The Problem With MMOs (and some hope for the future)

The problem

The big problem with Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) is the fact that they are boring.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of MMOs and I have played a lot of different MMOs in my time. The thing is I always find myself getting really bored after a  month or two. This time period is much longer if I manage to get some friends into the game and get a sense of community going, but even then the games never seem to last for me. My friends eventually quit and it’s no fun to play alone.

MMOs are not terrible and a lot of them have been extremely successful. I just believe that a lot of the mechanics which exist within the genre can be boring and repetitive.

The reason

What justification is there for my bold and sweeping statement? Basically it all comes down to grinding. Grinding generally refers to the need to kill hundreds of the same enemy in order to level up your character or to be able to complete a quest. Quests which involve players having to “kill 10 wolves” or “collect 5 mushrooms” or “mine 10 copper” are far too common in these types of games and players generally spend a lot of time trying to rush their way through this type of content so that they can get to a new area or unlock new weapons. In fact a lot of players try really hard to level up as quickly as possible so that they can experience the so called end-game content.

In a roundabout kind of way this is part of what makes MMOs so addictive and successful. Players are performing tasks which give them constant small rewards such as skill points or improved equipment and a lot of people get hooked on trying to just get that one more level. However for a lot of people (myself included) this can be a big barrier to continued play. Eventually those little rewards don’t feel like they are worth the time and effort required in order to be able to get them and that is when players stop playing.

What are they doing about it?

A lot of current MMOs are trying to solve this problem in a number of different ways. Essentially this involves trying to make games more immersive and less boring by providing unique events and dynamic content or by making combat feel more interactive. Below are are a number of methods which games are trying… and some reasons why these methods are harder to implement within the genre than one might think.

Dungeons and Raids

Probably the most common method of making MMOs more interesting is the use of “Dungeons” and “Raids.” These typically involve difficult and rewarding game content which requires a group of players working as a team in order to be able to complete them. These instanced game areas are used to force play to be focused on the skills of the players and their ability to work as a team. This makes for more fun game-play as the focus is on skill rather than repetition.

Dynamic Content and Quests

A newer method of dealing with the “boring factor” is the use of dynamic events such as the “rifts” that form a large part of the recently released MMO Rift. The idea of this type of content is to have events which occur randomly or naturally within the game world that players can choose to become involved with. In the case of Rift, these events involve the opening of portals to elemental domains through which enemies appear. If players do not close these rifts a large “Invasion” will occur which may block areas that players need to be able access in order to complete quests.

This type of content does add random excitement and entertainment to MMOs. It can, however, fall into the same boredom trap as other MMO content. If these instanced events are very similar to one another and do not have any real impact on the game world then players quickly become used to them and they may even become  an annoyance rather than something fun.

Dynamic Combat

A number of games have attempted to make MMOs more interesting by making the combat have more “real-time” elements as opposed to the turn/ timer based game-play seen in most MMOs. The concept is that if the combat itself is skill based and fun then even games which contain “grinding” will be enjoyable. This type of game-play features in games such as (the failed) Tabula Rasa and the upcoming game TERA.

This idea is a good one but it can fail for a number of reasons. Firstly if your enemies are not intelligent and your abilities unchanging then it is possible for this to also become boring. Secondly this type of game-play requires much more server power and better latency between the clients and the server and therefore the game may be forced to limit the number of players that can be in a given area at a time or else risk having poor performance (especially for those of us in Africa who are far away from the servers).

Deeper and More Personal Story

The final main way (in my list anyway) that game designers try to make MMOs more fun and less boring is by giving them a deep story. The story needs to be good enough to make players want to keep playing in order to find out what is going to happen next.

The biggest pitfall with making a deep story in an MMO is juggling the balance between making the story personal and unique to your character whilst still making it fit in the larger context of the game. What on earth does that mean? What I mean is that players want to feel like their character is special and that they are having an impact on the game world. They don’t want to feel like just another random soldier. It is tricky to get his feeling across when you have a lot of players all in the same world, all playing through the same overall story.

Hope or hype?

There are a few games coming out in the not too distant future which seem to be on track to make MMOs less boring than they are at the moment. What follow is a list of some of these games and what they are doing that is different.

The Secret World

The Secret World is an MMO by Funcom set in the modern real world…. well real except for the fact that there are all these secret societies running around fighting monsters and vampires and the like. Secret World is trying to make MMOs more fun by removing traditional XP grinding by removing levels completely. It also aims to make things interesting by making players solve puzzles and use clues to be able to advance in the game story.

Personally i really like the look of this game. The setting is great and I enjoy the idea of puzzle solving elements. Looking forward to trying it.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The Old Republic is Bioware’s first attempt at an MMO. Bioware made a name for themselves developing single player roleplaying games and are famous for their deep story lines and well developed characters. This is what they have promised to bring to the MMO genre.

As I stated previously. The big worry with having epic stories in MMOs is striking a balance between making the story personal and having it still make sense for there to be so many player characters running around. On the other hand it is Bioware and they have never failed me in the past. I really hope they can pull it off.

Guild Wars 2

Perhaps the most ambitious (according to their claims) of the games which hope to beat the boredom is Guild Wars 2. Guild Wars 2 promises dynamic events which have a direct impact on parts of the game world, fail to save the farm and prices of food in the area go up, fail to protect a town and it can be burned down. On top of this they have also said that their game will have less grinding and a deep and personal story.

Lofty claims from the developer NCSOFT. If they can pull off the dynamic events and make them have a genuine impact on the game world, (which doesn’t feel like it is generic or meaningless) while still having a cohesive story that makes sense… then i think this may be one of the most important games of all time. Big promises. Big expectations. I really really hope that they can actually make true dynamic events work.


Tera aims to make MMOs more fun by making combat dynamic and exciting. Tera plays more like an action game than and MMO and players will have to dodge and move whilst using physics based close combat attacks.

Tera looks like it will be a lot of fun, and it won a lot of awards for combat and game-play at E3 this year. I just hope the latency in South Africa doesn’t make it impossible to enjoy real time combat.

One Comment

  1. 1
    James on Saturday 05 November, 15:17 PM #

    I think your basic reasoning as to why they get boring is right, though I disagree with some of the solutions.

    Secret world doesn’t remove levelling grind, it just uses a skill point system, so skills replace levels,in much the same way they do in games like Eve.

    Instances / Dungeons, are fun first, but get dull very quick, especially in MMOs because the progression means you quickly outgrow them and they become ridiculously easy, this is made worse as part of the grind you often farm instances over and over again.

    Of the other three games you mention, GW2 looks to be the most innovative, SWTOR is really more of the same with only the epic story, more voice acting & super -pets. We already have real time combat with games like Vindictus, so Tera isn;t introducing anything new (it may do it better however), of course the worry with Tera is that it will be run by Frogster who have a bad rep (they run ROM generally considered the most P2W game out there, bad support, do very littel about bots / goldselling, lots of censorship in forumsetc.)

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