Category Archives: Socializing Online

Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

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

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

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

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

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

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

Christmas elements in MMOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

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

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

1) Sci-fi MMOs

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

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

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

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

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

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

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

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

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

3) High Fantasy MMOs

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

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

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


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

Gender Perception in MMOs

“I myself merely play female characters sometimes, and many times when I’m on those characters, people assume that I am a woman in real life,” he wrote. I blinked. It was a casual comment in an article that was about something else entirely, but it sparked a thought. You see, Larry Everett’s experience is very different from my own.

“That’s awesome!” I found myself thinking. “Seriously, you are playing a female character and you’re actually addressed as a woman?! People should realize how special this is.” I also thought (because I’m an imperfect human being, like everyone else): “Ha! Now you know what it feels like!”

All my characters are female. However, when typing to strangers in MMOs, 9 out of 10 times they (incorrectly) assume I am male. Now I’m not having sleepless nights over this (which is a good thing, or I’d have developed insomnia), but it does get old pretty fast. I asked other female gamers I know and they reported the same phenomenon.

Player avatars hanging out in the central hub in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

It is striking that Everett’s experience and mine are so different  – especially considering we play the same MMO, Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR). It could be that this is partly due to our perception: we are more likely to remember instances in which other players guessed it wrong than in which they guessed it right. But perhaps there’s more to this.

Game scientists have conducted research on the perception of gender in virtual environments. Although there is no data on how often we address others with a certain gender, there is evidence that certain factors affect how we perceive others.

What we do affects who we appear to be

It is possible that gender perception varies depending on our choice of activities in-game. A study from 2010 shows that game genre influences our perception of other players’ gender (Eden et al. 2010). We are more likely to perceive players as male when they’re playing games that are competitive and aggressive (such as shooters) – traditionally masculine associated traits. On the other hand, players are more likely assumed to be female when playing games that are social in nature. It is interesting to note that no relationship between skill level and perceived gender was found.

Although this research focused on gamers playing different game genres, you could extrapolate that the same goes for in-game activities. Perhaps players are more likely to expect male players when taking part in competitive and more aggressive environments such as PvP MMOs and raiding endgames, while they are more likely to expect female players when taking part in social activities, such as role-play. If this is true, it would explain why I’m often assumed to be male – I spend the majority of my time in-game playing endgame.

What we look like affects who we appear to be

Another study found that the degree of masculinity or femininity of an avatar significantly influences perceptions of avatars (Nowak & Rauh 2005). While this study deals with web avatars rather than avatars within multiplayer games, I don’t think it’s unlikely that the same goes for the latter. Judging by his article, Larry Everett spends a lot of time role-playing on his characters (some of which are female) on the fleet, the central player hub in SWTOR. This could explain why he does get addressed as female from time to time. After all, when role-playing, people will be more attentive to character appearances than when you are rushing through hordes of mobs with a pug. In instances where little to no attention to character looks is given, we might be inclined to go with the male default instead.

A boarding party during a mission in Star Trek: Online

The nature of gameplay may affect assumed player gender. Screenshot from Star Trek Online (STO)

What we expect affects who we appear to be

Historically, gaming has been the realm of men. Indeed, gaming as a pastime is still associated with boys, violence and masculinity (Bryce & Rutter 2002). You could argue that the tendency to address all players as male is a relic of past times, wherein the vast majority of gamers were male. However, speaking from personal experience, most players seem aware that the MMO populace is more varied nowadays. (A heads up: recent research by Quantic Foundry (2017) found that 16-36% of MMO players are female – varying on the MMO’s setting.) When ten years ago I logged into an MMO and strangers found out I was a woman playing endgame, they were flabbergasted. Now it’s more like “Oh, okay.”

So if most MMO players are aware that both genders play, why do we tend to address strangers with “he”? My guess is that it has to do with the persisting perception of the male gender as the default in modern western culture. Let me explain with an example outside of the realm of gaming.

A couple of years ago, I took part in a university course. At one point, a classmate of mine took the stage and gave a fifteen minute presentation about a paper we had read. During, she constantly referred to the author as “he”. This was awkward, because I knew the author was, in fact, female. She had an foreign first name that I did not recognize, so I had googled her the evening before to check. When the student was done, our teacher asked how she would feel if she had published an article in a well known magazine and a reviewer wouldn’t even have looked up who she was.

The incident showed me how disrespectful it is to regard everyone as male, because it radiates disinterest. I realized it could just as well have been me making that mistake if I would not have taken the extra time to research the evening before. For me, this moment was an eye opener and I decided to never assume a gender when addressing someone I don’t know.

Female avatar in Guild Wars 2

Character appearances may influence the assumed gender of players. Screenshot from Guild Wars 2 (GW2).

Referring to strangers in MMOs

What about MMOs, though, where you can’t simply google a player’s gender? The only way to find out (apart from voice chat) would be asking. And asking can be intrusive because not everyone likes sharing their gender for various reasons (Fortim & De Moura Grando 2013).

Ever since the awkward class room experience, I’ve been more aware of prejudices regarding gender perception. Sometimes I notice I assume someone to have a certain gender because of the way they talk or behave in game. But then I remember my decision. When I write a blog post in reaction to somebody else’s and their blog doesn’t state their gender, I refer to them as “they”. And the same goes for MMOs, really. Chances are that when I use “they” when talking about someone else, somebody will correct me and then I know how to address them. And if they don’t and want to keep their gender private, that’s fine, too.

Some dislike the use of “they”. For them (har har), going by the character’s gender is a great alternative. It will mean that they’ll get it wrong from time to time, but hey, it might prompt gamers think about gender perception in MMOs for a bit.

Do other players generally assume you’re male or female in MMOs? How do you address strangers online yourself?



Bryce, J. and J. Rutter, 2002: Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visibility, in F. Mäyrä (ed.): Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, 243-255.

Eden, A., E. Malony and N. D. Bowman, 2010: Gender Attribution in Online Video Games, in: Journal of Media Psychology 22, 114-1124.

Fortim, I. and C. de Moura Grando, 2013: Attention whore! Perception of female players who identify themselves as women in the communities of MMOs. Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) conference publication.

Williams, D., M. Consalvo, S. Caplan and N. Yee, 2009: Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers, in: Journal of Communication 59, 700–725.

Yee, N., 2017: Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down The Percentage of Female Gamers by Genre, on Quantic Foundry website ( on 3 November 2017).

Why MMOs Are Good

We spend a lot of time here criticizing MMOs and their community. And that’s not a bad thing. Constructive criticism is crucial for growth, and there are many mistakes and challenges dogging the world of MMORPGs. Those should be criticized.

MMOs are good Black Desert

But there is a danger in becoming too bogged down in the negative. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and appreciate what we have. MMOs have problems, but there’s also a lot about them that’s truly special. We wouldn’t be so passionate about them if that wasn’t the case.

So let’s take a moment to celebrate the things that make MMOs good, the things that no other type of entertainment can offer. The things that always bring us back for more.


If you’ve been following my articles for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed I take an extremely cynical view of the MMO community as a whole. The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” does come to mind.

But even if the MMO community is a foul place on the macro scale, that doesn’t mean there can’t be positive stories on a more personal level. While toxic players fight gold sellers for most hated player group, guilds, friends and family groups, and other small factions of players are forming and renewing relationships, making connections in the digital space.

Spend any length of time in the world of MMORPGs, and you’ll find stories of people who met their spouses in-game, or who have forged lifelong friendships in MMOs, or reconnected with old friends via gaming. There are those who have used these games to keep in touch with distant family members or friends in foreign countries. Of course, MMOs are good for socializing – it’s arguably the best digital medium for the activity.

Whatever flaws the greater community may have, there is tremendous value in those smaller connections, in the intimate bonds formed between players.


MMOs are good - Azeroth

MMOs are good at giving us things to do. They’re big. Like really big. While large-scale single-player games like Skyrim and Fallout boast about their huge game worlds and dozens of hours of content, MMOs are sitting in the background like, “That’s cute.”

Even relatively small MMOs tend to rival or outstrip the largest single-player games when it comes to sheer volume of content. Just playing through the story content to level cap can often take weeks, or months. That’s without any grinding or repetition — just playing as you would a single-player title.

And then of course when you do factor in the endgame activities, the number of hours of gameplay available to you balloons even further.

Then you consider larger, older MMOs. Someone new joining World of Warcraft today would probably take at least a year, if not more, of regular play just to experience all of the content that’s currently in the game — again, without resorting to significant grinding or getting into the endgame treadmill. And that’s just one game. There’s also uniquely massive good MMOs like Eve Online, where servers house tens of thousands of players simultaneously on their monolithic servers.

Furthermore, whereas single-player titles are largely static — perhaps with a trickle of DLC that quickly runs dry — MMOs are constantly growing and evolving, with regular infusions of new content for so long as the games operate. Not only are they big, but they’re only getting bigger.

Longevity and Persistence

As I covered earlier this month with the MMOs that died piece, they don’t last forever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t possessed of incredible longevity. EverQuest is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Ultima Online has already passed that milestone. World of Warcraft has been around for over a decade.

And there are people in all of those games who have been playing from the beginning.

MMOs are good Coruscant SWTOR

By comparison, even if you’re the sort of person who likes to replay games many times, most single-player games aren’t likely to last you more than a few months at best. The difference in longevity between the two categories is night and day.

This has value beyond the obvious, beyond the raw number of hours of play you’re going to get out of an MMO. Being able to play a single game for years fosters a sense of history, a sense of belonging, that’s impossible to replicate any other way.

My oldest video game character is my rogue in World of Warcraft. She’s old enough now that if she were a real person, she would have just started third grade. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. When I created my rogue, my life was completely different from how it is now, but she remains, virtually unchanged after all this time. She’s become one of the few permanent fixtures of my life, and playing her feels like visiting an old friend.

Similarly, logging into a game you’ve played for a long time can feel like coming home. This, for me, is one of the greatest appeals of MMOs. The social element has never been a perfect fit for me, but I love imaginary worlds, and whereas single-player games only let me be a tourist in their settings, MMOs let me set down roots. MMOs are good at providing a permanent virtual world to feel at home.

That’s something I truly love.


One can also look to more practical concerns. If you’re worried about keeping a budget, MMOs provide one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment around.

Think about it. Going to see a movie will usually cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $15, and that will only keep you entertained for at most two to three hours.

MMOs are good World of Warcraft

That same $15 can buy you a month of subscription to an MMO, which can potentially provide dozens of hours of entertainment.

And that’s with a pay to play game. When you consider the current prevalence of free to play MMOS and buy to play titles, the potential for entertainment on the cheap becomes virtually infinite. MMOs are good options for the cheaper or poorer players, especially combined with their quantity of content. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay for just a minimal box price, or even for nothing at all.

Yes, you may be held back in some ways if you never give in to micro-transactions, but take it from a longtime MMO player who’s had some lean times in his life: You’d be amazed how far you can get without paying a cent, even in games with relatively restrictive business models. Even the greediest games will still usually offer most content and rewards to free players; it just might take a little extra effort.

The “I Was There” Factor

If there’s one thing that no other genre of game can replicate — not even smaller scale online games — it’s the ability to say, “I was there.”

Every once in a while, something will happen in an MMO that those present will never forget. Some huge in-game event that will be forever famous… or infamous. Sometimes it’s something carefully scripted by developers. Sometimes it’s something orchestrated by the players. Sometimes it’s a total accident. But it’s always unforgettable.

You know the kind of events I mean. The assassination of Lord British. The opening of Ahn’Qiraj. The corrupted blood pandemic. The fall of Lion’s Arch. World War Bee.

If you’ve never experienced a moment like this, there’s no way to adequately describe what it’s like, but if you’ve played MMOs for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced at least one, and you know how special it is to be able to say, “I was there.”

For me, my favorite took place during the first anniversary celebration of The Secret World. I happened to find myself in the same zone as a streamer who was interviewing the game’s director at the time, Joel Bylos. When the anniversary world boss for that zone spawned, Joel used his GM powers to blow his avatar up to Godzilla size and join players in beating the tar out of the boss.

MMOs are good the secret world

He then danced Gangnam Style for a few moments before vanishing without a trace.

It was equal parts epic and hilarious, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.

Oh, and that streamer? We’re still friends to this day.

That’s my favorite, but I have other “I was there” moments from across my MMO career. I was there when the Legion hit Westfall. I was there when Bacon Squad took the fight to the Karka. I was there when Gaia’s chosen drove back the Whispering Tide.

We all have our own moments, our own stories. That’s what the scale and the unpredictability of MMOs offer, what no other genre of game can replicate: The chance to be a part of virtual history, the chance to experience once in a lifetime moments that will never come again.

The chance to say, “I was there.”

What’s Your Reason?

We all have different feelings on different mechanics, but there’s no denying that MMOs are good and well. Some might play MMOs for the social connections. For me, it’s about the opportunity to fully inhabit a virtual world and bear witness to its history as it unfolds.

What’s your reason? What is it that keeps you coming back to MMOs?

Practical Solutions to Lower MMORPG Toxicity

Let’s not mince words. MMO communities are in a bad way. Trolling, toxicity, extreme vulgarity, and cyber-bullying ran rampant, and there doesn’t seem to be any serious effort being made to curtail any of this.

A dungeon encounter in World of Warcraft

I doubt it would ever be possible to entirely eliminate toxicity in online gaming. Human nature is what it is, and the anonymity of the Internet often emboldens people to let loose the worst aspects of themselves.

But far too many people, developers included, have let this fact instill a defeatist attitude toward toxicity. If you can never eliminate it, why bother fighting it at all? But while you may never get rid of toxicity altogether, I do think it could be significantly mitigated. Things don’t have to be as bad as they are.

I think there are simple, common sense solutions that could do a lot to improve MMORPG communities, if developers are only willing to make the effort.

Tangible Punishments

The punishments for misbehavior in most MMOs I’ve played tend to be pretty toothless. Usually it’s just a temporary ban. That might be an effective deterrent if the game in question was the only form of entertainment in the world, but as it is if someone gets banned, they’ll just go play something else, or watch TV, or go see a movie. It’s pretty meaningless.

I’ve long felt it may be more effective to directly penalize a person in-game. Delete a piece of their gear, or fine them a sum of in-game currency. If the latter, it should be based on a percentage of their total wealth rather than a flat amount so that wealthy players don’t become effectively above the law.

Or perhaps instead of taking away what someone already has, it could affect future rewards. Lower item drop rates and experience gains for rule-breakers or put them at a lower priority for server and matchmaking queues until they can go an extended period of time with no infractions against their account.

A paladin character in Neverwinter

As far as I know, no game has done this, so it’s impossible to say if it would work until someone attempts it, but MMO players are nothing if not devoted to min/maxing. If good behavior becomes a requirement for peak performance, I think you’ll start to see things get a lot nicer in no time.

Feedback on Reports

Moderation in MMOs is almost entirely dependent on players sending reports when they see someone breaking the rules. Unfortunately, there’s rarely any way to know if these reports are doing any good, or if anyone is even reading them. They vanish into the ether without a trace.

If you’re the one sending reports, this can get demoralizing pretty fast. It starts to feel as if you’re not doing any good, and it gets harder and harder to bother sending reports in the first place.

Instead, there should be some sort of feedback on player reports. In DOTA 2, if your report results in action being taken against another player, you’ll get a notification. I think this is an idea all of online gaming should embrace. It doesn’t necessarily need to get into detail, but simply knowing that a report you sent has made a difference sends the message that reports do matter and that action is being taken, and that can make all the difference in the world.


Another frustration that players face when reporting is a lack of clarity on what is or is not actually against the rules. Usually filling out a report offers you a small list of vague categories to choose from, and it may not be clear what exactly each category entails. For example, I would interpret “harassment” as any abusive chat, but others seem to define it only as ongoing campaigns of bullying against a player conducted over an extended period of time.

Ideally, a report system should come with a decent variety of categories, and a brief but clear description of each one. This could perhaps be backed up by more extensive explanations of the code of conduct accessible elsewhere in-game. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether someone is breaking the rules or not.

Active Moderation

A group of players take on an Arkbreak in Defiance

One of the problems of moderation in MMOs is that it is entirely reactive, and dependent on the reports of players. Imagine if game masters actively monitored players in-game and could take immediate action if they saw someone doing something bad.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “MMOs are far too big to monitor every chat channel. It can’t work.”

You’re right. It’s totally impractical to monitor all chat at all times.

However, it may be possible to monitor some chat, some of the time. If even a small team of GMs were to be devoted entirely to monitoring player behavior and taking direct action, I think it could have a significant positive impact on communities.

The thing is, players wouldn’t know when they were being monitored. The very possibility that a game master may be watching would, I think, serve as a deterrent to bad behavior and perhaps provide a sense of security to the other players.

One of the biggest issues adding to the toxicity of MMO communities is the belief that developers simply don’t care, that there are no consequences. The trolls think they can get away with murder, and by all appearances, they’re right. Anything that sends the message that the community is actively policed, even if it’s largely symbolic, would have a positive impact.

Positive Reinforcement

Not all methods for improving communities have to be about punishing the troublemakers. There may also be value in recognizing those players who do treat their fellows in a decent and helpful manner.

A character in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Players could be given a way to “upvote” those they feel have been especially patient or helpful, and people could progressively unlock various rewards, cosmetic or otherwise, for receiving enough upvotes. Final Fantasy XIV has a system along these lines, and I think it’s something that should become industry standard.

I don’t think that offering rewards will, on its own, completely change the temperaments of players, but it may encourage people to go the extra mile to be helpful or at least provide an incentive not to be too harsh to their comrades. At the very least it would make helping out other players less of a thankless chore than it tends to otherwise be.

The main concern about such an “upvote” system would be the potential for abuse, but I think there are ways to prevent people gaming the system too much. For example, it could only be enabled for PUGs to prevent people simply spamming upvotes on their friends.

This could also tie into the suggestion of tangible punishments mentioned above. If you receive an infraction against your account, it only makes sense that you would lose access to any rewards earned for being a good community member, even if only temporarily. It adds another layer of incentive for players to mind their manners.

Ask the Experts

These are just ideas that seem to me like they would be helpful, based on my many years as an MMO player. But I’m sure there are those out there who would have a far better idea of how to make things better.

MMO developers should be hiring on behavioral experts to help them find the most effective ways to regulate their communities. They may find solutions that would not be obvious to the rest of us, who come at the problem from a layman’s perspective.

A close-up screenshot from League of Legends

The only game I know of to do anything like this is League of Legends. Riot has poured significant effort into finding the best ways to cut down on the infamous toxicity of their players. I’m not an LoL player, so I’m not sure how much success they’ve had, but I do greatly admire the effort.

MMORPG developers need to start viewing community-building, and community-policing, as a crucial part of design, as essential as environment art, encounter design, or coding. Communities are a crucial part of the online game experience, and if they’re neglected, the games suffer.

It might not be “sexy,” and it might not look exciting in a features trailer, but it is every bit as important as any other element of game design.

Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

Level scaling in an MMORPG is a wonderful thing. It makes the world more immersive, it effectively expands the available content, and it breaks down social barriers.

I am a firm believer that having level scaling is almost always better than not having it, but not all level scaling systems are created equal. The ideal level scaling system is easy to use, rewarding, and liberating, without entirely erasing a player’s sense of progression. Let’s take a look at some of the best systems in currently running MMOs.

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

EverQuest 2 doesn’t have global level scaling, but it does allow players to “mentor,” lowering their effective level for a time.

As the name would imply, the system is mainly intended for use by high level players who want to assist their low level friends. Mentoring grants bonus experience to the person being mentored and also allows the higher level player to gain some rewards from content that would otherwise be trivial to them, though their XP gain is reduced while mentoring.

EQ2 players can also “self-mentor” by visiting an NPC and paying a small fee. This allows them to lower their effective level in five level increments. You can cancel the self-mentoring at any time, but to reactivate it you’ll need to return to the NPC.

It’s a bit of a clunky system, but it’s better than nothing.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is by no means the first MMO to feature level scaling of some kind, but it is arguably the MMO that put the concept on the map, as least as far as the modern era of MMORPGs goes.

GW2 made its global level scaling a core selling feature of the game, focusing on its potential to aid socialization and keep the entire game world relevant.

In GW2, each zone effectively has a maximum level. Anyone exceeding that level is scaled down to it, though they will still receive experience and loot commensurate with their actual level.

It’s a pretty good system, but it’s not perfect. While improving your skills and gear can still make some difference, the rather strict level cap on each zone means that you’re not going to feel that much more powerful as a level eighty in a level ten zone. But at least it does deliver on its promise of helping people group together and keeping the whole game world relevant.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR uses a system that’s similar to that of Guild Wars 2, but I would argue it’s a little better.

Like GW2, each of SW:TOR’s zones has a maximum level that all players will be scaled down to, but in this case the max level is slightly above the intended level range of the zone. Therefore, when you return as a high level character, you’ll be noticeably stronger than you were when playing at-level, but not quite enough to totally trivialize the content. And of course you’ll be getting rewards equivalent to your actual level.

For me, this hits the perfect balance of rewarding progression without making older content completely toothless or irrelevant.


A promotional screenshot from Rift

Rift’s level scaling comes in the form of a mentoring system similar to EverQuest 2’s, but it’s much more flexible and easy to use.

Mentoring in Rift can be used to exactly match the level of another player, and is applied automatically in certain types of content, like Instant Adventures. Players can also mentor themselves down at any time by simply clicking their portrait and selecting the option. In this way the player can set themselves to any level below their own, while still receiving rewards equal to their true level.

The beauty of this system is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys level-scaling, and in Rift they need not be subjected to it if they don’t want to. If you do enjoy scaling, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and how to use it. You can set your level equivalent to or even below the recommended level of the content you’re doing if you want a challenge, or set it slightly above if you want things to be a little easier.

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

So far all of the level scaling systems mentioned in this list have one thing in common: They only scale you down, never up. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare and welcome exception.

Actually, saying it can also scale you up is over-simplifying things a bit. Really what ESO does is scale everything — from players to mobs — to a single effective level across the entire game. This system was dubbed “One Tamriel,” and that’s actually a pretty good tagline, as it unifies the entire game into a single cohesive world in a way few MMOs ever accomplish.

In ESO, you can pretty much do anything, any time. You might have a little trouble getting raid invites as a level one character in white gear, but short of that, there really aren’t any limits. Faction restrictions on content have also been removed, so you truly can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want.

Obviously this makes group play a lot easier. If you’ve played since launch and your friend just joined, you can still group together while both being challenged and rewarded. It also makes leveling alts a lot more appealing, since you can take an entirely different leveling path, even if both characters are the same faction.

It also doesn’t entirely erase a sense of progression. Leveling up provides you with more skill points to expand and enhance your build, gear still increases your combat performance, and the Champion Points earned after reaching max level can have a significant impact on your character’s power.

In a perfect world, One Tamriel would be the example upon which all MMORPG level scaling systems are based. It’s simply excellent.

How a PvE Survival Sandbox Could Surpass PvP

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

A screenshot from the survival sandbox DayZ

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

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

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

How We Got Here

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

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

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

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

A screenshot from the survival game Conan Exiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

A screenshot from the multiplayer survival sandbox Ark: Survival Evolved

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

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

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

How It Can Work

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

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

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

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

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta la vista, noob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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