be willing to bet most of your fondest MMO-related memories involve other players. A properly executed alt-heavy world would largely focus on the journey over destination by prioritizing socialization features. Because the leveling process is largely more dynamic than farming raids, it opens the doors to a wider array of people to meet. Perhaps this is something the upcoming Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen will truly embrace this rather old school concept.

Developers Should Discourage Altitis

Justin from Bio Break brings up multiple good points in discussing how World of Warcraft Legion broke his altitis that had so deeply ingrained itself during Warlords of Dreanor. And all of these points directly relate to the negatives of the mental disease. Time has been and will always be a major factor for fully experiencing MMORPGs. You can’t progress without at least some trace amount of it, and maintaining even a single alt can effectively put an end to meaningfully progressing a main character.

While leveling up new characters can be fun with all the new abilities and a fresh play style, poorly structured progression can devolve into a chore. Completing the same quests in the same order is not a fun activity for most people. Games with a smaller world or limited leveling options fit better in an alt free world.

While many like to complain about the present state of MMOs, the fact is we have plenty of good MMO offerings. It’s entirely plausible and more importantly, enjoyable, to call multiple virtual worlds home. We may not normally designate characters in these other universes as alts but perhaps we should. Progression is the core mechanic of MMOs and any time spent on a new character takes away time from the others. This is true whether or not that character is a part of the same game world.

Eschewing the benefits of why developers might support alts frees up time to work on content elsewhere – namely the endgame. I’ve said some negative things about it, but the fact is that progression is an MMORPG’s biggest draw. Ditching fifty quests to spice up alt-driven replay could be spent on new abilities for existing characters to toy with. Discouraging altitis means freeing up resources for more novel content, even if the quantity of content is higher with alt-driven gameplay.

Altitis and You

No one can tell you how to deal with altitis. This is a very personal decision that one should discuss with friends, family, and an MMO professional. For those suffering, definitely don’t look at this list of MMO games. It would be a really bad idea. No! Wait!

It’s too late. We’ve lost another.


The Statistically Most Casual Multiplayer Genres

“You filthy casual.”

“No, you.”

Common, pointless banter between gamers who prefer different genres. But really, who is the most casual and most hardcore about their gaming? It’s time for another research post to find out.

Today, I’m asking “out of the active player base, how frequently do the players actually play the game?” This is a PC only test because Steam Spy and Steam Charts makes gathering data easy, but console numbers likely follow suit.

Boring Sciencey Stuff

Skip to the next section if you just want to see the results.

Methodology: For each genre, select 3 popular games, limited to titles at least one month old if possible (to limit newness/hype influencing results). I’ll use Steam Spy to determine active number of players (calculated by those who have played the game in the last 2 weeks). Then I’ll divide the average number of players in the past 30 days on Steam Charts by the active player count to determine the game’s play rate. This ratio will be assessed alongside average and median playtimes on Steam Spy to determine which genre’s playerbases play the most/least frequently.

Flaws: Comparing average player count over 30 days to active players over 2 weeks will produce higher ratios for newer games. Major updates will skew numbers.  As a solution to these two flaws, I’ll take the median results for each genre to assess dedication level. Free to play games may also exhibit different behavior compared to paid games. For the most part, each genre trends towards a certain pricing model. However, I will break down analysis further by payment type when appropriate (i.e. paid MMOs vs. free MMOs).

Many multiplayer games also include single player modes. I will only include games for analysis where I believe the vast majority of active players play multiplayer (hence why there are no turn based strategy games listed). Finally, some of the most popular games are not on Steam (Blizzard games, League of Legends, Fortnite, etc.) and thus will not be counted. Nothing I can do about that!

Now, onto the results.

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Play Rate

Play rate percentage in parentheses next to genre, determined by median play rate from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (8.22%)
  2. Open World Survival (7.71%)
  3. Paid Team FPS (3.62%)
  4. Free MMORPG (3.57%)
  5. MOBA (3.19%)
  6. RTS (2.71%)
  7. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (2.66%)
  8. Card Games (2.64%)
  9. Fighting Games (2.18%)
  10. Free Team FPS (1.74%)

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Average Playtime

Average playtime in parentheses next to genre, determined by median average playtime from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (24:17)
  2. Open World Survival (16:42)
  3. MOBA (13:40)
  4. Free MMORPG (13:17)
  5. Paid Team FPS (12:02)
  6. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (9:37)
  7. Card Games (9:14)
  8. RTS (7:35)
  9. Fighting Games (6:54)
  10. Free Team FPS (5:58)

Fun Numbers Stuff

Bolded games represent the median play rate within the genre (and usually the average and median playtime as well).

csgo casual or dedicated game?

Paid Team FPS

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege – 83,035 average players / 2,080,536 active players = 3.99% play rate. 13:38 average playtime. 6:17 median playtime.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – 353,874 average players / 9,768,034 active players = 3.62% play rate. 12:02 average playtime. 4:24 median playtime.

Call of Duty: WWII – 5,113 average players / 172,488 active players =  2.96% play rate. 8:35 average playtime. 2:06 median playtime.

Free Team FPS

Team Fortress 2 – 35,949 average players / 1,317,755 active players = 2.72% play rate. 10:12 average playtime. 2:57 median playtime.

Paladins – 15,128 average players / 868,464 active players = 1.74% play rate. 5:58 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Warface – 3,700 average players / 229,437 active players = 1.61% play rate. 5:17 average playtime. 1:06 median playtime.

war thunder casual or dedicated game?

Free Vehicle Combat Shooters

Crossout – 3,674 average players / 145,657 active players = 2.52% play rate. 7:36 average playtime. 1:12 median playtime.

War Thunder – 12,966 average players / 487,348 active players = 2.66% play rate. 9:37 average playtime. 2:35 median playtime.

World of Tanks – 8,612 average players / 251,340 active players = 3.42% play rate. 11:34 average playtime. 2:55 median playtime.

Open World Survival

ARK: Survival Evolved – 39,088 average players / 507,608 active players = 7.7% play rate. 20:59 average playtime. 5:38 median playtime.

Dark and Light – 676 average players / 8,761 active players = 7.71% play rate. 16:13 average playtime. 2:41 median playtime.

Rust – 29,188 average players / 534,166 active players = 5.46% play rate. 16:42 average playtime. 4:14 median playtime.

Paid MMORPG

Elder Scrolls Online – 9,434 average players / 202,331 active players = 4.66% play rate. 14:50 average playtime. 3:21 median playtime.

Project: Gorgon – 199 average players / 2,418 active players = 8.22% play rate. 24:17 average playtime. 36:17 median playtime.

Final Fantasy XIV – 7,437 average players / 59,686 active players = 12.46% play rate. 42:01 average playtime. 20:14 median playtime.

neverwinter casual or dedicated game?

Free MMORPG

Warframe – 47,354 average players / 1,017,133 active players = 4.65% play rate. 17:14 average playtime. 4:18 median playtime.

Neverwinter – 2,724 average players / 76,114 active players = 3.57% play rate. 12:33 average playtime. 2:47 median playtime.

TERA – 1,742 average players / 56,401 active players =  3.08% play rate. 13:17 average playtime. 2:10 median playtime.

MOBA

DOTA 2 – 435,488 average players / 8,281,350 active players = 5.25% play rate. 17:55 average playtime. 8:59 median playtime.

Smite – 8,703 average players / 272,696 active players = 3.19% play rate. 13:40 average playtime. 3:24 median playtime.

Battlerite – 6,320 average players / 548,951 active players = 1.15% play rate. 4:45 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Fighting Games

Dragon Ball FighterZ- 2,752 average players / 119,920 active players = 2.29% play rate. 6:08 average playtime. 2:31 median playtime.

Street Fighter V – 1,251 average players / 57,222 active players = 2.18% play rate. 7:44 average playtime. 2:18 median playtime.

Tekken 7 – 1,994 average players /  102,398 active players = 1.94% play rate. 6:54 average playtime. 2:20 median playtime.

RTS

Company of Heroes 2 – 4,569 average players / 151,680 active players = 3.01% play rate. 7:57 average playtime. 2:38 median playtime.

Age of Empires II: HD Edition – 9,692 average players / 357,571 active players = 2.71% play rate. 7:35 average playtime. 2:30 median playtime.

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War – Soulstorm – 563 average players / 30,665 active players = 1.8% play rate. 5:21 average playtime. 1:42 median playtime.

Card Games (CCGs)

Duelyst – 163 average players / 10,404 active players = 1.56% play rate. 3:09 average playtime. 1:57 median playtime.

Shadowverse – 3,011 average players / 113,897 active players = 2.64% play rate. 9:14 average playtime. 2:02 median playtime.

Eternal Card Game – 1,083 average players / 30,391 active players = 3.56% play rate. 11:26 average playtime. 7:05 median playtime.

Random Notes

You might notice popular genres like Battle Royale and ARPGs excluded. Research showed that a lot of ARPG players play solo, and I can’t separate out the numbers. Battle Royale is basically PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS and Fortnite, and I have no data on the latter.

Dealing with paid MMORPGs is a pain. There aren’t that many of them anymore, especially when limited to Steam. Final Fantasy XIV’s higher play rate isn’t surprising since it’s a subscription service, not just buy to play. But even then, Black Desert Online actually had a higher play rate (around 13%) due to all of the AFK players. The AFK nature of that game rendered any analysis pointless. Thus I included Project: Gorgon instead even though it released just 3 weeks ago and on Early Access at that.

Analysis & Conclusion

MMORPGs reign supreme among the most dedicated, hardcore gamers. That’s not too surprising given how many genres have taken from what originated first in MMORPGs in order to hook players’ attentions for longer. Open world survival games and MOBAs join both paid and free MMOs as boasting the longest average playtimes. Open world survival games are essentially MMOs with a bunch of private servers so it’s understandable that their numbers are very similar. The progression in MOBAs is MMORPG-like so their ranking also feels logical.

Perhaps the most interesting note for MOBAs is that longer matches equates to longer average playtimes equates to higher play rates. While match times are fairly similar for other genres, there is a big disparity in MOBAs. Battlerite is a fast game, but it appears more people would rather play a longer DOTA 2 match than 3-4 short Battlerite matches. Additionally, Project: Gorgon and Final Fantasy XIV are more old school – requiring more time to get anything done. Their play rates and playtimes are both fairly healthy. Perhaps being able to login for a quick 10 minute activity isn’t best for a game’s optimal health?

long dota 2 match

On that note, the correlation between average playtime and play rate is fairly high. Designing gameplay around longer play sessions apparently pulls active players in more frequently. However, it could easily be counter-argued that casual length playtimes will draw in more active players total. So while a game like DOTA 2 may keep the active players around more successfully than Battlerite, Battlerite’s player count is probably boosted because it can more easily be played as a “side game”.

Games that are typically played 1v1 such as CCGs, RTS, and Fighters rank lower on the dedicated scale. The question is whether these genres attract players who seek one-and-done play sessions or that longer play sessions result from friends also playing (“Hey dude, just one more game/quest/etc?”) Perhaps the competitive nature of these genres brings people in as much as it repels them? Without teammates to blame, average playtime could certainly falter.

Card games are the key genre to look for in analyzing how 1v1 games affects player activity. This is the only genre that combines MMO-style progression (new cards, booster packs, p2w microtransactions) with duel-centric gameplay. I think it’s fair to surmise that due to card games ranking below RTS in player dedication that the 1v1 gameplay is a bigger factor than progression.

This leads me to my final conclusion – the number of simultaneous interactions and depth of those interactions are the biggest indicator of a genre’s ability to maintain active players. MMORPGs and survival MMOs dominate the charts and offer players the ability to interact freely and with dozens or hundreds of players at once. Meanwhile, CCGs and Fighters practically cut off communication between players. While developers fear toxic players and gamers certainly dislike them, maybe the potentially good interactions are worth the risk after all?

 


Why We Love Doing Dumb Things in MMOs

Kill ten rats, craft a linen hat and sharpen spearheads (0/20). Wow, cool stuff, let’s login to the game right away! …right?

If you look closely, a lot of things to do in MMOs are super dull. Nobody in their right mind will claim that sharpening spearheads or doing dailies are the most thrilling activities a game has to offer. Sometimes it feels like I’m working rather than gaming. Why then do we do these things, and heck, why might we even enjoy doing them?

The Demand for Dumb Things

Even though excitement sells games, I would argue that there is a certain demand for doing dumb things in MMOs. Being deeply involved with something exciting is fun, but taxing. This is something I can relate to from personal experience.

Doing challenging content is one of the reasons I’m drawn to the MMO genre. I raid two days a week, so I would not call myself a typical casual gamer.

However, most weekdays I don’t get to login until 9 o’clock in the evening. After a long day at work, I don’t have much energy left. My head hurts when I hear other peoples’ voices and I lack the brain power required to focus on what’s happening around my characters and what skills I need to use. On such evenings, I like to login to the Elder Scrolls Online and do the crafting dailies on all my characters. Dumb, menial solo tasks are the perfect thing to relax.

Crafting dailies in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

Others might not even enjoy challenging content when they are rested. Who am I to argue?

My point is: there is a market for dull MMO content. This doesn’t completely answer the question, though. Because why would I do dumb things in MMO games when I could be binge watching my favorite TV series? This brings us to a second incentive to do mundane tasks: the reward.

Positive, Immediate and Certain Rewards

The best dumb things to do have a predictable, reliable reward. In management and behavioral science this is referred to as positive, immediate, certain (PIC). Game developers that want to encourage behavior (in this case, have customers play the game), will have the most success when the behavior is met with positive (you get a nice thing), immediate (you get the thing as soon as you’ve done the task) and certain (every time you complete the task, you get the thing) consequences. Sounds familiar? Indeed, I basically just described the pillar stone mechanic of every MMO: the quest.

But this is not all: a positive relationship exists between behavior and the frequency of PIC consequences. Basically, the more regular the reward, the more likely we are to execute the desired behavior. This makes dailies such an effective tool for getting gamers to login and play. Considering PIC strategies are a big thing in management science as well, perhaps we should not be surprised that the lines between gaming and work begin to blur.

Achievements as a Way to Cope

In-game rewards are not the only driving force behind gaming as if it’s work: the reality is more complex. Let’s look at a gamer type that spends particularly much time doing things that resemble work: the achievement hunter.

The main goal of the achievement hunter is to complete everything there is to do. In-game rewards matter less. Sure, the achievements that offer exclusive rewards are a nice bonus, but what matters is to do them all.

MMOs generally come with a helpful list of all achievements that are tracked as the player progresses. The entire content of a game is basically summarized in one big to do list. And this is interesting, because to do lists are also a huge management tool in – you’ve guessed it – business environments. So why do achievement hunters like to do lists so much, even if it’s reminiscent of working?

The achievement tracker in Guild Wars 2 (GW2)

In an interview with the Guardian, psychologist Dr David Cohen mentions three reasons we love to work on lists:

  • They dampen anxiety about the chaos of life
  • They provide with a plan to stick to
  • They are proof of what we have achieved

The first stands out to me. Are to do lists a way of coping with the overwhelming amount of content that MMOs these days offer? Game system upon game system, mechanic upon mechanic are piled up as MMOs keep adding things to present their players with something new. New players have so many things to take in that a first reaction might be to panic and log off. I know I have felt that way on more than one occasion. Working towards completing achievements brings structure, offers boundaries and reduces stress. On top of this, lists are a proven way to increase productivity – both on the job and while gaming.

I would argue that the desire to hunt achievements may be fed by games, but the basic drive comes from within. In fact, our brains come up with such creative things to track that in-game achievement trackers never keep up. This is why you see players writing things down in notes that lie on their desks, or keep track of things in spreadsheets on their computer.

Playing for Fame

Thus far, I have focused on the “soothing effects” of doing achievements in games. Better known, and well-researched, motivations for achieving in games are competition and prestige.

According to Wikipedia, “One of the appeals of online gaming to the Achiever is that he or she has the opportunity to (…) hold elite status to others. (…) They may spend long periods of time engaging in a repetitive action in order to get one more reward.”

Let’s look at players that spend extreme amounts of time grinding boring things. With the risk of sounding derogatory, I will refer to this achiever sub type as the “no-lifer”. The no-lifer is someone who spends so much time gaming that it is inconceivable that the gaming experience itself is still exciting and fun. The goal is not to ridicule this type of player, but rather to understand what drives them.

A while back, I saw a video by the well-known YouTuber Trainer Tips that finally made me understand the draw of the “no-lifer” playstyle. “50 Raids in one day with the world’s #1 Pokémon Go player” offers a fascinating insight into the prestige earned through an extremely grindy playstyle. We see a day in the life of BrandonTan91, the Pokémon GO player with the highest amount of experience (XP) in the world. Brandon spends every day in his car, driving from pokémon raid to pokémon raid. He runs complicated calculations to determine the most optimal routes of earning XP. So far, this does not sound very appealing.

But here is the trick: Brandon does not play alone. He has accumulated an entire crew of Pokémon GO players that drive around with him, helping him beat the raids. In interviews, these followers consider it an honor to play with him. It is clear that Brandon is a hero and inspiration to them. Before they met him, they didn’t even spend half as much time playing the game. When asked, all these players recite their accumulated XP count by heart: clearly, this is a social status indicator in their game community.

It is easy to ridicule BrandonTan91’s playstyle as “no-lifer”, but it’s just as easy to see the appeal of spending your days playing your favorite game, together with other players that are just as enthusiastic about that game and treat you with the greatest respect. Even though I may never personally enjoy grinding in Pokémon GO, it is clear to me that these players are genuinely having fun.

For those of you that think Brandon lives in his mother’s basement: if we may believe the YouTube comments, he has found a way to monetize his hobby. For a fee, he catches pokémon for other players. We’ve come full circle: from gaming as if it’s work to gaming that has become work.

Conclusions

We’ve seen that playing as if it’s work is stimulated from within the game: by offering daily or weekly tasks with positive, immediate, certain (PIC) rewards, and by having achievements to fulfill. Moreover, though, it comes from a natural desire within. Keeping track of accomplishments reduces stress and provides with a plan, goal, structure and boundaries. In-game achievement trackers offer a reminder and proof of what is achieved. Finally, prestige is an important drive to live a “no-lifer” lifestyle. The more time is spent gaming, the higher the potential for increased social status within specific gamer communities.

Does working make a game come to life?

Right when I thought I had it all figured out, another thought crossed my mind. What if menial tasks are what makes me feel engaged in the gaming world? When I start losing interest in an MMO, boring, repetitive actions are usually the first victim. I will only login to play dungeons or raid with my friends and stop caring about gear and crafting altogether. When someone asks me whether I still play a game, I almost feel guilty when I reply with “yes”. Even though I technically login and thus play, my heart is not in it. The dumb things I do in MMOs make me feel part of the living, breathing online world – without them, I feel like a pretender.


Six Features no MMO Should Launch Without

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun with the new outfit system in Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a good system with a lot of options, and it’s helped me enjoy the game a lot more.

My sorcerer showing off her new outfit in Elder Scrolls Online

But there’s a part of me that’s still a bit resentful it took them this long to add an outfit system in the first place. In this day and age, that’s something I expect everyone of today’s top MMO games to have as a launch feature.

That got me to thinking what else should be considered mandatory for any MMO launching in 2018. Not every MMO can offer everything, especially at first, but there are some minimal thresholds that need to be reached. These are corners that developers may be tempted to cut, but definitely shouldn’t.

An Outfit System

Since it was the inspiration for this post, it makes sense to start with outfit systems. The ability to customize the appearance of your character’s gear is one of those things that seems frivolous until you’ve had it, but once you’re used to it, it’s incredibly hard to accept life without it.

Obviously, role-players benefit the most from this ability. Indeed, the ability to freely customize your character’s outfit is all but mandatory for role-play.

But even if you’re not actively role-playing, you can still find plenty to like about outfit systems. It just isn’t that exciting to be waddling around in some ridiculous clown-suit cobbled together from whatever gear happened to drop. Much better to be able to put your personality and creativity on display with a custom outfit you designed yourself.

Personally, I also love checking out other people’s outfits. Sometimes I’ll just sit around a social hub and study what other people are wearing. It’s amazing how creative and stylish some can be.

Outfit systems add color and culture to MMOs, and it just doesn’t feel the same without them.

Robust Matchmaking

A group doing the Scarlet Monastary dungeon in World of Warcraft

Not everyone is a social butterfly, and not everyone can commit to a set play schedule. But that doesn’t mean those people should have to miss out on group content.

To this end, any modern MMORPG must have robust matchmaking features to make finding groups easier for anyone at any time. A LFG chat channel or sign-up board isn’t good enough. You need a proper matchmaking system wherein the game creates groups automatically.

These systems have many advantages. You can continue to quest or farm while queued, instead of standing around a city spamming general chat. You don’t have to worry about elitist players serving as the gatekeeper to all content. It opens up group content for all.

Despite these obvious strengths, though, matchmaking tools are still viewed as an optional frill at best by far too much of the MMO community. The Secret World took years to add one, and by then the game was already in decline. Destiny 2 still doesn’t offer proper matchmaking for raids. ESO launched with a dungeon finder, but it was in such a poor state as to be virtually nonfunctional for a very long time.

Voice Acting

Voice acting is expensive and time-consuming. I understand that. But it also makes games vastly more immersive and adds crucial emotional weight to stories. There’s a reason silent films went out of fashion.

I don’t necessarily expect every line in every MMO to be fully voiced, but at the very least major story moments should be. In a world where games like Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Secret World Legends exist, any game without robust voice-overs will stick out like a sore thumb.

Equally Viable Progression Paths

The plent Nexus in WildStar

I’m not a fan of MMOs trying to be all things to all people, but it is nonetheless common for MMOs to offer several different forms of content, and that’s fine if it doesn’t go too far. If that’s to be the case, though, the developers must work to ensure all playstyles have a viable and rewarding progression path ahead of them.

If your game has questing, raiding, and PvP, those should all be viable paths for players at endgame. Questers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves locked out of progression if they don’t raid, and raiders shouldn’t have to PvP for the best gear.

It can be okay to reward some groups a little more than others — it’s not unreasonable for hardcore raiders to have better gear than people who only solo for twenty minutes a day — but it should never reach a point where fans of one playstyle find themselves hitting a brick wall, with no further way to progress short of playing content they don’t enjoy.

My personal preference is for currency based systems, where harder content rewards more of the currency needed to upgrade your character. This rewards the top tier of players without completely shutting down casuals. Everyone wins.

It’s so simple, and yet even the titans of the genre often struggle to give everyone a fair shake. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has had at best a spotty record of giving all playstyles equal opportunity to advance.

This isn’t even a matter of limited resources or tricky design problems. It’s just bad decision-making.

Text Chat

A cutscene in Destiny 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a while are likely to have a hard time even imagining an MMO without chat. I know I do.

But with the growing popularity of MMORPGs on consoles, this is something that is actually coming to pass. I’m sorry to pick on ESO once again, but its console version lacked text chat for some time before it was finally patched in. Destiny 2, meanwhile, still has not chat at all on console, and no public chat channel on PC… though given what I’ve seen of public chat in MMOs, I can at least sympathize with their reasoning there.

MMOs are a social medium, so the ability to communicate with other players is part of the bedrock of the genre. Yes, there’s voice chat, but not everyone has the hardware for it, nor is everyone comfortable using voice chat with strangers. Text chat is an option no game should be without.

A Free Trial

In my view, the best business model for an MMORPG is buy to play with an optional subscription and/or micro-transactions, but it does have one flaw that I find frustrating: Free trials seem to be going the way of the dodo.

Buying a new big budget MMO is a fairly big investment if you’re not sure whether you’re going to enjoy it. I’m rarely willing to take a chance on a game if I haven’t had a chance to try it first. I don’t expect everything for free, but a chance to try a small sampling of the game before I buy doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Instead, developers seem to be expecting fence-sitters to wait for Steam sales, or at best the occasional free weekend, but those just aren’t as convenient as an on-demand free trial. I’m willing to pay top dollar for a new game, but not sight unseen, and developers are losing money from me by not offering better trials.

To be fair, this isn’t just an MMO issue. I’m also very frustrated by the how often single-player games no longer offer free demos.

A Plan for Toxicity

A Play of the Game screen from Overwatch

Of all the things on this list, a plan to deal with player toxicity is one that I can’t think of any MMO having at launch — or at least not a very clear one. And I find that baffling.

It’s far too late in the game for developers to pretend to be surprised when their players behave badly. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in online gaming is familiar with how prevalent toxic behavior is.

And it’s something that can seriously damage a game. It eats away at communities. It drives away veterans, and it makes new players hesitant to invest.

Yet the preferred strategy among MMO developers still seems to be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and make only a token effort toward moderation. When Overwatch launched on console, it didn’t have a reporting feature, which is so incomprehensibly naive I can’t even begin to know what to say about it.

I’ve said before that I’m not a behavioral expert, and I don’t know what the magic bullet to solve toxicity is, but I desperately want to see developers start to take it more seriously. I want to hear them trumpet their plans for a safe community as loudly as they do their innovative game design and top of the line graphics.

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What say you, dear reader? What are the features you don’t want to see any MMO go live without in this day and age? What’s on your list of essentials?