Perfect Ten: The delicate balancing act of designing MMORPGs

Never gonna get it, never gonna get it.

MMORPGs are complicated. We all know that. But one of the things that I think is easy to overlook is how and why MMORPGs can be intensely complicated just from first principles. It’s reasonable to look at a game and think that it’s failing in various areas, and sometimes those failures are coming from entirely understandable and fixable problems, but… well, this is a complicated dance that has a lot of moving parts.

So today, I want to take a look at just how complicated these games have to be even before you get to things like balance or the technical part of execution. We’re not giving a pass to designers who are potentially doing a bad job; “complicated” does not mean “inscrutable.” But we can unpack how everything is a dance of opposing forces – and there are a lot of them.

oh boy

1. You have to make a good single-player experience

First and foremost, I want to make something clear here: “A good single-player experience” can mean a lot of different things. My point here is not that combat must feel like Dark Souls or Devil May Cry or any other specific single-player game; in many cases that would be an active detriment. Rather, I mean that the days when an MMORPG could be primarily a hangout spot have passed. You need to have gameplay that people like on its own merits, and you need to give players a sense that they can log in and play the game right now without waiting for someone else. That’s all. The gameplay part has to be designed and fun.

2. You have to make a good multiplayer experience

If your MMORPG is fun solo but not fun in a group, it’s not a good MMORPG. The whole point of having it be an MMORPG is that you need other people around. That means that playing as a group has to be both viable and fun on top of making sure that the game mechanics are fun on their own. But lest you think that I’m saying that you should be grouped at all times…

3. You have to make both single-player and multiplayer feed into and validate one another

A good MMORPG isn’t about playing solo all the time or playing in a group all the time. It’s both. The gameplay has to be present and fun when you aren’t in a group, and you have to have reasons to interact with other players because otherwise you’re maintaining a server farm for no actual reason. (And if your primary mode of interaction with an MMORPG is to insist you should never need to team up or use market boards or interact with anyone else in any way, you should probably find another hobby.) You need both of these things to work. Not one or the other.

You must whip it.

4. You need meaningful non-combat activities with an impact

If all your MMORPG has is fighting things, it’s not going to really stick to the ribs. People will kill an astonishing number of rats, but it’s when they log back in to kill the rats in order to get materials for the Rat Hat that you really got ’em. So you need to make sure that there are things to do other than just killing stuff, and that stuff has to matter. Except…

5. You need non-combat activities to be optional and not mandatory

There are going to be players who feel too smooth-brained to take on crafting whether that’s true or not, or just players who don’t want to. There will be players who lack the time or focus. There will be players who want to but just don’t find this stuff fun. There will be those who actually are too smooth-brained for this stuff even if they don’t think so! You cannot make side activities mandatory.

But you need to make them impactful and important. But also totally optional.

Are you starting to feel insane yet?


6. You have to give new players an on-ramp

The moment that a new player logs into your game for the first time is crucial. If the first thing that player sees is janky old content that hasn’t been updated with ugly models and unclear directions, you’d better hope like heck that player has a friend for guidance. It is thus absolutely crucial that the low end, the first content that players experience, is still fun and balanced and fresh. This is especially hard as the starter content is by definition the oldest content in your game, made older every time you add more. You need to devote resources to making sure new players can come in, or your game is doomed.

7. You have to give invested players new things to do

Every player who has reached the level cap is a converted consumer, but you can’t take those players for granted. They want new things to do, and it’s important to provide that. If you have nothing more to do, you are going to leave; it’s crucial that every single player believes new content is right around the corner and it looks fun. You need to devote resources to make sure that existing players have new content coming, or your MMO is doomed.

8. You have to innovate without removing anything

It’s vitally important to try new things and keep surprising veteran players because otherwise the game is going to get stale and they’ll get bored, thus ensuring that your game starts enduring a slow slide into irrelevance. However, you also need to make sure that you at no point remove a player’s favorite piece of content or slow development on a given kind of content, or then those players will get bored and leave. So you have to constantly innovate, but also never provide less in the push to innovate. And things like “you can’t innovate and do new things all the time” or “there are boundary conditions like the sheer size of our team” don’t matter because as far as players are concerned, there are the things they are interested in and then there are all the other things that they don’t care about and thus aren’t important. Why are you adding a new PvP map instead of a new dungeon type that I personally thought of?!

Well-told, but not well-planned.

9. You need to keep things balanced and unique

Balance is insane. You have to make sure that any number of character options work well with any number of other character options, that you can take on relevant content for your progression no matter what character options you pick, but also that those character options do provide a meaningful distinction along the way. If the options aren’t unique enough, then everything is pointless; if they’re too unique, then balance suffers. You have to thread this needle constantly.

And you need to always be providing new options that are also balanced and also unique. Forever.

10. It always needs to be fun

This is a video game, and if you ever make content that isn’t as fun as the best thing you did, you will be visited by the fury of a thousand angry suns no matter how impossible the lift is. You have to do all of that other design work and keep it all fun.

It’s really a miracle that every single MMO designer doesn’t leave the industry and go to farm potatoes. People always need potatoes.

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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