Editorial: Fixing the MMO Genre: A Few Ideas

In order to design a better MMO, game companies need not hire expensive R&D teams. They should just ask random game columnists on the Internet! Here are five problem areas with the MMO genre and suggestions for improving or fixing them.

1. Grindy McGrinderson

Grinds exist in the RPG genre primarily as a time-waster and a way to artificially scale difficulty. Consider the first stage of a typical JRPG: the player character(s) starts out in a low level area killing imps or slimes or whatever, with entirely unsuitable weapons, armor and skills. After a good solid hour of killing these weak monsters… Level 2! Now the player can equip a slightly better weapon and proceed to the introductory dungeon!

This is the result of grinding.  Why do we encourage it?
This is the result of grinding. Why do we encourage it?

This mechanic was no doubt co-opted from the tabletop genre, but unlike the highly-customizable and flexible DM/player dynamic, the computer game is primarily one of mathematics, statistics and random number generators.

Enter the grind! By spending an indefinite amount of time completing a repeatable and easy task, skills can be increased incrementally and within a pre-determined time period. However, this is terribly, horribly boring.

There is essentially no reason to have the “leveling up” system incorporated in MMOs, when the focus of the game, the story progression, and the “fun” is to be had in end-game situations, whether PVE or PVP.

A replacement would instead be a skill-based progression, where players start out at “max level,” so to speak, fighting against appropriately-leveled enemies, but with limited abilities, skills and statistics. These would have to be gained, much like they are in the real world, via “training,” whether that involves quests to find teachers, drilling with other players, or searching ancient ruins for powerful artifacts.

Imagine that a player rolls her warrior character. Instead of starting with nary more than the shirt on her back and a dented and rusted sword, her character is a true warrior, a soldier of her nation. She has serviceable if plain armor, a fine shield, and a regulation-issue sword. She knows how to use them… but does she have what it takes to be a heroine of legend, slayer of all that is evil? No: for this she must travel beyond the Forgotten Mountains to seek out the former grand marshal of her nation that carries with him knowledge of greater techniques!

In this way, players start out by completing a somewhat simple quest line to gain their basic skills. So armed, they progress to learn higher level skills, special attacks, and so forth. And so on, until at the end of these introductory quests they are armored in end-game ready gear, a full compliment of skills, and some valuable instruction on how their class functions and how to play that class.

This removes the necessity of spending hours, days and months “grinding” through the introductory levels to get to the endgame. One of the problems with an aging game or an old server is that it can be intimidating for new players to join, because there is no help available, no equivalently-leveled groups for beginning content. Everyone is focused on the end-game. This mechanic would remove that by starting everyone at the end-game and allowing people to progress through skill rather than time devoted to grinding.

2. Lack of Persistence

The corollary to this problem is the grindy, repetitive nature of the end-game. Another artificial time limitation and incentive to repeating content is to get an entire group of 5, 10, 15 or more players in comparable level gear to reach the next level of progression. This creates logical and narrative problems further down the line as you will often have NPCs appearing in more than one place as players encounter that same NPC in different parts of the world and story.

The downside to a pure persistent approach would be that only one group could experience a single encounter, and it would reward those that have the most time to play uninterrupted while offering nothing to more casual players. Again, this encourages the “grind” mindset, which has been identified as problematic.

The answer is to mix persistence in certain areas (like world PVP, which can change from hour to hour) or in shifting alliances between factors as player-diplomats seek to gain allegiance, with repeatability in other areas, such as sieges or raids against PVE targets, with a few very high-level PVE instances, like random-spawn world bosses, being persistent (or at least very rare spawn). That way, dedicated PVE players could “hunt” rare mobs for glory and loot, whereas more casual or group-work focused guilds could work on moving through repeatable dungeons.

3. Story

Telling a story where the player characters number in the millions is difficult; a million individual narratives must be fused into a single thread of lore. Player characters of obvious fallibility must mingle next to storybook heroes and heroines that are invincible and conquer all.

It is difficult to capture MMO gameplay within a traditional narrative.
It is difficult to capture MMO gameplay within a traditional narrative.

Compounded with the problems of 2 and 3, MMOs end up being more like dedicated time-sinks than spec fic novels.

Again, this is a problem of trying to extrapolate the basic tabletop RPG experience on the massive scale. A lot of the “RP” goes out the window in favor of the “G” mechanic, which is fine, but the story should not have to suffer.

Another problem is that a sizable amount of the player base, that cares only about the game mechanics (more on this in a moment) will not care about the story or lore, and so “story” is seen as a distraction to playing the game.

The answer to (3) is found within the solutions to (1) and (2). As long as the players have a sense of persistence in progression, a narrative can emerge. And if designers remove the artificial time-sinks that prevent players from directly engaging the main storyline of the game (which is 99% at endgame).

As long as story can be told through both player interaction (via PVP, where the players author it themselves, and dedicated, persistent PVE, where players can earn fame and notoriety by being the only ones able to down a specific challenge) and pre-set progression through increasingly difficult high-level dungeons (where the majority of the server population will get to experience the hard work of the designers), then players can be involved in something larger, a reason for their struggles, and a much better reason to keep them logging in night after night rather than, “I have to get to a higher level so I can do the next thing coming.”

4. Elitism

In any human competition, there will be hierarchy, and there will be those that believe their position in a hierarchy entitles them to act superior to those below.

The problem is that there is no way of policing griefing, camping, ganking or being a jerk.

But rather than make MMO space a draconian totalitarian state where these sins are punished quickly, visibly and gruesomely, a better solution would be to provide incentives for veteran players to “mentor” inexperienced players.

Imagine: our aforementioned warrior hacks her way through the introductory stages. She emerges bruised, bloodied, and ready for battle. She is approached by another player character, a high-level mage. This sage enchanter offers to show her the wonders of the wide world, to teach her the basics of group dynamics, strategy and tactics.

Why? Because for the time he spends leading parties of fresh-faced new adventurers through the realm, meeting their first challenges and offering them aid when required, he gains some sort of in-game currency (fame, notoriety, gold, trinkets) that can be bartered for titles, gear, or access to higher levels on his own.

Every player in an MMO works on a time-budget. A certain amount of time can be spent logged in, and under current systems, players have little to no incentive to aid people because all time spent aiding others, especially at a lower level, provides no benefit to the veteran player.

This encourages elitism (noobs play with noobs!) and snobbery (oh God, I can’t believe you’re still doing that!). While some elitism is unavoidable (e.g., in dedicated PVP), incentives for people to train and mentor others will raise the general skill level.

This is the attitude gamers must deal with; game developers should not encourage it.
This is the attitude gamers must deal with; game developers should not encourage it.

Combine this with plenty of chances for dedicated, hardcore players to achieve special and unique achievements (persistent world events, special raid bosses, unique or very rare gear available only to those with the time and skill to reach those levels of the game), which they should, and there is a way for everyone to experience the majority of the game and the major story progression. It provides enough of a natural hierarchy to satisfy very competitive people, while providing them with an incentive to help the less-hardcore.

5. Burnout

Unfortunately, the only solution to burnout is to chain developers to their desks until they churn out fresh content every few weeks.

As fun as that sounds, it is not really practical. Or legal. Or ethical. Or possibly even humane.

The solution therefore is to be able to recycle old content, to provide players with fresh ways of experiencing the same content over and over, whether through alternate characters, new rewards, or so on. One potential solution might be “player-controlled parties.”

Imagine: if one levels three max-level characters, one could have an instant party. A Final Fantasy XII-like “gambit” system could be used to control them for everyday questing, hunting, and dungeon exploration. While the kind of synchronization necessary for the highest levels of content could not be achieved, it would nevertheless provide incentive for players to repeat the same content with many different kinds of player character.

These are but a few of the problems and solutions present within the MMO genre. Many of them may be implemented to various degrees in different games, but bringing them together is key for long-term MMO success. When players feel like logging in because it’s fun, not because they have to in order to avoid being left behind by the state of the game.


  1. get on the podcast and talk about this it would be alot better than having to read for a long time!

  2. But then we’ll have half the podcast filled with MMO. D:

  3. This was a nice read. :)
    I liked your suggestion regarding skilling up rather than levelling up

  4. Personally, I really like your suggestion about solo-partying. Even though I’ve never played WoW, this guy’s always intrigued me:


    I’ve always thought I’d have a lot more fun playing a party or group of adventurers than a single character, much like a traditional RPG. Even if it would be impossible to solo the highest level content, I still really like the idea of setting up a system to control a dozen or so characters at once, especially if all fo the individual characters had more customization options than just their class and a few bells and whistles.

  5. There is so much here to discuss, I do not know where to begin. I really wish we had Lane on the podcast this week (maybe he can make it?) as there are several things I’d like to talk about here!

    Rather than carry on, I want to address a continuing and pervasive trend which is beginning to grate on my nerves. Trying to paint all discussion related to MMOs as ‘boring and tedious’ is no better than doing the same with all discussion related to sport, or RPGs, or beer.

    There is legitimate, forward-looking work (like this piece) that does not get bogged down in minutae, and then there is the “Let me read my WoW chatlog to you” shit which is often found in other places. It’s fairly obvious that we do the former and not the latter here. I’d appreciate it if people would notice this, and respect the authors who expend great time and effort to write thoughtful and studied work on a popular, expanding, developing area of RPGs.

    People who continually find themselves unable to tell the difference between thoughtful discourse and meaningless dribbling, and who are unable to give respect where it is due, may eventually find themselves unable to post. And that would be a shame. For them.

  6. Now for my first reply to this piece:

    Damn you, Lane Haygood. My account will reactivate 1 September.

  7. It is possible that I can make the podcast this week because the judges are on vacation and I don’t have a trial on Monday. I added pictures to break up my Dread Wall of Text (it has plus one mindnumbing!).

    These ideas are just cobbled together from my shower+thinking sessions about how I’d design a game to include the fun parts but not the boring parts. I think too many of these mechanics are holdovers from the last generation’s way of thinking about emerging gameplay, that if you make the “special” content easily accessible you somehow ruin it. I think XBox Live has taught us that accessibility isn’t the problem as long as it is possible to differentiate in skill.

    Case in point, from tonight’s WoW session, while I was sidelined to let others gear up in the main raid, I PUGed a dungeon with a really fantastically terrible group. And I don’t mean terrible in the sense that I could have educated them on a better strategy: I mean one guy kept deliberately wiping us on an easy boss because he thought it was funny to dash into the adds and send a bunch of them aggroed onto me (the tank). His response: “Lul I hit my auotrun.” (post not edited for grammatical accuracy). Even though this chowderhead was in gear that indicated he should possess at least some skill, his playstyle was terrible and he far underperformed where I would have expected him. Access didn’t make him a better player, and now my Ignore List is one person longer.

    To counterbalance this, another person I ran with was complimentary not of me but of my guild and the way we conduct ourselves within the game. I can’t explain why, but I felt rather pleased that my guild had a good reputation for producing skilled players willing to help out with others. Even though I was running the same levels of content as others, the social or skillful aspects of MMO playing shone through the raw statistics of play. That kind of emergent social gameplay is what we should reward, not simply time spent or a bad attitude.

  8. yea we call it “the dark ages” when he was addicted to WoW, he has been clean for a few months now he goes to a support group the nights he used to have raids. he also has a novel in the works, the working title is “When WoW was just an exclamation and not an addicting drug”

  9. I second that. I have never been excited for an MMO until FFXIV. It seems to be doing a lot of things right.

  10. @Lusipurr & Ethos: same here. my fingers are crossed that the beta is gonna be open.

    @DarthGibblet: Jesus tapdancing Christ! that’s a joke right? It has to be…

  11. @Lusipurr, Ethos, Breaka: For me, that MMO’s The Old Republic, even though it doesn’t look like it does anything revolutionary with the gameplay. I’ve just been ignoring most FFXIV news out of habit, but maybe I should look into it. I know I’ve got a friend who’s always bothering my to try new MMOs…

    @Breaka: I can’t say for sure if it’s a joke, but I’ve seen it from a few different sources (granted, they were pretty much all of the same level of legitimacy as the one I linked to). Even if it isn’t legit, that concept’s always been something that’s interested me, but AFAIK there’s no MMO that will let you take 2 of your characters and party them together (short of this guy’s method of running multiple WoW instances on multiple machines, which I don’t really have the budget for).

  12. @Darth: As you may know, The Old Republic is entirely lost on me. I’ve seen at least 30 minutes of coverage with an open mind and every thing I watch makes me more and more apathetic.

  13. @Darth/Breaka: The Free-to-play MMO “Sword of the New World” does allow you to play with multiple characters simultaneously, in a party set-up. In fact, it’s really the only way to play that game.

    However, the entire game is one giant grind, and the ‘play’ is dominated by all of the ultra high levels who have paid real-money to unlock the best gear and the highest levels for their characters. Free players are restricted to lowever levels and lesser gear.

    I wouldn’t recommend it, personally.