Vague Patch Notes: The win state of MMOs

Oh look,

So how do you win an MMO? The general consensus is that you don’t. The whole point of an MMO that this is an ongoing game in which there is no actual win condition. And this is incorrect, in a way; this is a game in which it is absolutely possible to win, and winning should be your goal. It’s just that you need to think a little bit more about winning beyond the victory screen that usually pops up.

Of course, over the years players have constructed a lot of different “win” conditions for MMOs based on personal interests and goals. Some people want to win by clearing the most difficult content possible. Others want to be champions of structured PvP. Still others want to just ensure that PvP makes them the undisputed king of a portion of a map so that no one can live there without the player’s permission. None of these is a win state in the abstract… but in another way, they all are.

Really inactive.

To a certain extent, video games have conditioned us to expect something on winning simply by their very nature. Games are things to be won or lost, after all. You don’t simply go around the board in Monopoly until you’re tired of it according to the rules; you play until all but one player no longer has any money left and the remaining player has won. Similarly, with single-player video games, there is a clear win state in which you have beaten the game and thus no longer need to play it.

Only… that’s not quite true, is it?

Let’s take that simple old standby of Super Mario Bros. Once you’ve beaten the fortress on 8-4, you’ve won, but the game explicitly states that there’s a new challenge for you to face if you’re ready to take it on, a harder mode of the same game. But once you’ve beaten that the game is very definitively over, right? Right. There’s nothing more to be done within the game.

Except… that’s not true either, is it? You might have gotten to the end with the warp zones. You skipped a chunk of the game. So, fine, you clear the hardest stuff without skipping anything, mission accomplished, now you’re done from top to bottom. Now you have definitely won!

Assuming you don’t ever want to try speedrunning, of course, where you try to beat the game as quickly as possible. There you’ve got the challenge of doing this as fast as you personally can and the best recorded time… and that time is constantly going down, to boot.

Oh, and you can probably wander further into the weeds with self-imposed challenges like never dying or playing the whole game without collecting power-ups or using an odd control interface, but I think by now the point has been made. There are a lot of different win states you can consider for this game and a lot to be done, and that’s just for a fairly simple platformer where you’ve only got 32 levels to explore in the first place.


But none of this changes the fact that this game does have a win screen, and an MMO doesn’t. You’ll never get a message saying that you successfully rescued the princess in an MMO, barring specific quests involving princesses and the rescuing thereof. There is no coded point at which the game is over.

And that’s valid. There’s definitely something to be said for having that firm demarcation of finishing what is the agreed-upon ending point of the game. But some of that is also because the example I’m using is a single older game, not one of the many subsequent titles where you never get that ending screen or get a much truncated version. Finish Saints Row the Third and get the credits and you just get dropped right back into the game, ready to keep playing and exploring as if nothing much had changed.

It’s not as if all MMOs are immune to this, either. Many games feature longer cinematics and sequences at this point for finishing major story beats. Some even do have credits. And when it’s all over… well, you’re dropped back into the world and told to keep going. There are more stories to explore, more content to run, and more patches to come, in all likelihood.

But this game was about how you can win, not that every game is as endless as you make it, wasn’t it? And that’s true, but it’s also important to understand the latter in order to understand the former.

I’ve beaten Super Mario Bros. But I’ve never challenged a speedrun record or even kept close track of my time getting through it. Does that mean I didn’t really win the game?

Of course not; that would be ridiculous. What it means is that I reached the end of my time with that particular title. I won. I accomplished the goals that mattered the most to me personally, and I feel good about leaving the many other options (and they do exist) essentially just sitting on the table. I don’t need more of the game to feel as if I’ve won.

And that right there is the key.

Slow, slow, slow.

Once you recognize that the ending screen is not the end of the story even in a single-player game, you begin to realize that what marks the completion of any task is usually the knowledge that you completed it. You’ll never get any sort of certificate or prize for accomplishing these goals, save for the sense of completion that these goals bring you.

And that, at its heart, is how you win an MMO. You find goals that feel complete and important to you. You find the things that personally matter to you and discard the stuff that doesn’t. If you couldn’t care less about getting certain upgrades or hunting down a particular part of the game, then why fixate on it? It can be something in the game you don’t need to worry about.

There is no completion percentage mark when the game will suddenly be done. Even if you clear literally everything in the game, there will always be new challenges. Can you do it while undergeared or underleveled? Can you do it while multiboxing? Can you do it as fast as possible? How fast is possible?

This is where the sentiment comes from that these games are, fundamentally, not winnable games. You’re never going to be “done.” But you’re never going to be done with anything until you’ve decided that you’re done. Recognizing that as not a special trait of MMOs but part and parcel with the very nature of video games as a whole is a chance to put down that assumption and start focusing on actually winning.

So how do you win an MMO? You find the things that matter most to you and you do them.

Will this fill you with a sense of completion and joy? Maybe, maybe not. It might be that the goals you wound up setting for yourself don’t provide that, and that indicates that maybe you should have set better conditions for yourself. But the principle remains sound. You win when you decide that you’ve won, and you get there by finding out what matters to you… and forget the other stuff.

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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