Category Archives: MMO Game Design

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.


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
MMOEvent
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.

Conclusion

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.


Lowered Health Pools – More Fun?

I have some strong feelings about (most) MMORPG health pools. And like any good opinion, it can be summed up with a meme:

mmorpg health pools meme

MMORPG health pools have grown to absurd propositions. DPS meters clear a million easy. More precisely, World of Warcraft’s top damage dealer serves out 1.5 million damage per second. World of Warcraft’s DPS currency resembles a country suffering from hyper inflation, and like a such a country, it’s hard to take seriously. High health enemies require monotonous ability usage to down. High health characters negate any semblance of combat intensity. Simple calculations give way to mandatory use of online tools to decipher true net effects. Gameplay starts revolving around bigger and bigger numbers, leaving little room for anything else.

The benefit of large health pools is that it’s easier for developers to balance. Boiling everything down to a few numbers rather than fine tuning systems takes a lot less effort and allows for more fractional balance changes. That’s noteworthy – so I’m not saying smaller health pools is easy to implement.

I’m simply suggesting that there’s a lot to be gained by taking the path less traveled. D&D has balanced around small health pools for decades. Some of the positive side effects of such a system can be found in games like (not surprisingly) Dungeons & Dragons Online.

5 Reasons to Lower Health Pools

1) Easier to understand and mentally calculate the effects of abilities, talents, items.

2) More room on the screen for things that aren’t ten digit numbers.

3) Forces developers to move into damage mitigation, which opens up more diverse play styles.

4) Ramps up intensity and sensation of danger (whether artificially or not) when every hit point actually means something.

5) Higher hit points tend to result in longer, repetitive fights. MMORPG battles stay interesting until you “solve” them. On average, I would expect lowered MMORPG hit points to lead to faster battles and fewer slogs.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do it

The main reason high health pools are “in” is because it’s simply less time consuming for developers. This frees up man hours to create more content, which is the current big selling point for maintaining active players. Personally, I’d rather see more time devoted towards a better base system. The content gap can be filled by procedural generation and emergent narrative structures.

Expansions and DLC are usually the primary culprits for numerical inflation. It’s easy to grasp that higher damage, healing, health, etc. is better. Sticking to a low health pool system necessitates developing less obvious character progressions. Horizontal progression is one option (pick the right tools for the fight), but damage mitigation is absolutely paramount regardless of the progression type. Unfortunately, most damage mitigation systems devolve into an obtuse Diablo style resistance system.

Again, tabletop RPGs like D&D offer a neat outline for engineering these solutions. Tabletop games are forced to work with smaller numbers, and there are some pretty cool lesser known RPGs out there like Iron Kingdoms. I know if I had millions of dollars to develop a new MMORPG, I’d spend a few hundred of that on tabletop player handbooks for market research.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating a product that maximizes fun. When choosing between high health pools and low health pools, the latter exhibits so much more potential.

 


Can MMOs Provide Satisfying Endings?

I’ve been thinking about endings lately. About how and if MMOs can end. I’m not talking about when games shut down — or at least not entirely — but about the stories within MMOs, and whether they can ever be given satisfying conclusions.

The ending of The Secret World's Whispering Tide event

This is a complex topic, so let me explain.

The Rock and the Hard Place

Although MMORPGs are not often thought of as a particularly narrative-driven genre, story is nonetheless a fairly essential part of the MMO experience — or at least the themepark MMO experience, anyway. It’s what steers the direction of the game and gives what we do a sense of purpose.

Even if you’re not the sort of person to delve deeply into lore, most would agree that it’s more interesting to fight the traitor Arthas Menethil atop the Frozen Throne than it is to fight Raid Boss #3.3.12 in a gray box.

So story is important, but MMOs are unusual in that they are meant to be continuous. There isn’t the same beginning, middle, and end structure. That persistence is a large part of what makes MMOs appealing, but it’s a double-edged sword, because it cuts out something terribly important to any good story: the end.

To see how important endings are, look at Mass Effect 3. This is a game almost universally reviled, and that’s purely on the basis of its ending. I vehemently disagree with the criticism of ME3’s ending, actually, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere, and either way it illustrates how much an ending colors people’s perceptions of a story.

The trouble with MMOs is that their entire point is to not end, so the story just forges ahead endlessly. This usually results in one of two things, and neither is desirable.

The first is the game sunsets and shuts down entirely. Since no one plans to lose their job, the developers will be unprepared for this, and the story will either end unfinished or be given an ending that’s far too rushed.

A paladin class story in World of Warcraft

The other is that a game just keeps going on and on, and inevitably, this is going to take a toll on its story-telling. I’m sure we can all think of one or two TV shows that ran for too long and stretched the story past its breaking point. This is no different. A story you love going on forever is one of those things that sounds great until you achieve it, and then you realize that no story can remain compelling forever.

But what can be done? Can MMOs ever truly achieve satisfactory endings?

Saying Goodbye Is Hard

MMOs are, in the end, businesses, and while I do think many developers also care about the artistic side of things, the fact remains that choosing to end a profitable game based purely on artistic integrity is going to be a hard sell, to put it mildly.

Perhaps it is then up to the players to choose their own ending, to simply stop playing whenever they reach what they feel could be a satisfying conclusion to the story. You’d be surprised how many people stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King simply because the Lich King’s story was what they cared about, and with it done, they no longer had any investment.

That’s not an ideal solution, though. It can be hard to judge when the right moment to leave is. I know a lot of those people who quit after Wrath missed out on some of WoW’s best story-telling by not playing expansions like Legion and Mists of Pandaria. And it can be hard to make a clean break, especially if you still have friends in the game.

There are some examples of developers delivering true endings to their MMO’s story, but they’re few and far between. The original Guild Wars comes to mind, but it ceased new development largely to make way for its sequel, so I’m not sure that’s really an ending per se.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2

One other example is Final Fantasy XI, which as I understand it did try to deliver a conclusion to its story before entering maintenance mode. Unfortunately I’ve never played that game, and as an old title with a small community, it’s hard to find a lot of information about it, so I’m not sure exactly how that panned out. Did it wrap up every loose end, or was it simply an end to content updates rather than a true conclusion of the story?

That’s a rare case, too. Square Enix is a very successful company with another popular MMO under its belt. Few have the resources to give a proper send-off to an aging game like that.

The one other option I see is to wrap up the big storyline of a game, then continue with smaller, more minor story quests for so long as the game persists.

There is actually a recent example of this. Lord of the Rings Online was a game whose story had a clear conclusion: the destruction of the One Ring. I honestly thought they’d keep procrastinating about getting to that forever, but now with the recent Mordor expansion, the Ring’s journey has finally ended, yet the game persists, now forging new ground as it deals with the aftermath of the War of the Ring.

This seems like an excellent idea to me, but again I do not play LotRO, so I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s worked out. I like the idea, at least.

I’m not sure this would work for every game, though. World of Warcraft defines itself by being as bombastic and epic as possible. Abandoning major threats for smaller stories of character and culture just wouldn’t quite work there. It may instead be doomed to continue on until it becomes totally ridiculous (some might argue it’s already there).

This is another situation that lacks an easy solution.

How would you give closure to MMO stories, and do you have any examples of it being done well?


Time to Move on from the Bartle Types?

If you’ve spent any time at all in the MMO community, you’re probably familiar with the Bartle taxonomy of players types, designed by influential developer Richard Bartle. Created in the days of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), it divides players into four broad categories and is viewed by many as the gold standard for understanding player motivation in online gaming.

A diagram of Bartle's player types

However, at least as it applies to MMORPGs, I think the Bartle types are a flawed model, ultimately too simplistic to accurately define the complex motivations of human beings. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Bartle himself, but of the way his model is used (and abused) by many players and journalists within the community, as well as the flaws of trying to fit players into narrow boxes in the first place.

The Basics

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Bartle taxonomy, let’s do a quick run-down of what it is.

Bartle’s theory divides MUD players into four categories: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers.

Achievers are about winning, earning high scores, and generally proving their mastery over the game. They want to earn points, gear, and anything else that can give them prestige.

Explorers are about, well, exploring. This means both physically exploring the game world, as well as tinkering with game systems to learn their ins and outs.

Socializers are most interested in interacting with other players and making friends. The game systems come secondary to the bonds they form with fellow players.

Killers seek to impose their will on other players. They enjoy PvP combat, griefing, trolling, and domination by any means at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read Bartle’s original paper on the matter.

There is also the so-called “Bartle test,” which you can take to determine your Bartle type. It’s worth noting this test wasn’t actually developed by Bartle himself, but it’s still often talked about at the same time as his original theorem and is often used by players to determine their personal player type.

Let’s talk about that test.

A Case Study

Exploring in Guild Wars 2

I don’t want to make this all about me, but I think I’m a great example of the flaws in this model, at least as applied to MMOs.

I’ve taken the Bartle test a few times over the years. It usually pegs me as an explorer, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate label for me.

I can enjoy exploring MMOs, but it’s definitely not my focus. It’s usually something that I do when I’m bored and don’t have anything better to do in-game. My favourite style of content in MMOs is linear story, which is just about the exact opposite of what the archetypal explorer is supposed to be into.

When it comes to the more abstract style of exploring — understanding game systems — it used to appeal to me more, but these days it’s not something I get a lot of joy from. I like to know what I’m doing, but I’m not the sort of person who has to tinker with every little thing.

In preparation for this article, I took the test again, and this time it pegged me as a socializer, with a 73% match to explorer’s 60%. That’s even more baffling.

I’m one of the most anti-social MMO players around. I haven’t belonged to a guild in years, and I generally prefer to play alone. I’m happy to make small talk with a PUG or perhaps participate in general chat, but I never seek out interaction with other players for its own sake. If I’m grouped with other people, it’s only ever as a means to an end.

So the test is way off where I’m concerned. Maybe it’s just a flaw in the test, but really, what archetype should I belong to? I like structured play and clear goals, which is an achiever trait, but I’ve never had any desire to be the best or show off my mastery, so that doesn’t really fit, either. And I actively avoid conflict with other players, so I’m definitely not a killer, either.

The fact is I don’t fit into any of Bartle’s types. And I very much doubt I’m alone in this.

A Flawed Concept

A villain character in DC Universe Online

It’s worth remembering that the Bartle types were created to define players of MUDs only. Yes, MUDs can be viewed as the ancestors of MMOs, but there’s still quite a lot of difference between a text-based simulation and a modern graphical MMORPG. And Bartle himself has said that the model may be incomplete for non-MUD games and perhaps should not be applied to them (it’s also worth noting he’s since expanded the original model to eight players types).

So even the model’s creator seems to feel it’s a bit outdated, at least as it relates to modern MMOs, and yet we still have many players and commentators treating it as gospel. I’m not really sure why, save that personality typing seems to appeal to a lot of people in general, even when it’s based on shaky science, or no science at all. People still put their faith in astrological signs, after all.

Really, though, the only people who should be thinking about player types are developers. There’s no value in laymen like you and me trying to define the archetypes of MMO players. We don’t have the expertise to do so properly, and even if we did, what would we do with the information? Why is being able to say “I like this because I’m an explorer” viewed as more valuable than “I like this because it’s fun”?

And even for developers, I think it would be dangerous to put too much weight on abstract player types, even if they could find an accurate model for such. People are complex creatures, and you can’t just boil us down to shallow archetypes.

A lot of principles of good game design are universal, after all. Do you think the ancients who invented Chess were worried about how it would appeal to different archetypes of people? No, they just made a game with good mechanics, and it’s remained a popular pass time for centuries. Perhaps Bartle type classification is adding too much science to what should be a more artistic pursuit?

People are individuals. We shouldn’t be trying to over-simplify them into such narrow categories.