MMOs are not Games: Where MMO's Go Wrong

Why have MMO developers taken the multi-player out of the Massively Multi-player Online Experience?

I have been a gamer for nearly 30 years now, and in that time I have seen games that run the gambit from little more than single player interactive text based adventures to the massively multi-player online experiences that many of the new generation of gamers grew up with. In their struggle for new and fresh ideas, developers often seem to miss the point of games, not just in terms of what is fun, but also in the grand scheme of what it's all about. 


MMOs are just new Social Games

Take for instance the realm of MMO's that has really blossomed over the last 15 years. Prior to hits like Ultima Online there were MUDs, and prior to that there were table top RPG's. Prior to the table top RPG's people would sit around and tell stories to each other or play make believe together. Whether we are talking about Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Dungeons and Dragons, Whitewolf, Ardvark, Lusternia, Discworld MUD, Everquest, or any other game in the genre, the core attraction to these games has always been the same: Socialization. 

Human beings are social creatures, as evidenced by the fact that we always huddle together in our cities, gather in public at bars and social events, and gather together online on Facebook or Google+. This is no secret, and no doubt is something that every MMO developer is definitely aware of.

How, then, are they missing the mark in modern MMOs?


The Dawn of the MMO

To understand that, let's go back in time about 16 years to the dawn of the MMO genre. By today's standards, those early games were brutal, punishing events that relentlessly smacked down players by being too difficult and unfair. But were they?

And if so, was it a bad thing?

If they were too difficult, why did they become so massively popular and addictive? More important to the scope of this article, what was it about their make up that made them such a strong community builder?

The answer, surprisingly, cannot be found directly in the archives of a game designer, nor even in the history of games. The answer is not about game design, it is about human nature, human psychology, and human history. The answer lies far back in the dim recesses of prehistory, prior to written language, societies, and all of the trappings of civilization. We have to look all the way back to when people first started banding together to form social groups, and understand why they did so in the first place. 

Most articles you will find will agree in whole or part with the basic view points outlined in the articles below.

New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes

Social Basis of Human Behavior

For those that gave it the TLDR, here is the meat and potatoes of it:

"...staying alive is a personal quest for any animal. It is personal survival that allows it to continue its genetic line...However, an animal doesn't necessarily have to survive on its own. Another aspect of personal survival is the forming of social groups within a species. When staying alive is not just the responsibility of the individual, but other members of the species help the individual to survive, and vice versa, all members' chances are enhanced...Social groups come in all levels, from couples to herds, from two to thousands. The purpose of a social group and the level it takes is often dictated by how well it serves to promote the survival of the members."


Survival is the Key

Those early games, in all their brutal punishment and so-called 'abuse' of the players actually gave the players something that instinctively motivated them to form the foundation of a strong societal framework within the confines of the game world. In layman's terms: those rats handing you your ass just outside the Freeport city gates actually made you actively seek out other players for protection. You would form groups for adventuring because the world was just to tough without them, and the cost of death was too high. 


Knowledge is Power

Another aspect that was mentioned repeatedly was the sharing of knowledge and materials. This roles in both the early and late development of civilization, and was crucial as both the means to help us develop and the reason for us to destroy each other. In terms of game design, the passing on of knowledge about the game and its environment is still one of the crucial aspects of forming a close-knit community. Redistribution is often another reason. For those of you that have played, or can remember Everquest when it was first released, you would recall that acquiring resources was very difficult, but that one acquired they could be shared. These resources didn't just come in the form of in game items though but also in terms of skills and abilities that were rare or unique.


Leaving Modern Players High and Dry

So why is it that I say more modern MMO's have gotten it wrong? Because for the most part, they do not meet any of these basic needs for forming strong communities. It is not that they lack players, but rather in their rush to please everyone they have eliminated the one thing guaranteed to create a strong community. They have eliminated the challenge of survival. They have eliminated the need to band together in order to conquer the environment. Sure, you have raids and other such end game events that have 'mandatory' participation levels, but that  no more means you have a community than having 1500 Facebook friends means you are well liked. 

Having a good community has to start early, in the first stages of the game. If you wait until your players are 25%of the way through your content, your opportunity is lost. What happens at that point is that the 25% becomes 50%, then only the top 5% or less. What does that mean though? How can community building start straight out of the gate?


Fear Leads to Bonding

The first that has to happen is the game has to be dangerous for the player's character. No one should be able to go it alone unless they are damned clever, very lucky, or simply a closet sado-masochist. This doesn't mean that there cannot be solo content, but generally speaking, if it is combat oriented or takes you outside of the safety of your city walls, you had better have a friend with you.

Why is this so critical?

Let's look at a few of the more popular MMO's out right now. Out of:

  • Tera
  • Rift
  • The Secret World
  • Guild Wars 2
  • EverQuest 2
  • Final FantasyXIV (pre-shutdown)
  • and World of Warcraft

I would challenge you to name a single one of those where you actually needed a group to make your way to level 20.

From experience, I can tell you that it is not necessary for any of them. The problem is, if it is not necessary it won't happen because there is no motivation for anyone to do it. If I, as a novice player, was struggling and decided to look for a group, there would be few if any other players looking for a group at the same time and in the same area.

As players level and are better able to kit out their low level characters with better gear, the problem is exacerbated and the level needed to find a group raises. Needing a group for dungeon content only doesn't help either, as that becomes the only content people are actively seeking groups for.  At that point, grouping becomes an act of charity or goodwill, which while noble when it happens, is generally not enough motivation to inspire a strong community. 


In order for these two to have any meaning whatsoever in the game world in terms of community building, they both must be hard to come by. They must be scarce to be of any value. Similarly, anything that you wish to have value in your game world must have a correlating scarcity. If you want your teleport spells to be worth striving for, then traveling around the world should be difficult and challenging, so that the associated relief gained by being able to teleport has an inherent value. If you want your crafting items to be worth something, then the items need to be in some way comparable to looted items, and the difficulty or cost to acquire the materials must be fairly equivalent. 


MMOs are not Games

If you are building a single player game, your goals can be for a cinematic experience that caters to whatever your target demographic is, with multiple difficulty levels and whatnot. But, MMOs are not games, they are digital worlds, and as such we need to stop treating them as if they were single player games.

Let's make our worlds challenging as hell so that when a few insignificant adventurers step out of their home cities to face the world, they do so as a group, knowing that doing it alone is a surefire path to an early grave. Give them a reason to fear the cold dark passageways of forgotten peoples. Make them bite their lips and scoot closer to the edge of their seat as the watch the giants troop by, hoping to not be spotted.

Put the MM back in MMORPG.

Featured Contributor

I am a life long gamer with a BA in Game Design from UAT. Aside from a passion for games, I truly believe in game design as a mode for enhancing business, education, production, and other systems through the use of the systemic design and analytical tools in the game designer's toolbox.

Published Mar. 11th 2013
  • Michelle_2842
    So I tried my first MMO. Elder scrolls online, and my god it's boring. And yeah it is too hard, and you can't even find anyone to help you. But honestly I never wanted any help. I just wanted to do my own thing until I felt like I was in the mood to do co-op. You know a game is frustrating and boring when in less then a month there's already a few companies that started that offer power level you character for you, all the way to max level for over 200$. It seems like all the time before the end game content is just some crap you gotta get through before you actually start having any fun. Sure right it's not a "game." Games are suppose to be fun.
  • That Guy_8422
    It's "run the gamut", not "run the gambit"...
  • AnonDen
    Think you are missing one element in the social behavior that we as people are naturally born with a comfort zone, where we often don't let people inside straight away because we want to feel safe before doing so. When meeting other players it would be natural to not always want to bond straight away less there a purpose to do so are we feel interested or comfortable enough to do so. I must confess I usually avoid people lately the times I do play mmo more than involve myself with new people. Not because of their understanding of game mechanics or lack of in some cases but purely because I meet so many people that took zapped all the enjoyment out of playing in and instant it really has discouraged me from socializing much. At least like you said unless its mandatory. I guess however that the need in older harder games forced one to get more out of the comfort zone.
  • Hagu
    Unless you are going very small, "making a challenging as hell" world just results in the game either changing or shutting down. How challenging is any shuttered game?

    Game companies have no ability to force you to group; they only have the power to prevent you from soloing. In today's competitive environment, if you can't conveniently solo, many people will just try one of the games where you can get to max level without ever grouping.

    Note, I am not saying this is good or makes for optimal game experience. Merely that iMO it is a fact. You can not sell customers what they should want or what you want; customers buy what they want. Increasingly, for the majority, that is not the sort of game you advocate
  • Pepo_7022
    Too many instances and PvP killed all MMORPGS. If Everquest next will have them, neverending whining from players and balancing from developers will kill everything. IT KILLED WOW.


  • SyD_8985
    This article speaks the truth, and quite frankly this statement right here can be revised: " I would challenge you to name a single one of those where you actually needed a group to make your way to level 20. " You can pretty much say, " name a single game from the list where you actually need a group to make it to level cap? "
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor
    Going to post a follow up to this, because this article keeps getting misrepresented/misinterpretted.
  • Ste Grainer
    Featured Correspondent
    @RAVaught: Posted my own reply here:

    Mostly from a WoW perspective as that's what I'm most familiar with.
  • TygerWDR
    Featured Contributor
    @RAVaught : video reply.
  • Alemary
    Featured Contributor
    I started with SneezyMud. I can tell you, it was a harrowing, nail biting experience just to leave the city. I had to rely on others to get around. Even the rats in the sewers were a challenge. I wish WoW would re-capture some of this.
  • Rothalack
    Master O' Bugs
    Remember back in the Vanilla days 'trying' to do a full clear of Upper Black Rock Spire. It was a ten man mini raid that required a key. So you had to find a tank (good luck), two healers that had some concept of what was going on (good luck), and a key holder (good luck). Four long hours of just getting a damn group together then another four long hours of attempting to clear the whole place. While it was highly rewarding to actually get it done, it was just the most grueling experience to coordinate. I absolutely agree that this cooperation was the reason an extremely close-knit community formed around WoW at the time. Without activities like this why would anyone care to meet people and build a network of players you could count on.

    Blizzard is now just making the game readily accessible to all for their sales, not for the integrity of the MMORPG genre, but I don't necessarily disagree with the steps they have taken. With my current, busy, all day everyday 7 days a week schedule I only get, if I'm lucky, two hours to play every other day. In Vanilla you just couldn't get anything done whatsoever in two hours (maybe a little farming I guess but that's not "fun" that's busy-work). Now I can enjoy the game for a short period of time.
  • Tempestsaint
    MMO's are our Digital realities difficulty dose band us together. go run thru Final Fantasy 11 where from lv 10-75 was like going to the dentist and sometimes it took days to get a few levels it made the players stronger it made us band together but the reward was worth it
    now they too have made it easy where we pay rmts to just level the chars jobs thru to 99 no skills learned no challenge and made a weaker class of player
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor

    It is no secret that there is no shortage of elitist gamers out there who do terrible things to other players, but how is this unlike real life? You have the 'upper crust' of the old money elite that try to keep others from breaking into their ranks and look down on the 'unwashed masses'.

    The truth is, games MMO's are microcosms of the real world. Their economies and cultures echo those that happen and exist outside the game world. Just as we have no shortage of thieves, bullies, or jerks out here, there will be no shortage of jerks in there.

    Your comments on raiding guilds/gear are a familiar catch22, but they are symptomatic of another issue altogether, and one that is being tackled in the MMO space already. That kind of problem is not caused by a lack of a cohesive community(which was what this article is addressing), but by having a gear driven game.

    I could address that whole topic here, but I think I will save it for another post as it is a complex issue in its own right. Suffice to say that having the equipment being the end all be all of player supremacy is a bad thing in that it not only tears down the community by creating these massive barriers to entry, but it also renders huge swaths of the game world obsolete, which is a problem for developers in terms of diminishing returns on content and a problem for players who would like to go through that content but can not find a group to do so because the rewards are not worth it.

    The Secret World has done a fairly good job of getting around that though. You should check out the methods that they have used.
  • Stephen F. Johnston
    Featured Contributor
    A tl:dr from Reddit with a nice summary:


    He takes forever to get to it, but he is basically arguing that MMO's are "virtual worlds", not games. His premise for the rest of the article is that because modern MMO's have been reduced to mindlessly easy errands and grinding with some social integration, they have lost the biggest thing that makes online worlds compelling: the community.

    He argues that the community is missing because new players are taught from an early level that teaming up to overcome obstacles is unnecessary and often sub-optimal. This leads to players who have the mindset of a single player game, but in a multiplayer "world" that isn't able to provide the positive single player experience you may be able to get in a game designed as such.

    As an example, the ability to solo until high (or max) level results in a large number of players that, even at high level, do not know how to function as a member of a group, nor is it conducive to developing the mentality of a "group player".

    He further postulates that in order to have a virtual world with a good and cohesive community, you must force players to team up in order to overcome challenges and progress from an early level.

  • TygerWDR
    Featured Contributor
    Very quickly, I'll rebut this whole premise with real world example. In World of Warcraft, there's a catch 22 that I ran into for years that worked like this :

    "I wanna do raid content!" You can't. "Why not?" you need to be in a raiding guild to do that stuff. "Oh, cool! So how do I get into a raiding guild?" You need the proper gear and the know how to do the raids and you might get picked up by one. "Umm, so how do I get that?" Doing raids. "So I can't join a raiding guild 'till I don't need to join a raiding guild?" Exactly.

    There is an elitism in gaming culture of "if you don't know, I'm not gonna teach you because I have better things to do than carry you around." I've run into this MANY times before. I've seen people say "I've never done this instance" get instantly kicked out of the group because "We don't want terribads" And having a game in which you HAVE To group up or die, the elitists WILL kick out those they see as unfit to play with them.

    So your proposal of "make the world a scarier place where you need to be in a group" would exclude a major portion of new players. "Hi! I just bought this game and installed it. Can I join you guys?" They'll get tossed to the lions and told "L2P N00b!" They'll uninstall the game before nightfall. I get this already, I can't imagine a game where you need to group out of the gate with 3-5 other people you don't know.

    Come to think of it, I can see some epic trolling going on too. "Oh, yeah, I'll lead the party, I know where I'm going." *d/c while they're in a high level area* "LULZ!" Or the highly experienced will simply start offing the newbies to discourage them from playing, so they can have the game to themselves. You already see this kind of thing happening in Lineage 2 where old timers will specifically kill newbies to keep them off the main server. "Professional Cleaner" they call themselves. I can show you some fun quotes.

    The last problem is that online games are 24/7. So let's say I get off of work at 12 AM, I get home, I wanna unwind before bed, I fire up an MMO, and now I gotta wait for 3-5 other people who HAPPEN to be in my area who HAPPEN to be my level who HAPPEN to be doing the same thing I am who HAPPEN to want to let me jump in with them and who HAPPEN to tolerate taking their time finding stuff. The "LFR" tool can take forever on World of Warcraft and that's pulling from 5 servers, imagine what it'd be like under your circumstances?

    You may hate single player content but it gives a player an opportunity to learn the game mechanics. It lets them play on their own pace. It lets them see this world created. If you want to play in a game that is only populated with "Experts" you'll get just that. No new players, just the same old players, the game stagnates and dies on the vine.
  • AmbigousBarrel
    Totally agree with you. Been gaming since the early 90's but only started playing MMORPG's a few year's back, and I must say that the whole "Make it harder = More interesting game" only really work's as different difficulty mode's in Single Player games where ego clash's can't really happen.

    Also...I'm in my 20's, so what make's the person who wrote the article about making MMORPG's group only affair's possible? We don't all have 24 other friend's who happen to play MMORPG's to do raid's with, let alone the time it would take to phone around all 24 people and say "Be there 8.00pm sharp don't be late". Honestly LFR is a life saver for me! :)
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor
    The simple answer to this is in the name of the genre, 'Massive Multiplayer'. This means more than 'Let's write a single player game and put it on the web so that everyone has to log in.' You can't play football, baseball, chess, checkers, or canasta with only one player (even when playing against the computer, the computer counts as a second player), and no one really complains about that because the understand that it is the nature of the game itself. More to the point, I didn't say that it should not be possible to play at all solo, just that doing so should be challenging enough to make grouping with others a MUCH more attractive option. As it is at the moment, it is faster and easier to solo instead of grouping, so the games lose a tremendous portion of the social aspect of the game.
  • Capt. Eliza Creststeel
    Great stuff! Sadly, so called social gaming could have something to do with this lone wolf attitude lately. Let's be honest, some game companies dumb things down because they think folks will get frustrated and quit. I do remember some early experiences when you hoped and prayed a higher level friend was on to back you up. And many of those I clung to or clung to me then are people I still play with now.

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