Perfect Ten: The 10 tiers of MMO system complexity

A journey into complexity.

MMOs can be complicated things, as I am pretty sure we have discussed on multiple occasions now. There are no known means to prevent this, sadly; we just have to deal with the complexity as it comes up. I’ve even written an installment of this column explaining why these systems tend to get so darn complicated over time, even when people go in with the commendable goal of ensuring that everything is straightforward and easy to understand from the start.

But that’s not what I’m after today. Today, I want to look at the different levels of complexity an MMO’s systems can be operating under. After all, it’s one thing to say that these systems can be complicated, but quite another to imply that all of them are. Some of them are downright expected, not complex in the least. So let’s see if we can’t put this together into a ten-point scale and say some entertaining things along the way. That’s sort of the premise of this column.

Sometimes it just makes sense.

1. Universal

WASD moves you around. WASD almost always moves you around. It’s so common that you probably can’t remember the first game where this was your primary control scheme because these days it’s rare to find something without those same movement keys. This isn’t just non-complex; it’s so common that it’s actually hard to find a game where this convention isn’t followed.

2. Intuitive

Left-clicking produces a basic attack is not universal. Games like World of Warcraft don’t have real-time combat, for example, so that’s not a thing. But while it can’t claim the sheer simplicity of a universal interface, it is at least immediately intuitive once it’s been explained. Case in point: Knowing nothing else about the game beyond “left-click to make a basic attack,” you’re probably already assuming the right click produces a heavier attack or some form of specialized attack. It’s intuitive.

Sometimes you can figure it out easily.

3. Simple

In order to switch jobs in Final Fantasy XIV, you switch your main weapon. You can set up and save equipment sets to do this. This isn’t exactly intuitive, and you might not guess it by just fooling around with the game, but it’s the sort of thing that’s really simple and easy to understand after one experience.

4. Straightforward

“Wait, aren’t these the same thing?” No, not quite. A simple system is easy to understand more or less in its entirety after one explanation; there’s just not much to it. A straightforward system has more stuff going on so that it’s not something you get the whole shape of just through one tutorial, but once you understand the basics it’s not hard to get where it’s going. Item levels, for example, are a pretty straightforward system. You may not understand how they’re calculated or how to get higher levels, but you do understand that higher level means better gear, and better rarity being color-coded makes reasonable sense.

Sometimes it's a bit less clear.

5. Concrete

Here’s where things start to slide into greater difficulty to understand. These are systems that aren’t necessarily easy to understand and have a fair number of permutations, but they have the benefit of at least being based on certain predictable and comprehensible elements of gameplay.

A good example? The Enhancement system in City of Heroes. Adding enhancement slots is simple enough, but understanding what enhancements can go where and why is somewhat more difficult and can involve some weird-looking numbers. Despite all of that, though, the idea of “make your powers stronger” is concrete enough that you have something to stand upon and a place to start understanding what you need to do.

6. Abstract

By contrast, City of Heroes’ enhancement diversification doesn’t make sense from a gameplay perspective. You understand in the broad sense that you slot Damage and Recharge and Accuracy into your attack powers to make them more powerful. All well and good. But there’s no particular grounding reason for why you can’t just slot nothing but Damage to make yourself hit hard but less often… and the reason for that is entirely down to people breaking the system, not down to something making sense in gameplay.

Abstract systems aren’t necessarily more complex than concrete systems; they just lack the sort of immediate grounding that makes it easier to understand why you’re doing certain things or what the game wants from you.

Sometimes it's nigh-on incomprehensible.

7. Complex

This is about where I tend to peg Star Trek Online’s system. Not only is stuff like “Exotic Particle Generation +10” kind of weird just to read in the first place, it’s also highly abstract in terms of what effects it actually has. You have to read an ability description to see whether or not Exotic Particle Generation actually affects it in the first place, which means another layer of trying to figure out whether or not a given skill is actually going to improve your performance or not.

As a caveat, though, there’s nothing inherently wrong with something being complex… except that some people are going to just be baffled or bounce off immediately due to the complexity. But you can have a complex system that requires a lot of abstract and weird moving pieces that’s still good design. Equally notable, though, is that you don’t really want to go much beyond this point, since then you get into the dreaded realm of…

8. Counter-Intuitive

Imagine if in that example before, right-click activated your normal attack and left-click dodged. For a heavier attack, hit F. That control scheme is technically fine in the broadest sense, but it also means that you’re going to spend a lot of time dodging when you want to attack and using a heavy attack instead of your faster attack because the whole thing is, well, counter-intuitive. It doesn’t work the way you’d expect it to work at all.

Sometimes the game hates you trying to understand it.

9. Arbitrary

How does conduit energy work in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands? The game will barely explain it to you. It doesn’t make sense. It’s counter-intuitive. And it’s only in there because the developers decided that they needed to put a limit on the potential of switching conduits, so it’s really just an arbitrary system that adds complexity without adding any actual benefit to the game as a whole.

Most of the time, these systems are more pain points than anything because they’re fairly minor systems at the fringes of play. (Yes, conduit energy is definitely an example of a fringe system most players will not need to heavily consider.) Beware games where most systems feel like arbitrary mechanics for mechanics’ sake, although there is something worse…

10. Obscure

There is an item in Final Fantasy XI with the following description: “Latent effect: Enhances Counter.” Would you like to know how that effect works or how Counter is enhanced? Tough shit. This game exists far off the coast of the island of Explaining Anything, and so not only are the systems complex and frequently arbitrary, the whole thing is made worse by the stubborn refusal to explain absolutely anything about these systems to you.

Some games are all about stumbling onto how things work, but the good examples of that (Project Gorgon springs to mind) do lots of work to explain systems once you stumble onto them, with the obscurity only touching on unlocking these systems. But sometimes games are complex simply because you have no idea how anything is even supposed to work because the game never bothers to tell you.

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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11. Hidden.
The complexity is hidden from the player. There is no indication or explanation ingame for the player to find. To find out those hidden combos, synergies, tricks etc you will need to search the web. See Warframe.

12. Chaotic.
The complexity is made with so made layers of possible calculations that not even the developer understand what the limits are. Advanced mathematicians can break the game, and become immortal gods or have a factor of thousands in power compared to a normal player. See Path of Exile (aka Math of Exile).

Knight Porter

The picture of FFXI crafting there next to #9 needs to be its own #11 entry. “intentionally obfuscated”


How about simply “Not Explained” very well, if at all.

See ‘Elite: Dangerous’ for a perfect example of this style.

It is not possible to effectively play this game without researching exactly HOW to play it outside of the game.

Hikari Kenzaki

11 The Devs are just trolling you.

See also: Charisma in Conan Exiles. Try to figure out what it does. Go ahead. I’ll wait. NO ONE KNOWS!


For me the main question when looking at complexity isn’t how complex something is, but if the extra complexity is justified by the depth added.

Basically, if something is complex but doesn’t force the player to make hard or interesting choices then I almost always consider it to be bad design; on the other hand, something insanely complex like most Dwarf Fortress systems is still good for the game if the added depth improves the experience enough.

Wilhelm Arcturus

I feel like this is one side of a matrix, where the other dimension is the level of necessity from “you pretty much have to do this” to “really unnecessary” to “aliens parasites have clearly infected the brains of the devs.”

Though a lot of things would pile up in the complex/really unnecessary connection… LOTRO legendary gear springing most readily to mind.

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Bad or inconsistent translation can also be a huge source of unintentional complexity for games releasing outside of their original region.

Roger Christie

Your statement about enhancement diversification in CoH tells only part of the story. ED was a required change to make the IO set system viable, which in turn widens the scope of viable builds enormously.

Bryan Correll

widens the scope of viable builds enormously

Mostly to give Blasters a reason not to take the Devices secondary just for the targeting drone.


Tier 10 is what I tend to refer to as “Unix command line systems.” IE, things created by hypernerds, either for themselves or for the benefit of other hypernerds. Do you know what “Grep isos.ini > harcort /ug /ha /:P ” means? Me either, I made it up. But it sure *looks* like a command in Unix – complicated, arbitrary, not even slightly intuitive. And the people who made it *want* it that way.


Sincerely I would rate the Unix command line instructions mostly in the 4-5 range, with some at the 1-2 range (such as –help to get the user help for the command). The harder to parse ones — such as most things with grep or sed — tend to be like that not because of arbitrary complexity, but because you are condensing processing that would usually take a small program into a single line; if you are using the command line to, say, parse the metadata of a few TB of media files and create a list of all that have been created at a specific date whose GPS coordinates fall within a specific rectangle (which is actually a fairly straightforward example), it’s not going to be something that a person unused to the command line will understand at a glance.

But then, of course, back when I started playing with computers GUIs weren’t exactly feasible, so I learned the ins and outs of the command line before even getting used to the concept of a GUI.

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I wish more MMO developers put in a serious in-game effort to explain their systems to their players. “Just go to this outside source” is such a frustrating answer to be given so often in this genre.