This is a topic that I have had in my mind for a while now, MMORPG's have been widely successful in the past few years, however their popularity has started to slowly deteriorate in recent years. Looking closely at the genre as a whole, it is easy to see that there are a lot of reasons why people play MMORPG's and almost all of them have a psychological impact on a player's approach to such games. This makes MMORPG's one of the most diverse genre's in gaming which is appealing in itself, sometimes to a fault. This is ultimately what has led to the success of the MMORPG genre as a whole.
The reason why people enjoy MMORPG's however is tough to answer. We all have different tastes as games and MMORPG's offer a diverse quantity of activities to engage in. Let's look at World Of Warcraft for example. There are many different types of World Of Warcraft players and the game attracts an extremely wide audience for this reason however there is one thing that grabs the player's attention almost immediately. That would be the game's theme. Warcraft is known for having a very strong lore and setting. You could say that in theory, an MMORPG is the best way to accompany such a title, this is evident with the release of Star Wars The Old Republic, a game based on a series that has built up a massive fan base through its iconic lore and setting which rivals that of World Of Warcraft.
As such, themes are an important component when developing an MMORPG, it may appear to be quite silly at first but when you consider the vast amount of MMORPG's on the market it kind of makes sense. The most popular MMO of all time, Word Of Warcraft has a theme that a lot of people can identify with and that many people have likely already invested themselves in. So a strong theme is usually the first thing that grabs people's attention but what makes a strong theme?
A strong theme is a byproduct of engaging lore which is a byproduct of strong world building and iconic characters. Allow me to break things down for you by using Star Wars as an example. A lot of people are strongly invested in the Star Wars universe for many reasons but when you look at popular culture the most prominent character in the Star Wars universe who appears to have shaped the series is Darth Vader. What makes Darth Vader stand out from the rest is his back story, much like Arthas was in Warcraft 3, Vader was once a noble jedi who fought against the dark side of the force under the name of Anakin Skywalker but after performing what is known as one of the most notorious face-heel turn's in pop culture, he turned to the dark side of the force and betrayed everybody who trusted him.
It's funny how both Star Wars The Old Republic and World Of Warcraft are so very similar in the sense that they both use the same trope for their most prominent characters but that is not to say it is the only way to approach a game's theme. The face-heel turn trope was simply executed in a way that strongly impacted the connection between the person and the character. I think the reason why this worked so well is the fact that it allowed players to experience two sides of the same coin or as I like to call "multiple perspectives" as mentioned in my previous article.
What does this all have to do with MMORPG's you ask? Well when you consider the vast amount of MMORPG's on the market and the ones who succeeded the most, you will recognize the importance of the game's theme. An MMORPG without a theme is a very shallow experience and while many successful MMORPG's exist without having an established theme prior to the game's release, these games haven't aged too well.
If we look at Ultima online for example, it is based on a series which is comprised of 9 other games filled to the brim with world building content, Lord British being one of the more prominent characters in said game. Ultima Online was the first MMO to gain recognition by the masses and essentially pioneered the genre. Afterwards games such as Runescape, Everquest and Tibia followed suit in an attempt to cash in on the success of Ultima Online, it wouldn't be long before World Of Warcraft itself would take hold of the market and make what was quite possibly the most profitable decision Blizzard have ever made. They had a huge opportunity and they took it at the cost of the series' lore (which I'm still salty about to this day).
As such World Of Warcraft's strong theme grabbed the attention of the masses quickly and became a juggernaut. In fact, World Of Warcraft has become so successful that many people have forgotten the RTS series that made it so big in the first place, Warcraft. This has ultimately proven to be detrimental to the series as a whole from a lore enthusiast's perspective as it has catered the series' storyline to a broader audience causing many problems for players who were highly engaged in the original trilogy's storytelling.
As one of those people, I am very cynical towards the MMORPG genre as a whole but that isn't the only reason. MMORPG's have the tendency to focus primarily on psychological engagement often using microtransactions to exploit the consumer's lust for growth by providing them the option to pay for services with real money. This often comes at a cost to the gameplay itself. Games such as GTA Online is notorious for making progression a tedious grind by making their obstacles more of an ordeal to overcome rather than fun and rewarding players with low amounts of experience and in-game cash in order to psychologically influence people to spend their hard-earned money on shark cards.
MMORPG's as a whole rely on slow progression in order to maintain engagement. What they're forgetting is that they are catering to a massive audience. I personally believe this is partially what has led to the slow drop in popularity of the MMORPG genre as people simply do not want to invest any more time into these games anymore. For example the age demographic of Runescape players have grown up and this caused a severe drop in player activity among other things. The addition of microtransactions was implemented for this very reason. Instead of improving the game, Jagex decided that the best cause of action was to seek an alternative method to making money, much like other companies in the gaming industry, Jagex will do everything in their power to avoid improving their games and maintain a solid income to keep their servers running and keep their staff paid.
I feel that a lot of MMORPG's have grown to rely on this feature since their drop in popularity but this is definitely not the answer we consumers want, this merely solves a one-sided problem and that being the developer/publisher's need to make money. It is evident that MMORPG's focus less on releasing quality content and more on quantity that is supposed to keep people playing the game but that is not how the rules of engagement work.
Engagement requires players to be invested in something, it requires motivation and motivation requires a rewarding element. The problem isn't the lack of rewarding elements however, rather it is the time investment required to earn said rewarding element. As such MMORPG's need to find a new way to keep players engaged and microtransactions are not the answer.
MMORPG's have the tendency to focus primarily on psychological engagement often using microtransactions to exploit the consumer's lust for growth by providing them the option to pay for services with real money
So we have found the problem but what is the solution? This is where creativity comes into play, something that developers seem to have forgotten about. MMORPG's are certainly a challenge to design as they are designed to attract a wide audience. As such it is difficult to figure out what players ultimately desire in the game and as a result there is no absolute method to keep players engaged.
The only way that MMORPG's are going to maintain relevance is by narrowing their target audience. I know it sounds counter-intuitive in a genre that is designed to attract a massive audience but I do believe that it is needed. To know what audience you need to attract you need to find out what said audience wants. There are what I like to call the 3 core audiences in MMORPG's. These are commonly known as PVPers (Player Vs Player), PVEers (Player Vs Environment) and RPers (Roleplay). The first two audience are easier to cater to as they represent the masses.
To cater to the PVP audience you need to understand the concept of false choices and how they can be detrimental to your game. PVP is all about balancing. Games which focus on PVP are often criticized for having balancing issues. As a result having more choices and options does not automatically make your game better, it can actually make your game worse unless it is properly managed. I do think that having some level of choice is important to gain the player's interest but it is important to realize what each choice brings to the table and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
This is where the tricky part comes in. The more choices you provide the harder it is to balance the game because every choice acts as a weight to the scales. It is not as simple as merely dumping ideas on each side of the scale, you need to consider every single facet of each idea brought to the table and how it affects other ideas. Only then can you properly balance it. Think of it like solving a rubix cube. As you move one side, the other side will change as well until you can get each face to show only one colour, you have yet to solve the puzzle. This is the process of balancing and it can be an extremely strenuous task to take on.
Then you have PVE also known as player vs environment. The process of designing PVE is similar to that of regular RPG's. Provide the player with a scenario that involves working together to overcome an obstacle. The goal of PVE is to give players a challenge that forces them to work together to overcome it. Most MMORPG's rely on inherent complexity to create devious obstacles that require both a strong mind and team co-ordination to overcome. The problem with this however is that many of these obstacles often lead to trial and error and this can irritate players. Many RPG's tend to focus on inherent complexity due to the fact that they complicate their rules with the intent of presenting players with many false choices in order to keep things interesting.
Sadly this can be applied to all strategy games that are focused on single/co-operative play and as a result there is often a barrier of entry to these games, MOBA's are the worst offender for this relying solely on Inherent complexity to provide a challenge. With inherent complexity being an important component in designing an engaging PVE experience, this can heavily divide the audience of a game's player base and is quite possibly one of the biggest reasons why players tend to get frustrated playing MMORPG's.
Path Of Exile may seem like a mindless action game on the surface but its character management systems are inherently complex..
But to focus on PVE, you will need to add some level of complexity, there really isn't much of a choice really. This is why World Of Warcraft has so many different statistics. It is not simply to get players to gaze in awe at the many parameters, rather it is to essentially overwhelm the player with many different choices, many of which being false choices. Ultimately I would say that the best way to approach PVE is to give purpose to each choice in some way or another. If you don't use *insert ability here* on one boss, you might want to use it on another boss. Keeping a diverse range of obstacles is the best way to keep players engaged, don't rely on the same methods when it comes to PVE, experiment with different methods and see which works best. Don't forget to test those methods in order to fine tune your difficulty.
Experimentation is key and as such you will want to focus your game on experimental design rather than methodical design. This is what makes RPG's so unique from other genres as they tend to combine inherent complexity with experimental gameplay in order to present a challenge for players to overcome. There are also games such as Child Of Light which are surprisingly very simple and focus on emergent complexity with the cancel mechanic allowing players to time their attacks in order to cancel out the incoming attack. This cannot work for MMO's however simply because MMO's are built to last and games such as Child Of Light do not last in such an environment because those games are quickly "beaten" and the strategies are quickly set in stone as they are easy to learn.
The biggest issue is the unfortunate eventuality that all MMORPG's will eventually be beaten. In fact, you could say that these games tend to be beaten faster than one would think. This is due to the fact that MMO's tend to have groups known as "first world clans" which are clans dedicated to becoming the first group to overcome the obstacles and are often the first people to establish the solution. This information is then spread to the masses and afterwards the game becomes a monotonous grind as players already know the solution to the obstacle, the challenge is simply getting all players informed and keeping the team coordinated which is a lot harder than it sounds.
So PVE in MMO's often tends to revolve around using complicated mechanics to influence a heavy focus on team play. Understanding this is only half the battle though, finding the answer is a different kettle of fish altogether. Is there really an answer to this problem or will MMORPG's continue to stagnate in the PVE department. If you are going to tackle this then you have to be a better man than me. As someone who prides himself on his intuition, even I have become mind-boggled by this and as a result I am unable to find a solution that will work for everything, at least not without completely changing the game from the ground up. I do have some ideas though, developing an MMOFPSRPG might be one way of solving this problem as FPS games tend to have a lot of room for emergent complexity as it adds the extra layer of challenge in the form of movement and aiming.
You could argue that these games are the future but I would also like to bring your attention to a game I'm quite fond of, Mount And Blade Warband. Already, Mount And Blade Warband has managed to surpass the MMORPG genre in my eyes. Sure the experience is more solitary but the scale of things are much bigger and more immersive. However what I would like to focus on is the gameplay. By using its simplistic yet intricate blocking system, Mount And Blade Warband has a lot of emergent complexity to the point that the multiplayer has a very strong learning curve. Sure anyone can simply swing a sword but how do you approach an attacking foe?
Mount And Blade, much like in real world combat is all about mind games and reflexes. In order to control a battle, you must be constantly aware of the enemy's actions and know the most effective method of countering said action, plus the dexterity to pull it off. This is what makes Mount And Blade so unique in comparison to other games and the silly thing is that its multiplayer tends to focus on PVP rather than PVE. However modders have managed to incorporate PVE elements into the multiplayer adding bots for the players to fight against as a team. This makes for some really exciting gameplay as players are constantly on their toes performing actions with the utmost of dexterity and intelligence.
If you ask me, I'd say that the ideal game is one that manages to incorporate the gameplay of Mount And Blade with the universe of Warcraft. Now imagine if World Of Warcraft inherited the gameplay of Mount And Blade. That is my philosophy on how to make the best PVE experience possible in an MMORPG.
Finally we have RP otherwise known as "Role Play". Not to be confused with "Role Playing Game", role play is what I like to call an adult version of "playing house" but on a much larger scale. Basically you put yourself in a persona that is your avatar and you act out your avatar in-game. Yes it is very nerdy stuff but A lot of people are engaged in it and I would definitely say that it is an important component of any MMORPG.
Role playing has been given a bad name over the years. This is often due to the blatant elitism of Role Players. If you are planning on targeting Role Players as a whole, the MMORPG genre definitely isn't for you. This is because tabletop RPG's are the best platform for just about any roleplaying experience as it negates all of the elitism that comes with it by allowing you to play with other people and respect one another allowing other people to learn how to roleplay more effectively rather than being shunned by a condescending player base who are hiding behind their anonymity.
Of course this doesn't mean that computer games shouldn't keep role players in mind. Role playing in computer games has become very popular and it is a good idea to accommodate these players. It is important to remember however that the game you are designing is a game to be played. My advice is that if you wish to focus on Roleplay, you will want to incorporate more story-focused elements in your game rather than just simply giving players progression. This often means that you will fall into the trap of having to artificially lengthen your game through slow progression.
However, games with an established theme need not be too concerned with story elements as they already have an established lore. These games simply need to give roleplayers the tools and the environment to impact their role-playing experience in a positive way. Role playing is essentially a metagame attached to most MMORPG's and while it is a popular activity, it should be recognized as such. It is impossible to mechanically strengthen role playing in any videogame and any attempt to do so any actually cause more problems than it really needs to such as having players make choices such as "do you want to be Alliance of Horde?" This only serves to limit the player's possibilities in roleplay rather than make their roleplay more engaging as they are only able to roleplay from a single perspective which is kinda limiting.
Of course there is no limit to the player's imagination, the purpose of implementing roleplaying elements is to avoid disorienting the player with aesthetic limitations. As such, the goal of all role play focused computer games is to give players a diverse amount of aesthetic tools such as costumes and skins to keep the player immersed and engaged in their role play. This can work with just about any game, just don't forget that personalization is a rewarding element and that role-playing gives purpose to personalization. In a way, you are given a free ticket to engagement by this player-made metagame so take advantage of this by rewarding players with more cool cosmetic outfits.
This is another thing that MMORPG's have exploited with the use of microtransactions as many MMO's use cosmetic microtransactions to fund themselves. This is almost a universally accepted method of incorporating microtransactions but it is certainly not the most ideal method from the consumer's perspective. There are so many ways to reward role-playing but this is best left to the players themselves as it is essentially a meta game. This is where tabards in World Of Warcraft come into play. By giving players an emblem printed on their outfit, they feel rewarded for partaking in role play. What games need to do is provide clan leaders with more options to reward players for their role playing efforts with cosmetics.
Now that you know how to cater to your audience, you need to execute the solution but it is not quite as simple as this. Since MMO's are built to last, the process of problem solving must be repeated time and time again to maintain a strong player base. This is what I believe most MMORPG's seem to be forgetting. Problem solving is important for games to maintain their relevance in popular culture and when a game is built to last a long time, many problems will need to be solved to keep the game fresh and attract an even bigger audience to keep those numbers high. Taking all these things into account, developing an MMORPG is no easy task.
If your goal is to develop a successful MMORPG I strongly advise you to reconsider. The most successful MMO's are often byproducts of already successful franchises, a place for fans to gather and socialize. When I asked players what they enjoyed the most in an MMORPG, most who responded told me that the social aspect of the game is what keeps them engaged, not the gameplay, the story or the aesthetics. Do we even need MMO's to be games? Or do they serve a greater purpose than simply providing players with engaging activities? Perhaps MMO's are designed to bring gamers together in a heavily social environment. In a way you could consider Playstation Home to be an MMO as it does just that. Games such as Club Penguin did the same thing, people didn't play it for the minigames, they played it to stand around and talk to people in a world that was built primarily for such interaction.
As such, social interaction is the core focus of all MMORPG's regardless of gameplay and just about anything else a game needs and it is logically impossible to control a social environment as it is shaped by the players and only by the players. You could argue that MMO's serve as the ultimate platform for metagaming and you wouldn't be far from the truth. It is important however to provide guidelines to help players adapt to the social environment and this is where the gameplay comes into play. Rather than focusing way too hard on providing a difficult challenge, try to provide activities that require good coordination that aren't too inherently complex.
Do we even need MMO's to be games? Or do they serve a greater purpose than simply providing players with engaging activities? Perhaps MMO's are designed to bring gamers together in a heavily social environment.
Games like football for example are a social activity that is not inherently too complex but has a lot of emergent complexity and focus on teamwork. Trying to fit such an activity in a virtual space is ultimately the goal of all MMORPG's. It is the biggest reason why games like Fifa and Madden are so popular, and one of the biggest reasons why games like Rocket League became so successful. Social interaction plays a big part in these games for better or worse and as such designing the game in a way that allows you to manage the social interaction indirectly is what every MMORPG needs to do.
My personal stance on MMORPG's as a whole is that they contradict themselves. The two rewarding elements commonly associated with MMORPG's are invested empowerment and personalization. Both are single-handedly crushed by the simple fact that these games are designed to be played online. This means that when the servers go down, the player's progress is essentially taken away from them as well as the personalized avatar that they have grown attached to. This is why I tend to prefer games such as Mount And Blade Warband which are single player games that can be played offline and all the data is stored directly on the player's hard drive. In addition, Mount And Blade has a lot of design elements that rewards player intuition as well as demanding player intuition in order for them to make progress.
Add to this the fact that you are given an army to control and that technically makes Mount And Blade Warband the best MMORPG ever made... and it's not even an MMORPG. As such I don't personally enjoy playing MMO's, while I used to play World Of Warcraft back in the day, after my account was hacked and my character lost, I realized that all of my efforts playing World Of Warcraft were futile, especially when games like Need For Speed World get shut down by EA, what is stopping Blizzard from doing the same?
My advice to anyone who wants to develop an MMO is to ask yourself "how can I make this game more rewarding?" and I don't mean improving what is already there. In theory, what you need to do is find a new niche in the form of rewarding elements. Invested empowerment and personalization has been proven to be ineffective in the long run.
This leaves kinetic empowerment and exploration and most MMORPG's don't focus on these rewarding elements and that's not to say that they aren't there, rather the lack of social interaction revolving around these two rewarding elements causes them to be far less emphasized as they can often detract from the social experience. Invested empowerment creates a hierarchy which influences the community and gets players to feel as if they are inferior/superior to others based on how much investment they have in the game.
Personalization allows players to define themselves in the social realm so that they can portray themselves through imagery, it also lets them create a cool/trendy avatar that allows them to show rather than tell. It's a psychological thing mostly but it works. Now what does exploration and kinetic empowerment have to do with social gaming? How often do you see people chatting in public lobby's in first person shooters and how often do they say anything of value? This is because players are way too absorbed in kinetic activity to put their efforts into communication.
As for exploration, exploring a world is an isolating experience because your eyes are fixated on the aesthetic awe rather than connecting with the other players. It would be cool if people would band together and explore a world together, maybe there are role-playing groups that do this but if such things do exist then they are incredibly niche. As such it's difficult to focus on these rewarding elements because they tend to divert players away from the social interaction in which an MMO is supposed to revolve around.
In any case, MMO's will always have these problems so long as they strive to be Online social simulators, so I doubt the genre will ever appeal to me as much as it used to. However there is still a demographic for it and as such I feel the need to voice my opinion on it as well as give people ideas on how to make these games better. I do hope that you have taken something away from this and that it will hopefully impact the MMORPG genre in a positive way.
Still, if you are thinking of developing an MMO, take time to consider the other routes and see which is best for you. MMORPG's may sound like huge, massive and successful games but this is only the case in the circumstance that the developer can give the genre a needed boot to the ass by solving some of its many problems. Only that way will the genre return to its supremacy and will another MMO ever rival the likes of World Of Warcraft. Blizzard's multi-million dollar game has a weak point, you just need to hit it for massive damage!!!
Special Thanks to Zombz for the Images