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.
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.
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.
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.
Paid MMORPG (8.22%)
Open World Survival (7.71%)
Paid Team FPS (3.62%)
Free MMORPG (3.57%)
Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (2.66%)
Card Games (2.64%)
Fighting Games (2.18%)
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.
Paid MMORPG (24:17)
Open World Survival (16:42)
Free MMORPG (13:17)
Paid Team FPS (12:02)
Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (9:37)
Card Games (9:14)
Fighting Games (6:54)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
The RPG genre first sprouted when Gary Gygax (and lesser known Dave Arneson) created Dungeons and Dragons. It’s evolved and splintered quite a bit since that day in 1974. This advancement has been unequivocally positive for gaming as a whole. We now have more options than we even know what to do with, as evidenced by places like Humble Bundle selling AAA for as cheap as one dollar. But maybe it’s time for one genre, MMORPGs in particular, to go back to its deep roots.
Top MMOs have spent so much time wondering what they could do, they never stopped to ask what they should do. For as much fantastic content, features, and innovation as MMORPGs have brought to the world, they’ve taken a lot of things too far. In the midst of all of this progress, they’ve forgotten a lot of what it even means to be an RPG in the first place.
As a handy dandy guide to developers, I offer these six ways D&D can improve your next MMORPG:
1. Reduce Number Bloat
Easy enough to start here since I wrote about lowered health pools not too long ago. To sum it up, it’s easier for humans to mentally calculate lower numbers, they’re easier to read, and it makes for more intense combat.
2. Actual Role-Playing
Not everyone likes full on role-playing. I get that. But I’d say that most people playing RPGs enjoy it on some level. They may not enjoy the creative aspect of pretending to be someone else on the spot. Give them a few guidelines to follow though and everything else naturally falls into place. D&D is great for role-playing because character creation itself makes role-playing more accessible. Attributes such as alignment, backgrounds, deities, and motivations offer up a reason to choose certain actions. Now just give us some actual choices besides which spot to grind in and BOOM – role-playing!
3. Fewer, More Meaningful Levels
In D&D level 20 is basically demigod status. In most MMOs, level 20 is a scrub newbie that toxic veterans laugh at. I’m on board with more frequent small advancements (something Dungeons and Dragons Online does well), but I want a level to really mean something. I want new abilities and new ways to play my character. What I end up with is +100 damage to magic missile. Levels are too much about buffing an arbitrary number and too little about impacting game play.
4. Game Masters
Not too long ago MMORPGs used to hire GMs to organize impromptu quests. In D&D, a good GM is the difference between a campaign that spans several years and one that lasts a few sessions. So too can a similar impact be felt in MMORPGs. To facilitate a quest-driven approach to leveling, a lot of quests are needed. This need for quantity doesn’t leave a lot of room for quality. While some games manage some pretty impressive storytelling in their AI-led quests, they lack the ability to incorporate other players into the story. This is where GMs can completely alter an MMORPG experience and constantly deliver value to the game’s customers.
5. Drop the Trinity in Favor of the Quadrinity
Most MMORPGs balance abilities around tank/DPS/healer roles. D&D balances abilities around the roles of controller/defender/leader/striker. Defenders tank and shut down melee movement. Controllers kill large groups and crowd control. Leaders buff, debuff, and heal. Strikers deal massive damage to one target. This isn’t a massive difference, but in D&D terms facilitates a broader potential group of encounters that can be fought and overcome.
6. Add Challenge Ratings
D&D assigns a challenge rating to every enemy and monster in the game. This in turns allows for a programmatic approach to create balanced encounters. A balanced adventure results from a certain number of easy and hard encounters. Instead of MMORPG developers hand crafting encounters in raids and forcing us to beat the same things over and over to advance, a challenge rating based system could create near-infinite content to challenge us at every level. I’m not saying we need to abolish hand-crafted content, but saving time in one area frees it up for use in another.
While You Wait
If you’re looking for something like this to play now, there is an obvious choice. Dungeons & Dragons Online implements more of these features than other MMORPG. Of course, because of the focus on dungeons and instances, it does lack the massive feel other MMORPGs provide. Still, it does D&D better than any other MMORPG on the market. Maybe that’s a good enough reason for you to give it a spin until digital gaming seizes the opportunity to learn from classic tabletop gaming.
Since the dawn of time that mattered (i.e. when we could play video games at home), wars have raged to determine the best gaming device. Whether it was Atari or NES, Genesis or SNES, or the more recent war between the three current-gen consoles and PC, we love to debate the best gaming device.
How does this debate play out in the MMO space though? Well, clearly PC is better. The selection of games absolutely dwarfs the console selection. So my question for this article isn’t simply which one is better now. It’s which one has most potential for an MMO gaming device.
Case for PC
MMORPGs first started on the PC with the advent of text based MUDs. Keyboard input was critical for these games because they lacked any sort of graphical interface. Keyboards still provide an immense advantage – for one thing it expands communication. What are we doing in these games if we’re not interacting with players in at least some capacity. Whereas most console MMOs use microphones to communicate, PC gamers generally prefer keyboards. I’d argue talking to strangers via keyboard is vastly superior. It’s a lot less grating to see NOOB rather than hear NOOB.
The benefit of keyboard input doesn’t stop there though. More buttons means more abilities. More abilities mean more potential for strategy. All of this amounts to more flexibility for developers to create unique experiences for us as players.
Barriers to entry are in no short supply for would-be MMORPGs. It’s an expensive type of game to create. Consoles add yet another barrier. Though engines like Unity have made it easier to port between console and PC, it’s still smoother to code a game for a computer than a third party platform that will age and dies within six years. What this means is that the MMO options for PC gamers will always supersede those of console gamers.
Although graphics are usually limited on PC games to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the most visually appealing MMOs remain on PC. No matter how powerful a console may be, a PC can always be more powerful. That affords more options to make games pretty. Yay pretty.
Third party tools can be installed alongside a game to enhance the experience. Usually this amounts to voice chat for use with a guild/clan. Mods for games like Elder Scrolls Online can also greatly enhance the playing experience, offering up in Wiki-level depth of resources without ever leaving the game.
Case for Consoles
Graphics for an online PC game must always be limited to a degree. Not everyone has a beefy computer. MMOs rely on maintaining a minimum population level and playing with friends to thrive, so developers are reluctant to push out potential customers with high system requirements. Since consoles all run the exact same specs (which are usually pretty powerful for non-Nintendo consoles), this isn’t a problem. In most cases this raises the bar, even if the potential for the best graphics will always be on PC.
Since console players use a controller as their primary input, developers must work with less buttons. This cuts out a lot of the excess abilities that don’t add anything to gameplay. For example, what’s the need for six abilities that apply six different buffs when one ability will suffice? Button bloat has long been an issue in the PC MMO space. Controllers inadvertently solve button bloat and is a point towards consoles.
Accessibility is really the beck and call of consoles. When you buy a game on a console, you know it will run well. When you buy a game for PC, all sorts of compatibility issues may arise. Designing a game for a console specifically forces a “pick up and play” game plan. With less options for things to go wrong, it’s more likely things go right. Finally, consoles are cheaper than equivalent PCs. That’s always been a point for consoles in the broader “which is a better gaming device” debate. For someone that only wants to play a couple games a year, this is a major consideration. It’s an even bigger deal for MMO players because of the lifespan of such games.
Console vs PC MMOs: Who Wins?
Overall, it has to go to PC. Other than price and compatibility, everything else is potentially better on a computer. Button bloat doesn’t have to exist. Graphics don’t have to be downgraded. They can be just as accessible. Still, I have to say that the growth and mere existence of console MMOs and MMORPGs is still a boon for PC gamers. It showcases problems that have been largely swept under the rug in PC development and mandates their solutions. So as a whole, the genre will rise with both offerings available.
“blogging about them [MMORPGs] doesn’t appear to be a thing any more.”
Tobold, MMORPG blogger turned general gaming blogger, created waves with this statement. It’s a testament to his legacy in the community though that he is able to create such ripples for a community he doesn’t really place himself within any longer. It sparked defense from several bloggers and a handful of readers. Many clamored that MMO blogging is far from dead, citing a wealth of posts composed every week.
The quantity of posts originating from self professed MMO blogs doesn’t necessarily point to the trade’s life or death. After all, everyone shifts their attention away from MMOs here and there. Tobold points to single player game articles on MMORPG.com as evidence of a decline in this niche field. Here at MMOBro, we too touch on single player games. Does that make this less of an MMO site? I don’t think so. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had board game articles, but they’re still squarely a PC gaming site. The focus of topics here is still on MMO(RPG)s.
That said, it is true that there are less (if any) pure MMORPG sites out there. The answer as to why is as clear as it is subtle. The proliferation of MMO and MMO-lite games has blurred the distinction between MMOs and MMORPGs to the point where that line has all but faded away. Distant cousins of the genre like MOBAs have embraced growth and achievement mechanisms that made the genre popular in the first place. Now that players don’t have to inhabit a persistent world, nor necessarily grind for growth, MMO populations have fallen.
The reality is that it only seems that way to MMORPG purists and veterans. To everyone else in the world, Destiny occupies the same genre as World of Warcraft. And that means the genre is as healthy as ever. It’s just not restricted to PC anymore nor does it require a hundred players to occupy the same space. MMOs have always been about achievement/progression, online play, and persistent characters. Maybe that wasn’t the intent of developers – but that’s what kept people playing and led to the genre’s massive growth. Without progression, people quit and move onto something else. All of this is why our MMO games list includes a myriad of online options. MMO means different things to different people.
It may not be an MMO, but Shadow of War really feels like one.
All of this trickles down to single player gaming as well. MMOs continue to lay the ground work for addictive feedback loops. Only playing players pay, so developers focus on creating content that keeps players busy without drifting into boredom. You can see these loops implemented into AAA single player titles like Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. The developers for those games spent so much time copying those loops that they even added loot boxes, but that’s another discussion entirely.
This trickling effect isn’t a one way street though. Features from single player games regularly make their way into MMOs. Perhaps the most compelling of such features is rich, linear stories. Final Fantasy XIV arguably boasts the best storytelling in series history. Most of the game’s story can be experienced without any other players. Despite this solo focus, we don’t look at Final Fantasy XIV as less of an MMO. To many, it’s the best of its kind on the market.
This is why we can’t assess MMOs in a vacuum anymore. Gaming genre definitions have and will continue to blur. What makes an MMO an MMO, an RPG an RPG, and so forth no longer applies in any strict sense. Genre names are only starting points for us to find a product that will fulfill that which we’re seeking. Many video games can provide the same sensations as MMOs and vice versa. Because of that, I think it’s critical that MMO bloggers in fact do not wholly focus on MMO content. The only way bloggers, journalists, and writers can fully explore the genre is by stepping outside of it.
I have some strong feelings about (most) MMORPG health pools. And like any good opinion, it can be summed up with a meme:
MMORPG health pools have grown to absurd propositions. DPS meters clear a million easy. More precisely, World of Warcraft’s top damage dealer serves out 1.5 million damage per second. World of Warcraft’s DPS currency resembles a country suffering from hyper inflation, and like a such a country, it’s hard to take seriously. High health enemies require monotonous ability usage to down. High health characters negate any semblance of combat intensity. Simple calculations give way to mandatory use of online tools to decipher true net effects. Gameplay starts revolving around bigger and bigger numbers, leaving little room for anything else.
The benefit of large health pools is that it’s easier for developers to balance. Boiling everything down to a few numbers rather than fine tuning systems takes a lot less effort and allows for more fractional balance changes. That’s noteworthy – so I’m not saying smaller health pools is easy to implement.
I’m simply suggesting that there’s a lot to be gained by taking the path less traveled. D&D has balanced around small health pools for decades. Some of the positive side effects of such a system can be found in games like (not surprisingly) Dungeons & Dragons Online.
5 Reasons to Lower Health Pools
1) Easier to understand and mentally calculate the effects of abilities, talents, items.
2) More room on the screen for things that aren’t ten digit numbers.
3) Forces developers to move into damage mitigation, which opens up more diverse play styles.
4) Ramps up intensity and sensation of danger (whether artificially or not) when every hit point actually means something.
5) Higher hit points tend to result in longer, repetitive fights. MMORPG battles stay interesting until you “solve” them. On average, I would expect lowered MMORPG hit points to lead to faster battles and fewer slogs.
If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do it
The main reason high health pools are “in” is because it’s simply less time consuming for developers. This frees up man hours to create more content, which is the current big selling point for maintaining active players. Personally, I’d rather see more time devoted towards a better base system. The content gap can be filled by procedural generation and emergent narrative structures.
Expansions and DLC are usually the primary culprits for numerical inflation. It’s easy to grasp that higher damage, healing, health, etc. is better. Sticking to a low health pool system necessitates developing less obvious character progressions. Horizontal progression is one option (pick the right tools for the fight), but damage mitigation is absolutely paramount regardless of the progression type. Unfortunately, most damage mitigation systems devolve into an obtuse Diablo style resistance system.
Again, tabletop RPGs like D&D offer a neat outline for engineering these solutions. Tabletop games are forced to work with smaller numbers, and there are some pretty cool lesser known RPGs out there like Iron Kingdoms. I know if I had millions of dollars to develop a new MMORPG, I’d spend a few hundred of that on tabletop player handbooks for market research.
At the end of the day, it’s about creating a product that maximizes fun. When choosing between high health pools and low health pools, the latter exhibits so much more potential.