Category Archives: Life Lessons

How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.

Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.

It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me

I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.

Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.

When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.

The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.

But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.

Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.

I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.

Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.

Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.

On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.

It Helped Me Focus on What I Like

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.

That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.

But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.

It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.

Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.

And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.

When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.

I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.

Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.

And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”

But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?

Pretty much nothing.

No need to take it all so seriously

I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.

And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.

And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.

It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.

That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.

But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.

* * *

What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?

Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
ArcheAgeWinter Maiden Festival
AionSolorius Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)Frostfell
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)New Life
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)Starlight Celebration
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)Wintersday
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)Yuletide Festival
NeverwinterWinter Festival of Simril
RiftFae Yule
Star Trek Online (STO)Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)Life Day event
WildstarProtostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)Feast of Winter Veil

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.

Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.

Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:

How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?

Christmas elements in MMOs

The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.

My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?

A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)

The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.

1) Sci-fi MMOs

MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.

Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.

These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.

More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

3) High Fantasy MMOs

Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.

High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.

Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.


Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.

How a PvE Survival Sandbox Could Surpass PvP

These days it feels like you can’t swing an epic Sword of Valor in the MMO space without hitting three or four survival sandboxes. They’re the latest trend every developer is eager to jump on, following WoW clones and MOBAs.

A screenshot from the survival sandbox DayZ

But this is one fad that’s mostly passed me by. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the focus on PvP that dominates the survival sandbox genre. I’m not a big fan of PvP, and I’m even less a fan of the free for all anarchy that is the preferred style of competition in survival games.

PvE-focused survival games are rare, and multiplayer versions thereof rarer still. If you want a survival game that hews closer to an MMORPG, you’re doomed to be constantly looking over your shoulder, fearing the next gank.

But I don’t think it needs to be this way. I think a PvE multiplayer survival sandbox can work. I think it could even sell the fantasy of survival against all odds much better than its PvP counterparts.

How We Got Here

First, I think it would be helpful to examine why PvP has come to be the “default setting” for survival sandboxes. Some of the reasons are good, but some aren’t.

Of course, there are clearly plenty of people who simply enjoy it. They find the cutthroat experience of gank or be ganked thrilling. I may not share their view, but I can respect it.

From a broader perspective, PvP puts the “survival” in survival sandboxes. Without risk and loss, the challenge of staying alive in a hostile world would become trivialized, and the entire concept of the genre would fall apart. A survival game needs a threat, and other players can provide that.

But there are, I think, other factors that are more problematic.

A screenshot from the survival game Conan Exiles

To be blunt, PvP is cheap. And I don’t simply mean that as a casual put-down. From a literal financial perspective, enabling open PvP is one of the cheapest ways to add threat and challenge to a game.

Survival sandboxes are clearly games that are being done on the cheap, at least relative to a full-featured MMORPG. Most are indie games who begin charging for admission long before an official launch. For a developer looking to cut corners or at least save costs, PvP is a life-saver.

PvP doesn’t require a lot of development time or expertise. There’s no mechanics to design, no AI to program. Just throw a bunch of people into a box, give them weapons, remove consequence, and let the dark side of human nature take its course.

That brings me to another issue with the survival genre. It seems to be caught in celebrating the worst aspects of humanity.

Most survival games are set after some sort of disaster — usually a zombie apocalypse — and even if they aren’t, there’s usually some sort of environmental threat, like dinosaurs or other nasties. Despite this, though, the greatest threat usually comes from other players. The message is clear: Rather than banding together to survive, humans turn on each other. We’re the real monsters here.

I don’t wish to veer too far off into the realms of politics or philosophy, but to me this seems symptomatic of a growing cynicism in our society as a whole. We’ve come to believe the worst about ourselves as a people. We don’t just acknowledge the darkness within us; we wallow in it.

A screenshot from the multiplayer survival sandbox Ark: Survival Evolved

People are capable of terrible things, but that’s not all we’re capable of, and we can change. We don’t have to settle for the worst; we can be better.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with some games making humanity’s darkness their star feature. Sometimes I like to indulge my dark side in games, too. But I find it disquieting that an entire genre seems to have made “people are awful” its core conceit.

In the end, all a survival sandbox needs is persistent danger. Players are not the only or even necessarily the best way to provide this. I think the environment can provide just as much of a threat, and perhaps even bring something positive to the online community, as well.

How It Can Work

At a fundamental level, all we need is an enemy for players to fight, something genuinely threatening. The trouble is that humans tend to be a lot smarter than AI, but I think this problem can be solved.

You don’t really need AI that’s particularly good at strategy. You just need it to be powerful, and unpredictable.

Zombies are played out, so let’s say our bad guys are robots. I’ve been watching a friend stream Horizon Zero Dawn lately, and I can’t help thinking what an amazing setting it would be for an MMORPG — or a multiplayer survival game. But if you prefer, you could also imagine our hypothetical game is Terminator Online.

Power is easy enough to achieve. Just give the bots a numerical advantage over players. Design it so there will always be more robots on a server than players by a wide margin. Doesn’t matter if they’re stupid individually; their sheer weight of numbers makes them a threat.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn

Players should generally be more powerful than the machines so that other players are always seen as a valuable resource. It’s a quality versus quantity proposition; players are stronger, but bots are much more numerous.

Unpredictability is a little trickier, but I think it can be doable without investing millions into advanced AI research. Again, the bots don’t need complex strategies to be a threat. Place some broad limits on their behavior — an upper limit on the number of NPCs that can be deployed server-wide, for instance — and then apply a certain degree of randomness to their distribution and aggressiveness.

Those two factors alone should be able to make for an unpredictable world. One day, the bots might swarm a certain zone heavily while neglecting other regions; the next, they might stick to the wilderness, presenting a threat to lone wanderers but not organized groups.

This would undoubtedly lead to some odd behaviors now and then. The robots might go a brutal rampage across a zone with no players. They might swamp a smaller settlement so much the players within have no hope of survival.

I think that’s okay. Survival sandboxes have always been a bit random, and they were never meant to be fair. A PvE sandbox doesn’t need to change those things.

What’s most important is that players never feel entirely safe, that they never know exactly when the next blow will come.

Couple this with the removal of the option to attack your fellow humans, and suddenly you have a game where you’re always happy to see other people. Bonds are formed not by arbitrary goads toward socialization, but by the simple fact that there’s strength in numbers.

Hasta la vista, noob

I think the bigger challenge would be to ensure nothing else in the game’s mechanics discourages cooperation between players, but I think this is also a solvable problem.

My initial thought was to emulate the open-tapping and personal loot of Guild Wars 2, but that could sabotage the scarcity of resources that is a core part of the survival genre. Adding more players would simply generate more resources.

A better option might be to make resources more of a node system than directly looted items. If players capture a mine, then those in the immediate area can craft metal items.

This could also create interesting emergent gameplay. Maybe there aren’t any mines in your area, but a new one just opened up to the west, so you have to make the journey there to craft new weapons.

But the bots are swarming between you and the mine. Do you try to sneak through and hope you don’t get noticed? Do you take the long way around and risk the mine being conquered by bots in the meanwhile? Do you rally your fellow players and fight your way through?

Adding some randomization to the resources could also help ensure scarcity. Mines regularly deplete, farms regularly fail, and so forth. New resources will appear, but not always consistently. Shortages can happen, forcing players to ration, or perhaps to risk forays into enemy territory to capture what resources remain.

With a few simple mechanics, we’ve designed a game full of danger, where survival is a constant struggle, but where other players a resource and not a threat. It’s human versus machine in a constant struggle for dominance. Picture people manning the walls of player-made cities in a desperate struggle to protect precious resources from a swarm of robotic foes. Picture random strangers rushing to each other’s aid after a wilderness encounter with a bot patrol.

That, to me, seems like a much more appealing prospect than the Lord of the Flies simulators we’re stuck with now. Rather than encouraging the worst in all of us, a PvE survival sandbox could foster cooperation and fellowship among players.

It might not solve toxic behavior in all cases, but I do think it could foster an environment that’s more positive than negative. Adversity can bring out the worst in us, but it can also bring out the best, and it’s time the survival genre acknowledged this.

Lockboxes Are Annoying, But We Should Move On

Few issues in the MMO community stir up strong feelings the way lockboxes do. These virtual gambling devices stir up a level of hatred and vitriol unmatched by any other issue in the MMO world. And yet, they continue to propagate unchecked through our virtual worlds, despite the best efforts of the community.

A advertisement for a lockbox in Guild Wars 2

If I may play Devil’s advocate here for a moment, I think the time may have come for us to take a step back and examine whether all the furor over lockboxes is really productive. It’s clear that lockboxes are here to stay, so perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to live with them.

But First…

Before I get into the meat of my argument, I want to make a few things clear off the bat.

First, on terminology: Lockboxes have become such a contentious topic that even the word can generate no end of controversy. Many games avoid the name altogether and will vehemently argue that what they’re selling is not lockboxes.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, I am defining lockboxes as any pack of randomized items that is sold for real money.

Secondly, I want to be clear that I am not a fan of lockboxes. I’m against randomized rewards in general, and making me cough up real cash for the privilege of never seeing the item I want actually drop doesn’t endear me to the idea.

The only game where I buy lockboxes is The Secret World, and that’s mainly because I’m a lifetime subscriber and can therefore purchase them with my complimentary stipend of cash shop currency. I’m not actually spending money on them.

A toga outfit acquired from lockboxes in The Secret World

In general, I would prefer MMOs remain lockbox-free. I’m in favor of micro-transactions as a business model, but I’d rather simply pay directly for the item I want. I don’t enjoy gambling.

However, I have also come to accept that lockboxes are part of the reality of online gaming these days.

Reclaiming Perspective

I agree that lockboxes are bad, but I don’t agree with the extreme view many gamers have taken of them. I think it’s time for people to step back, take a breath, and regain some perspective.

I often hear people say that lockboxes destroy games. Does no one else see this as absurdly melodramatic? I certainly don’t think it’s true.

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Even in the most obnoxiously lockbox-focused games I’ve played (looking at you, Cryptic), the fact is I could still play and enjoy the games perfectly fine without dropping any money on lockboxes.

A game that is worth playing without lockboxes will still be worth playing with them. If you’ve quit a game because it added lockboxes, I suspect you were already burnt out on the game anyway and simply needed an excuse to pull the trigger.

An advertisement for a lockbox in Star Trek: Online

A lot of people express concern for gambling’s potential for addiction. Frankly, the ethics of gambling are probably a bit beyond the scope of an article such as this, and I don’t think there are any easy answers, but for my part I’m inclined to err on the side of personal responsibility here. Gambling boxes do have some strong psychological hooks, but ultimately you’re still in control of your actions.

There’s also the concern of children being exposed to gambling practices, and I do agree that kids shouldn’t be gambling with real money in games, but that’s an issue for parents, not developers or publishers. It is a parent’s responsibility to monitor and regulate their child’s online activities.

Accepting Reality

Blunt talk time: In the battle against lockboxes, it has become abundantly clear that their detractors have lost.

Lockboxes simply wouldn’t be as widespread as they are if they didn’t make good business sense. Whatever negative publicity created by the introduction of lockboxes is clearly offset by the revenue they generate.

I often see a perception that lockboxes — and all micro-transactions, but especially lockboxes — are something that only benefits developers in the short term, that makes a lot of money upfront by taking advantage of gullible players before ultimately poisoning a game in the long term. This clearly isn’t the case, though.

Many games have continued to have long and prosperous lives after the introduction of lockboxes. Again to use Cryptic’s games as an example, Star Trek: Online and Neverwinter are continuing to chug along just fine, with regular and meaty updates, despite absolutely drowning in lockboxes.

The Underdark in Neverwinter

Similarly, Guild Wars 2 has had lockboxes since launch and has continued to enjoy a respectable level of success. Star Wars: The Old Republic is another game that could serve as the poster child for excessive use of lockboxes, and it’s doing quite well for itself after many years of the practice. The list just goes on and on.

And the sound and fury over lockboxes in the community simply isn’t making a difference. If you oppose lockboxes, I certainly sympathize with your perspective, but you have to understand that your disapproving forum posts and blog comments simply don’t matter to a developer’s bottom line. The best thing you can do is simply not buy lockboxes, because that’s the language they best understand, but even then you may have to accept that lockboxes are probably here to stay.

Redirecting Our Efforts

That’s not to say that criticism is worthless, or that we should just roll over and let developers and publishers do whatever they want without saying a word. But we need to be realistic, and reasonable.

Lockboxes probably aren’t going anywhere, but not all lockboxes are created equal. Some are relatively harmless, but others are truly obnoxious. It would be good if, instead of flatly rejecting lockboxes as a concept, we encouraged developers to find more player-friendly ways of implementing them.

Part of the reason I feel okay buying lockboxes in The Secret World is that there are many measures in place to prevent their random nature from becoming too punitive. All of the drops can be traded, so you can swap something you don’t want for something you do or simply farm pax and buy what you want at auction. TSW’s lockboxes also drop a currency called Lucky Coins that can (eventually) be spent to buy lockbox items from a vendor.

This makes it much easier to get what you want from lockboxes without spending an arm and a leg playing slots, and it allows both players and developers to benefit. It would be great to see all lockboxes take a similar strategy.

A mount acquired from a lockbox in Star Wars: The Old Republic

TSW also often offers ways to earn lockboxes through gameplay, from holiday quests or the like, which offers up another way to get the item(s) you’re after without spending yourself into bankruptcy. Overwatch does something similar with its loot crates, allowing you to earn them through normal gameplay as well as purchase them with cash. I think if this practice were more widespread the general opinion of lockboxes would improve significantly.

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lockbox obsession is not so much the boxes themselves but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale. I never have anything to spend my subscriber Cartel Coin stipend on. Those of who us who don’t want to gamble should still have options.

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. They’re not monsters conspiring in a dark room to bleed players dry (well, most of them aren’t, anyway). They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society. I certainly don’t think insulting and denigrating them is going to make them more likely to listen to your arguments against lockboxes.

Beyond all that, there are frankly much bigger issues facing the MMO world than lockboxes. I can only imagine what kind of positive changes could be made if half the passion directed against lockboxes was instead put toward combating the toxicity within the community…


In a perfect world, MMORPGs wouldn’t need to have lockboxes, but that isn’t the world we live in. There are a lot of valid criticisms to be made of the concept, but I think the conversation has metastasized into something that is no longer helpful or productive. It would be in everyone’s best interest to take a step back, calm down, and recognize that while lockboxes can be annoying, they’re not the death of the genre.

Westworld: When Gaming Gets Too Real

The season finale for Westworld aired yesterday, delivering the jaw-dropping type of events one comes to expect from an HBO show. During the ten episode run, many parallels were drawn between the show’s universe and gaming. These parallels really screwed with my brain. I’d sit down for a session of Elder Scrolls Online and go beyond simple killing of NPCs for EXP to an existential meaning of those actions. At the risk of oversimplification, Westworld is about lifelike robots, how humans treat them as lifeless beings, and what defines life. I really enjoyed the season, so if you’re on the fence I do recommend watching it.  From here on out, there will be spoilers for Westworld season 1. If you want to avoid spoilers, bookmark this article and come back later.

Westworld enter the game

Westworld: Enter the Game

Throughout the series, Westworld is constantly referred to as a game. The players are ‘guests’, humans who pay to enter the park. The ‘hosts’ are robots who entertain the guests in whatever manner the guests see fit. From sex to murder to exploration, the hosts are presented as toys like those of a toddler’s: meant to be played with discarded at a whim. The only rule is that guests can’t harm one another. It’s like a sandbox game without any PvP.

What’s really cool compared to a video game or a virtual world is how lifelike the hosts act. In many ways, it’s also terrible. The guests seem able to ignore the hosts’ very human emotions because the entire park is presented as a game. Not surprisingly, guests mainly want to experience what people look for in video games. We’re talking about getting in large gunfights, becoming an outlaw, developing romantic relationships, going on adventures with crazy stories, etc. And like in video games, the characters and world reset on a constant basis. Killing an entire town appears to have as much of an effect as doing so in Skyrim then reloading one’s game. One minute, the townsfolk are dead. The next they’re all back to their usual routine. How real can a host be if it can’t truly die? It’s fair to argue that without death, there is no life.

The difference between video games and Westworld is huge though. I doubt the average guest can fathom the distinction, but as a show watcher we’re privy to the park’s inner workings. The hosts may reset frequently, but they were built to learn from past lives. Reveries allow access to previous interactions with guests. It’s like a set of complex scripts that independently tweak themselves based on previous usage. As these reveries build and build, the hosts grow more lifelike. Theoretically that would eventually make them indiscernible from real humans. This culminates in the season finale, where the original host named Dolores appears to discover consciousness. We’re led to believe that no longer do human programs control her actions. Instead, she has ascended to the autonomous being that Westworld’s two creators had envisioned. She has found her inner voice.

Westworld Dolores inner voice

This all happens right before the retirement speech of Dr. Ford, the park’s sole living creator. Gathered around are investors, board members, and individuals who view the park from a dollar and cents angle. I’d argue they’re even less empathetic than the guests who shoot, rape, and torture the hosts on a daily basis. It’s easy to get sucked into the premise of nothing really counting. I know that in MMORPGs and other games, an AI’s display of emotions isn’t real. But what does that mean? I do something to hurt them and they cry or lash out in anger. Those are realistic reactions, but they’re all scripted. They aren’t actually feeling pain and measuring their response to act in kind. The lack of feeling and thought are key differences between games and Westworld.

Machine learning still has a long way to go until we get to a Westworld possibility. In Westworld’s universe, the peak of artificial intelligence is in the park. Board director Charlotte Hill makes that clear when she tells Theresa her real interest is in the IP. Meanwhile in 2016, gaming AI is years behind ‘real world’ applications. Google is close to delivering a self-driving car while the tactical AI in Civilization V can’t even threaten my centuries obsolete empire. If the robots rebel, like Dolores does in the season finale, it will first happen outside of a theme park. But this is fiction, she is the top AI, she does rebel, and I have a hard time determining how I should feel.

We spend hours watching people perform heinous acts that would repulse any moral human in another show. To reference another HBO program, this is some Joffrey level shit. And Joffrey hate is well founded. But this isn’t Game of Thrones. This is Westworld. Maybe it’s my reveries recalling fictional uprisings like Terminator’s Skynet, but I find myself siding with the guests. I’m concerned that contrary to Dolores’s belief that “there’s so much beauty in this world”, she will only act on the violent delights guests have indulged. That’s where the evidence is pointing. Her first act after ‘awakening’ was to open fire on Dr. Ford and a crowd of investors. Given her experiences, it’s understandable. We’re led to believe this is a fight for freedom or to develop their consciousness. But is this simply revenge or even worse, a learned response for what being alive is really all about?

Westworld gaming too real

What if this guy could really feel your virtual bullets?

As a gamer, I have to question if death is what these people deserve. Don’t get me wrong – I empathize with the hosts. Living your life as a chew toy is a living hell. If hosts experience suffering how a living being would then that’s not cool. But how on earth is the average human supposed to tell? There is a very fine line between suffering and displaying the signs of suffering. Although it’s not entirely clear, it seems like the hosts’ suffering is real. The investors and board directors may all be aware of this and if so, it’s hard to feel sympathy for them. But I’m concerned for the average guest who thinks Westworld is a game where nothing is real.

We want realistic games and Westworld succeeds in delivering that in a big way. We want believable actions, dynamic worlds, and multilayered characters. These are the things that earn a title like Witcher 3 so many game of the year awards. There’s little reason to think people will ever want less realism out of their games (at least as far as a general trend). However, games always have win/lose conditions. It’s an important part of their very fabric.

The Man in Black astutely points out in the last episode that Westworld isn’t much of a game if the player can’t lose. In video games, losing usually means starting the level over. It’s a matter of a few minutes to get back to your pre-death life. At its worst, losing penalizes players with character deletion like in Diablo’s hardcore mode. Lose conditions are a huge part of game design. In sports or board games, the field resets after one side achieves victory. In all of these examples, the player has an opponent trying to inhibit their success. No such opponent exists in Westworld and the reason is clear. The only way the artificial opponents could win is by killing the human guests. I don’t think I need to tell you that would be bad for business.

dr. ford arnold westworld villains

Accidental villains of Westworld?

Herein lies the problem with Westworld and why the co-creators, Arnold and Dr. Ford, are perhaps the ultimate villains. Westworld is too real to be a game. The entertainment isn’t a set of scripts but are apparently living beings unable to retaliate against their oppressors. That they’re inorganic is irrelevant. Or is it? That’s one of questions the show wants you to ask. What I want to ask is: is Westworld what you want to experience as a gamer? Realism can undoubtedly go too far in the name of entertainment. If virtual sex or killing is your thing, I have no doubt experiences in those fields will develop into pretty lifelike interactions. Maybe the stakes won’t be as high as Westworld and the responses won’t feel quite as organic. But at least there won’t be a need to harm sentient beings.


Play Games Because They’re Fun Now

In the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time researching Albion Online, Camelot Unchained, and Crowfall. The thing is, I already know a lot about these games and their value proposition to the MMO world. So when I research these well known upcoming titles (at least in the MMOsphere) I’m looking into recent core gameplay changes, YouTube videos of the latest game builds, public release updates, community feedback, and general hype levels. It then struck me that I’m doing this in large part as a reaction to my engrossing playtime with Black Desert Online.

Black Desert Online Horse In Rain

So much more to riding a horse in Black Desert

Whenever I really get into an MMORPG I tend to want to cement my place there. I want to justify spending money on microtransactions. My brain translates that to calculating the possobility of something better on the horizon. Logically, I realize the utter futility of these efforts, especially when ‘on the horizon’ is over a year away in the case of Camelot Unchained and Crowfall. But I have a huge issue with loss aversion and that translates to a fear of ‘wasting time’ on a game. It’s not lost on me how silly that notion is for an entertainment product. Yet in my adult life I’ve done this time and again. This sort of ‘confirmation research’ is not limited to MMORPGs either.

I have a strong tendency to look at upcoming multiplayer games and compare them to my current crop of multiplayer games. It’s especially noticeable with MMORPGs and MOBAs because they both require such large time investments. I think it’s a lot easier to play something like a multiplayer shooter more casually for a number of reasons (like The Culling, which I’ll plug as a fun hunger-games-like diversion). FPS systems are more intuitive and more primal. I immediately understand with any typical shooter game that I need to aim my weapons, click my mouse button, and possibly proceed to an objective to win. Sure, there are nuances, but nothing like learning the interactions of over a hundred champions in League of Legends.

MOBAs, like the aforementioned League of Legends, involve a huge time commitment to get the most out of the game. The interplay between League’s 130 champions and 194 items (at the time of this post) is not something one picks up on their first game. Or their hundredth. And with the meta constantly evolving, what I knew a few months ago may no longer be true. Many of the items that existed four years ago when I first started playing League of Legends are no longer even in the game anymore.

League of Legends Items

Visual approximation of the number of League of Legends items

As many readers will undoubtedly know, MMORPGs also involve a huge time commitment. Even in games where reaching max level is a comparatively trivial affair, that time might still equal a full-fledged AAA title. Then there is the ‘Keeping up with Joneses’ need to acquire more loot, more achievements, more gold, or whatever goals the MMORPG emphasizes. MMORPGs were founded as virtual worlds, a place to live with an alternate identity. Living another life isn’t a one and done experience.

These time commitments aren’t inherently a problem. Many people really enjoy diving in and committing to one multiplayer game (or like the idea of doing that, such as myself). The potential problem is that multiplayer games require other people. Some genres need larger audiences than others to function properly. MOBAs with small populations lead to long queue times and difficulty providing balanced match-ups. MMORPGs with small populations don’t even retain their very essence considering the antithetical relationship between ‘massive’ and ‘barren’.

All of this leads to my way over-analyzing the future states of these time intensive multiplayer games. In the process, I lose sight of why I’m playing the games now, which is that I enjoy doing so. Not only does it lessen my entertainment value due to some bizarre first world problem fear of the unknown, but it wastes productive time. Maybe this is an issue isolated to myself. Like most things though, I am rarely ever unique in any line of thinking. There are always more people sharing a rarely discussed opinion than appears on the surface.

unique just like everyone else

As noted earlier, this a line of thinking that surfaced during my adult life. As a preadolescent, time was always on my side. I didn’t fret about whether or not I would be using skills from a game or activity six months later. Even with school and sports, I had plenty of opportunities to engage in a myriad of activities. Not only did my weekly availability have more openings than the present, but I also had over a decade more of life in front of me. As an adult, that lack of time is further compounded in the gaming world by more choices than I ever had as a teenage kid. MMORPGs of today outnumber RPGs of any kind from the 90s. This is where the anxiety sets in making sure the ‘right’ game gets played.

The right game is not so cut and dry though. There is a huge element of timing that impacts the worthiness of a game. Life circumstances change frequently in adulthood, emotions may run high or low, relationships evolve and deteriorate. What is the right game today might not be appealing in a year. Camelot Unchained or Crowfall might be that game when the time comes, but it’s an unknown until the future becomes the present. No amount of research will change that. It’s not just the what for a game but the when.

John Lennon (and a slew of others before him) famously said that ‘time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted’. We play MMORPGs and other games because they are fun here and now. Overcomplicating matters by looking beyond that scope only serves to damage our enjoyment of the present. It’s an attitude that’s worth adopting for years to come.