Massively Overthinking: The paradox MMO


Back in February, the MMORPG subreddit offered up yet another fun thread: User Friendly_Fire told the MMO community that what it really wants is a paradox MMO – a game that is simultaneously popular, hardcore, and social, which is impossible. He posits that old-school gamers want to return to a “golden age” of MMORPGs “when quests took time, raids were hard, and you had to talk to people in game to do anything” – in fact, that they believe the shift away from this style of game actually wrecked the genre’s popularity. But in reality, he argues, the popularity of online games has only continued expanding as the genre shifted away from activities that took untold hours to complete.

I thought this would be a fun one to talk about on the back of last week’s Overthinking on everything boxes. “Either get on board with games that don’t make playing a chore in the name of immersion, or accept you will be playing niche games,” he concludes. Do you agree with the premise and conclusion? Do old-school MMO players want the impossible? Or is it possible after all? Let’s Overthink it.

I am not supporting this lizard-shooting quest.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I thoroughly disagree. Maybe it’s because I came from sandbox MMOs, but hardcore games that require hours of work aren’t inherently better let alone more fun. Look at EverQuest and World of Warcraft. While they brought attention to the genre, the amount of people who actually participated in raids was low. I remember seeing actual graphs of the number of people who got through the original Vanilla Naxxramas was less than 1% of the active playerbase at the time, and I was the only person I knew who was working on it (at the time, I knew tons of people in real life who played the game).

Hardcore and social don’t exactly go together well. A game needs to be big enough to cater to both crowds, as I find the social people will talk about the hardcores almost like celebrities… if the game/server is small enough for people to know each other. Which is also why it’s hard to replicate the old school MMOs, as we know instancing/phasing tech can make playing with friends a million times easier than coordinating with servers that may be full or have a cap.

The thing is, it’s very hard to go back. Some people on staff may play older MMOs (or emulators of them, cough cough), but we’re also people deep in the genre at a time when mainstream AAA games tack on online multiplayer and mainstream gaming sites cover that. To be blunt, what really seems to hold people is big games with long grinds well masked with good IPs and/or fun mechanics that often make playing with friends easy. Final Fantasy XIV, EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Elder Scrolls Online…. all of those games have those attributes in common. Their “hardcore” values are less C’thun raid dancing and more grind for a few more stats (or in EVE’s case, grind plus hoard in case of PvP). The failure of Wildstar really shows that we don’t need more “hard” games; we need games that try to include everyone. The challenge should be only a small, optional facet, not the core of the game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I agree with Friendly_Fire to a point. The specific things he mentions – lengthy raids and questing and intense socializing – were all major roadblocks for the genre’s popularity even when gaming was much smaller. Now MMOs are competing with online games that have a lot of the same fun without all the friction. They need to adapt. I can definitely see where gatekeeping content like what’s referred to here is a problem now, just as it was for people then, and there’s a serious risk that we can fall prey to cargo cult thinking here when it comes to understanding (or not understanding) how the genre has developed. It’s far too easy to trick ourselves into thinking the loss of something like forced grouping is associated with and therefore at the root of decline (because then it would be so easy to fix, and don’t we all love easy fixes?).

At the same time, it’s still fair for old-school gamers to raise hell about some of the content we’ve lost of the years that wasn’t actually a player roadblock and didn’t serve as a tool for gatekeeping communities but in fact has been proven time and again to increase community and stickiness and longevity. I’m thinking about things like housing, live events, proper trading, visual character customization, creation toolsets, player economies, and even PvP. We have lost a lot of depth in MMOs over the years, and that depth is often the kind that adds welcome glue rather than unwelcome friction – here I’m thinking about the intense popularity of survival sandboxes right now. Themepark MMOs have ceded a lot of territory to subgenres. It’s fair to criticize that and fight to get it back. But let’s do it for the right reasons.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I think Friendly_Fire is on to something here, especially since these kinds of games — whether they’re immense worlds or smaller form multiplayer titles — aren’t what one would call terribly unique anymore in terms of quantity. Whether that’s attributed to a quality shift is perhaps an Overthinking for another time.

Did a shift from MMORPGs that required long sessions contribute to an increase in popularity? Perhaps. As online gaming has become more proliferous and free time has begun to wane for most, the value in having an MMORPG with extreme levels of immersion or gaping time sinks to do basic things does diminish. Having less time to yourself to really enjoy a game and having options of games that appear to respect that thin length of time are certainly more appealing.

Even as one who tags himself as a game-hopping casual, though, I still appreciate a game that makes you slow down and hearkens back to some of those old genre tropes. I’ve got just as many fond memories playing Final Fantasy XI as I do playing City of Heroes. I even manage to find the joy in having to walk to my ship, climb inside, and flip on a few power switches in Star Citizen for heck’s sake.

In the end, I 100% support the idea of people playing niche games as much as those who get a sense of accomplishment out of a short gaming session, so in regards to the “get on board or get left behind” conclusion, I disagree there. Whatever brings that smile, yo.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): “Here’s the funny thing about older games. In my memory, my time in Final Fantasy XI did not include anyone wistfully sighing and saying with appreciation “thank goodness we have to waste nearly half an hour waiting for and/or riding airships just to get to the place where we can start getting a party together in hopes of doing something.” We all did that, but it wasn’t something we considered better or worse than a hypothetical game at the time that just let us… you know, do stuff. And it’s a testament to how much people loved the basic element of playing these games with other people that this mind-numbing tedious nonsense didn’t kill our genre dead whilst it was still in its infancy.

World of Warcraft was an overwhelming success because a whole lot of people who had long been interested in the premise found out that they could suddenly just play the game in a way that was previously not possible. Sure, it still involved some nonsense that has subsequently been obsoleted; people put up with things like slowly assembling manual parties for leveling dungeons, zones were harder to get through, and so forth. But if you compare the ratio of time spent doing tedious traveling garbage vs. time spent actually doing things between vanilla WoW and the then-active FFXI, it would be mindblowing. It’s not even a comparison. The game let me actually just play.

And here’s the really funny part. If you want highly challenging content that requires a bunch of people with strict schedules playing together? Go play WoW. That’s literally what Mythic raiding is, like, right now. The overwhelming focus the game puts on exactly those mechanics is actually hurting the game as a whole and player perception. Complaining that MMOs now are too easy literally ignores the content that’s actually there, and it seems to be arguing more that leveling or accomplishing any content is no longer treated as an exercise in two-hour coordination.

I’ve already written about how inconvenience is not immersion before, and there’s plenty to be written about how leveling was never an accomplishment so much as a tedious chore. But not only did MMOs become more popular as these elements got pruned, the more games rely on large forced groups and egregious tedium, the more people back away. And there’s a whole lot of potential suspicion about what you’re really looking for if you want more like Dynamis and less like Mythic Raiding… but that’s a topic for another day.”

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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“(Hard mode raiding) That’s what wow is, right now.”

And they wonder why they’re at what, about 1/4 their historical player base? Less?
I play mmos to escape into a world of adventure, not to repetitively run the same “Hard” shit night after night. How is that raiding substantially different than playing a hard 8bit Atari game cartridge over and over?

They’ve made the entire world irrelevant in pursuit of that.


This is by far my favorite site. It’s the first site I check each morning as it gives me all the news I’m looking for.
However I always seem to disagree with the opinion pieces. I believe it’s becuase as journalist you tend to be a more casual player as it helps getting from one article to the next. My observation.
I never thought that Wild Star failed because of it being hard, it was not. It was twitchy and fast which leads to no time to talk, which is what all casual mmos have in common. They have no real community. WOW started out in a good spot between hardcore and casual but somewhere in the middle of wrath they started to lean towards casual.

Jeremiah Wagner

You are very mistaken if you think the mmo genre has gotten more popular since moving away from the old school style of mmo. WoW should be the perfect example. During Vanilla / Burning Crusade times, 90% of the subscribers played regularly. Now look at current WoW. I would says about 20% of the subscribers actually play regularly. Not only that , but there is most likely around 4 million subs currently ,maybe less. During BC probably double around 8 million. Just using WoW for an example about 1 Million active subs compared to 7.5 million. Its not about Raids being harder though. Its about leveling taking longer and being harder. The need to join with other players to move quicker or even at all. Forcing players to work together IS HUGE for the mmo genre. Making it take forever to hit max level made your character feel more REAL for some reason. These things are everything to the longevity of an mmo.



Matt Comstock

I suppose I need to know more about what is meant by “hardcore,” as, even though it may seem straight forward, it is rather ambiguous. MMORPGS have many components.

When I hear hardcore, the first thing I think about are dungeons, raids and mythic progression in Wow– most of which I abhor. but, I enjoyed the dungeon/raid content when I was playing WoW, but not necessarily the players I was groupfindered into. The “hardcore” was that it always seemed everyone was in a rush to get through everything, and if you didn’t already know the dungeon you were doing it wrong (even on your first run).

But, “hardcore” can mean no fast travel options, or incredibly intricate crafting, or some other aspect of the game that takes time and effort.

Regardless, I don’t think popular, hardcore, and social are as paradoxical as Friendly Fire suggests. You can have a popular game, with hardcore content, that is social in nature. IMO, the alleged paradox revolves around “hardcore.” If the “hardcore” component of the game is its pinnacle or focus, then perhaps I would agree with Friendly Fire. But, if the “hardcore” component is just an optional part of the game, then there is really no paradox, as there is something for everyone.

As much as I am in an anti-WoW phase right now, it is the best example to refute Friendly Fire’s paradox argument. It is still popular (but not as much as it used to be), it is still social with a thriving guild system, and it still has “hardcore” dungeon and raid content– the “hardcore” content (i.e. mythic progression) can be avoided, as long as you are sociable and have found the right guild with members attuned to your interests.


I think in this case, in addition to what you pointed out, that Hardcore means you lose something when you fail. Be it XP or items or something else. There is a consequence to the risk/reward factor.

Hardcore Path of Exile for example, when you die, you are dead. You get removed from the Hardcore league.

Fervor Bliss

With Fortnite adding PvE and BDO adding Battle Royal. I think we are getting over the idea that a game needs to be just one thing. We already have seen currency and certain items only work in certain areas in MMO’s, Battle Royal, PvP, PvE, soft area’s, and hard area’s all could have rewards just for that play style, home decorations, mounts, currency. Letting you wear your Battle Royal outfit into the PvE area as decoration only.

Hopefully, someone will do it right soon.


It deeply saddens me that Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode has eclipsed the original game to the point there are people who think PvE is a new addition.


I 100% disagree with friendly fire, as long as “hardcore” means high levels of player skill and you aren’t expecting 100% of the game to be hardcore.

Very few games require a high level of player skill, and MMORPGs continue to get easier and easier over time to the point where I cannot play them any more because they’re too simplistic.

But, I have played games involving high levels of player skill and they can be amazing! Designing a combat system with enough depth that it requires skill to master it is difficult to do, I admit that, but it is possible. Once you’ve got the combat system with depth, then you can finally build content that is hardcore, i.e. requires player skill.

Where Wildstar failed, in my opinion, is their combat system didn’t require much skill, it was hardcore in a stats/twitch sense but it still didn’t engage your brain much so it wasn’t very engaging.

To ensure popularity whilst still being hardcore, you just need to make sure that there is a suitable range of difficulties and that there is a well-designed on-ramp. Lets say 50% of the game is hardcore (probs too high a %, but this is an example), you need to make sure the remaining 50% acts as a learning curve, starting easy and slowly increasing difficulty until the players are ready for the hardcore content. Don’t just dump them in the deep end.

Loyal Patron

Hmmm,interesting topic.
I think today’s MMO’s have lost something…dunno about anybody else but me cut me teeth on da old single player games..real Arena,pool of radiance..bane of the cosmic forge..might and magic..those games..also The Realm..and then settled into ROM muds..played them a LOT..(incoming wife aggro!!!! THWAP! THWAP! THWAPPITY THWAP!!!…oog!)..but I miss the surprises that you could find.
Remember talking to one guy about what seemed to be a “bug”(actually me just read a description wrong) but in the course of the discussion he asked me about a previous quest..there was silence for a couple secs after me told him how me solved it. And then he told me that the devs hadn’t thought of that..and neither had other players as far as he knew..and THAT right there is what me miss the most..that “freedom” if you will to try different things to solve a game problem.
Do I like “THE GRIND” oh heck no!..I’d like to see a hella lot more of horizontal progression..where you could can exp or skill up w/out having to fight over and over again..where crafted items actually meant something..the “special weapons” from drops becoming EXTREMELY when finding was a cause of joy and happiness. Me thinks it could happen again but it’s gonna take a massive changed to get folks to change the paradigm that we now have.
just me two carrots worth.


Hmm. Well, IMO, Mr. Friendly_Fire is almost right as opposed to the old hardcore vets aka Old Guard who are mostly wrong. Heh.

The truth is that both FF and the OG ideas miss the mark altogether.

FF paradox assertion is correct but MMORPG failures are not due to the Old Guard expectations.

The OG’s fault is in not recognizing that the market has changed. The idea that laborious tedium as a means of immersion and socialization is no longer valid or wanted.

So, how do we avoid the paradox? Well, first accept that MMORPGs should drive more of a variety in niche markets. And we should all remember the OG idea that devs and players should form a community. The devs should deliver what that niche market wants by having a relationship with players

And all of us should reset our expectations. There is no one game to rule them all and in lootbox bind them.

Andy McAdams
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Andy McAdams

I’m going to give a hedge answer – I think it’s possible, just not in the ‘pure’ form the hardcore crowd wants. What I think we’ll end up with is something that skews more towards virtual worlds and what we want from that, but will elements for the people who want the coordination hell that comes with raiding.

MMORPGs are *social* though as we’ve discussed in the past,how we engage that social aspect varies from person to person. I agree with Bree that the genre cut too much of what made the genre great–we lost a lot of depth and we lost a lot of ways to interact because we fell into logical fallacy that coordination (and therefore time) == only engaging content.

Which makes sense to me–when I first started playing I never raided … anything. I spent all of my time online doing things I found fun — chatting with guildies, running a dungeon, doing some quests, doing some crafting dailies, other dailies, helping someone out, playing the auction house, sitting around selling buffs for some cash. When I played for long stretches that’s what kept me coming back, not the gear treadmill.

In the end, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think its a challenge to marry the two from a design perspective, but it’s not impossible. It requires giving up on this antiquated idea of that everyone gets all the things and the equally antiquated idea that all the best stuff goes only to the highest tier of players. It requires designers to understand that a game needs to be wide (horizontal progression) and tall (vertical progression). That player interaction has to be more than forced combat grouping, that the game has to be about more than just combat.

Toy Clown

The only thing old-school I want back, that I miss above and beyond all else, is people were a lot nicer to each other before they found out they could get away with atrocious behavior on the internet. I’ll be the first to admit that I hated how long it took to do everything in Everquest1. I used to average a level 1-2 times a year and that was with active grouping. 72-man raids took almost 2 hours to prepare for with gathering everyone and buffing. Corpse recoveries could be an endless loop of hours on a raid wipe, etc. EQ1 broke me and I just can’t do gameplay that “requires” me to be in one spot for hours anymore.

I prefer games that are more in line with UO, SWG, GW2, ESO. I like BDO, but it’s reached a point with travel that I have to plan other things around it. Like housework, making dinner, etc.

I admit I’m more of a socializer when it comes to MMOs and that’s just about dead for me. Most people I come across just want to spurt through a dungeon run, a dolmen, a boss without saying a friendly greeting at the least or even saying thank you at the end. It’s not even like grouping with people. It’s like everyone’s an NPC now. Chats are filled with the most vulgar, awful, political, racial junk I’ve ever seen spew out of people’s mouths. For example, in BDO it’s been big news with the player that died recently, as they were bullied in the game and committed suicide. There’s so much disrespect. People saying, “Good they’re dead, they should have had a thicker skin.” Some saying they don’t care that someone killed themselves, etc etc.

That’s the type of stuff I miss from old-school MMOs and communities. People didn’t treat people bad and those that did got a bad reputation to the point no one played with them. I’d love it if people went back to being at the least, decent, on the internet.


Yeah forced grouping also forced good behavior, because if you were a dick then you would just not get invited into you had to either behave or quit.
What we need is some modernized form of consequence, because forced grouping is not really working in 2019. Behavior modifying mechanics. But how and what ?