The Soapbox: The misguided quest for MMO stickiness

This guest Soapbox was originally commissioned in 2015 through Massively Overpowered’s Kickstarter campaign and is authored by Tyler F.M. Edwards, who blogs at In 2019, we hired Tyler as a columnist, so this guest-authored piece has been attributed to his byline retroactively.

The concept of “stickiness” is always a hot topic in the MMO community — stickiness being the sum of those game qualities that ensure player retention and keep people coming back. Fans and journalists talk about it often, and I don’t doubt that MMO developers devote an enormous amount of time and money to making their games sufficiently sticky.

But this obsession with stickiness can do more harm than good, and when developers focus on retention, they risk losing sight of what really matters: making games that are fun to play.

Paved with good intentions

Certainly there are plenty of good reasons to want games to be sticky. Even single-player titles can benefit from replay value, and MMOs have unique reasons for wanting to keep people around.

It’s important that our virtual worlds remain populated. An MMO needs a steady population to remain healthy. Without it, grouping becomes overly difficult, the in-game economy suffers, and the image and ambiance of a game become tarnished by a feeling of emptiness. Besides, we MMO players are an obsessive lot by nature, and we like the ability to immerse ourselves in a game for weeks or months on end without running out of things to do.

Stickiness has a lot of virtues. I’ve even given up on some otherwise good games because of a lack of stickiness — Guild Wars 2 comes to mind.

But there’s a great danger in viewing stickiness as the be-all and end-all. When you make player retention your goal at the expense of all else, the game suffers for it.

World of Warcraft is one of the worst offenders in this respect, to the point that it’s starting to feel as if every one of its design decisions is based purely on what will eat up the most of its players’ time.

Consider the removal of player flight in Warlords of Draenor. That removal serves no purpose but to make travel take longer. If Blizzard were truly as concerned with making a more dangerous world as it claims, it would simply fill the skies with flying mobs or give grounded mobs the ability to shoot upward. There are already many areas in past expansions using these mechanics, so the studio wouldn’t even have to undertake much new development.

Or consider the garrison campaigns, one of the main story delivery vehicles for WoD. These quests are available only once per week, and once again, the result is a decision that serves no purpose but to artificially inflate the length of content.

This is the dark side of the quest for stickiness: gating over accessibility, grind over gameplay, tedium over fun.
This is the dark side of the quest for stickiness: gating over accessibility, grind over gameplay, tedium over fun.

WoW at least has an excuse in that it is one of the few games still reliant on a subscription fee. That doesn’t make its mistakes OK, but it does make them understandable.

However, in an era when most games no longer require subscriptions, there’s very little reason for games to still chase retention at the expense of good gameplay, and still plenty of free- or buy-to-play games include mechanics like overly grindy crafting, excessively long leveling, or unnecessary gating.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the upcoming Skyforge, but one thing that bothers me is that only three of its 13 classes are available at character creation, and you need to unlock the others over time. This seems another decision that serves no purpose but to waste players’ time. If I want to roll a kinetic out of the gate, why shouldn’t I be able to?

In which developers shoot themselves in the feet

The funny thing about developing tunnel vision on stickiness is that it often seems to be quite self-defeating.

I don’t want to turn this into a “let’s bash WoW” article — it’s still a game I enjoy, despite its flaws — but it once again provides an excellent example of the problem.

One of my favorite moments from the Mists of Pandaria expansion was the Landfall storyline added in patch 5.1. The Purge of Dalaran and related events were some of the best storytelling Blizzard has produced in years.

But I did it once, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. The storyline was locked behind a few weeks’ worth of daily quests, and while it wasn’t the worst grind I’ve seen, I did get pretty burnt out by the end, and I don’t want to go through it again.

By comparison, another quest chain I loved was Cataclysm’s Elemental Bonds. It had no grinding or gating whatsoever; any character who hits level 85 can do it immediately. And I’ve run through it on every character that has ever reached that level, and I’ll continue to do so until the servers shut off.

Similarly, I still run through the issue storylines in The Secret World every now and then, even though they’re not the most efficient source of XP and I don’t really need the signets or Credits of Ca’ D’oro. I just like the content, and because they haven’t been needlessly stretched out to fill time, they’re all killer, no filler.

There are better ways

Another part of the problem is that MMO developers tend to be myopic when it comes to how they ensure player retention. The go-to solution seems to be to waste time with grind, gating, randomness, or other roadblocks. But there are alternatives.

For instance, something I think the MMO community as a whole — developers, journalists, and fans alike — vastly underestimate is the power of story to create stickiness.

RIFT and Guild Wars 2 are both games that I think are mechanically excellent, but they both failed to grab me when it comes to plot or setting, and as a result, I gave up on them fairly quickly. By comparison, there’s a lot I don’t like about World of Warcraft from a game design perspective, but I’ve been playing Warcraft games since I was a kid, and I love Azeroth as a setting. As a result, I still go back to WoW regularly despite my laundry list of complaints.

I realize I’m an extreme case. Not everyone is as passionate about video game stories as I am. But I think there’s still a strong case to be made for the power of story as a hook.

I don’t believe for a second that people would put up with the generic mechanics and soul-crushing monetization of Star Wars: The Old Republic if not for the love of the Star Wars setting and BioWare’s excellent storytelling. Lord of the Rings Online is another game whose chief notable feature is simply that it’s based on a beloved franchise, but it has many ardent fans.

Look, too, to MOBAs. These are for the most part pure combat arenas — no forced stickiness there — but they don’t seem to have any trouble maintaining healthy population numbers.

Build it, and they will come

What it boils down to is this: There is nothing stickier than a fun game. If a developer can provide an MMO that people enjoy and provide regular content updates, players will keep coming back.

In the age of free-to-play, there’s no need to try to keep players logged in as much as humanly possible. No other entertainment medium in the world expects players to be devoted to a single product at all times, and there’s no reason MMOs should do so.

Including some replayability, some hooks to keep people around, is a good thing, but it should never be a developer’s first priority. In gaming, fun always has to come first, and a sticky game is not necessarily the same as a fun game.

Before I go, I would like to extend my thanks to MassivelyOP Kickstarter patron Zulika for donating this Soapbox column to me and to MassivelyOP for this opportunity. I’ve been a fan of Massively for years now, and being able to make my own contribution to the site is a real thrill.

Tyler F.M. Edwards is a freelance writer and fantasy author living in eastern Canada. He specializes in gaming commentary, especially on MMOs, and he is the author the World Spectrum trilogy of science fantasy novels. Most of his MMO time is spent on The Secret World and World of Warcraft, where the Dragon and Blood Elves are his chief passions, but he has also spent a fair bit of time in Neverwinter, Aion, and Guild Wars 2. He blogs at; you can learn more about his books at and follow him on Facebook.
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