Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 April, 2016

Always look on the bright side of MMOs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:53 PM

Okay, so yesterday I went a little dark and pessimistic. Or, as Richard Bartle calls it, “A normal Tuesday night.”

Today, though, I want to look on the bright side and respond to Timothy Lochner’s suggestion:
“What do you believe is an untapped “thing” for the MMO space that could actually be viable?”

I’m not sure I can completely counteract yesterday’s pessimism, but here’s a look at what could make MMOs great again.

The meaning of MMOs

So, let’s turn back the clock and look at what made MMOs so intriguing in the first place. This list is going to be a bit subjective, especially as times have changed and alternatives have appeared. However, I think this list is a pretty good representation of what people loved about MMOs.

  1. Playing with other people – This was a novel experience for a lot of people at the time. Want to do stuff with friends? Want to group with random people? Want to just go solo? These all became viable options over time.
  2. A persistent world – Choices you made and opportunities you seized could rarely be undone, except in rare and exceptional circumstances. A change from other games where changing your mind was a reload away.
  3. A dynamic game – The game changed over time. This ranged from things like UO’s ecology system to major content patches and expansions where major parts of the game would be radically altered or added to.
  4. A breadth of content – Especially as games got more complex, you saw a lot more systems added to the game. Wanted to level a character over time? You could do that. Want to craft stuff for others to use? Yep. Want to do complex raids that required more people and coordination? You could. Want to go kill others? Many games had that option, if not that focus. Want to wander around a wide world? Yes, that as an option as well.
  5. Competition – Part of what kept some people going was competition. World first, server first, most classes mastered, etc. Economic competition, organized arena competition, world PvP competition. People were always measuring themselves against each other.

So, what happened?

Flesh wounds from competitors and convenience

Obviously, there was competition. Online was a pretty novel thing back in 1996 when Meridian 59 launched, and even 3 years later when EverQuest launched. But, bu the late 2000s being online was a lot less novel. We had the rise of social networking sites, particularly Facebook with its exposed API, that allowed for networked games that had access to a lot more data and personal information. In the bad old days a game could spam everyone’s wall and demonstrate that games were more than something pimply-faced teenage boys did from their parents’ basements. Some of that excitement of playing with other people was present in other media, even if done in a much more limited and asynchronous way. Other games like MOBAs and Minecraft gave some of the elements of MMOs without some of the overhead people came to see as an obstacle to their enjoyment.

The other thing that happened was the limiting of MMOs. WoW in particular kept developing in a way such that leveling seemed trivialized and character customization was reduced. Socialization opportunities were reduces in the name of convenience, letting people you might never meet again control your social experience in a dungeon. Options became limited in the name of streamlining the experience for people, but a lot of the soul of the game went away.

Okay, so maybe I’m still being a bit pessimistic. So, let’s answer Timothy’s question: what’s the untapped thing that is needed to revitalize MMOs?

It’s not quite dead yet

Looking at that original list, and keeping in mind that competition exists, let’s focus on what MMOs do best.

The first thing is to address the social experience. One of the best elements of MMOs is the friends I made over the years that I am still in touch with. The social opportunities in early MMOs allowed me to form these friendships, and are much harder to form in modern MMOs. I’ve written before about a way to encourage repeated social interactions even with the convenience of a random dungeon finder. By allowing people to form strong bonds, bonds you don’t really get in random MOBA matches or from shallow social features in mobile games, you can put the focus on what MMOs do better.

I think the other thing here is to focus on the dynamic, persistent world with a breadth of content. And, once again, I’m going to pull from the past: the answer is Storybricks. Okay, so Storybricks isn’t around anymore, but the concepts have value. Populating a living world with interesting NPCs and letting the players’ actions affect the NPCs and thereby affecting the world. I still want to see this become a reality. And this isn’t something you could easily get in any other competitor.

Yeah, I’m still a bit disappointed that EverQuest Next and thus the bits of Storybricks in it, will never see the light of day.

And now for something completely different

So, if I can’t look to the past, what absolutely new thing would help revive MMOs? I propose a new type of game: a persistent, cooperative survival game.

Survival games have been popular lately, including Don’t Starve, Rust, and ARK. How can MMOs improve these types of games?

The first is by allowing a large, persistent world. Most survival games are intended to be short duration, with a server that can be easily reset. Allowing for a higher degree of persistence and larger groups of people could make the game more interesting. The game H1Z1 does this to some extent, with more MMO-like take on zombie survival.

The second improvement is by enforcing cooperation. Most survival games allow player to predate on other players. As we saw in UO, while this leads to a potentially more interesting game in the short term, it also makes the game feel a lot more hostile in the long term. We also see in ARK that griefing has been elevated to an artform where you can handcuff and force feed prisoners to pretty much destroy someone else’s play experience. By disallowing aggressive actions, the game can become more about surviving the environment, and perhaps even about larger goals such as building a stable civilization and city. Of course, there will be griefing by people exploiting the game, but we deal with that in normal MMOs already, so it’s not a stretch to deal with them here.

I think a large-scale survival game with enforced cooperation could be a really interesting game, and potentially very big if the interest in other survival games are any indication. Of course, the game would need continual development and new threats to the game to keep players from becoming too complacent with their accomplishments. The strength of an MMO setup would allow the game to find a good balance between boredom from accomplishing too much and danger that threatens to become overwhelming.

Confuse a player, Ltd.

What do you think? Do you think these could make for an interesting game? Or, do you have a new idea for something that would make MMOs interesting again?


  1. I think by and large, the main “death knell” for MMOs as they originally were is the evolution of the “playing with other people” concept. Once upon a time, it was mindblowingly new and exciting. Now, we live in an always-connected global world, and we have games of all genres which allow you to play with/against other people. The standard fantasy (MMO)RPG with holy trinity and quests is a merely a subset of a subgenre now.

    The passage of time has also demonstrated there is a cap limit to how “massively” people actually want to play with other people. Too many people = a crowd of strangers, zerg, etc. Many just want to play easily with a small group of friends, without being lost in the mix and with accomplishments too small to notice, hence the popularity of Minecraft/Terraria servers, survival game servers like ARK, etc. and MOBAs.

    Persistence and dynamic world is definitely something future MMOs should explore. The attraction of subscribing/supporting an online game as a service is the expectations that updates, improvements, and overall /changes/ are taking place to keep the game fresh and exciting.

    I agree too with the stress on cooperation. Predatory competition is only one side of humanity. The interrelation between that and cooperation is what builds civilizations. Games like A Tale in the Desert, Glitch, etc. should be explored on a larger scale (though arguably Minecraft and Eve Online could be said to embrace this balance already. There’s still room for more though.)

    My thinking is that MMOs still need that extra spark of “here’s something genre-shatteringly different for this period of time we’re in” in order to stand out again.

    As such, I’m keeping at least one eye on VR, which is somewhat hyped this year. If we ever manage to cross an immersion threshold within the next few years or decade that will let you feel like you’re -in- a world, I think that woild be very big for MMOs exploring the persistent/dynamic world options.

    The other things that might be interesting is more experiments along the EQ voice masking, facial movement frontier. The idea would be to remove the intrusion of too much real life into a world where we’re striving for immersion. Real world voices = meta gaming = oh this is just a game to min-max != living, breathing world where one can pretend to be or experience a different life.

    Asynchronous conversation/chat is another smaller possibility that would support the goal of cooperation and community-building, along with multiple guild/circles support. The idea is that we need to support the commitment of players to a game/world that they want to build relationships with and interact with for an extended (but not continuously online) period of time.

    Comment by Jeromai — 27 April, 2016 @ 10:52 PM

  2. I believe the next wave of successful MMO’s will be PvP/RvR where battling over territory (resources) is the main objective; PVE / Raids / Gear grinding be gone! I look to games like Counterstrike, BattleField 2, etc as inspiration. These games had no PVE and are team based. We need take the mechanics of those games that make them “fun” for many years and put that into a persistent world where territory control is the high level objective. I realize we have had many games that have tried this to some degree or another (end game DAoC, EVE Online, Darkfall, etc) but none of them nailed it.

    yes I backed CU, yes I hope CSE gets the formula more right than anyone before, but if they do not, I believe someone will and when that happens, we’ll look back and laugh at the time when WoW Raids were considered fulfilling.

    Comment by Grumpy — 27 April, 2016 @ 11:07 PM

  3. I think the future is private servers. I have spoken about it on my blog at length in the past. Still online, still multiplayer, but you pick and choose which friends and groups can participate. Everything from closed to public, and you pay your favourite MMO company a monthly fee. Similar to how BF2142 servers work(ed?). I was a part of a clan and we had our server, our rules, and people populated it based on the culture we fostered there. It was a lot of fun.

    I use Landmark as an example here – it will never really fly as is. Give private servers (like Minecraft) so the changes done to the world are as permanent as the citizens in that world allow and you have a world that people can shape and change – which will keep them interested in coming back.

    Any holy daily posts, Batman. =) Nice to hear from you this often =P

    Comment by Isey — 28 April, 2016 @ 7:29 AM

  4. I would add too to the list of unique MMORPG qualities: a moderated experience. GMs/Owners taking action against griefers/harassers/trolls/hate speechers etc. This may, for example, be why MMORPGs have a higher proportion of female gamers than other genres. There is far less chance of being harassed.

    This is a strength too that is tailored to the new generation of niche, crowd-funded MMORPGs coming online. They really tailor to and interact with their audience.

    Though even this edge is being lost to other genres too: Riot is spending millions reducing toxicity in League.

    Comment by Simon — 28 April, 2016 @ 12:36 PM

  5. An interesting thing about MMOs is that, done right, people choose one for the long term. This is different than most other forms of entertainment, in which people don’t have to commit indefinitely to a single product. Movies, TV shows, single-player games, multiplayer but episodic games (FPS, RTS, Moba) all either have limited time constraints built in, or no built-in need to keep playing the same thing.

    Given that, the world MMO population is more static and less receptive to new offerings. If a juggernaut currently exists (like WoW) then there may be slim pickings left for the rest of the space. As the juggernaut bleeds players, there might be more available for either smaller games or another juggernaut. But I don’t think multiple juggernauts can coexist unless the set of people interested in MMOs grows to 10+ million per game.

    With that said, maybe the best route forward is for newer games to focus on being more niche. Some might be uber-streamlined raid fests, some might focus on leveling, others on PvP, others on the social or exploring aspects. If development and maintenance is designed around a 10,000 player base, we might see lots of games flourish simultaneously without having to “fall back” business plan wise, or overuse microtrans or other overly gross monetization schemes.

    Comment by fenjay — 29 April, 2016 @ 11:03 AM

  6. Jeromai wrote:
    The passage of time has also demonstrated there is a cap limit to how “massively” people actually want to play with other people. Too many people = a crowd of strangers, zerg, etc.

    I disagree this is a universal truth. The reality is that games went from required grouping except for a few special situations (the orignial EQ) to where you don’t really have to group at all to get to max level, where you roll an alt and play solo again (WoW). But, during this transition we didn’t do anything to help reinforce the social fabric that was being torn apart when people weren’t forced to group. As always, I’m not advocating a return to forced grouping, but forced grouping did show that strong social bonds can be formed in these games. EQ1′s servers were about the same size as WoW’s servers were, so I don’t think it’s exactly the scale that is turning people off from social interactions.

    I think some smart game design to encourage and facilitate social interact would be a tremendous boon. I think the interactions that MMOs facilitate are much deeper than what you get in a typical mobile game.

    Grumpy wrote:
    …we’ll look back and laugh at the time when WoW Raids were considered fulfilling.

    As I wrote in the next day’s post, there’s room for a lot of different types of MMOs out there. Yes, the “themepark ride to level up your character with a raiding endgame” model has been overrepresented, but I think you’re going to be disappointed if you think WoW players are going to move en masse to play PvP-focused games. Any PvP-focused game is automatically niche.

    Don’t get me wrong, I certainly hope we do see more games of all types. But, one should be cautious of trying to apply his or her tastes as universal.

    Isey wrote:
    I think the future is private servers.

    I think there’s some room for this, but I don’t think it’s the future that will necessarily save MMOs. As someone who knows exactly how hard it is to run a good server and to maintain it to MMO levels (particularly with adding new content and moderation/policing the experience), it’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of people who run unauthorized/pirate/grey-shard servers often give up because it consumes a lot of their time to do so. Games like Battlefield and Minecraft work because the servers aren’t intended to run for over a decade, even though they could run for a while.

    Not to say that games where running your own server is a focus, like Shards Online, don’t have a place. I think these games might be like the text MUDs of old where people set them up. But, I will note that the most popular types of games were the ones with much more restricted customization options (DIKU MUDs), and many people only did light customization to the game; the DIKU MUDs that had heavy customization were in the minority. But, the future MMO developers could use these games as a training ground to get interested in the genre.

    Any holy daily posts, Batman. =) Nice to hear from you this often =P

    As I said in Blaugust, it’s not that I really had a shortage of things to talk about if I stopped to think about it. There were just other factors like limited time that kept me from really digging in.

    Simon wrote:
    I would add too to the list of unique MMORPG qualities: a moderated experience.

    Yeah, I guess I strongly hinted at this in my post but didn’t include it in the original list. I think survival games could work great in an MMO environment because you can have the developers take an active role in moderating the game. And while I think there is room for unmoderated experiences (I tried to maintain a hands-off policy for most of the gameplay in M59), people seem to respond better to fairly moderated experiences. Although, this can be fairly expensive to do right, particularly for smaller games on a limited budget.

    fenjay wrote:
    An interesting thing about MMOs is that, done right, people choose one for the long term.

    Yes! As a developer, I think it’s important to have the perspective that the game could last for a decade or more of done right. This attitude will influence the design and operation of the game, because you can’t just make changes that feel work fine in the short term. This is one of the tensions we see with the player desire for short-term fun at the expense of long-term stability, but the developer’s desire for long-term stability at the expense of some short-term “fun”, particularly for games that can’t stay in business through the virtue of their critical mass of players.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments, all! As always, they’re the best part of the blog experience for me. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 April, 2016 @ 3:54 PM

  7. “I disagree this is a universal truth. The reality is that games went from required grouping except for a few special situations (the orignial EQ) to where you don’t really have to group at all to get to max level, where you roll an alt and play solo again (WoW). But, during this transition we didn’t do anything to help reinforce the social fabric that was being torn apart when people weren’t forced to group.”

    It would probably help if we put a number on the size we’re referring to. My experience is mostly with GW2′s max size of ~150 odd people to one map. That seems to me like the upper limit of coordinated sociality. In WvW or other realm versus realm conflict, I can see going up to maybe 150 a side to say, 300-400 max. Dunbar number limits of tribalness, in other words.

    I -think- Eve Online conflicts can exceed this number, but most of the participants probably don’t know each other’s names and it’s mostly organization versus organization?

    Even then, a group of 50-100 odd players can work in coordinated fashion, may be familiar with each other’s names, but usually there’s just a handful of leaders focusing the effort and facilitating communication. We have to drop below 50 to 20-40 before we get tighter guild or raid communities, and the squad-like 5-10 seems like the number many players are comfortable grouping with and fighting with coordination and synergies.

    I guess the main thrust of my original point is that future MMOs don’t really need to be too obsessed with trying to get 1000s of people in the same space. People will naturally gravitate to numbers they are comfortable with, and it’s quite a small number, tbh. It’s probably more beneficial to game longevity to build tools and institute designs that support the formation of tiny tribal communities of 20-30 odd people or less (going up to 100-300 max.)

    Comment by Jeromai — 1 May, 2016 @ 7:26 PM

  8. There is Dunbar’s number, the limit of people you can have stable social relationships with on a cognitive level, and that’s about 150. Of course, I think your offline relationships would also contribute to that number, so you wouldn’t be able to maintain 150 online interactions unless you were a hermit offline.

    However, my point is that you can still make friends in a larger game even if you’re not friends with everyone. In a large city, most people have their particular circle of friends they hang out with; not everyone in New York City hangs out with everyone else. But, it is also possible to make new friends, and that happens through repeated social interaction with a person with whom you get along. Same thing could happen in an MMO even if the number of people you could interact with is larger than Dunbar’s number.

    The whole purpose of my proposal for letting people vote on who they liked playing with ( was to let people run into the same people they liked playing with, while not diminishing the advantages of pulling from a larger pool of players for a dungeon/raid finder type feature. I think more design features like this would allow MMOs to recapture that sense of meeting new people and making new friends that were vital parts of the MMO experience in the past. And, frankly, not something that has been replicated in any of the supposed replacements to the MMO experience.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 May, 2016 @ 10:55 PM

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