Perfect Ten: Ten steps for understanding MMO systems

Just barely avoided this fate.

As I write this, I’m in the middle of putting together my first impressions for Anthem. This takes some doing and would probably be easier if I had taken part in the earlier access for the game, but we’re here now. It also means spending a whole lot of time looking at the game’s various mechanics and understanding what does or doesn’t work, which strikes me as one of those processes that’s both fun and educational for those unfamiliar with it.

It’s really easy to play something and declare that the mechanics just feel bad, falling into the nebulous middle space of “I don’t like it” with no further analysis. But it’s fun to understand why a system does or does not work, even if you may personally enjoy it, and unpacking this stuff is part of the fun road to really gaining insight into how games function and what can be gleaned even from unsuccessful experiments.

Or I find it fun, anyhow. There may be a reason this is my job.

It never ends.

1. Explain the system in neutral terms

First and foremost, you need to be able to state what the system does. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth examination of everything, but it does need to accurately state the system’s effects in completely neutral terms. This is a grounding stage, making sure that you understand what the system’s actual mechanical effects are.

For example: Final Fantasy XI’s Trust system allows you to cast special Trust spells in order to summon NPC companions who will fight alongside you. These companions are summoned until you dismiss them or you enter a new area. Each of these companions will engage with your target and assist you and your other party members, prioritizing the player as a target. Certain areas and battlefields do not allow you to summon Trusts, but this is limited to high-end content meant for specific challenges.

2. Examine the environment in which it was added

Systems are not designed in a vacuum. They exist to address something. Understanding a system also requires understanding why something was added to the game, with the caveat that nearly every system is added to either fix a problem or improve a strength. Identifying the environment is thus a part of understanding the system as a whole, while also identifying what led to this problem that needed fixing or the strength to improve.

When World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth added the Heart of Azeroth, it was added in the wake of the popular Artifact system which the designers intended to retire after the expansion. Thus, it was meant to fix a problem by ensuring that Artifact-style progression would be a part of the game while also fixing the problem of Legion’s Legendary items being highly unpredictable and random.

Similarly, FFXI’s Trusts came about to address the fact that the game’s population was in decline and it was centered around group-based combat. Final Fantasy XIV’s Materia system was added to introduce gear churn into the game that otherwise encouraged never changing your equipment. Understanding the environment is crucial for understanding what the system was trying to do, even if the system fails to accomplish its goals.

Sometimes this looks nice.

3. Examine the bits that make design easier

I generally oppose the idea of designers being lazy because once you’re talking about a game that takes four years and a hundred people to make, “lazy” is no longer in the vocabulary. However, designers are human beings who can get exhausted with a workload. This is about examining the parts of the system that are limited because, well, they’re good enough.

WoW’s repeated use of similar traits for the Azerite armor? FFXI using familiar NPCs for Trusts? Secret World Legends keeping its traits as largely triggering only off of a given skill line’s abilities? All of these things reduce how much design work needs to be done by reducing weird interactions or removing the need for familiarity or… well, you get the idea. It drops the number of moving pieces.

4. Understand the behavior it wants

What does Azerite armor want you to do? It wants you to earn better armor so you unlock better powers while keeping a constant upgrade cycle going, along with giving you another bar you need to level aside from character level and reputation. What does Materia want you to do? Level up and earn experience with pieces of gear equipped, then melting that gear and replacing it with a new piece. What does Star Trek Online’s vague skill system want you to do? Level up in an exploratory way while accepting that any respecs will, in fact, cost you real money.

This is, again, meant to be fairly value-neutral. The question here is not whether or not these goals are good ones or even if these behaviors are what is accurately being encouraged, merely what these behaviors are intended to be. Success and failure starts coming into play at the next point.

Oh, I get it.

5. Ask what it’s rewarding

This one is best illustrated by FFXIV’s Materia system at launch, so I’m going to pick on that. What the system actually rewarded here was gaining as much experience in the shortest span of time possible when compared to the level of the gear. The concept of what it was meant to be rewarding didn’t matter so much as the reality that you wanted to gain as much experience as you could quickly, especially compared to the rates of gain expected by the designers and the content it was meant for.

Meanwhile, FFXI’s Trusts were rewarding people who wanted to play the game but couldn’t find a tank and a healer, and the nature of the game meant that while you could play one, you couldn’t play both at the same time without a glacial pace. It rewarded people who wanted to play the game but for whatever reason were not able to assemble a party for content.

Frequently, this is where you can start noticing problems with a system. There’s something wrong with what is being rewarded, regardless of what was intended to be rewarded.

6. Look for loopholes

I hinted at this a little bit before, but there was a time when the easiest way to get high-level materia in FFXIV was to equip gathering and crafting accessories and then go run high-end content. The gear would reach the state of conversion quickly because its bonding was based around a much slower rate of experience gain, and all that happens is your run of actual content requires carrying someone not equipped to do the content!

Loopholes aren’t always an inherently bad thing. To use FFXI’s Trusts again, it’s often much faster to just dismiss and resummon your trusts rather than waiting for them to regenerate MP, which is technically a loophole… but it’s a loophole that speeds up the pace of play rather than leading to degenerate states, so it’s not as big a deal. The point here is to understand that these loopholes exist and what they are, weighing that against what the system is supposed to accomplish or reward.

Smoke on the water

7. Break down what it fails to accomplish

You understand what the system is trying to do. You understand where the various elements do or don’t work, and you understand what it actually rewards even if that’s contrary to design. Now you should have enough information to start evaluating what targets – either explicit or implicit – it fails to hit as a result of its design.

Far from improving gear churn and creating a rotating cycle, it’s obvious that FFXIV’s Materia system on launch rewarded instead using specific gear for melting and wearing the same gear the rest of the time. WoW’s Heart of Azeroth does not function as a replacement for the Artifact powers, due in part to many elements that make it easier to design (like having generally shared traits) and due also to not really rewarding much beyond what you were already doing by getting new armor pieces. STO makes it very difficult to know what your various skills do, thereby making leveling far more difficult and increasing the odds that you will need to spend money on a respec.

That last one hints that sometimes what something fails to accomplish may be an implicit goal in and of itself. After all, if you feel cynical, that is a notable goal that helps funnel more money into the developers’ pockets…

8. Contextualize your reactions

So you have your system. You have your knee-jerk reaction to the systems based on play. Now you have a wider set of rules and guidelines to apply to all of that. Now you can contextualize your knee-jerk reactions within a larger framework. “I like the Trust system because it allows for faster play and encourages you to do things, rather than waiting for party members that may not be present.”

Remember when this was what we were taking about?

9. Consider the resulting environment

Here’s where you get really into the woods. Let’s say you dislike the Trust system, as mentioned above. You don’t like how it rewards quick self-made groups without doing anything to support groups of actual players. You’ve considered all of the prior elements already. But what about the actual results on the game? You’d probably notice more people out and playing the game, getting up to the level cap and getting involved in gameplay that had otherwise been blocked off.

Here’s where you can start to find systems that you like but are bad for the game or vice-versa. It means considering more than your own viewpoint, but what the system does for the game as a whole and whether or not it’s something the game actually needs. And the best way to do that?

10. Discuss

Yes, talking about it. And seeing other people talk about it. And reading their takes on the system while possibly disagreeing with some core assumptions. And discussing perspectives of players who have different playstyles and seeing if they have different reactions to the same systems. In short, lots of examination.

Which is probably boring if you just want to argue that something is bad, but for those of us who find this stuff fascinating to discuss, it’s one of the best parts.

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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