Six Design Choices MMOs Should Retire

Often, tradition can be a good thing, but not always. Sometimes traditions can be onerous or destructive, surviving only through a resigned belief that this is how things have always been, so this is how things always will be.

Executing an enemy in Star Wars: The Old Republic

As it is in the real world, so it is in the world of MMORPGs. There are some ingrained or traditional elements of MMO design that have long outlived their usefulness, if indeed they ever had any to begin with. These concepts simply need to be retired, ideally sooner rather than later.

Lockboxes

This entry might surprise some people who are familiar with my work, as I have developed something of a reputation of being a lockbox apologist.

And to be clear: My position has not changed. I think the furor over lockboxes is quite overblown, that people take the issue far too seriously, and that the whole situation has become somewhat toxic.

That being said, I have also always been clear that I don’t particularly like lockboxes. I don’t think they’re immoral or the death of the genre, but I also don’t think they’re a good thing to have around, either. It’s obvious that making people gamble for what they want rather than buying or earning it directly is not a good deal for the player.

I reject the idea that lockboxes are any more than an annoyance, but they are still an annoyance. If they vanished from the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to listen to people endlessly complaining about them anymore.

Factions in PvE Games

I’ve never liked the idea of factions in MMORPGs. I’m not very competitive; I’m the sort of person who would rather cooperate with other players than fight against them.

However, I do grant that there are some games where they make sense. If your MMO is based

Horde and Alliance armor in World of Warcraft's upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion

on PvP, separating players into discrete factions is a good way to foster team spirit and create the potential for large scale conflict.

Outside of those niche cases, though?

Factions need to go.

MMOs are, obviously, a social medium, so creating artificial divides between players is one of the most counter-productive things you can do. You’re giving people smaller pools of potential group members, less opportunity to make new friends, and more limited options altogether.

Not to mention the potential for toxicity it brings forth. I’m forever amazed that anyone takes seriously the conflict between imaginary video game factions, but in reality the rivalries between factions can spill over into the real world in some very ugly ways. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a World of Warcraft player make the earnest argument that Horde/Alliance players are all children/crybabies/bullies/perverts/genetically inferior, I could fund my own MMO (it would basically be a hybrid of The Secret World and SWTOR, but high fantasy).

Now that the WoW clone craze is winding down and companies are no longer trying to ape Blizzard’s giant as much as possible, the idea of factional conflict in PvE MMOs is fading, but honestly, I don’t think things have gone far enough. I’d like to see those games that still have factions begin to phase them out, at least to some degree. Most games have the conceit that players are freelance adventurers, so they should have the option to work with whomever they choose.

Elder Scrolls Online has a good model to follow. Factions still exist, but are irrelevant outside of the Alliance War PvP system. Anyone can group with anyone, and no content is gated by faction.

And when it comes to new releases, let’s just not bother with factions at all, shall we?

A shot from the MMO shooter The Division

Mandatory Subscriptions

I’ve already ranted about MMO subscription fees in the past. They incentivize bad game design, they discourage variety, and they don’t really offer any of the benefits they claim to. I firmly believe that of all current monetization options for online games, a mandatory subscription fee is the worst deal from the player’s perspective (except maybe crowdfunding and early access, but that’s kind of a whole other issue).

The good news is that these days subscriptions are a dying breed. There’s really only two major games still clinging to them — World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV — and I’m fairly confident they’ll come around eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

I just hope it’s some day soon.

Loot Competition

The fight for treasure lies at the heart of most MMORPGs. But ideally that fight should be against bosses and monsters, or at most enemy players, not your own teammates.

Yet for many long years, this was the standard mode of operation for most MMOs. At the end of a fight, there was a finite pool of loot drops to share, and players had to decide how to distribute it between them. In a perfect world, a civil discourse would follow, and items would be given out in a fair and orderly fashion.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Thus, loot drama became a thing. Guilds came up with all sorts of convoluted systems to try to determine who most deserved what item, but in the end there was always plenty of potential for conflict and resentment. And that’s in organized groups. In PUGs, things could get truly ugly.

It needs to be said again: MMOs are a social medium. Any design that fosters anti-social behavior should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

A shot from the MMO shooter Defiance

Thankfully, personalized loot drops, with no competition and no drama, are becoming ever more common, and the days of living in fear of loot ninjas seem to be fading. Even so, there are still plenty of games clinging to the old ways, despite the obvious disadvantages.

Death Penalties

Coming from a background in single-player games, death penalties in MMOs are something that’s always baffled me. I don’t understand why they ever existed in the first place, let alone why they’re still around.

In the rest of gaming, if you die, you go back to your last save or checkpoint and start over. The fact you have to repeat whatever killed you (and anything else after your last save) is the punishment for failure, and really that’s all there needs to be.

MMOs have the same thing. By the time you get back to where you died, the boss you were fighting will have reset, or the mobs respawned. You have to start over. And again, that’s really all you need to make death feel meaningful.

But for some reason MMOs feel the need to tack additional punishment on top of that. In the old days we had all kinds of draconian things like corpse runs and XP loss. Nowadays most games have lighter penalties, like gear repairs, but the idea of punishment for death is still there.

And I still don’t know why. It’s being punitive for the sake of being punitive. It doesn’t add to gameplay in any way. It’s only frustrating. At best it can serve as a gold sink, but there has to be more inventive ways to achieve that goal.

Mobs… Mobs Everywhere

Wild monsters in Black Desert Online

One of my biggest pet peeves of MMO design is when developers feel the need to fill every corner of the game world with legions of hostile mobs, making it impossible to go anywhere or enjoy the sights without constantly being jumped by some randomly hostile wildlife.

Now, I do somewhat understand the reasoning for this. You want a game world to present a certain sense of danger, and nothing’s worse than running out of mobs while on a kill quest. But just jamming every corner of every zone full of baddies isn’t a great solution to either problem.

Mob competition is better solved by adjustable respawn times that replenish enemies more quickly when players are killing them in large numbers. Meanwhile, I think excessive numbers of mobs ultimately do more to harm the sense of peril in a game world than they do to help it.

See, if your game is designed such that you’re coming under attack at every turn, each individual enemy can’t really be that dangerous. Otherwise it would become an unplayable slog. This turns mobs into mere speedbumps, rather than something to genuinely be wary of.

What I would like to see is more intelligent mob placement. If there’s a large NPC camp that is involved in important quests, sure, fill it with legions of bad guys. But in the open wilderness, don’t add enemies unless there’s a good cause, and it’s probably better for them to be fewer and more powerful. This creates a certain sense of peril and adventure without making every journey an endless slog of trivial battles.

And developers really need to learn that it’s okay for some areas to be free of danger. Let a pretty glade just be a pretty glade.


Sea of Thieves Highlights Our Progression Obsession

Sea of Thieves is currently sitting on a 5.2 user score on Metacritic. The vast majority of complaints relate to lack of content and/or progression. Mind you, progression has never been a consideration for Rare when developing their pirate themed MMO. They weren’t hiding anything, but come release a huge community railed against the design decision. The only “improvements” to be acquired in the game are purely cosmetic. While looking cool is certainly a driver for a lot of players, it doesn’t alter gameplay. And that’s the problem that Sea of Thieves is facing – the game grows stale fast. I guess it at least fixes the problem of wanting to make too many alts.

sea of thieves ship progression

Rinse, Repeat

Members of the community lodge complaints of nothing to do after only a few hours of play. And that may be true in a sense compared to other more grandiose MMOs. The directed activities in Sea of Thieves are limited to quests to kill skeletons, find buried treasure, or hunt down trade goods like pigs. There’s little variety to sate players desire to see something, anything change. That the game lacks statistical progression amplifies the routine nature of these activities. Rare counts on the dynamic nature of PvP to mix up this routine as other players can freely kill one another to steal each other’s treasure. And until the treasure is turned in at a specific NPC, it’s fair game for anyone else. The problem is that with the open sea sailing, there’s no guarantee you’ll find any meaningful PvP. Even when another player pops up on the horizon, it can often mean a one sided affair with a 4-player galleon crushing a 2-manned sloop. This describes the entire gameplay loop for Sea of Thieves.

It sounds overly repetitive, but is it? Diablo clones revolve around killing hordes of enemies whose diversity makes little impact on gameplay. Cooperative shooters like Vermintide task players on banding together to fight hordes of enemies with the gameplay variety coming from different maps. Even MMOs can seem rather repetitive once you peel back the layers. Quests rarely veer far off from killing X monsters and fedexing items for incapable NPCs. Sure, dungeons and raids inspire wonder – but usually only the first time around. The non-boss monsters themselves rarely demand players do anything different to fell them. So whether or not the enemies in most MMOs consisted purely of skeletons and skeleton captains ends up making little difference other than that very sense of progression. And like Sea of Thieves, PvP in MMOs tend to be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes the experience is legendary and sometimes it’s a waste of time.

Despite the general repetitive nature of these games, they’ve all flourished in their own respects. The differences all boil down to progression. Diablo constantly opens up new challenges based on acquiring bigger and better loot (or unique set bonuses). World of Warcraft always has a new raid challenge availability to test one’s mettle. Vermintide’s system provides a large stock of increasingly difficult challenges to undertake. Along the way, players increasingly feel more powerful. This is done through multiple methods of progression such as new abilities, better stats, new maps/levels/dungeons, new enemies, new talents, and new gear. The core gameplay loop can stay the same as long as something changes. Rare’s stated goal is to provide egalitarian stats where only player skill affects success. It’s a noble pursuit, but unfortunately they’ve lost sight of why progression matters.

sea of thieves ship progression 2

Progression Obsession

In fact, the game does offer a limited form of progression comparable with its contemporaries in related genres. As players complete quests and turn in treasure, they earn respect and renown amongst the game’s factions. This opens the doors to lengthier and more detailed quests. One could simply say that it’s just adding a few more steps to the existing quests, but that would unfairly discount the increased sense of risk and reward the player has earned for their efforts thus far.

Can Sea of Thieves survive without gameplay changing progression? We’ll find out as early as the next few months. Their content plans speak of adding a large suite of options to the gameplay loop – new areas to explore, new AI enemies, and weekly events. But by giving players a bundle of carrots without dangling the stick first, it creates two problems. First, everything can and will be accomplished immediately so what will there be to look forward to? Secondly, gamers enjoy the sense of pride and satisfaction from unlocking these opportunities in the first place. The sheer fact of having had to work for something that has made one’s character better leads to a “sunk cost” mindset that enthralls players unnaturally long.

Sea of Thieves looks like it’s going to end up as game to come back for every once in a while. I think for most people, the gameplay loop to acquire better cosmetics simply feels too grindy. While MMOs aren’t truly any better in this respect, they do hide it better. Constantly doling out new toys or arenas to play in is like a slot machine that pays out on a regular basis. Choosing to eschew progression in Sea of Thieves is a risky pursuit precisely because they’re forcing themselves to build truly novel, varied, and unique content to entertain players. Progression is easy and sucks gamers in (which is why we see it now in practically every gaming genre). If you want more proof, look no further than idle clicker games with literally no gameplay other than progression. The most popular of these, Clicker Heroes, constantly hovers around Steam’s top 50 most games played.

Personally, I believe the game would have been better off with unlockable (but balanced) classes or weapons. But that doesn’t mean Rare can’t bring their equitable MMO world vision to life. It’s just going to require dedication, frequent effort, and a ton of creativity. They’re certainly fighting an uphill battle, as I believe the number of current MMOs that could survive with Rare’s progression system could be counted on one hand.

Gamers are obsessed with progression, but if Rare can succeed in quieting their community’s discontent while maintaining their vision they will do more than earn some dough. They’ll lay the groundwork for an entirely new type of MMO. That alone has me rooting for them.

 


Bless Online – #Hype or /Ignore

Bless Online is the next big MMORPG we’re getting our hands on. The May 2018 Early Access date is quickly approaching, resulting in the plethora of MMO souls clamoring for more information. Is Bless Online worthy of a hype hashtag or will this be another game to safely ignore? No doubt fanbois and detractors will be at odds from now until the game’s final server closure. For the average Joe though, this is what’s worth looking forward to and what’s worth worrying over.

bless online bloody screenshot

#Hype

B2P

This happy medium bridges the gap between F2P and subscription and has turned out financial successes for Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars 2, and Black Desert Online. Regardless of what’s best for players, I do think this is the best model for Bless Online’s continued success. More revenue for the publisher and developer should translate to more content for players. Theoretically, it also means less scummy or spammy revenue generation tactics. Ideally, B2P results in fewer bots too. That’s been rather insignificant in my experience though.

No Loot Boxes

In an interview with MMORPG.com, the developers of Bless explicitly stated there would be no loot boxes. There will be the standard fare selection of goodies such as cosmetics, advancement boosts, and mounts but nothing that’s currently on the commonly accepted MMO no-no list. Of course whether or not they stay more pure or descend into Black Desert’s P2W practices remains to be seen.

Fresh Combat System

bless online old combat

Truth be told, we don’t know exactly what Bless Online combat will look like when Early Access launches on Steam. The developers are really pushing a narrative of a full rework for the game so we can only guess what that will entail. Currently, it plays like something akin to the combination of Guild Wars 2, Revelation Online, and Black Desert Online. It’s action oriented but with tab targeting. It also feels clunky with limited build options, so I imagine that’s what they’re targeting to “fix” rather than radically alter core gameplay mechanics. For example, there’s a combo system in Bless Online but it feels about as interesting as a standard ability rotation in World of Warcraft. If active tab targeting is something you’re interested in right now, I’d recommend trying out Revelation Online to see if it’s worth getting hyped over. Revelation handles “classic” tab targeting combat exceptionally well.

Horizontal Endgame

At level cap, Bless alters progression from a strong vertical experience to horizontal advancement. Guild Wars 2 manages this fairly well, but I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. My hope is that Bless Online’s endgame will reward players who see the value in switching builds depending on the situation (a big deal for its PvP centric gameplay). This does mean the development team has to be on the ball with balance changes, and that’s not particularly easy even for seasoned veterans like Blizzard. I love this idea in theory, and greatly prefer horizontal progression to never-ending item level progression.

Unique Racial Storylines

Apparently each of the game’s seven races will tell their own unique story. This reminds me of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s approach to storytelling. Reports from players on the Russia and Korean servers tell of a diverse questing system with a passable story. Whether this will translate well depends on localization efforts, but Bless Online seems to be going the distance by implementing full voiceovers. Good stories can go a long way for MMORPGs so if Bless Online succeeds here, they will be one of the few.

Party Buffs

hyped for bless online group buffs

Tyler Bro and I tend place different values on solo player MMOs vs. group MMOs. While we see the merits of each side, there’s no denying the industry has catered more towards solo players lately. Bless Online seeks to change that with their party buffs. Depending on the makeup of a party, leaders can select one combat and one non-combat affect to apply to all party members. Whether these buffs will actually encourage group play in any meaningful way remains to be seen.

/Ignore

Not F2P

The merits of B2P are clear, but there’s a serious problem with the model. With so many substitutes in the space, it can be challenging to convince friends to pay for and pick up yet another “MMO with potential”. My general preference now is something akin to Guild Wars 2 – a limited free experience and introduction to the game with enough gameplay to get players hooked.

Pay to Carebear

If you want to avoid PvP at max level, you are going to have to pony up regularly for a cash shop item. I doubt it will be too expensive, but it’s a noteworthy additional cost. Additionally, the game will clearly be designed with PvP in mind so PvE players may find content updates more lacking than something like the well-balanced Guild Wars 2.

Two Faction PvP

Bless Online is pushing a heavy PvP narrative, promising 100vs100 battles. That sounds great with the exception of no MMORPG has ever balanced a two faction system, which Bless will be using. Inevitably one side pulls ahead on a server and draws players who crave to winning. Games like Aion that have rewarded players on the “losing side” still haven’t succeeded in a truly balanced experience. I’d argue Dark Age of Camelot during its peak has offered the best massive scale PvP, and it did so primarily because with three factions, two of them can also gang up on one if the one pulls too far head.

Current State

The biggest concern is that we’re hinging a lot of hype on Bless Online’s ability to radically alter their combat system. As I mentioned above, combat right now is not a strength of the game. Fighting enemies feels rote and mundane. While quests offer diversity more than most F2P MMORPGs, they still lag behind immersive offerings such as Elder Scrolls Online and World of Warcraft. Bless Online did post about key changes last Tuesday, but the new dynamic combat system is suspiciously sparse. The The lack of concrete gameplay videos showing these massive overhauls with a month left to go should be concerning to anyone that’s followed an upcoming MMORPG before.

My recommendation is to avoid the hype trap but continue following the game. Bless Online could develop into a worthwhile experience, possibly even as soon as the Early Access launch. It’s just that MMORPGs are notorious for missing the mark, especially at launch.


Black Desert Online: When Pay for Convenience is Pay to Win

I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.

black desert online cash shop

BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”

The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.

Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.

This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.

black desert online pets

Pets – the most important investment in BDO

There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.

The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.

But hey, this is just convenience, right?


Should MMOs Encourage Altitis?

fry mmo alts

Fry doesn’t know what to do, and very often I don’t either. Altitis is a very “real” illness that affects millions of MMO players worldwide. Urban Dictionary defines altitis as a “mental disease of making too many alternate characters.” The good news is that it is treatable. The bad news is that only the disease’s very creators have that power.

It’s easy to understand how altitis has become so common place in our world. New characters mean new classes mean new abilities mean new experiences mean…well, this could go on for a while. Altitis generally develops naturally, but some MMOs provide boons for splitting time between characters. Features like rest XP and limited respecs contribute to this international phenomenon.

Those who suffer from altitis report the inability to stay logged into a single character for more than two hours. The greatest victims are unable to ever reach max level. For them, there is no endgame. There is only new game. How will they ever see the glory of raiding when stuck on an endless loop of starter quests? Some developers even take advantage of the infected, limiting free character slots and selling them for a premium.

There are MMO developers who have decided to fight back though. They seek to attach players to the life of a single character. Final Fantasy XIV is one such bastion of hope in the field to cure humans of altitis. In an effort to curtail this epidemic, Square Enix’s MMORPG lets players level any class on a single character. Is this right? Or does it go against the natural order of MMOs? On a deeper level, we must ask: is altitis a blessing or a curse? Perhaps this disease is actually a strength hidden in plain sight.

Developers Should Encourage Altitis

There is a school of thought that increasing alternate character density will serve to enhance the quantity and quality of gameplay. The logic goes something like this – if playing through the game once is fun, playing through ten times is ten times the fun. And it’s not the same game because players are experiencing everything from a set of fresh eyes.

Even if exploring a world for the second or tenth time isn’t as fun as the first, it allows players to combine the homey feeling of an MMORPG with the discovery bug of a new game. In games with multiple factions like World of Warcraft or EverQuest, playing a new character really can feel like experiencing a new game. This leads to a train of thought that many consider but rarely actually discuss.

wow alts

MMORPGs would be better if people focused more on the journey than the destination. There’s such a huge focus on leveling up and gaining more power in MMORPGs that actually playing the game can turn into a secondary activity. Are gamers really more interested in a high item level score than actual, sheer enjoyment? I’m sure some are, but deep down are you one of those people?

Altitis reinforces the idea that we’re here to experience the game here and now, not look at the results of our merits in a trophy case. I would be willing to bet most of your fondest MMO-related memories involve other players. A properly executed alt-heavy world would largely focus on the journey over destination by prioritizing socialization features. Because the leveling process is largely more dynamic than farming raids, it opens the doors to a wider array of people to meet. Perhaps this is something the upcoming Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen will truly embrace this rather old school concept.

Developers Should Discourage Altitis

Justin from Bio Break brings up multiple good points in discussing how World of Warcraft Legion broke his altitis that had so deeply ingrained itself during Warlords of Dreanor. And all of these points directly relate to the negatives of the mental disease. Time has been and will always be a major factor for fully experiencing MMORPGs. You can’t progress without at least some trace amount of it, and maintaining even a single alt can effectively put an end to meaningfully progressing a main character.

While leveling up new characters can be fun with all the new abilities and a fresh play style, poorly structured progression can devolve into a chore. Completing the same quests in the same order is not a fun activity for most people. Games with a smaller world or limited leveling options fit better in an alt free world.

While many like to complain about the present state of MMOs, the fact is we have plenty of good MMO offerings. It’s entirely plausible and more importantly, enjoyable, to call multiple virtual worlds home. We may not normally designate characters in these other universes as alts but perhaps we should. Progression is the core mechanic of MMOs and any time spent on a new character takes away time from the others. This is true whether or not that character is a part of the same game world.

Eschewing the benefits of why developers might support alts frees up time to work on content elsewhere – namely the endgame. I’ve said some negative things about it, but the fact is that progression is an MMORPG’s biggest draw. Ditching fifty quests to spice up alt-driven replay could be spent on new abilities for existing characters to toy with. Discouraging altitis means freeing up resources for more novel content, even if the quantity of content is higher with alt-driven gameplay.

Altitis and You

No one can tell you how to deal with altitis. This is a very personal decision that one should discuss with friends, family, and an MMO professional. For those suffering, definitely don’t look at this list of MMO games. It would be a really bad idea. No! Wait!

It’s too late. We’ve lost another.


The Statistically Most Casual Multiplayer Genres

“You filthy casual.”

“No, you.”

Common, pointless banter between gamers who prefer different genres. But really, who is the most casual and most hardcore about their gaming? It’s time for another research post to find out.

Today, I’m asking “out of the active player base, how frequently do the players actually play the game?” This is a PC only test because Steam Spy and Steam Charts makes gathering data easy, but console numbers likely follow suit.

Boring Sciencey Stuff

Skip to the next section if you just want to see the results.

Methodology: For each genre, select 3 popular games, limited to titles at least one month old if possible (to limit newness/hype influencing results). I’ll use Steam Spy to determine active number of players (calculated by those who have played the game in the last 2 weeks). Then I’ll divide the average number of players in the past 30 days on Steam Charts by the active player count to determine the game’s play rate. This ratio will be assessed alongside average and median playtimes on Steam Spy to determine which genre’s playerbases play the most/least frequently.

Flaws: Comparing average player count over 30 days to active players over 2 weeks will produce higher ratios for newer games. Major updates will skew numbers.  As a solution to these two flaws, I’ll take the median results for each genre to assess dedication level. Free to play games may also exhibit different behavior compared to paid games. For the most part, each genre trends towards a certain pricing model. However, I will break down analysis further by payment type when appropriate (i.e. paid MMOs vs. free MMOs).

Many multiplayer games also include single player modes. I will only include games for analysis where I believe the vast majority of active players play multiplayer (hence why there are no turn based strategy games listed). Finally, some of the most popular games are not on Steam (Blizzard games, League of Legends, Fortnite, etc.) and thus will not be counted. Nothing I can do about that!

Now, onto the results.

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Play Rate

Play rate percentage in parentheses next to genre, determined by median play rate from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (8.22%)
  2. Open World Survival (7.71%)
  3. Paid Team FPS (3.62%)
  4. Free MMORPG (3.57%)
  5. MOBA (3.19%)
  6. RTS (2.71%)
  7. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (2.66%)
  8. Card Games (2.64%)
  9. Fighting Games (2.18%)
  10. Free Team FPS (1.74%)

Top 10 Most Dedicated Genre Fans by Average Playtime

Average playtime in parentheses next to genre, determined by median average playtime from the 3 games representing the genre.

  1. Paid MMORPG (24:17)
  2. Open World Survival (16:42)
  3. MOBA (13:40)
  4. Free MMORPG (13:17)
  5. Paid Team FPS (12:02)
  6. Free Vehicle Combat Shooters (9:37)
  7. Card Games (9:14)
  8. RTS (7:35)
  9. Fighting Games (6:54)
  10. Free Team FPS (5:58)

Fun Numbers Stuff

Bolded games represent the median play rate within the genre (and usually the average and median playtime as well).

csgo casual or dedicated game?

Paid Team FPS

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege – 83,035 average players / 2,080,536 active players = 3.99% play rate. 13:38 average playtime. 6:17 median playtime.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – 353,874 average players / 9,768,034 active players = 3.62% play rate. 12:02 average playtime. 4:24 median playtime.

Call of Duty: WWII – 5,113 average players / 172,488 active players =  2.96% play rate. 8:35 average playtime. 2:06 median playtime.

Free Team FPS

Team Fortress 2 – 35,949 average players / 1,317,755 active players = 2.72% play rate. 10:12 average playtime. 2:57 median playtime.

Paladins – 15,128 average players / 868,464 active players = 1.74% play rate. 5:58 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Warface – 3,700 average players / 229,437 active players = 1.61% play rate. 5:17 average playtime. 1:06 median playtime.

war thunder casual or dedicated game?

Free Vehicle Combat Shooters

Crossout – 3,674 average players / 145,657 active players = 2.52% play rate. 7:36 average playtime. 1:12 median playtime.

War Thunder – 12,966 average players / 487,348 active players = 2.66% play rate. 9:37 average playtime. 2:35 median playtime.

World of Tanks – 8,612 average players / 251,340 active players = 3.42% play rate. 11:34 average playtime. 2:55 median playtime.

Open World Survival

ARK: Survival Evolved – 39,088 average players / 507,608 active players = 7.7% play rate. 20:59 average playtime. 5:38 median playtime.

Dark and Light – 676 average players / 8,761 active players = 7.71% play rate. 16:13 average playtime. 2:41 median playtime.

Rust – 29,188 average players / 534,166 active players = 5.46% play rate. 16:42 average playtime. 4:14 median playtime.

Paid MMORPG

Elder Scrolls Online – 9,434 average players / 202,331 active players = 4.66% play rate. 14:50 average playtime. 3:21 median playtime.

Project: Gorgon – 199 average players / 2,418 active players = 8.22% play rate. 24:17 average playtime. 36:17 median playtime.

Final Fantasy XIV – 7,437 average players / 59,686 active players = 12.46% play rate. 42:01 average playtime. 20:14 median playtime.

neverwinter casual or dedicated game?

Free MMORPG

Warframe – 47,354 average players / 1,017,133 active players = 4.65% play rate. 17:14 average playtime. 4:18 median playtime.

Neverwinter – 2,724 average players / 76,114 active players = 3.57% play rate. 12:33 average playtime. 2:47 median playtime.

TERA – 1,742 average players / 56,401 active players =  3.08% play rate. 13:17 average playtime. 2:10 median playtime.

MOBA

DOTA 2 – 435,488 average players / 8,281,350 active players = 5.25% play rate. 17:55 average playtime. 8:59 median playtime.

Smite – 8,703 average players / 272,696 active players = 3.19% play rate. 13:40 average playtime. 3:24 median playtime.

Battlerite – 6,320 average players / 548,951 active players = 1.15% play rate. 4:45 average playtime. 1:35 median playtime.

Fighting Games

Dragon Ball FighterZ- 2,752 average players / 119,920 active players = 2.29% play rate. 6:08 average playtime. 2:31 median playtime.

Street Fighter V – 1,251 average players / 57,222 active players = 2.18% play rate. 7:44 average playtime. 2:18 median playtime.

Tekken 7 – 1,994 average players /  102,398 active players = 1.94% play rate. 6:54 average playtime. 2:20 median playtime.

RTS

Company of Heroes 2 – 4,569 average players / 151,680 active players = 3.01% play rate. 7:57 average playtime. 2:38 median playtime.

Age of Empires II: HD Edition – 9,692 average players / 357,571 active players = 2.71% play rate. 7:35 average playtime. 2:30 median playtime.

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War – Soulstorm – 563 average players / 30,665 active players = 1.8% play rate. 5:21 average playtime. 1:42 median playtime.

Card Games (CCGs)

Duelyst – 163 average players / 10,404 active players = 1.56% play rate. 3:09 average playtime. 1:57 median playtime.

Shadowverse – 3,011 average players / 113,897 active players = 2.64% play rate. 9:14 average playtime. 2:02 median playtime.

Eternal Card Game – 1,083 average players / 30,391 active players = 3.56% play rate. 11:26 average playtime. 7:05 median playtime.

Random Notes

You might notice popular genres like Battle Royale and ARPGs excluded. Research showed that a lot of ARPG players play solo, and I can’t separate out the numbers. Battle Royale is basically PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS and Fortnite, and I have no data on the latter.

Dealing with paid MMORPGs is a pain. There aren’t that many of them anymore, especially when limited to Steam. Final Fantasy XIV’s higher play rate isn’t surprising since it’s a subscription service, not just buy to play. But even then, Black Desert Online actually had a higher play rate (around 13%) due to all of the AFK players. The AFK nature of that game rendered any analysis pointless. Thus I included Project: Gorgon instead even though it released just 3 weeks ago and on Early Access at that.

Analysis & Conclusion

MMORPGs reign supreme among the most dedicated, hardcore gamers. That’s not too surprising given how many genres have taken from what originated first in MMORPGs in order to hook players’ attentions for longer. Open world survival games and MOBAs join both paid and free MMOs as boasting the longest average playtimes. Open world survival games are essentially MMOs with a bunch of private servers so it’s understandable that their numbers are very similar. The progression in MOBAs is MMORPG-like so their ranking also feels logical.

Perhaps the most interesting note for MOBAs is that longer matches equates to longer average playtimes equates to higher play rates. While match times are fairly similar for other genres, there is a big disparity in MOBAs. Battlerite is a fast game, but it appears more people would rather play a longer DOTA 2 match than 3-4 short Battlerite matches. Additionally, Project: Gorgon and Final Fantasy XIV are more old school – requiring more time to get anything done. Their play rates and playtimes are both fairly healthy. Perhaps being able to login for a quick 10 minute activity isn’t best for a game’s optimal health?

long dota 2 match

On that note, the correlation between average playtime and play rate is fairly high. Designing gameplay around longer play sessions apparently pulls active players in more frequently. However, it could easily be counter-argued that casual length playtimes will draw in more active players total. So while a game like DOTA 2 may keep the active players around more successfully than Battlerite, Battlerite’s player count is probably boosted because it can more easily be played as a “side game”.

Games that are typically played 1v1 such as CCGs, RTS, and Fighters rank lower on the dedicated scale. The question is whether these genres attract players who seek one-and-done play sessions or that longer play sessions result from friends also playing (“Hey dude, just one more game/quest/etc?”) Perhaps the competitive nature of these genres brings people in as much as it repels them? Without teammates to blame, average playtime could certainly falter.

Card games are the key genre to look for in analyzing how 1v1 games affects player activity. This is the only genre that combines MMO-style progression (new cards, booster packs, p2w microtransactions) with duel-centric gameplay. I think it’s fair to surmise that due to card games ranking below RTS in player dedication that the 1v1 gameplay is a bigger factor than progression.

This leads me to my final conclusion – the number of simultaneous interactions and depth of those interactions are the biggest indicator of a genre’s ability to maintain active players. MMORPGs and survival MMOs dominate the charts and offer players the ability to interact freely and with dozens or hundreds of players at once. Meanwhile, CCGs and Fighters practically cut off communication between players. While developers fear toxic players and gamers certainly dislike them, maybe the potentially good interactions are worth the risk after all?