Perfect Ten: MMO terms that have overstayed their welcome


My original plan for this week – during the few moments that I was capable of coherent speech rather than just babbling about the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV expansion – was to give you lovely folks a drinking game. Each time you see certain things come up in indie MMO Kickstarters, take a shot. And I might still do that one day, but I decided against it for two reasons. One is that it feels a bit like punching down, which I don’t like to do.

But the second reason, and the more important one, is that not all of the fault can be laid at the feet of indie Kickstarters. The part where you expect to build a functional MMO on a budget that won’t pay for a single programmer, yes. Pretty much everything related to Greed Monger, that’s on you. But some of these terms come up over and over because they’ve been bludgeoned into formless masses now, and so it’s not really the fault of the indie folks that you can throw these terms in front of more or less everything.

1. Sandbox

I’ve said in the past that dividing games between “sandbox” and “themepark” titles isn’t something I’m fond of or something I agree with; they’re ephemeral lists of design elements, not edicts. Structured content exists in EVE Online, and you can spend hours building your house in Star Wars: The Old Republic. But “sandbox” gets the nod here because while both terms are awful, at least there’s some general consensus on what “themepark” indicates.

Calling something a “sandbox,” though, indicates anything from “must feature open PvP” to “must feature detailed crafting” to “must not feature any developer-driven content” to “give me no game mechanics, just let me run around.” It doesn’t mean anything. You can argue over whether Ryzom has better crafting than WildStar, sure, but just saying that Ryzom wins because sandbox is neglecting a whole lot of other important details and doesn’t say much about the game. We’ve used it for so many different things that there are no defining traits for a sandbox beyond “players shape the game in some way,” and brother, that’s MMOs in general.

This one isn't a video game, but it is arguably a sandbox.

2. Pay-to-win

I could be pedantic and point out that the idea of “pay-to-win” first requires a win condition in an endless game, but we all know that it’s just easier to type than “pay-to-gain-advantage.” Except what qualifies as a “winning” advantage varies between person to person. If you really try at it, you can argue that paying for anything at all is winning because it involves getting an advantage you wouldn’t have playing completely for free.

Of course, it also has the advantage of letting the developers pay rent, but let’s just put that to one side.

There are definitely games that let you pay for some pretty significant advantages. I like Skyforge, for example, but I’m not to keen on the idea of just buying credits for progress. At the same time, when you can’t define conclusively what is or isn’t enough of an advantage to qualify as “winning,” you are using a term that you have to define before you make any use of it, which makes it inherently useless. If I have to tell you what I consider to be pay-to-win before I write about it, I’m not really ranting about the phenomenon. It’s also why every game ever can say “we’ll never be pay-to-win” for the same reason every game can say “this game is not arkfazzle spindleflute.”

3. Nerf

This one did have a meaning at one point, yes. But these days, any reduction in power, no matter what, is a nerf. The whole point of the term was to indicate downgrades that were staggering in their scope, comparing your weapons to, well, Nerf weapons.

It’s bad enough when this one gets thrown around because a dungeon’s boss deals 5% less damage with all mechanics intact, but I’ve seen people refer to shifts in functionality for a class as a nerf – even when said shift isn’t to break a degenerate state of affairs but just to change functionality. It’s time to pack this one in.


4. Free-to-play

What does “free-to-play” tell you? There are games that fall under the header with subscription options and those without. All of them try to sell you something, be it content or cosmetics or convenience or all three. And the many games that converted to the model often include bonuses for people who bought a box before the shift or whatever. The only common thread is that you can get some fraction of the game for free, and it doesn’t really tell you much more of use.

Yes, I see you creeping around down in the comments with “freemium.” That is not better.

5. Player-driven

Remember how I said that “players shape the game in some way” was the minimum criteria for a sandbox? “Player-driven” is the same problem, only worse. You could argue that World of Warcraft has a player-driven economy and endgame structure, which is both entirely in keeping with the meaning of the term and also completely miss what people want it to mean. Of course players drive these games; the alternative is a game that just plays itself off in the distance.

6. Meaningful

This one is always modifying something else. A game has meaningful combat or meaningful crafting or meaningful pit-digging or whatever. That sounds like a big and bold statement until you realize that in and of itself, it doesn’t actually mean anything.

Oh, so there are meaningful choices about character build? Because every game has those. Saying that they’re meaningful does not mean they actually have a great impact in the long run or can’t be reversed because again, we’re talking about endless games here. Telling me what choices I can make when and what impact they have is useful; just telling me that my choices are meaningful is, ironically, meaningless.

You knew it was going to be Transformers eventually.

7. Retro

A few years back, my wife and I bought a copy of the Transformers animated film from the movie. What I remembered about it from my last viewing in high school centered around beautiful animation and a big, epic plot. I had forgotten the terrible music that was very much a product of its time, stilted voice acting, downright painful lines, a complete absence of character development for 80% of the cast, animation flubs, incongruous storyline sequences, and the fact that the movie doesn’t so much come to a satisfying ending as it hands the Autobots a victory because the movie’s runtime is over.

And that’s why I don’t like the term “retro.” You’re basically comparing the highlight reel of your memory to what’s going on right now. It’s a term that basically means the best stuff you remember without all of the awful stuff you tried to forget, and I just don’t think that’s a positive goal.

8. Grind

Much like pay-to-win, this is a term where the definition is all in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not something is a grind comes down almost entirely to whether or not you find the task fun or not, and it doesn’t convey any useful information. Oh, so that game is grindy because you have to log in every day and mostly just click a crafting bar dozens of times to play, but the other one isn’t when you log in and run three dungeons every day? Thanks, that’s very helpful.

9. Beta

Yeah, it’s time to just call this one. It had a point once, but the fact that I can talk about multiple games that are in open beta with functioning cash shops and no wipes means that one of those words officially doesn’t mean anything any longer. Betas are no longer test periods, and they’re not PR tools — they’re just a stage of release.

Special points go to Neverwinter here for using “soft launch” as a thing. Just launch or don’t, guys.

Launch or do not, folks.

10. WoW Killer

This is a ridiculous term that we need to stop using for two reasons. The first is that there will never be a WoW Killer just as there’s never going to be a Dungeons & Dragons Killer or a Magic: The Gathering Killer or even a Monopoly Killer. You cannot “kill” something that had a huge cultural impact and caught the zeitgeist in just the right way, something that came out at the perfect time and created a perfect storm. You can have rock acts that are more successful in absolute terms than Elvis, but you can’t even have another person come along and be Elvis Presley; the field already exists now.

Second, it’s pretty clear at this point that nothing will kill WoW because it’s proven quite efficient at committing suicide.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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