Vague Patch Notes: The occupant’s dilemma in MMORPGs

Elf elf elf.

This is the story of Stanley.

Stanley had a hobby, and that hobby was playing MMOs. Every day, he logged in to Final Fantasy XI, where he knew he was expected to press buttons. First, he pressed the buttons needed to put up his party flag. Then he pressed the buttons to get to where he was going; then he pressed the other buttons to do damage to a target. His performance was workmanlike and uninspired. Challenging content did not hinge upon Stanley, but he could be relied upon to show up and hit his buttons. And Stanley was happy.

Until one day when Stanley logged in to find that something had changed. The players were gone. It turned out that the game had instituted a new system called Trust, allowing players to take on the majority of content with a group of AI-controlled characters. Players like Stanley were entirely forgotten. No parties were formed for Stanley, and Stanley knew that something was wrong. That there was a problem with things because players were no longer talking.

After all, if they weren’t talking to Stanley, who would they be talking to?

Apologies are offered to Davey Wreden and William Pugh, but they’re the sort of apologies that come only with a great deal of respect for one’s body of work. Let’s move on, shall we? In fact, let’s start over.


I’ve always had a deeply held distrust of group activities in school. This is likely as much my fault as anyone else’s; as a goal-oriented person who tends to focus on getting things done, I found most of my group projects turned into me and perhaps one other child doing all of the work while the rest of the group did nothing.

At the time, I tended to think of this as a failing of the teacher, as if the teachers who had been in charge of this class for some time weren’t fully aware of which student would be doing all the work and which one would get work done only if subjected to pressure at geological scales. Between age and working in education, I know now that this is not the case; the teachers know full well that, say, David is never going to look at the worksheet and Melissa is just going to do the whole thing in a fit of exasperation. The groups aren’t arranged to produce the best work but to produce some work.

This doesn’t mean that my opinion of group activities like this has changed much. If you’ve got a group of four students and one of them is doing the majority of the legwork, three of them are basically there to fill space. It’s not a learning experience for anyone other than the student doing the work, and what that student is chiefly learning is that in a group, responsibilities fall to the person most unwilling to screw things up.

Our three space-fillers in this supposition aren’t really the villains of the piece, though. Sure, they may lack much in redeeming qualities (I had one regular grouping partner in grade school who I am fairly sure is now doing time in prison), but the majority are just… well, Stanley. They fill the space in the group. They do what’s asked of them, no more, no less. They’re present.

MMOs have long had a problem with presence.

We're here! We're... that's it, actually.

With a subscription model, the broad strokes of what you want to do are pretty clear. You want players to play as long as possible and keep playing no matter what. This is in stark contrast to the traditional model of most video games on home systems. From Software does not actually care if you bounce off Bloodborne because it’s too hard; the game was sold, and the company has your money. Even in a free-to-play model there’s the drive to keep people in the game because that’s what provides more chances and reasons for people to spend money.

You can’t gate a game behind challenge with that. If you want people to play the game as long as possible without making any pretense of fun, the ideal situation is one wherein people have to just stay logged in and everything just requires slow, tedious amounts of time. Log in for a week straight and you’ll get your second level.

No one would actually play that game, of course; similarly, people who realize that the only thing needed for advancement is just being there would probably clock out pretty quickly. So from a design standpoint, you need to provide situations where there’s the feeling of challenge but really it’s just about presence and consistency.

They called this game EverQuest.

Obviously, that’s hyperbole; I’m not quite so cynical to think that EQ was a meeting that just checked off a list of boxes for psychological levers to tug. (Those of you who are that cynical and wish to crow about it in the comments, commence to jigglin’.) But there’s a definite veneer of that, one that’s wound up shot through the DNA of MMOs in a rather pervasive way. The apex may well be World of Warcraft’s 40-person raids, activities that people have long said required about 15 people who could do things correctly at the top end and another 25 who were there to more or less serve as ablative meat.

This is the environment that gives birth to Stanley. It’s not that Stanley is a bad guy. It’s that Stanley is a guy and, well, that’s it. He’s there. And so long as games emphasized “being there” over “doing stuff,” people like Stanley could thrive.


I’m not Stanley. I don’t know Stanley. Maybe Stanley is really great at loads of games and this is just his excuse to just be present. But when Stanley isn’t wanted any more, Stanley is going to get loud and decry the state of affairs, often insisting that things were better back when everyone had to group up to level and people always talked and everything was a warm community of rainbows.

But the community is still there. People are still talking and doing things and enjoying themselves. They just don’t need Stanley any longer. If the choice is between painstakingly assembling a party on the local server or just popping in for fun, people are going to do the latter. If the content becomes more challenging, there’s no space for Stanley to schlub his way through. Nobody is friends with Stanley because they were friends with Stanley in the first place only because he fulfilled the function of filled space when that was needed.

Really, I feel empathy for Stanley. It hurts when you had a community that you were a part of only to find that the community went elsewhere and no longer needs you. It feels as if something is wrong with the world because you haven’t changed, and I can understand if it feels like no one is talking because no one is talking to you.

Yet at the same time, Stanley has the option to change. If Stanley wishes people would talk in groups, Stanley can talk himself; not everyone will answer, but not everyone did back when people were needed to fill the space either. If Stanley wants to be known, he can introduce himself. That’s where the empathy stops, when Stanley sees a world that needs to change in order to fit his particular talent of “being there.”

And while Stanley would once again be happy, it seems unlikely anyone else would be.

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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while i understand the meaning of your article there I think to a big part we crossed the opposite side of the coin with mmos design especially regarding raids. Raids are among the most hated content nowadays on mmos because 1. there is elitism(groups will boot people at will if they think someone doesnt have enough experience, good enough gear or the optimal race/class combo) and 2. in effort to give us new challenges some of the devs crossed the line where being good or very good isnt enough and you need to be great or excellent and have total focus for a significant amount of time a raid can last.


Some days I’m communicative and proactive and up for a challenge, other days the world feels like too much to deal with and all I can manage is being there and going through the motions. And on those latter days, I’m grateful for games that give me the option of doing that.

I too feel empathy for the hypothetical Stanley of the article, and while I agree that the world shouldn’t change for him I think it equally unfair that the article expects him to change for the world when we don’t know the reasons why he is like he is. I hope he can find a new game which fits his needs like the old game used to.


Read this with the Stanley Parable narrator’s voice. Wasn’t disappointed.

Sally Bowls

tl;dr: I have been too lazy to suggest a podcast question / watercooler on AI in gaming.

If Stanley needs 39 people for MC or leet gamers such as yourself need 25 Stanleys for something, then for how much longer will you need a human for every slot?

IMO, the biggest event of ’19 is scheduled to be WoW Classic. But, IMO, looking back a decade, the seminal event may be

The doublespeak of referring to this PvE as PvP is just a bonus.

The two differences between AI of 30 years ago and today are that: a million dollars of computing power then costs a dollar today. And my extremely shallow knowledge is that now AI is not about humans programming expert system rules but letting the AI repeatedly run and “learn” / “evolve.” E.g., give the AI some basic ideas and let it remember what works. Sometimes, it ends up better at the task than the person who implemented the original rules.

The scale may be different, but MMOs have a lifecycle problem where the population on launch day is hundreds of times more than 3 AM on a Thursday eight months after launch. And AI can accommodate faction and role imbalance.

P.S., if you are curious about the quality of the bots. On one hand, they were pretty bad. OTOH, they seemed a bit better than my recollection of the unrated humans I played with. In tactics (better on interrupts and attacking healers) and some strategy (leave node undefended) I would see a bot top the hill LM, see it was outnumbered and turn around. I am in no way saying they were great. I see it as a very small first step on an inevitable path.

The Sally Dramatic Headline is “most of the readers are young enough that many of them will have one of their RL jobs obviated by automation. Why should it be any different in game?” A timely example is that last-millennium Bree would have had to pay employees to patrol the comments. Now, not only are the attacking spammers bots, but instead of spending money on salaries, she is using Akismet. The % of money spent on mere humans has declined. IMO, these trends will eventually affect gaming.

Sally Bowls

IMO, the MoP Community solution seems clear: the 25 Stanleys in Molten Core should unionize.

I find it inconsistent and … ironic … is the politest adjective that many people are in favor of a meritocracy only in a game and not in the more important RL. Meritocracy for both or neither are debatable but consistent. But I am confused about why in the game world it is important to rigorously reward effort and ability but IRL companies should not discriminate based upon a lack of effort or ability.

Sally Bowls

If this is a gaming-as-a-real-world-business discussion as opposes to academic-gaming or philosophy piece, then another question is what % of the players are Stanley? Remember the Golden Rule, those with the gold make the rules. So if 70% of the players are Stanley, then obviously the world needs to change to accommodate them. If you live in the gamer ideal without p2w, then nearly half of any game’s revenue will come from below average players. Just how bad at math does a game dev have to be to focus on the 15 great-just-ask-them players rather than the 25 customers who are not?

Sally Bowls

Stanley does not have much of a problem, there are a “million” games out there. The ones with the problem are the game company employees who need to produce products that motivate Stanley to give them money.


I’m not sure I understand this piece.

Stanley sounds like he enjoys playing easy games with lots of group content (because he enjoys socialising but isn’t a good player), but as those games aren’t being made any more (they are, its just you can solo everything if u choose) he is complaining.

And your advice is to stop complaining, “get good”, and to put more effort into socialising so he can recreate the playstyle he enjoys because developers have given up?

Seems weird.

If the last 10 years of MMO development has shown us anything, it’s that designing a game with high levels of grouping and socialising leads to much higher retention rates, so Stanley’s desired gameplay should be the same as what developers are aiming for.

The problem is that developers cannot get past single player mechanics. Levels / power creep / story gates etc are all directly opposed to grouping and community. When you design a massively multiplayer game, you simply cannot base it on mechanics that build insurmountable walls between players. It leads to exactly what we see now – minimal socialising, massive churn rates and devs trying to squeeze as much money out of players as early as possible.

Once developers understand this (and they’re starting to, but its slow going), Stanley will have his day!


Another damn’d thick square book! It’s always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. LeFebvre?

I know Stanley. He’s actually a straw man, though he finds that term offensive and would rather be called a scarecrow. He loves baseball and fishing and watching all the fascinating things that happen between people.

Stanley’s not sad for himself that everyone around him has gotten in a big damned hurry. That’s nothing new. It does amuse him, though, watching all the winners race to the bottom of the cliff.

Don’t be too tough on Stanley, and there’s really no need to pity the guy. He’ll be fine. Patience is also a virtue, you know.

Rick Mills

It’s the prelude to a Ganker…

Jim Bergevin Jr

I think the appropriate phrase for this piece is “hitting the nail on the head.”


If that nail had a nominal head hammered with aspersions, sure — he’s nailed it to the wall.