Category Archives: Questions

When Is an MMO Really Dead?

One of my favourite scientific mysteries is the debate over what constitutes death. You might think that’s a simple question to answer, but it’s not. People can be revived after their hearts stop, if too much time hasn’t passed. Even after the brain dies, some biological processes continue for some time, making death much less a hard line and more of a continuum.

The moon rising over Stormwind in World of Warcraft

In the same way, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to define at what point an MMORPG can be considered a “dead” game. There is never any shortage of people willing to claim that any and every game is dead or dying, after all. If you want a creative way to commit suicide, try taking a drink every time someone on a forum claims WoW is dying, and enjoy your liver failure.

But for every person declaring a game dead, there’s usually at least one or two still playing it, so can it really be dead?

Let’s see if we can determine when, in fact, an MMO actually dies.

Decline

A lot of times when someone says a game is dead or dying, really what they mean is that it’s in decline. Player numbers are down, and patches are becoming smaller or less frequent.

That this is considered to qualify as “dead” really proves nothing but how hyperbolic some members of the community can be, even before we consider the fact that in many “dying” games the extent of the decline tends to be greatly exaggerated. No one likes a content gap, but it doesn’t a dying game make.

Even in cases where the decline is real, I think we can safely declare that it doesn’t mean a game is dead. No product stays at the peak of its success forever, and a certain degree of decline is not cause for panic.

Maintenance Mode

At the end of its life-cycle, an MMO reaches the stage known as maintenance mode. No further development is planned; if patches come at all, they’ll only be minor bug fixes or other maintenance tasks.

This is where things get a bit more debatable. A large part of what makes MMOs special is that they are living, evolving games that grow with time. When you cut that off, it ceases to function as an MMO in a very fundamental way.

Baron Samedi, loa of death, in The Secret World, a game that is itself dead by some standards

It also does the playerbase no favors. Maintenance mode ensures that few if any new players will join, and even loyal veterans are likely to start drifting away.

Still, games can continue operating in maintenance mode for many years. Just ask players of the original Guild Wars. And if people are still playing and having fun, is that truly a dead game?

Closure

For those who aren’t Chicken Littles proclaiming death upon a game at the slightest sign of trouble, the most obvious time to declare a game dead is when it officially closes. The servers go dark, characters people have sunk potentially hundreds of hours into are lost to the aether, mournful blog posts are shared across cyberspace, and loyal players are left to find a new digital home.

A closed game seems pretty conclusively dead. Certainly the former players will go into mourning.

And yet, even then, death is not always truly death. Formerly closed games sometimes return, perhaps under new publishers, though these resurrections tend to be short-lived. See the rollercoaster life cycle of Hellgate: London.

Even failing an official resurrection, MMOs can still cheat death following closure. This is the world of emulators, wherein passionate fans salvage old code to run private servers of their favourite games.

The poster child for this phenomenon has to be Star Wars Galaxies, a game whose intensely passionate fanbase has kept its memory alive through a thriving emulator community.

This, more than anything else, illustrates what a nebulous concept the idea of a “dead” game is. SWG fits the bill of a dead game better than most anything, having been officially shuttered for many years and being far beyond the hope of any growth or further development. And yet there are plenty of people playing it right now, as you read this.

Promotional art for Hellgate: London, a game that has died perhaps more times than any other

And again, if people are playing it, can you truly say it’s dead?

Extinction

So if even an official closure doesn’t always mean the end of an MMO, what is true death for an online game?

I would say that a game is only truly and irrevocably dead when it has been erased beyond any hope of revival. When its assets have been utterly expunged from the digital world, and its fanbase has vanished or diminished beyond recognition.

And in the age of the Internet, that’s spectacularly hard to do. Not impossible, of course — just ask the players of that Korean MMO that was deleted from existence a few years back — but given how hard it is to ever fully erase anything from the Internet, the odds of any MMORPG being killed beyond any hope of revival are surprisingly slim.

And that makes all the hand-wringing over “dying” games seem all that much more silly. If you listened to the commentariat, you would be left with the impression that MMOs are fragile things, rarely surviving past their initial launch and under constant threat of disappearing, but the exact opposite is true. MMOs are, by and large, incredibly resilient, and extremely difficult to truly kill.

That doesn’t make it less upsetting when a game you love begins to decline or even closes, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you worry for the future of your favorite game or wonder whether it’s worth investing in a new title if it’s not topping the charts, always remember just how hard it is for an MMO to truly die.


Why We Love Doing Dumb Things in MMOs

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

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

The Demand for Dumb Things

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

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

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

Crafting dailies in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

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

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

Positive, Immediate and Certain Rewards

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

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

Achievements as a Way to Cope

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

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

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

The achievement tracker in Guild Wars 2 (GW2)

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

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

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

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

Playing for Fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Does working make a game come to life?

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


The Greater Evil: Gold Sellers or Toxic Players?

As MMORPGs have carved out their sizable hole in the video game industry, they’ve attracted all sorts of scrupulous folks. One of those is the third party gold seller. Black markets for real money transactions have been around since Ultima Online. Back then people used eBay to sell gold for real money. This eventually evolved into China (and others) creating jobs out of farming in-game currency to resell it. These real world monetary ties have been only further enforced through items like lockboxes. Now every MMORPG (especially the free to play MMOs) are filled with bots spamming chats with gold selling services or occupying grind spots to make more gold to sell you.

Along with the prevalence of RMT, the sheer size of MMORPG communities have created another type of nuisance: toxic players. Reputation just doesn’t matter as much as it used to when MMORPG communities were tighter knit and games necessitated player interaction to accomplish anything. The risk accompanying trolling or harassing players affected behavior when it meant real penalties. EverQuest players would blackball trolls from groups and Ultima Online players could straight up kill you and loot your belongings. Now that MMO anonymity reigns supreme, with things like pugs comprising most of the grouping content in MMOs and an increase in dispensable characters through fast leveling, the average player is more likely to make a mom joke than help you learn the ropes. Nobody wants to be cursed out or harassed during their wind down time, but toxic players just don’t care who they hurt.

Gold sellers and toxic players. Both thorns in the side of the silent majority MMORPG player, but who is worse?

The Case Against Gold Sellers

Chat Spam

“Go to w w w . hax0rz-gold-place . i o to get 1,000 gp for $1 SPECIALS 24 HOURS ONLY BUY NOW!!!! Whipser me!!”

Surely you’ve seen something similar to the above. Surely you’ve seen it paint an entire chat log. When $1 buys you an hour’s worth of work in gathering gold, it’s no wonder people turn to gold sellers. While I don’t blame buyers for eliminating grinding from their MMO diet, the unfortunate consequence is that gold sellers need to plaster their services everywhere to get noticed by those buyers. Even people I know who buy gold block the spam from their chats, but new names and accounts pop up everyday. It’s not like it’s hard to do when they’re all…

Bots, Bots, Bots

There used to be a time when men were men. Now men are bots, at least those farming for gold. Nothing makes a world feel more hollow than watching a train of supposed players slaying monsters with robotic rhythm. It also cheapens the entire experience seeing that your job could be finished by a handful of scripts.

Pay to Win

MMORPGs with a heavy PvP slant can see competitive balance completely upturned by gold sellers. Let’s be real, actual player skill level is a fraction of one’s prowess. The bread and butter of strength for the vast majority of MMORPGs lies in spending time just playing the game. Paying gold sellers in certain ecosystems can result in power spikes that would be impossible otherwise. Of course, some companies don’t even need gold sellers to ruin competitive balance. Developers can usually find a way to keep massive monetary infusions from ruining their game (like bind on pickup items in World of Warcraft).

The Case Against Toxic Players

Insults

If something goes wrong, there’s a good chance somebody is going to blow a fuse. There’s an even higher chance that the target of their ire isn’t going to be themselves but someone else in the group. That’s when bitter insults get flung across the virtual chat logs at whoever the insulter is placing the blame on. But that’s besides the point. Nobody messes up on purpose (well, not true, but we’ll get to that). Insults ruin the experience for everyone – either the group needs to boot out the offender and wait for a replacement or suffer angry banter for the next hour.

Trolling

Then there are the people who get their jollies from purposefully playing poorly or antagonizing with the express purpose to agitate. This may be a reaction from another group member dropping the ball or a perceived slight against them for whatever reason. Trolls can sometimes provide a fun counter to the bitter insulter types, but that’s rarely the case. Instead they usually put all of their effort not just into degradation but to actively cause failures. No chat filter in the world can save you from that.

Social Contract

An old philosophical theory, the social contract represents an implicit agreement among members for a society to cooperate for social benefits. In the context of MMORPGs, this means more levels and more loot. While some developers are diving into anti-social multiplayer games, MMORPGs still remain largely about inclusion. In my opinion, this social contract is one of the top reasons why the genre is so strong. When somebody refuses to cooperate, their sending a message that society is so broken we should just play the game by ourselves.

Who Loses?

I’m certainly not going to argue gold sellers or toxic players are good for MMORPG communities. We’ve even posted some practical solutions for lowering toxicity. There’s only so much that can be done though. Policing toxic players past a certain point is going to get innocents into the mix and result in even less communicative games. At that point, I’m done with the genre. I don’t play MMORPGs to measure by item level rankings against other players. Meanwhile, gold sellers can be restricted by gaming systems that ensure the player meet some requirements themselves before being able to fully make use of the gold.

So with that, I have to conclude that toxic players are far worse for MMORPGs than gold sellers.