Massively Overthinking: What’s so bad about comfort zones in MMOs?

We have Thanos at home.

If you’ve been following the MMORPG meta for a long time, particularly in World of Warcraft, you know there’s corner of the industry convinced that players should be nudged into the developers’ preferred content in games – usually some sort of constantly churning, socially tinged endgame grouping grind that acts as glue to drive engagement. And unless forced, most MMO players will happily stay inside their “comfort zones” doing content they, you know, actually enjoy. And that’s seen as a negative in MMOs.

I’ve been reflecting on this again since I saw a Twitter thread pushing back against it (specifically in response to WoW’s slime cat drama). The author pointed out that not wanting to do specific types of content isn’t a personal failing in need of correcting; people play MMOs for different types of fun, including just wanting to feel good, and sometimes what they’re wanting to avoid is the people who do certain types of content rather than the content itself. “We’ll give you rewards, but only if you do tedious group content with our most toxic fans” is kind of a weird flex for a game studio, right?

So let’s talk about “comfort zone” content in MMOs. What’s yours? Are they a good thing or bad thing? Should games try to force out of them or embrace that we have them? Are some MMOs better about this than others?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Recruiting, negotiating, and diplomacy seem to be my thing, but also gathering and hoarding. No joke, one of the reasons an alliance I was in during a major MMO civil war wasn’t because our side was more skillful (it wasn’t) but because lots of people (including me) have hoarded supplies and continued to do so during the battles. The other side was more skilled, but they were jerks who wore only the best gear. We had jerks like that, but once they lost their gear or it broke (for good, as this was Darkfall and items forever broke), our guys still had some armor and weapons to wear, while the other side was going nude.

So while some people may think what I’m doing is boring or “bad,” I’d argue it’s good. In fact, those power players ended up leaving the game shortly after and declared victory over the entire game even though they had lost and didn’t get the numbers to really dominate any more. For an MMO company, those are the players you actually want to shed anyway. If anything, my style of gameplay should have been catered to more.

And I’d argue that same thing for most MMOs. Social players who build up communities, get people to work together, and organize events are going to keep your game healthy. That doesn’t have to be raiding. A solo PvPer could be useful as scout, but so could a few RPers. The problem is that most MMO devs are only considering their game as games, not virtual worlds. I’m really struggling to think of a proper, active MMO that does this best, but if we talk private servers, a certain game’s Cloud City expansion is a good example of this, as it wasn’t an expansion about harder raids but a new area, new housing, new items styles… things that appealed to a broad spectrum of player activities.

Andy McAdams: I think games need to provide the option to move out of comfort zones. For example, I’m not a huge fan of raiding – not because “it’s hard and I’m a scrub” but it’s just tedious and way more dependent on your ability to herd cats than any real example of skill of any individual’s account. I do the herding cat things at my day job, and I don’t want to be forced into that in my game. That being said, I do enjoy on occasion running a raid with my guildies, likely because there’s no pressure and a solid 3/4 of the raiding experience is sitting in Discord just bullshitting for hours. But I like having the option to do it. I think that’s the key for me: I want a game with the option to step outside of my comfort zone when I’m inspired to do so.

But following the thought further, I think it’s also a question of how much time investment. A frequent criticism of FFXIV from those who don’t like to run dungeons is that dungeons are a required part of the story they are “forced” to experience. While now we have the Trust system in place to offset that, it was always a weird complaint for me. With raiding and locking rewards behind raiding, that can be a huge investment of time and playtime. But dungeons, particularly FFXIV dungeons, tend to be 30 minutes or less time, and then you never have to do it again. Yes, you dislike dungeon content, but it’s also such a (comparatively small) experience in the game to get so very feisty over.

An MMO is a hard, expensive game to craft. I can get the vibe of “we want players to experience as much as we can because we put so much blood, sweat and tears into this.” To a certain extent, I think that’s OK. Do I think it’s OK gatekeep large parts of the game rewards, lore, and experiences behind content that single digits of the gaming community enjoys? No, that’s not OK. It’s catering to an extreme vocal minority. The irony of that vocal minority is that it’s actually far less about “having hard content in the game with exclusive rewards/content/lore” and more about feeling like you are better than other players. Why do we know this? Look at the number of successful games that are only for hardcore cupcakes. How about the number of broadly successful games with the often extolled FFA PVP no-safe space gankbox?

Go ahead. I’ll wait, but I might go put some tea on; it’s going to be a while.

Gatekeeping huge aspects of your game behind content that people don’t enjoy and don’t want to play isn’t a way to increase adoption of those playstyles. If it were, Wildstar would be wildly successful instead of a cautionary tale about developer hubris. Do I need to take 30 minutes out of a gaming time to do this thing I might not enjoy to unlock several hours more of things I do? Might annoy me, but I get it and I’m not going to get upset about being pushed outside of my comfort zone. Lock huge pieces of the lore, gear, story, and progression behind content that takes up 90% of my playtime, only allowing me to play the game I want for 10%? That’s annoying, and I don’t get it and I won’t do it.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Games should be whatever the player wants them to be, the same for any other form of entertainment. Some people look to games for comfort because other parts of their lives are challenging. And other people look to games for challenge because other parts of their lives don’t offer enough. I have never liked the idea that seeking comfort from games is a moral failing and that people who do so should be urged to seek challenge or break boundaries or try new things or whatever instead. The term “comfort zone” brings with it baggage nobody needs to be carrying around in video games.

The imbalance here becomes more obvious to me when I consider how MMOs continue to evolve to support the hustle player rather than the comfort player. Nobody’s creating mechanics to force the hardcore raiders (for example) to slow down and do something comforting and cozy. Imagine locking the top gear behind house decorating content – it’d be nonstop wailing.

But really, for some folks, endgame raiding is their comfort zone, and nobody’s telling them to get out of their comfort zone and do other content and that they’re bad gamers if they don’t want to, and that’s all you need to know about the way these terms are being coded and deployed in this argument. This is just another wedge issue scapegoating casuals, and yes Blizzard does these things on purpose and suddenly we’re all amplifying WoW while fighting over a dumb slime mount before we realize we’re being played again.

I try to think of all this like a hike through the woods. You can walk slowly, get a little exercise, take in the scenery, and ponder life. Or you can run, get your heart-rate up, focus on breathing, try to beat your record time. Neither one of these is wrong. Neither one of these is inherently better. To do one is to give up something only the other can provide, but you get to the end either way. Which one feels more comfortable to you is dependent on you in the moment – not on the path or the method. We need to stop privileging one over the other.

From a game design perspective, I understand why there’s a push to create and coddle superfan endgamers or grinders and so forth as unpaid marketing for the game. But I also know that those kinds of “world first” fans aren’t the only glue holding MMOs together. We can do better than this.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): I feel most comfortable when I’m in the hardest content with friends. I feel like it’s where I should be, and it’s the most productive space in any MMO (in terms of getting my gaming fix so I can do other things). Doing anything that’s forcing me to not play that content is a huge waste of my time. It’s too bad I need to sacrifice precious family time just to do it though. So let’s just say it’s been a long time since I’ve been in my comfort zone when it comes to MMOs!

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself getting more and more responsibilities while losing gaming time. And because of that, I need a game that kicks my ass. I need games that will make my heart pound from the get go. I’ve been gaming for a long time, and I don’t think today’s games can teach me anything new that I haven’t already encountered in another video game. I want to be pushed, I want to be tested, and I want to get mad. I want to feel something when I’m gaming – as long as it’s not boredom. MMOs don’t do that for me. The huge irony here is that my specific demographic, “the dormant raider,” isn’t being catered to. As a result, I’ve been getting my fix from esports and challenging single player games.

And that’s what I want from my games; anything less feels like a waste of time. Why would I do dailies religiously when I can’t apply what I learned toward the hardest stuff!? I can’t just spend all day working my butt off only to spend my hour on a boring game. And MMOs have gotten so boring because the barrier for many of them involves questing with the engaging content and most of the player population locked behind an entirely skippable and unnecessary story. Seriously, if I want to get bored, I’ll just read the second chapter of the Iliad.

Sure, I can work towards it. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. But you know what’s more productive? Doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, doing the laundry. I can’t justify having to poop-sock just so I can play the cutting edge content. I don’t care about the story. Put me in the newest content so I can start learning the latest raids. I will pay for it. The whole idea that players have to “work towards” endgame is outdated. It assumes every gamer needs to learn every intricacy of their MMO of choice before they have to do the challenging stuff (they don’t). MMOs aren’t the de facto online genre anymore. The modern competitive gamer isn’t being catered to in MMOs, and it should be addressed. There’s no reason content like that should be gated anymore. Developers need to start giving options to skip content, and I mean a hard skip – one where I have the gear to at least do raid-finder tier so my friends can start helping me. Trust me. It’s a good idea.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): In terms of my own comfort zone content in MMOs, I like raids if they at least feel approachable. I’m not against learning dance steps or reacting to mechanics so long as there’s something like a margin for error that allows for some mistakes, particularly if I have to do that content with PUGs since I’m not in any sort of larger static group that would be alright with me being a screw-up most of the time. Otherwise, my primary comfort zone is in long-form progression (aka some mindless grind that I can drop in and out of as the whim strikes me) and roleplay; if you let me indulge in those things, then you will most assuredly get my support and my money – gotta get those cosmetics to look swanky at a player-run ball, after all!

As for whether games should force people into a dev team’s preferred form of content, they absolutely shouldn’t. Ideally, players will be informed ahead of buying/downloading an MMORPG of the kinds of things waiting at the top end to better make those decisions ahead of time, meaning that if that die has been cast then I can say yea or nay that much easier. Really, there’s something to be said for trying to cast a somewhat wide net and accommodate lots of different playstyles. Assuming they’re not at odds with one another, anyway (PvP and PvE are oil and water, let’s all be honest with ourselves).

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): One of the things I’ve always loved about MMORPGs over other video games is that most of them tend to offer such a wide variety of content that you have a lot of latitude to play your way.

My daughter’s been playing LOTRO for the first time this past month, and I’ve made a point out of not telling her “how to play” other than answer any direct questions she asks. I’ve been watching her make her own way and having a lot of fun setting little goals for herself. For example, she really wanted to go to Rivendell even though her character was level 10, so she struggled to find a road safe enough to get there and persevered through multiple deaths. No dev intended for a level 10 to just leave questing and go on this random journey, but the game still offered that freedom instead of forcing her to stay put in a particular zone.

Endgame activities earn a lot of deserved criticism for narrowing down the content offerings to a much more narrow path than the leveling journey, and I too am tired of devs trying to strong-arm me into doing what they think is most important. The better approach is to allow us to pursue the same goal (say, gear improvement, skill leveling, or item acquisition) equally from a variety of methods. Let me get the same stuff from the way I like to play, and maybe I’ll gradually foster a desire to get out of my comfort zone all by myself to try out something different.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’d say my main comfort in MMOs is simple pick-up PvP. Ever since the original Guild Wars made it such a great mode I’ve looked to replicate that experience in a modern game. I tried on Champions Online, but Cryptic chose to obfuscate its damage modifiers and stats so much that I moved on. I even tried it in Warhammer and SWTOR, but none of them fit the bill.

In Guild Wars 2 before Heart of Thorns, I played the sPvP so much with high hopes for the future. But ArenaNet thought it knew better than the players, and rather than expanding arenas or just rebuilding similar modes as in GW1, it doubled down on the conquest mode and pushed for esports. That story didn’t play out well. Since then Anet has added a few extra modes but largely focused on conquest. It’s all been an unnecessary failure.

So I do think the comfort zones are a good thing and developers should encourage and embrace them. Pushing players into certain content is just a failure unless it actually addresses the real issues. There were big issues with focusing so heavily on one PvP mode. It flopped despite how good GW2’s combat and PvP was. ArenaNet is still wasting time pushing players towards content without addressing the actual reasons players don’t play that content. Granted, it’s wholly given up on PvP, but it still has the same mindset with raiding. Rather than make it actually more accessible and addressing the reasons players don’t play it, Anet slaps on bandaids and pats itself on the back for a job poorly done. Congratulations, you helped no one.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I actually used to like pushing myself out of my comfort zone in MMOs (within reason, anyway). I wanted to try every form of content in every game I played, even if just once, just for the experience.

These days I’ve grown jaded and impatient in my old age. I stick to my solo story content and open world zergs. I’ll do group PvE if there’s matchmaking, but probably not otherwise.

As a rule I think everything in MMOs should be optional, or at least as much as possible (there’s probably a place for the occasional mandatory tutorial or the like). I’m not a fan of developers trying to force people to play the “right” way. That said, we shouldn’t confuse this with making things more accessible, or offering the occasional incentive, which I think are generally desirable things. Some people do avoid raiding just because it’s too hard, and opening up more difficulty settings, better tools for forming groups, and other accessible improvements are things to be lauded.

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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