On the nature of MMORPGs

This will be another one of my posts that are a result of me thinking. I don’t do it extensively or particularly often, so bear with me. I was thinking about how a lot of people are getting hyped over this or that MMORPG in developement, expecting nothing short of a miracle. There are masses of players that blindly jump on any hype-wagon they can find, start bashing their current MMO, buy the newfound game the second it’s out and ditch it 2 months later. Why? Because it was the same shit they were already playing in a different skin.

The easiest solution for this is for the players to realise what they are looking for in an MMO, and then bash them over the head until their expectations are lowered enough to fit the reality. You can do that yourself.

Instead, I will show you a slightly cynical view on the MMOs that will help you with your (necessary) disillusionment, help you get rid of any false preconceived ideas about the genre, stay calm in the face of hype and stare truth deep into her cold blue eyes.

Starting with the definition; one can be found in the genre name. MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game. Or to quote wikipedia: “…is a genre of role-playing video games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world.” Some other necessary features of MMORPGS are:

  • A persistent world. The game continues when the player isn’t playing, with the players’ accomplishments continuing to exist.
  • Continuous play with minimal downtime. The game provider will strive for the servers to be always accessible.
  • Social interactions between the players within the game world.
  • Players are represented by an avatar they can (usually) customise.
  • An apparent point worth stressing, roleplaying games usually feature some kind of progression of the player’s avatar.
  • The game will receive content updates to keep players interested.

With that out of the way, let’s examine in detail what exactly are MMORPGs and why the dreaded mold is almost never broken when new games are designed.

The need for continuous income

If your intention as a developer is to provide a consistent experience in a persistent world for a massive amount of people you need the appropriate technology backbone. Server farms for several thousand people aren’t cheap, neither is keeping them running. With a continual cost of maintenance in addition to the initial developement and the purchase of technology, MMO developers can’t simply adopt the income model that works for other kinds of games (the retail sale of boxed versions or digital downloads). The need for an endless stream of income is increased further by the perpetual development of the game most developers opt for (which makes more sense than the standard sequel developement of most other genres, considering the persistent world nature of MMOs).

Therefore a type of subscription or microtransaction model needs to be adopted if an MMO is to be successful. When you examine it, there are no successful (meaning still running and sustaining a playerbase of over ten thousand) fully fleshed out MMOs that wouldn’t incorporate a subscription or microtransaction model. Even the original Guild Wars, with all its flaunting of the “no subscription fee required” paroles, had an episodic layout in order to provide a semi-annual stream of income. Although it’s true that the average fee for playing was exceptionally small (due to the developer’s uncanny ability to lower the server, the bandwidth and development costs) and the system allowed freedom of choosing whether to pay for more content or not, it still is a type of subscription model. It can be said that Arena.net were the first to realise the potential of a microtransaction/episodic model and implement it in an MMO.

Keeping the goods coming

Obviously, if you intend to charge a subscription for your game the game needs to be interesting enough to make the customers want to play. And although it is true that some of the MMORPG’s revenue (it’s been claimed that between 20-30%) comes from people who are playing much less than what they are paying for, say on a monthly or weekly basis instead of the daily one, you are still left with a large part of the playerbase that won’t subscribe unless the game is worth playing. Which incidentally, makes sense.

Keeping a player interested for months at a time isn’t easy though. Singleplayer games usually won’t even attempt that and will clock up to 80 hours of playtime at most. But because they are relying on box sales, and not a subscription model, they only need to worry about the initial sale by designing enticing and immersive gameplay, rather than strive for continuous gameplay MMOs need to achieve in order to succeed. This means that the bread and butter and the magical ingredient of every successful MMO is a way to keep people playing, and not the exciting gameplay singleplayer games try to achieve. Because that’s the only way to keep people paying.

Gameplay is progression’s bitch

The way they achieve that is by abusing the hell out of the RPG part of the MMORPGs in conjunction with exploiting a few psychological tricks (the latter not being under scrutiny here). Namely, progression is the name of the game in this genre. Progression helps keep the game fresh and keeps the player interested and playing, while giving him a sense of achievement. If you thought MMOs were all about experiencing the gameplay, you were wrong. In the long run, the biggest part of any MMORPG is progression. This happens because of the (real or conceived) limitations the genre imposes on the developers.

While you might argue that progression is a dominant feature of the singleplayer RPG genre and that the genre itself isn’t far from the MMORPG one, you need to remember that the hallmark of a good RPG has always been and always will be the immersive experience, which is partly supported by the progression aspect to give the combat a deeper meaning, but not completely relying on it. This means that in contrast with the popular belief, a successful RPG and a successful MMORPG have very little in common.

Nasty stuff

If you take into consideration all of the above facts, you can derive some nasty implications of what the MMORPG genre’s hidden features look like.

1.) First and foremost, you have to realise that the statement “gameplay is progression’s bitch” is true 90% of the time. Stop arguing and just read.

There are three main purposes games are designed and played for: immersive gameplay, memorable experience and fun. It’s what makes gamers tick. A successful game directly translates into a game that has gained a large following/playerbase and/or has sold a lot of copies. To achieve that, developers strive to create a game that will entertain a player on their first playthrough and a few following that one, with perhaps some multiplayer action sprinkled on top. A typical game usually won’t keep players regularly playing it for over 1-6 months.

However, while MMORPGs might strive for a large playerbase aswell, they have not only the first few playthroughts to worry about, but they need to make sure that the player keeps coming back for several years, ideally for the rest of the game’s life. And because the players’ attention span and interest won’t keep them playing an MMO for as long as it takes to release a new sequel worth of content, the content has to be rationed into bite-sized bits and spread over the course of the game’s development cycle. To keep players occupied in between the content bits you need something that’s easy to develop and implement, takes a long time to get through, but will be interesting enough for the player to tackle it. This magical unicorn is progression (more on it later).

But then the developers have realised that, instead of worrying about all the meaningful content and trying to satisfy the game’s three primary purposes, it’s much easier to just water down the content, spread it paper-thin over the progression, slap on some butter in the form of exploiting the human compulsiveness and bake at 250°C for two years. Secret ingredient is cinnamon and Bob’s your uncle: that’s what modern MMORPGs are made of.

2.) You might be reeling while reading this, recalling all of the times you had fun with your friends in the XYZ MMO, having epic battles against monsters, players, all the warm moments flooding back to you. You’ll claim that was some awesome content and that I’m mad. Let me just remind you that every epic moment or fuzzy feeling you’ve experienced was created by you and the game’s community. The only thing the MMO provided was a setting. A setting that’s easy enough to provide with a few pieces of cardboard, a die, a few pencils and an imaginative mind.

You having fun as a direct result of player interaction isn’t content, it’s a feature. True enough, it’s a prominent feature of MMOs and one you pay for, but not nearly the biggest part of what you pay for. This feature is among the cheapest there is to provide. Don’t believe me? Let’s experiment:

  1. Grab a couple of good friends. 4 is the optimal number. Set a date for a gaming night.
  2. Google a free teamspeak, mumble or ventrillo server.
  3. Grab steam and purchase Magicka (you can get a pack of four for a discount). Or if you’re skinned or simply stingy, get Diablo 2 (although that’s kinda more expensive unless you already own it).
  4. Get all your mates onto the voice comm and into the game.
  5. ???
  6. Profit.

Did you have as much or possibly more fun than your usual MMO gaming night? If not, then you either need to get new friends or you’re playing a MMO you developed (and are stubborn as an ox).

Right there you have more than a few weeks worth of fun (possibly more fun than in an MMO) in an RPG for 10€/30€ (if you decide to gift it to your friends), without having to deal with any of the shitty aspects of MMOs. Alternatively, and cheaper, depending on your own and your mate’s drinking habits, you can simply invite all of them to your place, provide some beer and snacks and grab a board/card game. I recommend Munchkins. It will be just as fun (if not more) and memorable as a night of raiding, stabbing virtual mobs or players. And probably less frustrating to boot.

Sure, you’ll whine that it’s not the same, that MMOs have a persistent world, more players, sense of achievement (it’s only a sense, not real achievement mind you), blahblah… I’m fine with your whining though, because it’s completely besides the point. But if you continue claiming that most of the exceptional fun you have in an MMO is not player created content, you’re a moron.

3.) MMORPGs will never cater to casual players. With a game based on progression that is mainly intended as a time sink, you will always have players with more time than others who will be ahead of the curve. They are who developers cater to, because they are the first to stop playing the game when the “content” runs out. Casual players who are only on their way to the top don’t present any danger of quitting. If anything, they are the ones eternally nested in the middle or the bottom half of the stair elevator, struggling to run faster than the stairs are carrying them to the bottom. Which is why they are the least demanding customers and will never be catered to.

Why would a developer shut off the hardcore playerbase just to cater to the casual one, when he can profit from both?

4.) After reading nr. 1 you must realise by now that your dream of making a Dragon Age MMO, while retaining everything that made Dragon Age an exceptional game is impossible if that MMO is to be successful. MMORPGs and non-MMO games have very little in common and make for two quite different game categories. They strive to achieve different things, therefore it is stupid to expect a similar kind of gameplay from both.

The most notable difference is the watered-down content. Because the content of an MMORPG has to be stretched over a much longer playtime (the greedier the developer, the more diluted it is), you cannot compare the quality of the content of an MMORPG with that of most other (good) games. This is something people have come to accept, but are still shocked every time they encounter a shitty kill-quest or the boss respawning after it was killed.

Note: Bioware is attempting to change this practice with SWTOR. The game is yet to be released and I remain skeptical until then.

You may see modern games utilising different MMO concepts in their design, in an attempt to get closer to a subscription model and milk even more cash. But let me stress that games adopting the DLC/frequent sequels type of content delivery simply means that non-MMO games are trying to mimic MMO games, and not the other way around.

5.) Progression, progression, progression. Gear progression, power progression, content progression, level progression, ability progression, money progression, crafting progression, guild progression,… These can be found in any game, but it’s very important to note that, except for story progression, which is an essential part of any good game (and is curiously exactly what most MMOs are lacking — or is the shitty part of the game), only MMOs are centered around them. This is done in order to keep you playing when the thin filling of meaningful content runs out. It also give you a sense of accomplishment when you stop — there wouldn’t be much point in compulsively playing only to walk away with a feeling of uselessness and never returning.

Because rapid progression would render this content filler ineffective, it needs to be slowed down. Several well-known “time sinks” that stop you from speeding through the content are:

  • Arbitrary levels and limitations that need to be progressed through at a slow pace in order to reach the next stage, with as many stages as the developer has balls to implement.
  • Having money directly influence your ability to do fun things, making the gathering of money a necessary chore. One such beautiful and immediate example is having a faster mode of transport cost a lot of money, directly influencing the time it takes you to traverse the world, and with it the time spent playing. And round it goes.
  • Random loot/drops with odds good enough to make it enticing, but still take a large amount of time because of their randomness. This has recently been largely replaced with tokens that need to be collected over time. Same principle, only a bit less infuriating for unlucky individuals and more obvious of a ploy.
  • Needing to devote time and resources to craft a myriad of useless items in order to be able to craft the powerful ones.

The popular image is of a carrot and a treadmill, with the carrot being the next level/piece of gear/boss kill/whatever and the treadmill being experience/raiding/what have you. The carrot is dangling in front of your face, representing a goal in the game and the reward you get when you reach it, with the treadmill being the amount of time you are willing to spend achieving the goal. This is no different from how most goals are achieved in real life, making the game something of a second job, with a few bits of fun in between (just like life!).

Certain aspects of MMO progression are called timesinks for a reason.

6.) When trying to make a successful PvP centered MMO without considering the nature of MMORPGs and the possible implications it can have on the game, the PvP will be shit. You cannot build a game on progression and expect the PvP to be balanced or fun for anyone not on top of the gear curve (which, in lieu with the MMO code, will usually only be available to the true hardcore players). The fun is debatable even for those players.

There is a reason why competitive games don’t have a power system implemented that would scale in longterm with how well a player is doing — it just isn’t fun. Although these days we see multiplayer FPS games having levels and unlockable items. When these are overdone they are usually frowned upon, but the developers are slowly going overboard and taking their games with them.

Free to play

When talking about MMOs and subscription models I can’t go past this one. And instead of writing another block of text I’ve decided to copy/paste in something I’ve written in the past. Mainly because I feel it’s concise and to the point.

If the game has content you need to pay for to be able to access, it is not “free”. The name of the subscription model is misleading on purpose, a marketing snag that catches many players off guard. That way it’s easier to convince players to use the microtransaction system without dispelling the illusion of a free game. Most F2P MMO players will reply that they are purchasing items and services through the microtransaction model of their own accord, and that the game is still free without having to pay for anything, when told the game is actually not free. microtransaction model.>

The gist of it: when the developer has income that aren’t donations, their product isn’t free.


I feel that a it’s worth dedicating a paragraph to this mold-breaking MMO. While not an MMORPG, it was still massive and featured a persistent world. It had a monthly subscription, avoided the worst of the usual MMO tricks and succeeded. This is one game where not everything is about progression. It’s not the focus, it’s an addition.

Battle Ranks are your standard MMO levels achieved by getting experience. The rewards for achieving different ranks are certificates that allow you to train for certain weapons/vehicles/tools. This isn’t exactly an up/down type of progression, as all certificates are available to you at any give time, with you having 7 certificates to spend at level 1, which means that the only thing you gain with levels is flexibility (restricted by the small inventory size, respawn timers and vehicle respawn timers, in addition there is a time lockout on respeccing your certificates). You also get access to more implant slots (three in total), which do impact the gameplay and make your character more powerful, but are never the deciding factor in a battle. Their main focus is to provide flexibility.

Command Ranks are 5 special ranks you can attain through commanding squads and platoons. The perks gained are mostly used for easier control and overview of the battlefield, and communication with other commanders.

Planetside has no special gear, armor and weapons cannot be upgraded past picking up different types of from the equipment terminals and choosing a type of ammunition. These things are available to anyone that can use them (that has the necessary certificates). Getting in and out of battle is easy by using vehicles and dropping from the orbit. There is no money, instancing, mounts or PvE. In short, PS had almost no “hidden” features most modern MMOs sport and if SOE hadn’t fucked up the game, it would still be the best MMO you’ve ever played.

Because of the ever reducing attention span of the modern gamer (instant gratification, addictive gameplay or gtfo) and because of SOE’s greedy fingers, I doubt Planetside 2 will live up to the name of its predecessor.

At the end of the day

I know the above is a lot to chew and think through (largely owing to my style of writing resembling that of a drunk prairie dog), but these are the things I hope will rub off on you:

  • Don’t just take every feature of MMORPGs for granted, question everything. Most of the time you don’t need an intricate knowledge of game design to realise that some features are plain stupid or made specifically for targeting your wallet.
  • Don’t jump into every new MMORPG like it’s the next best thing. Unless you are completely sure of what the game has to offer, you will most likely be disappointed.
  • MMOs have become a genre where the mold is seldom broken and the one who dares, loses. Support developers who take calculated risks in an effort to be innovative.
  • When testing a game and trying to decide whether to invest your time and money in it, try really hard to look through all the bullshit. It’s difficult a lot of the time, especially considering the fact you rarely get to see the endgame (where you will probably spend most of your time). If you aren’t sure, just give the game a few months. It’s not like you’ll be missing much, except for the crowded starting areas, bugs, crashes and huge queues.
  • Be objective. I can’t stress this enough. I know that suppressing the hype is usually very hard, but with practice and experience you will be able to look through the lore, shiny graphics, phony promises and “innovative” features.
  • Vote with your wallet. Complaining about a game and it’s features while still paying the developers for the same crap you’re complaining about is counter-productive and stupid.

Please understand that I am in no shape or form trying to say that all MMOs are stupid, grindy second jobs and that people playing them are addicted retards (even if that’s sometimes true). I’m a long-time MMO player myself and I understand what MMOs have done for popularising gaming. I am not trying to distance myself from the issue and say that I’m better than everyone else. All I’m trying to say is that people need to realise what MMOs truly are in their present state and what potential they hold.

Every time we play an MMO we agree to all of the nasty features it hides and terms it sets. It’s the nature of these games to be centered around progression, because that is the way the genre has evolved. We are the only ones responsible for this evolution, because we shape our own games. We have accepted them without questioning and still do. This is the result.

If anything, I’m condemning the consumer, the gamer, for blindly following the flock and not struggling against the herd instinct. For not trying new things and giving developers the opportunity to break the mold.

So please, let’s make the MMORPG market exciting and innovative as the rest of the MMO genre. Copying and improving on features used in previous games is ok. But publishing an MMORPG made solely out of such parts isn’t. We aren’t as stupid as you think.


7 thoughts on “On the nature of MMORPGs

  1. Brilliant. So many good parts I find it hard to come up with an intelligent response. Well written, and funny as hell.

    “…resembling that of a drunk prairie dog”

    Too right about the pvp games as well- the reason me, and 800K others quit WAR was the ridiculous grind which only made you feel like you wasted your time after you were killed instantly by someone higher…or, as you said:

    “only to walk away with a feeling of uselessness and never returning”.

    I really don’t like the progression treadmill and I am starting to wonder why I play MMO’s in the first place. Many of the standard feautures you mention I dislike- I did jump on the RIFT hype wagon, for instance, only to play to level 13 in the Alpha test and never touch it again.

    It’s one of the reasons World of Tanks appeals atm though the progression element is definitely there, and the F2P model will actually require you to pay to be competitive. I’ve got cash, so I’m cool with that. The lack of a persistant world, and lack of useless, crappy quests is a winner for me at them moment while I evaluate what it is I want in a game, and more importantly, where I can find it.

    • Oh stop it Gankalicious, you’re making me blush.

      I was thinking about ditching MMOs alltogether aswell, but I think that if I can find one that isn’t that obsessively focused on progression and grinding and instead offers (mostly) unconditional fun, I won’t be able to resist it. Only problem is I’ve yet to find such a MMO. I’m pinning my hopes on GW2 and PS2, but I’m in no shape or form about to allow myself to get hyped up for no reason. As much as GW2 looks good, I can’t get hyped over it. I like to think that it’s not a sign of an (about to be) crappy MMO, but rather that I am able to resist the charms.

      I need to give WoT a go one of these days, especially now that it’s out of beta. I will next time I feel like resubbing WAR. :D

      Though I don’t know how much I’ll like the game, I’m not prepared to spend money on something that’s supposedly free. :)

  2. tl;dr… or did I? :O

    Great post. I find it increasingly funny that the “playing solo” mentality is becoming popular in multiplayer games and I wish more players would think back to their Diablo 2 days (perhaps play a little bit of compare and contrast between then and now). The one benefit I have over others, who play with friends, is I almost always play with my brother. So, I’m never hurting for player interaction while gaming.

    My own personal play style consists of a few MMOs on annual/bi-annual rotation. These usually fall into their own categories (pve, rpg, pvp) and WAR (at one point) took up the pvp role. Now that slot is empty and I definitely feel the void. I make up for this with lengthy PS3 sessions.

    As for future development, I am always intrigued by innovation (or claims there of). It appears that action focused gameplay is the next “big thing” and I’m more than willing to test a few of these games out to see which ones give me the most enjoyment.

    However, I try to maintain a level of scrutiny during the development of games I’m interested in. I’m not saying I’ve never fallen pray to hype, but, again, I have my brother to help reel me in when I go too far. :P

  3. “Because of the ever reducing attention span of the modern gamer”
    That would be me. I did read through your awesome wall but I must admit I can’t remember all of it. It’s not you, it’s me.

    But a few things stuck. Although I havent been an MMO player for long I most definitely fall prey to hypes. When confronted with the choice of wether or not to buy Rift I was: “I dunno… I guess?” And then I did. And I must’ve played three days of it so far, not counting time spent on queues.

    It is disconcerting that I can have more fun playing Tetris than questing in an mmo. I used to play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney while waiting for scenario pops in WAR. It says a lot about a game if you need another game to get you through it.

    You know what? I’m gonna think about this. I’m gonna sit down while I pretend to work and really give this some thought. About what I would really like to be playing and how. So, thanks.

    • Oh, I wouldn’t worry about not remembering everything you read in there, as this post didn’t really turn out exactly the way I wanted it, a bit too erratic, reptitive and inchoerent. Somehow, it was way better in my head, but then I didn’t have time to write it down and it evaporated.

      I’m glad that I managed to get a few of my points across though. One of which was that we need to reevaluate why we are playing MMOs and what are they really like. If I’m playing a game that’s essentially a second job, yet it doesn’t feel like it on the surface because of the subtle psychological exploits in it, I probably don’t want to play it.

      And yeah, I used to play Desktop Dungeons or flash games too while waiting for queues/AAO in WAR.

  4. +567 points for Nasty Stuff section.

    An MMO for casual doesn’t exist.

    However, I don’t think the ‘Next Best Thing’ will ever stop. Will that choice be your actual greatest thing ever? Probably not. But players are going to try all the same.

    I’m not sure any WAR player left just for RIFT, as an example. WAR veterans may have been attracted to RIFT, but I think the vast majority of us left well before its release. WAR is a sad story in which 1.4 killed it for us. Not another game. So as most of us get increasingly bored with RIFT, we will leave it too. Probably sooner than later. But are they coming back to WAR with their tail between their legs? Doubtful. They went to RIFT, because that was there at the time. RIFT’s success is probably completely reliant on so many MMOs failing in different ways at once.

    When someone bashes their current game and proclaims the next great thing coming. The second part is wrong, but the first part is right. The next game might not be great, but clearly jumping on the unkown was worth it to you. You just didn’t like where you were.

    • Hm, the issue really depends on what you blame for so many people jumping ship so often. It’s quite clear some of the players that left WAR for Rift did so because they were sick of the former and the latter genuinely appealed to them. But I’m certain that the vast majority of people playing Rift are players who left their fully functional MMO (say WoW) for Rift, because they were bored and believed that Rift can offer them an innovative and unique experience. Which, in most cases, isn’t so. Hence droves of disappointed players.

      If you claim that people are right when bashing their current game, while at the same time wrong when getting hyped about the next big thing (because they won’t be happy with it), that basically means that players can’t choose their MMOs and need to be educated on the nature of MMOs, which is in part what I was trying to address with this article.

      But what I was also trying to show with it is that there’s an inherent problem with the playerbase, rather than with the available MMOs. It’s quite clear what you can expect from them and their features are a result of popular demand. If you don’t like grinding you should probably stop playing MMOs who focus on progression, etc… Every prevalent feature we can find in them is our own fault. Which is why I’m condemning the sort of behaviour I was describing with that sentence.

      I realise the post is a bit confusing and incoherent, but that’s probably because my thoughts on the subject aren’t formulated into something readable yet. The post may have been a bit rushed. :D

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