Vague Patch Notes: Finding motivation within MMOs

I'm doing this why, exactly?

Here’s a fun question to ask yourself when you’re doing basically anything in an MMO: Why am I doing this? It’s usually at once a very easy question to answer and a very difficult one.

In one sense, for example, it’s very easy to understand why you’re in this Flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic. In character terms, a guy told you to go blow these people up, and that’s a thing your character cares about. In the immediate sense, there’s experience and credits for doing that. And in the broader sense you do this to get items and experience and other progress rewards, which will help you on this character, which contributes to your Legacy and gets you closer to unlocking this thing, and so on.

But why are you doing this? That’s a bit of a broader question, and it’s also a more important one. It might be that you’re actually doing it for bad reasons.

Intrinsic can mean lots of things.

Let’s consider the following three statements. We’re just going to leave this here for the moment and come back to them later, but for now, let’s just think about them.

  1. “Cool, that was a great run of that dungeon! Got some more stuff than I was expecting, got my weekly rewards, and now I’m on track for the rest of the week.”
  2. “Well, that run went all right. I got what I really needed, though; now I don’t have to worry about it until next week.”
  3. “Ugh, I hate doing these runs. But I have to do this or there’s no other way to get the armor to look pretty.”

We’ve all probably expressed similar sentiments at varying points during our MMO careers. So now that you have those things in mind, let’s talk about motivation. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, especially as it pertains to MMOs.

Intrinsic motivation is motivation contained within the game itself. Your reward for clearing this dungeon is clearing the dungeon, so to speak. What do you get as a reward for this Fortnite match? You’re not here for that; you’re here for a fun time with this Fortnite match. The idea here is that you’re having a fun time doing this thing, not having a fun time planning for the rewards for when you have finished doing the thing.

Extrinsic motivation, as you likely gathered, is the inverse of this. In online games, this most often does take the form of rewards; playing this Overwatch match can push you over to get the next lootbox which might have the skin you actually want. It isn’t strictly limited to that, though, and it can also include things like your friends expecting you to level up so that you can all play together to the social cachet that comes from having a high-level in Destiny 2.

I don’t know what that sort of social circle looks like, but I assume it exists.

Neither of these motives is inherently bad; to a certain extent, a balance of the two is almost mandatory. In a platforming game, there are lots of times when you can make the effort to get to a more difficult route and pick up powerups, which combines both intrinsic rewards (proving my skill, which is fun) and extrinsic rewards (there’s stuff here that’s worth getting). This is all totally fine.

Someone must have had fun with this at some point, right?

More to the point, past a certain amount of time spent in a game, the intrinsic rewards are going to start being lesser as the extrinsic rewards remain similar or identical. In Destiny 2, your first experience shooting wizards from space will be pretty novel and hopefully fun. (Does that game still have wizards from space? Let’s assume so.) Your hundredth such wizard, though, will no longer have that rush of novelty. You are now familiar with space wizards and the shooting thereof. Heck, eventually it’ll prompt a yawn and a “ho hum, here’s another wizard, he’s from space, I ought to shoot him.”

As is frequently the case in this column, the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is not about “thing good” or “thing bad,” just “thing exists.” What gets insidious is that games can be designed not just to keep you playing as your intrinsic motivation decreases but to actually avoid intrinsic motivation altogether.

Let’s go back to those first statements from above. In the first one, it’s obvious that your intrinsic motivation is high. You’re enjoying playing! The rewards are nice, but they’re not your sole motivator. In the second, your intrinsic motivation has decreased; you didn’t have as much fun just for the deed, but you’re still fundamentally having fun. While the rewards might be more motivating than the thing itself, you still enjoy the thing.

But in the third? Your intrinsic motivation is actively gone. You’re not having fun doing this. You specifically do not want to do this, but you’re doing it anyway because of the rewards. That’s a sign that you should probably stop.

There are always going to be times in games when your intrinsic motivation is low to nonexistent, yes. Inventory management is not considered much fun by a lot of gamers, for example. Nobody really has fun dying unless you’re playing Dwarf Fortress. Bad things happen, you hit setbacks, and so forth. It’s very possible to hit something difficult and push through despite not having fun because it’s buffered by things you are intrinsically motivated by.

Oh, we haven't forgotten you.

What can easily happen, though, is that a game keeps you playing on the basis of those extrinsic rewards when you’re no longer having intrinsic fun. You want your Allied Races in World of Warcraft, for example, so you spend your time working on reputations you don’t care about with world quests you don’t find fun, running dungeons you don’t enjoy, and completing stories you don’t read just to unlock these new races… to go back and do all that stuff again.

That’s the really insidious part. You start chasing rewards instead of fun, and the rewards are useful only for things you don’t find fun when you do them now.

Some games rely more on this idea than others. The shooty-looty-box genre that includes the aforementioned Destiny 2 as well as games like Anthem tends to lean hard on the idea that you want to keep playing to get more rewards, allowing you to coast past “I’m not having fun with this shooting” to “I have to get my Weekly Rewards even though I’m not enjoying any of this.” Games with endgames that have sudden swerves (per the column a couple of weeks back) are prone to this as well.

But it’s not always the fault of the game. Predatory tricks of lootboxes and the like are bad, but they’re also helped by our tendency to get into ruts and keep chasing the rewards without noticing that we now hate the chase. And the only person who can actually step back and examine why you’re doing this is you.

So that’s your thing to chew on at this point, and for the future. Ask yourself why you’re doing the gaming things you’re doing, and be cognizant if the answer is just about rewards instead of fun within the thing itself. There’s no hard-and-fast rule; it’s just something you have to think about and learn from.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Rick Mills

I think one of the overlooked intrinsic motivations is persistence and progression. I will (especially through a bad expansion) play a character just to feel the reward of knowing the professions, exploring the area and being a part of the story that started 15 years ago. It’s one of the reasons I disliked it when WoW separated the profession levels into their own expansion – broke all the feeling of progression.
Knowing there will be good and bad expansions, playing through a bad one has the reward of being ready for the next one.
I suppose that could be considered extrinsic :)


I wanted to say first and foremost that I’m really enjoying this column at the moment! Keep up the good work!

On the subject of motivation, I’m personally motivated most by character perfection. It is my goal in any game to figure out how to play my character to its fullest potential. I get great satisfaction from achieving that goal. I would also say that perfecting my character is about 80% player skill (i.e. how i play it) and 20% gear. My secondary motivation is social (in MMOs), both because socialising is fun, but also completing content in a group adds extra challenge and so it is something else I want to perfect.

This is a large part of why I hate leveling up in MMOs.

As your gear is always changing, and you’re always acquiring new skills, there is no opportunity to perfect your playstyle during leveling. I cannot master a character if I am still missing half my skills!

This is also why I gravitate towards endgame – when gear settles down and I have all my skills, I can finally master my class. The content also finally gets difficult so I have something to measure myself against. PvP becomes more balanced as more and more people hit the same level (the cap…) and have similar gear, so my success or failure comes down to my player skill and not just levels or gear.

My motivation is also why I hate action combat. It is so simple that it’s really easy to master, intellectually you can master it very quickly and after that its just a matter to time before your muscle memory catches up with your brain. I can generally only stick with action combat for maybe 30-40 hours maximum before im completely bored and gear just doesn’t motivate me enough.

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I feel that this is something you can point to as to why MMOs can be a big turnoff to many potential players. This is much more noticeable with the rut MMOs got into with the post-WoW launch era.

It’s not something I foresee going away either. Even non-MMOs can have this issue, as most anything tends to since the more you experience something, the less novel and interesting it can be.

At the very least, what I’m still hoping for as usual is the expansion of our online worlds to contain more of a variety of meaningful activities.


This is why my rule of thumb is that I will look at every in-game activity I’m planning to do and determine if I would still be willing to do it if there was no reward. If the answer is no, then I won’t do the content regardless of the reward. If the pieces of content I won’t do block me from progressing, I leave the game.

This doesn’t mean rewards don’t influence which content I choose to do; they do (as long as they aren’t random, I intentionally ignore random rewards). It’s just that I will never play something just for the rewards, even if those rewards are required to continue playing the game.


I think part of the issue here is that in “theme park” games with directed content (linear instances, etc), the content itself isn’t designed with replayability in mind. Instead, players are presented with an experience that they progress through and then finish. Unfortunately, it’s never possible for a dev team to create enough content to always give players something completely new to go do, so this not-really-meant-to-be-replayed content ends up getting married to reward systems that require players to go back and do it again. And again. And again.

Sandbox and open-world games are less prone to this problem but it can still happen. You take enough trips into that big open dungeon and eventually you will have seen/done everything inside it.

Some games have at least recognized this problem and tried to address it in different ways. I was impressed when GW2 launched, and they had the foresight to set up their dungeons so that there were differences when you went back that 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time. I’m not sure it worked out as well as they were hoping in practice, but it was nice that ArenaNet made the attempt. Likewise, I appreciate that FFXIV’s “Hard Modes” aren’t just harder versions of the original dungeon but are completely different sets of encounters set in the same location. However, it’s still not enough to keep players motivated to go do those same dungeons potentially dozens of times.

I don’t know that this problem will really be solved for games until someone can build a game with some kind of reasonable and believable dynamic population system, where the world and content changes over time without the need for a developer to go redesign everything.


It’s why sandboxes aren’t for everyone.


In short: Skinner Boxes are a thing, and sometimes they can be electronic. Humans can be relatively easily conditioned to think something is fun and pleasurable when objectively, it’s horrible.

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With the amount of rats I have killed in video games spanning time could you imagine if we DIDN’T kill them? All game worlds would be overrun within days of rats and skeletons. That isn’t a future I am comfortable with.

Maggie May

Haha I love your logic !!!