Category Archives: MMO Game Design

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.


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.

* * *

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?

Examining Class-based Versus Skill-based Progression

Normally one of the first things you do in any MMO — or any RPG period — is choose a class. It will determine the strengths and weaknesses of your character for the rest of the game, and is probably the most important decision you can make.

A character in the skill-based MMORPG Secret World Legends

But some games don’t nail you down like that. These are games based on skill-based progression, where any character can pick and choose whatever abilities they like with little or no limitations. With time you might even be able to unlock every skill on a single character, depending on the game. One example might be Secret World Legends, and while it does technically have classes, I would also cite Elder Scrolls Online as a largely skill-based game. Class systems are so common I hardly need give examples.

But which system is superior? The dominance of traditional classes would seem to argue strongly in their favor, but there are advantages to skill-based progression as well.

Let’s look at the arguments for each.

The Case for Classes

By far the best argument in favor of traditional classes is approachability. With clearly defined class options, you can quickly and easily find something that fits your preferred playstyle and jump into the game. If you’re an experienced gamer, you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what classes you like, simplifying the process even further.

For instance, I usually like playing as rogues, or similar classes. If a game has a rogue class (and most do), I can just pick it and start stabbing away, without the need to agonize over the other options.

Classes make things easier to parse for other players, as well. To continue the above example, if I’m a rogue, then other players will immediately have a good idea of what I can bring to a group. In most cases, that’s going to be damage and a bit of crowd control. There’s no need for me to waste time explaining my build and what I can offer.

Even as you progress through the game, it continues to makes things easier. Rather than flailing wildly at different skill set-ups until I find one I like, I will have a smaller selection of builds and much less risk of crippling my character through sheer ignorance. I’ll know right away that as a rogue I want medium armor and daggers or swords as weapons. I’ll know that agility or dexterity is probably going to be my best stat.

A group of rogues in the class-based MMORPG World of Warcraft

All that without any need for outside help.

Another advantage to classes is that they help give a clear identity to each character. In skill-based systems where everyone can do anything, characters start to feel interchangeable, and it’s much harder to impart a sense of identity to your avatar. Classes provide obvious starting points for role-play and impart a certain degree of personality to each character, be they proud paladin or sinister warlock.

By that same token, you can argue classes are more realistic. Most people in the real world tend to specialize in a particular skill set. There’s a limit to how much a single person can learn. Mastering every ability under the sun can strain credibility a little.

The Case for Skill-based

By comparison, skill-based systems are all about freedom. The freedom to be whoever you want, to play however you want, with little or no restrictions.

Classes are good at giving characters identity, but what if you already have an identity in mind, and it doesn’t exactly fit any available classes? What if you want to be an archer who uses a little magic? What if you want to be a paladin with light armor and more agility?

In class-based games, you’d be out of luck. In a skill-based game, it’s just a matter of unlocking the right skills.

There can be a real satisfaction in creating your own build from scratch, too. Giving players unlimited options unquestionably makes for a steeper learning curve, but it also brings with it a certain joy of experimentation, and a true sense of accomplishment when you finally settle on the build that clicks for you.

An argument for realism can also be made in favor of skill-based games, as well. The restrictions placed on most traditional classes are fairly arbitrary, after all. There’s no particularly good reason why a warrior couldn’t learn to pick locks, or a priest couldn’t be trained in archery. It lets your character be a person, not just an archetype.

A character using the Wu deck outfit in the skilled-based MMORPG The Secret World

And if you make a mistake, or if you have a change of heart, you can adapt. One of the most frustrating things that can happen in an RPG is to pick a class you think you’ll like and invest a lot of time into the character, only to find the mechanics don’t quite click for you, or for the developers to redesign it into something you no longer enjoy.

In a traditional class system, you’d have no choice but to suffer through it, or start over with a new character. In a skill-based system, you can just find a new build, and keep the character you’ve already invested in.

When I first started playing The Secret World, I played with a fist weapon/blood magic build. But after the first few zones, I wasn’t feeling it anymore. I was too squishy, and I didn’t have enough AoE damage. In most games, this would have been a real problem. But because TSW didn’t lock you into anything, it took me only about a day of normal play to earn enough ability points to swap from fist weapons to swords. Suddenly I was tougher, able to take on crowds with ease, and having much more fun.

I never looked back.

That’s the kind of freedom no class system will ever equal.

Which Wins Out?

This is one case where there are definite pros and cons to both sides, and I’m not sure either option can truly be said to be objectively superior. There’s a strong element of personal preference.

For my money, though?

Skill-based all the way.

RPGs — MMO or otherwise — about creating a character, playing a role. When you pick a class designed by other people, you’re playing someone else’s role. You’re forced into a narrow box, with little or no opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack.

A shot from the MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online

With a skill-based system, your character is truly yours. You can be whoever, whatever you want to be. You won’t be sharing the game with ten thousand identical clones of your character. You can be an individual.

It does have downsides. Skill-based systems have much steeper learning curves. They can be overwhelming in their complexity. They create balance issues, and they can limit a game’s mass market appeal.

And I do enjoy class systems, as well. I still love my rogues. Sometimes it’s nice to have a clear path to follow, without the need for experimentation or trial and error.

But the sheer freedom offered by skill-based games simply can’t be beat, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

We Need More D&D in MMORPGs

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

game master

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.

Subscriptions Are Still the Worst Business Model

With all the controversy swirling around lockboxes and other monetization strategies, I see an increasing number of people pining for the day when subscriptions were the standard business model for online games.

World of Warcraft, one of the few games still maintaining a subscription business model

I think it might be time for a reminder of how we ended up here. There’s a reason that free to play and buy to play are now the norm, and it’s not that developers are conducting an evil international conspiracy to make us lockbox addicts.

It’s that subscriptions failed as a model, and they failed because people realized there are better options. For all the flaws of other business models — and oh boy, they do have them — none are quite so bad a deal for the player as a monthly subscription fee. I firmly believe it is the worst business model for an MMORPG.

Let’s look at all the ways subs ill-serve players, and please note that for the purposes of this article, “subscription” refers only to games that require a regular fee in order to play. Optional subscriptions as part of a hybrid model are an entirely different beast, and something I’m entirely okay with.

They Enforce Grinding

One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever seen put forth in the MMO community is that only free to play business models affect gameplay.

That’s nonsense.

These days, the only subscription game I play is World of Warcraft. It is also by far and away the grindiest game I play. This is not a coincidence.

Honestly, are people truly naive enough to believe that things like attunements, lengthy reputation grinds, and low drop rates were implemented because they were fun? No, they were designed to extend the life of content, allowing developers to earn more subscription dollars from each player.

One of the new allied races coming in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion

This is why while most other games make the main story something you can just jump into and enjoy, WoW locks it behind weeks of reputation grinding. This is why Blizzard is now staggering its patch releases, with a trickle of new content unlocked each week, rather than patching it in all at once. Have you ever noticed how it always takes more than thirty days for anything to fully release?

One of the eternal criticisms of free to play games is that they force you pay cash, or grind endlessly. Don’t get me wrong, “pay or grind” is not a great deal for the player, but it’s still better than a subscription game, where you pay to grind.

A good example is WoW’s upcoming allied races feature. Whereas if a free to play game added a new playable race, you might have to pay to unlock it, WoW will require you to both pay for the new expansion and spend weeks — potentially months — grinding various reputations to unlock the new races.

Free to play games ask for your money or your time, but subscription games demand both, because for a subscription game they’re one and the same.

As the Goblins say, “Time is money, friend.”

They Spit in the Face of Customer Loyalty

Subscriptions are essentially “Yeah, but What Have You Done for Me Lately: The Business Model.” It doesn’t matter how many hours or how much money you pour into a game. If you haven’t coughed up $15 in the last thirty days, you’re completely locked out.

Let’s say you lose your job or otherwise hit a financial rough patch, and can no longer afford your subscription fee. Well, kiss goodbye to the characters you’ve spent potentially years developing. Say farewell to all the friends in your guild. Sucks to be you.

Final Fantasy XIV, one the last remaining subscription games on the market

That’s a terrible way to treat a loyal customer.

Games based around micro-transactions may have their flaws, but when you buy something, it’s yours. If you don’t have the funds to keep spending as you have, you can still keep playing, and enjoying all the perks you’ve bought in the past.

But to a subscription game, you’re only as good as your last payment. Never have I felt less like a person and more like a walking dollar sign than while playing a subscription game.

They Discourage Variety

In the past, there weren’t many MMOs around, and it made sense to just fully commit to one. But these days the field is overflowing with choices, and most people want to be able to enjoy more than one game.

Subscriptions make that a lot more difficult. If you’re paying a subscription to one game, playing anything else is going to feel like you’re wasting money because, well, you are. And if the other games you want to play are also subscription based, the cost is going to get prohibitive pretty fast.

Subscription games want you to play them and nothing else, and that sucks the fun out of the whole hobby. You don’t get to enjoy other games as much, and you burn out on your main game more quickly.

Their One Strength Is a Lie

The one advantage a mandatory subscription is supposed to hold over other business models — the chief argument I see put forth in its favour — is that it creates a level playing field. You pay a single fee and get access to the whole game. You don’t have your wallet eaten away by numerous extra charges, and everyone is put on the same level.

Argus in the subscription MMORPG World of Warcraft

Which is great except for the fact that isn’t true at all.

Let’s again use World of Warcraft as an example. To start playing it at all, you first have to buy the base game, which is $25 here in Canada (I believe it’s about $20 for Americans).

These days, Blizzard rolls all legacy expansions into the base game, so that will get you a lot of content, but if you want to play WoW to any significant degree, you’ll have to buy the most recent expansion, too. Blizzard not only abandons legacy content but will often go out of their way to make it unrewarding, and the community never lingers in old expansions, which cuts off the group-centric experiences WoW is built around.

So you need to buy the current expansion, currently priced at $63 up here, and that’s assuming you don’t spring for the deluxe edition, which contains a number of exclusive cosmetics. If you want to keep playing for any length of time, you’ll need to keep buying expansions as they release.

Then there’s the cash shop to consider. While WoW’s might not be quite as fully stocked as some free MMOs, it’s still pretty extensive, and also priced higher than most other games. The companion pets alone would run you around $200 if you wanted all of them. Often the mounts and pets in the cash shop are far more elaborate and detailed than anything in-game, as well.

“But those are just cosmetics,” I hear you say. And I really have no problem with games selling such things in principle. I just bought myself a new hairstyle in ESO a few days ago.

But it’s not just cosmetics. The cash shops also feature things like race changes, name changes, and server transfers, and while most of those are minor conveniences, choice of server can have a huge impact on your experience of an MMO, and it’s inevitable some people will need to transfer. Maybe you picked a dead server without realizing it, or maybe your once-thriving community has fallen apart.

A desert city in the subscription MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV

It gets worse if you play multiple characters, as most people do these days. At $32 per character (again, Canadian numbers), transferring more than one or two characters will cost more than a new triple AAA game.

It keeps going. Nowadays you can also buy character boosts that instantly level you to just below the current cap, and there’s the WoW Token to consider. With it, you can buy gold that can then be spent on BoE epics, allowing you to gear up your character entirely through the cash shop.

All this from a business model that’s supposed to give everyone everything for one monthly fee.

This isn’t unique to WoW, either. Final Fantasy XIV engages in similar practices, and while things may have gotten more pronounced in recent years, MMOs have always charged extra on top of their subscriptions, even if just for expansion packs.

The ideal of a subscription putting everyone on equal ground is a noble one, and if it were actually true, I’d probably feel a lot better about subscription games. It still wouldn’t be my favourite model because of the other problems listed above, but at least it would have a strong argument in its favour.

But it’s just not true. It was never true, and it’s getting less true all the time. Subscriptions don’t make games fair, they don’t prevent the best rewards from having price tags, and they don’t stop people from buying power.

* * *

MMO monetization is a messy business. Developers want to make as much money as possible, and players want everything for free. No solution will ever fully satisfy both sides. But while every model has flaws, none are worse for the player than a subscription fee for access. It’s a failed model, and it doesn’t deserve resurrection.

Niche MMOs Are the Future

In theory, it would seem like a good thing for an MMORPG to try to have as broad appeal as possible. And certainly it’s not a bad thing. But as is so often the case in life, good intentions can have negative consequences. Trying to make an MMO that appeals to everyone equally can do more harm than good.

Exploring Saturn's moon of Titan in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We MMO players are a diverse bunch, you see. Some of us are in it for the competition. Some for the story. Some for the friendships. Some of us like to quest. Others only want to raid. Others want to PvP. And so on.

But developers don’t have infinite resources. Budgets only have so much money, and employees only have so many hours in the day. If you try to please all of these disparate factions equally, you’ll spread yourself thin. MMOs that try to please everyone are more likely to end up pleasing no one.

We have seen this time and again. When every MMO tries to appeal to every group of gamers, you end up with a sea of bland games with no personality.

It’s time to move on from that paradigm. All-arounder MMOs are the past. Niche MMOs are the future.

How We Got Here

In the early days of the genre, MMO developers tended to dabble in a bit of everything. The desire at the time was to create fully fleshed out virtual worlds, and I think there was also an element of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It was a new genre. Everything was new and exciting, and experimentation was the order of the day.

I know a lot of people look back very fondly on those days, but I don’t think it’s a situation that could have continued forever. The Wild West got civilized eventually, after all.

Plus, for my money the caliber of a virtual world is determined by the quality of how it’s crafted more so than how many systems you can pile into a single game. And that’s really what this whole discussion is about: quality versus quantity.

The Battlefield Barrens event in World of Warcraft

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The end result is MMOs were initially established as games that tried to do everything, or at least as much possible.

Into this environment entered World of Warcraft, the biggest hit the MMO genre has ever seen.

World of Warcraft is the ultimate all-arounder MMO. It has pretty much every kind of content an MMO can offer: raiding, dungeons, quests, PvP, crafting, mini-games, and so forth. And its broad appeal has helped it achieve unprecedented levels of success.

But here’s the lesson the MMO community failed to learn: WoW is special. Its success was a perfect storm of timing, good design, a popular IP, and Blizzard’s massive resources. Its success reached such a scale it became self-perpetuating. These days World of Warcraft is popular and successful precisely because it’s popular and successful.

In other words, lightning doesn’t strike twice. There can’t and won’t be another WoW.

But that didn’t stop players and developers alike from chasing the fabled “WoW killer.” WoW was seen not as a lucky, unique case, but as the model for how MMORPGs should be designed going forward.

Thus began the era of the WoW clone, an endless procession of barely distinguishable games that all tried to be as broadly appealing as WoW, but never quite succeeded. They all tried to have something unique to set themselves apart from the pack — such as Rift’s dynamic events or the more robust story-telling of Star Wars: The Old Republic — but they spread themselves thin trying to do everything and so failed to achieve any real identity as games.

Most of the big name WoW clones are still chugging along, but none of them came close to dethroning WoW, and after years of at best mediocre success with such games, publishers and players alike became jaded and wary.

Ancient Sith lords in Star Wars: The Old Republic

We’ve now reached a point where the future of the MMO genre is somewhat uncertain. A lot of people seem to be worried about the survival of MMOs, but I think it’s not so much the case that MMOs are falling out of favour so much as the name is. This is seen in the case of the Destiny franchise, which is very much an MMO and also quite popular, but whose developers are hesitant to call it an MMO due to the negative connotations that term has earned.

So I don’t think MMOs are dying, but they are struggling to find their voice. To move forward, they need to get better at embracing niches.

Niche the Right Way

What do I mean when I talk about niche MMOs? Mostly I just mean games with some focus. Games that know what they want to be, and aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

When I think of a good niche MMORPG, my mind of course goes to the late, lamented Secret World. This was a game that had a very clear vision, focused on story and ambiance. Yes, it also had dungeons, and PvP, and even raids, but none of those things were allowed to distract from what the game did best: telling great stories.

Of course, TSW didn’t do so well economically, leading to its desperation reboot. But that’s due to more factors than its niche nature. It was very poorly marketed, and suffered from significant mismanagement around its launch. You don’t have your offices raided by the police if the boss is doing a good job.

What can’t be denied is that TSW’s focus made for one of the best experiences in the MMORPG world — for those whom the game appealed to, at least. Focus equals quality. Niche equals quality. And as a player I’m always going to be more concerned about quality than what brings in the most profits.

While I wouldn’t describe it as a niche game per se, another good example of an MMORPG with a clear vision is Elder Scrolls Online. It’s an adaptation of a single-player franchise, and it carries that legacy forward with a deep world, compelling quests, and rewarding exploration. It also has dungeons, raids, and PvP, but it never neglects that which it does best: its world and story. You never have to wait long for a new zone or new quests to be added.

A story cutscene in The Secret World

On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has struggled to stick to a vision. It made story its selling point, but it also tried to be a raiding game in the WoW mould. It was an over-ambitious game, and it never achieved enough success to continue its myriad class stories or provide enough endgame content to satisfy the hardcore crowd.

SWTOR spent years trying to find the balance between a story-driven RPG and a WoW-style raid grinder. It never managed to fully succeed at either.

Then, they decided to double down on what they do best: story. The Knights of the Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne expansions focused on lavish story-telling, while adding only minimal group content, and it seemed to be a true reinvention of the game.

However, the endgame crowd was displeased by the shift in focus. As a result, SWTOR has once again returned to spreading itself thin, and the game has suffered as a result. Story progress has slowed to the barest trickle, whereas PvP remains a neglected mini-game, and raiders still have nowhere near enough content to satisfy them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of public numbers on SWTOR’s population or income, so it’s hard to say how much these zigzagging changes in direction have affected the game, but anecdotally, the Knights expansion seemed to generate a real splash, despite some controversy, whereas the patches since then seem an excellent example of trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing no one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be possible to be too niche. I think a lot of upcoming crowdfunded MMOs are going to struggle due to focusing on too narrow an audience. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk; you need to find a niche, but it needs to be a niche big enough to support a full MMORPG.

But I don’t think there’s any real future in games that are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. We’re never going to legitimize MMOs to the mainstream if all we can show are bland, soulless games that no one can tell apart. That way lies a slow death for the genre.

The new Copero flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

In a world where subscription fees are largely a thing of the past, it makes more sense for each game to carve out its own identity, rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Instead of playing one game with mediocre raiding and mediocre PvP, you can play a game with a great raiding, and a different game with great PvP. One game need not be your everything.

We must let go of the idea of an MMO that can be all things to all people. Niche games are more risky, but it’s the only way to create games that are truly memorable, truly unique. That’s where the future of MMORPG genre must lie.